DECEMBER 5, 2023
DECEMBER 5, 2023
Himali Singh Soin
In a time of profound loss, artist Himali Singh Soin offers a ballad and manifesto on spaces of occluded clarity, and the relationships between human and non-human survival therein. She suggests this inbetween as a zone of safety, opacity, and potential for permeable binaries and selves.
“On Translucency” is a mytho-poetic manifesto about the space between the shore and the tide, the translucent shallow, visible and invisible, dense and sheer. It departs from Édouard Glissant’s notion of opacity and arrives in places of where frosted windows keep the heat of the sun out, soften the detailed edges of bodies while holding on to the relational, letting light through and not shutting out the other. Translucency argues for a kind of not-knowing that allows for the private world of thought and the gregarious world of friendship, as island to archipelago. This manifesto is filtered through the translucent lenses of air, ice, skin, oil, and film. Translucency is both the right to illegibility and the desire for interpretation. Translucency is an erotic way back into our post-natural lifeways.
Some things that I will say will remain illegible, others will be graspable. There will be things you see right through, and aspects that escape you. They escape me too. The practice of translucency is allowing for ambiguity while reaching for clarity. Translucency is the mediation between the thing as it is and the imagination of what else it can be. Translucency fills ruptures, offering new futures. It heaves in the erotic, between nature and artifice, the scrim of knowing and the shadow of not-knowing. We live in translucent (im)materiality: Oil. Skin. Film. Ice. Air. Water. Paper. Smog. Mirages. Windows. The internet. Music. The mind. The cloud. The island. Silt. Salt.
The world is indefinite, leaky, and porous, with osmotic membranes between everything. Practicing translucency is “to bring,” as Glissant says, “the world into contact with the world, to bring some of the world’s places into contact with others.” Translucency is a way of seeing the world in a different light.
In between objects or spaces
Translucency is the distance between two intimate objects or spaces. In places where the light is bright, and the houses are close together—in urban tropics or the Mediterranean—the windows of kitchens and bathrooms are frosted. Frosted windows are used in places where it is almost always warm, and life is led at a pace attuned to the slow, dense air, against the accelerated clock of capital, in the early morning or the late evening, where bodies can move half-naked in their own space, when voices can call out to each other from balconies, chaos always adjacent and easily refracted. We, the alterity, we watch over one another, we let each other in, we keep each other out. We choose how much, and with whom.
Jaalis, built by Mughal architects across Central and South Asia, are latticed doors and windows to grant women the power to know the happenings of a place without being seen, a kind of ideological ventilation. These portals blur the looking out with the looking in. The jaali functions as a veil disguising the gaze of defiant eyes. It is against the right to total information, against exposure, against the kind of intimacy that leaves no room for flirtation.
Translucency blocks out direct light, white and bright and hot, and lets softness in. Softness so that the sharpness of surfaces doesn’t disappear, but loses focus around the edges, merging the distinction between matter and mind. The other loses detail and looks more like you: tender afternoon, blushed, dimmed, humid, lubricated.
In the diasporas, the immigrant, the exiled
These thin spaces between bodies are like borders between places: thresholds of partial comprehension, forming a new, diasporic zone.
A fish from one country deflected by the current finds itself caught in the other.
How can we know each other across the world? We are half-imagined and half-real. When we accept translucency, we might reach towards what Glissant calls a “creolized body.” A community made up of difference, actively engaging with each other, creating new, hybrid communities.
I will never know what it is like to be you. What it is like to be a bat or a stone or you.
And you will try and analyze me. Not first for where I come from, or how I choose to be, or the dust and the heat and the smog that I have grown up with, but through the light, how it forms these shadows, these lines, what these shadows can tell you about the self I choose not to reveal, my expressions of contentment and discontentment. The depth of composition, the metaphors I use so as not to say the thing I can’t say.
Translucency is not the relief of the end of the journey, but the cool you find midway, the energizing rest. When the mind finds home in the body, even when that home is far away.
Meet me somewhere in the center of this infinity.
