Himali Singh Soin

1st April -  14th April 2020

Radar Level, 2016. Video, 11:11.

Radar Level is a palindromic journey between origins and ends. In the asphalt of the apocalypse is a crack wide open, where light passes through. It is the beginning of other possibilities.

First performed at Kadist, San Francisco.
Sound: David Soin Tappeser
Camera aide: JJ Weihl


Images from interview with Himali Singh Soin, and David Soin Tappeser , who work together as Hylozoic/Desires


Georgie Brinkman (Curator, The New Flesh): To begin, please could you introduce your work and give us an overview of some of the ideas or research areas that are driving the piece?

Himali Singh Soin:
Radar Level is set in the world's last geological minutes, in two ancient landscapes. One in the northern hemisphere in Mongolia at the site of the first dinosaur fossil excavation and the other beneath the southern constellation of Namibia, on its old waters. The split projection reverses between desert and water. Dissolving in these images are found photographs of humans in spacesuits before the space age, gearing up for the end of life, for a distant voyage, for protection or for colonial imitation. Just as the title itself is a palindrome, here, the extinction of the past looks like the extinction of the future. The sound is a combination of dinosaur sounds and outer space vibrations, both anterior to human existence, yet only known through anthropocentric, technological re-imaginings.

GB: Could you talk a little bit about the use of costume in this piece? For example, were they made by you or did you collaborate with a designer? And how much did the costume help to form the content of the work?

I’m going to include a text I wrote that I think is relevant here…

One of my girlfriends gave me my first golden space blanket as a wedding present. She’s a pop star with bleached blonde hair and glittery eyes and writes the kind of poems that make you feel like it’s a Sunday morning and anything’s possible. She wears 6 inch white platforms just to visit the pharmacy, which is also where she bought me the outfit of my dreams, for the equivalent of about a hundred rupees. They’re sold as first aid ‘emergency blankets’ because they contain body heat after overexposure to any traumatic environment, often handed to refugees disembarking from the ocean. Originally created by NASA, they were meant to keep earthly machines in outer space from overheating. They are often used for those embarking on long-distance voyages: the paper thin layer of vaporized aluminium is feather-weighted, disposable and reflects intense amounts of heat and light. From afar, they look like comets.

I think she gave it to me in part because we have a group chat with our friends called The Time Suspension, which comprises links about astronomers beaming techno into space for aliens to decode, theories against dark matter, questions about love and other quantum mechanics. Our friendship is founded on jokes at the expense of the cosmos.

The first time I wore one was for Radar Level. I was thinking about the history of women in outer space, and the role that culture played outside Earth. The same friend happened to be visiting, and I asked her to film me. I cut up sheets of thick holographic paper that I had ripped off from outside a cinema late at night. The holographic paper sat regal as a Victorian collar, which I secured onto the golden space blanket with double-sided velcro. When in doubt: velcro. I wanted it to look DIY, like this kid is definitely never going to be an astronaut, but I didn’t like the cross fold the paper made in the front. I found this giant brooch my mother had bought me from a street market in Marrakech, and I wore it as a necklace. It was the perfect accessory that extended the conceptual framework of the costume: it hid the fold perfectly, and its striking circular shape with a pointed silver spike sticking out of it, combined with its inlaid coral and lapis, was the right amount of non-specific ‘ethnic’ I needed.

As the years went on, the costume grew. I added steely silver tights that stuck to my calves, the kind that make you wiggle your hips upwards as you slide them on. Would outer space feel like this, I remember thinking, everything stuck together, snug and shiny? 

I sometimes add white vintage leather gloves to the ensemble. I like their ubiquitousness, how they transcend time, like I could wear them with a corset and gown in the 19th century and also in a medical lab that floated in the clouds and contained clones of everything extinct, lost or missing. It was in this bouncing between time periods, between states of solid and fluid, that my character breathed, free to wrestle in the tangles of here, there, then, now, befores and afters.

GB: So it seems as though you use metaphors of outer space to reflect on earthly matters. As well as your own space suit you include footage of ‘humans in spacesuits before the space age’. Are these cosmic references, and particularly outer space clothing, something that is found in your other works? What is their role?

Yes, Radar Level was the first video I made in which my character wore a space blanket, after which she appeared in ‘Ritual Telepathy’, where she wanders the palm groves of Sri Lanka, and then in ‘we are opposite like that’, set in the Arctic circle. She is part non-human, part cyborg, part other, part alien, part metaphorical, fantastical, interstellar, extra terrestrial. This way, the character wears a reflective, absorbent surface upon which the viewer can project their own desires upon her even while the landscapes she is in reflect her back.

