Q&A TED Fellows

Peek-a-boo!: Fellows Friday with Aparna Rao

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Aparna Rao

Part of Bangalore-based art duo Pors & Rao, Aparna Rao (watch her TED Talk) embeds high-tech and humor in interactive, sculptural artworks that awaken us to our own subtle behavioral patterns and emotional responses.

What’s your vision and motivation for making this art?

I think it’s more a compulsion than a vision. It all started with The Uncle Phone. If you’ve seen my TED Talk, you’ll know it’s the very long phone I made for my uncle, who used to sometimes insist that I assist him in making a phone call by dialing the number for him.

In the Indian context, it’s a really bad thing to deny these simple requests and others, such as, “Can you get me a glass of water?” You can’t say, “No, I won’t do it.” And yet, if these requests become the cause of so many disruptions in your daily life, there is a need to rationalize it somehow. Just the proposition of having to communicate something very simple and innocuous to an uncle can become a very complex and difficult thing due to the issue of respect — it’s all so culturally coded.

I felt a need to deal with this complexity, which is so hard to put into words, yet occupies such a big space in my mind. Somehow I needed to find a way to express or even think about it. That was how it all started. I am quite satisfied with how the phone addressed this need – in an inquiring and affectionate way, without making a really big drama.

And what was your uncle’s response to it?

Actually, I didn’t really want to tell him because it would be too much of a confrontation. So I just kind of casually brought it home one day and didn’t address the story directly. He rightly assumed that it was a gift for him or inspired by him, but the funny thing is, he only realized the meaning and motivation behind it nine years later, after my TED Talk went live. So the talk was personally quite a highlight in my relationship with my family. They publicly came to understand what our work is about, and a lot of it is about them!

When my uncle finally understood the piece, he laughed. He’s the kind of person who doesn’t take things to heart. And the object is very affectionate. It’s humorous and flamboyant, like him. He also felt really happy being the hero of the TED Talk in a sense, because he inspired some of the objects, which others have also appreciated so much. I think he knows somehow he had a big role.

The Uncle Phone

Artwork, The Uncle Phone. Click to see larger size. Photo: Jorge Martín Muñoz.

The complexity of the cultural struggle seems to inform your work. I’m curious about Missing Person — in which one spectator in a room is always invisible in the monitors — and where the idea of invisibility might fit into that.

A lot of people find the intercultural aspect of our work confusing, because my collaborator, Søren Pors, is Danish, while I’m Indian. So while the intercultural dynamic is there, we’re more interested in interpersonal relationships. About Missing Person — we just had this idea about experiencing a sense of invisibility, how it would feel to be invisible. The first time I experienced it, my brain went into a bit of a flip: “Okay, what the hell?” It’s a strange sensation, which I’d never had before. So that was exciting.

Probably, on one level, Missing Person is about the superhero idea of invisibility – being omnipresent and able to do your own thing without being seen. And on another level, maybe it is also a reference to the culture of domestic help in India. The usual practice is that you don’t acknowledge them on the same social level — mostly not at all. You don’t say hello, you don’t speak with them. It’s like they are furniture, to the extent that it is quite common to discuss deeply private things in their presence because you just forget they’re there. This seems to be a mutually comfortable arrangement.

When I came back to my home country after being away for six or seven years, I found the whole thing quite strange, interesting and comical – as did Søren. Also, many other things had prompted us to think about invisibility, both in a physical sense and a social sense.

But we found that people access this work on many different levels. For us, it was fun to be able to play with invisibility in a group – the work allows you to transfer your invisibility to others in the room by your movements in it. However, in Japan, they have a cultural phenomenon called Hikikomori, where people isolate themselves in a room, confining themselves for several years at a time, and society just stops acknowledging their existence. When we showed this work there, some people experienced it as a very dark piece.


Artwork, Decoy (2008-2011). Click to see larger size. Photo: Pors & Rao Studio

Everyone just loves Pygmies — the fact that the pygmies appear to respond to the viewers by hiding away in reaction to sounds, and just the fact that they’re so charming. There’s a mischievous sense of humor in your work. Did you used to play practical jokes on people when you were a kid?

No, actually I was very quiet and shy, and didn’t engage much with others. We just think humor offers a lot of space to address certain things that may be difficult or complex to understand or deal with.

Also, it’s not a conscious decision to use mischief or humor. It’s just maybe a state of mind, a natural expression of what comes out. To me, Pygmies — or even Missing Person or The Uncle Phone — is a very serious work. I was quite surprised in the initial years when people found the work funny. I actually didn’t experience it that way myself. So that was an interesting dimension to reflect upon.

