Raqs Media Collective, Artistic Director of Yokohama Triennale 2020
In the days of analog television, when broadcast signals went off-air, we would stare at what was called ‘white noise’ on our TV screens. There was a strange comfort in getting lost in this white noise. It was possible to see and imagine anything and everything in its psychedelic minimalism.
The electronic noise was a sort of ephemeral optic chimera, and we looked in it for patterns, and saw ghosts. This dysfunctional screen became a kind of window onto a haunted landscape.
What we did not know then was that in every patch of analog television, white noise contains a fraction of cosmic microwave background radiation left over from the Big Bang. We did not know that what we were viewing had emanated at the beginning of time. Every explosion leaks a glowing residue, an afterglow, or a sign that manifests itself especially in the moment when the signal goes out.
The universe explodes all the time. Primeval explosions still relay their shock waves, setting off echoing sub-explosions, each with their own bit of radioactive charge. Sunbursts induce some coral species to react to the toxicity of the sun’s ultraviolet waves. In return, they emit their own bits of photo-protective bio-florescence—beautiful luminous patterns that end up illuminating, caring for, and protecting the organism from stressful solar radiation.
Some day, some astro-biologists would think, that this signature of bio-florescence could guide us to understand alien forms of life in exo-planets exposed to the harsh solar radiation of their own gigantic suns. Corals, anchored in the Earth’s ocean floor lighting up in conversation with our distant Sun, make it possible for us to investigate the nature of life in other worlds, with their suns.
Life, the universe, the world, and the time of each day disintegrate and get re-constituted through innumerable acts, incrementally re-building through luminous care. Broken minutes are mended in the afterglow of time’s toxic debris.
Life is a luminous autodidact.
On a rainy June afternoon in 2007, Nishikawa Kimitsu—a 67-year-old itinerant casual worker, a ‘day labourer’ who lived in cheap bedsits in Yokohama’s Kotobuki neighbourhood, earning a living mainly as a longshoreman in the Yokohama docks— looked up at the clouded sky and laughed a big laugh as he spoke to the anthropologist, Tom Gill. This is what he said:
The cosmic egg in the diagram is an idea I took from Deleuze and Guattari. We get born from the cosmic egg but remain immature; we suffer and go training for ten, twenty or thirty years, and then we have a second birth! Although there are some people who achieve enlightenment as soon as they’re born… . In my own case, I haven’t got there yet. … We are part of the universe, but at the same time we are creating the universe.
As a proletarian sage, a philosopher of the dockyards, Nishikawa offers us an immense source of auto-didacticism, and of a confident transversal
consciousness born and anchored in the streets of Yokohama.
Nishikawa’s legacy becomes a ‘source’ for us. A ‘source’ is a point of reference; a cluster of concentrated acts, materials, and traces rich in metaphor and investigative clues. Here, the ‘source’ gives us the energy of self-enquiry and examination, as well as of learning through an intense scavenging of cultural and intellectual material around us, and a process of awakening, without masters.
Sources enable the making of a non-rivalrous, egalitarian stance between various arcs, visions, and utterances, and allow for them to play with, and infect each other.
Sources attract other sources, and build itineraries of travel, of movement, of shifts in emphasis, of minor variations and major modulations.
In today’s vari-axial world, this makes for an open-ended field of interpretation and a collision of dispositions. We have found that engines of creation and excavation can be produced through a layering of sources, and a thickening of their itineraries, during the long deliberative process of making of a triennial.
We offer distant and proximate viewers, listeners, and readers of the 7th Yokohama Triennale in 2020 an array of sources. These are drawn from different periods, cultural milieus, and geographies, and are written by individuals and collectivities that have cared for life. These combine a patchwork of sparks and incandescence that can illuminate the journey that artists and co-travellers are embarking upon. The sources guide, inform, inspire, and riddle our conversations with artists, curators, writers, and everyone else interested in this specific journey. They act as catalysts that provoke us to think, to ignite, to learn, and unlearn.
Over a hundred years ago, a woman named Hariprabha Mallik left a village in eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh) to accompany a foreigner, the man she had fallen in love with, an itinerant merchant named Takeda. She sailed with him to Japan and found herself in a new world, which surprised and delighted her. She knew next to no Japanese and at first could only communicate in silence. Her encounters with the family and friends of the man she had travelled half the world to be with, left a mark on her. To us, they seem lit by a light of a woman teaching herself to become a part of a new world.
