A New Vocabulary Of Art Created Through Sound, Light, Time & Space: Artistes Of South Asia Curate Multi-Sensory Experiences
“For me, sound is a building material”, says Austrian-artist Bernhard Leitner who is often considered as the pioneer in experimenting with sound installation as an art form. His work explores the audio-physical experience of spaces and objects which are determined in form and content by movements of sound. “It is necessary to rethink and redefine the term space. Space can be defined by lines of sound: the lines delineate the configuration of space and simultaneously make it a specific expressive experience”. While studying the relationship between sound, space and body, the artist created spaces with the vocabulary of sound thereby introducing new forms of expression and the potential for a fundamentally new experience.
In the last two decades, there has been a radical breakthrough in audiovisual performative practices owing to technological progress. Tracing its evolution from analogue slide projectors to animation and live-programming, it has played a crucial role in crafting a unique identity for experimental electronic music. Through the exploration of aural-spatial installations and their entangled complexities, artists have managed to sculpt a delicate balance between light, movement and sound thereby curating immersive experiences that showcase how each of these entities form an integral aspect of spatial perception.
In 2017, five artists collaborated on a live audio-visual set comprising mixed-media art and generative visuals displaying their characteristic styles as a part of the first edition of SUB_SEQUENCE held in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Initiated with support from the Goethe-Institut, the project offered a platform for creative experimentation with audio-visual technology. “One of our biggest goals was to show that electronic music can be more performative; something akin to art. I’ve always been interested in the intersections of different media and style. And, this applies to our work with SUB_SEQUENCE too. It explores the spaces in between, and often ends up creating something new,” says Asvajit Boyle – Sri Lankan electronic musician, audio-visual artist and designer – who is also the founder of Jambutek imprint, Foldmedia and SUB_SEQUENCE.
The philosophy of SUB_SEQUENCE revolved around pushing boundaries or charting new territories in electronic music and the audio-visual music scene. It is a collaboration between music, lighting and video. There are different styles of art involved. “The lighting and visuals work as a sequencer to beat. This is how the whole system was pretty much built. And, this was how we always envisioned what the performances should comprise. There is a particular concept. There’s a particular look, and a particular aesthetic that comes together,” says Lalindra Amarasekara, visual technologist, entertainment designer and co-founder of Cyber Illusions. He also co-founded the digital art collective VAEG (Visual Art and Experiences Group).
In conversation, the artist traces the history of the project and what led to its formation. Goethe-Institut (Sri Lanka) initiated a non-profit cultural project to create a platform for electronic music and other multi-genre artistes to collaborate and present their work. The project was titled Pettah Interchange. This centered on identifying and reviving an ignored rundown space in the city which has immense cultural significance, and bringing together a series of artists to curate an audio-visual experience for the public. The project also facilitated collaborative multi-day residential workshops for music and visual artists from the region.
As a part of Pettah Interchange, events were organised in multiple abandoned buildings. They also held performances at burnt down cinemas, abandoned police stations and even public market places. “After Pettah Interchange, we observed a drastic change in the scene with respect to electronic music showcases. There was much more visibility now. We also observed a lot more scrutiny from the government and authorities. I think there was a general perception in Sri Lanka at the time and to some degree even now that electronic music is purely about rave culture and parties. Lalindra and I always spoke about how we could elevate DJ sets and show people another side of it. At that time, we were commissioned to do some installation-based work at Colomboscope art festival. We also projection mapped the entire dome of the Colombo planetarium and organised a live-electronic music performance there,” says Asvajit, “So, we continued to work in the space and use whatever we had learnt during Pettah Interchange. We also wanted to see how we could process all of that without running out of venues as Colombo got more gentrified. It was then we realized that it was time to move on to something else.”
According to Lalindra, the format proved to be successful in producing unique and experimental content. Through the years, the project brought together like-minded artists from multiple disciplines. However, Pettah Interchange soon ran its course in its fifth iteration. “Later, a few of us thought about building a platform for audio-visual collaboration, experimentation and showcase. The intention was to foster multidisciplinary collaboration and provide an ongoing platform for artists whilst expanding the audience. Through our initial conversations with Jan from the Goethe-Institut and Asvajit who is also the founding collaborator of Pettah Interchange, we initiated SUB_SEQUENCE which drew inspiration from the Pettah projects,” says Lalindra.
