Bad at Sports

Interview with Kodwo Eshun of the Otolith Group

By Bad at Sports February 15, 2012

Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.


Image: Communists Like Us, 2010 (still); performance, Beirut. Courtesy of the Otolith Group. Photo: Houssam Mchaiemch.

The following is an abridged transcript from an interview that Bad at Sports contributor Patricia Maloney conducted with Kodwo Eshun at Headlands Center for the Arts on November 21, 2011.  Eshun, along with Anjalika Sagar, is a founder and principle collaborator of the Otolith Group. They were in residence at Headlands following a national itinerary of speaking engagements that included a conference in conjunction with the exhibition The Matter Within at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and a graduate lecture at California College of the Arts.

This presentation of the interview is part of the ongoing collaboration between Bad at Sports and Art Practical. You can listen to the full conversation on Episode 335 of Bad at Sports.

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Patricia Maloney: I want to start with how you arrived at the name, the Otolith Group.

Kodwo Eshun: You can parse the name in terms of ancient Greek, I believe. Oto is “ear” and lith is “stone” in ancient Greek. Otolith means “stone of the ear.” It’s not exactly a bone. The otolith is a calcium carbonate microcrystal that sits on top of these hairs, these tiny fibers called cilia, and the cilia and the otoliths are parts of one element of the inner ear. The inner ear is a very complex mechanism that effectively manages and processes the body’s capacity to orientate itself.

There are fundamental ways of coordinating movement in the world. The conditions of up and down, left and right, back and front are needed for a sense of subjective verticality and a sense of orientation. The inner ear plays a fundamental role in processing the body’s ability to move through space. So, calling ourselves the Otolith Group is a way of drawing attention to these fundamental facts of orientation and disorientation, groundlessness and grounding, but also pointing to a kind of enigmatic fact.

Most of us don’t actually [think about our inner ears], but we’d know if they weren’t working properly, because we’d have various kinds of motion sickness and we wouldn't be able to stand upright. We’d start leaning, we’d start tilting, we’d suffer all kinds of vertigo.

[Our name] comes out of our interest in space medicine, which was part of the research we conducted for our first video essay, Otolith I. We filmed it partly in Star City outside Moscow, which is where the Soviet space program began back in the early ’50s, and we took part in microgravity training. I and another artist, Richard, who was part of the Otolith Group at the time we were filming, and Anjalika were performing experiments in microgravity. The fiction of Otolith I is that if you’re born in microgravity, like in our fictional world, then you won’t be able to function on earth because your otolith won’t function in the same way and also because your bones will become progressively brittle.

So, the Otolith Group is something that grew out of that first video and was a way of condensing these enigmatic conditions about being human, in a way that everybody shares but nobody is aware of.

PM: Are you trying to orient yourselves in relationship to the conditions of the world, or do you perceive yourself as functioning as a sort of a cultural otolith for your audience?

KE: We’re interested in taking disorientation seriously. There are all kinds of conditions of disorientation and groundlessness, and those can be understood philosophically, poetically, aesthetically, cinematically. One way of characterizing our project is to find a form for conditions of disorientation that are not personal or individual but collective and political—finding a form that can do justice to those widely shared moods and feelings.

Back in 2003, when we began Otolith I, the particular disorientation we were feeling was a kind of despair over the moment in which America, Britain, and fourteen other countries—the coalition of the willing—were just about to embark on the invasion of Iraq, the war that they’re still undertaking in our name. We wanted to find a way to take those political feelings of despair and anger and impotence seriously.

Those are the conditions that we want to find an audio/visual language for, conditions that are collective, so they belong to each of us individually but are not entirely ours. They’re not psychological states; they’re shared states. And you want to invite people into an encounter with them. The otolith is a poetic, biological fact that alludes to all of these notions and tends to draw us into discourse. As soon as somebody asks you to elaborate on it, you get drawn into this elaborate unfolding of it. It’s like a zip file: it compresses a huge amount of material, and unfolding it allows you to take a bleak pass through a conjunction, through a crisis, through a cultural moment. It gives us a space to approach conditions in a way that is sufficiently poetic.

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Otolith I, 2003 (still); video; 22:25. Courtesy of the Otolith Group and LUX, London.

