Sahej Rahal, finalforest.exe for Transmediale's Almanac


Emoji summary: 👾🌿〰️

Buried deep on the Transmediale website is Almanac. Usually, Transmediale are an IRL arts festival in Berlin, with special focus on post-internet discourse for the cool kids. Their 2020 programme was pre-pandemic, tidy n compact over a month or so. Now 2021 is spicy different, and they’ve got a year long programme. Alongside some IRL stuff, Almanac is their online offering. It’s a pretty hefty chunk of content, stuffed full of bits and bobs. Midway through is Sahej Rahal’s <finalforest.exe>, a lil 10 min moving image work. It’s all CGI silence, heavy voiceover essay. The images in front of your eyes feel like a quiet delivery mechanism for the words streaming into your ears.

First scene: this pointy mineral being slips around on wormlike legs, sprawling about in front of a hot pink blank space. I pause and google an image of corona virus up close, flick back and forth between the two; there’s no resemblance but they feel like cousins. The voiceover speaks in heavy tone, mythic allusion on the scale of an epic. It feels like it’s doing the work of assimilating the madness of the news and the everyday, processing it, forming it into narrative. ‘we are witnessing the return of natural history // biology has once again taken centre stage’. Typhoons and hurricanes, ‘the nation-state has become a state of collapsing time’. The voice is centred in a different landscape to me. It makes gesture and allusion to India’s Hindu nationalist government, Ram mandir, Citizenship Amendment Bill; ‘our society is now defined by a series of exclusions and revocations, turning citizens into ghosts who wander in this state of collapsing time’. It treads softly, but its punches land. It circles around these grouped violences: nationalist majoritarianism, islamophobia, caste. It draws them towards each other so they might be able to touch; ‘othering by exclusion’, caste as a ‘metaphysical system’ of bigotry, a mythological system of oppression for those outside of the metaphysical hierarchy. The mineral creature is still slipping and sliding, worming its way around. And I am heavy in my seat, weighed down by the narrative unfolding against me.

Second scene: a hot forest. We swim through the leaves, disembodied against a peachy sky, flat and hazy in the middle distance. The voice slips into folklore, tells us a story about magic, abjection, the mythological origin of cholera. ‘A young boy from a lower caste’ conceals his caste identity to operate outside of its prescribed limits; when discovered, he is burned to death and from his ashes cholera emerges. The voice makes the story malleable and presses it up against us: describes it as a parable that transforms nature from an anthropocentric realm ‘to conquer and claim’, into ‘a supernatural congregation // of all that has been excluded from the domain of the human // returning // to challenge it with the turbulence of revolution’. Caste is stretched across category and time, collapsed into the hauntological realm, or some state of primordial being where magic and justice exist as tandem universal forces.

Third scene: palm trees and wispy leaves rustle around a black reflective creature, monstrously proportioned and stumbling through the landscape. It has 2 long legs that curl up at the socket, and it is spewing its liquid self out of its upper half, faceless and unrecognisable. The voice now unravels into something over my head; theory and mysticism; Laplace’s demon, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Boltzmann brain. ‘The sufi theologian Al Ghazali once pronounced that each night Allah creates the universe afresh, for Allah is unconstrained by the burden of following cause with effect’. Time becomes liquid, malleable; I can’t tell if the narrative falls apart in this third act, or if it all comes together as a single solid, if it dissolves, splits or just fizzles away. The first and second scenes are the weight of water sitting on top of you in a bathtub, and then this third scene is the feeling of being in the deep end, where you can’t feel the floor of the pool beneath you, and your feet slip smooth through the water, struggling to find purchase to keep you afloat. It turns from something pressed against you, to something that threatens to consume you entirely within its massive liquid body, before you ever have a chance to see it as a whole. It is still hazy to me now, I can’t grasp it because it flies through my fingers.

Outside the closed bubble of the work, I feel like I’ve hit saturation point for the year already. After a quiet, quick December, January was noisy, full and dragging. instagram twitter and art are just ~There~ all the time, and they all want to tell you something and they all need your attention. TikTok is joining in too bc it keeps showing me little interior design vids about how MAXIMALISM is BACK. Online exhibitions feel too full, and I think it’s a kind of self-conscious overcompensation. In this online shift, art has psychologically entered an oversaturated space where it’s gotta compete with every other artwork n gallery in the entire world, and Netflix. There’s this hyperactive expectation, like online viewers want a million different points of stimulation, infinite scroll. MAXIMALISM is BACK baby.

I say all this to soften the blow for Transmediale. Their year long programme is a sticky complex web: exhibitions IRL (whenever that’s possible) and via proxy (you can just FaceTime them n someone will show you round lmao), 3 month long film programme, almanac (online programme), residencies & other bits that have either happened already, or are tbc. This overload isn’t unique to them, but it’s still too fucking much. My head hurts, my laptop is screaming, and I’m also BORED by all the stuff, saturated, something fatigue. It’s a shame because the artists involved are absolute gems, and taken in little bites, it could be something incredible. I want to be into it, but I feel like whoever’s in charge is being shown the same interior design tiktoks as me, and they’re actually buying into the hype that MAXIMALISM is where it's at rn.

It doesn’t match my pace. I want to turn the volume all the way back down. I have ordered one of those Muji diffusers, and I am looking forward to spending my evenings just sat in front of it, huffing the essential oil fumes like I’m some mad oracle, desperately cleansing my brain of its browser history.

This is the casing, the exterior, the jacket the work is wearing. Underneath this coating, past my complaints, <finalforest.exe> starts off feeling like it’s a shape my steaming brain can handle: standard video essay format with 3D renders and long thoughts - cool cool cool. And then it just bursts in my hands. But that’s not unwelcome. When I’m lightheaded from the haze, I might think I  want baby food or white noise - but really, I don’t. The maximalist vibe of lots and lots of little things isn’t working because the little bits are all too small to hold my attention for longer than a second, I just whiz through them without getting involved enough to be thrilled. <finalforest.exe> works on the scale of an epic, a monument, planetary, historical and mystical. It doesn’t show me the extent of itself, or offer me closure for the wound it opens. Instead, it brings me to a portal, a chasm. It is big enough to lean against and fall through. As I cast myself into it backwards, I know that it won’t show me a finite ending, because there simply isn’t one. I hurtle back through it nonetheless.

You can watch Sahej Rahal's <finalforest.exe> on the Transmediale Almanac