Himali Singh Soin is a London- and Delhi-based artist whose performance and poetry rove across media. Soin carefully realizes a project's ideal form over time and through a wide range of creative modalities, including performance, poetry, film, digital media, art books, and printmaking. Her already prolific artistic career has generated international renown, including winning the Frieze Artist Award 2019.

As a scholar of performance and ecology, I encountered her work while researching Arctic icescapes and was mesmerized by her multimedia series we are opposite like that (2017–22). In this project, Soin endeavors to take the perspective of ice as a bearer of ancient stories by interweaving film footage of performances in the Arctic and the Antarctic with poetry, collaborative musical compositions, and Victorian-era texts and illustrations. Soin draws audiences into regions of the poles devoid of Indigenous human inhabitants—places whose stories have been predominately rendered through the structures of climate science—and creates new histories for them. Meanwhile, Soin's collaborative and multimodal static range (2020–ongoing) focuses upon the Himalayan mountain Nanda Devi and a nuclear-powered surveillance device abandoned there by the CIA. Her series speak to how certain environmental catastrophes and (neo) colonialism are inextricably tangled and to how performance can contribute to human understandings of changing landscapes.

Soin's skills and vision are singular, but her creative methodology is also exemplary of a way of making art and meaning during this time—a proposed geological epoch [End Page E-9] variously called "the Anthropocene," "the Capitalocene," or "the Plantationocene"1 (among other names)—when hierarchical systemic forces, including Euro-Western notions of "Man," extractive capitalism, settler-colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade, and technophilic progressivism have indelibly altered the earth's ecosystems on a planetary scale. The following conversation focuses on Soin's praxes, offering insights into how to create art that "does something" to benefit others at a time of proliferating socioenvironmental urgencies and highlighting the importance of place-based art that consciously exceeds the confines of a single narrative. Soin incorporates the animacy of other artists, audiences, land, nonhuman life, and technologies into her work, telling stories of contemporary ecologies through some of the complex relationships that compose those ecologies (fig. 1). As she puts it in our conversation: "If we're in the practice of listening to different voices as the ultimate aim of the work, then can the means be that, too?" Cultivating extra-human friendships as a medium, Soin shows climate change in its spatial and temporal vastness: from centuries-old roots of capitalist industry, racialization, and militarism to the dynamic developments of the present, where H2O molecules are shifting phases in the icy veins of ancient glaciers and becoming the seas that climb other continental shores.

Soin's methodology also works to place many epistemologies—poetic, performatic, natural scientific, historic, intuitive, navigational—on a "flat ontological plane." She incorporates the instruments and languages of various sciences and arts into an amalgam, playing with multiple tools of observation outside of their usual repertoires, and so notices new stories, neglected resonances, and surprising parallels. I have found that this sort of translational effort and interdisciplinary play is also essential to productively grappling with climate change in scholarship. Soin says that we—artists, academics, concerned inhabitants of a challenging epoch—must create "a new language of the future." Allowing curiosity to transgress disciplinary boundaries, we come to know better the phenomenon called climate change and to inhabit our present more fully, learning to both grieve and act in response to a great planetary reckoning that will not be deferred.

Visit Soin's website at https://www.himalisinghsoin.com/.

Himali Singh Soin spoke with me from her home in London via Zoom on August 13, 2021. This transcription has been edited for length and clarity.

CLARA WILCH (CW):

How would you describe what you do within the arts, broadly speaking?

HIMALI SINGH SOIN (HSS):

I always say that I start with the written word, and then it transforms—into immersive environments, into moving image, into performance, into being able to give those words, essentially, a sort of life of their own. At that point, I actually stop saying "It's my work." The work begins to tell me what medium it needs to be in, and I kind of obey it. And this is also with respect to the many collaborators that begin to come and form part of, say, the company of every work.

CW:

The transmedial nature of your work is striking. Do you find it's piece by piece that you discover how to make [your art]?

Figure 1: as grand as what, three-channel video, still. Color, stereo sound. 2021. (Courtesy of Himali Singh Soin.)

 

HSS:

I've been thinking about that in this recent and current project called static range, which deals with a nuclear device on a mountain in India: it was originally just meant to be a letter, then it became an animation, then it became an embroidery piece, then became a music piece. Now, it's become a healing piece and a gardening piece, and it's continuing to take different forms. And I feel I quite like that mode, as some things that continually sort of leak into each other and follow one another—almost like a method of storytelling, as opposed to at the outset coming up with such an ambitious work that knows its teleological end. This method also feels practical, because very few institutions would actually support something if I told them, "Oh, it's going be like a seven-year project and like 100 different pieces," you know? (Laughter)

CW:

Has digital creation always been part of what you've done?

HSS:

I've always blended it. Live performance is very important to me. That means that I often use the projection of a landscape on my body, so that then we're thinking of the female body, the brown body, the technological body, and the landscape-body as beginning to mirror one another.

CW:

Amazing, because those are things that many "common sense" philosophies would separate, [masculinized] "technology" from [feminized] "nature." Is that dichotomy something you're actively interested in overcoming?

HSS:

In fact, I don't think binaries exist at all, a knowledge borne out of my qigong and somatic practice, where you begin from a state of stillness and you arrive into movement, and then you go back to stillness, or the other way around, and you realize that one is really just an extension of the other. And if we think about any binary, we realize that they are actually not that far away from each other; and even if they are far away … they're still held together by this force, whether that force is distance, or love, or whatever. That's where the piece how to startle the unbelieving comes from: it tells the story of an Indian clairvoyant used by the British Empire to travel to the Arctic in 1850 in search of Franklin and his 130 lost men.2 In effect, she becomes the very last long-distance communication technology just before the telegraph. So, these things exist just next to each other.

CW:

You went to Svalbard [in Arctic Norway] and to Antarctica [through artist residencies], and I was curious about the genesis of that—had you been wanting to go to the poles for a long time?

HSS:

Actually, a lot of my research at the time had been on outer space and … you know, as a poet first you're like, this is amazing material! There are stars, there's darkness, there's delayed light, there's just metaphor upon metaphor. It was a blank canvas upon which to think about earthly desires, and dramas, and politics without having to pin it down into the kind of petty, appropriative politics that we talk about right now, into blacks and whites. So, I felt it was a more complex palette to think through some of those things. And it felt like, maybe at that time, Antarctica and the Arctic were the closest places to outer space. But then very quickly, I found that they were places and not spaces, because they're so embroiled in Earth's politics. The other reason is that my father actually went to the Arctic, to the North Pole, as an Indian Explorer … during the time when the ozone hole was a thing.3 And my brother had gone as a young ambassador to Antarctica. So, these stories have been around me, and it felt kind of natural to go there.

CW:

Do you have any guiding theories about the role of art in climate justice or climate resilience?

HSS:

I don't know if you've come across Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet [edited by] Anna Tsing and Heather Swanson? In that foreword, they talk about the interdisciplinary nature of approaching climate justice. I really love that, that it can't be the arts alone, and it can't be policy alone, that we have to almost come up with a new language of the future. And that's the only way.

CW:

Please tell me more about your series static range, which I understand involves activism for Himalayan communities. Are you working with community members or does the profit structure benefit a group there?

HSS:

One of the larger projects that we did [was launched by] WePresent, and they offered that if I collaborated with an NGO, they would match all the donations, so we were able to get an immense amount for the community. Originally, it was supposed to be used to archive lost stories, but then when COVID hit we just diverted all of that, because obviously rural areas don't have very much medical access. For the music, David Soin Tappeser commissioned local nagadas—copper beaten drums, with goat-hide skins, which are almost extinct—the artisan hadn't made them in ten years so he was amazed that somebody still wanted them, because there's a plastic version of it. Then, we used a common motif between the Himalayas and Palestine and one of my friends, Jordan Nasser, embroidered this piece of the mountain, and now we're going to work with a women's initiative who will learn this pattern. They'll be paid a fee to learn this and for all the materials, and then once they're able to sell it, they can make it self-sustainable.

CW:

That's wonderful.

