Desire Machine Collective, Noise Life 1, 2008–14, partition, HD video (color, sound, 32 minutes 6 seconds). Installation view, Project 88.

Desire Machine Collective, Noise Life 1, 2008–14, partition, HD video (color, sound, 32 minutes 6 seconds). Installation view, Project 88.

Desire Machine Collective

Project 88/Galerie Max Mueller

Desire Machine Collective, Noise Life 1, 2008–14, partition, HD video (color, sound, 32 minutes 6 seconds). Installation view, Project 88.

Hailing from Assam in strife-ridden northeast India, Desire Machine Collective has participated in shows at premier venues such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, and Paris’s Palais de Tokyo, and has taken part in the Venice Biennale. The group’s first major exhibition in its home country wasa two-venue multimedia exhibition, “Noise Life.” Inspired by Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoanalysis and characterized as “a sensory auto-ethnography marked by ghastly alertness of the senses to a violent world outside,” it was reportedly six years in the making.

The focal work at Project 88 was a thirty-two-minute projected video, Noise Life 1, 2008–14, which consists of a set of disconnected images: a dilapidated building surrounded by tropical plants; an office hallway; flowing water; and a boy from northeastern India gazing at the landscape before running across a riverbed and falling. At Max Mueller, a series of more than a hundred stills (“Noise Life,” 2014) showed the same boy violently flailing against a black ground (think David Lynch’s Lost Highway).

Though it was shot mostly in Assam, the video’s use of slow tracking shots, heavy blurs, and upside-down images transports the viewer to the heartland of North American avant-garde cinema and the hoary company of Michael Snow, Jordan Belson, Stan Brakhage, and Joseph Cornell. Its sound track was intentionally drowned out by neighboring works. “Life is noise,” reads the press release, “and noise is held together by a kaleidoscopic knot of pure intensity of sensations that is blind, deaf, and pointless.” The major source of interference came from some three dozen speaker cones arranged nearby on the floor in a mandala-like form and rumbling with seismic sounds. Bisecting Project 88 was a faux-concrete wall emitting recorded cries from Occupy Wall Street, dam protests in Assam, and other demonstrations. Beyond this wall were two dilapidated desks, each with a discolored square on its surface showing where a typewriter and a dot-matrix printer had long sat, with the sound of each technology reverberating from within. In another corner was Noise Life 2, 2008–14, a small room housing two superimposed image streams: a silent video projection showing an old ethnographic film of a ritual cow slaughter, and a click-clacking slide carousel depicting cosmic nebulae and forensic photographs (bullet shells, human bones, burned-out train cars) mainly related to violence in India’s northeast.

Judging from the group’s talks and interviews, DMC conceives of visual and aural distortion as a vehicle for symbolic violence against representation and for fomenting audience emancipation through defamiliarization—old avant-garde standbys. But it’s hard to imagine anyone even touched by the hullaballoo of modern life being existentially moved by this mild cacophony. “Noise Life” simply lacks intensity. It also plays coy with content. DMC often begins with inherently compelling images and sounds, willfully obfuscating them in order to emphasize their aesthetic grain, but not so much that the original context is lost. For example, in the concrete-wall piece, as long as you recognize the voice as one of protest, it doesn’t matter whether or not you know what is being protested. In fact, without asking the artists or their spokespeople directly, it is usually hard to identify the source material.

That is, at least, the view from outside Assam, given DMC’s public statements, which are heavily front-loaded with poststructuralist theory. Yet the artists tell me that state anxiety about separatist movements in northeast India is such that overt reference to even the simple fact of conflict leads to harassment. One wonders to what extent “noise” is also a response to a situation in which clear signals run the risk of too quickly being silenced within a restricted public sphere.

Ryan Holmberg