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The Lake and The Late: in conversation with Sindhu Thirumalaisamy

Thursday, April 18, 2019

 

 

I first met Sindhu Thirumalaisamy in San Diego. We reconnected later at the airport in Tijuana while we waited to board a plane to México City where we were going to take part in a summer study program at SOMA. Back then, I had only heard about a soundscape she'd done inside a hospital. It layered and built tension around hospital life in a magical and meditative way.

 

As I got to know Sindhu, I noticed her ability to listen with great care and that appealed to me. I wanted to work with her. I later found out she was a filmmaker when she started to work on her latest project, The Lake and the Lake. Both her film and sound works are location-based, multi-lingual, and collaborative. She experiments with context-specific practices of looking, listening, and speaking to produce “sonic possible worlds” across a range of media including text and live events. Her recent projects intervene into a collective understanding of health, cleanliness and toxicity of the urban commons.

 

At the airport that first day, Sindhu brought a one-litre glass bottle to hold her iron supplement, along with several pieces of audio-visual equipment. "It's my medicine," Sindhu said, grabbing the bottle back from the airport security guard. And bam! Just like that, her bottle made it through the border. The program we were traveling for was centred on notions of "authority." And so, for me, watching her pull off this move was exhilarating and a good omen.  

 

We have since stayed friends and collaborated on an ASMR audio, script-collage I wrote about women and portraiture. After I attended a screening of The Lake and The Lake at the University of California, San Diego, we began this conversation over email and text while she was away in Queens, New York. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"I am continuing to think about how films can intervene into the legal and environmental fictions that produce a place."

 

 

 

 

 

Having seen your film recently, I want to learn more about what your practice was like [in Bangalore] before coming to California and making this film. 

 

Bangalore was where I started working in film and media. I moved there at the same time as the city’s new international airport opened. During the years that I lived there (2008-15) I witnessed dramatic transformations in its layout. I saw changes in the economy and in the aesthetic priorities that shaped our common spaces. The city became more congested and it flooded more intensely every monsoon season. Simultaneously, cleanliness became a catchword in the the government’s civic agenda and a moral imperative for a rising Hindu Right. I supported projects to protect street vendors’ rights, bus users rights, women’s safety, etc. I documented the government sponsored wall murals that were painted all over the city as a “beautification exercise” in a short film. I also worked on projects that highlighted the spatial dynamics of different forms of labour. In 2011, as part of a training in oral history methods, I researched a lake which had been reclaimed and transformed into the central train station and bus depot. Since working on that project I became very aware of the city’s unique topography filled with rivulets and reservoirs.

 

Later, in 2015, I became involved in something called The Poetics of Fragility, a project by Lata Mani and Nicolas Grandi. The ideas this brought up about the integral place that fragility has within any system were on my mind as I moved to the US to pursue an MFA. In California, I felt that I was witnessing the physical manifestations of what Bangalore was aspiring to become: the sanitized suburban sprawl, one person to a car, tech havens, ubers and lyfts, everything managed by apps– bubbles of wealth surrounded by pools of neglect. Bangalore’s lakes gained a lot of media attention at around this same time. They were so polluted that they were producing this uncanny foam and catching fire. It felt like a certain ecological limit or threshold had been crossed with this phenomenon. Given my interests and experience, I began to follow the foam as a symptom of the city’s exhaustion. I stayed with one particular lake, Bellandur, which is the largest in the city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When we discussed doing this interview I mentioned I was impressed to have read that you'd participated in ‘Labour in a Single Shot’ with Antje Ehmann and Harun Farocki. When I brought their project up, you seemed skeptical. You said you thought it was funny that this was what had come up! I am not sure what you meant, whether you thought: Funny, that this was what had come up for me in thinking about The Lake and the Lake. Or whether you meant that it was funny, in that having to think through or around your practice, I had glossed over straight to the most famous Western documentary practitioner you’ve worked with! Both are funny, but I guess for me, it was more that I was excited to learn about your participation in the project because I am a Farocki fan! I’d also met a few people who’d taken part in Labour in a Single Shot in other cities. Could you elaborate a bit on how you came to participate in this project, what your film for it was, and how you think your work today might relate to having had this experience?