In the first edition of SUB_SEQUENCE, the artistes believed that it was important to ease people into the entire concept. Therefore, they created a hybrid performance which could be confused for a DJ set until one realised that there were four DJs on the stage.“With the format and content garnering a positive response, we then wanted to take this project further and expand the concept by collaborating with more artists. This was then followed up with the idea to include a multimedia art exhibition with multiple installations and live performances for the second edition. This, perhaps, was the beginning of what SUB_SEQUENCE is today. From a platform for creative experimentation, the project has developed a clearer vision that includes fostering and promoting multimedia art and artists within the region. With the uniqueness of the format, every SUB_SEQUENCE project is almost incomparable to a typical art exhibition or performance,” says the artiste.
Thereafter, the first ‘exhibition’ of SUB_SEQUENCE was held at the Rio Hotel and Cinema. The semi-abandoned structures — that once showcased the country’s first 70 mm film screen with a TODD-AO projection system — are situated beside one another in Slave Island whose name some argue was coined during the British colonial rule in reference to the usage of the island as a holding area for African slaves by the Dutch and Portuguese. It is said that the Dutch stocked the lake with crocodiles to prevent slaves from escaping.
Slave Island is also home to several iconic landmarks such as the aforementioned cinema-hotel complex. The structure became an unfortunate target of pillaging and arson during the deadly attacks of 1983 known as Black July wherein Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) guerrillas attacked a military patrol killing many soldiers. In retaliation, hundreds of people took part in a week-long massacre killing and injuring several Tamils as well as destroying thousands of homes and businesses. The bloody massacre triggered a full-blown civil war in Sri Lanka which lasted over 26 years.
Over the last few years, the dilapidated complex was brought to life by artists who partook in several multi-disciplinary arts festivals held there. Being a former venue for Pettah Interchange and other creative initiatives, according to Lalindra, Rio served as a stimulating canvas for all the artists involved. “We managed to collaborate with artists from India and Sri Lanka through a residential workshop,” he says, “They created AV installations and performances inspired by the history and architectural remnants of the space. A showcase of this format was a first of its kind in the country, and was well-received by the art community as well as the public.”
SPACES OF REFLECTION: ARTISTES CURATE TIMELESS EXPERIENCES
With audiovisual installations and exhibits, artists often attempt to create unembodied spaces through sound movement thereby interpreting unconventional aural metaphors into a tangible experience. There’s a fluid transition between sonic and physical entities that offer a broad perceptual field into the sculptural process. Acoustic experiential spaces thrive on such structural re-arrangements. A sense of timelessness lingers in the air as encounters between movements of sound, light and body experiencing a particular moment in time lead to absolute stillness. And, it is in that stillness that the distinction between art, artist and spectator dissipates.
Reflecting on her experience with the event she says, “I think we are constantly looking for new connections. It makes us feel alive. It makes us feel the child-like wonder which we often forget we possess as we run in loops of our daily life. And, if an experience can pull you out of these loops and bring you into an expanded moment in time where you perceive time differently; you perceive space differently; you experience being different. It’s really like going inside a portal and emerging in an alternate reality. This is powerful. It opens a door. And, it allows you to dream and imagine.”
For the project, Rahema created a 3-d engineered pop-up paper sculpture of the skyline that covered the entire beach, rudely obstructing the shore and the horizon which were once clearly visible from a distance. According to the artist, the entire process of engineering the sculpture took some time for she had to construct the entire base that would act as the surface onto which projections would fall and interact with the sculpture. “Accompanying sounds used were of the cityscape provided by one of the participants,” she explains, “I think sometimes the charm of working with technology can take over the creative process. A lot of it is trial and error. Some things work, some don’t. It can be challenging but it comes with the territory. I also feel that people in this field are dreamers. They want to create new experiences. Sometimes coming to terms with what is actually possible in the given timeframe and to respond to these limitations can be challenging.”
