Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Digital Dystopia: The Extra People

(c) Radhika Iyengar
Maren Sarenkov is a kindergarten teacher. She is waiting in line with 14 other people outside Florence Gould Hall in New York, to participate in Ant Hampton’s highly anticipated immersive performance, The Extra People. There is excitement in her voice when she exclaims, “I’m looking forward to completely forgetting myself, and just following what someone else tells me to do!”
The Extra People is a part of Art Hampton’s novel Autoteatro series, presented as part of the ninth annual Crossing the Line festival. A site-specific performance, it invites the members of an audience to assume the role of actors. Through a series of instructions, the participants execute given tasks, and the piece develops as they go along. They perform for themselves and for each other. In this work of experiential theater, the boundaries between the audience and the performer disintegrate.
Before you proceed, you are handed a piece of paper with a printed number from 1-15. For the next hour, this number is your sole identifier. Hands on the side, you form a queue with 14 others in ascending order and march inside. Each person is handed a set of headphones and a ‘hi-viz’ vest uniform. The fluorescent vest functions as a unifier; the participants merge into anonymity.
Photo Credit: Britt Hatzius
Through headphones, a child’s voice dictates instructions, telling you what you must perform in an enclosed theater setting. The voice seems foreign. It’s monotonous, opaque, and disturbingly fractured. You begin to wonder about its source, and the voice reveals: “There is no ‘I’ behind the voice.” It has been digitally manufactured.
Lucy Simic, a participant and a theater artist, finds the introduction of the synthetic voice fascinating. “I am curious about the choice of using a digital voice,” Simic says. “I believe Ant Hampton’s goal was to create an overall alienating effect, which is quite different from a previous show I saw of his which used recordings of human voices.”
The themes of conformity, alienation and post-apocalyptic worlds pulsate through Hampton’s piece. The first instruction the participants hear is a simple one: You must be seated in the theater within 90 seconds. When you enter, the space is dark, empty and still. Nervous and excited, you can barely see your feet as you scramble to find your seat. The voice continues to instruct with measured cadence. The instructions dictated are peculiar but precise: Act like you are asleep; raise your hand; stand up; and so on. As you perform the tasks assigned with abrupt, unrehearsed gestures, the lights go on.
Photo credit: Britt Hatzius
On the stage, the setting seems barren, ominous. Large sheets of white paper patterned with outlines of faceless people function as the backdrop. Across the floor, 15 unidentifiable human beings sit wrapped in ash-grey colored blankets. Suddenly, as though in a trance, they spring up and start twirling. You realize that they are wearing headphones and are following their own set of instructions. Rebecca J. Collier, a professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College, New York, recalls feeling a bit taken aback when she saw the people on stage. “I was surprised to see them, even though I knew they were going to be there,” she says. “I thought it was interesting to see the lines between performer and audience blur. It did feel like [I was] performing for them—when [I would] raise my hand and stand in my seat—and that they were performing for me.”
From shutting your eyelids and raising your hand abruptly in the air, to performing a momentary dervish-like twirl with your arms outstretched, head covered with a blanket—the orders are outlandish and absurd. But in order to be a part of Hampton’s “immersive experience,” you must follow them. You must listen, understand and perform. You must conform.
Participants go on stage and perform. Photo by Britt Hatzius.
How does it feel to have the freedom to think and act for yourself temporarily suspended? Sydney Viles, a pre-school teacher says she felt “mechanical and unthinking (sic) during the performance… but, I also enjoyed being relieved of my agency.”
Rebecca J. Collier felt the experience was therapeutic. “For me, it was kind of relaxing to be following instructions,” Collier says. “It took the pressure off worrying if I was doing the right thing.”
David Helbich, a 41-year-old artist from Brussels, says he felt “controlled to the point that I found it hard to concentrate on the experience.”
Perhaps what Hampton is subtly prodding us to think about is our increasing dependency on technology; of relying on it for guiding our actions and making up our minds. The synthetic voice is reminiscent of Apple’s Siri feature. Through The Extra People, Hampton is perhaps imagining a post-apocalyptic world where technology will instruct our movement and we will become mere numbers.
This piece was originally published on Columbia University's Arts and Culture Beat.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Stories from the Street

Kadrivel Chidambaram, or 'Sammy' as the New Yorkers know him, serves great South Indian food on 50th St West, Broadway. A man with an engineering degree, he settled in New York after his business in his hometown, Madras (India) collapsed. Now he makes lovely sambar vada and masala dosa for New Yorkers right outside the Time & Life Magazine building.