 

The reflections from this workshop definitely influence my approach to filmmaking today. One of my professors in Bangalore is a Farocki scholar. She coordinated the visit. I was a twenty-one year old film student and very excited to study with Harun. The thing that stuck with me the most was the way he talked about every shot as having a beginning, a middle and an end. It made me realize that things get very exhausting very quickly if one is always “chasing after” an image. I learnt, rather, that interesting things would happen if one prioritized the relationship they had to a place or to people; if one allowed shots to unfold without a hurry (although, I realize this is something that is not possible in every kind of film). Harun had a way of talking about the relationship between the filmmaker and the world (and not just in terms of subject/object) that was different from the language of shot-design-by-control I had heard from fiction filmmakers, that has an impact on me to this day. He passed away unexpectedly a year or so after the workshop which was very sad. Antje Ehmann, his partner, was co-facilitating. I am glad to have met her.

 

Why is that? What did she bring to the project?

 

She did more of the day-to-day interacting with students, coordinated the exhibitions, etc. Or at least this how I remember it. It was good for me to see who was supporting Harun and making his presentations and teaching possible. Seeing them together helped demystify this monolithic figure that I had held in my mind that was Harun Farocki. “Labour in a Single Shot” is an elegant project. The archive that came out of those workshops not only indexes labour across the world– it also represents a network of young filmmakers who are attentive to labour. That said, there were moments in the workshop when it was unclear, as participants, what our relationship to the work we were producing was. We never fully knew if we could call the work ours. So, ironically, the artistic or creative labour of the participants became somewhat incidental. This was amplified when people’s names were misspelt or when their work was entered into exhibitions in countries where they did not want to show. The segment of the workshop where we documented workers leaving factories left me wanting something more, because we know, especially as women that the work day doesn’t end at the workplace. I’m still reflecting on things that came out of this workshop.

 

You’re right. Labour should be documented beyond clock-time. Moving on, why did you make The Lake and the Lake?

 

 Images play an important role in the production of a crisis around Bangalore’s water bodies. I made this film in relationship to other images of the lake that were already in circulation. It might be helpful here to think of a ‘lake image-complex’. On the one hand, there are a number of photographs and videos that document the pollution, foams and fires of Bangalore’s lakes. One can begin to see the scale of that archive by searching for “Bellandur” on the internet, where the lake is a site of sublime horror. The foam in these images is an alien-like presence that obscures any trace of civilization. On the other hand, carefully composed images that represent the lake as a pristine entity circulate along with those of the foam.

In the film, there is sequence where a resident from an apartment complex facing the lake shows us over a 100 photographs of sunsets. In almost every one of the photos they crop out the informal settlements and waste that surround the lake. These photographs reveal a romantic fabrication, or an “environmental fiction”, of the lake that remediates contradictions in urban development by saying to the viewer, “Look! Natural beauty is still possible in this overdeveloped city!” It’s no coincidence that what is being cropped out from the images is what is labelled unclean. This beautification drives violent cycles of eviction and privatization. I made the film because neither of the representations or positions toward the lake are satisfying to me. They both obscure the ways in which the lake is a commons—despite and perhaps because of its toxicity. I also don’t know which came first—if I made the film so I could keep going back to India, or I kept going back to India so I could make the film.

 

 

 

 

Can you say a bit more about this notion of ‘the commons' and how it operates in the film?

 

