On a walk around Old Goa, artist Gayatri Kodikal chanced upon an archaeological dig in progress. Her curiosity swelling, she jumped over the fence to see what was on the other side: a mysterious severed hand thought to belong to an ancient Georgian queen. This object spearheaded a multi-year, multi-pronged project spanning research, storytelling, forensics, and game-making. The Travelling Hand, inspired by this archaeological mystery, takes players on a labyrinthine journey through time, space, and civilization, to unveil the story behind this ancient artifact. Part of an ongoing project, a meditation on the methodology of game-making in critical practice, The Travelling Hand offers a reminder to the struggle of holding onto heritage, identity, and ethnicity.
Gayatri walked us through her immersive installation at TENT Rotterdam—the latest iteration of The Travelling Hand—which is on view until February 17th, 2021. Made up of a constellation of stories about religion, colonial/imperial power, archaeology, geopolitics, marginal histories, and resistance, the game board is set for three players. Each play is unique and lasts one hour, and there are multiple storylines to explore at the same time.
Here, Gayatri speaks with us about the simultaneous specificity and freedom that comes with working in games, disrupting western notions of time and progression, and how the concept of shapeshifting guides her work.
A HISTORY OF HIERARCHIES
Tell me about your upbringing and the first time you thought you might want to be an artist.
I was born and brought up in South India, next to a big city. It was like living in the wilderness, so I have more exciting stories about things like catching snakes [laughs]. Near the house—a half-hour walk, or running through a couple of people’s fields—there was a nice place with rocks. I would go there with friends to stargaze. I didn’t have the opportunity to use the internet until very late and even games until very late. The first time was probably when I was just passing out of a high school, 15 or 16.
Back in India, I was always trying to surround myself with creative people—theater actors, writers, and poets. They were so animated in the way they would talk about their work. Because my parents are doctors, I had to look for people I could connect with, and I was interested in this world where imagination comes alive.
You have degrees in psychology and film production, and a Master’s from the Dutch Art Institute. How have your academic interests have influenced the work you engage in?
Psychology was quite some time ago, but it has influenced how I negotiate social situations that I encountered during my creative process and film production. I had a real problem with the power dynamics when you’re doing a film—what exists between camera and director, and director and crew.
I wanted to always do away with hierarchy—everybody works on the film together or a small team. I got into experimental filmmaking because of that. Quite naturally, I got into being an artist by making games.
We’ve talked to creators who use game-making as a part of their creative practice. Some grew up playing video games, then found their discipline coming out of a love of it. Some people became interested later in life. How did you find your way to games as a way to express yourself?
A story started haunting and following me—I became obsessed with it. I realized that it was just not one story—it exploded into many, many stories. I felt like games somehow embraced that form like no other—you know, rather than compacting a story into a linear film form. So I started looking at how games can help me share the same experience of investigating multiple stories.
There are multiple ways that you can approach games as a player. You have agency to explore, which is very different from many other art forms where there’s a one-way relationship. The Traveling Hand sounds like something that you began thinking about in one way, and then moves towards games as a more final and complete way to express an idea. Could you tell me about the origin story for The Traveling Hand and how games became part of that particular piece?
I was working on an experimental documentary in Goa about many villagers playing a game or ritual with a semi-divine being. While working on and researching that particular game festival or ritual, I came across these huge ruins that I wanted to shoot a film about. They’re majestic—huge, beautiful ruins. The whole roof had collapsed to the ground. One story of this semi-divine being goes through Goa, through these Portuguese ruins, and into the sky.
The ruins were closed to the public, but I jumped over the fence and saw an excavation in process. The archeologists were quite friendly, and they shared with me what they were working on: a displaced hand of a queen from 17th century Georgia, landing in Goa through some obscure macabre event. This image started haunting me, and I wanted to research more on that.
The archaeologists must have thought I was a student of archeology or something [laughs]. I stayed in touch with them—in fact, the case hadn’t yet closed. They were still trying to prove whether it was this Queen’s hand.
The archaeologists were actually not looking for this hand. They were doing a clinical survey architectural survey of these particular ruins. They were from the biggest church built in Portuguese Goa at that time. The biggest church of the Portuguese Empire in the East.
