»Ever since I started browsing, I used to imagine a physicality to the web – not the networks or the technology, but our vision of it, what we see on our screens.«
What happens when nothing happens? The Delhi-based artist and designer Adityan Melekalam was one of the first fellows selected for the Digital Solitude Program. Art coordinator and journalist Judith Engel met him for an interview on his projects with focuses in different disciplines, their omnipresent experience/impression of stillness, and his distinct approach towards digital surfaces.
Judith Engel: You have a broad background in different creative disciplines. Did one thing lead to another?
Adityan Melekalam: During my school days, I used to photograph things and people around me. There was no pattern to this but an urge to document these subjects. But I lost interest in it as soon as the images were becoming very predictable. Later, I studied graphic design followed by filmmaking and worked as a practitioner in these fields for a while before returning to photography. By then, my approach towards it had changed quite a bit. Apart from experiments with non-lens based means of imagemaking, I was creating images through aleatoric experiments that restricted my possibilities as a photographer – with constructed settings and parameters that affected the final images in interesting ways.
These explorations made me interested in generative art practices and possibilities of digital, both as a medium and a material. I can’t code, but I started making notes for works that were in flux, resisting a final form.
JE: How did your interest in web-based art and internet as a medium start?
AM: There was no real point of departure as I have been creating stuff on/for the web for the last few years. I was initially looking at the possibility of subverting the tools and practices in web design to create a different kind of user experience.
In a sense, my idea of the web is stunted and reductive to an extent. Ever since I started browsing, I used to imagine a physicality to the web – not the networks or the technology, but our vision of it, what we see on our screens. This was perhaps due to the fact that I was working with films and photography and was used to screens and the notions of framing. This imaginary surface and our habitual interactions with it offered a lot of formal possibilities to create a certain behavior I wanted my projects to have.
Studio Solitude, June 2016
JE: Taking all your skills into account, would you consider yourself an artist, designer, or researcher?
AM: My artistic practice requires and often combines research and design and accommodates my interests that might be outside the scope of the latter two. I don’t consider myself a researcher. The methods (or the lack thereof) in my »research« make it look more like some sort of collecting than a result-oriented, academic process.
»Broadly, my practice deals with exploring the methods and systems – both fabricated and innate – we depend on to engage with our daily environments.«
JE: How did you start to approach art? What interested you at the very beginning? How would you describe your practice?
AM: The design institute I studied at has a history of encouraging students to become »generalists« – by integrating concepts from varied disciplines in their practice. This was influenced by the founding principles of Hfg Ulm, where some of our first teachers were trained. Though this wasn’t exactly the environment during my time, a few of us were conscious of this past and found it helpful when considering positions that would allow us to explore concepts and ideas that were outside the periphery of traditional design practices.
Broadly, my practice deals with exploring the methods and systems – both fabricated and innate – we depend on to engage with our daily environments. How we remember a space or a journey, how we internalize a faith; how we organize our possessions, etc. I am more interested in working with the pathological remains of these relationships – found in our habits, rituals, and memories – than its analytical bases.
»Lattice«, web based project, 2015
JE: Your works often create the feeling of a missing logic or a »center.« This seems deliberate, especially in the web-based works like Cornelia’s Supper or Lattice. You find yourself in a vastness; you can scroll up and down, but nothing happens. This was unusual and almost frustrating as one expects a story. What is your interest in creating this atmosphere in the age of constant information overflow?
AM: I am probably a bit fixated with the infinite drag/scroll functionalities. It could be because I used to spend countless hours hovering on EarthViewer 3D (developed by a CIA funded company; it later became Google Earth) some time ago. It is an interesting way to realize the browser’s potential to reveal and conceal something. Cornelia’s Supper can be looked at as an exploding collection of thoughts, objects, locations, people, conversations, that are connected to each other just for a moment – which may or may not have passed. Most of my projects have this elaboration in common. What I try to create is a quality, or a behavior like I mentioned before, something that can be compared to an inventory or a log-book, wherein the arrangement may seem familiar but nothing moves or settles down – depending on how you look. I would like the projects to make for repeated viewing even if they offer inconclusive experiences. I am not so worried about making sense as much as bringing out exchanges that are lost between the fixities that are apparent to us.