HSS:

And [the series] is still of the mountain, so somehow, still, the story gets continually told. Next, we want to make these healing gardens all over, where we plant bio-remedic plants that absorb radioactivity. We're also sending the mountain energy-healing and often we're using intermediate healers to do that, so that they get a bit of income and they're encouraged to keep doing their own healing work. So these were ways that we found [to benefit the community], and it was just exciting to think this work out and still keep the conceptual rigor (figs. 23).

CW:

You mentioned you studied theatre and creative writing at Middlebury College. Much theatre has a D.I.Y. quality, a will to make things work and to collaborate, often in unexpected ways—and I sense that theatrical openness within your process. 

Figure 2: We are opposite like that, video, still. Color, stereo sound. 2019. (Courtesy of Himali Singh Soin.)

Figure 3: Static range, video, still. Color, stereo sound. 2020. (Courtesy of Himali Singh Soin.)

 

HSS:

Yes, I've started thinking about friendship, actually. And friendship amongst nonhuman voices, friendship amongst, you know, even just two files on my desktop right now. Because I find, as all of us do, that patterns start to build. I just went to visit this nuclear site in the Lake District, and then I drove down to Wales to catch the Arctic Tern4—these are two completely different projects—but it happened to be so that the Arctic Tern was breeding at the nuclear site. It was wild. And I was just like, is this me? But, you know, patterns begin to form, and it's quite interesting to think of them—of that proximity—as a kind of friendship.

CW:

That's beautiful. You mentioned in an email that you were listening to bird songs—were those terns that you were working with?

HSS:

Yes, exactly, exactly. The terns travel from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back. They make the largest migration in the history of any species. They travel to the moon and back three times in their lifetime. They're amazing. So now, I'm writing a bird opera. My partner [David Soin Tappeser] is a composer and he's writing it for four wind instruments, and I'm writing it for two voices. And so maybe static range and we are opposite like that are coming together here.

CW:

Speaking of your partner, I loved reading about how you both translated landscapes into musical composition. Will you tell me more about that?

HSS:

It's kind of a practice of coding. Part of that is because I'm currently living with a government and in a regime that will censor anything. So even in static range, there are footnotes that you can take out. In [we are opposite like that's] score we made the latitudes and longitudes of my journey into a graph, and that graph forms the tempo of the piece. The temperature variances between the Victorian time and now form the graph of the dynamics of the piece, very loosely, but [as] a kind of transposition. And I've used other graphs: there's a line that's on the spine of my book and that is actually the line of receding glaciers from one of the photographs, for example. So, there's lots of little secrets …

CW:

There are data [represented] in your artwork, right?

HSS:

Yeah, yeah.

CW:

There are also all these technological instruments that you draw attention to in your work: viewing windows, listening devices, chronometers, telescopes, and I'm fascinated by the relationship between your methodology and the natural sciences. How do you think about the natural sciences? You had said you find them always placed at the top of a hierarchy above other epistemologies, but they seem to have some place in your creative practice, also?

HSS:

One of the biggest challenges of life at sea [historically] was that they couldn't tell longitude for the longest time, because the waves would glitch the chronometers. There was always an error. Now that idea of the error is where I feel like I step in: I am the error, you know? And so that, for me, was always interesting—what is the machine doing? And then at what point does it glitch? And of course, Legacy [Russell]'s writing and glitch feminism then becomes also really interesting and important: are these moments of accident constructive and healing? The other thing that I found [during the Arctic Circle Residency aboard a sailing vessel], when we were mapping the ship and learning about things like longitude and chronometers and learning even how to sail the boat (because you can't do it alone), is that when the compass falls short, when you look up, and it's clouded over, and even the north star isn't there, then sailors were down to their kidneys (fig. 4). Because kidneys contain these fluids [such that] you're able to tell how you are placed in accordance with the seas. You really have to become sea in order to know your way. These are Indigenous ways or older, more ancient ways of being able to know things. And I'm not even placing them on a different hierarchy. I'm just saying, what if we put it all on a flat ontological plane? What would happen to the way that we approach, say, the Other?

Figure 4: Profile picture from the Arctic Circle Residency. (Courtesy of Himali Singh Soin.)

