The work of the India-born, Durham-based filmmaker Shambhavi Kaul has a unique relationship with not only the world of contemporary experimental cinema, but also the lineage from which it draws both its inspiration and, quite often, its materials. Slyly spurning the strained, self-serious demeanor of much of the avant-garde, Kaul’s playful and inquisitive films unite histories of personal, cultural, and cinematic intrigue while maintaining an integrity borne of a deep engagement with the natural world. At the inaugural edition of the Big Ears film festival—to the revered experimental music celebration of the same name, which this year took place from March 31 – April 2 in Knoxville, Tennessee—Kaul premiered Modes of Faltering, a new six-channel installation, along with the five-film program, “Planet,” featuring a selection of spoken reflections capped with a reading of a manuscript adapted from a variety of in-flight magazines.
This act of appropriation is part and parcel of Kaul’s methodology, which has often found her working with anonymous footage sourced from the annals of Indian cinema. With Modes of Faltering, she’s again utilizing found materials, extracting a sextet of short loops from an exotic looking film and arranging them in a horizontal tableau across a large white wall in Knoxville’s UT Downtown Gallery—effectively condensing a large scale production into a discrete melodrama. Like her previous installation, Fallen Objects (2015), Modes of Faltering is a quasi-interactive assemblage, encouraging the viewer to either move through the space and experience each loop and its attendant soundtrack in isolation, or to stand at a remove as the sounds and images bleed into one another, churning along in perpetuity. As in much of her work, one can sense in Modes of Faltering Kaul’s interest in the untapped dimensions of both physical and cinematic space, as well as her evolving notions of identity and the cultural particulars that go with the conception of a truly personal cinema.
Jordan Cronk (Rail): Going into Modes of Faltering with no context save my own familiarity with your past work, I sensed an immediate kinship between the installation and your films, particularly Mount Song (2013) and 21 Chitrakoot (2012). How do you go about conceptualizing work for the gallery versus a theatrical space, and do you find them at all compatible?
Shambhavi Kaul: There is something interesting in the way people know how to behave in a movie theater versus the way they know how to behave in an installation space. In an installation people come and go and that’s just the way it is, and because I am a filmmaker, I have this idea that I have to keep them in there. I think of cinema as demanding an absorbed spectatorship, and I feel that working through that is part of my work as a filmmaker. If you are approaching installation from another medium you may or may not feel as if you have to grab spectators in the same way.
In the last two installations I’ve made—Fallen Objects at TIFF and Modes of Faltering at Big Ears—I’ve used short loops that have narrative possibilities, but the possibilities are elusive. So, the viewer gets what’s going on quickly and there isn’t that restlessness like, “Is there more?” or “Do I need to keep standing here?” But then at the same time there’s something that doesn’t add up, that hopefully keeps viewers interested. For Fallen Objects the interesting thing is how to put the seven shots in narrative order. With Modes of Faltering it’s about how to put the six channels in order and also, what to listen to and what not to listen to. I imagine the spectators find themselves having to decide between the competing soundtracks and the overall effect of noise based on where they are standing. It is a kind of immersion, but it’s not the kind of immersion that invites a trance-like state. It is designed in a way that encourages people to move around and test out different vantages. At the same time I did see some people just sit in one spot and let it wash over them.
Rail: Is that one of the reasons you choose to work with loops, since audiences will likely only be watching for brief periods of time?
Kaul: To an extent, yes, but also because it plays to the idea of repetition. We certainly see repetition used in experimental work in a movie theater space but I think for me it’s more interesting in an installation space where it takes on a sense of being infinite, and there is not a clearly demarcated duration for the repetition. Let’s call it a forever repetition. Cinema in the installation space can be viewed as a cinema playing for nobody, as it will likely keep playing long after the spectators have left. And since I’m working with these found materials and these clichéd cinematic tropes, it reveals something about the inherent repetitive quality of popular cinema itself, it’s own tropes and how it is recycling itself all the time.
Rail: I noticed that some of the images in Modes of Faltering were loops and some were short sequences played forward and then backwards.
Kaul: That’s right. But eventually, I’m thinking of them all as loops. For instance, with the first loop of a hand stroking a stuffed leopard, I played it backwards and forwards because it made the hand gesture feel more hesitant. Conversely, the sharp cut of the fifth loop, of the birds in the cage, made the repetition feel more violent and decisive.
Rail: I’m curious about the source of the images.
Kaul: In general I have this idea about not focusing on the source of the material. Not because I am coy, but because I’m interested to see how these materials play out in my newly devised format rather than having spectators think back to where the source material came from. I’m interested in the potential for ideas to emerge from the installation that were not originally considered.
Rail: Like Mount Song and 21 Chitrakoot, the material seems to be from an older film, likely of Eastern origin. In one of your readings you describe these disassociated locations as visions of the East “that defy specificity.” Can you talk about your relationship with cinema history?
Kaul: Most of the materials I have used are from films I’ve seen and loved, ones that I’ve watched with no filters. And that’s important to me, to be able to, even now, not come to these materials simply with distance. Part of it is an attempt to hold onto that feeling, and the other part is to try to open up to the complex dimension that made these materials compelling in the first place. In that sense, one could say that my work is not attempting a critique, or a subversion, as much as it hopefully creates a field for criticality, a chance to look at these images again, to think about what they conjure up and what complex ideas they retain. In this case the original film in question was adapted from a colonial novel. So I was thinking of the confluence of the modernist aesthetics of cinema in relation to the more firmly colonial aesthetics in the source material, and I believe this tension shows through in the mise-en-scène of the original, which is what I isolated for the installation.