A friend, the artist and philosopher Svetlana Boym, wrote about a kind of light in her essay “Scenography of Friendship”:
… In circumstances of extremity, the illuminations do not come from philosophical concepts but from the ‘uncertain, flickering and often weak light’ that men and women kindle and shed over the lifespan given to them. This luminous space where ‛men and women come out of their origins and reflect each other’s sparks’ is the space of humaneness and friendship that sheds light on the world of appearances we inhabit. In other words, friendship is not about having everything illuminated or obscured, but about conspiring and playing with shadows. Its goal is not enlightenment but luminosity, not a quest for the blinding truth but only for occasional lucidity and honesty
One by one many people came to meet us. Young or old, they took off their hats, sat on folded knees and bowed to each other in greetings. They introduced themselves, greeted each other, asked about our health, gave thanks and expressed their joy at meeting us. At each exchange of question and answer, it was expected to bow three or four times to each other. Since I knew no Japanese, I bowed silently.
If you do not know how to say something to a stranger, you can still glow, as one does sweating after a day’s labour, or even just share your shadow with them, creating an outline of light in the narrow space where your shadow just shies away from meeting theirs.
A form of knowledge grows out of the jostling of untranslatable experiences.
In the Middle Ages there is a traffic of ideas, images, stories, and concepts between South, Western and Central Asia and China, Korea, Japan.
It is carried by itinerant autodidacts—monks, heterodox thinkers, merchants, sailors, pilgrims, fugitives, and slaves.
A description –
of rare events, an account of their signs, and how to repulse them;
of elephants, their death in the state of rut, their conditions and their diseases;
of music, the melodies, modes, and 108 rhythms, and their merits and demerits;
of the mystical journey, meditation, ecstasies, miracles and fourteen houses given by the Sufis.
Nujūm al-‘ulūm (Stars of the Sciences), a 16th century astronomy manual from the kingdom of Bijapur in South India, proposes star-gazing as a form of medicine for the care of friends. The text takes its bearings from a mélange of concepts and practices that originate in Indic, Arabic, Persianate, Turkic, and Semitic bodies of working knowledge.
of sowing seed and gardening, of the eastern wind and medicines for pests caused by it;
of the medical sciences, diseases, ailments, and a description of simple and compound medicines and their causes;
of Indian and Khurasani exercises of wrestling, its tricks, and their modes and manners.
Terms to illuminate the night sky of Southern India emanate from the vocabularies of Hind, Khurasan, Uighur culture, Turkestan, Arabia, Ancient Greece, and elsewhere. They branch out and cross-fertilize, creating concepts as they move and proliferate. Spells and formulae are glossed in Sanskrit, Turkish, Telangi, and Farangi. They are not always translated, but always glossed into an expanding glossolalia of concepts.
of fireworks and the various sorts and the ways of making them;
of making perfumes, the methods of it and the varieties and kinds of it.
From star-gazing almanacs to writing systems, we can see a world illuminate its distant corners through the intrinsic and pervasive energies of heterogeneous absorption. Acts that bridge vast distances have enormous and lasting significances. The “Table of Contents” of this remarkable text is an atlas of a universe that knows no internal or external boundaries of the knowable and the imagined.
of the interpretation of dreams and a description of true and false dreams.
In the expansive universe of Nujūm al-‘ulūm, there is nothing so big or proximate that it is also not simultaneously small or distant in relation
to something else. There is an acceptance of a delicate web of actions. Every creative act, every inquiry can be a source of transformation; every transformation describes a moment that can inform a deliberation.
of poetic metre, rhythms, and whatever is connected to poetry;
of fables and romances;
of tools and instruments of the crafts of traders and artisans.
There are no predetermined hierarchies that dictate which mode of practice, which form of thinking, which cultural or historical provenance is of lesser of greater significance. Everyone who shares what she knows, or is curious about what he does not know, can be a friend, and can care for friends.
Shimomura Osamu was a sixteen-year-old living in the outskirts of Nagasaki when the atomic bomb dropped on the city in August 1945. He could never forget the blinding flash of the explosion, and recalls losing his vision temporarily. He found a way to think about the relationship between light and life for the rest of his life, and went on to research bioluminescence, the light that glows in living things. He started studying organic chemistry, researching the luminescence of a kind of shrimp known in Japan as umi-hotaru or ‘sea-firefly’.
It is advisable to seek the advice and help of biologists, oceanographers, fishermen … .
Shimomura’s most important discoveries came later, and were made with the help of ten thousand jellyfish, each of which he studied carefully. It is not surprising he advocated friendship with fishermen.
His research on Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), a genetic marker of bioluminescence that he isolated in Aequorea victoria, or the Crystal Jellyfish, found a practical application in the development of a method of indexing levels of toxicity and pollution in water bodies through the ‘expression’ provided by ‘reporter genes’. The creatures who were ‘transfected’ with the ‘reporter genes’ became expressive, as in they could be stimulated to ‘glow’ in response to the presence of toxic materials. This technique, harmless in itself, became a bio-sensor, a living reporter and vital tool in the maintenance of the health of aquatic ecosystems.
Corals glow to counter the poison of ultraviolet radiation, and crystalline jellyfish are harvested for ‘reporter genes’ to help detect toxicity: There is a connection between the luminous and the toxic.