I won’t turn away. I am the accumulation of all the energies that have come before me and those that will follow. But I have the right to opacity. I do not need to be transparent for you.
What is opacity if not shifting weights of translucency? The number of layers, the thickness of the atmosphere between, the color and materiality and power to resist or receive the light. By letting light in, we make room for the pleasures of darkness.
There, we offer up our translucent selves. We are islands when we are multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial, differently abled, indifferently labeled communities living beside each other with no language in between.
We pass energies between each other. We begin to understand. Not understand each other but understand what it means to form a relation between two, to become a third.
To find this moment of shifting translucency, we must share the work. No, we are not answerable to You. No, we will not explain how slavery, classism, racism, casteism are all entangled with You. We are learning it for ourselves, trying to unravel generations of dispossession.
Like dragonflies, we must find a way to make our wings translucent, to avoid the harm of predators. Maybe we can share the work—when I am exhausted, you will take over for me, and on and on, we divide the labor and multiply the love. This way, we begin to subvert the architectures of the apparent.
Transparency is an apparatus signified by patriarchy, positivity, whiteness, Western models of morality, exhibition, control, evidence. Reflecting the glassy skyscrapers cleaned by those who could never afford their view, we begin to subvert the guise of rationality, subvert a capitalist infrastructure that preferences the individual over interdependence, the spectacle over speculation, and we begin to question where prejudice comes from, reach outwards towards the material, and inwards towards the immaterial.
If and when this happens, we experience a moment of friendship between people, events, ideas, that otherwise may not occur. We can try and understand, but it must be mutual, even while it is uncertain. Friendship, love, and dreams are translucent, lucid between the real and hallucinogenic. You can feel it but never completely know it. Fiction is like this too, in its relationship to truth.
In the presence of ghosts
Ghost stories abound in communities that bear collective suffering. In India, the ghosts of many conquests show up in folklore: a ghost stealing land, a ghost arriving as an archetype of guilt. Sometimes they are amorphous blobs, sometimes they arrive as animals with wings or fins or tails, teaching us to listen with intention and breathe with our skin. They appear, they protect us or haunt us, remind us, help us make a choice, maybe even clean the house, quietly do their work and leave, phantom. They are often only detected by the most vulnerable character, the character who is grieving, and thus most present and open to any form of intervention.
The ghost is a protean, diaphanous being. It speaks to the deep present moment, always filtered through history while trying to fit into or reconfigure an untenable future. It is also in-between and atemporal. The apparition is a state of mind, in which the lens of time has a soft focus, a peripheral vision that allows you to see the microscopic and the grand scale of things at once. The imprecision of the blur and what happens there. To be partially absorbent while still protecting your inner world. To be ghost is to be generous with boundaries. The ghost story allows us to construct a language of translucency: both “is” and “can be.” Would be, try to be, maybe. Language aspiring to be in-between, to be almost, to be not fake, but speculative, inquisitive, simulative. Aspiring to believe stories as if they were real. To rely more on the if and the how than on the is and the what. To think of the word whether (or not) like the weather itself—unpredictable, witty—and not try and alter it, but make an altar for it, worship it. Language (and the weather) can protect you if you don’t try and control it. This resignation to randomness and this ritual of imagination is translucency.
In shifting atmospheres
Our lives are ghostly: semi, meta, muffled, unclear, without shape or time, blurred, scattered, gelatinous, gossamer, irregular, diffuse, shadowy, sheer, cryptic.
We refuse to be known.
We are gentle, fragile, continuous. We are neither solid nor spirit.
We are neither cause nor effect.
We are film. We are mesh. We are a glassy substrate.
Translucency pertains to a non-binary, multitudinous sexuality that revels in the in-between, does not need to come “out,” but also does not need to hold itself “in.” Translucency is neither male nor female. It is not revealing nor concealing.
We are vapor.
We are water.
Muslin, hemp, silk.
We are also plastic, oil, pollution, radiation. The atmosphere is not perfectly visible, rather mediated by strata of toxins, carbons, microbes, particulate matter, smoke, clouds, sulfur, dust, mist, fog, haze, seeds, pollen, doubt, mirages.
