The Otolith Group talks to George Clark
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The Otolith Group talks to George Clark
Otolith I - The Otolith Group

Otolith I - The Otolith Group

George Clark talks to Anjalika Sagar & Kodwo Eshun – The Otolith Group -  following their exhibition at The Showroom, London, about the Otolith Trilogy, their exploration of history, politics and the essay film.

How did The Otolith Group come into being?

Anjalika: We met around 2000 – one of the things that brought us together was Chris Marker (La Jetée, Sans Soleil). When we first met we went to see all these great Chris Marker movies at the ICA. And the other thing that brought us together was Black Audio Film Collective. We both had known them ever since we were 18 or something. We were drawn together by the essay film.

The opportunity arose for us to make a proposal to do a project in zero gravity. And when we started to think about making that film we called ourselves The Otolith Group based on the ideas that we explored in Otolith I (2003). The idea of the Group just gathered momentum after that and all of our different strands of research began to come under the idea of the Otolith Group.

Kodwo: It was always going to be several intertwining practices and then the work somehow sits in the middle of all of that. It’s not enough just to make work after work – there are so many other things that films can do.

Once Otolith I came into existence, it allowed us to do all these other things. So there’s a long gap between Otolith I (2003) and Otolith II (2007), and those four years were taken up doing the Black Audio Film Collective project and publication. Doing that project gave what we do a back story, a significance and a kind of a lineage.

We were never so interested in the kind of Vito Acconci-esque, Bruce Nauman, kind of American post-minimalist art trajectory. And we weren’t so interested in Filmmakers’ Co-op tradition either. It was always this, what Nicole Brenez calls this high international documentary style, which is effectively the kind of experimental documentary or the left wing essay that was always our obsession. So that line that goes from Dziga Vertov through to Chris Marker through to Black Audio Film Collective through to Harun Farocki. Programming films and making exhibitions was a way also of situating ourselves within that.

I think the essay film functions especially well for people who come to film from outside film. Anjalika comes to film from anthropology and I come to film from film theory and literature. I think it suits people like that, of whom there are quite a few it turns out.

How did the experience in microgravity and the historical/future narrative in the film come together in Otolith I?
Anjalika: We had these three areas that we wanted to map – three temporalities. We knew we wanted it to be a science fiction film, we knew that we wanted to create this “from the future”. We did perform loads and loads of actions in the microgravity experience but we only actually used one or two shots. For us it was not just about the experience of experiencing microgravity – it was much more about the metaphor of that experience, the notion of a suspension of political will.

Otolith I - The Otolith Group

Otolith I - The Otolith Group

What about the biographic elements in this film, especially the use of the story of your grandmother, Anjalika?
Anjalika: Well it’s not just simple biography. The reason that we’ve chosen to talk about real events is because of the fact that these histories, these personal memoirs relate to big and great historical moments and the, let’s say, parallel modernisms in India that haven’t really been explored in the West that much.

Kodwo: Before we first showed Otolith I we presented an earlier version, called Otolith Timeline, at a conference in Rotterdam, with all the people who’d been to Star City in Russia. We did this huge timeline which started from the beginning of the 20th Century with Anjalika’s grandparents; their real historical dates of birth with real historical events that happened to them, and then it went all the way up to the present and then continued past March 2003 into the 22nd Century. It mapped out the whole mythology. So by the time we made Otolith I, it was already an episode from that timeline with a huge back story. So we always knew Otolith II would emerge but we didn’t know exactly what form it would take. Otolith II was conceived at the same time as Otolith I but when it emerged it took a totally different form.

Otolith II (2007) seems to take place in a very concrete world, reliant as it is on observing the duration of labour. It’s very much about the details of process, and is quite different to Otolith I – how did the second film come about?
Anjalika: Well if you think of Otolith I as a film about a state of no gravity, weightlessness. Then I would say that in terms of the kind of gravity, Otolith II is a film based around the idea of an extreme form of pressure. The film is focused on people who live in the slums and have to work under extreme conditions of pressure and labour. We were interested in the labour of watching labour.

Kodwo: The other aspect was looking at the labour of the production of desire through these two advertising sequences and the phenomenal amount of effort required to construct these adverts about financial services which a very small percentage of the Indian population have access to. We really wanted to study this, the labour of creating the promise of the future, which is what adverts do. Adverts make the abstract promise of the future palpable they are a real geometry of desire.

Otolith I is escaping from the pressures of history, and the second one is about being crushed by it – it has an extremely different kind of quality that somehow seemed appropriate for 2007.

We were reading things like Planet of Slums by Mike Davis and we conducted many interviews with people about the future and how they understood the future of the slums. Incidentally, a lot of those sequences were shot in the area where Slumdog Millionaire was filmed. Some of the mega slums are actually areas of potentially the richest real estate in India. The thing about the slums is they are at the centre of competing futures. There’s a city plan for what will happen to them and then there are counter plans by activist architects, and then counter plans to those plans by young architects.

