The Otolith Group

In the preface to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley explained that she wrote fiction not because she enjoyed “weaving stories of supernatural terrors” but because of its capacity “for delineating human passions more comprehensive and commanding [than] the ordinary relations of existing events.” Almost two centuries later, the films of the Otolith Group (Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar) also adopt fiction—specifically science fiction, the genre Shelley helped invent—in order to explore impossible or failed histories and the compelling messages coded therein. In A Long Time Between Suns (Part 2), 2009, the artists revisit Satyajit Ray’s unrealized film project The Alien (1967), the tale of an extraterrestrial who lands in a small Bengal village and befriends a boy, and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Notes for a Film About India (1968), in which the attempt to shoot a story of ancient India is juxtaposed with the country’s current human catastrophes, via the director’s encounters with everyday people whom he considers casting in his film. The main characters of Ray’s film—the Engineer, the Industrialist, the Journalist, the Boy—return in the Otolith film to offer their suspicions of and, in turn, their disappointments with a new character, the Director, who “plays God” in giving them life (on the screen) and death (because the film was never made), a death evoked in the recurring image of a Goyaesque firing squad and its tragic victim. Creation myths and supernatural beings are evoked throughout, in images of altars and rites that are paralleled with the rituals of filmmaking (casting, location scouting, scriptwriting), and in each character’s mystified response to the Alien.

In Ray’s story, the encounter with the child brings out the Alien’s inclination for play and magic. Ray was rethinking sci-fi at a time when Frankenstein’s literary descendant, golden-age science fiction, was in decline and the genre had been reborn with a violent new urgency in the work of J. G. Ballard and his generation of “new wave” writers. The Otolith Group readdresses the genre neither through remake nor homage but by stepping back, without nostalgia, into the radical fictional framework Ray attempted and then abandoned. The narrators digress from the story to question the film’s making—“Who will play the Director?” the Industrialist asks, offering images of possible performers culled from candid footage taken on city streets—but this contrasts with a reassuring return to the story and characters of Ray’s unmade film, rendering his fantasy, paradoxically, the most stable foothold in the Otolith film.

The installation, designed by artist Will Holder, encouraged viewers to sit around a worktable, university seminar style, to watch the big screen; the accompanying video Otolith Timeline, 2003, was also playing on a monitor set alongside printers and documents. This elaborate staging reinforced the constructedness of the main film’s reality effect. The otolith is a structure in the inner ear that allows our bodies to orient us to the earth’s gravitational field; it is the precariousness of our sense of historical balance today—given the current feeling that, with the right technology, just about anything, people and events, potential pasts, even unfinished artworks, could be “raised from the dead”—that is put dizzyingly into play here.

Gilda Williams