GHOSTS-IN-THE-MACHINE by Rohini Devasher

2.39 mins excerpt from 6 mins | 2006

phytoplankton seen through a microscope.
A creature that drifts across the window on a submersible deep under the ocean.
Except that that this creature is artificial, a digital construct. An intricate skeletal structure that is the result of 165 individual, manually placed layers of video. Charting a journey of artificial evolution, Ghosts-in-the-machine explores the generative possibilities of video feedback.

Rohini Devasher, trained as a painter and printmaker, works in a variety of media including sound, video, prints, and large site-specific drawings. Her current body of work is a collection of ‘strange’ terrains, constructed by observing, recording, fictionalizing, and re-imagining objects and spaces that exist at the interface between science, nature and culture, perception and production.

Interview with Rohini Devasher by Charu Maithani

Charu Maithani [CM]// To start with, where are you now? What thoughts are being contemplated in your forthcoming shows?

Rohini Devasher [RD]// I just had a solo in Delhi which will travel to Mumbai later this year. The show which is called Archaeologies of the Future: Chaos and Coincidence, is a series of experiments and observations, constructed by observing, recording, fictionalizing, and imagining objects and spaces that exist at the interface between remote past and possible future, utopia and dystopia, the human and non-human. Comprising video, photographs and drawing, the works are a collection of new terrains, where skies, nomadic observation sites, telescopes and cyanometers, mix familiarity with strangeness, suggesting a new way of imagining the interconnectedness of things.

I am very interested in investigations of science and nature using the methods of ‘field work’ and ‘expedition’. These modes are particularly useful in the observation and exploration of the relationships between the natural and technological and the ways in which intersecting patterns between the two are made visible.

CM// I read on your website that you don’t distinguish between media and method. How do you deal with the concept – material duality as digital media erases the idea of material and brings in the virtual?

RD// I just participated in the 2nd Anthropocene Curriculum at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. This edition of the Campus was around the idea of the Technosphere, a term put forward by the geomorphologist Peter K. Haff, to describe the quasi-autonomous system of technologies that act as a geological agent. These systems include everything from networks of interacting technologies, social and economic arrangements, cultural values, and constructed environments. If the Anthropocene defines our time, the technosphere describes our place. [i]

One of the seminars I attended developed the idea that rather than seeing the technosphere as the final product of human history, we might instead explore its deep evolutionary roots, which in turn breaks down conventionally held barriers of nature/culture, human/non-human etc. In his collection of essays The Perception of the Environment, Tim Ingold explores a very interesting approach on understanding how human beings perceive their surroundings. He argues that skills are grown, they are neither innate nor acquired, but rather incorporated into the human organism through practice and training in an environment. They are as much biological as cultural. There is one essay in particular, Weaving a Basket, that really helped me look at my work with video feedback entirely differently. Ingold reads an ‘artefact’ (in this case the basket) as an almost living, generative thing that cuts across interfaces not only of making and material but also of practice and process. Similarly to re-look ‘making’, as arising within a process of use, and to establish it as a socially and environmentally situated practice, illuminates the close relationship between technique, skill, body, inspiration and intuition. This almost ‘ecological’ approach to the study of skill liberates us from the severely reductive belief that the technical must be mechanical and therefore isolated from the body and environment.

If we bring this back to your question of method and material, with video feedback, like with the basket, the property of the material is directly implicated in its generation. Similar to the old kaleidoscopes, video feedback is created when an ordinary hand-held camera is plugged into a TV and pointed at itself.  The optical equivalent of acoustic feedback, a loop is created between the video camera and the television screen or monitor. Like two mirrors facing each other, the image is doubled and interferes with itself. As put so eloquently by James P. Crutchfield:

In all feedback systems, video or other, some portion of the output signal is used as input. In the simplest video system feedback is accomplished optically by pointing the camera at the monitor. The camera converts the optical image on the monitor into an electronic signal that is then converted by the monitor into an image on its screen. This image is then electronically converted and again displayed on the monitor, and so on ad infinitum.”

– James P. Crutchfield, Space -Time Dynamics in Video Feedback, Physica 10D (1984)

What is important to mention is that this is an entirely embodied process. If the camera is left alone pointing at the screen, literally nothing will happen. It is my hand, my arm and by extension my body that by moving the camera, zooming in, zooming out, turning the camera on its side, that these astonishing forms are generated. They are also hugely chaotic and it is very difficult to re-create the same behaviour more than once.
Once I have shot the footage, it is dumped onto my computer and I then proceed to chop up the footage into smaller sections. These are then recombined, much like a backward jigsaw puzzle to create new work.

The work that is created explores processes of growth and evolution through a technological matrix. As with the basket, in the videos the raw material, or footage, i.e. video feedback, as well as the works themselves investigate self-reflexivity, which adds another dimension to the role of media and illustrates how, in so many cases, the conceptual is embedded within the material. Method and material are then almost impossible to tell apart.

CM// So, the digital allows you to collapse the concept and material into one?