»What I try to create is a quality, or a behavior, something that can be compared to an inventory or a log-book, wherein the arrangement may seem familiar but nothing moves or settles down – depending on how you look.«
JE: Although this »emptiness« is most evident in your web-based projects, it seems to me that it starts with your earlier photographic works, like the series Lunch with holographic boards. Do your artworks always (deliberately) deny a conclusion?
AM: I am not sure if one can look at it as emptiness as that might imply absence. I believe this state could also be formed out of a certain plenitude, if there are no differences. Kabakov’s character in The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away is unable to distinguish between what is useless and necessary. The lack of such identifiers and familiar reference points can be unsettling but it can also create a peculiar equivalence. Lunch is a constructed arrangement between several similar objects. The exchanges between them are constant, without an origin or an end. It is precisely these kind of exchanges that I am interested in, within the state variously addressed as »infra-mince« or »infra-ordinary.«
However, there is no deliberate attempt to use an ambiguous structure to make the viewer disoriented. In fact, some of these projects are born out of rigid structural impositions and unfold in a methodical, mechanical manner.
JE: I remember you once mentioning that you like to bore people. Why?
AM: I am not sure I put it like that, but I believe you! I definitely don’t intend to bore people but it’s possible that some of my works create states that are seemingly still. They try to bring out »what happens when nothing happens« as Perec writes. This can be unstimulating especially when viewed on the web.
Incidentally (or maybe not), one of my first – and still incomplete – projects was called Ennui. It was a video installation showing a wall full of framed photographs of dead people. There is nothing »happening« save for faint intermittent conversations and slight movements among the figures in the photographs.
JE: Most of your works include objects of everyday analog and digital life like the onions in Cornelia’s Supper, the photographs in An Event Somewhere in Jabalpur Circa 1970, the IKEA manuals in Lattice, the structure of an e-mail inbox in Witnesses, or the pixel clock in Decay. Is it important to you to work with everyday objects or symbols? Do these objects remain as they are or are you interested in transforming them and their meaning?
AM: Most of them are things I find in my immediate setting. Maybe it is easier that way; or maybe they’re as good as anything else. In some of the projects, like Lattice, these objects came first and later helped me arrive at the concept. The choices do have a common formalistic basis though I have not tried to stick to a standard way to identify them. Because of this, I don’t concern myself with the varied meanings and interpretations it can have. It is important that they fit in this larger landscape which is a sort of a loose backdrop for all my works.
»I don’t work with a lot of goals with respect to the finished work except for wanting to create a field for recursive exchanges.«
JE: What does it mean for you to work as an artist concerning the topics you want to address and how is the way of addressing them as an artist different to addressing them as a designer?
AM: In my case, even though both these practices inform each other quite often, they don’t interfere or mix as much as I would have liked them to. For the last few years, I have concentrated on designing for services and products on the web. This obviously influenced the formats and ideas for my projects and helped to find models that were different from the prevalent web-based practices at the time.
I think my artistic practice helps me engage with questions and concepts that are less definite, possibly even absurd. I don’t work with a lot of goals with respect to the finished work except for wanting to create a field for recursive exchanges. In comparison, the design projects I handle are specific since the need behind a project is already determined. In the case of my art projects, this need may reveal itself while working on them or much later.
»Lunch«, series of photographs, 2013
»Lunch«, series of photographs, 2013
»Lunch«, series of photographs, 2013
»Lunch«, series of photographs, 2013
JE: What are you currently working on or what topic are you researching?
AM: I am working on different projects at present; some of their backdrops are revealed between multiple pieces that may not be necessarily occupying the same space while presented. The formats will include videos, photographs, found and constructed documents, and objects.
There is a web-based project that I have been working for most of this year, about a travel journal. It has the same tendencies of Cornelia’s Supper and tries to destabilize the determinacy that we usually accord to a recorded event.
Apart from this, I am also working on a few projects that look at the operations of the Communist Party in Kerala, my home state, where it has been active as one of the two prominent political parties for the last 60 odd years. My interest in it is to explore the ways in which the devices of the ideology have become naturalized to this specific place, often at the expense of their own distortion.