The following reflections fermented during collective thinking sessions in the Begumpura Palace re-created from Sant Ravidas’ poem by Actant Bhagwati Prasad. Under the canopy of leather parchments carrying animations of conduits, hybrid beings and animate life in ink, a group of thinkers met every day for three days to ruminate, reflect on ideas of what the Palace stood for, and taking tangential entry-points to explore related notions of existence, collectivity, vibrations, language, networks and nooks. Moderated by Sabih Ahmed, these sessions were called ‘Living Equality Hours’ in a nod to the principle of equality across caste, class and capital espoused by Ravidas’ Palace.
It is a scaffold of references, and I often find myself coming back to this text for triggers to my thinking and writing work. Here are some excerpts and notes from the long thread of thoughts:
Each of the running incidents on the premises is unfolding on its own scale and intersecting with each other as they evolve.
The Actants include not only the human engineers of the projects, but also all animate and inanimate life occupying the space, including spores and microbes. One could use the microscope (kept on a table inside the palace) to embark on a quest for those that elude easy vision.
By norm of architecture, one enters closed spaces and exits into open spaces. The Begumpura Palace proposes that one enters an open space with no ‘exit’ whatsoever. It is a space with no boundaries- a classless and casteless utopia where every being is considered equal and welcome to inhabit the space.
The skin is never dead. When the goatskin is processed into a musical instrument, for instance, the skin retains and revives life with sound vibrations. In its taut state, the skin is activated through pulsations.
Sounds never die. We have a memory for sounds- even those of pre-historic animals that we’ve never known.
The imperceptible actants aiding some of the projects- fungus- grow in the dark. How else do the spores travel? Through food, soil and currency. It is interesting that capital (in the form of its tangible counterparts in notes and coins) enables a transfer of bacteria; it is an invisible process that follows its own logic of time.
When one enters soil or water, a lot of the noise from the air disappears with the change of medium. This is where the fungus thrives. This inverts (and maybe obviates) the function of the sun, which is seen as essential to growth and evolution.
How is information transferred between different species?
…maybe through fermentation, where the transformation occurs through changes in smell. One then depends on flavor to gather a sense of time.
The text, Survival of the Fireflies by Georges Didi-Huberman gives the reader a perspective on the binary notion of light and darkness and associated notions of hope and evil respectively- a paradigmatic divide that’s studied through the fire-fly image. What is a non-reductive way of thinking about why a firefly exudes light?
Fireflies are minor beings in isolation. But when they come together in darkness, they emit a cumulative light that makes them visible to each other. In reference to Huberman’s discussion of the prominence of floodlights in totalitarian regimes, the assembly of the multitude in light acquires political significance.
Author James Baldwin said that we were all born in darkness and ensconced in fluid matter in the womb- conditions we wouldn’t otherwise deem essential to living. This space did not alienate or kill; it nurtured and protected. This may make us think of our capacities as humans differently. Maybe we can see in the dark and breathe in fluids. We have survived water cannons on the streets; the body remembers.
How do we think of the horizon? Can we ignore its centrality in our imagination and find a new language for things that grow underground and become visible only in an upward growth above the ground? The geometry of the horizon- as a plain line- is restrictive and illusory. Is the horizon a 360 degree angle or does it run in one direction? If it runs in one direction, what’s behind me?
The horizon could be the skin of the earth. There are then multiple interfaces to the horizon where the elements come together at different points for different functions.
Modernity produced a divide between the notions of surface and depth. What is the depth of a surface? This could be a starting point to thinking about fungus. Does the horizon make sense anymore?
Phenomenologically, the horizon exists only in our minds. It is a romantic idea and a potent one that evokes ambitions and hope of emancipation and transcendence. One never really reaches the horizon; it is ever-elusive.
But the Begumpura Palace is not such a deferred space. It is here and it’s active with occupations of bodies and voices.
Research has shown that a black fungus has been growing on the site of the infamous Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The fungus has been found to contain melanin that absorbs the radiation for sustenance. The fungus absorbs light and produces darkness in matter and appearance.
What is the place of darkness in our imagination?
