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In conversation with Basir Mahmood

PA: The film you just finished looks like a breaking point in your practice. Its length first (about 40’) is quite uncommon for you, the way it is staged and the actors directed, the narrative structure even, based on repetition… The decision to turn towards photography represents also a turning point.

 

BM: The most recent film which I just finished last week is titled ‘moon sighting’. It was commissioned by the University of Leeds and the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford. Like most of other works that I have undertaken, it reflects the kind of mindset I am currently going through. The common intention between film and photographs was first to draw the parameters of my art practice and, then, to try to perform outside of it. Surely, ‘moon-sighting’ is out of my comfort zone by all means. This is the first work of mine in which I appear on screen; it involves music (which I do not consider my domain); and, it has song lyrics, which is something I have never thought of using in my work.

Recent photographs, however, have greater relevance to my practice. They have allowed me to challenge my thinking on the idea of a narrative. I have been dealing rather vaguely with the idea of duration consciously – from the time I conceive a work to the time I am in the production phase to the actual duration of my films themselves. This is how, initially, my participants started to appear eating in my films. Earlier, I would continue to observe them even when I was not recording – that is, while waiting for the camera to setup; as my participants interacted with each other; and, as they ate during breaks. I wanted all my observations to accumulate within the narrative of the film, so that whatever took place was recorded. Here, photo became a medium with time to resolve all my observations into a single image – in a process that was usually performed at the very end of the work.

 

PA: Moon sighting deals with the question of colonialism, what about the political dimension of your work ?

 

BM: After my visa application was refused by the UK embassy, I was very sure that I wanted to make this work. I was angry, confused and, above all, disappointed, because I was not able to make the work that I initially planned to make. It was like someone attacked me. So, I had no option, then, except of fighting back. So, I did that in my own way – that is, I responded with “moon sighting”.

 

I recall that I posted on my Facebook page about the refusal of my visa application and the vague reasons I was given by the embassy. From the responses I received, I felt many people were angry already at UK for various reasons, including for Brexit. Here, then, I realised the time was right for a work like this.

 

Anyway, the work itself was birthed the first time I visited Bradford. During the visit, I found it rather intriguing to know that the people who were known as Mirpuris in England are referred to as “British” in the city of Mirpur in today’s Azad Kashmir, and from where they actually migrated during the 1960s and -70s. The idea of self-owned identity and otherness became much more complicated when I went on social media. Here, I saw that the sense of location worked very differently when compared with visiting cities like Bradford and Mirpur. One community was marking differences between itself – at times very aggressively. That’s how I came across the YouTube star, Arslan Shabir. I offered to help make his next video on the condition that his work would reside within my work. His work eventually went viral on social media and my work became an installation. He wanted to speak to “brown British” communities and I wanted address all of them.
PA: You seems more interested by recording the process (the rehearsals, the work on the set, the making of the film…) than by completing the work. Rather than telling a story, Moon sighting aims at deconstructing the fiction and the illusion it carries.

 

BM: I do not know when one work starts and when it actually ends. In all of it, I am interested purely in looking and seeing things go through a process that I initially generated. When I decide not to involve myself in my own work, filming process becomes a situation that a group of people are trying to resolve. Everything and everyone else becomes a narrator of the story that I intended to tell. I want to share everything that I see through the camera and otherwise. However, “moon sighting” is one exception. In “moon sighting”, I am also performing a work with my collaborators – I am in it; right in the center of the work.

 

PA: The film you made with the coolies of Lahore station in 2016, directed from afar reminds me of the “telephone pictures” ordered by phone by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s in the 1920s … Would you call your film a conceptual work ?

 

BM: Art-making for me is an act of isolation that is performed unconsciously. I try to work carefully through this process by questioning everything around and within the work, including my own position. Such an integrated process allows me to take up multiple roles within a single work or a process. The work you are referring to is “Monument of Arrival and Return”. Here, I wanted to act merely as an initiator of an idea from a distance, who went through the state of waiting for the work to arrive and, therefore, only contributed distance to the overarching framework of the work. This work was a point where I began to feel that my thinking was my work and the rest were merely images that I was dealing with. This was probably something that I had been trying unknowingly to achieve for the previous ten years.

 

I believe my relationship with the making of my works has changed for forever since I created ‘Monument of Arrival and Return’. It was quite a liberating work in many ways, especially in that it enabled me to make a work from a distance. I didn’t feel responsible for anything directly and only my thinking was my work. However, now I feel that how I made this work was very much connected to my earlier intentions, especially since I left making sculpture many years ago. After I opted out of sculpting, the medium of video taught me to operate mentally.

 

 

PA: There is always a sculptural dimension in your filmic work. The way you’re directing the actors in ‘Monument of Arrival’ and ‘Return’ harks back to the genre of the “tableau vivant”, and gives to the figures a pictorial, but also a sculptural appearance, which is maybe a way to unify your different practices. Likewise in Moon sighting, the car appears as a sculpture of which the film would be the showcase.

 

BM: I was a sculptor who started using camera to make his work. It was already a distant experience in some senses. You see, by adopting the camera, I ceased to remain physically in contact with the making process of my work. Back when I quit sculpting, I felt this feeling to be fresh, exciting and, above all, liberating. After many years of practice, I noticed that there is a certain force that I apply even when I am making a film on the characters who are involved and situations they are trying resolve. Very recently, I started to observe the impressions that I leave on my film. Even if I claim that they are self-sustaining procedures, I am eventually making things that I want to see. This is one of the reasons why I decided to edit my own films.

 

 

PA: All the voices are mine, achieved two years after Monument of Arrival and Return, develops an other approachof actor’s directing…

 

BM: As opposed to a more distant operation, there was something complex that I tried to develop in between the two works you mentioned. I worked on a series of observations in my studio in Amsterdam. I wanted to practice my gaze in a controlled environment by limiting myself to a studio space. Here, I tried to understand how a conventional studio space may work for an artist like me, who only enjoys thinking. I would use camera to observe participants that I invited; and would find meaning in noticing them get subsumed into the narrative that I would write before they came. This is how athletes performed and translators translated a work in my studio. Thereafter, I continued to perform the making processes of my works based on observations that I had gleaned from, and then practiced, in my studio. These led to a video work called “All voices are mine”. This work took me a lot of time to think about and decide how to approach it. Something coming from a very personal point of view yet dealing with popular cinema was a complex combination.

 

PA: All voices are mine was shot in Bari Studio in Lahore, which you associates to your child’s memory…

 

BM: I  grew up just a mile away from the place where the video was shot – and where Pakistan’s Lahore-based film industry, known as Lollywood, is situated. As a child, despite seeing many films in their making, I never went to see them finished because of their poor reputation. Even so, I remained aware of the industry’s decline, mostly, through my father, who was a film fan and a struggling poet. It was a song that he wrote for an unfinished film that became a reason that got me thinking about all the narratives, situations, songs, skills, etc, which never became part of anything following the decline of the film industry. In “all voices are mine”, I managed to borrow some of these narratives, situations, songs, et al, from the memories of such people as were, and still are, associated with Lollywood. Other than asking them to do something particular for my work, I would ask them what they could do for the film. I hired a crew to assist in making of this work. Finally, here, I re-cast myself once again as an observer who would see his participants perform parts that were meant for other narratives.

 

 

 

 

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