Subconscious thoughts embodied in art – Pors & Rao

Subconscious thoughts embodied in art – Pors & Rao

Søren Pors and Aparna Rao are artists who work with objects and installations often incorporating physical animation and responsive behaviors. After toiling with computer simulations, the internet, and gameplay in the early 2000s, they both abandoned the screen to work with objects that engage the body. They crossed paths in Italy in 2002 and started collaborating as a duo in 2004.

They have exhibited their work all over the world. Some of them being VISIONS FROM INDIA, Pizzuti Collection, 2017, The Setouchi Triennale, Japan, 2016, the 2nd Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Whorled Explorations, India, 2014/15; METAMATIC Reloaded, Museum Tinguely, Basel, Switzerland, 2013; 21 Rooms, Nam June Paik Art Center, Seoul, South Korea, 2011; Pors & Rao, CAB – Centro De Arte Contemporaneo, Burgos, Spain, 2011; Indian Highway, The Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art. Oslo, Norway, 2009, and the 4th Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Fukuoka, Japan, 2009.

In this interview, Aparna Rao speaks about their inspiration and their art.

How did your interest in your art begin? You mention in your Ted talk a few projects. What was their genesis?

Ever since I can remember, even as a child, I wanted to be an artist. I was taught that it was only
about honing the skill to paint sunsets, making realistic portraits and so on. As I grew older, not
possessing the required talent, I decided to abandon the path of an artist completely. I later took up
graphic design (which I wasn't very good at either), and in the process went through several years of
intense self doubt, introspection and a painful yearning for something that was missing- perhaps a
strong personal style or expression. I thought that finding it would give my life meaning. Much later, on
the first day of my masters program, I met my now collaborator of 17 years, Søren. He was a real
catalyst in arriving at a starting point of my own ‘private experiments’: a kind of exploration of my inner
reality which gave birth to The Uncle Phone ( thank you Reed & Clemens! ) and a few other objects
that dealt with the invisible mould of interpersonal relations. For the first time, I felt deeply satisfied
and that a great burden had finally been lifted. From then on, there was no looking back. I did not call
it art, or give it any other name. Coincidentally in that period, I also chanced upon the Tinguely
Museum in Basel; which again piqued the same raw nerve- the idea of an infinite world of one’s own,
making things with anything: any medium- any content. It was another defining moment for me. A
decade later we showed an ambitious work, Nisse Tv, at the museum; which spoke to the underlying
ideas of Tinguely’s famous metamatic drawing machines.

How did your professional training help in fine tuning?

I was an undergraduate student of Srishti Institute, Bangalore (for a year) and the National Institute of
Design, Ahmedabad (for five years). In retrospect, it gave me a solid foundation in conceptual
thinking, geometry, form, function, colour and structure. It was the late 90s; the internet was starting to
creep into our lives; which also caused anxiety and confusion on so many levels. The static format of
print had been replaced overnight by its dynamic, complex screen avatar. Visual aesthetics could be
computed instead of drawn, physical craftsmanship and the intelligence of the hand associated with
design was giving way to cerebral proficiency and working with computers. To me then, there seemed
to be a massive disconnect between what I was studying and the state of the world outside design
school. Fortunately a few years later, during my masters studies at the Interaction Design Institute
Ivrea (IDII) in Italy, I was exposed to various technologies, including physical computing. I realised
how invaluable my old-school training had turned out to be. It allowed me to bring that deliberation
and rigour into a new medium, which often does not afford us the time to do so, because it is evolving/
changing so rapidly.

Your work is very quirky and fascinating. What genre does it fall under? Are there many artists
producing such work?

We are primarily concerned with the questions of our subconscious natures and patterns, behaviour
motifs and how these become embedded into the body without our will, expressed through motion.
They often provide rich and involuntary autobiographical cues into the psychological frameworks one
is trapped within. We use our objects and installations to zoom into these movements as a way to
observe and explore their inner workings. We use engineering simply as a tool- like paint. We are not
overly interested in it, do not fetishize it; in fact, we use it rather reluctantly (because there is so much
struggle involved). We also work very hard to make technology inconspicuous; because it has a very
strong presence which is often irrelevant to the idea, aesthetic or experience we are looking for.

We are not really keeping an eye on other artists working in the same medium; by itself it is not
interesting to us. However off the top of my head, I cannot think of any artist who is working with
responsive robotics animation to create a kind of lifelike being. This is not to say that there are no
examples of inspiring works in this space, such as Fischli & Weiss’ Rat & Bear (Sleeping) or Jordan
Wolfson’s Female Figure.

How did you meet Søren? How do your creative ideas come together?