In ‘we are opposite like that’, partly because of the cold, I wore a second space blanket as a turban, a wailing cacophony to put on because it screeches when crinkled. It sounds like static glitching, pixels smashing into each other. Maybe the turban is in part a nod to my dad, the original expeditioner, who wore a turban up to the North Pole in the 80’s, when the ozone hole was a thing. I had grown up watching this ritual of cloth being stretched and starched, dried and iron and wrapped around his head like it was a book of secret codes or prayers. It kept the world at bay somehow. I circled my arms around my head, twisting, tucking. I imagined cloaking entire glaciers and towering icebergs in it.

By placing myself in a kind of do-it-yourself spacesuit, I am developing an archetypical alien character whose only distinguishing feature is her brown skin. In this, she can represent a collective imaginary but also an amorphous identity, one that is constantly shifting, adapting, moving through time that is both gridded and fluid, giving way to other-worldly dreamings. In that, the post-colonial seems inextricable from the post-anthropocentric. Both are ultimately relational and non-hierarchical: both presuppose that we should encounter our surroundings - human or environmental - on a flat, or equal ontological plane, rather than one divided into subject and object.

GB: You use various palindromic effects to suggest a non-linear presentation of time - with its circular eyes the film is watching us as much as we are watching the film - what would you like your audience to take from the idea of escaping linearity?

I love this question. The title is a palindrome, as is the time of the film (11:11), as well as the way it is structured: it begins to reverse itself but with slight adjustments about half-way through. The two circles draw attention to the witness: who is looking at whom? What is the relationship both of the viewer to an artwork as well as of humans to their own landscape? It makes the one seeing the scene complicit. In the squiggly temporality is the collision of capitalist Chronos with geological Deep Time and cultural Kairos, a kind of tempo retrieved as moments marked by experience. I want to ask us to think about new histories, one of the lines in the film is kal aur kal aur kal, which means tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. The word for yesterday and tomorrow are the same in hindi. How can we think of time not as the before and the next but as parallel, divergent, infinite and therefore indefinite, undetermined, a time that is told to us by the body, by the soil, by shadow and dreaming. And how can fiction function to disrupt and intervene in a uniform history to awaken us to the possibility of a new epoch in which the structures of power are similarly coiled.   

GB: I was fascinated to find out that your character was a 'light particle who had fallen in love with another light particle on a ray of light'. How did you approach portraying this character? Could you speak about the choice to use your own body, and why that was important to you?

To continue from the question above, I think of love as a radical phenomena or method that can disrupt linear time.

One of my first experiences of the alarming residue of the colonial project was at the Greenwich Observatory. The meridian divides the world’s hemispheres, and the keeper of the laser that beams out into British skies every evening invited me to turn the light on. I flipped a switch, and received a certificate. The keeper said to me that with the invention of the clock, Britain created the concept of time. And by bringing the railways to India, it brought timetables to a colony that previously did not have a sense of organized time. I was shaken, blood on my hands! So I wrote a piece then about two light particles on a single ray of light that fell in love. One had to exit the linearity of the beam to be closer to the other. I felt this could be a subversion of established hierarchies of knowledge as a way to accumulate power. These hegemonic ways of seeing (favouring techno-positivist, capitalist narratives) are no less practiced by our current government in India.

Only in love does the light, which is in a constant process of dying, look for new, divergent paths. It is also always in a state of renewal, shimmering as it makes its way across the world.

GB: Initially this interview focussed on a new work that you are currently making, but we changed our minds and decided to screen Radar Level instead. Would you like to speak briefly about this new work, and what we can expect from it?

‘as grand as what’ is a video which will be combined with live percussion and poetry. It’s material gathered from a residency that David and I went on (as our collective Hylozoic/Desires) outside of Naples, overlooking the Vesuvius volcano and shot partly in an old monastery. It contains masks, imaginary rituals, and reimagines a connection to nature and ideas of family. Our research is based in Italian witchcraft and Himalayan shamanistic cultures.

GB: Lastly, for you, what is the difference between costume and clothing - when is someone "in costume" as opposed to simply wearing an outfit?

An outfit is a big bowl of rice pilaf with berries and peas. A costume is lemon rind on a cake.