If you are in New York City and in the mood for some comfort food/home-made South Indian meal, stop by and pay Sammy a visit. He's really a sweetheart and will talk to anyone who lends him an ear!

{NYC, street diary, street food, street stories}

Friday, 7 August 2015

A Song for Eliot

So this is an old poem of mine that I discovered recently while revisiting a now defunct blog of mine. When I wrote this, I was going through a "O, i love T.S. Eliot" phase, and I had written this in absolute awe of the man. Cut to present, I've tweaked the original a bit. Hope it reads better, for it is now in my eyes, more complete. 


Winter mornings:
The stale smell of cigarette
and sky bruised purple.
I muffle, biting into your skin.

The morning groans
stretching its arms
across the sleepy city
Its breath pressing against filthy windows
and empty streets—
waking up in its own waking
to a handful of illicit love affairs

Promises crawl against one’s bare back
scratching against the skin like broken porcelain
searching for answers.

Time comes undone
like paint peeling off the walls
fragmenting from a whole
slipping into dark, nameless corners
and beautiful misery.

the streets linger on
walking, swerving, smoking, mulling
running, hiding, halting, waiting.

They whisper tales
of sinful nights
that walked
dressed in handsome winter coats
and big black hats
knocking on doors
waiting for someone
to welcome them in

When they leave
Emptiness slithers inside bedrooms
through filthy windows
left half-open

She reeks of pity
and stale cigarettes.

She moves
across crumpled bed sheets
and coils around my neck

I muffle, biting into her skin
waiting to come undone.


{poem, eliot, dreams, emptiness, love, note from a forgotten diary, heartaches, memory}

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

That Girl

There's something about a book and a girl reading it in a cafe. She appears to be distant; a mirage of the unattainable. She's smart at instinctively tucking herself in a corner, next to a beautiful French window, allowing the sunlight to fall on her face--not too much, just enough. Behind those reedy-framed spectacles {that'd probably leave behind a dimple on her nose} she hides, poring over her book. Her body is folded into a slouch and her head is tipped as she thumbs her way through the book with the grace of a hummingbird. You try to catch a glimpse of her bright, almond-shaped eyes that are set beautifully apart beneath a fringe that curtains her forehead. But she's far too occupied to respond to your telepathic advances.

She looks up only to order a mug of hot chocolate and requests the colour of the mug to be yellow. You wonder if someone is joining her. She looks at her watch, shrugs and returns to burying her nose into the book. Below the table, her toe dangles a misty-grey leather chappal with practiced precision. You wonder what she's reading--Science fiction? Epic wars? A self-help book? Biography on Lennon? 1984? The Shadow Lines? Chetan Bhagat? {You promptly erase the last option; she doesn't seem the half-girlfriend sort--you have far greater expectations from her, figuratively and literally}.

There is something about a girl reading a book, you tell yourself. But there is something else particularly about her. She seems to compose an air of remarkable self-assurance. The kinesics are there. Surely, she's charming and witty too. At cue, your mind drifts off to another world: you wonder what life would be like if the two of you were married. Would your mother get along? Would she get along with your dog, named Cat? You're almost down to considering the names of your kids--S and R {the alphabets would be determined by you, she could choose the names}.

With the sound of a door opening, the day-dream seems to be thrashed with a loud thud. A woman rushes in with the flame of golden sunlight behind her. "Kavita!" The woman shrieks. And the love of your life looks up, throws the book aside and leaps across to kiss her. They hold each other for considerable time and then kiss again.

You shrug and return to your lemonade. 

