One Piece By… is an interview-column by Kajal arts contributor Sarah Burney. In each piece Burney will have an in-depth discussion with a South Asian artist about one work of art they have created.
The world, as we knew it, is on pause. As governments scramble to get ahead of the coronavirus pandemic and the privileged amongst us work from home, the situation for many artists is growing precarious – long awaited exhibitions are being cancelled or postponed indefinitely, part-time teaching jobs are on hold, residencies and fellowships are closing, and absolutely no one is buying art. Understandably.
It seems fitting to revisit Himali Singh Soin’s animation The Particle and the Wave right now. In this hypnotic and strangely beautiful animation, Singh Soin focuses on the almost universal symbol of a pronounced pause: the semicolon – specifically, Virginia Woolf’s use of the semicolon in her novel The Waves.
In a little under 13 minutes Singh Soin scrolls through Woolf’s entire novel. Her aesthetic is stripped down almost bare; each page of simple black text appears centered on the screen, the white of the “page” is identical to the white background but the text is not floating in space – a faint outline of the page grounds the words and telegraphs the text’s origins – a physical book. A small blinking yellow rectangle highlights each semicolon. The minimalist video is accompanied by an ethereal soundtrack: delicate chimes running the gamut from high pitched and light, to mellow and sonorous, and to deep basslike tones. This “music” is in fact an algorithmic measurement of the distance between the 1,265 semi-colons in The Waves imposed on a C Dorian scale.
Kajal sat down with Singh Soin for a discussion of the inspiration and making of this unique artwork.
Kajal: Before we talk about your animation, can we talk about the work of art that inspired it? Tell me about your relationship to The Waves. How and when were you introduced to this work? What about it compels you?
Singh Soin: Woolf is one of the staples of postcolonial literature in India, so I first read her in high school, and at that time, her ruminations on the British Raj were less impactful than her overt queerness, how delicate and sensual and deeply observant and carefully strung her sentences were.
Later, at the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont, I was helping a friend with a close reading from The Waves (without having read the whole book). The instructor was a renowned Woolfian scholar who was specifically interested in the sentence structure as one that swelled and shrunk, rose and sunk, and how the punctuation operated to create the sense of something perpetual, something wavering within a story that took place over the course of a single day.
My inner lit geek lapped it all up. But when I finally read the work, I was struck by the place India had in it and Percival’s station there, a character who is both absent and present. I started to see the six characters as moving parts of an artwork, as the phases of a day or a span of seasons, as the parts of a self and its relation with the collective. There’s also a lot of chatting about life, love, sadness, the world. It feels very… present.
How did you go from this second more significant reading to conceptualizing and creating this work? What does the ‘rough sketch’ of an animation look like?
I wrote this thing in my diary once and it read: what does a semicolon sound like? Since Woolf is kind of synonymous with a semicolon in the literary world, I thought back to that close reading, in which I had noticed that a semicolon kind of looks like a little person. So I opened a digital file of the book and decided to check just how many she actually used. ⌘F: there were 1,265 semicolons. I began scrolling through to see if there were any patterns and at some point I was like, wait, this is beautiful. So I made a screen recording and scrolled through to the beat of a metronome, so that I could vary the tempo, mimicking waves, and allow my own biorhythm to affect its movement.
After making that video, I went back to the original question: what does a semicolon sound like? And what is this visual scroll doing? I remembered from reading Woolf that often, a bell tolls just before a character has a moment of self-discovery, and a kind of volta, or turning point in the story, occurs.
My friend Dario Villanueva is a genius algorithmist, and I asked him if I could come over and we could experiment a bit. I watched as he coded frenetically. I literally had no idea what he was doing, it was like he was writing a spell.
Dario also has an astute ear for music, so he came up with the idea that we could use the midi software to calculate the distance, measured by the number of words, between two semicolons. We imposed it onto a C Dorian scale after testing a few different sounds. This one came closest to ominous church bell, and also touched some extreme frequencies that are felt gutturally rather than heard clearly.
Did you need to secure a copyright to show the text?
The piece fell into that grey area where the “image” of the book as a scan is available to creative commons without restrictions, which is what I’ve used. I sincerely hope that if Woolf were to watch this in 2020, she would appreciate the irony.
The aesthetic of this work is so sparse – it makes me curious about the singular “embellishment” you included: the faint outline of the page. Why did you decide to leave the matrix of a book in there?