In a way, I was doing a parallel investigation, following a lead I had of a Georgian filmmaker who came to Goa. I went looking for his footage, then I would come back to the archaeologists, and we would share updates with each other. I started thinking of a video game… naturally [laughs]. I realized that the game, the world, and the story was huge. It kept growing over the years. I thought it would just [stay in] the 17th century…but then we brought in Soviet Georgia in the 80s, then Persia, then Portugal. I thought, Okay, the story world is growing really huge, and I won’t be able to make the video game I want to make. So I pivoted to a hybrid table-top game, with my own console.
What is the player experience like for The Traveling Hand?
I have my own lexicon for the board game. [Players] explore this mangrove game world, which is itself modular, so it can be any shape. You plot the game world from the start, and you have to excavate for resources, which I have called Time, Memory, and Stone. You have to resurrect these ruins, which are small ‘pop-up’ ruins modeled from actual ruins in Old Goa. That’s when you find a film molecule: a small segment of the film inside these glass enclosures. Film molecules can only be detected by this console. The console then opens up like a puzzle, which you have to solve using knobs—like the kind you have for electronic pedals.
I wanted to make the interactivity unstable…since the movements you make with these knobs are very precise, almost surgical. They change the way you’re breathing, the way you’re interacting with this console, as well. This oscilloscope-like puzzle allows you to unlock or unfold a film molecule, and you are witnessed to some archival footage, images, and history.
Then you have to choose your own investigative path from there: Are you more interested in the secret fresco, or are you more interested in the person who actually found the letter, which is the first [piece of] evidence? Eventually, players understand that they have to play against the board to complete the investigation successfully.
Where do you sit between fiction and pure documentary or history?
With this kind of historical fiction, I try to keep the actual pieces of evidence true to the case, which is not yet solved in reality. You make your own hypothesis at the end. It is the queen’s hand or not, or is it still traveling somewhere? These in-between places where you don’t have any documentation are where you’re trying to figure out how things connect. When I am thinking of historical fiction, I tend to move more towards a magical-realist or a science-fiction-y space. I was excited when I found out about the Soviet part of the story—for me, that was like, Oh, I can start looking at some Soviet sci-fi aesthetics. Magic aspects come in quite smoothly here and there, but I try to make the actual evidence quite true to what happened. The story itself is quite unbelievable.
What were some of the tools you went down to create this particular experience? I’d love to hear a bit more about how you went from the initial concept to the final installation in Rotterdam.
The main set of game testing actually happened with the hybrid board game, which was much earlier in 2018. That took quite a bit of game testing—discarding ideas and inventing new ones. The installation was more about translating the essence of this hybrid board game into a full-scale room or installation, which was quite a difficult task. My main aim was to stay true to what I had already done in the hybrid board game.
SMOOTHING OUT THE FRICTION
When games are in an installation context, there’s an acceptable amount of user friction in the commercial games world—if they don’t understand something, you try to smooth those out. It’s not necessarily the same in your context, where you want players to not know everything or figure things out independently. How did you find the balance between wanting it to be a “smooth” experience for people who play at one level, but also not wanting to feel constrained by making it too easy or accessible?
That is a hard negotiation. This particular installation is at TENT, which is an art space. The audience that comes to an art space is not exactly ready to invest in that kind of energy and time. So you have to warn them that it takes an hour to play.
The Travelling Hand is not really an interactive artwork—it’s a game. You have to invest time in understanding the rules of how to play. You must also understand and give time to play it out and complete it.
That’s not something in many art institutions yet. Even for me, it’s new to work in an art space with a game. I had to tell [TENT] that The Travelling Hand cannot be something that too easily becomes an interactive art piece. Games require some thinking and decoding, and that’s where the fun is.
Also, there has to be a game master or a host, which is quite important to the experience. Very few people are comfortable with entering, reading the rules, and figuring out how to play. It’s always nice when there’s somebody there to guide you in the beginning. So that’s one thing that the institution had to invest in.
