PRINT September 2006


IN THE YEAR 2103, Usha Adebaran-Sagar, off-world paleoanthropologist, will imagine our conflicted present through the journal of her ancestor Anjalika Sagar, focusing in particular on entries dating from the fraught spring of 2003. Musing on the protests against the American invasion of Iraq, Anjalika writes that it is as if “the unprecedented nature” of the massive global demonstration “could through its very unlikeliness turn the inevitable into the possible”—that is, into the merely possible, as opposed to the foreordained—“long enough to alter our fate.” Rather than resignedly concede that America did in fact invade Iraq, and with disastrous results, Otolith, 2003—an enchanting sci-fi-cum-documentary film by the eponymous Otolith Group—projects a subversive charge back into the past. According to the film’s destabilized and destabilizing notion of time, our present is far less certain than it might seem.

A collaboration between London-based artist-theorists Kodwo Eshun and the aforementioned Anjalika Sagar, the Otolith Group, founded in 2002, regularly undertakes such fascinating inquiries into the relativity of time—investigations founded on the understanding that the deepest engagement with reality necessarily verges on the fictional. In this vein, extending as it does from the early twenty-second century back to the mid-twentieth and casting our present into deep relief, their film links disparate temporalities via a montage of archival imagery and documentary footage. Its multiple valences are threaded together by Usha’s poetic voice-over (performed by Sagar), which mixes her own words with excerpts from the journals. While ranging over several remarkable intergenerational and cross-cultural convergences, Otolith’s central point of crystallization is a real-life meeting in 1973 in Moscow between the Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to travel into outer space, and Sagar’s grandmother, who was president of the National Federation of Indian Women. Vintage 16-mm footage of cheering women in assembly, and of Tereshkova in parades and at official receptions, is screened at different speeds, perceptually disrupting time’s seemingly irrevocable continuity. The meeting between Sagar’s grandmother and Tereshkova occurred in the midst of euphoric excitement over space travel, which mirrored burgeoning hopes for Indian socialism and its new era of women’s rights. In a present in which left-wing collective organization is dogged by defeatism, such utopianism looms in the political landscape like a historical ruin.

Throughout Otolith, space travel serves as a metaphor for temporal disequilibrium. The twenty-minute narrative segues enigmatically from an early sequence of shots of antiwar marches in London in 2003 to documentation of Anjalika’s subsequent journey to Tereshkova’s erstwhile training camp in Star City, outside Moscow. Taking several parabolic flights aboard a repurposed Russian military aircraft, Anjalika enters zero gravity; according to the film, the magical images of her body floating in midair foreshadow a coming reality in which humans will migrate to outer space. Over time, their otoliths—motion-sensing organs in the ears that orient the body to Earth’s gravitational field—will cease to function, effectively exiling Homo sapiens from their home planet. Consequently, the film’s twenty-second-century narrator, Usha, explains that she is unable to function on Earth and is fated to study her subjects “only through media.” The evolution of humans into an expatriate species signifies both a release from the gravity of history—that is, from the notion that time progresses implacably in only one direction—and a critical detachment from the present.

In its conceptualization of reality as an open ontology, Otolith—which appears this month at “Ecotopia,” the International Center of Photography’s Triennial of Photography and Video in New York—energizes what the group, in a creative appropriation of Giorgio Agamben’s notion of “potentialities,” terms “past-potential futures.” Resuscitating the aspirations of socialist collectivism, the Non-Aligned Movement, and feminist and postcolonial independence struggles, the film deepens the significance of early twenty-first-century activism by establishing lines of continuity with—and perhaps equally important, demarcating significant differences from—the past. Formally, it reengages the essay-film, particularly as developed in the work of Chris Marker—La Jetée (1962) and Sans soleil (1983) come to mind. In this respect Otolith expands our understanding of contemporary artistic production by throwing it into the longue durée of transgenerational affiliations while endowing its own precedents with new critical purchase. Such homages elucidate the group’s historiographical ethics, revealing the reverberating affinities of Otolith’s rhetorical strategies and recovering the living potentiality of dreams that would seem to have died decades ago.

Recently, following their discovery, at Sagar’s family home in Mumbai, of a box of aged documents recording a 1953 visit of Indian stateswomen to the USSR, the Otolith Group returned to that nearly forgotten Indo-Russian history charted in its 2003 film. The group appropriated archival images—featuring, for example, a cadre of sari-clad women standing arm in arm with their Soviet counterparts—for a series of digitally reprocessed black-and-white photographs titled “Preparations I–V,” 2006, splitting the pictures down the middle and doubling them horizontally. This manipulation creates misshapen figures in the center of each photograph—some, as in one work, Scyritae, with bulbous protrusions growing from their bodies, others, as in Astomoi, appearing as limbless, inchoate beings. These optical disturbances suggest visualizations of the wrapping of reality with its virtual unfoldings, engendering monstrosities born of convention-defying unfamiliarity. Denying the snapshot’s punctuality, the doubleness shows existence strewn across multiple temporalities, signaling an excess of potentiality that haunts the image’s present and renders it available for future redemption. At the same time, the imagery of freakish mutants deliberately evokes the ancient Mediterranean world’s notions of India; the photographs take their titles from classical Latin names for faraway “fabulous races.” Regenerated by Otolith, the fantastical visions indebted to age-old xenophobia now suggest the dormant promise of early encounters between cultures.

In Communists Like Us, 2006, a slide presentation delivered recently at Utrecht’s Huis a/d Werf (and eventually to be developed into another essay-film, Otolith II), Sagar and Eshun spun another rich historical web prompted by Sagar’s grandmother. This time, her voyages to Mao’s China were the focal point. Slides of documentary photographs—both fronts and backs, the latter marked with labels and notations—were projected sequentially onto screens above the two seated performers, who explained that the added subtitles were borrowed from the infamous dialogue in Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967) between the fictional character Véronique, young Maoist and naive student of revolution, and the real activist and dissident philosopher Francis Jeanson. As Véronique and Jeanson debate the value of terrorism as a political instrument and assess the lessons of China and Algeria, their conversation draws the actual and the virtual into explosive proximity in a film that was prescient for its forecasting of the events of May 1968. Replaying this conversation as if it were taking place between the recto and verso sides of their documentary photographs, the artists staged a transcultural exchange, inviting Godard’s tête-à-tête to narrate Sagar’s grandmother’s roughly contemporaneous Asian voyage. This centrifugal history is the material with which the Otolith Group intertwines the postcolonial and the postmodern, overcoming their familiar separation. The resulting hybridity offers glimpses of past-potential futures, radically different from our own, in which we might locate alternatives to global capitalism and perpetual war.

The advancement of documentary film into imagined territories, as pioneered by Godard and Marker, as well as Jean Rouch and Black Audio Film Collective (whose 2007 retrospective, opening in February at FACT Liverpool, Sagar and Eshun are curating), is clearly of growing interest among contemporary artists, as demonstrated not only by the Otolith Group but also by Walid Raad’s Atlas Group, Pierre Huyghe, Amar Kanwar, and Steve McQueen. The significance of these renewed explorations lies in the realization that the production of documentary film without an element of fiction merely reifies its object. It appears, moreover, that only by admitting fabulation into its storytelling can documentary practice fully excavate the hidden recesses of reality that retain the possible scenarios, unrealized futures, and failed aspirations that constitute the full scope of experience. Through its engagement, the Otolith Group inspires the unlikely hope that we may still alter our fate.

T. J. Demos is a lecturer in the department of art history, University College London. His book The Exiles Of Marcel Duchamp is forthcoming from MIT Press in 2007.