A Way Into the Fu­ture: Op­tics of Cru­elty

Domus - - CONTENTS - Text by Christo­pher Pin­ney Pho­tos by Ronny Sen

A re­cent ex­hi­bi­tion by pho­tog­ra­pher Ronny Sen fea­tures im­ages of the coal fire that has been burn­ing in Jharia — a coal-min­ing town in Jhark­hand — since the early 1900s, as well as the un­eth­i­cal and un­sus­tain­able min­ing prac­tices that con­tinue in the area till to­day. The artist looks deeply into the cur­rent is­sue of en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion that has made life al­most un­live­able in some parts of the world

The Jharia coal­fire, the sub­ject of Ronny Sen’s se­ries Fire Con­tin­uum has been burn­ing since 1916. Coal ex­trac­tion for cok­ing mills started in 1894 and by 1930, two 2600-feet deep shafts had col­lapsed as the re­sult of fire. Since then the fire has in­ex­orably spread out­wards and up­wards, pro­duc­ing the apoc­a­lyp­tic mise-en-scène for the per­for­mance of the tragedy that Ronny Sen evokes in his se­ries of im­ages, which in an ear­lier it­er­a­tion, and book pub­li­ca­tion, were given the sig­nif­i­cant ti­tle End of Time. The viewer of these ethe­real and dis­turb­ing im­ages, made in 2014, see­ing them in our cur­rent year of the un­fold­ing world­wide cli­mate emer­gency, will be left with a para­dox­i­cal sense of con­ti­nu­ity and in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion, of a cli­mac­teric which has been flash­ing warn­ing lights for many decades of, as the new ti­tle has it, a fire-con­tin­uum. This cen­tury-long his­tory an­nounces, then, an­other para­dox: time has not ended, for the burn­ing con­tin­ues in the coal­fields. End of Time an­nounces a para­dox akin to ‘post-apoc­a­lyp­tic’. There is no rup­ture, no ‘be­yond’ or sta­sis; there is con­ti­nu­ity. In­deed, one might think of this as the fruition of time, a cul­mi­na­tion of a long process. In Jharia, the cul­mi­na­tion en­tails the break­ing through to ground level of fires that have burned deep be­low for decades, a con­tin­uum be­tween the an­cient fos­silised en­ergy of coal and its now un­stop­pable con­fla­gra­tion. Glob­ally the cul­mi­na­tion is the fruit­ing of the an­thro­pocene with its wild­fires, record tem­per­a­tures, dust storms, bleach­ing coral, and parched earth. There is a third para­dox, some­thing highly un­usual, in us­ing pho­tog­ra­phy to record this tem­po­ral puz­zle. Pho­tog­ra­phy is usu­ally marked by the con­tin­gency of the tem­po­ral event of its mak­ing, the ‘there-then’ which leaves co­pi­ous time-spe­cific ev­i­dence in the ‘here now’ of our view­ing of the im­age, a dou­ble tem­po­ral­ity won­der­fully cap­tured in a cap­tion used