You started with pen-and-paper prototyping. From a design standpoint, was that something you taught yourself, or were you engaged with other game designers during that process?
I’m comfortable with writing and making diagrams. When I started working on the prototype, I roped in Dhruv [Jani, of Studio Oleomingus], and I was like, Hey, you have to help me think through these things. I cannot do this on my own [laughs]. It is hard because you don’t know how everybody will think when you’re working out game mechanics, and you can’t always play with yourself. It’s always nice to have somebody else also play. Dhruv and I were exploring this new form of tabletop game design together. Then he went back to video game design with his work, and I continued working with this game.
It is rare to have someone use game design as part of their practice without going to the game design school. Dhruv’s’ background was in exhibition. He’s not trained as a game designer, although there are some adjacencies there.
That’s true. I met him just after he wanted to drop out of exhibition design. And he was just starting with the story of Somewhere. You can say we parallelly grew together and exchanged a lot of notes with each other.
You describe your project Extinction Narratives, as a “game-world reading.” Can you describe that particular work, and what a game-world reading looked like in a performance context.
I’m interested in shapeshifting. It’s how I embody myself in performances: as a shapeshifting creature. In Extinction Narratives, which was performed last year in Berlin at The Silent Green, I worked with this story about a forest conservationist who loses the signal of a GPS location of a tigress. She has to go on foot or with this old technology of a Very High Frequency Telemetry. You send out a frequency to try and catch signals from the collar attached to the animal. The conservationist waits to hear the ineffable beep. In the story, the tigress actually disappears into the ultrasonic and spawns many cubs.
I was working with the idea of where the tigress wins and escapes being captured by surveillance. It was a way of trying to figure out whose world is getting extinct—and how can we as humans gracefully go into extinction? I narrated this through oral storytelling. I played with a lot of sound waves in the performance. That’s how I’ve built up this idea of game-world reading, where I’m trying to engage with the world itself through performance. There was a bit of improvisation, but I stuck to a script.
THE PRODUCTIVITY OF PLAY
The words ‘game’ and ‘video game’ carry baggage with them. I’m curious about your deliberate use of these words—at the end of the day, the terms are quite fluid.
I’ve encountered games in my life through mythology. There’s a lot of creation myths and stories in existing games, and players enter the game world through these narratives. I really enjoy that part of the process, which is quite complex. I realized there are so many things that happen when you make a game. I’m not interested in, Oh yes, I finished this one product, and that’s the game. It’s all these other things that feed into it, too.
In the United States, there is a mechanical view of leisure. Everything has to be useful and productive, and that often works against games as a medium and play as an activity, because it’s viewed as being unproductive. Is there something about the environment in which you grew up that made it easier for you to step into game spaces?
My cultural context definitely has influenced how I’ve thought about and encountered games. While working on a documentary commissioned about the pottery tradition in the Kutch desert region of India, I took some footage from the Indus Valley civilization, which is also in the desert. There, I encountered game pieces in the display of a museum, and I was intrigued by how those pieces could be played. I was surprised that even then, people were thinking about games! I’m driven to look at games in a very open-minded way—how games are thought of and how stories weave into them. With video games, too—why are we addicted to certain kinds of games and not others? It’s still a very young space.
How has this point of view influenced your way of thinking about game systems as it relates to time?
In Buddhism and Hinduism, we have something called karma. This whole idea is almost an unconscious rulebook we follow, a giant game. If you don’t play in a certain way, then you have certain choices when you die. You could become an elephant or an ant. This choice is dependent on your karma.
While I was teaching myself how to make games, I realized that if I had to tell this long story, it would have to be a long game. That means that the mechanics have to be complex and interconnected. For The Travelling Hand, I was thrown into the deep end, thanks to this story. How can games change the way we look at time? Games can expand time to many, many hours. They make time richer.
I have a very idealistic expectation from games, especially because we are used to thinking of history in a very linear way. There’s this thing called chronopolitics: chronology has a certain politics embedded into it. Consequently, we think of futurity in a way where progress is only marked by certain people or ideas. I want games to critique how we look at history or chronology. Can it disrupt this chronopolitics, and completely change the way we think of future worlds?