Otolith II is really about the features which are competing to command the narrative of what this city will turn into. Otolith I is about the technology of the master plan and Otolith II is about the technology of speculation and Otolith III is about the technology of pre-emption. And these are all different political ways of capturing futurity and making it safe for capitalism. Speculation is not necessarily visible, so a lot of what we’re interested in isn’t necessarily visible, speculation, master plans, pre-emption, these are abstract modes of power, they’re not things you can easily illustrate, or if you can they wouldn’t be very successful.

Otolith II - The Otolith Group

Otolith II - The Otolith Group

An issue that comes up repeatedly in your work is the question of how to make productive images, or how can images be approached and understood in new ways.
Kodwo: Yes, exactly, and we spend a lot of time arguing and questioning ourselves about it. You have to think as much about what you want to withdraw, and what you want to subtract, as what you want to add. It’s not necessarily always the case of bringing something new into the world. Sometimes you want to take something out from the world, and in the space that’s left things can happen. In the context of Mumbai it’s over filmed, it’s over imagined, it’s over visualised.

Anjalika: Our cameraman took us to all the places that people want to shoot in when they go there, but we knew “No we’re not going to be able to use any of these!”

Kodwo: You have to think very hard about how your camera can suggest a critique of these other uses that cameras are put to. The reason why the frame cuts up the bodies of these teenage workers is to block visual pleasure, to make it harder for the viewer and to avoid giving the viewer a shortcut to empathy. That’s not to say we succeeded but that’s the proposition we set ourselves at each point.

At each point there’s a decision made to block some kind of tourist gaze. We spent a lot of time thinking “why go all this way to bring images of pauperisation to people in galleries in Europe?” We spend a long time thinking about how to create an image where the image refuses the expectations or refuses the pleasures of what an image is. And I think that’s partly the essayistic. To me, the essayistic is not about a particular generic fascination for voiceover or montage, the essayistic is dissatisfaction, it’s discontent with the duties of an image and the obligations of a sound. It’s dissatisfaction with what we expect a documentary to do especially.

Otolith II - The Otolith Group

Otolith II - The Otolith Group

One of the striking things about Otolith III in the use of multiple characters bringing all these different presences together, such as the archetypes of ‘the engineer’ and ‘the boy’ but also the Indian film directors Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. The script for the film is a complex fabric of quotations. How did you go about orchestrating this wide array of voices?

Kodwo: Before we finished Otolith III we did this dialogue at the Serpentine Gallery – at the Manifesto Marathon. I think Anjalika was Ray and I was Ghatak and we were both dead of course.

Anjalika: And the meeting was at this futurological conference, a fictional meeting taken from Stanislaw Lem’s book.

Kodwo: In Lem’s The Futurological Congress it has a date and a place and a name. And so we presented it as if we’d just been at the congress that Lem talks about and we were reminiscing about it but we’re both dead. We both took up these positions of Ray and Ghatak because they represent different trajectories and very different ways of making films. Ray was really such an extreme auteurist that it was just fascinating to stage a conversation where they talk about the productions that never happened. It was a way of speculating without filling in the contents of that speculation.

Our films have folded within them suggestions of mini films, the sequence about the meeting of Ray and Ghatak at Hotel Russell is a mini film by itself. This sequence could travel outside the film and take up another life. In Otolith II there’s a radio sequence where we preview Otolith III with a reading from Ray’s screenplay The Alien. Partly it’s because we have this idea that there are too many films that we will never get to make, and if we can’t make the films at least we can register their non-existence in an episodic form.

I think of Otolith III as a celebration of fleeting potential, especially in the street castings scenes, where the voiceover speculates on the potential of people glimpsed on the street to embody characters from Ray’s screenplay. How did you arrive at this form?

Kodwo: Originally the film was going to be nothing but castings. There is this Pasolini film Notes Towards a Film About India (Appunti per un film sull’India) (1969) which is an exasperating film. Pasolini goes to India and he comes up with this short story of a Maharaja from the 19th Century whose family is struck by famine and he decides to sacrifice himself to a lion to save them. It’s an absurd story but nonetheless Pasolini travelled round cities asking people about this story and looking to cast the characters in it. And this is what we took, not the story but this methodology of travelling the streets, picking faces from the street and changing your mind on them. The voiceover isn’t definitive, it’s a voiceover that crosses itself out and rewrites itself and doubts itself. That’s what we took from Pasolini and that was really fascinating because it means that by the end there’s barely a film at all. What you see is all these possibilities for a film but they’re just that and actually they all get cancelled out. This idea of turning location scouting and street casting, this idea of fictionalising it is brilliant. It’s unbelievable that more people don’t, it seemed to us a kind of unexplored essayistic methodology that is just there and which we could take out.

