Updated: Aug 7, 2019
Farah Mulla’s art is a gateway to a contemplative and transcendent space, one that is accessed by giving yourself up to the aural experiences she creates. The young sound artist trained in Geology and then went on to study Fine Arts in the UK. Now she creates meticulously researched works occupying the intersection between art and science.
Her unusual oeuvre has led to many successes, the latest of which is being selected for the Dharti Arts Residency 2019. She chats with Art Fervour about developing an early fascination with sound, what she loves about science and art and the ways the sonic environment affects and changes our world.
What topics and subjects interested you as a child?
I was always interested in science, still am. I have a masters in Geology. Initially art was something that was always a hobby for me. But things began to change after I finished my masters. I pursued education in fine arts.
As a child I was always fascinated by sound. I didn’t have the vocabulary or the know how about it. I was entranced by the recording of the whale sounds my father used to play for me. Gradually as I came to know about John Cage’s work and a lot of other sound artists, I realised they were providing me with a vocabulary to understand and articulate the sonic world. That’s what my research is about now - how sound affects human subjectivity and how we occupy our sonic environment.
Sound is quite an unusual subject for a child to be drawn towards. Do you remember being a sensitive child or feeling different from other children?
No, nothing like that. I was just interested in it. I have a penchant for music as well, like most people do. I'm always curious to understand what I am experiencing. There’s a question and its understanding underlying every experience for me. I don’t think I was or am any different from other people. I just take out time to read and learn about subjects that intrigue me.
Why did you decide to study Geology?
I’m really interested in how things work. As a child I had a telescope and could stargaze for hours at night. If I didn’t have a science background, I wouldn’t be able to practice my art. For example, I am working on converting the sonic into visual patterns, heat and other materials to comprehend the various energy conversions possible with it and via sound. I use science as a tool to understand concepts through which comes the immersive artworks/installations. I cant comprehend that there are any boundaries between the two. For me one feeds into the other effortlessly.
How did the decision to study fine arts post your Geology degree come about?
By that time, I was already doing shows and working with paintings and installations. I had realised by then that I really wanted to pursue art. Since, I didn’t have a formal introduction to the basics of art at the time I decided to pursue a course in Fine art. Something that would introduce me to the guidance, discipline, practice and the knowledge to begin with.
The combinatorial creativity of art and science feeding into each other is how the human brain is designed to work. But in schools these subjects are taught restrictively and the connection between them is severed. Having studied both at length, what language do you now posses with which to build your artistic investigation of the human experience?
Science gives me discipline and the know how about building and understanding the materials I am working with. It’s a rigorous tool to approach any subject. Art is the messy fun one, that gives you the creative outlet to express these ideas. The synthesis comes naturally to me. There are some things science can’t explain and some which art can’t. It’s at their intersection where my experiential installations begin to take shape. I’m trying to make sense of things one cannot see so I have to be a bit a little unconventional and experimental in my approach.
How has your art evolved over time?
The medium has changed drastically. It’s gone from painting and sculptures to a completely sonic setting. I still approach art the same way. It’s still about exploring the various possibilities of human experience through sound. The varied aspects of sound – it’s relation to time, space, the visual and the sonic environment. My installations are like a living laboratory. They are full-fledged experiments for me and a play ground for the audience. I’m trying to take these immersive experiences to different people to encourage them to turn their attention towards this medium. We have eyelids but no ear-lids. From the moment we are born we are always immersed in sound. My art was and is trying to raise awareness about the listening experience through different modes of perception. The knowledge and training I gather over time keeps redefining my output. But I’m still learning. Always learning.
Do you ever feel held back by the temporary nature of your work? It is immersive and experiential. But at the end of the day your living laboratory has to be dismantled and its tangibility is gone. Do you think that disadvantages you in the art industry?
Yes, it is temporal and ephemeral. But that’s what interests me about sound. It’s constantly in flux. Sound exists in space and in time. Temporality is one of its characteristic features. It doesn’t bother me if my art isn’t permanent. It’s beauty lies in the experience a person leaves with after interacting with it or inhabiting one of these spaces.
Sound art is quite unconventional. Over time what has been the reaction to your works – both the negative and the positive?
There haven’t been many negative reactions. Although, a lot of people do confuse me with being a DJ or work for Bollywood. Many people don’t understand the theory behind it. But there’s this childlike tendency that comes out among them, no matter what the age group is. People instantly connect to it even when they cannot understand why. A sixty-five-year-old would display the same childlike enthusiasm as a two-year-old would. That’s the most positive reaction my art has received and it’s consistent irrespective of where I’m exhibiting. Sound just connects. It doesn’t need any language. And that’s what makes it super-accessible and inaccessible at the same time.
How has it been being a part of the Dharti Residency 2019?
It’s been an amazing learning curve. Everyone has been very supportive and generous. I’m a quiet person and having the structure and encouragement of Dharti and the people we have had the privilege to interact with really encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone. The opportunity to come across new artists and curators as well as introducing my practice has been a wonderful experience. The in house curators and mentors have done a brilliant job to perfectly curated our time at this residency.
What project are you working on while you’re at Dharti?
I’m working on a project which took inspiration from the acoustic ecology of Defense Colony in Delhi. Over here there are all these exhaust and AC fans which are constantly generating a background drone. I began to wonder how many people pay attention to it because the sonic environment of the place seems to be constantly competing with these sounds. Inadvertently people start talking louder and shouting over each other. The car horns get louder and the list goes on. In wanting to express this concern I began to focus on the materiality of sound so people could access it visually or other sensory perceptions. I am trying to do this via translating sound waves into visual and other tactile references. Being an immersive environment that appropriates ambient hum of these air conditioners I have generated a few experiments that the viewers can interact with.
That sounds fascinating and also a bit surprising. My impression of Defense Colony was that it’s a green oasis.
It is very much so. But there are many things in the environment which humans are not much affected by at a conscious level. There was a study in Mumbai which examined how the frequency being emitted by cell phone towers were adversely affecting the biodiversity of the place. The sparrow population was declining. For a couple of years in the middle, until the towers were banned, there were no sparrows in the region. Now slowly they are returning. So even though we aren’t immediately affected by the inaudible sound environment of a place, it does have physical effects on its residents and it’s ecological composition.
Who are some of your current favourite sound and installation artists?
There are so many. Bill Viola, Rioji Ikeda, Tomás Saraceno, Dan Flavin, Kurt Schwitters, Christian Boltanski and so on. I’m really inspired by the works of John Cage. I also love Radiohead, Brian Eno, Philip Glass, Pierre Boulez, Gorillaz, Jungle, Flying Lotus, The prodigy, Queen, Foo Fighters, The Black Keys and Massive Attack. My playlist can go from from Manson to Mozart in 5 seconds.