Nothing that does not live need be concerned with a toxin. The conditions that enable living cells to grow are accompanied by the circumstances that cause their decay. The environment, internal drive, or external stimuli that causes decay to outpace or arrest growth gets called toxicity. It can be poison, it can be pollution, it can be a cure, it can be waste, and it can be runaway growth.
Toxins also become the foundation of the systematization of exclusion and hierarchy. We can learn not to repeat Indic civilization’s profound non-thinking on the relation of toxins and life that has carried on—and carries on still—for thousands of years. Toxicity has been made a burden that must be borne by a large number of people, while a few can keep themselves pure. The difficult task of keeping the biosphere clean of stench and of the poison that arises from faecal or dead matter was thus partitioned. The handling of death, of infectious disease, of human and animal waste, and of the residues of production was not for people with time, power, and wealth.
The sharing of shadows was extinguished.
The care of life and the care of self are not possible without care with toxicity. We have to think about our sickness, our offal, and our residues of the cycles of consumption and production without cruel partition, masked as destiny. Each hillock of refuse on the outskirts of a city represents a demand made by the present on the future, with no promise of recompense, until the archaeologists come calling. The splitting of the luminosity of care from the shadows of the toxic is detrimental to the future of life on this planet.
A mysterious effect of the meltdown of a nuclear reactor is a sensation of glowing light that can be experienced by human beings but cannot be seen in front of one’s eyes. This is attributable to a phenomenon known as Čerenkov Radiation, in which particles that can travel faster than light are emitted by a nuclear meltdown or a ‘criticality incident’. These particles interact with the liquid in the vitreous humor of the human eye to create a ‘blue glow’ that can be ‘experienced’ internally by the optic nerve and transmitted as a sensation of light to the brain, without being ‘seen’ as an externally observable optical phenomenon because these particles move faster than light. It is as if the eye were sensing a light, out there, in front of it, that was nevertheless not ‘in’ the environment of the human witnesses. The same thing can happen to astronauts exposed to solar radiation, which is emission from nuclear explosions that are constantly happening in the sun in outer space.
This glow, beautiful though it is, is also a marker of toxic radioactivity that is experienced as a vision. This hostly, spectral glow is said to have been experienced by people who worked in the Fukushima Nuclear Plant in the aftermath of the nuclear accident. In our understanding, the toxicity of our time has to be encountered with a cultivation of this spectral glow. Artist try to sense this luminosity, its beauty and its danger, so that we can see the meltdown that is happening around us all the time and teach ourselves how to survive—and to thrive. We have to begin to think of life with toxicity, and with the self-knowledge that banishment is a folly.
A Bengali word antashira can be used to speak of an intrinsic flow and pervasiveness that creates a sensory layer which flows within our daily lives. Antashira is like the energy currents of the nervous system, like qi. It shapes life in all its extensibility. Today, the world needs to draw sustenance, inspiration, and strength from within varied antashira, our intrinsic-pervasive forces, that flow between all of us as we re-fashion relationships between the microcosm of singular lives, the connected life of the planet, and the macrocosm of the universe.
The Big Bang’s Playing on TV
Jack T. O’Malley-James and Lisa Kaltenegger, “Biofluorescent Worlds – II. Biological fluorescence induced by stellar UV Flares, a new temporal biosignature,” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 488, Issue 4 (October 2019), pp. 4530–4545.
Tom Gill, Yokohama Street Life: The Precarious Career of a Japanese Day Laborer [Asia World Series of Publications] (London: Lexington Books, 2015).
Svetlana Boym, “Scenography of Friendship,” Cabinet, Issue 36 “Friendship” (Winter 2009–2010). Online article: http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/36/boym.php
Hariprabha Takeda, Bongomohilar Japan Jatra (A Bengali Woman’s Voyage to Japan), first published in Dhaka, 1915. Reprinted by Sahitya Prakash Publishers, Dhaka, 1999. English translation from Bengali by Debjani Sengupta, commissioned for Yokohama Triennale 2020.
Emma Flatt, “The Authorship and Significance of the Nujūm al-‘ulūm: A Sixteenth-Century Astrological Encyclopedia from Bijapur,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 131, No. 2 (April–June 2011), pp. 223–244.
Osamu Shimomura, “Advice to Students Who are Interested in Studying the Chemistry of Bioluminescence,” Bioluminescence: Chemical Principles and Methods (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2006), pp. 375–378.
Raqs Media Collective, “The Equal Division of Toxicity,” Livemint (29 August, 2018). Online article: https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/JuxEvOeT79uyhy5q75DRbI/Raqs-Media-Collective-dreamsof-an-equal-division-of-toxicit.html
E.D. Clayton, Anomalies of Nuclear Criticality, Revision 6 (Washington: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, 2010).