Bangalore’s keres were constructed to provide water security to the region. We call these keres “lakes”, though a more accurate translation would be “tanks”. They have always been reservoirs. In the past they held things like rainwater, aquatic life, prayers and sacrifices. But of late, they also hold more and more waste. A recent estimate says that over 300 million litres of untreated sewage flows into Bellandur each day. In one sense, we can recognize that this lake provides an important service to the city by holding its untreated waste. But that role went largely unacknowledged until the lake started to churn up foam. People now want to fence, surveil and restrict access to it in an attempt to “save” it. While this may deter some people from dumping garbage around the lake, it does not address the reasons why waste keeps showing up there. Nor does it recognize all the ways in which people access the lake for living and livelihood. Several residents of the high-rises that surround the lake regard the people who live in the informal settlements on its banks as being part of the pollution problem. Those who do the work of collecting and recycling waste are targeted for banishment along with the waste itself. The lake becomes a site where environmentalism becomes a euphemism for class-based, religious and nationalistic politics. The partitioning of waste and toxicity from “healthy” life, the fixation on eliminating the superficial signs of pollution and the pairing of people with pollution, all point to a deep alienation from the integral presence of waste within any society. I wanted to rework this partitioning by showing how the lake comes into being through use and misuse– through practices of commoning. Things like: People collecting grass from the lake’s waters as fodder, and people sorting through the garbage that piles around the lake. Pastoralists bring their animals to graze. The informal settlements generate rent for landowners who are prohibited from constructing permanent structures around the lake. Children play in those plots where construction is no longer permitted. Sex work takes place around the lake. Temples and mosques dot its banks. People from the many nearby construction sites go there to take breaks. The lake is too polluted to be a tourist site and so several counter publics emerge here. I wanted the film to provide a durational, vibrational space within which some of these entanglements could be perceived.

 

Can you talk about some specific moments or scenes in the film that you feel worked best to convey these entanglements? For me the scene where one of the children disappears or falls into the landscape is especially strong. It provides a moment of release from what otherwise is a tense build-up of spatial politics. The scene reminded me of your short for Labour in a Single Shot, where the shoes pop-up suddenly and we do not really see the hand that pushes them upward. These are scenes of play and gravity.

 

We were surprised when that happened too. I found it moving because this child was performing something between a trust fall and a suicide jump. Their body seemed to imply an ambiguous expression between “save me!” and “here it goes!”. They knew they were about to disappear! The ground had been dug up in that place. A part of the settlement had recently been demolished under the pretext of encroaching on ecologically sensitive land. It was done without notice and on the demands of the people living in the apartments that loom behind the kids. But even without knowing that detail, that jump is a powerful performance of a relationship to space that is both self-aware of its implicit precarity, and playful resistance to it.

 

Another moment in the film that I think jolts us out of simple observation is the tableau vivant of street dogs. I was filming with a friend at the time and we were trapped in a kind of stare-off-cool-down with a pack of dogs. These dogs are present throughout the film and we bonded with them over time. They are rounded up from all over the city and “dumped” there just like the trash and construction debris. They formed into packs, and there are also many puppies whom the older dogs protect. They collectively look out for any strangers who might try to enter their space. That shot, the stare-off, is filled with the tension of unresolved, interspecies communication. We stood there in place for about 10 minutes, but it felt like the stare-off could have gone on forever. Lots of thoughts and questions came to mind: —Will I always feel like an outsider to this place? —Who feels like they belong here?—Who doesn’t?— Does it matter? Are humans the most territorial animals? Etc, etc.... We had to leave at some point, so I ended the shot arbitrarily.

 

 

 

 

“Arbitrariness” is crucial to understanding most instances of inclusion/exclusion, yet when it comes to the establishment of policies, we don’t question whom they benefit and as a result we rarely think about the interiority of what gets rendered precarious by the establishment of authority. Likewise is the case with these apartments and the landscape they face. Your film shows both lake dwellings and the apartment view of the lake, but it doesn’t show a third element, which would be how the kids and those living by the lake view the apartment complexes and/or how they view any notion of an uncontaminated landscape, though the jump hints at that. Can you talk about what was useful about following the shot through until it came to this arbitrary end, and how the end in itself that so-called residual moment, speaks in the film?

 

You are talking about what I want to work on next! The Lake and The Lake was shaped partly by the deadlines and pressures of graduate school and from working in cities on opposite sides of the world. I am continuing to think about how films can intervene into the legal and environmental fictions that produce a place. What shall we do knowing that some homes are going to be considered encroachments while others are seen as developments? With the fiction of illegality that haunts some but not others? This may eventually become a series of films or strategies for producing counter-narratives.

 

Could you shed some light on other work that has influenced you?