While growing crops, we feed- not light- but darkness. We put a potent material (seed) in the soil and watch it take shape through time.
This problematizes light’s role as the sole condition of visibility. In co-existing with darkness, does it create a network of conditions for the fungus that inhabits both realms?
What is the optical condition of mycelia? They inhabit large parts of the underground earth and thrive in colonies of interconnections. What is the perceptual mechanism or sensory condition for the mycelia? Could the network be a cumulative organism? Is the Palace itself a beast whose belly we inhabit now?
The human body carries six kilograms of bacteria. Given that they occupy so much of our matter, are they the ones dreaming for us? What does it mean to dream together under the canopy?
With such a colony of life inside us, the very idea of the ‘individual’ changes.
One could retreat into darkness. One could actively seek and move towards darkness.
“Store it in a cool dry place”, reads the instruction on cans of edible items. Is it a warning against the generative nature of darkness? A warning against occupations in the waiting?
Fungus is intrinsic to the creation of habitats. If we dream of settling on the moon someday, would we have to carry some fungus with us?
In growing out of the ground and upward into the air, is the fungus seeking air for survival? Is it moving into an ‘open space’?
Perhaps it’s coming out to die. A case of suicide perhaps.
What we construe as growth could be death instead.
The fungi do not need light to survive; it secrets enzymes for that function. The exteriorization of the digestive system in the form of outward secretion need not be individual; it can be a collective action. A symbiotic relationship is established amongst the entities then.
The fungus doesn’t grow to you, it grows towards you.
Can we carry Begumpura into our own retreats?
The paper has been replaced with skin. The canopy is a collage of drawings on goatskin.
The medium becomes the action. The skin, as seen on the tent, came into being through its transfer between hands; it is context.
The material becomes the event, if one were to think of the transfer across hands, spaces and time.
The skin is not a dead surface. It falls into the logic of a ‘happening’.
The tent is ‘becoming’. It is skin, creature, armature.
The skin contains by refusing air to pass through its membrane. Can the tent be called an entropy?
A Palace has been invoked. What does this mean? An invocation is not the same as interpretation.
The interpretative moment is not a moment of decoding. In fact, decoding may not be the most productive end. Walking through a building can simply be a sensory experience; the space may not reveal anything to me as meaning.
When bots string words together into sentences, text creates text. The generator is ‘inanimate’. How does one think of desire then- a human, palpable emotion that requires agency for realisation?
Context can be produced through conversation threads on social media constantly, as opposed to a novel, where the context is anchored by an authorial voice.
When you claim something as a work of art or literature, the work then has to encounter the world that way. Who takes this responsibility?
Sky media like flags and satellites are not benign. Cumulus and stratus or network and data clouds?
Anecdotes from ‘Shokh Sabha Mein’ by Deviprasad were read out. It triggered discussions around the notions of and differences between a community and a collective.
Is a collective more anarchic in nature? With a willing distribution of risk?
What are ‘thought collectives’? They are collectives formed through observation.
Who’s an ally and who’s an accomplice? An alliance has to be declared to be established while an accomplice points to a playful, subterranean energy. An ally implies an ethical connection while an accomplice is initiated into essential participation.
One wonders about the violence of categories. Can we think of these relationships in terms of parasitic, epiphytic and symbiotic equations? The fungus intrudes.
The Palace is a site of production. It has no entry or exit. It is not a definitive structure with walls to contain.
Is darkness a remnant and residue of light? Or does darkness itself contain light? Is it a contest or an embrace?
‘Umami’ refers to a ‘meaty’ flavor that doesn’t quite fit into the sweet/savoury logic. Essential to survival, it is analogous to the Palace.
The taste carries an intensity of caste, which extends to the reality and political connotations of tannery in the constitution of this Palace. Other intensities filter in through the unsealed entries of the windows.
The flesh is a digestive morsel, its microbes constituting the same matter as the sky and its constellations.
The tent, with its folds and inscriptions, is a soft knot that disturbs, provokes and embraces.
The inscriptions on the walls and canopy invite a contract of attention. There are ruminations, projections and thought bubbles.
All Images Courtesy: Maksud Ali Mondal, Fungal Garden, Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan