Telling the Other Histories: CAMP’s ‘A Photogenetic Line’

At Kolkata’s Experimenter, the collective find coincidence and contradiction in the archive of The Hindu newspaper

History is rarely linear. It ‘emerges in fragments’, writes Foucault and, often, these need reassembly. Film and media collective CAMP’s A Photogenetic Line (2019) performs a kind of archaeology through a series of laser-cut MDF boards – each bearing a carefully cropped photograph from the archives of The Hindu newspaper. In one sequence, the politician Mehbooba Mufti, seated on a chair still covered in a plastic wrapper, inaugurates a computer lab in Southern Kashmir in 2015; in 1976, a weaver in Madras repairs a chair with plastic wires; in another image, from 2014, Kashmiri protestors fling plastic chairs at policemen in Srinagar. Three principles loosely connect one cutout to the next: figures age; background objects are foregrounded; photo-captions cross-reference each other. The work repeatedly outsmarts these rules, however, and functions more like film montage: the images build momentum and, periodically, the narrative intensifies. Each cutout carries multiple references and each viewing of the work may offer radically different readings. A Photogenetic Line keeps history acrobatic. 

CAMP, A Photogenetic Line, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: Experimenter, Kolkata

The images chosen are seldom momentous; rather, they show us how historical significance is sustained by everyday objects that assume a biography of their own. This is reminiscent of a statement by globalization theorist Arjun Appadurai, which CAMP have previously used to annotate their work: ‘Commodities, like persons, have social lives.’ It pays to take a closer look. One panel shows us Pashtun independence leader Abdul Ghaffar Khan (nicknamed ‘Frontier Gandhi’ for his advocacy of non-violence) sitting in a crowded train compartment surrounded by young supporters, one of whom holds up a hat with the words ‘good luck’ written on the underside. In another, a boy with floppy hair smiles in front of a computer in Bandipora, Kashmir: the caption tells us he is a ‘rescued teenager’, once recruited by the Lashkar-e-Taiba (a militant group). Teetering on the edge of his computer screen is a tall plastic CD holder with a peeling label that reads ‘freedom’. 

In October 1992, a 33-metre poster of India’s youngest-ever Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi (who took over from his mother, Indira, after her assassination in 1984), erected for a political rally at Bangalore Palace, collapsed to the ground, injuring one person. We see a photograph taken one hour before the incident. In a subsequent cutout, from 1991, the national director of Forensic Sciences hugs the ground in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu, demonstrating how Rajiv Gandhi’s body was found after he had been assassinated, just days before. CAMP have scoured the newspaper’s records to reveal bizarre, uncanny parallels such as these.

CAMP, A Photogenetic Line, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: Experimenter, Kolkata

Twice, tragedy strikes archives: in 1981, a state-sponsored mob sets fire to a public library in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, during the civil war, destroying more than 97,000 books; and, in 2014, an accidental fire breaks out in The Hindu’s own Chennai offices. In Jaffna, the fire rages without intervention for two whole days, while in Chennai policemen direct hopelessly small extinguishers toward the flames. In one cutout, we see the wrecked interior of a newsroom, in which two air-conditioning units peel off the wall as gluey, elastic beams of metal.

A Photogenetic Line arrives at a timely moment, when the histories of the subcontinent are being actively rewritten by the political agendas of the Hindu right wing, which has further consolidated its powers in the recent Indian general elections. The work is an analogue tool that retains the most powerful characteristic of CAMP’s practice: an open-source approach to the dissemination of data. By keeping archives endlessly accessible, CAMP facilitates a privilege rarely afforded to previously colonized people: the opportunity to take history into our own hands through the reading of its leftovers.

Main image: CAMP, A Photogenetic Line, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: Experimenter, Kolkata

Skye Arundhati Thomas is a writer based in Mumbai. She is a contributing editor at The White Review.

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