PRINT May 2022


The Otolith Group, Otolith I, 2003, digital video, color, sound, 23 minutes 16 seconds.

THE OTOLITH GROUP is a joint project between Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun, both lifelong Londoners of transcontinental heritage. Named for the delicate apparatus of the inner ear that senses balance and motion, Otolith have generated a substantial output over the course of two decades. The core products of Sagar and Eshun’s activity consist of more than twenty moving-image works of astonishingly varied forms, cinematic collages not merely of pictures and sounds but more fundamentally of concepts, inspired by and purloined from science fiction, political philosophy, and aesthetics, with histories and theorizations of diasporic Blackness and the Global South providing a fulcrum for the pair’s wide-ranging investigations. Radiating outward from Otolith’s filmmaking are events that explore related ideas by other means: talks, seminars, programs of films by others, installations, and endeavors as unplaceable as Glissantbot, a Twitter bot that has continually circulated algorithmically determined quotes from Caribbean thinker Édouard Glissant every fifteen minutes for half a decade running.

Otolith have had little truck with the international film festival circuit that has long supported experimental film, or with the broadcast, cable, and streaming networks that have sponsored formally adventurous television programming. Sagar and Eshun’s dual creative activity has primarily taken place within the boundaries of a contemporary art world of international museums, galleries, and biennials. Early in their career, Otolith indicated that this displacement from some of the traditional venues for advanced moving images was an intentional one. Such a sentiment may be inferred, for instance, from a statement about their installation Inner Time of Television, 2010, a collaboration with filmmaker Chris Marker that reconfigures his 1989 miniseries The Owl’s Legacy as a multi-monitor environment. In their description of the work, the pair write that this shift into gallery spaces “displaces the serial logic of the television documentary and suggests that the context for an encounter with moving-image work that defies the conventions of television making has largely shifted to the forum of art.”

Such a statement also speaks of Otolith’s position of intentional (and internal) displacement vis-à-vis their chosen platform—Otolith Group may be in the art world, but they are not of it. Their greater strategy is the re-instrumentalization of this art world as a base for a twenty-first-century communications network. Sagar and Eshun hijack art-world structures to serve not the needs of investment capital and individual egos but rather the global circulation of radical ideas. They seek to create complex connections among affiliated artists, musicians, and other thinkers, following an arachnoid impulse that builds supple, durable webs of solidarity. Eshun and Sagar are usually classified as an art collective, but in truth they operate something like a production company, something like an academy, something like a library, something like a radio station.

Eshun and Sagar are usually classified as an art collective, but in truth they operate something like a production company, something like an academy, something like a library, something like a radio station.

Otolith’s cinema has been hybrid and nomadic, marked by its refusal to adhere to any consistent medium or style. Art historian T. J. Demos noted in 2009 that Sagar and Eshun’s filmography to that point could be categorized within the quasi genre of the essay film, which he glossed as a “distinctive mixture of documentary and dramatic imagery accompanied by poetic, historical, and often autobiographical narration.” More specifically, he wrote, Otolith gravitate toward approaches “in the tradition of such diverse filmmakers and groups as Black Audio Film Collective, Harun Farocki, Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, and Anand Patwardhan.” An affinity for such precedents is expressed in an enigmatic design that appears throughout Otolith’s work, a circle resting atop three parallel lines, which the group appropriated from Godard’s militant cine-treatise Le Gai Savoir (1969). In its appearances in Godard’s work, the icon signifies, among other things, the third world (to use the term common in the late ’60s); Eshun and Sagar have frequently invoked the more outer-spacey phrase “World 3” in relation to this sign, one indication of their deeply speculative and future-oriented outlook. This same affinity is more clearly demarcated through the artists Otolith have chosen to highlight in their discussions and film programming, including all the directors named in Demos’s litany, as well as figures like Santiago Álvarez, Jean Genet, Mani Kaul, Henri Storck, Straub + Huillet—quite a flock of keen-eyed and far-flying magpies.

