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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Student Shows 'Waterbody' at Soap Factory

By Colleen Good

On Nov. 19, Siddartha Saikia ’10 showed “Waterbody,” a multi-channel video installation, at the Soap Factory’s biannual show Workhorse. The Mac Weekly sat down to talk with Saikia about his project.The Mac Weekly: Can you tell us a little about “Waterbody”?

Siddartha Saikia: It’s an extension on an installation that I did for my Video II class spring semester this year. Technically it’s four rear-screens that I built using PVC pipe and shower curtains that are arranged in a square with two open sides on the corners, which allows people to walk in and out. Projected on the outside is this footage I took when I was back home in India over last winter of this thing called water therapy, which is a kind of therapeutic massage where the patient lies lifeless in the water, and the therapist moves them around under water using the resistance of the water as a therapeutic massage system. That’s what it technically is.

TMW: How did you come up with the idea to use water therapy for the subject for your project?

SS: I was just carrying around a camera with me, and I thought it would look really cool, so I shot it. I didn’t really know what I was going to use it for. But over the course of my class, I just had a lot of ideas bouncing around, and then kind of this moment that it hit me.

[It] was when I went to a performance at the Walker by an artist called Ray Lee. It was called “Siren”-I actually wrote an article for The Mac Weekly about it. That really was one of the very inspirational points in my life. It was really a completely immersive experience. It was a sound installation where you walk into this really large hall and he had these tripods set up at different heights-some were really tall, some were short, and on top of each tripod was a single metal arm, like a metal bar, and at the end of each side of that arm were these speakers that he’d taken from police sirens or fire alarm sirens.

What the performance was, you come in and the first thing that they tell you is if you leave you can’t come back. And the audience was completely free to move around, which I really enjoyed. The performance starts where these two people go around toning every single arm, every single siren to a very particular tone, and then send it spinning because it has a motor in it.

So these arms are spinning around, and we go one by one to I think it was 26 or 30 of them. What it created was a very complete physical experience of sound. Sound is in and of itself a very physical experience, but the point of this was the physical experience of sound, because it’s being thrown at you as these arms swing around.

So that really moved me, and got me really interested in installations of art that are very immersive, that you can’t just look at it from one point and leave.

At the same time, I was in this advanced film analysis class where we were learning a lot of theory about spectatorship and action and passivity. When you’re watching a film, even a narrative film, are you just sitting there completely docile and zombie with all of this stuff being fed to you, or are you actively creating the story from these images? And what I thought was missed in that discourse was the physical experience of images.

When you go to cinema, it’s a very sensory-deprived position you’re putting yourself in, because you’re sitting for an hour and a half not moving in a completely dark environment, and all you have is one image. That promotes you being invested in that image, and being invested in the story. That’s why when you have an emotional movie, people start crying at things because people get hyper-invested into it.

So, what I wanted to experiment with was the physical experience of images. And also not only how audiences as spectators interact with the images but interact with other audience members as well.

An interesting thing that I didn’t notice, but someone else pointed out to me, was that when you walk around outside, you start really noticing your shadow. The best thing is people start playing with their shadows, you know, making little animals and whatnot. But when you go inside and somebody walks on the outside, you mistake their shadow for yours for a second.
Basically the conception is trying to experiment with the physicality of images.

TWM: Had you done any work like this before?

SS: It was really different working on it, because I was used to it being all about editing. Sitting in this room and editing. And does this cut work with this cut, and does that cut work with that cut. Which was really interesting, because in this project the footage kind of took a back seat for me. I was working with a very small pool of footage because I wasn’t planning on this. So the first thing I’m going to do when I go back is bring the camera with me to get lots of footage because I know what I’m using it for.

It was really weird, and at first difficult, but also really rewarding to start working in a completely different manner than I had before. Like when I was setting this up, I had to use trigonometry for the first time to figure out exactly where half of the square was, and how much space was supposed to be between them. It was definitely a new experience.

TMW: Was the physical construction and set-up of the piece difficult given your past experience?

SS: Oh yeah, definitely. Especially at the Soap Factory because there was a previous exhibit there, and we had four days to actually go there and do it. When I originally had built it, the screens were on stands. But then my professor, Jen Lion, gave me a really good piece of advice, saying that it didn’t look that good on the stands. It felt like a barricade almost and didn’t promote close interaction with it.

