Infinite Resistance: Sahej Rahal Interview

Ahead of his exhibition in CCA this month, Sahej Rahal discusses the protest politics and texts of resistance that inspired the work that he will show

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 07 Sep 2017

Sahej Rahal has come to CCA Glasgow for a chat, via Helensburgh where he is currently in residence at Cove Park. Here at CCA, he is presenting a major solo show titled Barricadia. For this, he combines historical and theoretical visions of a better world, as well as bringing in his own experiences of radical activism and resistance in India and, more recently, in Scotland.

As a first premise, Rahal surveys his interactions with friends and those around him: “there’s this tacit agreement that things could be better. So what are the contours of that better place? This was becoming the meat of the conversation I was having with everyone, everywhere.”

Some of the urgency of acknowledging these exchanges came from Rahal’s proximity to 'Not in My Name' protestors in India. Following the actions of the Hindu Nationalist Party, who are responsible for a general curtailing of a lot of behaviour and expression, vigilante groups began to appear. They call themselves “cow protectors”, and they commit acts of violence on someone who they suspect might be holding beef in their houses. “They actually checked what meat was in their house after they were lynched.” There was nothing.

One of the most publicised events of this protest took place just over two months ago, on 28 June. While the pattern of violence caused by extreme vigilante extensions of state power continued for some time, what eventually motivated the huge 28 June action was the killing of 16-year-old Junaid Khan, after he had been castigated for being Muslim and presumed “beef eater”, the term that had been shouted at him by a mob following an argument over train seats.

Rahal associates the Nationalist Party in power in India as – to an extent – part of the present “shape of the world we live in everywhere right now.” For this reason, while in Scotland he’s sought to find out how people organise here. Following this thread, he visited the anti-nuclear protest camps in Faslane. Here, he shot footage that will appear as one element in the exhibition this month.

“It was interesting to see how they were organising. In the Ploughshares [a satellite protest camp at the Faslane nuclear facility], they were organising the protest through music. They were practising, literally handing the songs that had just been printed out, and I got to shoot them while they were preparing to learn how to sing.”

It was an important way for Rahal to reconsider the presumption of protest as an “outburst of emotion and affect,” or more generally the image of protest as chaotic or disorganised. “So the preparatory act of this protest became a way of seeing how it is structured. It became a way for me of thinking about how would people prepare for this utopic imaginary space” and the kind of better world that is the topic of most of his conversations with friends and colleagues.

More generally, this video work will be set in the midst of different sculptures and multimedia work. “One of the ways I work is almost like bricolage.” He describes finding and accruing elements, bringing elements of documentary and then performances into the work. In this vein, as well as the documentary footage, Rahal also includes a music video and performances: “these absurd kind of rituals.” In the tongue-in-cheek performances, he features “foreboding shamanic figures that are displaced across space and time, that don’t really know what they’re doing. [They are] these didactic, masculine figures who are lost” and have lost their GPS connection.

Also featuring in the show as part of this critical amassing mash-up, Rahal’s including a “grimoire” in the show – an archaic-sounding fantasy term for a book of magic and spells. For Barricadia’s grimoire, Rahal assembles intellectually famous figures like Italian writer Italo Calvino and poet-artist Marcel Broodthaers, along with some of the more shadowy corners of last century intelligentsia, like Nick Land of the futuristic and tech centric Accelerationists, whose theories have become associated with strains of old right wing politics. As well as right wing fundamentalism, Land was associated with theory-fiction writing and speculative realism.

Speaking in greater detail of some of the clay objects that he’s made on residence in Cove Park, Rahal mentions that there will be fetish objects, tools, weapons. With these, there will be dioramas, the kind that come in playsets or an architectural plan,  so that creates a sense of what the objects might be used for if the suggested society existed. Looking simultaneously archaic and made in the present moment, “there’s a cyclical structure that’s immediately dismantled when you see, for example, the music video.”

Going into greater detail on the music video, he hopes operates as a surprising or incongruous addition to the grimoire and shamanistic rituals, “there’s a creation myth. Without giving too much away, there’s a procession, then a voiceover about a DJ, who comes from an ancient line of DJs who were apparently exorcists who would scare away demons and witches using their music.” Then Rahal likely gives away more info than he’d intended as we excitedly talk about what sounds like a mysterious and intriguing film work.

Speaking more generally, he goes on, “There’s all of these weird narratives, structures and voices floating in the background, attempting at creating structures to these objects. But what I hope is that when people enter the space, they bring their own narratives and memories. [They] will have these absurd objects in front of them and they will reconstruct Barricadia in their own tone. You could think of all the objects I’m creating as toys, something to play with, rather than fixed or hinged in themselves.”

Thinking about how different theories and histories feature in the show, Rahal describes one sense he has of the present moment and how ideas and concepts circulated. “Not really about the show, even more generally and in a larger sense, where we are in history there’s a strange kind of knowingness we have.” He thinks of, for example, the way that critical Marxism, deconstructionist writers like Baudrillard, or feminist texts like The Second Sex circulate through the internet, memes and actually reading them. At the same time as having these “tools” present with us, they all exist at the same time as the things they are railing against: global capitalism, imperialism, sexual politics.

He mentions the motion of passing milestones as part of a progressive history no longer being appropriate or convincing. As nationalism and border-closing increases with rampancy, he characterises the past as “that person everyone knows that has the worst opinions on things” resurging. One potential response he suggests is salvaging ideas of Marxism, for one, from being passé or cliché and putting them to action. Though he qualifies: “Sometimes it’s okay to be cliché because the demons we face are cliché." In particular he thinks of the Ploughshares camps and people teaching one another protest songs, that answer one particularly apposite question: “How do we learn how to say ‘no’ again?”

Rahal is careful not to think of this present moment as unique or distinct from the past, and speculates that it’ll likely come again in the future. “If we are facing some weird ideas that are from a feudal past, then the resistance [is also there]. What I’m trying to create is... a continuum of hope. The hope for a better world has to be eternal as well, if things against it and the world we live in right now is a monster from the past that didn’t die, then resistance also didn’t die.”

Sahej Rahal: Barricadia, CCA, Glasgow, from 16 Sep to 29 Oct