Actually, the pygmies are also shy – they hide a lot. This whole theme of hiding and being invisible is a part of, I think, who Søren and I are. But it’s very difficult to analyze humor. We think it’s just a sense of enjoyment, in a lot of ways, which is translated and called “fun.”

Have you had any other unexpected reactions to your work?

Two that I can recall now. The pygmies were made to respond to the natural environment. But we found that people would literally play with the pygmies, doing things — jumping, clapping, peeping, which we found incredibly annoying – to figure out how they would respond. That was quite unexpected.

But the most surprising response was for a work called Decoy. We got no response at all! That was quite a disturbing experience. We’d struggled and struggled to make this work and were so excited about how it had turned out. We had put our heart and soul into it and then got no reaction from someone whose opinion mattered. But later, as it turned out, a lot of other people really responded to it. I believe the initial reaction had to do with context: it was a preview situation where the viewer was trying to contextualize the piece in terms of Indian art history, rather than simply experiencing the piece directly as a spectator. This taught us that the context of the experience (both the psychological and the physical) makes all the difference in the subjective experience of the work.

But we have found — and this makes us very happy — that many different kinds of people are able respond to our work. It could be a child. It could be an arts-educated person. Recently we came across a situation where a very low-income, illiterate person who’d had no exposure to art saw the work and was genuinely absorbed and delighted by it. So it’s not really made with anybody in mind, but we enjoy the fact that most or many people can find some aspect of our work to relate to.

Aparna checks component

Aparna checking tolerances of the fiberglass component. Click to see larger size. Photo: Pors & Rao Studio

What is the experience of bringing an artwork to completion?

Søren and I have been working together for almost ten years now, and work occupies 90 percent of our lives, though we produce quite little, a maximum of three or four new artworks in a year. We have had coincidentally parallel experiences, though our backgrounds are so different in that we came from such diverse places and cultures. Somewhere along the way, we start getting drawn to similar things, and certain thoughts and expressions begin to crystallize. Most of our artworks have been stewing in our minds for at least three or four years — some artworks we’ve been thinking about for ten years! Usually the only way to stop thinking about them is to make them.

Then we go through a very much more structured process, which involves drawing, research, making physical models with cardboard, wire mesh and sometimes clay. We bring these into the computer by scanning them, and we make 3D models and animations. They we add the physics and create simulations to discover how they should move, and start working with companies that specialize in the technology required to make the movement happen.

On the practical level, we collaborate with each other throughout the process, but I take care of more of the mechanical and physical aspects — like fabrication, hardware, materials – while Søren focuses more on the behavioral aspects, the algorithms and the software. Each of our projects takes a minimum of a year and a half. We operate a studio and workshop where we have five full-time people who work with us. We’ve a very tight team.

Making our work is very much like conceiving and raising a child. We go through excitement when a new thought crystallizes, then the hard work and waiting follow. When it comes together, we live with it in our homes and start to refine its movement and behavior. And when we think it’s finally done, there’s a sense of euphoria — but also a disappointment or bewilderment sometimes. But we are always excited to see if there is something new that we can contribute to the art world.

What role does technology play in your ideas? Do you have a particular interest in it?

We think of technology more as a tool and as a natural part of the world we live in — just as artists go to flea markets and pick up stuff to work with, or to a hardware store for canvas and paints. I received my undergraduate degree in visual communication, but the gap between studying communication and not being able to communicate with my mother, my father or my best friend was too big. A year later, I went to do my master’s at a small but specialized institute in Italy, which really gave me space to look into myself and find something that I could clearly identify with on a deeper level. Here I understood that technology around us can be appropriated and even shaped into a personal purpose and direction.

Running mechanical trials at Pors & Rao

Running mechanical trials. Click to see larger size. Photo: Pors & Rao Studio

How has the TED Fellowship influenced the way you work?

The most prominent way the fellowship has had an impact — and this is what we were hoping for — is getting the acceptance of the technical community as a whole. Even though our work isn’t really about technology, the quality of the end experience requires a certain finesse that must be delivered by technology. And each project is so different. For example, for the invisibility project we needed a special kind of video digital signal processing expertise, and for the pygmy project we needed mechanical expertise of miniature systems.

The people we need to collaborate with are quite specialized, and they often find it very difficult, when we bring them an idea, to understand WHY — why it would be valuable for anyone to experience hiding pygmies, for example. So we’d find ourselves low on their priorities list or not taken so seriously.

Now that we have TED’s support, they’re more curious and appreciative because TED represents a standard they aspire to. We’ve also gotten some invitations from international universities to collaborate, and that is really exciting.