On what piqued her interest in exploring such a medium where sound, light, movement and space are in perfect collision with one another, she says the entire venture was an extremely promising and exciting frontier especially for her considering she is primarily a visual artist and often works with the ‘stillness of an image’. “In this case (with the project), it allowed the audience to go inside the image and live it almost akin to a multi-media dance of sensory stimulation. It is about an abstract yet vivid access to memories, ideas, concepts, realities and futures. It’s a very powerful medium,” she further explains, “As an artist, it definitely expanded my horizons. Many of my inspirations in the field of audio-visual arts were people I follow on Instagram. Individuals who were doing cutting-edge stuff were usually not from South Asia. It was hopeful and eye opening to see people who looked like me doing such innovative work. It made me believe that new experiences can be created by a handful of visual artists and technologists coming together with a shared need to create, express and engage a community of people. The residency made it accessible for artists like me. Inspired by the residency, I collaborated with Karachi Community Radio and co-curated and performed at an audio-visual show in Karachi in 2020. And, SUB_SEQUENCE had a big role to play as an audio-visual test bed for it.”
The show unfolded bit by bit showcasing the diverse combinations of art and technology — all with varying levels of interactivity, says Nikunj Patel, founder of Studio Moebius — a multi-tasking animation and design consultancy based in Mumbai, “SUB_SEQUENCE also pushed artists outside of their comfort zones to come up with what none of them had ever created before. Overall, it felt like a very future-bohemian experience with art hidden away in the nooks of a dilapidated building. There were projections mapped onto an empty swimming pool; there was live music; plain-clothes dancers were breaking into moves at the most unexpected moments. The faith that the team had in us artists was very encouraging as we started with an absolutely blank canvas. And, in the span of a short week, we took over the iconic Rio Cinema flooding it with art that also played with technology. It was wonderful to be able to engage in a back and forth with local Sri Lankan artists and learn about the history of Slave Island. Another aspect of this project which was very special to me personally is that being in Colombo allowed Indian and Pakistani artists to collaborate freely and connect in person. I had built ties with a few Pakistani creatives over the years thanks to the internet. And, it was incredible to be able to finally meet some of them in person and witness each other making art, together.”
While describing his creative process, Nikunj explains how the artists first started off by scoping the venue and building a rough show-flow based on how the crowd would move throughout the space. They then broke down the venue into key areas that had to be populated in order for the experience to feel seamless and immersive. Post that, the artists claimed the areas they wanted to play with. “We then had a day for pitching ideas and techniques to each other, creating rough sketches, scripts and collages to try and visualise our concepts. Later on, it was all execution and running around to make sure we manage to get all our pieces ready on time. This is where we started to test the tech that we had on-hand including projectors, speakers, sensors, lights, etc to try and achieve what we wanted it to do. All the artists assisted each other in some way or the other. We also had people from Goethe institute and the Cyber Illusions team helping us out with the execution.”
Talking about some of the challenges they had to overcome during the project, Nikunj mentioned that technology is often hard to control and manipulate especially in a public environment. In the process, the artists faced technical issues with cabling, rigging, file formats, converting signals and adjusting projections depending on the actively changing lighting conditions amongst other things. “Nearly all the artworks were balancing an aspect of the piece that was physical (screens, murals, objects, etc) and digital (projectors, animation, sound, etc). So, it was definitely challenging to strike the right balance in a building so ancient. However, with all the help on hand, we ultimately managed to crack it,” he says, “Fortunately, all the artists involved with SUB_SEQUENCE already had their own areas of interest when it came to merging sound, visuals and material. A lot of these areas overlapped between all of us making it quite easy to geek out with each other and to come to each other’s aid whenever it was needed.”
USHERING IN AN ERA OF AUDIOVISUAL RENAISSANCE
Weaving light in a delicate sound tapestry that stretches throughout the structure, elements that configure the audio-visual experience are a marriage of creative prowess and technical progress. Experimentations range from bending linearity within sound and light to contouring and withdrawing aspects of acoustically perceptible forms. The symbiosis of sound, light and structure with time creates aural impressions wherein moments flutter in between spaces where the concept of object and observer cease to exist. It is in this oneness that the artists and art truly emerge. Such reflections on the ephemeral quality of time and its associated connections with memory and moment have seen multiple interpretations over the last few decades. Some artists exploit the synesthetic form of perception while others have known to bring everything to a standstill through momentary silences and sustained tones.
