Srinivas Aditya Mopidevi (SAM): Raqs’ curatorial premise for the Hungry for Time exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, calls in for acts of ‘epistemic disobedience,’ a process that advocates for a de-linking from the impending baggage of colonialism on art and culture. Such a premise becomes even more fascinating in light of the Academy’s recent reorientation of its collection to discursively disentangle from its colonial past. Can you elaborate on how ‘epistemic disobedience’ unfolded as acts in Hungry for Time?
Raqs Media Collective (RMC): We frame it as an invitation to an epistemic disobedience in the collection with us. We frame it this way because the question of both ‘epistemic’ and ‘disobedience’, and the two together, can come into motion at a collective moment of rethinking the world, drawing in both the individual experiential, and the planetary. The concept comes to us via Walter Mignolo, and he says that to him it comes from a 1991 essay by the Peruvian sociologist and thinker, Aníbal Quijiano. To us this relay is important to keep in movement. Epistemic disobedience seeks to call into question the way in which things are settled through a combination of taste and violence, and become almost invisible as habit. ‘De-habiting’ is always possible, but needs a devising of procedures to activate. The scale here, again, could be minor or seismic.
The exhibition stages collisions between works that have discursively embodied a claim to the mastery of the world with works that draw in scepticism towards claims to power. A large still life oil painting by Jan van der Heyden, the 17th century Dutch painter, features a globe, rugs, and exotic objects from distant lands, and a cockatoo. This image is a collection of devices for knowing, for domesticating a wild bird, for conquering knowledge of the world, and for claiming mastery. When confronted by the opacity of a knot of the archive (Dayanita Singh) and an investigation by the Discursive Justice Ensemble underlining the instability and risk attendant to the moving of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch by a few meters, a tremor is uncovered. Infrastructural immovability can hide a deep awareness of unstoppable forces always in motion. The tranquil order produced by confident knowledge is shaken.
It undertakes ‘troubling’ the collection by creating cascading scenographic moves, layered further by our re-titling of key works, placing phrases that open up stances to history and time, and annotating certain constructed moments with text films as sub-plots. There is also the enactment of turbulence around a tranquil painting of Vienna city’s open park space, the Prater, with an archive of photographs and moving images culled from fairground, world fairs, anatomical displays, tableaux of the colonised, feared sexualities, and murder. These are parleyed through the silent Viennese sojourn of the Bengali rebel poet Nazrul Islam, with imagined, possible words of a mind that remembers but cannot narrate. His steady gaze disturbs stable sight lines.
The colonial is an epistemic condition by which a complex set of institutions, protocols, and abstractions engulf the world. It is a form of power that hierarchizes and classifies forms of life and their attendant knowledges and histories. This has been injurious and debilitating in so many ways to our habitation of knowledge, our ways of living with each other, both in the human and the non-human world. An unpacking of this form of knowledge has to keep in awareness that it shares some of its characteristics with other forms of systems of subjugation: the upholding of the caste system through varied philosophies and cosmologies is one pertinent example.
These are epistemic and dispositional confrontations.