 

For this project I looked to the work of a number of Bangalore-based scholars and activists who had lived, loved and endured life in the city: Prerna Bishnoi, Rohan D’Souza, Vishwanath Srikantaiah, Meera Baindur, Harini Nagendra, Leo Saldanha, Lata Mani and organisations like Alternative Law Forum and Environment Support Group. At the Flaherty Film Seminar last year, I had the opportunity to engage the work of Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Christopher Harris, Cauleen Smith and Sky Hopinka. The multiple ways these filmmakers use documentary methods inspires me. Their films are not trying to explain or leave audiences feeling as though they have understood the complex worlds the films dwell in. I am also deeply influenced by the time I spent working with Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran at CAMP. CAMP’s projects tend to be large scale, experimenting with media (and) infrastructures in tactical and poetic ways. I look to their work when I want to be inspired in balancing poetry, rigour and technical experimentation. They approach things at a scale and with a set of skills that I aspire to.

 

I often think about how skills impact the quality of an artwork or a film and how attaining skills is not necessarily a straightforward process but requires accumulation, mentorship, guidance, curiosity, fearlessness—and/or money. What skill of yours, gives you the most confidence as a filmmaker?

 

Yes! And learning new skills also needs the allowance to fail or not be very good at the thing one is learning. Why does it feel like it is harder and harder to access that permission, time, space? I am learning more and more these days about how to ask for help and not punish myself for not knowing something. Having said that, the things that give me confidence are: I’m curious and I’m a very patient listener and observer. I have a musical ear or a sense of musicality that guides my work even if it’s not always sonic work I am making. I try to be in rhythm with the places and people I am with, and I act from a sense of synchronicity. I pick up languages fast and feel comfortable communicating, even if I don’t speak a language fluently. I think I’m approachable and funny. That said, I also have a good enough technical and practical understanding of my tools to be able to play with them. I say good enough because I don’t know how the circuitry works, for example, and some people think that to know your tools you have to know them from that level.

 

It’s refreshing to hear someone say something good and earnest about themselves. I agree, time is the best allowance. Speaking of time, I felt like the film's temporal layout was organized like an origin myth. When I mentioned this, you agreed. Can you elaborate on what aspects of the film function thusly for you?

 

The film establishes the possibility to go beyond what we think we know about the world. In some sense, the context demands that of us. I organized the film into chapters wherein each chapter follows a different way of looking at the lake. I’m saying “looking at” but I’m also implying: relations of dwelling, breathing, dreaming and working around the lake. If the film feels mythological, perhaps it is because we rarely see the lake as a space that is produced through these social relations.

 

The ambient sounds also lend to a sense of mythic potentiality. There are several devotional songs in the film– songs in Kannada, Sanskrit and a religious speech that is performed in Bangla. And then there are the intermittent sounds of rifles firing from the nearby army barracks and jets taking off from the adjacent air force base. All of these sounds bounce over the waters of the lake, ricocheting and reaching their opposite bank like ghost messages. There is so much to this space that comes alive when one listens and doesn’t just look on from a distance.

 

Mythologies are built upon this prismatic notion of seeing a thing in various ways.

 

The foam also has a strongly mythic quality to it.

 

Definitively! In the scene where it moves around with the wind, it’s almost as though the foam acquires human characteristics. Foam is white too just like a spectre or ghost!

 

In several cosmologies, new gods and new worlds are created out of foam (frothing seas, churning of cosmic milk, etc). Here, foam is the afterlife of waste. What is it that’s emerging from it? Toxicity doesn’t equal death, or a negatively charged existence. There are so many forms of life that are proximal to toxicity and are not toxic. In what way was it like an origin myth for you? I’m curious.

 

In the need to find an explicatory form to come to terms with the ambivalence that is produced between a destroyed landscape or condition and the precarity of needing, or choosing to live around/through it. Origin myths are metaphorical forms of cruel optimism. Through them we recuperate ignorance as a tool for survival. I guess I am saying that to some degree those high-rise dwellers too, are striving towards their own survival (at the expense of others sure, but they want a piece of the fantasy rather than adjust to the reality that they too, might be precariously hanging out there, thus their image crops). Myths enable control over a narrative. What we cannot control, what we cannot direct, is somehow within our control because we have a myth, a metaphor or a metonymic stand-in for it. That’s one way to think of myths. But in the film, the origin of the foam is clearly capitalism itself. So that opens up a broader question: What is your approach to aesthetics?

