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Speaker Spotlight: Pallavi Paul

Artist Pallavi Paul will be showing her new work Terra Firma at the Fitzwilliam Museum from 24th October to 4th February and will also be doing an in-conversation session about it on 27th October. The work is an artistic response to ideas of truth, secrecy and espionage.

 

What inspired Terra Firma?

Pallavi Paul: The ideas behind Terra Firma, have actually been with me since 2014, when I got an opportunity to work at the National Archives in London. I came across the official file of Noor Inayat Khan, a Special Operations Executive agent of Indian origin. Now this is very interesting because she has virtually no presence in popular history in India. Due to the colonial domination of India by the British empire it is inconvenient to speak about a person of Indian origin who became a British spy. This was further complicated by the fact that she belonged to an illustrious family who are also celebrated as heroes of the resistance against colonialism. However, the official record of her life in Britain is also full of erasures and contradictions. Many inconsistencies kept jumping out at me while I was going through these records. She dies many times over, in different ways, in her file which reads almost like a dystopic science fiction novel. More than a biographical case study, her story became a way of entering the larger territory of truth-making, secrecy, political memory and strategic silence. When I came back to Cambridge this summer, I wanted to pick up on these ideas. Bletchley Park, which was not far from where I was, seemed like a good place to do that. An especially moving archive there is the oral history project being headed by Jonathan Byrne. To hear former secret agents and other workers of Bletchley Park, who are now well into their 90s, trying to narrativise their experiences became the basis of Terra Firma. What does one do with declassified memory? How can the keeper of secrets be asked to exchange roles with the historian? Is 'code' the only respite from the blunt onslaught of truth? One particular story of a former spy who became a peripatetic flute teacher after the war ended helped me a lot with the form that the text took.

 

How does it compare to your previous works?

PP: It depends on what counts when one is comparing this work to the works I have done in the past. Conceptually this is a further enquiry into the ideas I have been exploring through moving image works, texts, installations and reading performances. How an occurrence or an encounter is inducted in language to render it believable is part of a political process. One may not realise it as such because our everyday ways of speaking about truth and reality seem quite innocent and detached from the larger currents of world-making. However, to note the fact that we are all implicated in the narrative of truth, rather than an essential 'truth', makes us more aware of our stake in the future. To this extent this work too is part of that process for me. In other ways it is quite different from what I have done before. This is the first time I am working within a museum and also this is my first carpet.          

 

How would you define truth in the context of your installation?

PP: Truth works both as strategy and provocation in all my works. It is a placeholder for an orbit of sensations and relationships. This in no way means that its potency is diminished: rather its grip on public life seems to be getting tighter as its veracity is being increasingly questioned. In this climate it becomes productive to study the choreography of truth, the ways in which it moves - as opposed to debate its essential merits and existence. If there is 'truth', there must also be a story of the truth. It is the story of the truth that occupies this work.   

 

Do you think art can reveal deeper truths than, say, journalism or at least ask questions about the truths we believe?

PP: I think the imagination of truth-making as an archaeological exercise is not very useful. It produces a hierarchy of experience. Many thought systems like religion, for example, do this - where the truth of God is placed higher than the truth of the world. What this leads us to is a dead end where to know the truth is an act of redemption from the world. The deeper the truth the more far away it is from the messiness of the world. I think what art does is emphasise the need to return to the surface, to experience not as hierarchy but as endless horizon - a lateral movement of flows and currents. The preparation for this world needs to be done via a range of knowledge practices with their own specific rigour. Journalism which is politically committed to an ethically robust society will only contribute to this. It is important to know how things happen in order to see possibilities.    

 

Has the political context in India influenced Terra Firma?

PP: Like the rest of the world, India is part of a disturbing global wave of right-wing resurgence. In these circumstances the questions of truth production become more charged.   

 

In what way is information like code?

PP: I recently came across a formulation called 'responsive philosophy' on a website that was speaking about how specific information is being shared with readers through certain kinds of code. Web experiences, it noted, are now customised to devices, time of day, location, browsing history and preferences. Why this is interesting is because information is now being openly looked at in aesthetic terms and code is the interface through which this vantage point is being produced. Information as 'objective' is at best relegated to  the domain of nostalgia.  This also helps us review the way in which code was deployed in past - rather than being a means of transferring information from point A to B, we can now begin to look at code as expression, code as empathy, code as response and code as imagination.

 

What is it about the mechanics of truth production that most interests you?

PP: The most interesting thing is the agility of the forms of truth production, the deep urgency and need for them and also the everyday irreverence towards them. The image that I can conjure to describe this is of an automated assembly line that spits out replicas of the same toy, but each piece has a unique and secret difference, discoverable not to the engineer but to the children who will play with them - a glitch in the code, an opening into the world.   

 

What are you working on now?

PP: I am currently researching a new film project.