Review: art collective The Otolith Group creates 'a science fiction of the present'

Xenogenesis on view at Sharjah Art Foundation until February explores themes of alienation and looks at the world from an extraterrestrial perspective

The Otolith Group's 'O Horizon', 2018. A video installation on view at Xenogenesis, Sharjah Art Foundation, 2021. Photo: Shanavas Jamaluddin
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“At the very end, this experimental drummer called Charles Hayward, plays 16 musical instruments for six hours, creating all kinds of percussion from gongs to cow bells to darbukas. We told him to imagine sheep bells in Sardinia …”

Kodwo Eshun, one-half of the art collective The Otolith Group, which also comprises Anjalika Sagar, is describing the process behind a particularly mesmerising scene in their film, People to be Resembling (2012), currently showing as part of the exhibition Xenogenesis at Sharjah Art Foundation, featuring a selection of their work from 2011 to 2018.

In it, moving capoeira dancers are encapsulated between a close-up of two drumsticks. There’s a magical moment when the light hits and the black-and-white footage bleeds into colour, like a dancing rainbow of sound.

“We chose 12 different pieces of video footage to project on the drums and none of them worked, except for a Kathakali dancer and high-contrast footage of students performing capoeira. The drumsticks act as a screen. As Hayward drums, it’s like he is conducting the image,” Eshun says.

The Otolith Group's 'People to be Resembling', 2012. Installation view as part of Xenogenesis at Sharjah Art Foundation, 2021. Photo: Danko Stjepanovic

This video about the music group Codona is not developed through their music but rather, through language, modularity and movement. It incorporates different excerpts by American novelist and poet Gertrude Stein from her 1920s novel, The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family's Progress.

Stein writes about sameness and difference in iterations that are orated powerfully alongside archival imagery that include ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax’s documentations of folk music and dance across Asia and Africa.

“He created a notational system for bodily gestures,” Eshun explains. “We extracted the rotations, the moments in which someone turns on their heel, to create visual alliteration with other moments.”

Using double screens, the images mirror the text, which, in its various combinations, mirrors the music. The Otolith Group were inspired by Stein’s model of permutation and recombination in language.

“We are trying to conjugate photographs like Stein conjugated her grammatical tenses. The idea was to make music with the photographs with Stein as a combinatorial score,” Eshun says.

The Otolith Group’s large body of work often transmutes forms and genres. In People to be Resembling, literature, music, film and critical theory coalesce because of a quote by Stein (from Making of Americans) at the back of the Codona album cover. Their work is full of such strange synchronicities, which play out in different modes of narration and translation.

“These are not moving images but images that move,” says Eshun.

The Otolith Group in conversation with exhibition curator Annie Fletcher, left, at Hamdan Bin Mousa Square. Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, 2021. Photo: Shanavas Jamaluddin

The title of the exhibition, which was first presented at Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven in May 2019, comes from a trilogy of 1980s novels by African-American science fiction writer, Octavia Butler. A larger-than-life image of Butler takes up a wall in the foundation’s courtyard, presiding over the space like a digitally reproduced ghost. As does another luminary, the experimental musician and composer Julius Eastman, who was largely forgotten from the history of American avant-garde minimalist music.

Eastman died homeless and with just an album, Unjust Malaise, to his name. He is the subject of the potent The Third part of the Third Measure (2017), a film dramatising a speech Eastman gave at Northwestern University in 1980, when he introduced a controversial performance by three pianists. There he defended the titles of his compositions (using the N-word). There’s a political imperative in the work, the urgency of sacrificing everything for a point of view as a black musician in the LGBTQ community.

Butler’s writing is less of a narrative vehicle for The Otolith Group’s work, it is more of a feeling – with her sense of estrangement creating what they call a "science fiction of the present".

“I think the idea of willing estrangement, putting an aesthetic and a practice around it that fails to put representational value is what we were motivated by as a methodology and manifesto to the future,” Sagar says.

Artist-driven learning is a large component of the collective’s practice. Their film, O Horizon, on Rabindranath Tagore’s pan-Asian pedagogical practice that intersected between art, nature, dance and song, is screening outdoors. With seating in a semi-circle, it mimicks the way learning would happen at the Visva-Bharati school in West Bengal set up in 1921.

Elsewhere, they depict architectures that are meant to be tactile yet are alienating, such as From Left to Night (2015) mounted on tilted plinths, reflected in mirrors on the ceiling. These fluid landscapes of geometric forms are a reference to the liquid crystals that exist beneath our screens. It’s a sequel to the 2011 Anathema, which zooms in on 300 advertisements of flat screen TV, laptops and mobile phones as well as the intimacy of our devices. In surreal footage, black screens move backwards over highways while others seem to draw in human touch.

The work poses the question of what it might be like to grasp the human relationship with technology from an extraterrestrial perspective. “We think we know what we want from our screens, but we aren’t so clear on what our screens want from us. We are inverting the perspective,” Eshun says. The results are both compelling and distancing in their abstraction, from a drone image of a city at night to worm-like combustive microscopic vitamin C.

The Otolith Group's 'Who Does the Earth Think It Is?', 2014. An installation with scanned letters, wooden shelves and vinyl design as part of Xenogenesis at Sharjah Art Foundation, 2021. Photo: Shanavas Jamaluddin

Other eerie links are made between people who feel earthquakes coming in their bodies, cracks along vacant parking lots, the deepest underground points in Los Angeles (Medium Earth, 2013) and California’s Joshua Tree desert. This tectonically unstable landscape of the "seismic unconscious", as the artists put it, is one of two non-moving image works in the show, Who Does the Earth Think it Is? (2014) – a series of handwritten earthquake predictions and diagrams sent to the US Geological Survey Pasadena Field Office (1993-2007). As abstruse warnings on overlapping paper, they posit a certain psychic vernacular.

In sharp contrast to this ambiguity is the regimented Statecraft: An Incomplete Timeline of Independence (2014-2019), blocks of backlit inactive postage stamps commemorating African independence yet interrogating the idea of sovereignty and unity. This visual iconography, though comprising miniature parts, forms a sinister urban-like infrastructure that impressively wraps around the gallery.

A detail of The Otolith Group's 'Statecraft: An
Incomplete Timeline of Independence', 2014 – 2019 as part of Xenogenesis at Sharjah Art Foundation, 2021. Photo: Danko Stjepanovi

“There’s a 1928 essay by Walter Benjamin, called Stamp Shop, where he compares the colour of a complete sequence of stamps to the light of a strange sun,” says Eshun. This echoes the title of their video in the same space, In the Year of the Quiet Sun (2013). The film asks: “How to build a Pax Africana in a world threatened by a Pax Atomica?” It unravels as the demise of the pan-African dream of a United States of Africa, where colour is both a political and aesthetic tool in that all the footage and the tinting of each frame refers to the colours of the stamps and more insidious ramifications.

“It’s possible for bright colours to hide horror, especially in the stamps of DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo], that were issued while Patrice Lumumba was being murdered. The Congo stamps are a series of glorious flowers – more vivid the colour, the more the vividness evokes a hidden horror,” Eshun says.

As more layers unravel, the encounters with the work grow more strange and beyond recognition. This is an oeuvre that keeps unfolding, that never really ends. It places you in unworldliness. Pushing you to look at things from an alien, and alienating perspective, it’s what it would be like to see things as a fault line, a screen, a state.

Xenogenesis is on view until February 5 at Sharjah Art Foundation.

Updated: December 23, 2021, 4:35 AM