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Decolonial Hacker
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Decolonial Hacker critically examines cultural institutions, their alliances, interests and behaviour. Born of a desire to entrench more consistent and collective engagement with institutional critique, Decolonial Hacker operates through a web browser extension that “hacks” institutions’ URLs with commissioned criticism, and an online platform that archives these texts. The extension activates when a user logs onto an institution’s website, dissolving their webpage to reveal an article that analyses certain problematics of that place informed by decolonial politics at large – for instance, pillaged colonial objects, funding sources and labour conditions.

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Decolonial Hacker critically examines cultural institutions, their alliances, interests and behaviour. Born of a desire to entrench more consistent and collective engagement with institutional critique, Decolonial Hacker operates through a web browser extension that “hacks” institutions’ URLs with commissioned criticism, and an online platform that archives these texts. The extension activates when a user logs onto an institution’s website, dissolving their webpage to reveal an article that analyses certain problematics of that place informed by decolonial politics at large – for instance, pillaged colonial objects, funding sources and labour conditions.

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Twitter

This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body. We acknowledge the ongoing violence and dispossession which characterises the so-called settler-colony of “Australia” and pay full respects to First Nations peoples past, present and emerging.

Archive
SHOBUN BAILE — TRUST STUDY #1 (2020)
Screening: 28 JUNE 2022 - 12 JULY 2022
SHOBUN BAILE — TRUST STUDY #1 (2020)
Screening: 28 JUNE 2022 - 12 JULY 2022
SHOBUN BAILE — TRUST STUDY #1 (2020)
Screening: 28 JUNE 2022 - 12 JULY 2022
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Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, a large marble building, pictured in the 1950s. Source: Al Jazeera/Moti Sing Srimal.

A Rickshaw Ride Through History, or, The Refashioning of India’s Heritage Cities

05 November 2021
Decolonial Hacker
Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Government of India
Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Government of India
Calcutta Architectural Legacies
Calcutta Architectural Legacies
HRIDAY India
HRIDAY India
Words
Shinjini Dey
05 November 2021
Decolonial Hacker
Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Government of India
Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Government of India
Calcutta Architectural Legacies
Calcutta Architectural Legacies
HRIDAY India
HRIDAY India
Words
Shinjini Dey

The mall looms large; we weave through the narrow lanes of Kasba, Kolkata, beneath its gleaming front. The motor of the e-rickshaw hums underneath my feet, its frame packaged in sleek assembly line material: a fibreglass cage attached to an electric battery.

“When did the structure change?” I ask the middle-aged man ferrying me.

He turns around, one eye on the road, and gauges my curiosity. I knock on the fibreglass. The traditional scrap metal—hammered, curved, and bearing the name of the local manufacturer—is gone.

“A few weeks ago. Some of us were given the rickshaw by lottery,” he replies.

“Many?”

“Only some. The union said there would be a lottery. I went and got it. The others in my line did not.”

I scoff and squirm against the upholstery. “So what? Will the rest of the rickshawwallahs have to buy it when electric vehicles become mandatory?” He turns around, cracking a thin smile. “Quite likely,” he says. “What about the hand-pulled rickshaws?”

“Near Ballygunj?”

“And everywhere else. The ‘heritage’ ones. Are those being exchanged for these?”

He laughs. “Those?” I have already caught his drift. “Those will be the last to go.”

contents

The modernity and urbanity of Kolkata—second city of Empire, failed industrial hub of the postcolonial nation—located itself in steel and electricity, coal and steam, ports and bridges. The rickshaw is a relic of this aspirational and colonial infrastructure.

The rickshaw was brought to India in 1880. Men hefted the bulky iron frame onto their shoulders to transport passengers across the streets of Kolkata, moving slowly even as they ran beside horse-drawn carriages. The rickshaw was once normalized and invisible, but now it is a subject of history: in cinemas, calendars, hoardings, ministry brochures, museums and amateur photographs.

The rickshaw is an emblem of Kolkata. Every few years, a moral outrage threatens to relegate the fragile vehicle to the scrap yard—did it not represent indentured labour under the Raj?

The reformed rickshaw—a three-wheeled cycle attached to a two-seater—has replaced most of the hand-pulled rickshaws across the city. More recent reforms are ‘greener’ and ‘smarter’ tuk-tuks or e-rickshaws, all fibreglass and battery-powered, strengthened to ply pockmarked streets. These have been gradually installed in rich residential areas or in potential ‘smart cities’—areas that have been modernized through ubiquitous technological installations, all geared towards the collection of data and its optimization. Kasba and Rajarhat, once populated by labourers from Tangra’s tanneries and working-class farmers of Sonarpur, is now home to a flailing logistics/IT sector. With the e-rickshaw and the tuk-tuk, this informal, union-led, unorganized labour sector has entered the automobile market.