In a way, it’s also an homage to the materiality of the book, an endangered object. Undoing the spine of the book and transferring it to a video work, my own spine (I wear a sari blouse to perform), on which the words are projected, becomes part of the book. I’m very interested in how text can be a landscape, and how the body can reflect land back, and osmose with it. Porous thresholds.
I’m so glad you brought up the performance because I initially wasn’t aware of the performative life of this work. When exhibited in 2015 your collaborator (and partner) David and you performed with the animation: David countering the algorithm with percussion and you improvising marginalia as the video moves across your spine. Had you always envisioned a performative aspect to this work?
No! This was totally spontaneous. David is a jazz drummer – meaning his whole life’s work is improvisation – and I thought he could counter the machine-made sounds. He was very apprehensive with a total of a few hours to get it together: it would become the first of many collaborations. So we also went into the first performance with this unease, but there was nothing at stake. The walls were coming down and the show was ending and we just wung it. Someone in the audience cried. I thought that was a little extreme lol.
Countering these sounds felt like a duel of sorts, the machine sounds assume their own being and are sometimes doused by the drums, and sometimes overwhelm them. Since then, we have performed it on loop twice and three times. A 36 minute performance of this piece means the wall is completely scrolled over with mark-making at the end.
And in keeping with the original impulse, we don’t rehearse this piece, but the few hours before we perform is fierce. We try to sync emotional energies, so that we can have waves of softness and intensity. I read passages of philosophers and poets that I think ask big questions, so to train my mind for the marginalia. I never read Woolf beforehand so that an audience who isn’t accustomed to her work is never alienated by inside jokes.
What happens to the marginalia at the end of the performance? Do you consider it an artwork on its own? Was it photographed or documented in any way?
I’m really bad at documenting my performances, and definitely don’t want to consider the residue it’s own artwork. Part of this is because so many performance artists are pressured into making a material document. I want to think about the performance as the medium and the end. It’s integrated with the moving image and if photographed, is hopefully understood as a part of a whole, a particle in a wave.
Is the piece incomplete to you without the performance?
Oddly, no. I think the video operates on its own and the performance is almost a process of taking down the video. It’s a de-installation that an audience can witness. A slow walk into a river as the piece drowns.
Can you talk me through your choice of title? The choice of “and” versus “or” seems so profound.
I think it’s really that idea of the self in the collective, something I think we’re thinking more and more of as artists and citizens in a society and/or planets in a universe. The particle is part of the wave, even often a synecdoche, right. It’s also the way the individual characters work in the larger whole of the book. I didn’t consider the “or,” though it’s one of my favorite prepositions, because to me the individual and the world are not a choice, they are an entangled togetherness. The movement of the particle must not be distinct from (even as it is necessarily against) the flow of the wave?
Are there any artists that you feel strongly influenced this work?
Virginia Woolf of course in this case, but also Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, Raqs Media Collective and Maria Fusco. Calvino’s essay, “Lightness.”
How did this piece / the process of making this piece affect the works that came after it?
I think it set the stage for multidisciplinarity, to think and make with others so that the work could be polyphonous and hopefully a viewer could access it with multiple possibilities/interpretations. This work also showed me that the internal logic of a work could be tight, but decisions can be loose. Art school often makes you explain your choices and research and reasoning, and the answer can’t simply be: “instinct” or “feeling” or “it looked pretty.” This work taught me that that method is something I had to trust, a kind of feminine, embodied knowledge that came from elsewhere, and that art school in London could be very western-oriented, white and male. Ideas of not-knowing, alchemical/indigenous/other knowledges, irrationality as a mode of discernment have since operated in all my work, and stretched further into dreamscapes, alternate energies, clairvoyance, astrology, herbs, occultism, all with text, literature and language as their shifting centre. If this is becoming the domain of the present-day far right, then we can’t let them co opt it. Magic can do wonders for the climate crisis, as can poetry in the era of fascism, so it feels like the moment, it has always felt like the moment, to use subtlety, fragility and care to create these worlds and cast spells that make language queerer and queerer, language that those that think in lines and grids and calendars cannot so easily undo.
It also suddenly feels like a siren in this liminal period of time. I think there’s this really interesting tension between the “.” and the “,” at the moment. For some, the world has stopped, for others this is a coda. And for some it is death, for others, a dawning.