Earthbound: Notes on Sahej Rahal’s Bashinda

An abridged version of this article appeared in frieze issue 216.

Bashinda (2020)– commissioned for the now-postponed 13th Gwangju Biennale – is the fourth in a series of virtual biomes, or digital mythomorphic soundscapes, created by Mumbai-based artist Sahej Rahal. Complicating easy designations of a medium or format, Bashinda is a game that will be mainly experienced as a film – less of a recording of a game previously played and more of a game played live by an AI – the automated screening of possible gaming scenarios. Bashinda, the Hindi-Urdu word for inhabitant, is named after its main character: a terrestrial cephalopod with twelve limbs holding up a faceless torso-head that looks like some kind of rock formation or mineral aggregate. All shapes are crudely contoured, almost sans any texture as such, by a crisp yet primal aesthetic that extends to the creature’s surroundings as well.

Like most third-person perspective games, the landscape would not come into view unless trodden by Bashinda, draggin along the virtual camera hovering behind it. However, clearcut figurge-ground relations are technically untenable, although visually maintained, in this simulated environment, which is covered in wavering patches of grass, dotted with ever blossoming trees and ground-grown cubic forms, and also populated by other cephalopodic creatures with confrontational and interactive tendencies. Bashinda’s movement, as a mobile locus of all that moves around it, is a function of an ambient mood, a whirlpool of contingencies that as much draw on so-called user input as are conditioned, contextually, by some sort of common algorithmic denominator between different responses scripted in the program’s behaviour. The layers of reciprocity that are programmed into Bashinda move the notion of programmable automation away from its normative mimicry of life-as-labor-as-capital and situate it as an evolving apparatus among others, whether cultural, biological, or technological. An instrument turns into a collaborator.

Two pieces of technical specification are key in understanding the way in which Bashinda attempts to interface processes of different kind and the beings that evolve, iteratively and not teleologically, from such processes with each other. Firstly, Bashinda’s brain power, so to speak, is diffused among the limbs, which respond to stimuli semi-autonomously, rendering each move a matter of negotiation between several kinetic agencies. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, an audio sensorium lies at the core of how the program, its temperamental kinetics, and its environmental rendering are interfaced with where and when the program is put into play. Within this mechanism, sound functions as the driving force and moving motor of the image, where sound is often noise and image is at once gestural and evolutionary. In fact, the speed by which the program’s behaviour and environmental mood evolve is repeatedly, almost temperamentally, disrupted and changed by changes in the tempo, frequency, volume, and rhythm of actual atmospheric noise, background music, or conversations that might be going on where and when the work is exhibited.

Rahal’s design for such more or less deep mediation of an imaginary elsewhere in fact lays the ground for a commentary on India’s current sociopolitical landscape, where a legislative double-state of exemption and exclusion has been recently grafted onto age-old structures of religious and ethnic discrimination. The word bashinda similarly implies the tension that lies in how residence/inhabitance flickers between citizenship and denizenship. The newly introduced Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens together produce a surplus outcast from within the actually existing population, dispossessing “resident Indian” Muslim communities, among some other minorities, of the right to the future liveability of their historical habitat by displacing their pasts onto an isolated, imaginary elsewhere. 

Along with its juridical engineerings, Hindu supremacism functions as a reductive myth monopoly. Much like other atavistic ethnonationalisms of the age of global capital, it banks on the injected liquidity of retrofitted narratives of heritage and belonging, which preserve the metaphysics of caste as the core anatomy of Indian society. In fact, canonical fictions of innate hierarchy have been historically anthropomorphized in the body of Manu (the archetypal saviour and progenitor of earthbound humanity in Hindu mythology), whose head represents the highest classes and whose limbs, given their distance from the assumed seat of intellect and consciousness, represent the lowest.

In this sense, Rahal’s art gestures toward a mythotechnical aesthetic. It employs time-based audiovisual media to render multi-environmental temporalities sensible. Through Bashinda, the anthropic coordinates of concrete experience are abstracted without entirely abandoning its materiality, approximating a posthuman condition. On the other hand, and similar to Rahal’s other virtual biomes, Bashinda exhibits a critical exercise in ethnofuturist worldmaking, insofar as it wonders what environments might emerge, what beings might rise, and what myths could be told if the inherited distances that maintain monopolies of cultural imagination were to collapse.

reprinted in Magic: Documents of Contemporary Art (Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press, 2021)