RD// Exactly, but I don’t think it is only the digital, printmaking does that too. It is an incredibly emergent process. Essentially each plate, whether metal, stone or screen, is used to create multiple layers of iterative surfaces which are then constructed into some kind of a complex surface. The difference is in the nature of the raw material.  What is video feedback? It is the self organisation of pattern of nature, so the same thing that determines leaf morphology, snowflake patterns, shell patterns etc is generated here but entirely within the machine. And it’s this mirroring between the biological and digital that I’m interested in.  So when I made Bloodlines with the seven ‘parent’ forms in the middle, I deliberately constructed them to look like microfossils or zooplankton, diatoms, radiolaria etc. But the children of those, which are created by simply mirroring the parent in Adobe Premier, start to go off in a completely direction! Is that inherent in Adobe Premiere? Or is it the nature of the thing itself? Because not all of the stuff that I create allows itself to do that. With Doppelganger I tried to generate a breed of dragonflies. But it didn’t work, but what did happen is that I somehow reverse engineered caterpillars.

CM// And the virtuality of it all, which you don’t have in screenprinting.

RD// Yes, the digital or virtual if you like, is far more open; you aren’t as bound by the medium i.e. print bed size, paper size etc. And there is something very interesting about the black, it does something. It removes space, it removes the horizon, it removes grounding of any kind and lets the thing float and be many other things. So the idea of the uncanny, or rather the reversal of it, is also that something video feedback allows. Also it is just so simple! So low-fi, and it was a language that I was able to understand easily. Before I found video feedback, I didn’t think I would be able to work in the medium of video at all because it seemed like such a shift. Now I can pick up a camera and shoot things in the real world but when I first did this in 2005-06, it was only because I was trying to find a way to introduce temporality to my work, which up until then was conventional printmaking and some digital prints work, and to make the layering visible.

CM// You are trained as a printmaker and a painter. You work in different mediums as well. What does the image mean to you? Is it an object, representation, a photographic image – considering different meanings carry different functions?

RD// For me there are two different ways in which the work happens. Sometimes it starts with an image. It could start with a site… I suppose when you say image, I translate that as my experience of a site for instance, and whatever I collect in terms of data or research, which is usually video, sound and photographs. It could equally start with text, and then other things fall into place. Sometimes it’s a quote or a phrase or a reference.

CM// Let me put it this way, how are you using the image?

RD// Frankly, I don’t even know what the word means to me anymore. I don’t think it means anything. I never use the word ‘image’.  It seems severely isolated; it feels like it has no moorings at all. Those works of mine that I feel work the best have many of those moorings somehow visible. By ‘moorings’ I mean references and connections. The work is a signifier and not a thing in itself, and I think all art is like that. This is something I’m trying to figure out for myself. But the works that work the best are ones that have an afterlife, had a life before and they shouldn’t be static even though they maybe paper on a wall. So ‘image’ – I don’t like the word. I find it very reductive. I like the word ‘site’ a lot because it could be many things. It doesn’t only have to be a physical site. It can also be an image and it can be both very specific and totally ambiguous.

CM// Science Fiction has been a strong inspiration in your work. Could you talk about your pop culture influences while growing up – the images of dystopian future or utopian hope?

RD// Star Trek, Star Wars, Space City Sigma are few of them. Actually Space City Sigma became my entry point into so many of these things. I saw Sigma first and then Star Wars and Star Trek. I also watched a lot of Japanese and Chinese anime on television after school. They used to be in Chinese and Japanese, and my sister and I would still watch them for the animation. I started collecting Star Wars and Star Trek books when I was probably 14 or 13. And then gradually I moved into the harder stuff. I’m a big fan of Arthur C Clarke. I think I own almost all his books. Not so much Asimov. David Brin is pretty amazing too. Then I also got interested in speculative fiction – A S Byatt, Angela Carter.

I think Clarke played a big role in my ‘imagining’ of these speculative and fictive spaces. His first of the Rama series, Rendezvous with Rama, in particular.  I have a very clear idea of what the light or sound must have been like when the astronauts enter the cylindrical spaceship lit by horizontal sun strips. There are moments in the real world that make me feel like in one of the scenes, superimposed on the other. That’s pretty special.

CM// In your videos works like Arboreal, Doppelganger, you have concentrated on the layering technique of video as a process of evolution and increase in complex structuring. That layering is done either as a video feedback and/or editing software. In either case software is instrumental in your art making process. Keeping in the mind the imagery that you create are deeply embedded in scientific concepts, you are essentially using scientific and technological knowledge to question and create new knowledge and aesthetic systems. What are your thoughts on this.

RD// Each work in what I call the ‘Strange Loop’ series, i.e. Ghosts-in-the-Machine, Bloodlines, Doppelganger, Arboreal and the various print and drawings that are also part of this, could be seen or read as a succession of episodes or chapters, with each furthering a dialogue between the spontaneous generation of pattern within the biological and technological realms. Each piece plays with organic boundaries, parallel universes and imaginary microcosms.


[i]  Co‐evolutionary Perspectives on the Technosphere, Seminar Abstract, Manfred Laubichler, Daniel Niles, Jürgen Renn and Masahiro Terada, 2016

May 2016