So the conclusion we came to was hanging them. I was doing things I hadn’t done since carpentry class. Like drilling holes into the ceiling of the Soap Factory and trying to peg it at completely ninty degree angles. It was hard, but it was really, really rewarding.

The first time I did it, when it was at Macalester, there was no soundtrack to it. This time, my friend Max Balhorn ’11, who also is at Macalester, helped me create a really great soundtrack to it, which is really immersive and kind of almost minimal. It’s really droney sound, but it changes over the course of an hour.

In the Soap Factory, we had four speakers that were on the corners above the square. So with that, your movements not only change how you see the image but change the sound as well. What I really liked was going to the square, and you’d stand and it would sound like there was only one frequency, one tone that was modulating slightly. Once you started walking around in circles, it would feel like the frequency was modulating more. And then you stop, and it’s just one tone again. I was really grateful for Max’s help, and that, I feel, added a lot to the installation.

TMW: Do you see this project progressing further?

SS: First would be getting more footage, getting better footage because it was kind of grainy on a crappy camera.

My friend Anthony Tran ’11 also had a piece at the Soap Factory. We’d been talking about kind of combining our project s and looking at a lot of new media artists, particularly the Chronos Project. What they have is a screen and a projection on it, and when you touch it you can physically change the projection. One cool thing they did was they had a still shot of a skyline during the day, and you could go up, and if you move your hand across it, it changes to the same skyline at night.

What we’re planning on doing, hopefully, is a very similar installation, but going beyond shadows and incorporating those ideas in. When you touch the screen, you get a wave of ripples across the water. And also going beyond four screens, and having one screen on top as well that would be footage underwater up to the sun, so it’s like the water from underneath. It’s incorporating more new media facets. Hopefully it’s
not the end of it.

TMW: What is the time frame you see this following?

SS: I’m planning to stay here after I graduate, so most likely either next semester if I can find another opportunity to display it. The good thing is getting out there, and having done something. The possibilities of other spaces come along.

At the same time, we’ve kind of created a video collective with members of my class called Open Set Collective. We’re working on a couple other projects right now. I don’t know, I’ll see where it goes.

TMW: Can you talk a more about Open Set Collective?

SS: Open Set Collective is a bunch of kids at Mac, basically. A group of us had met in Jen Lion’s first video class and kind of bonded just because her class is insane, and it makes you do a lot of work. I feel grateful for the group because anytime anyone says anything about my work, I take it extremely seriously.

The biggest part is we share criticism. If anyone is working on a video, we’re like all right, let’s meet. Eat pizza, drink a beer, watch it, and we give each other criticism. And we do this thing called a ‘tape trade’ where everybody shot a tape of footage and trades it with someone else to edit it, so you’re not editing your own footage.

It isn’t firm yet, but I’ve been talking to someone in Minneapolis about producing a television show about experimental video within the Twin Cities. Open Set Collective would be basically together, collaborating and producing work, and curating work basically, for that television show.

We’re pretty open as well, so if anyone is interested in video and wants to come to our meetings, they’re more than welcome to. We’re not a Macalester org or anything. It’s been really helpful in my work.

My friend Sean Hickey ’10, who’s also in it, he just amazingly had one of his videos shown at the Queer [Experimental] Film Festival in New York, which is a huge deal. So together we helped him create it and get through the final parts of his video and kind of polish it. He finished it for Video II [class], but it’s never really finished, so keep going at it, keep editing it, keep sharpening it up. So it’s a good group of people to help you with your work.

TMW: How did you get your piece on display at the Soap Factory?

SS: It’s a really interesting revelation for me, that these things usually end up working in really strange ways. Me and Anthony both met this girl Colleen Harris, a graduate from Bard, who lives in Minneapolis and works at Franklin Art, and does facilitating, curating work and we’re really good friends now. She sent an e-mail asking for submissions for this biannual showcase at the Soap Factory called Workhorse. I submitted it, and she really liked it.

TMW: What exactly is Workhorse?

SS: It’s really interesting and great because it’s a showcase that is not about an artist or a group of artists completing a work and putting it out, saying this is it–enjoy it or don’t enjoy it. Instead, it’s about emerging ideas and ideas that need feedback and want feedback, and want to be shown and move on from there. It’s not the end of the project, it’s just another step in it. It’s mostly been performance-based, so that you can really get critique from the audience members. It’s not just an exhibition per se, but it’s an exhibition that brings the work forward.

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