Otolith III - The Otolith Group

Otolith III - The Otolith Group

What role does Satyajit Ray’s unmade film The Alien play within Otolith III?
Kodwo: We had no aspirations to make Ray’s film. That seemed totally beside the point. The point was how to pay homage to this definitively unfinished film, how to take this unfinished and unmade status seriously. And how to redeem it. Not to just write it as a failure – because that’s how film history would regard it of course. Film history regards films that are not made as failures.

But there was something about this film that didn’t seem a failure at all. There is a way of narrating the whole story as a kind of cute Hollywood anecdote. Like Ray goes to Hollywood, he meets this person, that person, and Peter Sellers and Steve McQueen. And then it all goes up in smoke and ho, ho it’s a jolly story, and then Spielberg comes along and rips it off. We really didn’t want to narrate it as a kind of missed opportunity, there seemed something much more at stake than that.

The key was how to find this form that could evoke the idea of this definitively unfinished status. And how to say sometimes an unmade film can be just as important if not more important than the many films that are made. One of the things Otolith III does is to explore this through this form of continual discrepancy. So the characters all do the same things but they narrate them differently each time. They can’t agree among themselves at all on this thing that’s happening to them. They say the same things but in totally different ways. In part it was a big experiment for us to work with four voiceovers and to see what happens when we do that.

The centre of the film seems to lie in the collision of these propositions. It’s a more open film than the other two in that way, was it important for the film to have a different atmosphere?

Kodwo: The temperature is very different to Otolith II, even though for us the concerns are continuous. It was a very conscious experiment for ourselves to keep faith with our ideas but also to shift the form with which those ideas are evoked and to see if we could do it. It feels different because of the personification and theoretical positions comes through these characters who aspire to be fictional. And so you get something like characters emerging for the first time in our work. We ask ourselves a lot whether these characters will have to take on bodies and what that will look like. What happens when you attach a voice to a body?

We commissioned lots of drawings of aliens. Anjalika’s father who is drawing in the film is actually drawing aliens, those abstract images are his versions of aliens. We commissioned several images of alien faces and physiognomies but we rejected them all. Because we got closer and closer to the idea in Stalker. The reason why Stalker is so important is because Stalker is the film that solves the dilemma of the alien body. If you have aliens why do they have to have bodies? Why does alien morphology have to be a mirror to us? And Stalker solves it.

Anjalika: With aliens there are no bodies; alien is about atmosphere.

Kodwo: Yeah it’s an atmosphere, it’s a geography, it’s a climate. It’s a climate where magnetic north doesn’t work anymore. The geography is wrong. There are strange pressure shifts, and that seems really powerful to us, just absolutely powerful. Because it seemed to me Stugatski and Tarkovsky had really solved this issue that Hollywood had never been able to solve. Hollywood which had always assumed that aliens have to have bodies and aliens always have to return a gaze. The whole film is about different theoretical positions towards this question.
And all the arguments are about relations to history and that’s the case in all our films. But in Otolith III you can find yourself believing in the fiction and while knowing that the fiction is a personification of the theoretical idea. That seems quite an interesting idea that you can believe in a fiction while you know quite well that the fiction is a theory.

Otolith III - The Otolith Group

Otolith III - The Otolith Group

One final thing I’m interested in is at what point the three films become a trilogy? And how has that changed your conception of the other films?

Anjalika: Well we actually did like the idea of continuing it on to Otolith 4, 5, 6, 7! But that’s because I think a lot of people don’t want the character of Doctor Usher to die, they want her to transmogrify into something else. With Otolith III we thought that people might be bored with her so we created all these voiceovers, but actually people really miss her! I think the idea of a trilogy was maybe about these kind of particular ideas, maybe finding loops and connections between the films. But you know, we’re not sure yet.

Kodwo: We really like the idea of series. The films lend each other their powers and their forces. They reinforce each other and they hark backwards and call forwards to each other and they reinforce each other in a really good way, and trilogies really work. Especially trilogies over a long distance of time. I think there’s something very moving about a trilogy.

Further information on the Otolith Group can be found here.

About the Author: George Clark is a curator, writer and artist. At the Independent Cinema Office between 2006 and 2008 he managed a range of touring projects including: ‘Essentials: The Secret Masterpieces of Cinema‘, ‘Artists & Icons’ and ‘The Artists Cinema 2006′. Independent curatorial projects include ‘The Unstable States of…’, ‘Without Boundaries: European Artists’ Film and Video’ and the retrospective ‘The Cinema of Miklos Jancso’ [co-curated with Travis Miles]. He has written for Art Monthly, Afterall, Sight & Sound, Senses of Cinema and Vertigo Magazine among other publications. He is currently collaborating with the artist Beatrice Gibson on the script for a film commissioned by the Serpentine Gallery and Camden Council.

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  1. [...] year were The Otolith Group, whose primary members consist of Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar. Their approach to modern art is to me, an incredibly exciting and diverse exploration of the effect of the filmic [...]

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