At the very end, this experimental drummer called Charles Hayward, plays 16 musical instruments for six hours, creating all kinds of percussion from gongs to cow bells to darbukas. We told him to imagine sheep bells in Sardinia …”
Kodwo Eshun, one-half of the art collective The Otolith Group, which also comprises Anjalika Sagar, is describing the process behind a particularly mesmerising scene in their film, People to be Resembling (2012), currently showing as part of the exhibition Xenogenesis at Sharjah Art Foundation, featuring a selection of their work from 2011 to 2018.
In it, moving capoeira dancers are encapsulated between a close-up of two drumsticks. There’s a magical moment when the light hits and the black-and-white footage bleeds into colour, like a dancing rainbow of sound.
“We chose 12 different pieces of video footage to project on the drums and none of them worked, except for a Kathakali dancer and high-contrast footage of students performing capoeira. The drumsticks act as a screen. As Hayward drums, it’s like he is conducting the image,” Eshun says.
This video about the music group Codona is not developed through their music but rather, through language, modularity and movement. It incorporates different excerpts by American novelist and poet Gertrude Stein from her 1920s novel, The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress.
Stein writes about sameness and difference in iterations that are orated powerfully alongside archival imagery that include ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax’s documentations of folk music and dance across Asia and Africa.
“He created a notational system for bodily gestures,” Eshun explains. “We extracted the rotations, the moments in which someone turns on their heel, to create visual alliteration with other moments.”
Using double screens, the images mirror the text, which, in its various combinations, mirrors the music. The Otolith Group were inspired by Stein’s model of permutation and recombination in language.
“We are trying to conjugate photographs like Stein conjugated her grammatical tenses. The idea was to make music with the photographs with Stein as a combinatorial score,” Eshun says.
The Otolith Group’s large body of work often transmutes forms and genres. In People to be Resembling, literature, music, film and critical theory coalesce because of a quote by Stein (from Making of Americans) at the back of the Codona album cover. Their work is full of such strange synchronicities, which play out in different modes of narration and translation.
“These are not moving images but images that move,” says Eshun.