Each rickshawwallah is now a driver with their own unique biometric identification. But the rickshaws are expensive and the batteries require yearly replacement; most manual rickshaw workers cannot afford such an investment. With this excuse, ride-sharing apps like Ola and Uber have been acting as third-party suppliers of vehicles, leasing them to drivers on the condition that monthly payments are made. The old communist vanguard wanted to phase out the vehicle but the current Trinamool Congress never promised the same. As plans for development become election promises, only some manual rickshaws are replaced for e-rickshaws, producing a technological transformation so piecemeal it appears as ornamentation.

Elsewhere, the rickshaw returns to the trappings of an object. An acrylic painted skeletal form adorns the exterior of a gallery and studio in Hindustan Park, right next to a quaint café. The café, too, boasts of artistry and the beauty of accidental heirlooms—its interiors are cobbled together with odds and ends to achieve curated asymmetry. Rusted pipes, old turquoise mosaic tiles as tables, small mirrors and scarves, coloured sockets, each square inch a frame. Next to each other, the two buildings signal towards kitsch, and through that mingling, fragments of a history and legacy.

I always meet my friends at these cafes, my friends, all of whom belong to the arts and the academy, who remind me that the coffee is good here. When one such café is teeming with people, we walk for a minute and find another just like it—a café retaining the structure of the house that came before it, hollowed out of its inhabitants and filled with dimming light, its green venetian windows part of the decor. Seated, we see others just like us—students, early career researchers, old professors and teachers, publishers, the upwardly mobile office-going crowd. The longer you spend in a city, the easier it is to recognize the contours and shape of a class in a single individual. We wonder why the old return to this city to settle down, we pontificate about the allure of the language and the transport. ‘What is it about Kolkata that every inhabitant claims a stake in this cultural and regional pride?’

E-rickshaws. Source: The Telegraph, India
E-rickshaws. Source: The Telegraph, India

Sometimes, we eavesdrop, and something of this practiced regionalism creeps into our gossip. We point and say: these people are the business class, these are the non-Bengalis. We point at the handpicked books and say, wouldn’t our friends love to read this?

The Gentrification of Heritage: Calcutta Architectural Legacies Project

Since 2016, the citizen-led initiative, the Calcutta Architectural Legacies Project (CAL) has aimed to protect and preserve a particular artifact: the old residential houses of the eighteenth and nineteenth century—constructed by ‘anonymous builders and masons’—just as Calcutta gazed upon the allure of modern cosmopolitanism. The houses lining the streets of Bakulbagan, Hindustan Park, Kidderpore, Paddapukur, Bhowanipore, Ballygunj and others present a unique legacy and heritage, a ‘jumble’ and a ‘jugaad’ of architectural styles instead of a discernible characteristic1. Unlike other public work initiatives, like the People’s United for Better Living In Calcutta (PUBLIC) or Kolkata Environment Improvement Project (KEIP), the CAL has focused on art and architecture and held court in influential venues2.

Officially, the protection and preservation of heritage sites depends upon mandated state and central governmental bodies. A plot of land containing a town, a monument old enough to confer religious significance, a place of birth and death, or an object of historical or social weight can be classified within three tiers of priority and then verified. In the state, the West Bengal Heritage Commission can verify claims or classify cultural artifacts as heritage, pass laws to protect it from sale, redevelopment or vandalism and even nominate it to be classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site, conferring further protective measures.

Bengal also has a host of other museums and libraries, most of them established as part of the colonial civilizing mission which have their own, fraught, curatorial practices3. On a national scale, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), a right-wing conservative government in power for the last eight years, have spearheaded the Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY) in 2015, bringing twelve cities into its fold to celebrate their particular religious and cultural import. These projects arrive on the heels of the UNESCO recommendation to preserve Historic Urban Landscapes in 2011.

Alongside these projects, CAL demands legislative reform to reclassify the heritage of the city itself, framing the view of the street (viewed from the ground) as a unique aesthetic experience—much like the High Streets Heritage Action Zones in London or the Berlin Modernism Housing Estates.

Art Deco architecture in Kolkata. Source: Deepanjan Ghosh.
Art Deco architecture in Kolkata. Source: Deepanjan Ghosh.