PM: Otolith I includes footage of the demonstrations leading up to the Iraq war, so I’d like to ask about the construction of these video essays and the idea of thinking of them as essays. You take these fictive narratives and conditions—for example, the concept of operating in microgravity and the exercise and testing of that as a real condition—and then set them against images that point to an actual collective moment. I am curious about how that comes together, for you.

KE: We’re interested in constructing a relation between the present, the present of February 2003, and the present of microgravity. The way we do that is through fiction. So, there is a fictional narrator who lives in the year 2103, a time at which a certain fraction of human species lives aboard the International Space Station. And because they were born in microgravity, they can’t return to Earth. Their only access to Earth is through the media that we’re looking at. The [perspective] of the film is that [the narrator] is sifting through the media of the present, and this perspective—by which you apprehend the present through this fiction of a futuristic narrator—means that the present appears to us as a series of ruins or fossils.

This notion of taking up an exile in the future in order to inhabit the present is a paradoxical one, which nonetheless helps us a lot. Through this fictional detour into the future, you create a form that can apprehend some of the difficult emotions of the present—despair and anger and weakness and fear and impotence—unheroic and sometimes even unpolitical or apolitical emotions. Emotions that you don’t know what to do with.

We wanted to find a way to construct a relation between them, and fiction allows you to weave together documentary moments so that the form that emerges has an aspect of fabulation to it, in which historical events and real figures play a role that is simultaneously historical and fictional. The idea is to create a zone in which historical figures and fictional figures communicate with each other in a passage that is neither one nor the other but both. For us, this is one way of characterizing the tradition of the essay film, which can be traced back throughout the twentieth century.

But the essay film is really associated, for us, with figures who work with documentary in order to question the role of images and sounds, such as: Chris Marker, who made Sans Soleil in 1983; Harun Faroki, who’s been making films such as Images of the World and The Inscription of War since the ’60s; and the Black Audio Film Collective, who made Handsworth Songs in 1986. These are the figures who we admire and who we learn from, and our films are modest attempts to continue in that tradition.

Otolith I is clearly indebted to the thinking of Chris Marker and the Black Audio Film Collective, and it was essential for us to foreground that. When people point that out, we note it as deliberate and necessary to state your formation and your aesthetic coordinates. Otolith I comes from that tradition and is explicitly made in relation to that tradition; it is an explicit attempt to update that tradition for that particular conjucture of 2003, which impressed itself on us so much.

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Otolith II, 2007 (still); video; 47:42. Courtesy of the Otolith Group and LUX, London.

PM: There are two other films that are a part of this trilogy: Otolith II and Otolith III. Is the structure in the first film—of mediated images creating a poetic resonance and a sense of distribution and direction—the same structure that informs the subsequent films?

KE: Otolith II feels very different because the emphasis is much more on pressure rather than on weightlessness. There’s the attempt to imagine the inhabitation of extreme fields of force. This is evoked through a series of parallel comparisons between a particular area within Mumbai called Dharavi, which is what Mike Davis would call a megaslum and Chandigarh, which is a planned city designed in the ’50s by Le Corbusier around the same time that Oscar Niemeyer was planning Brazilia in Brazil. There’s a comparison between these cities and between the kinds of pressures that people live under, and the idea of studying inhabitation and density is linked to a question of futurity. Otolith II is longer than Otolith I and has long sequences that are based on duration and endurance, on fatigue and exhaustion.

PM: This sounds like you’re describing the bends: the idea of going from a state of weightlessness and returning to normal atmospheric conditions, coming up from the deep or

 

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Hear the full interview on Bad at Sports: Episode 335 

PM (cont.): returning to Earth, and the resulting physical pressure and fatigue if one does that too quickly.

KE: Yeah, that’s a very good way of putting it. I think the idea is: if you want to understand the future of the city, and if you want to understand what the humans who inhabit those cities of the future will look like, then you should look to those areas that are called slums. Those areas are not remnants to be improved upon; they are what the future will look like.

By 2050, the planet will have reached its maximum population of between 10.5 to 12.5 billion people, and the majority of the people will live in the cities in the global south. If we want to understand the future of 2050, then we should look at slums now. The question [about that future] is one of inhabitation and of mutation. It’s a question of what that inhabitation allows humans to become.