{stories, love, scribbles, books, literature, hot chocolate, tiny visual tales}

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Musings and Other Stuff

And time slips by
like a lover desperate to leave your bed
assuring you with promises that you will have all of him the next day

{musings and other stuff}

Saturday, 18 July 2015

AMY - The Documentary

Photograph by  Leslie Hasler
BAFTA-winning filmmaker, Asif Kapadia has crafted an interesting niche for himself. He’s gained an admirable momentum for producing stirring biopics about icons the world has loved and admired. Archival footage forms the backbone of his directorial language—ingeniously, he pieces together footage shot at varying points of time, to mold a narrative that is truthful and visceral in its account of retelling the icons’ story. His eccentric and arguably ground-breaking style has brought him much acclaim, celebrating him as one of the most gifted documentarians of contemporary times. With praiseworthy films like Senna and The Warrior under his belt, Asif now takes on the role of telling Amy Winehouse’s story.

For Amy, it was drama from the beginning—a tragic tale built for mass consumption. She had mastered the art of translating her grief, her romantic ruminations and her disappointments with men, into beautiful, haunting music that turned into Grammy-winning anthems overnight. Amy was an enigma—a seductive songstress with an absurd hairdo and a tiny frame, but a voice that could hit you like a cannon ball. The television and the tabloids transformed her into a dysfunctional goddess—crowds worshipped her, followed her, imitated her and fed on every morsel of information they could get a hold of through the media. As Nick Johnstone, author of Amy Amy Amy would go on to write, ‘Everyone wanted a piece of her.’

Through his documentary, Asif, like a relentless scalpel peels off layers of this larger-than-life persona to present the real Amy—the bruised, broken, utterly human Amy. The film takes you back to the starting point and maps her tragic trajectory. ‘You already know the ending,’ Asif says, ‘but you don’t know why that ending happened… the film tries to make you understand what happened in between for her to reach that point.’ I spoke to Asif about his stunning biopic (which released this July), on the musical superstar who burned out before she even began.

Photograph by Alex Lake
Before venturing out to make a biopic on Amy, what was the relationship that you shared with her? 
When I started making the film, I knew her songs, I knew her voice, I had the records, but I didn’t know her—I had never met her. I normally make films about subjects I don’t really know too much about; I learn on the journey. Now of course, I know a lot about her—I’ve seen so many of her incredible performances. What is interesting about her is that it’s not just the voice, it’s her writing. For me, the hardest thing ever is to write something that is original, emotional, personal, which has depth and humour. You will be surprised to know how funny and intelligent she is! When you meet her young, she is so different to the person who becomes famous. I think that was a big part of her journey. The more I sat down and watched her [footage], the more I learned about her and felt it was a story that needed to be told, because people have such a skewed idea of who she was, and there is so much more to her than just the voice.

How did you immerse yourself into her highly intense, glamorized world? Where did you begin? 
Well, I just started talking to people. I interviewed people: we would just sit down and have a chat; there was no agenda. I had a lot of questions, but I never got around to asking them. I would just let them talk, and through talking, one thing would lead to another. Most of the people I spoke to had been carrying a lot of pressure and pain inside of them and nobody had ever spoken to them. Since I was not a part of her story, because I was not connected to her life or was in the music business, they felt free to tell me what they really felt. It became almost like this therapeutic process for them. I interviewed over a 100 people. During those interviews, they would tell me, ‘Look, I have this video, I have this photograph, I have these phone messages’—and they’d share their memories [with me]. So the film is not only their interviews, but also the memories they have of Amy. They shared material that they held very close to themselves, and they trusted me enough to give me that material to put in the film. So the film is a construction of the material that I discovered as I was going around talking to people. In a way, this is a film within a film.

Amy was constantly followed—the cameras catapulted her into stardom, the cameras brought her fame, and it was this fame that unfortunately dictated her downfall. Now, it is the footage from these cameras that tell the world her story. 
Yeah, I mean the cameras are a big part of the story. When you see the film, you’ll realize that it starts off with the camera being friendly towards her— the videos are basically footage shot by her friends, her first manager, her boyfriend—you know, people who she knows and loves. However, slowly as you go along, her relationship with the camera becomes darker and in a way, more violent. You can see her becoming more and more afraid of the camera, because rather than friendly people filming her (and her filming herself a lot as well), there are people who are filming her to sell the footage. So it becomes paparazzi—you see people using the camera to humiliate her. So the camera, rather than being a friendly tool which helps you take a photograph and make a memory, becomes the very means of attacking her, and that’s very much a part of the movie experience.