The most plausible reason for CAL’s small modicum of success can be ascribed to the description of a particular antagonist: the real estate market. CAL reports that the real estate market has been bulldozing these heritage houses of the city for larger housing projects or town planning, sometimes with the consent of the ignorant owner, and sometimes coercively with the help of local party officials. CAL suggests that properties sold to real estate agents be exchanged through a transfer of property rights, transforming land value to architectural value. New homes, hotels, cafes, stores, and even gyms could then be established within the pre-existing structure once it has been sold. The boutique stores and cafes I describe lining Hindustan Park have changed hands in this manner—although many similar properties are currently being delisted and auctioned off to the highest bidder. The success I mention is relative and contextual.

Art Deco architecture in Kolkata. Source: Deepanjan Ghosh.
Art Deco architecture in Kolkata. Source: Deepanjan Ghosh.

But history is fickle in the hands of a country; success is always relative, prelude to a riot, swaying like a flag4. Once history has been claimed, it can be demolished; once law changes hands (as it so often does), another past can be revived, a temple built, a power wielded. What permanence and protection can ‘heritage’ claim after the demolition of Babri Masjid on 6 December, 1992? What does law and legislative reform count for when the construction of a Ram temple can begin during a pandemic (in August 2020) built over the same site that was systematically razed?

In his essay, ‘The Cult of Monuments’, Alois Reigl states that all cultural artifacts are identified and cared for on the basis of three distinctive memory values: a commemorative value, a historic value or an age value, although these values are often derived in combination or exclusion5. Commemorative value is deliberate and functional; the artifact working as a mnemonic device, such as a memorial site or tomb. Historic value represents something fundamental in the development of the human, and the artifact demands perpetuity and timelessness. Age value, however, is the delight in ruins: in change and material dissolution. In this frame, cultural artifacts like the aforementioned residences of Calcutta represent humanistic development whose conservation confers a historic value upon their material fabric(s). This is the history of the bhadralok within an urban cosmopolitanism, the dream of internationalism instead of the globalization we have been saddled with.

But memory is a ghost, a spectre, an abstraction. As art, architecture conspires with memory. The heart of the CAL project is neither art nor architecture but home. The home is peopled, roomed, ‘in the shape of a life grown old’6. The memory may be singular, but the home never remains static or uniform. The citizen in the shade of this conservationist project is the propertied, the homeowner. Each monumental memory holds renovation and dispossession. In the writings of Amit Chaudhuri—the mascot of the CAL project—Reigl’s age value is distinctly idealized, and his dismay about ‘gentrification and boutiquification’ appears to privilege a less interventional conservational practice, akin to how one would treat the maintenance of a loved home. Moreover, age value is pronounced in Chaudhuri’s idea of modernity, an age already past. This modernity is aestheticized, explained as ‘born with the aura of inherited decay and life’7. Elsewhere, he claims that ‘urban dereliction can be beautiful'8. This is the modernity that Partha Chatterjee will call ‘ours’ as an ambiguous response to the colonial project9. The CAL project desires to remember it, hopefully without nostalgia.

This is different from the historic value sought by the large-scale project of HRIDAY. These sites belong entirely to the past, painted a specific saffron, dotted across the country in many smaller ancient cities like Varanasi or Ayodhya. Varanasi, for example, is a city revered as the locus of many Hindu myths; its ghats on the river Ganga, in particular, are a pilgrimage site and a ritual cremation ground. In 2014 and 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi campaigned (and won) his parliamentary seat from the banks of Varanasi.  HRIDAY too is concerned with modernity, albeit one where history is made mappable, accessible, even mutable. Here, the guarantee of a networked Brahminical Hindu tradition hopes to make urban migration a pilgrimage10.

Art Deco architecture in Kolkata. Source: Deepanjan Ghosh.
Art Deco architecture in Kolkata. Source: Deepanjan Ghosh.
Art Deco architecture in Kolkata. Source: Deepanjan Ghosh.

2021 and beyond

In line with the Government’s COVID-19 roadmap to re-opening the country, the doors open on 17 May 2021.

 

Almost all of the Barbican’s casual staff don’t show up for front-of-house shifts. They have moved out of London or found employment in places that value them more. The Barbican’s creative upper class have to become hosts and invigilators to open the centre.

Barbican Stories is published.

 

Barbican employees are shocked at the stories and recollections of racism in the book. They can’t believe that this is all true and so they dive into their minority workforce to find out for themselves, once and for all. Unconvinced and under mounting public pressure, the Barbican hires an external consultant (a friend of a director) to publish a public race report that concludes that whilst the Barbican could do better, there is no systemic issue.