 

For me, aesthetics precedes judgements of taste or beauty. Everything, including noise, trash and data, has aesthetic qualities to it. There already exists a strong aesthetic dimension to these toxic lakes. The sights, sounds and particularly, the smells are so strong there. We would often feel lightheaded after spending an afternoon filming. I had daydreams from inhaling the pungent fumes emitted from the water. Traces of those daydreams snuck into the film. The lake is also a calm place, tucked away from the chaos of the city. It is a place of rest and refuge even as it is toxic. This combination of its aesthetic qualities is rarely represented together because it doesn’t serve to produce a crisis. Showing a toxic place as a place of joy, play, work and devotion was important to me because we don’t have many models to think about what it means to live with toxicity (the existing narratives are mostly about being against toxicity). The film provides a durational space for an audience to take in these affective registers, to consider themselves as neighbours to it. We hear people talking in the film but I am less intent on asking for information than I am in hearing the grain of their voice. I lean closer to inhalations, exhalations and laughter. I think it is important to hear laughter in this place.

 

 

 

 

On that note, what would you make of a concept like necroposcene: an era defined more by what is toxic, sick and dead in the world, than by what is still alive in it? I’m proposing this in contrast to the anthropocene (the idea that this era is defined by the ways in which humans have altered the landscape) and in contrast to the capitalocene (what the private interests of industry and corporations have done to the planet). Do you see the film as presenting some sort of hopeful or optimistic view of this ecological situation? I don’t mean by necroposcene that we should be doing a forensic analysis of the state of the world because that is pathological rather, I mean that this awareness can yield to a restructuring in our thinking to include the ambiguity that is survival into the narratives, myths or stories we write into the world.

 

A friend recently shared documentation from a meeting between government officials and NGO stakeholders who were discussing how the toxicity of lake water is measured. They talked about the parameters for determining “acceptable levels of pollution”. Guess what they do. They place a fish in a sample of the water and wait to see how long it survives. If a certain species of carp survives for more than a certain number days then the pollution levels are deemed “good enough”. So even within this so-called rational space of governance, it is life and the capacity of life to outlive toxicity that determines how we make sense of that very toxicity. —A fish decides! One could listen to this interview and think, oh these people are twisted for killing these fish, etc, and go into the rescue mode. Somehow I was thinking, oh, the fish could mutate and throw all their calculations off! Life can do that! I don’t want to sound plainly optimistic here either because resilience too is capitalized and exploited. We know that suffering and resilience come together and in cycles. So, following Gramsci: “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” And speaking of fish, can I tell you about something that happened when I was making some field recordings last year? I noticed a creature splashing in the water near me, probably as big as a dog, but with orange skin. I couldn’t tell if I was seeing scales or if it was winged in some way. I wasn’t sure if it was a catfish. I was told that they can grow to be quite large, and that they are the only creatures that can survive in such anaerobic waters. I couldn’t believe the color I had seen. Catfish are supposed to be black. I was wondering if I was imagining something, or if it was the fumes I was breathing. It dipped back into the water—had it seen me? I stood there stunned for a moment imagining the mutant fish swimming away into the deeper pools of the lake. I imagined that it would rest there in the dark waters under layers of foam and hyacinth, where sunlight can barely reach. The sounds of the city would fall through and sediment at the bottom of the lake like particulate matter. There, along with inscription stones, gold, trash, centuries of dust and silt, they would accumulate. Keres are reservoirs, afterall. The government was considering allowing a multinational company to dredge the lake, to turn what they called a “mineral rich minefield” into a source of energy that they would want to sell back to us. Were these the minerals that turned the catfish orange? What else would they find in there, I thought, that would become ‘theirs’ to sell back to ‘us’?

 

Gramsci, minerals and catfish. I like it!

 

 

Fabiola Carranza is a visual artist and writer. She’s currently enrolled in a PhD program at the University of California, in San Diego. Her play, The Mexican Husband, is slated to be published by Blank Cheque Press. 

 

Editorial Support from Lauren Lavery

 

All images are stills from Sindhu Thirumalaisamy's The Lake and The Lake.

 

 

 

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