Tejal Shah

Dancing Light / Let it move you...

An Interview with Tejal Shah on Landfill Dance, part of Between the Waves (a five-channel video installation)

Nanda van den Berg: Can you tell us a bit more about Between the Waves project and Landfill Dance in particular? How did you come to start thinking about a work using dance?

Tejal Shah: Landfill Dance is part of the larger five-channel video installation, Between the Waves. Each channel also functions as a stand-alone piece. I first worked on channel 1, which is a longer film that forms the backbone of the installation. Channel 1 is a circular fable, a new cosmology bearing a strong commentary on the Anthropocene. It’s a creation myth about a forgotten civilization whose existence and actions precipitate certain relationships between more-than-humans and humans. The audiovisual material we encounter may as well be found in a time capsule, or perhaps they are transmissions sent to us in asymmetrical time by the hybrid unicorn-like protagonists of this story. Landfill Dance functions as an epilogue in the installation. Set into the future of the long past, it imagines a possible scope of what remains.

I am a big fan of contemporary and folk dance, with immense reverence for the medium. I have been eagerly awaiting an appropriate opportunity to collaborate with dancers. Finally, I decided to work with contemporary dance in this project to create seemingly nonsensical movements within the setting of a landfill to think about the futility of our gestures of sense making and recuperation in the Anthropocene (with a sense of humour of course!).

Through my research I came across Hrishikesh Pawar Contemporary Dance Company in Poona that fosters a space for young dancers (aged 17 – 21). Poona is a 2nd tier metropolitan city where opportunities for contemporary dancers are scarce since most of the dance training in India tends to be classical. I approached the director of the company to collaborate with them by conducting workshops on the relationship of dance, video art and moving images, as well as using process-based strategies to co-create new choreographies and adapt some existing ones. I also worked with Linda Borini, trained in classical ballet, whom I had seen perform at various events in Goa.

NvdB: So you organized a workshop for the dance company?

TS: Yes, I conducted three workshops over a month and we began to develop the choreographies through improvisation, creating different scenarios and interacting with objects. As it turned out, dancing in a studio is a very different embodied experience as compared to dancing in a landfill – the terrain, smells, exposure to elements etc., create a very different visceral experience.

In preparation, I went on a reconnaissance mission, shot video footage and still photographs of possible spots and angles from which we could shoot. Then I shared this material with the dancers while explaining the concepts and themes of the project. Additionally, we hand-made all the costumes and accessories for the project by upcycling materials. This was done in collaboration with Katell Gelebart, a designer who has been working with upcycling for several years.

NvdB: It’s such a mysterious work…

TS: Yes! Most of my video work is brought together on the editing table. I work with a rough storyboard for shooting – well, it is not so much a storyboard as it is a breakdown of the shot list. I try to remain very attuned to chance, synchronicities and resonances that manifest in the moment of making the work. Immediately after shooting, I look at my material very carefully. I ‘look’ at it as if I were listening to it, for what it has to say or tell me. For example, there’s a sequence in the video, where Linda is tip-toeing center frame on a concrete parapet approaching the camera and her hand makes this gesture as if she’s conjuring something – and simultaneously a vortex of dust appears next to her, as if she has indeed conjured a small dust storm out of thin air. So the material takes on oracular qualities, there is a feedback process and I am co-creating the work with the work and its materials themselves.

The landfill is one kind of an archeological site of the future, they are an accumulation of our refuse that are sometimes transformed by structures built on top of them – like the plan to build an amusement park on top of the landfill in my video. There are geological, social and cultural histories embedded in the landscape and it is this potency that I am interested in.

You will also notice that many different animals are represented in the video, these creatures populate the landfill. I was surprised to find so many different scavengers and avians thriving on this toxic ecology. I love watching David Attenborough’s BBC nature programs and recalled this shot of a fish coming out of the seabed and spitting out a mouthful of rubbish. So when I was editing, it occurred to me that this would be the perfect ending for the video: this fish coming out of the seabed, looking around, and spewing debris out of its mouth. I like playing with the fantastical. The super slow motion movement of the dancers, which makes us perceive that they are static but in fact they always are always moving. I didn’t slow down the footage in post-production; it was simply performed very, very slowly.

NvdB: It is very funny. And the movements are funny, and the dresses are so funny, with their cockroach pattern.

TS: Yes! We spent a lot of time making those, all by hand, with upcycled materials, as I mentioned before. I work in a very small team, I enjoy that. I feel more comfortable in a smaller, intimate setting. We were a team of four, collecting garbage from our neighbourhood (everything from videotapes to beer cans), sewing, sticking, getting permissions etc. Between the Wavesmakes art historical references to Rebecca Horn’s iconic performance, Einhorn, and in Landfill Dance too there are references to her works. I too find the accessories humorous and rather ridiculous. We worked with what we found and the structure of the accessories emerged from its parts. All accessories, clothes, even the shoes were made out of recycled stuff. There was a lot of innovation, and it was a big learning experience for me. I had never handled eight or nine dancers on a shoot before. The production and realization of Landfill Danceposed many challenges to my process – working on a fairly tight budget, difficulties in obtaining municipal permissions to shoot inside a landfill, finding contemporary dancers to work with who lived in proximity to the landfill site, and not being able to rehearse onsite prior to the shoot, are just a few examples. It was really great learning experience.

NvdB: How long did they perform – for how many hours? How long did the shoot take?

TS: We had a two camera set up over two days, two shifts per day.

NvdB: I’ve never been on a landfill. Doesn’t it smell?

TS: Yes, it does, and we tried to incorporate facemasks and gloves in the costumes itself. But even with that, the work conditions were difficult because it was quite hot, dry and stinky. The area of the landfill we were working in was thankfully a section where they were not dumping new rubbish for a while, so the stuff there was a bit older and drier – so less bothersome, if I can say that. But at the same time it wasn’t easy. You’re in a toxic environment and we were very itchy after coming back from the location.

NvdB: But it was worth it!

TS: I guess so, it’s definitely an experience. Let’s not forget the human scavengers and workers for whom the landfill is both home and livelihood…I certainly don’t romanticize such spaces…

NvdB: The exhibition is very much about the effect that dance has on people. If you had to choose one emotion, the ‘affect’ of your work on people, what would you say?

TS: I would say: awkwardness and humour. There is awkwardness there, in a very good way. I always like to incorporate everything that ‘goes wrong’, the mistakes and unplanned things; I never regard them as a problem. So I have a very positive approach, and the humour comes out of that. My work has the ability to laugh at itself. But it is good to watch it repeatedly, because with repeated viewing the work means different things, new connections emerge.

NvdB: Just out of curiosity, what are you working on now?

TS: I like working slowly and in detail, and I like to take the time to study, to read, and not just to be engaged in making and producing. I go through phases of making and phases of studying and currently I am in a transitional phase with my artistic practice. I’d like to start working more with low-tech mediums and for my practice to branch out to incorporate process-based, community participatory projects about human-nature-culture relationships. I’m studying and developing some new skills at the moment in permaculture, yoga, pottery, meditation and upcycling technologies.

29 september 2014