Five Minutes to Ecstasy
The Raqs Media Collective at Deutsche Bank Birmingham

The feeling of world time: In their clock installation “The Arc of a Day,” the Raqs Media Collective takes us from fear to ecstasy through a global working day. Achim Drucks on the commissioned piece for the new Deutsche Bank branch in Birmingham, which will also be on view in October in the Bank’s Lounge at Frieze.
“Time girds the earth tight,” says the Raqs Media Collective. “Day after day, the hours, astride minutes and seconds, ride as they must, relentlessly. In the struggle to keep pace with clocks we are now everywhere and always in a state of jet lag, catching up with ourselves and with others, slightly short of breath, slightly short of time.” With their piece The Arc of a Day, the artists’ group responds to a life dictated by deadlines, stress, and the pressure to achieve in a globalized world.

It’s remarkable that the work was made for a bank, an institution that one might well view as the embodiment of this concept of time. The clocks that Raqs has installed in the reception area of the new Deutsche Bank building in Birmingham are the kind we’re familiar with from hotel lobbies or airports. Lined up in a row, they announce the time in London, Peking, Tokyo, and New York. Here, however, the clocks do not function as mere measuring instruments of time; the numerals on their faces are replaced by words describing an array of emotional states, such as “Anxiety,” “Duty,” and “Ecstasy.” Objective units of measurement—the hours and minutes that have our lives and the world in their firm grip—collide with emotions and subjective sentiments that do not lend themselves to exact measure or calculation. The clock hands also rotate over emotions that have to be suppressed in everyday working life: “Fatigue,” for instance, or “Fear.” Raqs allows for each of these feelings, distributes them like sober entities across the clocks’ faces without ascribing any value to them—although “Epiphany” arrives at the twelfth hour.

“This is a snapshot of the world we are living in, traveling to, dreaming about, right now,” explains the collective. And perhaps it’s also a message to the work’s commissioner. The artists have arranged twelve clocks into a descending diagonal that resembles a mirror image of the ascending diagonal of the Deutsche Bank logo. Anton Stankowski’s iconic Diagonal in the Square conveys dynamism and growth, whereas The Arc of a Day suggests deceleration and alternative concepts for working and the economy.

Among the twelve clocks are the names of cities around the globe that the artists have close ties to: Delhi, where Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta banded together in 1992 to form the Raqs Media Collective, or Birmingham and Madrid, where their works have been shown. There are also names of places less well known, at least in the West, for instance Yiwu, where at the China Commodity City almost everything from umbrellas to cell phones is sold over an area four million square meters in size—cheaply manufactured mass market goods that are exported all around the world. Or Astana, a city built in the steppe of Kazakhstan. Ever since the head of state Nursultan Nasarbayev declared it the capital of the ninth largest country of the world in 1997, Astana has undergone a tremendous building boom. Now, the skyline is dominated by skyscrapers, government buildings, and shopping centers designed by international star architects such as Norman Foster. Above all, these are the sites of the rapid economic, political, and cultural shifts of the present day that the collective is interested in.

Yet as different as the twelve cities of The Arc of a Day might be, the people that live there share the same existential feelings. Fear is fear everywhere in the world. It’s only the times that vary: when it’s five minutes to “Panic” in Tijuana, the clock rings “Awe” in Birmingham and “Ecstasy” in Abu Dhabi. On the other hand, Raqs has left out the “Happiness” so fiercely propagated by advertising and popular culture. Terms such as “Ecstasy” and “Epiphany” bring religion and spirituality to mind, as does the golden background the clocks are installed on. “Gold”, state the artists, “signifies a certain kind of imperishability, an approximation, or rough measure of eternity.” Gold alludes to alchemy and the dream of transformation. In many cultures, it symbolizes the light of the sun, the heavenly body that determines the course of the day; but it also stands for immortality and illumination. The golden ground suggests the universe in which everything on this Earth occurs—and whose infinite dimensions lend a relative nature to these occurrences.

The installation includes a thirteenth clock that doesn’t quite fit in. Like a moon, it hovers over the diagonal the other clocks comprise. This clock announces the time in a fictive place: “Rummidge is an imaginary city, with imaginary universities and imaginary factories, inhabited by imaginary people,” writes British author David Lodge, who sets some of his novels in Rummidge. “It occupies, for the purposes of fiction, the space where Birmingham is to be found on maps of the so-called real world.” The thirteenth clock stands for an alternative to this world and this time: “The clock standing in for the time in Rummidge will run counter-clockwise,” explain the artists. “This suggests the possibility of 'mirror time', a time of the imagination, play and fantasy—an escape once every ten minutes from this world, into other worlds of desire and possibility.”  

For Raqs, the operative points of departure are utopias, urban planning, and the question of how we can live together in a better way. At the beginning of their collaboration, the graduates of the Mass Communications Research Centre at the Jamia Milia Islamia University made documentaries. In 2001 they helped found the Sarai Programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, an interdisciplinary platform that also functions as a research center, publisher, café, cinema, and software laboratory. Like the collective’s name—in Persian, Arabic, and Urdu, the word “raqs” denotes the ecstatic state “whirling dervishes” arrive at in their dance—the word “sarai” is also deeply rooted in Oriental culture. These were shelters where travelers were not only allowed to spend the night, eat, and store their wares; caravansaries were always places of communication and of exchange, things of key importance to the collective’s work.

Just as Raqs does not see itself as a collective of “Indian” artists, it also resists limiting itself to a single medium. Together, the artists make films, create complex installations and Internet projects, write texts, and act as curators. Their points of reference range from the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic, to current technological developments and historical figures such as Rosa Luxemburg. The interdisciplinary approach of the collective attracted the attention of Okwui Enwezor in 2002, when the curator, a member of the Deutsche Bank Global Art Advisory Council, invited them to take part in documenta 11, which called for an expanded, more global view of contemporary art. Ever since documenta, Raqs has shown in numerous important institutions such as the Tate Britain, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the Ullens Center in Peking, and the Venice Biennale.

Working in a collective of three reinforces the discursive element and the openness of their projects: “There is me, (one), there is you, (two), and then there are many (three). Three marks the beginning of plenitude, the escape from the prison of I-and-thou, self and other, into the world,” they say. “Three is the key move as well as the option out of the treadmill of the dialectic. With three, we begin to understand plurality and plenitude.” In place of binary categories such as black or white, right or wrong, they present a multitude of possible ways for viewing things in order to do justice to the complexity of the present. The Arc of a Day is also characterized by plurality and openness. This momentary record of the world we live in unleashes a variety of associations. One can ponder the phenomenon of time, globalization, infinity, or working conditions around the world today. Quite simply, the Raqs Media Collective sees this installation as “a gesture in solidarity to those who battle the ticking of the clock on a daily basis as well as a measure of our respect towards those who take the time to do things, properly.”