Could you talk a bit about who Amy was as an adolescent? 
I would say that you just need to read the lyrics of her songs. The clue is already there—she’s talked about it all. It’s very hard to explain, because there are so many elements to her. So there is no one obvious answer. It’s her real life which is much more complex—family, friends, boyfriends, husbands, depression, drink, drugs, falling in love, being dumped by the one you love—so many things happened to her that created insecurities within her that manifested themselves in many ways. Then she became famous and was surrounded by people, and she wondered, ‘Are they here because they like me or because I’m rich and famous?’ And if you’re not sure of yourself, if you are not confident, then you don’t know whom to trust. So these were all issues that were intrinsic to her life.

The irony about biopics is that most of us already know the individual’s story. More importantly, we know how it’s going to end. In the case of AMY, we already know that the narrative has a sad ending. Was that a cause of worry? 
Well, that’s where the filmmaking comes in. Of course you already know the ending, but you don’t know why that ending happened. It is the beginning that is really important. You know that her story ends a certain way, but my questions always are, ‘Why did it happen? How did it happen?’ And that’s why I made the film, because it made no sense to me as to why someone would die that young in this day and age in front of our eyes? How was it possible? Why didn’t anyone do anything to stop it? So the film is really going backwards from that point. You already know the ending, but the film tries to make you understand what happened in between for her to reach that point. Amy’s life was very complicated—she was incredibly intelligent and complicated—so the film became my way of giving you enough of the back story to understand how things transpired.

This interview appeared in Platform Magazine's July/Aug 2015 Music Issue. 

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Rain and Earthworms

It's the beginning of the monsoons and I am looking outside my window. The drizzle seems to resemble the gentle sprinkling of caster sugar. The road wears a pale, melancholic look which is occasionally dotted by a few umbrellas scurrying about in anonymity. A motorbike skids by, making an annoying spattering sound. Suddenly the sky, as though it has slipped on a cape, seems dangerous and menacingly dark. Trees sway indecisively like a pendulum; the wind hisses through the leaves, swooping down and spiralling into a crazed dervish swirl, enveloping granules of dust and abandoned plastic bags.  

During the monsoons, my world shrinks, more or less, to the size of my apartment. It's a self-imposed exile that is characteristic of an adult life. Children behave in a manner contrary to thatthey lack the peculiar self-consciousness of playing in the rain that one learns as one ages. When I was a kid, I would head out the moment I heard a thunderous announcement. I would swoop down the dingy L-shaped staircase of my apartment building, sliding my palm across the dusty railing, shouting names of friends at each floor in the hope of an immediate congregation. The moment I'd reach the ground, I'd rush towards the open courtyard with my arms stretched out, my chin tipping upwards, my mouth open and my eyes shut.

I would squat near puddles and peer wide-eyed into the shallow pool to find an earthworm, or two, floating languidly. Imagination is a peculiar gift. In your head, its landscape is gigantic, fertile, sprawling. It's where mythical creatures and the fantastical reside. My friend had once whispered into my ear that earthworms were in fact, siblings of a great serpent, and if I ever harvested one from a muddy puddle and took it under my care, it would eventually grow into a huge serpent and would have magical powers. That I could travel to school riding a gigantic serpent was in itself quite a kick. Just the mere imagery of that would trigger off other certain fictions in my head, where I would end up imagining what it would be like ruling an empire of earthworms. It's a disgusting and rather stomach-churning thought, I know, but at the age of five, becoming the sovereign of a land, no matter how slithery or slimy your subjects are, is nothing short of an achievement.

So while other girls my age would burst into cacophonous shrieks, I remember dipping my fingers into the puddle to pick out a rotund earthworm that wriggled and wrestled to loosen my grip. It eventually succeeded and fell tepidly on the ground. A sense of pity [and defeat] washed over me and I let the poor chap crawl away. 

That was the time I conceded that ruling over a legion of crawlies was perhaps not the best idea.   

{monsoons, notes from childhood, memory}