2015, HD video, sound, 6' 52''
An Unforeseen Situation refers to a series of orchestrated mass events and spectacular individual feats hosted by the Punjab Ministry of Sports in 2014 during which multiple world records were reportedly broken by Pakistan. Picking up from the popular rumors, newspaper clippings and video footage surrounding the events, the artist examines notions of patriotism, masculinity and foulplay through a fictional narrative based on real events.
Natasha Ginwala: Your work often foregrounds the construction of a situation tied to an absurd proposition or a set of instructions, as in your film Shan Pipe Band Learns the Star Spangled Banner (2004), for instance. Could you share the underlying context to An Unforeseen Situation (2015), and how it connects to your earlier practice?
Bani Abidi: Shan Pipe Band was about a Pakistani brass band trying to play the American national anthem on bagpipes by repeatedly listening to it on a cassette tape that I had recorded from the Internet. An Unforeseen Situation reveals a protagonist who is trying to crack a hundred and fifty walnuts with his head to enter the Guinness Book of World Records. The former was a situation orchestrated by me (the band), and the latter a real character I came across. I take cues from the news and life stories as I can never conjure up gestures and narratives that compete with real incidents unfolding out there. However, the actions of these characters are carefully chosen, as these chronicles are episodes from their continuing modes of engagement with the world.
NG: The city and its memory field—the shadow spaces that form a cinematic imaginary and vivid tropes—would you share how these, often minor, urban elements of the built landscape of Karachi and Lahore have entered into this work and your practice more generally?
BA: My videos are as much about space as they are about the characters that inhabit them. Whether it’s a city seen during a moment when traffic and bustling bodies have been halted, and everyone waits for a VIP to arrive (RESERVED, 2006), or queues of people anxiously lined up outside embassies, regulated and re-formed by all kinds of security barriers (The Distance From Here, 2010), I am interested in people and how they occupy and relate to particular sites—some of which are disciplinary architectures and others that actively defy hierarchies of social management. One of my favourite moments in Funland – Karachi Series II (2012) is a man with flaming red dyed hair, attempting to salvage the devastated ruins of a 1950s cinema in Karachi single handedly. The city forms these characters, and they, alongside us, are constantly trying to sustain memories while negotiating with regular transformations and fraught urban experiences.
NG: Let us talk of characters, the protagonists you discover, such as the octogenarian sculptor, the by-standers waiting for a politician’s arrival, and those you choose to invent. Do you see a relation between them?
BA: All my characters are related, they are all trying to survive, to shine… to overcome. Most of them take deeply eccentric routes in order to exist, looking at a certain kind of madness as the only really liberating state of being. The village idiot, the court jester, the trickster… they are our truthsayers.
NG: There was a suite of drawings that was presented around An Unforeseen Situation, articulating characters such as “The Man who clapped for 97 Hours”. What is the larger scene you were charting out for your viewers in this case?
BA: There was a whole set of paintings that I composed alongside the video: the man who clapped for 97 hours, the man who could split hairs, the man who walked around in circles for 48 hours, amongst others. Again, some of them were real characters and others invented. I found many young Pakistani men wanting to make their country proud by entering the Guiness Book of World Records, through remarkably innovative, inane and often poetic gestures, like breaking walnuts with one’s head. I was touched by this fabulous combination of testosterone and creativity, as witnessed in these attempts at national image building, whether embarked upon by the state or the individual.
NG: Lastly, I would like to touch upon the subject of corruption and the unabated powers of the nation-state. There is a scene in the film where stones are replacing decorative clocks as the "gift" from the Ministry of Youth Affairs. Tell us how you deal with this subversive subject.
BA: I just really liked the idea that the citizenry of a country would have to be bribed by the state to collectively embark on a record-breaking feat such as collectively singing the national anthem. So I made that bit up. And then I took it to another level by ensuring that even this gesture of bribery was mishandled by state and the gifts were stolen. Ultimately, it was a failed project and the record was never broken. Meanwhile thousands of people sat at home with their green marble clocks.
Bani Abidi, 2015
Produced by Dallas Contemporary
Man: Fawad Khan
Camera and Editing: Bani Abidi
Sound: Priya Sen
Thanks to Shahbano and Nadeem Lodhi and all the folks at E.l Llnes