There are multiple projects that drew inspiration from collaborations on SUB_SEQUENCE through the years. One of them was the Aaraniyam showcase that was presented at Colomboscope’s seventh edition ‘Language is Migrant’ in January, 2022. Aaraniyam has multiple meanings in Tamil ranging from sacred royal jewellery to a disguised identity and a magical forest full of hidden secrets. “In 2018, a few contemporary dancers were invited to interact and react to the installations and projections of SUB_SEQUENCE. A group of dancers from the North were fascinated with the idea of working with projections. They then created a performance in which the Tamil poetry of Packiyanathan Ahilan was interpreted through contemporary movements and had additional visual layers projected onto the performing bodies,” says Jan Ramesh de Saram, cultural affairs coordinator at the Goethe-Institut in Colombo.
For their performance at the Rio complex, the collective plotted visualization elements in collaboration with Lalindra focusing on light and shadow as well as literary fields of loss and injustice. In fact, Language is Migrant brought together several artists participating in the initiative for the first time. In the concept note, the curators revealed that the artists’propositions treated its scarred architecture as a sonic chamber where a multitude of voices, accents, chants, confessions and whispers flowed together like a river. They explained that each room invited forms of recording, bearing witness, time travel, and interventions to mark registrations of collective belonging amidst pain and pleasure. Projects delved into botanical memory, culinary legacies and aesthetics of sacred life as well as enduring resonances of warfare and incarceration. Language is Migrant engaged ways of listening for gaps and crossings between fearless expression, vocabularies of resistance, and regimes of power enforcing silence.
COVID-19’S IMPACT ON ART AND PERFORMANCES
In conversation, Jan Ramesh mentions that their future plans for SUB_SEQUENCE included gearing up for an open call and organising a gathering of ten projection-technology artists from South Asia for two residential stays in Sri Lanka; one to conceptualise the showcase/exhibition and another one — which would be held three months later — to implement it. The primary focus revolved around building a well-connected network of experts across South Asia. However, COVID-19 pandemic brought everything to a standstill. “It completely shifted the project,” he reveals.
In the initial phases of the pandemic, Asvajit noted that the response of many performers to restrictions imposed on public gatherings was to stream their performances live. “Lalindra and I spoke about how we could translate what we did to the online space, and create something that made sense and not just recreate a live performance. There was no real translation of a live performance to an online or digital space. So, we wanted to see how we could bridge this gap between physical and digital performances. Our concept leaned into the digital nature of the work we were doing, and further abstract the ‘idea’ of a performance in order to break that connection and allow for whatever it is that we didn’t do to be judged on its own merits, its own context and not purely in relation to how that would have been envisaged as a physical event.”
That gave rise to INTERFACE which strives to explore the intersection between technology and art as well as the potential for meaningful expression in the virtual world. The entire project saw longtime collaborators Lalindra, Asvajit and Nigel Perera envision a hypothetical operating system designed for creative exchange. This distillation and abstraction of UI/UX design serves as a framework for an audio-visual performance encompassing real-time generative visuals, live coding and a presentation of specially-composed electronic music.“Everybody sees the world through an interface and during the pandemic whatever information — news or entertainment — we consumed was always through some form of interface, and it was always filtered through and maybe distorted as well. This was the initial step in developing the concept for INTERFACE. Even though we were geographically segmented we were all collaborating through a single interface,” says Lalindra.
With Version 2.0 of the project, the artists decided to learn from the experimental INTERFACE 1.0 and keep the concept intact while they rebuilt the entire system. They brought in video feeds and used techniques like facial tracking to create anonymity or mask the performer. “Generative visuals were also a part of the entire experience. Here, however, we gave the audience an opportunity to see the various tweaks, switching and changing of parameters. The operator or the person controlling the interface is also visible to the audience,” he says.
Not only did the second iteration showcase musical performances by Nigel and Asvajit, it also drew participation and collaboration with many more musicians including bass guitarist Shivantha Fernando and percussionist Divanka Sewmin .“That was a first for us as well. We brought in traditional music instruments into the mix. Whenever we are writing music for SUB_SEQUENCE projects, we are always thinking about the visual aspect,” says Asvajit, “It’s a constant back and forth between the people who are doing the visuals and the people who are doing the music trying to see how they can complement each other, and how they can feed off each other to create something more than just one or the other.”
