11 mins | 2014
Shambhavi Kaul sets up dialectical dread in Death Valley in a series of uncanny shots of geological formations, eroded mountains, dunes and dried lava contrasted against images of shimmering night skies.
Shambhavi Kaul’s cinematic constructions conjure uncanny, science-fictive non-places. Described as creating “zones of compression and dispersion,” her work utilizes strategies of montage and recirculation, inviting an affective response while simultaneously measuring our capacity to know what we encounter. She has exhibited her work worldwide at venues such as the Toronto International Film Festival, the Berlinale, The New York Film Festival, the London Film Festival, the International Film Festival Rotterdam, The Edinburgh International Film Festival, Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, the Ann Arbor Film Festival, and the 2014 Shanghai Biennale. She also exhibits her work with Jhaveri Contemporary, in Mumbai.
Interview of Shambhavi Kaul with Charu Maithani
Charu Maithani [CM] // With regard to Night Noon and your other films, you have talked about the deliberate ‘incoherence of the landscape’, the unrecognized places in your works and the works being independent of the place that they show. To lend this dissociation, can you talk about how in terms of process and methodology, do you bring a spatial and rhythmic coherence on the edit?
Shambhavi Kaul [SK] // To give you an example from Night Noon, the soundtrack for the film is constructed almost entirely using relaxation CDs. These CDs have tracks of natural sounds that are actually highly synthesized. I was interested in the notion that a fake–nature soundtrack is being offered as a call to sleep. In the film, the soundtrack has the effect of producing the landscapes as hyper real. Moreover, since I shot the entire film at about 40 frames per second, the film runs at a slight slow motion throughout. Together, these strategies make the images feel distant, even suspended while also allowing for immersion, which is how I think about incoherence and coherence within editing strategies.
CM // Staying with the unrecognizability of the landscape of Night Noon, do you think your trans-national life of living in two different countries (India and USA) permeates through this aesthetic?
SK // Certainly it does. The everyday reality of being un-localized, of conducting one’s close relationships on Skype for instance, has a certain disorienting effect on one’s sense of geography.
CM // As a practitioner working in the domain of moving images, do you see yourself first as a recorder of images (cinematographer) or organiser of images (editor)?
SK // I can say with certainty, an editor. While Night Noon is not a found footage film, I have worked a lot in (re) appropriation of existing materials and, accidental finding, and assembling are my chief modes. I am almost uncomfortable by the acquisitive aspect cinematographic pointing and framing invariably takes-on and I have to literally disrupt it. In Night Noon, I decided to shoot the entire film on a very low, hi-hat tripod, what I decided for myself would represent “dog perspective.” My hope was to create a formal obstacle as well as engage in an unlikely kind of subjectivity as the cinematographer who has aligned herself with the dog in the film.
CM // In some of your works like 21 Chitrakoot and Mount Song, you have worked with footage of films and popular Indian television shows. On the other hand, every day on the web we see several mash-ups and memes that are made using existing material. I am interested in these parallels of art and popular culture. The re-appropriation and re-contextualisation of images indicate other meanings and relations. It is a technique used to emphasize on the unseen and unexpected. What are your thoughts on blurring of boundaries between art and popular culture with respect to this?
(I am not equating art with popular culture as the both have different modalities, but they can have the same effect. The mash-ups can be argued to go back to the Dadaists and then the readymades, so there is a trace.)
SK // As I said before, my entire mode of working is based in (re) appropriation and (re) contextualizing. To give you a concrete example, the idea for Night Noon came to me first because I began to think about the desert landscapes of California as particularly interesting because they have been used extensively in cinema. In Death Valley, there is a patch of sand that has circulated in cinema as everything from outer space to Egypt to current war zones. So to go shoot there is to engage discursively with that cinematic history. Around this same time I happened to read a remarkable essay about the classic 1963 Cinema Novo from Brazil, Vidas Secas. The essay was about the two animal actors in the film, a dog and a parrot, who I learned enjoyed something like movie star fame after the film came out. So then I wondered, what if these two animal movie stars from Brazil are now washed-up Hollywood pets and they are wandering around inside these landscapes that are marked by their circulation in films. To be clear, it is not so much that I need audiences to understand all this when they watch my work, rather, I tell you this to demonstrate how my mode of working is necessarily discursive, even collaborative. It is always some form of mash up.
CM // To continue with the same thought, the footage of television shows and films belong to a tele-visual space that had a distinct system of distribution and access. When your films are played in film festivals, they enter a different system of distribution and access. On the other hand, Web 2.0 allowed the internet to become a networked platform. On the web, the distribution and access is not only easy, but open to further mutation. These multiple temporalities and points of access provide an interesting reading to people who could be situated anywhere in the world. How do you respond to the intermeshing of cultural contexts that these various methods of distribution allow?
SK // My work actively draws from, and reflects on the way media circulates so, I respond with a great deal of interest! For instance, if I decide to use certain found materials, I am much more interested in the crappy resolution of the copy I found than I am motivated to find the original, pristine version. I find the marks of circulation, exchange, transfer and translation to be as important as the original content of the material. In a recent installation called Fallen Objects, currently running at the Sunaparanta Art Centre in Goa, my video loop is comprised of cinemascope footage that I (re) appropriated from a DVD. There is thus a built in conflict of resolutions and intentions that I find productive and that adds to the “incoherence of landscape” that you alluded to earlier.
CM // As a creative practitioner who works with images, do you think the Internet has trivialized the process of image making to the point that one has to be determined of reasons to create and disperse an image, and its meaning(s)?
SK // From the point of view of traditional cinema, it seems the modernist emphasis on the original, may it be the original moment of shooting, or the original intention of the filmmaker, or the original media, etc., has been replaced with a more discursive life for cinematic images. Rather than reject this new scenario as populated by mere copies, one could focus on the potentials it offers on the internet and in the world in general. This new scenario has certainly informed my cinematic practice that by now has dispersed into multiple screens via my installation work, and multiple media in addition to film and video.