The final Australia Council for the Arts funded lab will happen in the Backwaters of Kerala, South India, in November 2011 led by Leah Barclay. The REMNANT EMERGENCY ArtLab pivots on a series of site specific Labs in the Australian neighbouring regions of South-East Asia & the Pacific between 2010 and 2012. The labs involve rigorous research and experimentation offering the team an opportunity to understand and engage with ideas of remnant self, culture and environments, assisted through an examination of the complexity of cultures and inter-cultural exchange.
The Artlab team understands itself to be a new ‘change community’ in that we share a commonality of belief (that also respects our differences) – that we must apply our work towards envisaging an environmentally/culturally sustainable future. As a group we are therefore investigating new modes of creative thinking/action together that confront the roots of today’s ecological crisis. By naming the root of this crisis as cultural (rather than scientific) we clearly understand the problem we face as a being a ‘problem of us’. Towards that end we are seeking to develop new imaginaries that question deeply-ingrained, unsustainable ways of thinking and acting.
By conducting a series of labs in different geographical locations the project gives us an unparalleled opportunity to learn from other cultures whose practices are both different and potentially more sustainable than our own – and to then re-think and re-apply those sustaining knowledges to our own ‘change-politics’ activities. The discoveries made through these labs also translate into each member’s discipline/practice evolving into a methodology that is both increasingly sensitive to intangible cultural heritage and that forges new processes that seek to target the roots of our collective ecological crisis.
We have indentified Kerala, South India as a vital component of our research and are engaging in a ten-day residency in the Alappuzha district of South India in November 2011. As a socialist state government Kerala promoted education and ecological conservation in state policy before these issues were discussed among other Indian states. These policies have resulted in a state where ecological conservation is practiced and fostered from an understanding of the interconnectedness between society and the natural world. The literature suggests that this has led to improvements in the quality of life, environmental stability, social and economic equality, and consequent decline in political strife. In the backwaters of Kerala, practices such as the Athirathram ritual and Ayurvedic science offer us insight into other ways of knowing that could potentially facilitate and inspire this interconnection in the western world. These three ancient practices have been indentified through a rigorous research process and we believe they will offer us critical insight into new paradigms involving a sustainable bilateral exchange between social, cultural and ecological practices in Australia and South India. Further information is the overall project can be found at www.remnantartlab.com
The final Artlab in Kerala, South India has been a rich and inspiring experience that has undoubtedly laid the foundation for significant bilateral collaborations between Australia and India in the future. We have spent the last ten days immersed in an open process of learning and observation, and have had a rare and privileged opportunity to understand other ways of knowing from ancient traditions of the past.
India is a country that has fascinated me for many years. The rich culture, chaotic energy and juxtaposition of the ancient and contemporary have drawn me back year after year. The opportunity to develop the final Remnant Artlab allowed me to delve deeper into the relationship between India’s ancient cultural practices and the natural environment. During my initial research, I discovered the Athirathram, a 3000-year-old Vedic ritual that is believed to be the longest and oldest surviving ritual of mankind. Athirathram is a ritual of twelve days, consisting of Vedic chanting allegedly derived from birdsong, and is considered the ultimate invocation of Vedic scriptures for universal harmony. It is believed the Athirathram purifies the atmosphere and the Vedic chants transform the natural environment.
I found the unbroken tradition existed among a few Nambudiri Brahmin families in Kerala, South India and began to explore ways we could work with this community and understand the rituals effect on the environment. My research led me to the work of Professor V.P.M. Nampoori, a dynamic scientist from Cochin University who had recently conducted research into the impact of Vedic chants and the fire ritual on the atmosphere. His fascinating scientific experiments solidified the core of this lab, and I designed a two-week period of learning and observation pivoting on the Athirathram ritual practice.
We had a rare opportunity to visit the Nambudiri Brahmin families and were extremely privileged to hear them perform excerpts from the Vedic chants. These communities are traditional completely isolated and have only recently allowed observers and academics access to the ritual sites. The scientific team we worked with believed the 12-day ritual presents the opportunity to explore the ‘scientific implications on nature, mankind and all other living creatures’. Professor Nampoori said the ‘chanting of mantras and the worshipping of Agni (Fire) with medicinal herbs energizes and protects the environment’. He also believes the application of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and astronomy is evident in every aspect of this complex ritual. Throughout the first stage of the research, the team conducted elaborate experiments in the areas of atmospheric changes in temperature, humidity and pressure level during the ritual. They also conducted experiments on the implications on microorganisms in the soil and variation in the yield from plants with outstanding results that soon to be published in an international journal article.
The next stage of the research will include exploring the physiological and psychological effects on human beings during the ritual through neurological experiments. The artlab team intends to keep working on this project, with the intention to develop new cultural/ritual practices for contemporary society that have a deep understanding of the ancient past. This long-term project will involve extensive study and experiments with the Athirathram ritual, including some real-time spectral analysis and sonification experiments in April 2012. This stage of the research is underpinned by the agency of sound; the idea that sound can extend beyond purely expression and have a transformational effect on the environment.
As I briefly reflect on the intensity of this lab and the material we have covered, there are evidently more questions than answers. The explorations of Athirathram ritual was just one element of this complex artlab experience, that spanned from crafts practices in regional villages to workshops in the complexities carnatic rhythm. In this state of ecological crisis, there is a clear realization that there is significant value is preserving and understanding these ancient cultural practices. India is a country rich with ancient knowledge that is evidently a pivotal source in our thoughts and actions towards envisaging an environmentally and culturally sustainable future.