Rail: How about the process of actually choosing each loop and then arranging them into a kind of visual narrative or viewing experience?
Kaul: The emotion for me comes from the overall narrative that emerges from the tentative stroking of the stuffed animal or later the surveying of these well-appointed living rooms or the caged birds—there is an allusion to hunting, or subjugation, in the bird loops and the leopard image. The loop of the sinking ship has associations with trauma. Maybe it’s not so clear but I think it all comes back to the idea of what it means to be modern, what it means to belong to the globe and what it means to be Eastern, and the way these desires overlap and contradict each other.
Rail: How does the title play into that?
Kaul: I was thinking about faltering in terms of losing strength, or making a mistake. So maybe it’s ways or modes of being wrong; not in a negative way as much as in the sense that it could be the potential for a kind of existence.
Rail: The loop of the hand is really the only hint as to what part of the world this story may be emanating from. There aren’t many images of humans in your work. Was the hand a way of establishing these themes?
Kaul: Maybe. I mean, I love that image. But that’s very interesting to me. Did it immediately put you in India or the East?
Rail: For me just knowing how few humans figure in your work made it stand out. But I can certainly see how this might not register for others.
Kaul: I guess I am drawn to the faltering, tentative feeling in the gesture—touching in and then withdrawing, touching in and then withdrawing. And also the gesture is just so empty in a way: the caressing of a dead animal. But you’re right, the image is important. It was the first one I picked out.
Rail: The program of films and the reading you presented is called “Planet.” Based on your films you obviously seem interested in landscape and the spatial identity of certain geographies. In one of your readings you said, “Landscapes hold on to historical truth.” Your work often feels like an attempt at tracing your own identity and history through landscapes and the cinematic representation of landscapes. Is that a fair reading?
Kaul: I’m interested in the idea of locatedness, of how people feel located, and/or dislocated. So thinking of landscape as a disorienting proposition is interesting from that point of view. It also has a potent relationship to documentary, or the natural or non-acted film. Which is one of the reasons why I find California landscapes so interesting, because they are always acting, so to speak. They are iconic because of their life as cinematic images. They hold a certain promise. For instance, Zabriskie Point is not just any landscape. There’s a kind of discursive quality in all my work, so I’m interested in the California desert because it has this relationship to cinema, or I’m interested in animals because we have a certain cinematic understanding of them. There’s always this exchange that is perhaps more legible in my found footage work.
Rail: What about the context in which you showed these five films, in backwards chronology interspersed with readings: is this manner of presentation preferable to you compared to premiering a single film in a festival environment?
Kaul: What I like about premiering a single short work in a festival is seeing how it plays out among other films. And it is interesting to consider the hand of the curator in that context. “Planet” is a way I’ve conceived of showing several of my work together. In this context, I prefer not to present my films as separate pieces, but rather as a body of work and indeed as a performance. I take all the titles out of the films and they just play with brief pauses for readings or reflections. In the readings there are people: we, you, he, she. But in the films there isn’t much human presence. So then I’m also thinking about myself in the theater being the human presence that has perhaps fallen off the screen and is now standing there and performing.
Rail: Like a fallen object—
Rail: It occurred to me as I was watching that since the films are presented in reverse chronology that one can sort of chart your personal and artistic development through an inverse trajectory. Night Noon is set in California, which is just about as far as you can get from your birthplace of the Indian desert, the setting of Scene 32 (2009). Was that something you were thinking of?
Kaul: Yes, I like the idea of going back to that point. Plus, in some of the newer work it’s clearer that the films have humor. My early films are funny too, but it’s much less obvious. For example, I made Scene 32 at a time when everyone was debating analog vs. digital, especially in the experimental world. People would say that analog has this relationship to the original pro-filmic moment and digital has no relationship—things like that. So I thought, why don’t I go back to my place of origin. [Laughter.] I wasn’t going back to try to discover something about my birth or anything. It was more like, I’m going to try to record this “place of origin”—which of course is a total myth and is impossible. And the fact that I’m creating this hand processed film at the origin point, with all the material traces of celluloid—there’s a level of humor in it for me. Which is not to say it’s only funny, I also care a lot about the strong affective responses the images produce and yet, there is something productive about humor when you’re making very beautiful work—it keeps a window open, instead of just taking beauty as a category so seriously.
Rail: You arrive at the end of the program with a new reading, one sourced from in-flight magazine and brochures. Where did this idea come from?
Kaul: I was flying a lot in 2011 and 2012, and I wanted to engage with that space and at some point I realized that the language in these magazines is just crazy. And I started pulling passages out from them. In these passages, the desire to fly seemed to overlap with the desire for difference and otherness, for escape, for some kind of ideal—all things that are already in my work. So suddenly it seemed very relevant material for me.
Rail: In a sense, you’re disassociating text in a manner you do images.
Kaul: Yes. It doesn’t depend on knowing it’s from in-flight magazines. In fact, for the reading that I did at Big Ears I focused more on the passages that are about flying and tourism, but there is a lot more stuff. There’s a lot of quote-unquote human interest articles in there—things not about traveling, things you would never think are from an in-flight magazine. I read different combinations at different screenings. And there’s some stuff I haven’t even performed yet. I’d actually like to make it into a book. I like to think of books as being time-based, as another way to open up beyond installations and film work. That’s another thing I find exciting: finding these parallel modes. They seem to open up new spaces for sharing the work.