by Roland Barthes to de­scribe a pho­to­graph of a soon-to-be-ex­e­cuted as­sas­sin: “He is dead and he is go­ing to die”. To this sense of the cam­era’s tem­po­ral speci­ficity we might add a ma­te­rial and spa­tial one: pho­tog­ra­phy usu­ally pro­vides a math­e­mat­i­cally and op­ti­cally or­dered ‘screen’ in which off-screen space can be as im­por­tant as what is shown. Pho­tog­ra­phy thus, com­monly in­volves a man­i­fes­ta­tion, or ma­te­ri­al­i­sa­tion, a con­crete­ness of time and space. And yet what Ronny Sen of­fers is a not the doc­u­men­ta­tion of the pre­cise mo­ment when time ends but a sense of the end­less­ness of a time that has un­rav­elled, a time that has un-moored it­self from or­di­nary events and du­ra­tion, a time that is no longer con­nected in ob­vi­ous ma­te­rial ways to the space in which it un­folds. This helps make sense of one of the key fea­tures of Fire Con­tin­uum: its ‘re­fusal’ of the con­ven­tional de­fault set­tings of pho­tog­ra­phy, es­pe­cially of its op­ti­cal acu­ity and sense of spa­tial an­chor­age. In part this re­flects the na­ture of the dis­as­ter: the fires are so ex­ten­sive that they dis­or­der and re-sculpt land­scapes hour-by-hour. There is no sta­ble to­pog­ra­phy for the cam­era to record: the co-or­di­nates are al­ways on the move. There is some­thing pe­cu­liarly dream-like about this se­quence. Not ob­vi­ously night­mar­ish (al­though it is clearly hor­ri­fy­ing) be­cause that would too re­duc­tive. It is, rather, de­lib­er­ately and de­ci­sively oneiric, ca­pa­cious and open, show­ing how im­ages might per­form when no longer im­pris­oned in spe­cific times and places, and when no longer re­quired to pre­cisely sig­nify. The Jharia land­scape in Fire Con­tin­uum is ab­stract, al­le­gor­i­cal, like the modernist stag­ing of a Greek Tragedy, or a Brechtian dra­maturgy that knows that less is more. The con­tin­gency and speci­ficity of pho­tog­ra­phy that is sur­ren­dered in Fire Con­tin­uum gives way to what Aris­to­tle in the Poet­ics called Op­sis. Op­sis was first used by Aris­to­tle to de­note the “fi­nal el­e­ment of tragedy”. Op­sis, in Aris­to­tle’s very brief treat­ment of it, sug­gests the role of masks and other vis­ual ef­fects de­ployed in the ser­vice of the ob­ject of the drama in front of a bare stage. Op­sis in­di­cates what was seen rather than what was ex­plained, and might be seen to pre­fig­ure Ly­otard’s distinc­tion be­tween ‘fig­ure’ and ‘dis­course’. Op­sis takes on a fuller life in An­tonin Ar­taud’s Theatre of Cru­elty, which pro­vides a model for think­ing fur­ther about End of Time. Ar­taud ap­pro­pri­ated two of Aris­to­tle’s six el­e­ments of Tragedy