 I would categorize Otolith II in terms of mutation. Otolith I is also interested in mutation, in the sense that people who grew up in microgravity would be different from us. Then Otolith III is quite different again. It is much more concerned about the unfinished and the unmade and about the potentiality of the unmade.

It concerns a screenplay written by the director Satyajit Ray in 1967, a screenplay for a science-fiction film called The Alien about a spaceship that lands in a Bengali village and how a benevolent alien befriends a lonely boy who lives in this village. This plot is very similar to E.T., of course, which was [made] fifteen years later. In a sense, Ray invented the notion of a samaritan alien fifteen years ahead of Spielberg.

Otolith III does not remake this unmade film, but [we] speculate on the conditions of its unmadeness by creating what we call a five-sided film, in which each character of this unmade film narrates [his or her] version of what it means to be in an unmade film and what it means to have a kind of nonexistent existence. So, you get quite a complex structure, in which the film continually imagines what it might be. But in fact, the film is not any of the things it imagines itself to be. In a sense, there’s no film at all. There’s a series of hypotheses and a series of propositions about what that film might be, but there is no film as such. There are simply proposals for that film.

The other end of Otolith III is this continuous investigation of what an encounter with the alien might be, what an encounter with the limit might be. E.T. is an example of Hollywood presenting the alien as a body and a face that recognizes the human and confirms the human. In fact, it restores the notion of the alien to a notion of family because, of course, E.T. wants to return home. It domesticates the shattering encounter with the limit, which is what an encounter with something truly alien would be. In E.T., this experience is turned into a notion of reconstruction and restoration. Otolith III looks at different versions of what it might be to encounter an alien and, more specifically, the visual languages we use to understand an encounter with the limit. What it concludes is that abstraction—geometric abstraction, gestural abstraction, biomorphic abstraction—is a way of confronting and making visible this limit.

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Otolith I, 2003 (still); video; 22:25. Courtesy of the Otolith Group and LUX, London.

PM: It sounds as if each of these films deals with limits, particularly in terms of interpersonal relationships: Thinking of the concept of the slum as a highly congested form of habitation and the inability, perhaps, to differentiate one individual’s space from another’s. Thinking, as well, of the confrontation with the alien form as arriving at the limit of comprehension of what it means to be human. And thinking, in the first film, of the inability to actually engage via direct lineage with one’s point of origin.

KE: [Our] attempt is always to categorize the powers of what an image can do—to create an image of the limits of an image and of a sound that confronts the incapacities of a sound. We have a questioning attitude towards what it is we think images and sounds can do. But we’re not iconoclasts, in the sense that we [don’t] want to destroy images and sounds. We don’t want to give up on documentary or montage, but we need to question them while simultaneously holding on to them. So, you get these moments of discontent with the roles of images and sounds when it comes to representing political questions in a moment of political urgency.

Images and sounds tend to function in very specific ways. They have to convey news that is urgent, and they have to be clear, direct, and accessible. And part of our argument is that it’s exactly at the points of political urgency that you have to resist the urge to be direct and to be clear. You have to argue for what’s nonlinear and for work whose relation to political crisis doesn’t seem immediate, especially in a moment where social media operates. Social media tries to collapse the distance between here and elsewhere. It tries to be present at events, whereas we believe in re-presentation and the paradoxes of re-presentation, which means resisting this attempt to [be] present and creating nonlinear relations to political crisis. If we exist in the middle of a crisis, the way to understand this crisis may well be to link it to events that seem far removed in time and place from the present. We think the video essay and the essay film tradition offer methods for connecting different times and different spaces, different images and different sounds, so that we can understand our present in a way that’s distinct from that of the news and from social media.

PM: How do you determine those events that are at a historical or temporal remove from the present but will create that comprehension of the present?

KE: It depends. For example, last year we made a film called Hydra Decapita. This was the beginning of a trilogy that looked at the relationship between financial capitalism and death through the Atlantic slave trade. We focused on a case in 1781 in which a slave ship called the Zong was traveling from Jamaica to Liverpool, England, with a cargo of Africans. The ship became lost and the captain decided to throw 133 slaves overboard—to murder them all—and then to claim the insurance for the loss of that cargo. The case came to trial in 1783, but it was not a case of murder; it was a case of two competing claims about insurance. This moment [in which] the regime of justification of economics trumps questions of atrocity becomes, for us, a case study of how financial capitalism operates.