 

CW:

I think that's something very freeing, very playful about your work, and also incredibly perceptive, because in fact all of these senses do exist on the same ontological plane, all of these legacies of knowledge are colliding and coexisting, and often corroborating each other also. In the context of the Arctic, Indigenous understandings of manifestations of climate change often develop as or before outside academic research confirms the same information.

HSS:

Yes, and that's also why birds are so interesting, because they are able to tell the weather is going to change before anybody else—and so the Indigenous way also is to listen to birds.

CW:

Are the terns behaving differently?

HSS:

I don't know, I was kind of asking that question, but they're so loud and noisy that it's hard to tell … (Laughter)

CW:

So this is perhaps an overly simplified question, but do you think science can be among the tools of decolonization?

HSS:

I think in its ideal—but what it has become … is a kind of solutionist, capitalist, extractionist methodology. But of course, when in its ideal, there is a sense of curiosity and wonder to figure out the way things are—and doubt, right? Science was all about experimentation, hypothesis, and then, always, the possibility of doubt. Disciplines seem to be more at odds with each other now.

CW:

Will you tell me more about your approach to collaboration?

HSS:

I'm learning, you know, with each collaboration. It's a lot of work. It's a lot of emotional energy, for sure. But it's so wonderful to be able to also just share a commission or listen to different voices. If we're in the practice of listening to different voices as the ultimate aim of the work, then can the means be that too? Very often, it will be with friends who [I already know] and who I trust, because that trust is so important and that work ethic is so important. I imagine it, and then make a kind of key, and then we write the map together.

CW:

You use the figure of the alien in complex and surprising ways, and you mentioned [you've researched] space. Do you want to go to space? Or is there art that you think would be worth making in outer space?

HSS:

I mean, yes, I would love to, I always said I would—although I've had a few experiences of being so claustrophobic that I think, "Ahh, I don't know if I could go to space!" And now, I don't know … I've grown attached to things around here! (Laughter) I think now that space is so associated with technological man, it's a bit different for me. But the thing I would love to send to space … I would just love to be one of those people in the tradition of inscribing poems onto the machinery that goes to space because then I'm not adding weight, I'm not adding junk, I'm keeping my practice ephemeral. Something for someone, out there—it finds itself and it's with language, and it comes straight back to the word.

CW:

Any last thoughts about what's next for your work?

HSS:

Yes, it's the bird opera. I think it's going to be interesting now to think about ice also in the context of migrations and horizons and flight and lightness—questions that the bird brings up, but that suddenly feel very relevant to our pandemic lives—but also of the rhythms of climate change and grief that it must go through. So this is kind of the final piece that tries to bring in Africa, bring in Iran, India, bring these countries into the polar worlds because until now, we think of them as so different and so far, and my project is to think of these places as entangled and intimate.
 

Footnotes

1. For more on the Capitalocene, see Jason W. Moore, ed., Anthropocene or Capitalocene? (Oakland: PM Press, 2016). For more on the Plantationocene, see J. Davis, A. Moulton, L. Van Sant, and B. Williams, "Anthropocene, Capitalocene, … Plantationocene? A Manifesto for Ecological Justice in an Age of Global Crises," Geography Compass 13 (2019): e12438.

2. Sir John Franklin was a British explorer of the Arctic. Beginning in 1845, he led an expedition that attempted to sail the Northwest Passage, but the ships became locked in ice off the coast of contemporary Nunavut. For more on the history of the search effort that Soin discusses, see Shane McCorristine, Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration (London: UCL Press, 2018).

3. Soin speaks with her father and expands on Arctic exploration in the radio piece "Daughters of the Snow," produced by Andrea Rangecroft. The show was first broadcast on March 30, 2021 on BBC Radio 4 and is available to stream at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000tlvr.

4. For more about this bird species and recent observations of a nesting area in their northern range, see Dominique A. Henri et al., "Inuit Knowledge of Arctic Terns (Sterna paradisaea) and Perspectives on Declining Abundance in Southeastern Hudson Bay, Canada," PLoS One 15, no. 11 (2020): e0242193.