SYMBOLS OF HOPE AND RESILIENCE EMERGE AMIDST CHAOS
Apart from the COVID pandemic, a far-more devastating crisis loomed large in the country. Sri Lanka’s economic crisis has been termed as one of the worst since its independence. Within a short span of time, the country and its citizens bore the brunt of unprecedented inflation, near-depletion of foreign exchange reserves, shortage of fuel, medical supplies and an increase in prices of basic commodities. Two of Sri Lanka’s major newspapers also suspended their publication over newsprint shortage and price escalation. Military was deployed at gas stations and term tests for millions of students were postponed due to lack of ink and paper. As nationwide protests spread, a state of emergency was declared thereby giving security forces the power to arrest and detain suspects. Thousands of people demanding ‘total system change’ rallied in the capital calling for the president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his influential brothers to quit. On April 3, the entire cabinet of ministers resigned. A month later, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation as the prime minister saw violent clashes between his supporters and anti-government protesters. More than 150 people were injured and three died. Soon after, the defence ministry ordered troops to shoot on sight anyone involved in looting or ‘causing harm to life’.
“Yes, the situation in Sri Lanka is terrible right now! We have no electricity for many hours every day. There is a severe shortage of fuel, medicines and cooking gas amongst other essential items. Our currency has lost more than half of its value in the last six months alone. For many people, it has turned into a life and death situation. In the last few months, we have experienced an unprecedented protest movement gaining momentum against the corrupt and inept government. But there is some hope in the air amidst the misery. Local artists and musicians managed to organise performances at protest grounds which has been great to see,” shares Asvajit.
In a Facebook post, Asvajit and Lalindra also discussed about their ‘Projection Mapping Protest at the Presidential Secretariat’. They wrote: On April 17, 2022 a non-partisan group of creative professionals from multiple organizations and disciplines worked together to organise a video-projection-based protest outside the Presidential Secretariat (Old Parliament Building) in Colombo. The artists believed that the projection of visuals onto the Old Parliament Building is another way of peacefully exercising their freedom of expression which is a fundamental right enshrined in Article 14 of the Constitution of Sri Lanka. Using multiple projectors set up on the pavement, the entire front facade of the building was lit up with imagery relating to the ongoing protest movement. Despite the vocal display of support from thousands that gathered to watch, the authorities were able to stop the projection after a few minutes by obstructing the lenses of the projectors and using floodlights to reduce the visibility of the protest-content. Only a small fraction of the works created were displayed on the building before it was stopped. The main aim of the initiative was to show support for the people’s protest movement and amplify its key messages whilst also exploring ways in which creative professionals in the digital space can contribute to this unprecedented opportunity for meaningful systemic change in Sri Lanka.
“The political instability has escalated to a point where the outcome of everyday life is unpredictable,” says Lalindra, “The lack of dollar reserves has resulted in an economic crisis that will take years and a few miracles to recover from. Art and open expression have always been somewhat of a struggle in Sri Lanka. Before 2019, we saw many projects and platforms coming forward to support art. Today people are more concerned about survival. However, the best art is created through struggle. During the recent protests, we saw artists come out and openly express their views. Similarly, artists have been a driving force in conveying the public sentiment. From murals on streets to music, artists are uncovering social truths and making it visible to the larger public.”
Such is the role of art and artists. In despair, they seek light. They create memories: of elsewhere and home, of places lost and those that survived, of transformation and defeat. It is a demanding role; one that requires the artist to shed their identity and grow beyond their ‘self’. Artists in Sri Lanka are no strangers to devastation and war. In the shadows of conflict and a future mired with uncertainty, they rose time and again against all odds overcoming adversities that destroyed the social, cultural and moral fabric of their society. Through art, artists have often transmuted their sorrows and angst onto sonic and visual canvases that depict their reality. And if you looked closely, you’d find it everywhere – these symbols of resilience, hope and love — in abandoned chambers and crowded streets, in poems, songs and paintings — their art like the artists shall remain unbroken…
UPDATE: On July 13, Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled from Sri Lanka amidst intensifying protests to the Maldives, and then Singapore. He officially resigned a day later. Soon after, Sri Lanka lawmakers elected former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as the president.
written by Akshatha Shetty
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of Border Movement and its partners.