Otolith (2003), the first film by the London-based Otolith Group (comprising Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun, both born in London), starts in 2103. No longer able to cope with earth’s gravity, humans live on the International Space Station. One of them, Dr. Usha Adebaran Sagar, a descendant of Otolith Group member Sagar, digs into Anjalika’s archive and discovers her diary. In a cinematic game of mise-en-abîme, Usha follows the steps of Anjalika, herself engaged in researching the life of her own grandmother, who was president of the National Federation of Indian Women in the 1970s. The artist is especially interested in her grandmother’s encounters with Soviet astronaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to travel in outer space. The film is built around an idea of a lineage, not only in Sagar’s real and invented family but within womanhood at large. Each character embodies an epoch—the progress, hopes and doubts of a generation.
When Usha looks at the year 2003, footage of London’s anti-Iraq War protests are accompanied by Anjalika’s pessimistic recollections, in which she notes the participants’ acute awareness of the demonstration’s futility. “Everyone knew America would invade Iraq,” she says, but they protested all the same, if only to claim their right to do so. Later, Super 8 clips show the little Anjalika with her grandmother sitting on a boat on London’s Regent’s canal. Otolith imposes no hierarchical relationship between the personal and the official; history is a tightly woven fabric equally made of grand narratives and small anecdotes.
In Otolith II (2007), Usha is still reading from Anjalika’s diary, but this time the focus is on the urban sprawl of Mumbai, used as an example of the inescapability of capitalism, which “turns homes into real estate and people into currencies.” While Otolith’sinvented future serves as a device to tackle the recent past, Otolith II utilizes a similarly imaginary future to deal with the present, a present obsessed with spectacle and haunted by modernism’s failures. This recent work starts with (filmed) images of a Bollywood movie shoot at an old factory, closed following labor strikes years earlier in which a few workers had died: a site of distress is turned into a stage for entertainment. Later, the film posits a parallel between Chandigarh—the city designed by Le Corbusier as a symbol of the new India following the Partition—and the Paris suburbs notorious for riots in 2005. “Can buildings really be innocent shells that do no harm?” asks 22nd-century Usha, considering grainy footage of the now semi-derelict Indian city; “Isn’t every artificial landscape the diagram of a certain psychological state?” Like Walid Raad’s Atlas Group, the Otolith Group deftly uses an imagined perspective to enrich our understanding of the real.
Photo above: Otolith II, 2007, film, 48 minutes; at Gasworks.