we’re premiering two new video works by surabhi saraf…
here, surabhi answers a few questions about her project, “remedies.”
todd: tell me about your family’s pharmaceutical factory.
surabhi: My family acquired Wilcure Remedies in 1982 and my father is the managing director. About 65 people work there, producing and packaging the medicines we manufacture, which can broadly be categorized as tablets, capsules and syrups.
Making each type of medicine is a distinct process. Government safety protocols call for each to be contained, so the factory was constructed with a lot of small rooms that mimic the flow of the process of the medicine being produced. This configuration obviously makes sense to the workers, but to me, particularly as a child, it has always been a big maze where I’d wander aimlessly, watching in wonder as white powder was turned to tablets.
I recently visited the factory after being away a long time and was struck by the fact that the old machines that I remembered from my childhood were still there, juxtaposed with new, state-of-the-art machines. The idea for this project came from the rich layering of sounds of the aging, but well maintained machines, combined with the very precise and sharp-sounding new equipment. I was also mesmerized by the repetitive movements of the machines and factory workers and lost myself in the rhythms.. I hope to create a similar experience for the audiences of my sound and performance works.
todd: you’re using the processes for making medicines as a metaphor… tell me about that.
surabhi: Having grown up in this factory and with its workers, I see medicine manufacturing through a personal, more human, lens. Modern medicines are the products of industrialized, sanitary, mechanical processes. Yet they are being produced for the consumer to ingest them — an intimate act that creates private bodily experiences — in the hope of healing themselves. I want to draw parallels between the healing properties of both medicine and meditation.
todd: how so?
surabhi: The medicines are made through the repetitious mechanical movements of the machines. Repetition is such a complex thing. You hear the word and immediately think of something mundane and banal — we often associate repetition with boredom. But repetition is a powerful pattern recognition device, used with great success by man and machine alike. It breeds familiarity. It gives us comfort, a feeling of home, of belonging. Repetitive rhythms can ground us in our noisy, distracting world… give us an anchor.
Repetition is also the foundation for basic meditation techniques. Meditation practices often begin by asking you to focus on breathing: breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out, repeat, repeat, repeat. In manufacturing, repetition underlies what the machinery does — each does one thing, and does it over and over and over again. In my work, repetition is a tool to find focus and give the mind the space to wander and get lost in the moment and sound. The videos are ruminations on movement as well as a meditative experience in and of themselves.
th: do you have a meditation practice?
surabhi: I’m drawn to the idea of meditation but have always struggled with the practice. Creating art that utilizes the tools and techniques of meditation is a step closer for me, and I hope, my audience.
todd: how does your background in dance and music impact your work?
surabhi: My family was musically-inclined and I took lessons in Kathak and Hindustani classical when I was growing up. Later, at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda, I tried to communicate music through my paintings. After college I experimented a bit with live performances, sound installations and videos and got interested enough in the medium to apply for an MFA Program.
I think these experiences add a sense of theatricality to my performances. I learned how to play with the audiences’ expectations. And having a background in dance brings a strong sense of movement to my work.. not just visually but also sonically through multichannel surround sound experiences. I often start from visual scores similar to those I use for my choreographies, for directing how performers would move in space.
todd: based on works like fold and peel and these new works, you seem to be exploring ideas about labor… is there anything political in that interest?
surabhi: I’m interested in mundane and repetitive actions. Yes, those things are often associated with issues about labor.. but I’m concerned with the formal aspects rather than the political dimensions.
That said, this project would never have happened if not for the human aspect of this manufacturing loop. Those archaic machines still exist in my father’s factory because he refuses to lay off any of his employees – some of whom have been with us for more than twenty years.
todd: color seems to be important in these works… do you want to talk about that?
surabhi: The inspiration for color comes primarily from the factory environment — mostly gray from the steel machines with pops of color from the tablets and capsules. Also, dressing the performers in neutral tones focuses the viewer on their movement. I think the most exciting color in the video came from the red floor at SOMArts, it gives a beautiful warmth to what would have been a typical cold and clinical factory environment.
todd: this is the biggest and most complicated production you’ve done. was there anything about the process that surprised you or was particularly difficult, or rewarding?
surabhi: Thus far my projects have been just me, from conceptualization to execution, so I’m used to a process in which I’m fully in control.
One of the biggest challenges for me in such a broad, collaborative production was to find the right team — choreographer, dancers, light and sound designers, production crew — who understood my vision. But then, most importantly, letting go and trusting each part of the team with creative wiggle room.
The same challenge has been the most rewarding as well — seeing something take shape from the original ideas in my head to a concrete realization that’s larger than the sum of the parts.
click here for a trailer for the video: http://vimeo.com/108134657