Hydra Decapita is a way of connecting this historical atrocity to the present of financial capitalism via a few other roots. We link the 1781 atrocity to J.M.W. Turner’s painting, The Slave Ship from 1840, which attempts to visualize this atrocity. Then we link that to John Ruskin’s 1843 text from Modern Painters, volume I, in which he talks about Turner’s methodology for painting water, and he refers to this painting.

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Hydra Decapita, 2010 (still); high-definition video; 32 minutes. Courtesy of the Otolith Group and LUX, London.

KE (cont.): So, you have this constellation of dates, and finally you have the Detroit electro group Drexciya, which from 1992 to 2002 created a series of albums that were set in this underwater kingdom called Drexciya. This kingdom was populated by the children of slaves who had been thrown overboard during the Middle Passage. [In] this science fiction, the female slaves who were thrown overboard did not die but gave birth to children who could breathe underwater.

We constructed a relation between these elements. Visually, the film is extremely monochromatic. It’s also based on singing, so you get a film that has a desolate eeriness to it. And all of this is our way of trying to apprehend abstraction. The idea is that financial capitalism works through abstract processes that nonetheless have real effects, which means that our language, aesthetically speaking, has to become as abstract as reality itself. It also relates to the point that I made earlier, about constructing nonlinear relations to the present.

PM: It sounds as if mutation is a vehicle for constructing these nonlinear relationships so that the point of origin is no longer discernible, and the sense of purpose is no longer distinct or has evolved—both literally, like the slave descendants who are able to survive underwater, and metaphorically, like the image of Turner’s painting going through all of these different shifts and permutations so that one can’t fix on its essence or its actuality.

KE: We have a continuous interest in mutation, both as a methodology and as a way of thinking about how humans become other than human—ways of thinking about what it means to be post-human. Our relation to atomic [energy], to electronics, to chemistry: these are real forces in the world that have real implications for the kind of changing outline of the figure of the human.

Mutation has for us various registers. It’s both historical and aesthetic. It’s methodological and it’s anthropological. It’s ontological and it’s political. And it allows us to move between registers. Whereas in the ’90s, people might have narrated this in terms of identity, we prefer to narrate it in terms of mutation.

PM: I want to switch gears and talk about your background because you studied film theory. How does that inform the work that you do and the expansiveness of the work that you and Anjalika do together as this collective, that at its core it’s invested in discourse rather than objects?

KE: I studied literature and then philosophy and then finally film theory, and Anjalika studied anthropology, Hindi, and fine arts. I think [our] different trainings [led us to] the sense that theorization—the self-conscious desire to formulate interpretations and to formulate educational models of what film can be and what it might be—is crucial to what we do.

The way in which we arrange a space of discourse is quite simple because what we’re interested in is leaving the space open to create complex textures of thinking. This means the space has to be quite reduced and quite simple. And there are relations to the filmmaking practice, but they are oblique relations; they’re not direct. There have been films—and we’ve observed them—where the films themselves are documents of discourse. The films themselves stage the discursive space. But not all films have this direct relation.You can’t see the images and sounds that make up this discourse in our films in any direct or illustrational way.

Instead, what you see is this continuous questioning. The films have to take a lot of things away in order to foreground their questioning of their capacity to represent. And this is what we foreground continuously, this questioning process, and our attempt is to find a new form for this each time, a form that is specific to the project. So, this means that each work ends up looking quite distinct from the work before it because the questions that we ask take on very different forms.

 

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Kodwo Eshun is a British-Ghanaian writer, theorist, and filmmaker. He studied English Literature (BA Honors, MA Honors) at University College, Oxford University, and Romanticism and Modernism (MA Honors) at Southampton University. He is currently the course leader of the MA program in Aural and Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar have been collaborating as the Otolith Group since 2002. The London-based Otolith Group integrates film and video making, artist’s writing, workshops, exhibition curation, publication, and developing public platforms for the close readings of the image in contemporary society. The Otolith Group’s work is formally engaged with research-led projects exploring the legacies and potentialities of artist-led proposals around the document and the essay film, the archive, the aural and sonic mediums, speculative futures, and science fiction.

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