I met Søren (Pors) in Italy; we were both enrolled in the same masters program. He was also working
from personal reflection; which was quite different from the trajectory of other students. Very quickly,
we found synergy and began to work alongside, discussing ideas and supporting one another. It was
only after we graduated two years later, that we formed Pors & Rao, moving to Bangalore to continue
our collaboration.
We have somehow found a natural way of exchanging, developing ideas without being conscious or
concerned of its origins or how they vacillate between us, before becoming resolved. The process of
making the work is so exhaustive that we don’t have much time to sit down, reflect and develop new
directions. Most ideas occur to us, least expected, while we are busy doing other things; some feel
urgent and demand our attention, others are kept on the back burner- but might ignite at another
moment in time. Again there is no obvious rationale for what feels most compelling; we like to follow
these mysteries and go wherever the idea eventually leads us to.

Gum Figure, Aluminium, Acrylic, Paint, 34.7 x 34.7 x 87.67 inches, 88.2 x 88.2 x 222.7 cm, 2015-18

Does your art resemble other Indian art forms like shadow puppetr

Well, I have not really thought about a specific Indian context, but yes, puppetry can appear alive
when the presence of the puppeteer can disappear; and when suspension of disbelief can arise.
There are also forms of traditional street theatre or the martial arts like Kalaripayattu that express
movements of animals to manifest their emotions and intent. At the moment, we are interested in
involuntary primordial motion patterns that we as humans share with animals both in behaviour and
movement. However we are not specially interested in any existing performing arts, except some
stylistic techniques of early slapstick animation, some intrigue around martial arts- mainly forms of
kung fu and also patterns of breathing and their observations- as the fundamental embodiment of a
living motion.

How do you put technology to use? Where does the aesthetics fuse of the creator and the
technologist. Do they have ideas of their own?

We custom develop ways of integrating sophisticated off-the-shelf technologies specifically for the
purpose of achieving the right nuance in robotic animation. Our requirements are therefore quite
unique: high flexibility and resolution in motion, tight space optimisation, low noise threshold and easy
access. There is a baffling amount of effort required to realise these qualities, which has led to the
formation of our art lab, PATHOS at Wyss Zurich, ETHZ. Here we develop a set of tools for life-like
emotive movement and response. The aim is to allow anyone to become an animator of the
inanimate; bringing individual, complex, responsive expression to physical objects that can potentially
match the richness of screen animation.

Technology follows the vision of the work’s idea and aesthetic, which Søren and I control very closely.
So there is no scope for technology to influence us in this sphere. However we surprisingly found that
our creative constraints are often inspiring for the brilliant engineers we are fortunate to work with.

They come up with non-standard, highly innovative solutions to the challenges posed by our projects.
Often they give rise to bachelor or masters thesis projects, sometimes a paper or taking of a solution/
eventual findings back into the industry or academic research. All of this takes place in Switzerland in
collaboration with a number of labs we associate with, where students form the backbone of our
experiments and even the execution of projects. Unfortunately, in India, we have found only a few,
even if exceptional, mechatronic engineers to work with. It feels as if much of the talent has left the

Someone's Coming, Canvas, Metal, Plastic, Rubber, Electromechanical Components, 225.98 x 300.78 x 163.62 inches, 575 x 764 x 441 cm, 2012-15

What kind of art inspires you?

There are of course works of art we admire greatly, but we are not particularly inspired by art in the
narrow sense. We grew up liking slapstick cartoons and early computer games. We enjoy cheesy
action movies whose attention is the body. Our visual language often grows out of a functional need
of getting the idea to work in a space. This sometimes leads us to play with or borrow established
aesthetic languages, for example, of minimal art from the 60s or stylistic forms from early Disney
animations. In a way we are trying to add as little as possible besides the one thing an idea is
uniquely focusing on.

What are you currently working on?

Each work can sometimes take years to realise. In our studio in Bangalore, we are working on over 15 projects at any given time, each in various stages of development- from early conceptualisation to
prototyping or testing. At our lab in Zurich, we are building a browser based environment to intuitively
control modular, robust mechatronic units as a kind of performative robotic toolkit to enable our work;
which we also hope that others can eventually use. We are also beginning to connect with the
Humanities and Science, starting conversations with scholars for e.g., studying slapstick in
mechanical performances through history or Neurobiologists using computational models to better
understand the the link between movement and sentience. The next project we have is to
demonstrate a few artwork prototypes at the ETH Pavilion in Davos at the end of January, 2020.

(Featured image is Gust of Wind, Wood, Metal, Electro-mechanical Components, Artificial Paper, 17.51 x 23.22 x 8.26 inches, 44.5 x 59.0 x 21.0 cm, 2016-17). All images courtesy Pors & Rao.