The Formation of the Contemporary Myth

For Akademie Schloss Solitude and ZKM‘s web residencies Indian artist Sahej Rahal created a video game populated by 3D scanned objects. These artifacts are either 3D scanned sculptures created by the artist using found objects like orntate furniture and broken plaster idols, polyurethane and cement, or objects scanned at the museum Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, formerly known as Prince of Wales Museum. These objects were animated inside a virtual world to perform a countermythology. To enable a larger narrative, this virtual world distributes the narrative constructed by the artist’s work in the real world and social media. This process of mythmaking mimics the process of refabricating history, instrumentalized by reactionary politics. By adopting especially the online strategies of the Indian People’s Party (BJP) as a reactionary act, Dissonant Mythologies continues a trajectory of inquiry into the mechanics of juxtaposing the virtual and the real, fake and true. Download the game and read an interview with the artist:

Schlosspost: Can you ground your interest in mythology at large, in particular the creation of a fictional countermythology?

Sahej Rahal: First of all, I’m a complete nerd when it comes to mythology and sci-fi, everything from the Mahabharata to Star Wars to Borges, I grew up watching and reading this stuff and absolutely love it.

Something that struck me in your question was the idea of a »fictional countermythology,« even though reason dictates all mythologies are already works of fiction. Yet myths manifest in very real ways, like the statue of an infant Rama appearing out of nowhere inside the Babri mosque, or the promised land of Zion, or American exceptionalism, carrying with them all the pomp and bluster of grand narratives that claim to hold within them secret metaphysical truths. For a myth to persist today, this absurd truth claim has become something essential.

I’m interested in understanding the processes underlying these grand narratives and the manner in which they bind themselves to our world, in their material manifestations of objects, images, and acts.

»For a myth to persist today, this absurd truth claim has become something essential.«Sahej Rahal

Schlosspost: Your previous artworks as a visual artist (i.e. drawings, sculptures, performances, and site-specific installations) are inhabited by creatures of an alternative mythology, reminiscent of sci-fi, or a fantasy re-echoing Indian demons. How are they are now placed within a digital context instead of the museum itself?

SR: As part of the Solitude and ZKM web residencies, I was working on a video game in which players traverse a maze of absurd architectural structures made from 3D scans I made of my own sculptures. Now I don’t see the game as a kind of digital translation of my work, but an extension of the larger metanarrative that I am constructing in; to borrow a morbidly cyberpunk term »meat-space.«

Schlosspost: How does the circulation of goods within the internet meme culture differ from the one in an institutional space?

SR: There is a visceral immediacy to the internet, yet it is a space driven by a lot of distraction. I’m interested in seeing how these two vectors play out as the space of art and the Internet continue to collide.

Schlosspost: Is your practice as a visual artist related to game culture?

SR: I see my practice as an exercise in constructing a puzzle that can be reconstructed in various ways, as there is no single final form that the pieces accord to. An example of something similar can be seen in games like the Dark Souls series, which aside from being extremely difficult on a gameplay level, also present the player with a narrative that is fragmented and mysterious, with multiple branching paths and also a possibility of missing entire portions of the game depending on the route you take. So depending on your own particular route you will only have a particular conception of the narrative and world that you’ve encountered in the game. This makes meaning making an active task, where the viewer/player brings to the work all the chaos of their own subjectivities.

Schlosspost: How is your project referring to the call »Ghosted (2018)« curated by Tegan Bristow? Is the proposed project a direct response to the Ghosting of Indigenous Media Practices and digital colonialism?

SR: The game I am creating can be thought of as a digital vestibule of an archaeological dig site, where artifacts of colonialism are reconfigured with their ascribed hierarchies and disembodied within the game space. Players guide a lone figure across a labyrinthine environment where these objects are now pretending to be fragments from the future, yet the space itself lies between the remains of what could be both a museum and a place of worship.

As the game progresses, the viewers create their own narratives around what the relationship between the figure and the environment is as the line between the categorizing imperative of the museum and the site of ritualistic worship converge.

Schlosspost: In pursuing a narrative with multiple threads of information, your cosmos is something that resists a certain declaration. This ontological uncertainty seems to be an alternative to the Age of Knowledge we seemingly live in. Likewise, the construction of inconclusive narratives or fake news is a strategy governments often use to conceal the truth. How does your presentation of information differ from that, in particular of the strategies of the BJP (Indian People’s Party)?

SR: One manner in which I think that my work differs from political propaganda is that it actively resists assuming a didactic position with a hierarchical flow of information. Because of their ontological uncertainty, the objects are in a state that is still unformed and carry affective charge rather than acts as conveyers of singular meaning, actively inviting the viewer in their construction as fellow conversant rather than pedagogue.

»Because of their ontological uncertainty, the objects are in a state that is still unformed and carry affective charge rather than acts as conveyers of singular meaning, actively inviting the viewer in their construction as fellow conversant rather than pedagogue..«Sahej Rahal

Schlosspost: We tend to avoid categorizing things we don’t know the origin of. The online world itself is a complex communication concept, yet many corners are unknown. Did the project Dissonant Mythologies reveal some of the complexity by testing the making and manipulation that significantly shape contradictory national or global identities online?

SR: The Dissonant Mythologies project and the game that I’m working on under the title Upon your bones, this temple is an attempt to examine how a still incomplete mythmaking process could spill into the web and the kind of cross spillages that would create, and how it would mold and mutate this myth-making process.

Schlosspost: Would you claim that myths are an inevitable part of a p erformed reality? What characterizes today’s reemergence of myths?

SR: Yes, our lives are definitely rife with mythologies with new ones being created every day.

Schlosspost: Accelerationism claims that the world we know is completely disastrous. We have to tear it down and build it anew. This is what the right wing in India is doing, by erasing, and destroying the Babri Mosque in 1992, and other things. If you could build the world anew, not only by creating a video game, what would be your speculative scenario of shaping the world?

SR: To be completely honest, I secretly am building the world anew with myth and magic, but don’t tell this to anyone yet.

The interview was conducted by Denise Helene Sumi