Mriganka and Sonal also come from a contested region: the state of Assam in Northeast India. But their approach to art-making is completely different from Anomaa’s.
Mriganka: We aren’t doing it for society. We are doing it for ourselves.
They’ve had lots of opportunities to get their hands on footage of conflicts and riots – they’ve even used them in some of their films. But they’ve made a conscious decision to resist this desire from Delhi curators for “conflict tourism”  (a term that was devilishly difficult for the interpreters to translate and explain). They want to make art in Northeast India without exploitativeness, without sensationalism; an oddly revolutionary concept in itself.
Sonal: The most important purpose a work of art can have is to create a conversation between two people in a room.
That’s a quotation from a European art critic - can't remember which one now. These guys are big on philosophy: Desire Machine Collective’s name in fact comes from Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of humans as desiring machines.

The conventional career trajectory for educated Indians is to attend college in a big city (which both Sonal and Mriganka did), and then migrate there permanently (which they didn’t). But there are challenges to working in Assam, and the primary one is space. Pushed between the army and insurgency groups, there isn’t much space for artists.

However, the decline of the water transport industry has resulted in a whole lot of disused ferries on the river. And though the government wouldn’t provide a legal permit for Desire Machine to take one over, they didn’t do much to stop it happening either.

Hence the art space Periferry.
Mriganka: We grew up beside these ferries. This was not a romantic dream of escaping somewhere far away. It was the only space that was available to artists, musicians, different kinds of practitioners.
But of course the ferry feeds the imagination: it’s situated on the river, party to the flow of the water, the flow of the people, the overflow into the city during times of flooding. And of course this river connects the diverse communities of this corner of Asia, where China meets Myanmar meets Bhutan meets Bangladesh meets Nepal meets India: it’s Huang He, it’s Yamuna, it’s Brahmaputra.

Sonal quotes Argentinean philosophy.
Manuell Castells: The modern world is a space of flows.
Sonal quotes Greek philosophy.
Heraclitus: You can’t step in the same river twice.
Sonal and Mriganka thus try to reappropriate the flow, allowing the ferry to play multiple roles as dictated by their own whims and those of people around them. It’s served as an artists’ studio, a theatre, a music hall, a conference space, &c, &c.

Case #1: A resident artist who built a food spiral on the boat: he designed a structure using cheap local materials, i.e. bamboo, and was amazed when passers-by volunteered to help him haul it onto the gangplank. He stuffed it with soil and was going to plant it with vegetables when he realized there were already native plants’ seeds in the soil: now it functions as a living garden on the vessel, the bamboo poles hiding water purification systems collecting rainfall and channeling runoff into the river itself.

Case #2: A resident artist from Brussels who studied the use of traditional herbs, and conducted a workshop where participants from the region recalled old recipes they’d forgotten, now that buying food from the market is so much easier than foraging.

Case #3: After a workshop at premier Indian art school Santiniketan, 20 art students followed Mriganka and Sonal back to the city. They protested that they had no student program: the students went and created their own student program: practice as pedagogy. One of them installed non-functional taps all over the city as a protest over the lack of accessible running water: some of them resulted in 100-plus people queuing up behind them, waiting for nothing.
Mriganka: So at least it signifies the hope for water!
Case #4: One night, 20 musicians came and took over the ferry for a jamming session: they curated themselves.

Case #5: A theatre director tested out her work-in-progress here. There were road works happening near the docks, and the workers just came on board to watch.

Case #6: Desire Machine’s invitation of international intellectuals to create an global online dictionary for new words: utter erasure of national borders.

Case #7: Creating imaginary maps of the river. Creating real maps of the river.

Intriguing how they view the underdevelopment of the riverfront as a bonus, not a curse: another empty space for creation. And all this in a site of civil war.
Mriganka: In one way we didn’t directly work with conflict. We thought it didn’t exist. We just thought it was possible. 
But the river has a really murky future. India’s building dams all the time: they could brick up the Brahmaputra and displace all these communities – no local benefit either; the electricity generated wouldn’t be for the area, but for Delhi.
Mriganka and Sonal also popped in a few words about a video they made in Kashmir, again avoiding the obvious horror and focusing instead on the passage of time in an abandoned apartment. How time passes differently in these areas of conflict, because of underdevelopment. And a quote, from some other nameless critic, that one of them utters.
Desire Machine Collective: Trauma is timeless.


Leave a Reply