After one gingerly made one’s way through a stand of potted lemon trees and entered into the belly of a transformed Connelly Theater, in New York’s East Village, it became clear that the “celebratory performance” staged by Raqs Media Collective (Nov. 21-23) was well under way. Onstage, on the far side of a stacked house of plastic lawn chairs, a drum boomed at irregular intervals from behind a projection screen. Guests circulated through a side room, backstage and up to the balcony, where eight performers held forth on the relationship between temporality and place, their freewheeling conversation piped throughout the theater in competition with the drummer. Four or five bottles of wine deep by my count, they offered personal accounts of the varying rhythms of life across national and cultural contexts, debated the relative length of a half hour in Hawaii and Indiana, and heartily challenged one another as wine-drunk acquaintances do: “Is life real?”
Formed in 1992 by New Delhi artist-polymaths Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta, and a staple of the biennial circuit for the past decade, Raqs deployed a characteristically eclectic assemblage of objects, live performers and media in The Last International, their performance installation for Performa 13. Projections and LCD screens lined the walls, showing hyperrealistic depictions of plant life, schematics for mysterious machines and elliptical references to the titular International.
The central conceit of The Last International was that these disparate objects would be made to speak and network in novel and contemplative ways, and, in fits and starts over the course of the hour-long performance, they did. The Last International, as imagined and enacted by Raqs, is the proposed heir to a long history of left-wing organizing, and is particularly concerned with applying the radically inclusive vision of the First International-the initial attempt, in 1864, to unite class-conscious political activists across Europe under the banner of the International Workingmen’s Association-to a world where, in the face of failing states and global ecological collapse, lastness is increasingly a pressing possibility. Narula, seated at a table for the duration of the performance and framed by a video projection of swaying grasses, located glimpses of such a community in the eruptions of leftist energy since 2010: “We saw each other again for the first time in Tahrir Square. We saw each other again for the first time in Zuccotti Park. We saw each other again for the first time in Taksim Square,” and so on.
Against the measured and apportioned chronology of capitalism they invoked kairos, ancient Greek for the moment of opportunity and of dissent. As Narula and Sengupta read, sang and conversed across the mountain of lawn chairs, three performers reconfigured the objects strewn about the theater, danced arm in arm, changed outfits and appeared in prerecorded video on the onstage projection screen. They rearranged the chairs (now into a snake, now a phalanx, now a haphazard pile); they traced maps and trajectories on the floor and to the top of the ladder in colored masking tape; and they blew up balloons almost to bursting before sending them rocketing towards the ceiling. They worked out the Fibonacci sequence on the blackboard, drew animal figures on the floor and disappeared, only to emerge riding a bicycle in an antique diving suit.
If those exercises sound like clichés of smug performance art, it’s because they sometimes veered in that direction, but two reciprocally illuminating narrative threads anchored Raqs’ theatrics. One followed the 1872 transfer of the First International’s leadership to New York, after a split between Marx and Bakunin-led anarchists, into the hands of music teacher and evangelist for American socialism Friedrich Sorge. The other traced the 1516 ill-fated sea voyage of an Indian rhinoceros that was immortalized in an Albrecht Dürer woodcut. The Last International, apparently, is capacious enough to provide a meeting ground for two centuries-distant events, whose affinities it claimed for its own genealogy: redrawn avenues of globalization, risky adventuring and an attention to the possibilities unlocked as ideas travel. Even the diving suit looked a little less accidental when we learned that the rhinoceros, shackled to the ship’s deck as an offering from the king of Portugal to Pope Leo X, drowned in the Ligurian sea after the ship capsized.
In a program given to guests and blown up on one of the walls, a sign warned that “a stray RHINOCEROS has taken residence on this History.” The accompanying image of a golden-saddled rhinoceros was an amalgam of Dürer’s armored beast, computer graphics and an ancient Chinese riding rhinoceros. Raqs took this hybrid as the protagonist of its celebratory history; in a series of enigmatic self-definitions ventriloquized by Sengupta, the rhinoceros confided, “I am not a noun . . . I seem to be a verb.” The question of how such a figure might provide insight into a “last” politics was among the most sticking of those posed in The Last International, which sometimes resorted to the worn performance trope of submitting culturally current critical theory to the whims of scattered, carnivalesque theatrics. Sometimes it managed to repay the conceptual legwork it demanded, however. That the links among the array of objects were so often tenuous, provisional or failed underlined the project’s formulation as a “proposal,” an improvisational rehearsal for a utopian future. At the same time, such a celebratory gesture, situated as it was behind a $25 paywall, started to look much like the self-congratulation of an art public that already knows exactly how to recognize itself. As soon as Narula, Sengupta, and the performers had cleared the hall, the installation clambered back into motion as the revelers in the balcony resumed their criticizing and carousing, as if uninterrupted.