The water is translucent too, full of jellyfish as it gets warmer and warmer.
Translucency suggests softer ways of being, making kin with one another, while still adapting to the changing Natural, like birds who build their nests from wires and bottle caps, or like lizards who roam our houses as our landscapes desertify.
Translucency is inter-species. Sometimes it flickers and creates new shapes, forms, fires.
In ice archives
In the Weddell Sea, under the ice in Antarctica, Notothenioid fish are so translucent that you can see their brain and their spine through their skin. Over time, and with our changing waters, they’ve lost all their hemoglobin. Fish, like the women behind the jaalis, find the ambiguity of translucency compelling; they remain invisible to a system which would otherwise subsume them.
Hydromedusae, sea butterflies, bristle worms, zooplanktons, krill, jelly larvae, squids, and flounders are all translucent. With layers of calcium so delicate they can stay light underwater, where it is so dark, their translucence allows them to light their inner worlds.
Ice has always been a translucent memory holder: the particles of lead trapped at the poles tell the story of our extractionist history. Ice cores are chronometers, telling time like the rings on trees. We can see how the climate has shifted, we can see the history of plagues, we can even see war. I like to think that translucency plays a role in ice being an information carrier and a sensorial anti-colonial agent. As the ice melts into lucid clarity, we lose our connection to land, to the past, to history, we lose our ancestry, we also lose our future. A world without ice is like flying towards the end of the horizon and hitting a clear, transparent, pane of glass.
In between the conscious and unconscious self
Translucency is a media-tion. Images are translucent, in that they are a representation of the real. In a time of complete information and complete control over information, can we hold a butter lamp to the screen and be a filter ourselves? The right to information with the right to difference. Translucency is the middle way. Between craft and instinct, between logic and intuition, between chance and order.
Translucency is an undulating wave, a wave of emotion, a tide. A feeling of melancholy but not sadness, of pleasure but not happiness.
Translucency is a call to detect, form, and visualize porosities, connections, patterns, and associations. Relations. Across spatial, temporal, and socio-cultural boundaries.
Consciousness is translucent. In disparate research, we sometimes get a glimpse into patterns between seemingly distinct ideas. I was writing a bird opera while researching nuclear culture. When I went looking for the bird, I found it breeding at a nuclear site.
Could mobilizing translucency help us perceive things as interrelated and not distinct, so love seeps through toxicity, justice through irony? An archipelago is a collection of islands: can we be self and find a relation to the other at the same time? Can we be connected by translucent waters, our shoreline constantly adapting to the weather, gelatinous with the translucency of the sea creatures beneath. Can we absorb and resist, be rooted and still hybrid, forming new cultures, many possible identities? Can we have polylogues while keeping our inner voice alive? Can we operate with intuition in the laboratory of our lives? And when bombs make the air hazy, and when the heat makes the atmosphere sticky, and when floods cause land to become liquid, can we call upon the materiality of translucency to help us out of disaster?
Can we be more like poems, not too much, not too little, no beginning or end, fragments and fullness, anchored and floating, meaning and nonsense both?
Translucency is not an impossible aspiration towards a fixed utopia, it is inherently not extreme: it proposes deep being, while allowing different temporalities to inform, affect, and change the present moment. To appear and disappear. Not the obliteration of opacity nor the immediacy of transparency.
While translucency is about light, it is not about vision only: it asks to listen to non-human creatures, how they call and respond, to sink into the place between oil and water, recognizing its repulsive force and still wonder at its glimmering sheen. It takes pleasure in perversity.
With thanks to advaya’s ‘world as archipelago', Kate Marshall, and Alexis Rider for reading and the team at Protodispatch for their belief in translucency.
With a nod to Édouard Glissant, Judith Butler, Ming Smith, Byung-Chul Han, Andrés Jaque, and the Sufi singers on the border of India and Pakistan, separated from their lovers by the salt desert, in the Rann of Kutch.