Krish Raghav is an Indian comic book artist and illustrator who works for Split Works, a underground music promoter in China. His comics have appeared in the BBC, Buzzfeed, and on a number of zines and DIY publications, and he is the lead illustrator for the Concrete & Grass Music Festival in Shanghai. Krish shares a hometown with the videogame character Dhalsim, of Street Fighter, but cannot shoot fireballs from his face.
This interview was conducted via a collaborative Google Document in November 2017.
Krish Raghav: I have lived my life entirely in giant megacities, and the old Moscow joke about the sixth ring road being the “end of civilization” cruelly applies to the ways my thinking has been influenced. In a way, I see cities as the only grounds for imagining futures, because they necessitate change and adjustment, and particularly in Asia, are populated by those seeking change or rupture from their upbringing.
Cities overwhelm and infiltrate the senses, and create imaginations where you hadn’t thought to look. In Tokyo, the names of the city’s subway lines can accurately describe the sound of a young underground band. A “Setagaya Line” band tends towards synth-pop and catchier hooks, while a “Chuo Line” band plays dark and heavy and loose.
In Beijing, back-alley “restaurants” (basically just a kitchen) which make more than 90% of their revenue via ubiquitous food delivery apps do entire fake photoshoots of plush interiors and fancy diners, in order to appear like a more credible operation.
Chinese cities are living, breathing “experiments” (in both the terrifying and speculative sense), to paraphrase Yan Jun, the city’s pre-eminent underground musician. In his liner notes to a compilation released in 2008, he wrote:
“To speak of ‘experimentation’ in China means to discuss it literally: Every single person in the entire country experiments daily and tries out new things … In pre-Olympic Beijing any street, building, restaurant, store, company or regulation could be transformed or even disappear at any given moment. The Nike advertising slogan ‘Everything Is Possible’ reflects the spirit of these times.”
With another Olympics around the corner in 2022, nothing is different now—the spirit of these times is still “Everything is Possible,” but since 2008 much of that experimental ground has been ceded to the state. Beijing is now one of the most “legible” cities in the world, re-ordered and re-configured so that everything can be “visible” to those in power.
I can’t think of a more fertile environment to ground the questions of our future in, and to ‘experiment’ with alternatives.
More on this idea of “legibility” in upcoming questions!
GB: I want to push back a little on your statement that “cities are the only grounds for imagining futures.” Many people believe that our present way of life—specifically, urban life—is unsustainable. This is especially so in the context of climate change (and you know, of course, that there’s an entire genre of SF—cli-fi—that explores this). Many of the classic dystopic novels (Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood come immediately to mind) are actually premised on the breakdown and disintegration of the urban form. How would you factor in the inherent unsustainability of the modern-mega city life with maintaining that cities are where you imagine the future?
KR: I feel like cities represent both the problem and the solution. There is no doubt that the urban form will change, and needs to change, with massive climate upheaval. But “urbanity,” such as it is, will continue. There is a psycho-geographical component to cities that makes them vital to our survival in the face of climate catastrophe. Cities force us to operate, mentally, at multiple scales at the same time: overlapping the personal, the social, and the “global.” You are then, without paradox, a South Delhi-ite who bemoans the presence and “social pollution” of other castes in your little upper-caste bubble, a Delhi-ite who bemoans the structural forces that cause toxic air pollution, and a globally-minded Indian passport holder with strong views on international relations.
That’s a grim, maybe unfair, example, but this “stacked” thinking is going to be critical with grappling with climate change, a beast that blinks in-and-out of multiple scales, and festers in all of them.
Despite the inherent sustainability of their current form, cities also feel closest to actual radical change. Beijing, to me, feels the closest among any in the world to making conventional car traffic obsolete, with its massive dockless bike sharing systems, ubiquitous public transport and electrified chimera vehicles, from electric skateboards and segways to assisted-mobility vehicles.
GB: Coming back, for a bit, to the idea of “legibility”—that idea, of course, has been the staple diet of dystopic science fiction writing, from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We in 1921, and through the last hundred years: the idea that society will be controlled through the imposition of patterns—spatial and behavioural. In one sense, cities—the ultimate artificial constructions—are the ideal sites of this project of making everyone “legible” to—if not the State, then to authority. But at the same time, isn’t it also the case that cities—with their crowds, always tending towards disorderliness—are places where you can escape legibility? How do you see this potential conflict playing out in the future?
KR: Chinese cities, at least right now, are at a strange inflection point where the systems and technology are in place for massive surveillance and complete legibility, but are still dependent on a state apparatus that is both comically inept and nastily brutish. In the far west of Xinjiang, garbled ideas of Han supremacy (and millions in federal funding) help create bite to the bark, but many of these same systems in Beijing and Shanghai amount to little more than fancy smoke-and-mirrors.