 

2,000 workers across London’s cultural sector create a picket line in solidarity with Barbican workers. The demands of the protest are impossible and necessary.

 

During the Barbican’s opening concert, as the conductor enters the stage to fill the auditorium with music, it is instead filled with the sound of 400 people standing up and leaving the orchestra on stage with no audience. A violinist cries.

 

All the employees of colour evacuate and the Barbican is left with a purely white workforce. There is a palpable sigh of collective relief: If there’s no one but white people, then we can’t be racist! 

 

Artists stop aligning themselves with backward institutions so cultural producers at the Barbican have to become artists to fill the programme.

 

Whiteness clings to the walls like moisture. Visitors are too ashamed to cross the picket line.

Coffees go undrunk, B R U T A L tote bags collect cobwebs, the conservatory grows wild. The ducks leave the lake in solidarity. Old Barbican guides litter the foyer. The orange carpet turns grey with dirt.

Eventually, audiences don’t need a picket to stop them from coming to the centre. A primed and ready-to-pay cultural audience now reflects the fastest growing demographic in London. Now, these younger and more diverse audiences that make up the city’s landscape find different and better cultural spaces that actually care about them and reflect their lives without skirting around the ugly facts. Why see another token diversity event when there are now whole institutions dedicated to the complexity of the diaspora?

One by one, lights are cut from the Barbican’s many rooms and offices, as they grow dusty in the absence of people. Moss grows between the cracks in the concrete.

 

The only room that remains open is the directorate office.

 

The directors maintain a throne of old catalogues, leaflets and newspaper clippings, in a never-ending meeting where the only thing on the agenda is to dust. 

 

One unremarkable day, the Barbican ruins collapses in on itself. The debris blows away to reveal an ON SALE sign.

 

The only thing worth anything at the Barbican is the land it used to occupy (and even that won’t cover the debt left behind by the brutal beast).

 

Blitz Property Developers find EC2Y 8DS and they love a bargain.

 

Once again, the site is raised by the Blitz.

Despite varying conceptions of modernity, the citizen’s institution and the national(ist) project go through the same processes, the same courts of legality and the same markets of the iconic/exotic, as they move from one local listing to an international one. In the manner in which it exists, heritage only obscures its fetishistic character. CAL’s attempt to revive the urban through the moral imperative of law will always produce gentrification, the congealing of a history into a flavour or character, producing a modernity that fits into the embedded and simultaneously exhibited.

Urban Planning via Techno-capitalism

The post-Independence Kolkata city has never attained the same fervent activity it did under the British. Some blame it on lack of colonial resources, some mourn the partition, some bemoan the flight of capital after the Naxalbari riots, some claim that the Bengali bhadralok (much less the working man) is inherently incapable of collecting rents or doing ‘business’, some claim deindustrialization or fragmented proletarization and underdevelopment, some still say that the central government has crippled it with debt. The city throngs with a sense of injustice so double-edged it becomes cinematic: streets named after the auteurs of social realism, walls thick with blazoning bills against capitalism. Origins are doubted: did the thirty-year-long communist government capitalize on this sense of victimization or did it produce it, with our contemporary still carrying the stench?

The city continues, metro line stretching into the semi-urban through demolition—inhabitants promised relocation/inadequate compensations—for the flashier development of profitable enterprises. Along the stretching eight-lane Eastern Metropolitan Bypass, several starred hotels build floating swimming pools and restaurants, while above it extends the 9.2 kilometre long Maa flyover (opened up in 2019) and the proposed stanchions of the Chingrighata flyover, bypassing environmental concerns about damaging the ecosystem like it had in the 1980s to build Salt Lake City. Land grabs in the present economy derive legitimacy from colonial laws that destroyed the wetlands—the ‘organic’ classified as the ‘public’ or ‘government owned.’ Ecological crisis is regarded as opportunity.

Despite Kolkata’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, championing a ‘greener’ city, efforts have moved in a singular fashion towards technological and financial transformation. Locales like Kasba, Ballygunj, Rashbehari Road, Tollygunj, and Hindustan Parkare are outfitted with fibre optic cables—CCTVs and drone technology gaze upon the debris of residential skyscrapers, and rampant investment and freedom has been accorded to logistical companies (data mining and analytics, fintech, blockchain),cybersecurity and cybernetic development (facial tech, e-governance, etc.).

