The centrepiece of the show is a video and sound installation that unfolds within a labyrinthine architectural form, which has been inspired by the artists’ investigations into materials and structures used in institutions that housed injured and distressed soldiers while they awaited remission, recovery and release during and immediately after the First World War.
Within this space, the artists have conceived an immersive environment that features a 12-track soundscape and an array of video screens and projections. Sounds and images explore and extend the testimonies of Indian soldiers in the First World War. The work also features transcripts of letters and diaries, close readings of medical records and official dispatches, extracts from novels and poetry, and accounts of dreams and nightmares. These are interspersed with fragments of archival film and photography, spectral snatches of voices captured in hundred-year-old sound recordings, as well as the artists’ own reflections on a conflict that they believe never ended, producing a textured narrative fabric of sources and surprises.
Raqs Media Collective have based this major new work on their understanding that symptoms of profound neural and psychic distress induced by violence (now recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]) were first observed by military censors while reading the correspondence of Indian soldiers. The censors noticed what they called – ‘a tendency to break into poetry’ – in the letters that the Indian soldiers wrote from battlefields, barracks and hospitals.
Says Raqs Media Collective: ‘Despite this early recognition of exceptional responses to extraordinary conditions, Indian soldiers, like many soldiers in the lower ranks of the British Empire’s forces, were never seen as actual victims of ‘shell shock’. The assumed lack of an interior life in the Indian soldiers led their distress to be slotted away instead as Not Yet Diagnosed (Nervous).
‘Not Yet At Ease gives voice to the conditions that the military medical authorities refused to listen to. It considers their echoes across the time of a hundred years, and invites visitors to explore interlinked histories of war, poetry, sanity and madness while navigating the work’s many layers.’
Not Yet At Ease also includes a new commission for Firstsite’s iconic 140-metre long curved wall. The mural will predominantly be a bold blue colour inspired by the ‘Hospital Blues’ uniform worn by convalescing soldiers in British military hospitals, an example of which is in the Imperial War Museums’ collection where Raqs Media Collective conducted much of their research. This intense background will be overlaid with drawings and texts that depict archival medical sketches of nerves, used by doctors of the period to attempt to explain mental conditions by recourse to physical processes and symptoms.
Creating a network of language and image as the artwork unfolds along the length of Firstsite’s gallery spaces, the artists dissect phrases and expressions such as ‘a bag of nerves’, ‘a battle of nerves’, ‘a war of nerves’, ‘nerves of steel’ as they discard the crucial word ‘nerve’. This gesture builds a poetic incompleteness across the work that creates an abstract, almost codex-like pattern viewers can decipher, and acts as a moving metaphor for what a person might have lost through conflict.
The exhibition is accompanied by an extensive events programme – in the artists’ terms a ‘Theory Opera’ – which will bring together a cohort of creative practitioners, artists and poets with international academics, historians and scientists to present ideas and discussion around the themes of the show, considering their relevance today, not just historically.
Not Yet At Ease is co-commissioned by Firstsite and 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary, with support from the National Lottery through Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund, and from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.