But we know where it leads, and that’s scary. Here, to “escape” is to live off the grid in some way—only the very stubborn refuse to, say, accept money on WeChat, so to escape “legibility” is then to manufacture an outward harmless “persona” that the data captures, and living in data’s blind spots.
GB: It’s interesting that you mention ineptitude—I’m reminded of an Indian dragnet surveillance program that was doing the rounds about three years ago, which intended to track the use of keywords like “attack”, “bomb”, and “kill”, whenever anyone used them in an SMS—but the storage capacity that they had set aside for this project would have made it virtually impossible to collect anything of note. Of course, incompetence has its dark side as well—we’ve recently come to know that the linking of India’s national biometric identification program with welfare distribution has caused numerous deaths, because peoples’ fingerprints wouldn’t match, and they would be denied their rations.
So I guess the question is whether you foresee a time when the ineptitude and the brutishness will give way to a system sophisticated enough to realise near-complete legibility—especially in urban spaces. Or will there always remain the potential to go “off-grid”—either as a function of privilege, or as the by-product of authoritarian incompetence?
KR: I think there will always be an aspect of our internal lives that cannot be“ captured” by a system, and even the most sophisticated ones can be thrown off with a convincing ‘performance’, so to speak. When you’re up against an algorithm, as many dissidents and activists today are, a complex system of linguistic obfuscation emerges—as it has on the Chinese internet.
GB: In your work, you depict cities such as Beijing, Moscow, Mexico City. Your profile page talks about “the creative life of Asian cities.” Is there something that draws you to the megacities of the global South? I ask this because, when you think of the future, some of the most interesting experiments in ways of future living are taking place in cities of these kinds.
KR: A significant part of it is “logistical.” As a holder of an Indian passport, it is not easy for me to travel to anywhere outside the global south, and as someone who identifies as queer, it is not easy to live outside the relative progressive bubbles of the megacities.
The specific lens that draws me to many of these cities is the local music scene, and that fascinates me because music out of Asia’s megacities functions as a post-colonial retelling of conventional music history. We know now how Jakarta and Shanghai and Mumbai (among others) helped pioneer many of the contemporary sounds we associate with American/European “indie” and the avant-garde at the turn of the century.
GB: There’s been an argument made recently—especially after Brexit, and in light of the relationship between London and the rest of the United Kingdom—that we’re on our way back from the time of the nation-state to the time of the city-state. Do you see the future belonging to cities as self-contained entities, worlds in themselves?
KR: I like Roberto Unger’s idea of nation-states becoming “moral specializations,” and in a way cities already are. I think of Mexico City, a left-leaning city in an otherwise conservative country.
I don’t see them as worlds in themselves, though, as much as city dwellers like to imagine it is. The logistical long arm of any city extends vastly beyond its borders, as is evidenced by the grinding halt that Beijing came to when online delivery services were curtailed during a highly sensitive Communist Party Congress earlier this year.
Singapore, city-state par excellence, meanwhile, depends absolutely on a system of indentured labour to sustain itself, and gets much of its drinking water piped in from the Malaysian countryside.
GB: That last bit is particularly interesting, because it speaks to an urban/non-urban divide that has (perhaps) not yet been adequately explored in speculative fiction. We have a lot of novels that deal with an underclass within cities and its relationship with the “overclass” (so to say) ... but not so much imaginative work that deals with a possible future where non-urban areas are basically reduced to nothing but a functional existence, to service cities. How do you see that playing out in the near or medium future … especially in a place like China, a vast country with expanding megapolises?
KR: China is odd in that many non-urban areas have indeed been reduced to a functional existence—there’s been research done on so-called “Taobao villages”—entire towns that produce a single item (say, novelty chopsticks) intended purely for urban consumption.
But the city’s appetites are vast, and it doesn’t preclude the existence of an underclass and “non-urban” wastelands within city limits too—one thinks of Hao Jingfang’s Folding Beijing, or even the devastating chemical explosion in Tianjin that created a temporary ‘exclusion zone’ right at the heart of a large metropolis.
GB: Lastly—do you intend to finish Beijing 2036 at some point? And will future cities continue to play a role in your imaginative work going forward?
KR: I do. I’d like to set it within a specific subculture, that of music, and I want to explore the idea of linguistic obfuscation that I mentioned before. What does subversion look like in a society that believes it is fully legible, for instance?
I often imagine an alternate history of music—what if Jakarta had indeed been ground zero for 1960s rock’n’roll, or Mumbai the birthplace of an alternative rock resurgence in the 1990s (think Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, but for music)—what, then, would a contemporary punk rock band from Beijing be called? How would they tour?
The 2036 comic, in my head, is about that alternate history—but set in the future because the way Beijing looks right now isn’t really fun to draw.
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