Smart city development and e-governance measures tend to materialize slowly and unevenly across high density areas of interconnection, lacking the necessary infrastructural stability to build on disparate topologies11. Outfitting with ubiquitous tech or the Internet of Things (IoT) makes a city unable to shift and adapt over time or space, producing dissimilitude and dissonance, warranting (corporate) mediation.

When a city is established over the old co-operative or public land, everything becomes privatized. The tenders of roads and rails float on the internet only to enable the supply chains of e-commerce—enabled by the situational information produced within a smart city—as informal labour and the local kirana store become obsolete. The embedding of technologies in the smart city begins to make the spaces visible to the structures of control, whether social or technical, while producing a growing surveillance industry12.

A smart city is likely to capture and collect on pre-existing infrastructure as well as pre-existing epistemes. As the city renders itself visible on remote sensing and spatial technologies, the by-lanes grow narrower and busier. The old can seamlessly meld into the new in already connected areas, even in the old residential areas, traversable only by pedestrians and smaller vehicles.

Follow the rickshaw outside Howrah and the ports, where children of the peripheries blacken their lungs on the lithium of dead batteries deposited on electronic waste piles. Follow the rickshaw, from the raided union to the co-opted union, from mobility to iconicity, from the environmental concern to the technological development, and you will find the character of a city petrified against a homely wall.

Six years ago, a friend and I walked through the streets of South Kolkata, exploring a neighbourhood I had just moved into. We walked up to sleepy shop-owners and peered through gates, asking for directions like it were a field exercise in intellectual rigour.

‘What street are we on?’ he would say, and I would follow that up with a perplexing, ‘How far does it go?’

In a derelict park overlooking three old houses, we collated our findings. There were many discrepancies: our memory of the street did not match the address painted on shop fronts or embossed on nameplates of new houses. The distance between one street and another was longer Google maps than the quick ‘take-a-left’ explanations from the locals we encountered. There were new structures where streets were supposed to end and dead-ends at bus-stops. We stopped once we were tired, convinced that we did not know where the truth began or where it was imposed by force, giving ourselves over to a rickshawwallah to take us home.

The Calcutta Architectural Legacies project seemed to creep alongside us, claiming this slatted window and that circular verandah as part of a protected culture, a visual archive. Old bare-bodied men peered out to remind us of generations of propertied wealth, porches decorated with plants threatening the footpath. But the city was new, too, crowded and teeming, full of poor migrants from Bihar, Jharkhand, the Northeast, even Nepal or Tibet, speaking a language they were yet to entirely learn. Some slept under bridges and set up stalls on the footpaths as they waited and jostled for citizenship. While setting up the apartment, I watched an old municipal worker set up a home across the street, complete with a mattress and a mosquito net on the porch of an old residence built in the nineteenth century. Now, drones and surveillance cameras begin to take over the airspace, anti-homeless infrastructure covers the land, especially after whispers of bad hygiene and poverty threaten upperclass demographics. The parks and public infrastructure that were once meant for loitering become gated and ticketed, sites of cultural influence or heritage.

I don’t know how to mourn a city that I never saw, the city that Calcutta Architectural Legacies wishes to protect through legislative reform, regulations and ticket prices. But I do know space is privatized with every building that becomes listed for protection. There’s no reason for this to happen. In large parts of Europe, the Alternative Spaces Movement was rooted in the idea of the commons, squatting and informal housing, housing rights, where the home is a ‘site of cooperation, emancipation, and self-organization.’

But the heritage project tends towards reform, towards politics, towards investment and development and all that comes murkily dragged through the newly-fitted pipes. Insofar as it compromises towards preservation, law, colonial and bourgeois legacy, globalization and the very capital it antagonizes—it eschews the radical potential of what inspired it. It gives up on a robust social landscape of housing rights and a freedom of movement to replace it with a building; it gives up on the land we know for the icons we strain to remember.

Urbanization is a never-ending process, and we continue, variations on the city’s history calcifying into listed properties. We hang frames on all the walls. We gasp in transgressive pleasure at the artistry of it all.

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II. Listening

Today, the Phonogramm-Archiv’s collection of wax cylinders reside in an annex of the Ethnologisches Museum in Dahlem, a building constructed in the style of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) during an expansion in 1973. Before entering the building, we register ourselves with a security guard and await the arrival of the collection’s archivist. Brought through catacomb-like corridors, doors of mountainous weight and stairwells painted white with pale green lacquered handrails, we arrive at the resting place of Jaap Kunst’s wax cylinder.