and op­posed them to a third. Op­sis (spec­ta­cle) and Me­los (sound) - which for Aris­to­tle were the two least im­por­tant as­pects of Tragedy -were op­posed to Lexis (lan­guage). Ef­fi­cacy was re­lo­cated away from ‘mean­ing’ and ‘plot’ to­wards some­thing more el­e­men­tal and per­for­ma­tive. Ar­taud, used ges­ture, im­age, sound and light­ing, to shock his au­di­ence, be­liev­ing that al­le­gory was more pow­er­ful than what he termed the “lu­cidi­ties of speech”. “That is why” Ar­taud wrote in a sem­i­nal text of the 1930s “in the ‘theatre of cru­elty’ the spec­ta­tor is in the mid­dle and the spec­ta­cle sur­rounds him. In this spec­ta­cle, sound ef­fects are con­stant: sounds, noises, cries are cho­sen first for their vi­bra­tory qual­ity, then for what they rep­re­sent”. Jharia abounds with Ar­tau­dian ef­fects such as the deaf­en­ing warn­ing sirens that an­nounce blast­ing be­fore the land­scape erupts as young coal-pick­ers des­per­ately flee from the show­er­ing rocks that pound the ground around them. This pre­car­ity with­out aprent nar­ra­tive or ‘plot’. Ac­cord­ingly, Fire Con­tin­uum aims not for mere rep­re­sen­ta­tion, not for the ma­te­rial tem­po­ral and spa­tial co-or­di­nates of Jharia, but for some “vi­bra­tory qual­ity”, like an emer­gency siren, lo­cated in an­other plane. The ear­lier, al­ter­na­tive ti­tle for this se­ries, End of Time puts me in mind of the kaliyuga, the present era of de­cayed and apoc­a­lyp­tic moder­nity. I say this not be­cause I want to lazily fit (in an Ori­en­tal­is­ing or es­sen­tial­is­ing spirit) the work of an In­dian pho­tog­ra­pher con­cerned with time to some hand-me-down lo­cal cul­tural the­ory, but be­cause the ques­tion of time, in­dus­try, fire, and the ‘end’, are all very fa­mil­iar con­cepts from my first at­tempt to con­duct field­work in a heav­ily pol­luted in­dus­trial town in Mad­hya Pradesh. In that lo­ca­tion the San­skritic con­cept of kaliyuga was com­monly ver­nac­u­larised as ka­lyug, the yug of ma­chin­ery and in­dus­try. It was in­ti­mately linked to the ex­ploita­tion of the earth and in­volved vi­sions of fire, smoke, death, and the end of cur­rent time. Ka­lyug seems an ap­po­site con­cept with which to un­pick Sen’s se­ries be­cause of this echo­ing con­stel­la­tion of ideas about an in­dus­trial ex­ploita­tion gone bad. But its also res­onates through its imag­i­na­tion of time be­cause al­though hav­ing a very pre­cise tem­po­ral limit (it will end with pralay, the dis­so­lu­tion of the world in 427,000 years time) in prac­tice it is the only time in which liv­ing hu­mans have ever lived and will live. It is the fi­nal el­e­ment in a four-part the­ory of what is for­mally ‘cycli­cal time’ but which, in prac­tice, is avowedly lin­ear. The ex­pe­ri­ence of ka­lyug is akin to that of an ant travers­ing a vast globe: from a the­o­ret­i­cal dis­tance it is cycli­cal, but sub­jec­tively it is lin­ear, and end­less. Look­ing back and forth over the translu­cent, al­most ar­che­typal and em­blem­at­i­cal im­ages of this ex­tra­or­di­nary cruel and vis­cous land­scape, one is stopped short, al­most with a jolt by a (to my eyes) sar­donic pho­to­graph near the be­gin­ning of the se­ries that de­picts a white Hin­dus­tan Am­bas­sador at the ab­so­lute cen­tre of a dead, heavy, land­scape. Sen ex­plains that this car, used by mine of­fi­cials, would ar­rive each morn­ing at 10am and its pres­ence would cause the coal pick­ers who start scav­eng­ing from 4:30am to scat­ter. The white car sym­bol­ised the babus, those who had ru­ined the land­scape and who still had the power to make things even worse for those forced to sub­sist within it. Many view­ers are likely to think of the red Am­bas­sador that fea­tured in Raghu­bir Singh’s cel­e­brated A Way Into In­dia. Singh’s car was both a lit­eral ve­hi­cle, a means of trav­el­ling into the ter­rain he was in­ves­ti­gat­ing but also be­came a fram­ing de­vice whose doors, win­dows and mir­rors be­came props in the pic­tur­ing of In­dia. The ar­chi­tec­ture of the car be­came a means of seg­ment­ing, frac­tur­ing, and vis­ually du­pli­cat­ing el­e­ments with his pho­tographs: a way of see­ing. A Way Into In­dia was per­haps quin­tes­sen­tial Raghu­bir Singh, de­ploy­ing a su­per­fi­cial mod­ernism to de­liver im­ages which, while not sim­ply a tourist itin­er­ary, were nev­er­the­less pop­u­lated with many ex­otic plea­sures. The lonely white Am­bas­sador in Ronny Sen’s se­ries helps us un­der­stand that his ac­com­plish­ment is not so much to pro­vide a way into Jharia, since his im­ages eschew the spe­cific tem­po­ral and spa­tial pre­ci­sion of much pho­tog­ra­phy. He clearly uses his cam­era to pro­vide a dif­fer­ent path­way, a way into the fu­ture, which is not only In­dia’s, a fu­ture that has al­ready be­gun, and which has no end.

The ex­pe­ri­ence of ka­lyug is akin to that of an ant travers­ing a vast globe: from a the­o­ret­i­cal dis­tance it is cycli­cal, but sub­jec­tively it is lin­ear, and end­less

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