Otolith’s dedication to the cinematic essay is evident in their earliest major work, The Otolith Trilogy. Shot in a variety of formats, Otolith I, 2003, and II, 2007, mix personal histories with futuristic fantasies, using a voice-over by Sagar that imagines the diary of her grandchild, who looks back on our own era from the early twenty-second century. The prologue to Otolith I lays out a scenario in which a branch of humanity has adapted their bodies to life in outer space by evolving otolithic systems specifically calibrated for microgravitational existence. This new generation can never visit Earth, and know of their planet of origin only through its transmissions and recordings. “For us, there is no memory without image, and no image without memory,” Sagar narrates in oracular tones against a montage of twentieth-century photographs set to dreamy synths. Over Super 8, television, and newsreel footage, she continues, “I sift aging media from the tense present of the last century, looking for the critical points, the thresholds. Searching for moments of becoming that begin to tell me how they became us.” It’s one of the numerous moments in Otolith I and II that echo Marker’s propensity to flit through time and space via strange thought loops. The films consider the Iraq War and the protests against it, Le Corbusier’s architecture in Chandigarh and in France’s banlieues, and India’s involvement in the Soviet space program. As in Marker’s work, what ties the episodes together is a semifictional narrator-correspondent whose words become a mind screen through which disparate images will be experienced, helping us to envision the modern world as one both familiar and estranged. We see footage of Sagar floating in the interior of a reduced-gravity aircraft, channeling her fictional descendant’s extraplanetary existence; she lies horizontally, head resting on hands in the position of a reclining Buddha, drifting in a weightless dream, like so many characters in Marker’s 1983 Sans Soleil. “Space is our place now,” she muses, riffing on Sun Ra.

The Otolith Group, Otolith III, 2009, HD video, color, sound, 49 minutes.

The exquisitely oblique Otolith III, 2009, departs from the premise of Otolith I and II, centering on The Alien, an unproduced 1967 scenario by Satyajit Ray about an extraterrestrial who visits Earth, landing not in Washington or London but in rural Bengal. Ray’s scenario is remembered both for its ambition to create the first big-budget South Asian science-fiction film and for claims by Ray and others that Steven Spielberg lifted parts of it for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). But Otolith III does not worry itself with these historical byways. It instead realizes the script in the most indirect manner, reediting snatches from Ray’s films to evoke The Alien as it might have looked, adding a polyphony of international voices to imagine The Alien’s characters coming to life and spiting their creator for abandoning their hopes of existence. “Just script,” a clipped male voice states. “Twenty pages in a drawer. An idea. A possibility. Nothing more.” In its own allusive way, Otolith III achieves The Alien’s goal of repositioning the Eurocentrism of Hollywood science-fiction films toward a South Asian vantage; as the conclusion to The Otolith Trilogy, it continues a displacement of science fiction’s spectacularity onto a more subtle investigation of possible worlds.

The Otolith Trilogy would seem to conform to writer Samuel R. Delany’s definition of science fiction as a specific subset of narrative subjunctivity; that is, as stories of the world that have not happened but could.

Science fiction is one of the main intellectual fields that Otolith play in. Well before the forming of the group, Eshun offered some of the most cogent and influential statements on Afrofuturism in his interviews for Black Audio Film Collective’s The Last Angel of History (1996). In his book More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fictions (1998), he propounded a neo-cybernetic theory of Black musical technologies, analyzing the futuristic sounds of artists like Sun Ra, Rammellzee, and Drexciya. The Otolith Trilogy would seem to conform to writer Samuel R. Delany’s definition of science fiction as a specific subset of narrative subjunctivity; that is, as stories of the world that have not happened but could. Science fiction, understood this way, exists in the movements of an exploratory imagination firmly bounded by the parameters of the real, and it is within this same dialectic that the Otolith Group choose to operate. Delany originally defined subjunctivity in a 1968 lecture as “the tension on the thread of meaning that runs between word and object”; in turn, many of the films of Sagar and Eshun work to unleash the subjunctive force-potential created among novel concatenations of sounds, voices, and images. In this, they follow the primary lessons that Marker, Godard, and other radical filmmakers took from the Soviet cinema of Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, and Esfir Shub, which is that film has the ability to envision a new reality—and to produce new thought—through reediting imprints of the physical world.

In recent years, Otolith have shifted away from the disjunctive, agglutinative semiosis of montage, with two of their newest films deploying, respectively, Bazinian naturalism and a hypnotically multilayered digital video synthesis. Ninety minutes of luxuriously volumetric long takes steeped in thick sonic atmospheres, O Horizon, 2018, documents daily life at Santiniketan, a campus-cum–utopian community founded by Rabindranath Tagore in the early twentieth century as an alternative to British colonial educational systems, and still in session today. As seen in O Horizon, the campus feels at once like a closed universe of contemplation and a borderless community in porous interrelationship with the surrounding landscape. Pedagogy in Kathakali dance and classical Indian song coexists with training in soil science. Students learn philosophy beneath the shade of ancient trees, surrounded by airy architecture adorned with paintings and sculptures by pivotal modernist artists like Nandalal Bose, K. G. Subramanyan, and Benode Behari Mukherjee.

In the name of the Otolith Group lie intimations of a sixth sense that may be cinema’s truly primary role, an inner sense of space and time, of forward motion.