Not dissimilar to other institutions, the depot we found ourselves in is an environment of conditioned circumstances. It has a temperature of nineteen degrees celsius and a relative humidity of fifty percent, a syncopated soundtrack of humming neon lights and murmurs from an air conditioner, all of which when taken together attempt to mimic a neutral space. Here, in this performatively coy room are musical instruments from gamelan orchestras, whose only emitted sounds are those of silence. Originating from the Southeast Asian islands of Bali and Java, these instruments are accustomed to a climate of high temperatures and humidity. Their primary functions were spiritual: to be played at religious rituals and ceremonies, as well as traditional performances. Now, however, the ensemble is attuned to a spiritual decay—conservational poison is used to ‘preserve’ their function for archival purposes only—inside storage within the depot of Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum.


Neighboring the gamelan storage room, the first audio recording of a Balinese Sanghyang resides here. An inventory of empty, ‘silent’ wax cylinders necessary to capture this event had been allocated to Kunst by the Phonogramm-Archiv’s then-director Erich von Hornbostel in exchange for his act of sonic collecting. These cylinders embarked on an extended journey—from Berlin to the Sunda Islands and back—as Kunst went on to produce 300 or more recordings on his trips to Indonesia, documenting musical performances and rituals. We seek arrangements for listening to this performance, and attempt to move as close to its recorded event as the wax cylinder allows.

In Bali, times where it is forbidden to play gamelan are rare. One hundred years ago, however, deadly pox epidemics repeatedly infected villages on the island, forcing the inhabitants to close all temples and lock the gamelan instruments up. No rituals and ceremonies were permitted, the kinds that were believed to hold power in halting the spread of precisely such deadly disease. And though the temples fell silent, abandoned by their priests, village communities gathered at them each night to create a cacophony of noise, orchestrated through the quotidian: buckets, bamboo and wood. Noise was believed to be the only medium left to banish the demons of disease and cast the people’s fears away. According to the renowned dancer and sculptor I Made Sija from the village Bona, during one of these dark nights a man became possessed by the familiar rhythms of the gamelan. Yet the sounds he was enchanted by did not originate from bronze cymbals and gongs, but rather, human voices.

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From that moment, disease began to ease as death and illness were overcome by sheer oral percussion. To this day, the people of Bona believe that the chanting and dances in trance outside the temple walls saved the village from the epidemic. This moment also marked the emergence of Bali’s most popular dance performance: the Kecak.

In its history from a sacred to a secular chant, the most famous Kecak dancer is I Wayan Limbak from the village Bedulu. When interviewed in the 90s about the origin of Kecak, he recalls a story with a similar arc. Already in the early 19th century, before the Dutch colonization of Bali and in the era of Bali’s kingdoms, Kecak dances accompanied trance rituals, the so-called Sanghyangs. These Sanghyangs were held every year to prevent the cholera pandemic, a rite of prayer performed every night around the village that was believed to ward the disease away.

No items found.

Inside the Phonogramm-Archiv, the room we’re in is just large enough for three. Monochrome, ethnographic photographs from a non-European continent decorate otherwise plain walls, while drawers are labeled by geography: ‘Afrika’, ‘Asien’, ‘Amerika’ and 'Ozeanien’. On the table we’re led towards, a Hi-Fi receiver is connected to a pair of speakers and a myriad of playback devices for a variety of mediums—vinyl records, magnetic tape, analog audio cassettes and compact discs. We immerse ourselves into Kunst’s recording of the Kecak via the wax cylinder’s digitized successor, a DAT cassette tape.

Every transferred sound begins with a short, customary introduction which signposts from which cylinder and collection the listener is about to hear:

Es folgt die Übertragung der Walzen der Sammlung “Kunst, Bali”. Es folgt Walze 1. 
[Coming up the transfer of the cylinders of the collection “Kunst, Bali”. Coming up, Cylinder 1.]
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Additional materials of correspondence, provenance and consignment accompany the phonographic recording. Yellowed papers of different grammage, typesets, handwriting and signatures compose together what feel and appear as the past breaking into the present. A watermark shines through one prominent sheet: a mark which signifies the longing of its maker, towards the distant islands the sounds of these cylinders were first captured on. Another sheet of paper reveals terse descriptions of all fifteen wax cylinders recorded by Kunst in Bali: 

Abridged from numbers five and six: “Sanghyang dedari. Male choir (at the end gaggling [Schnattern])”, “mostly gaggle [Geschnatter]”.

It remains uncertain who exactly wrote these descriptions. Scribed in German, the curators of the archive assure us that both the director of the Phonogramm-Archiv at the time Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and his colleague Curt Sachs were diligent in avoiding disrespectful formulations. Whoever it was, these words reprise another compression of the actual acoustic event.

 

Confined to this room at the Phonogramm-Archiv, one’s listening to Kecak is directly produced by the archive’s prefigured auras of hospitality and hostility: the latter feeling affected through the bureaucracies a visitor must face to be given permission to access the collection’s hold. Given the inability to revisit the recording’s original event, any act of listening to its field recording will forever reanimate the conditions in which a colonial gaze captured it. Though, in this space of re-listening, the hands of coloniality and premature technology are easily forgotten. The field recording we listen to operates not only as a narrow range of frequencies, but narrow-minded vectors of power: it comes to represent a recording of an assumed, objective reality. The DAT cassette dislocates the event of Kecak and echoes its sound further away. Is there room for narrative to diverge inside the Phonogramm-Archiv?

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III. Diverging

In recent years, the act of listening to the wax cylinder had been temporarily transposed outside of the Phonogramm-Archiv listening room—though this public display was only down the corridor.9 In 2013, as part of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem programme the exhibition Seeing Music: Lichtklangphonogramm transformed the optical and mechanical characteristics of the archive’s wax cylinder collection, producing novel installations that facilitated an alternate perception of listening. The artists behind the exhibition—Melissa Cruz Garcia, Aleksander Kolkowski, Matteo Marangoni and Anne Wellmer—produced a mixture of site-specific installations: magic lanterns that visualised a cylinder's textural grooves, self-made ‘gramoscopes’ that hacked a gramophone’s tunnel by transforming it into a projector of light and image, and a multi-body listening booth of selected recordings from collection. Described as an artistic treatment of ethnographic material, the artists facilitated an ocular engagement with an event originally recorded as something purely sonic.10 When asked about the exhibition’s potential to inform the Humboldt Forum’s unconfirmed future display of wax cylinders, Ethnologisches Museum director Lars-Christian Koch appeared skeptical of the presence of artistic intervention within this space:


“As an ethnological museum, we have an educational mission. We are not an art museum. If we want to seriously convey what other music cultures are like, how they treat sound in their processes, how they shape sound, then the question is, how much art or artistic design we require to optimize this conveyance.”11

 

Koch’s hesitancy to open up room for such narratives in the space of the Humboldt Forum is unsurprising given the long-standing aversion between ethnographer and artist.12 His intention to ‘optimize’ artistic interpretation neglects the reality that both the music and cultures recorded were done so on the aforementioned colonial terms. Silencing the noise contained in these field recordings omits its glaring context from the museum’s “educational mission”, not too distant from a former ‘civilising mission’. If Seeing Music’s artistic intervention of re-interpreting the wax cylinder is not welcome at the Humboldt Forum, another means of listening must be sought out beyond the confines of the listening room. By decentering the diegetic sound of Kecak heard within this particular wax cylinder, we turn instead towards the recording’s incidental, underscored noise to listen to its other realities that were present at the time of recording. 


Our ears hone in: the Dutch colonial rule of Bali began in 1849 and reached full control after two puputans (mass suicides) by the royal houses of Badung and Klungkung, in 1906 and 1908 respectively. At this juncture, a cultural policy known as Baliseering (Balinisation) was enforced to prohibit the ‘modernisation’ of Bali and maintain it as a ‘living museum’. Such realities were inaudible, beyond sound and the Phonogramm-Archiv’s collection, and stand to be heard in the noise of Jaap Kunst’s recording.

 

In More Brilliant than the Sun (1998), artist and theorist Kodwo Eshun advocates for a methodology that enables another kind of listening. Eshun’s alignment of Afrofuturist frequencies with jazz, breakbeat, as well early techno productions, drove him to propose a means of listening to artistic compositions outside that of Western theory and its canonical methods of analysis. Instead, he carves out an idiosyncratic guidebook for “dense personal narrations of imaginations” that emphasises an auditory experience’s material output: vinyl grooves, record sleeves and liner notes included.13 Sound artist Pedro Oliveira has framed sonic fiction’s potential through its ability to voice previously unheard stories, to modify the perception of sound and its effect/affect, in ways that are as much political as they are aesthetic.14 He writes:

 

“Eshun’s sonic fictions are...a means by which the subaltern speak, sound, and unfold their knowledge as theory and culture. Sonic fictions are the proposal for a radical divorce from so-called universal (metropolitan and/or Eurocentric) theories of musicology and social and cultural studies, to make room for other systems to claim their space.”15

Utilising Eshun’s methodology of sonic fiction onto the colonial artefacts in the Phonogramm-Archiv comes highly charged, however. We must first decouple artistry from artefact, renouncing Jaap Kunst—and any field recordist complicit in the archive’s creation—from the role of artist in their production of the wax cylinder’s recording. Doing so allows us to listen with the noise and not with its producer: a reminder of the place and context through which the cylinder was first inscribed, a reminder of the spatial and temporal distance between listener and event—the listening room and Bali. In other words, we decenter the ethnographer as producer and compose a means of listening beyond their control.