As a documentary of a school, this is not a Frederick Wiseman institutional exposé: O Horizon’s observational qualities aren’t about peeking behind the scenes to reveal the community’s underlying social machinery. The portrait is not so much of individuals working within a system, but rather of the system itself as a holistic unity. Nor is the film primarily an excursion into sensory ethnography in the tradition of filmmakers like Robert Gardner, despite its luscious and unhurried offerings to eye and ear. The filmmakers are interested in picturing the school as the instantiation of a set of ideas—as the living continuation of a modernism that imagined art, science, dance, song, and speech as interrelated and equal modes of understanding, in community with the natural environment. For Otolith, this idyll is not merely a retreat but can only exist in relation to a specific arrangement of global power. It also provides a variation on Otolith’s own collaborative work. In an interview with Eshun and Sagar by curator Annie Fletcher for the catalogue of their traveling exhibition “Xenogenesis” (itself named after and devoted to the thought of science-fiction writer Octavia Butler), Sagar offers that “collective practice is derived from, and has always been enabled by, clearing space to think, by setting the parameters or limits of thought, by holding certain forces at bay. What is it that pulls people from the place of protest to the place of study?”

The Otolith Group, The Third Part of the Third Measure, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 43 minutes.

Eshun and Sagar reimagine the essay film by removing the verbal essay we have come to expect, avoiding a narration-driven structure in favor of one whose meaning is not only embodied by but articulated through an ordered perceptile experience. The bits of language that the filmmakers do include sit alongside the images, rather than above them. O Horizon proposes an understanding of knowledge beyond language, to be found in the migration of matter through time and space. The film begins with a recital of Tagore’s 1896 Bengali poem “The Year 1400” (translated with English subtitles), which seems to project the philosopher’s consciousness into our present: Today, in a hundred years, a woman’s voice asks us, Who are you sitting, reading this poem of mine? With these lines—composed just as science fiction was emerging as a self-conscious genre, and cinema as an apparatus—Tagore evokes both temporal travel and alternate-world-building. Otolith picture Santiniketan as a complex technological intervention rather than a primitivist return to nature. As noted in one of the “Xenogenesis” wall texts, “Tagore’s family terraformed the Bengali landscape.”

Cover of the Otolith Group’s Xenogenesis (Irish Museum of Modern Art and Archive Books, 2021).

Otolith’s most recent film, INFINITY Minus Infinity, 2019, continues the sensory investigations of O Horizon, but with an accent on the synthetic rather than the natural, the chaos that arrived in modernity’s wake rather than modernist utopias. A collectively realized medley of dance, poetry, and the oration of texts directed by Sagar and Eshun with the latter’s sister Esi Eshun, it takes place within a virtual world of extended sound and image signals reprocessed and reshaped, a series of interlocking events that become continuously fluid, liquid, oceanic. Much of it occurs in a green-screened void, with berobed characters appearing against the darkness, reminiscent of the visitors from the future in Marker’s La Jetée (1962), their foreheads marked by geometric glyphs that reverberate with chroma-keyed video. Similar sigils ornament the faces of musicians in Otolith’s study of composer Julius Eastman, The Third Part of the Third Measure, 2017—just one of many visual and audial motifs that have threaded through their films in subtle ways over the years. INFINITY Minus Infinity is a constantly moving flux of bodies, histories, and theories: Dante Micheaux reads excerpts from Glissant; vocalist and movement artist Elaine Mitchener gives voice to words by Jamaican writer Una Marson; Esi Eshun intones excerpts from speeches given in the House of Commons regarding British immigration law and the Windrush generation. The Black feminist thought of philosopher Denise Ferreira da Silva frames a multiheaded investigation that takes on various temporalities and scales, moving from the legacies of British slavery and colonialism to Black Lives Matter to the terrestrial disruptions of the Anthropocene.“I can’t breathe,” sighs Esi Eshun deeply, in the guise of an ancient-futuristic Earth goddess.

INFINITY Minus Infinity might offer some General Otolithic Theory to circumscribe the group’s sprawling project. Cinema can be imagined as a reordering of perceptual information—primarily sight and sound but, through synesthetic analogy, touch and smell and taste as well. INFINITY Minus Infinity reminds us of this multisensory potential with opening images of a chroma-key-manicured hand caressing a tree branch. In the name of the Otolith Group lie intimations of a sixth sense that may be cinema’s truly primary role, an inner sense of space and time, of forward motion—that is to say, our deepest sense of orientation in the world, the basis for all image schemas and conceptual mapping. 

“Xenogenesis” travels to the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, July 7, 2022–February 12, 2023.

Ed Halter is a founder and director of Light Industry and a critic-in-residence at Bard College.