A step further, our interest in sonic fiction is woven and informed by Saidiya Hartman’s notion of ‘critical fabulation’: a discursive practice that deals with representing what the archive deliberately omits. In Hartman's essay Venus in Two Acts (2008), she attempts to tell an impossible story: the account of an enslaved young girl, brutally killed whilst captive on a British slave ship. The personhood of Venus, named only once in the legal documents from the trials that followed, emerges at the very limits of the archive. Hartman's writing is at times autobiographical, leaning into a similar empiricism to that of Eshun’s sonic fiction that reveals her authorship in (parallel to) the story of Venus. As much a counter-history as it is critical theory, Hartman welds the gaps between silence and noise. In our own undertaking, such gaps—marked between Jaap Kunst’s original recording of Kecak onto a wax cylinder and our own act of listening today—establish an opportunity to compose a historical narrative counter to that which was originally inscribed.

Woven together, a sonic fabulation is one that must tell one of many impossible stories contained within the Phonogramm-Archiv. To displace Jaap Kunst’s gaze and mediation, we drum up another imaginary. Widening the aperture for analysis beyond soundwaves alone, a sonic fabulation of the wax cylinder and other, similar objects departs from the depot and listens with the yellowed documents left behind, the broken wax seals of colonial correspondence, and the haphazard commentary made by archivists which are bundled up with preserved recordings. With each act of sonic fabulation, the wax cylinder’s suspension inside the archive might then be slowly loosened.

 

To tell a story ‘against’ the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv, as Saidiya Hartman might say, is to tell a story of the wax cylinder’s sonic debris. What was once consequential, the unintended and immovable residue of its mechanical recording, is felt out differently as a sense-making tool for critical ways of interpreting the sonic artefact. Turning directly towards this space in between silence and noise, other subjects for listening emerge.

 

Throughout the wax cylinder’s unstable course of living, revolutions may result in death. At a rate somewhere between 80 and 250 per minute, their divergence narrates its own story.

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  1. Some particular elements of these homes have been cited: high ceilings, red-oxide stone floors, semi-circular verandahs, intricate cornices, wrought iron grilles, French slatted windows, open terraces.
  1. While PUBLIC is a citizen’s initiative and KEIP is part of the state municipal program, both these initiatives are focused on environmental concerns.
  1. For example, the Asiatic Society and the Indian Museum, as well as the Archaeological Survey of India whose headquarters have now moved to Delhi.
  1. This phrase has been taken from Anne Zaidi’s book, Prelude to A Riot, set in a nameless part of South India, where upper-caste and ruling Hindus enact both, significant and un-nameable violence upon the Muslim community with impunity.
  1. Alois Reigl, The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and Origin, trans. (MIT Press, 1982).
  1. George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, trans. H.B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
  1. Amit Chaudhuri, “Three Names” in Calcutta: Two Years in the City (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).
  1. Ibid.
  1. Partha Chatterjee, “Our Modernity” in The Present History of West Bengal: Essays in Political Criticism (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998).
  1. This project was initiated along with the PilgrimageRejuvenation and Spiritual Augmentation Drive (PRASAD) launched in 2015 by the Ministry of Tourism.
  1. Paul Dornish, “The Internet of Urban Things,” in Code and the City, ed. Rob Kitchin and Sung-Yueh Perng (New York: Routledge, 2016).
  1. Ibid.
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Shinjini Dey has visited Kolkata intermittently throughout her childhood. She later settled into the city for a period of five years while pursuing two literature degrees. She currently lives in Hyderabad, India, where she works as an editor with Indian publishing houses, and both small and big magazines. She also is an independent researcher and writer. She is particularly interested in workers narratives, digital landscapes, and utopian impulses. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Vittles, Bloodknife Magazine, Ancillary Review of Books and Whetstone Magazine, among others. She can be found on Twitter at @shinjini_dey.