Purgatory EDIT (2024)

Ali Akbar Mehta in collaboration with Jernej Čuček Gerbec

Purgatory EDIT is a user-generated montage-based cinematic experience that highlights long-term and deliberate methods in which digital technologies enforce subliminal visual manipulation, sensory overload, data fatigue, psychological reaction, and ideological numbness. At the core of the project is an archive of moving images, a visual semiotic research and analysis process, and a techno-mediated participation-driven cyber performance.

The ‘Doomscroll Archive’ is sourced using war footage, cinema, documentaries, advertisements, newsreels, landscape panoramas, home videos, and other media content. This open-source, publicly accessible, searchable moving image archive comprises 30,000+
clips that testify to the hegemonic representations and the glorification of violence within visual and cinematic vocabularies. The archive serves as material to conduct a ‘conceptual visual vocabulary analysis’ and study keywords like ‘war’, ‘peace’, ‘violence’, and ‘conflict’ through the intersectional lens of violence and conflict resolution, neocolonialism, data hegemony and power relations. This essential study reveals how such concepts are reproduced within moving image media such as documentary, video, and cinema.
Using this archive as the foundational data bank of pre-curated individual ‘scenes’, the technomediated cyber performance of Purgatory EDIT foregrounds the use and potential of experimental cutting-edge technologies such as an EEG-based brainware (Emotiv Epoc X), a bioinformatics & brain interface software developed by the Purgatory EDIT team, Virtual Reality (VR) headsets, and virtual cinema. Using these, participants’ brainwaves can control a real-time juxtaposition of a pre-compiled and curated string of videos – its sequencing, intensities and specific types of video, as well as playback speed, fluctuations, and designed glitches – creating ongoing, ever-changing permutations, generating a seamless,non-looping, unending, and unique cinematic experience.

To run this cyber performance, Ali Akbar Mehta and Jernej Čuček Gerbec will complete the coding and development of software at the EMAP Residency in Werklietz, Halle. Designed to ‘read’ a user’s semi-conscious mind-state and output it as abstract emotions represented as 6 metrics. It enables participants’ emotional activity to control a real-time juxtaposition of a pre-compiled and curated string of videos – it's sequencing, intensities and specific types of video, as well as playback speed, fluctuations, and designed glitches – generates a sequence of videos in ongoing, ever-changing permutations, thereby creating a seamless, non-looping,
unending, and unique cinematic experience – every time it is accessed. This software and accompanying ‘Brainware’, a portable EEG kit, works as a fuzzy controller that is difficult to control with precision allows participants varying degrees of looseness and ability to ‘play’ with the process – as participants struggle to obtain a degree of control, trying to will their subconscious into creating specific sequences, often attempts to soothe/agitate their minds has unexpected results.


In Dialogue:

Werkleitz: Can you briefly describe your project? Firstly, in terms of content and secondly, in terms of formats.

Ali Akbar Mehta: Purgatory EDIT is a user-generated, montage-based VR experience. It is broken up into three main trajectories: The first that we have been working on for the last two years is a compiled archive sourced from existing war and conflict archives, documentaries, news and cinema footage, and home videos from invited contributors. This archive is a representation of violence and conflict that critically investigates how our moving image vocabulary is shaped through the reproduction, representation and glorification of violence and conflict.

But of course, to understand violence properly, one has to treat it as a spectrum. What does it mean for non-conflicts to exist and coexist simultaneously? This leads us to the second trajectory of the project, which is a research component where we are developing an ‘intensity map’ to map out what intensities of violence and different forms of violence look like. Both of these are ongoing aspects of the project that are imagined as long-format trajectories of the project, continuing beyond the residency and individual exhibitions.

What we are finalising during the EMAP residency at Werkleitz is the development of a ‘Brain Control Interface’ (BCI) software that is the primary interface of a techno-mediated performance. For the performance, participants use the software coupled with a portable EEG brainware. The combined software-hardware reads the participants’ emotions and converts them into parameters to trigger a sequence of clips from the archives. Based on how they feel, a sequence or a conceptual narrative is created.

Werkleitz: As you already said, Purgatory EDIT is a profound individual and collective confrontation with different intensities and states of violence. What appeals to you about this very direct confrontation that you expose your participants to?

Ali Akbar Mehta: Purgatory EDIT is inspired by Kubrick’s ‘Clockwork Orange’ and its infamous Ludovico Method. But where the film proposed it as an absurdity, today we are almost always confronted with visual data overload. We willingly expose ourselves to it and it definitely shapes the way we think and feel. Purgatory Edit proposes to rethink our relationship with the visual vocabularies that we are surrounding ourselves. To investigate the ways we respond to these everyday visuals, which are normalised and therefore invisible to us as violence. The idea of the confrontation is important for me, I feel there is a complacence, a resignation to the violence around us, and I am patient for change. To quote Antoin Artaud (Theatre of Cruelty) “rather than comfort, the role of the artist must be to assault the senses of the audience”.

Jernej Čuček Gerbec: Blockbuster movies are filled with violence that we consume blindly and happily. There has been a long relationship between media and the portrayal of violence. There have been numerous people writing about it. Is consuming violence an ethical question? Is it a form of “Schadenfreude”? And what does this do to us as viewers? The project is a step towards a future where we can have more data, to work more with scientists and neuroscientists, and to get concrete undestanding beyond speculative investigation.

Werkleitz: You are confronting yourselves a lot with violence because of this work. What does it do to you personally?

Ali Akbar Mehta: I have been directly involved with the compilation of the archive over the past 18 months. There are two other team members, Sanyam Varun and Aditya Rokade, who have assisted in the editing and processing of the video clips in the past year. For me, it has also been part of the working methodology and a personal ethics, to not utilise big-data web-scraping or spiderware to collect data, but to collect clips organically by moving more outwards from personal knowledges. This process involves screening through each source material multiple times, and everytime the severity and gravity of the material affects me. I have often reached a point where I have felt that I cannot continue, and have maybe even expressed this to people close to me. but I persevere because I believe in the importance of this work.

Jernej Čuček Gerbec: Working on the software development aspect of the project, we have been working with a practically feasible and therefore limited set of video clips. Somehow you get familiarized with specific clips very intimately, especially when you see them over a 100 times. Nevertheless, some of them deeply affect you every single time, while others are just processed and you move on. For me it is interesting because it is never the same sequence. There is an endless supply of narratives that can range from very subtle movements to very rapid changes. Perhaps it is like consuming any kind of media – it is different every time and almost every time it has a different effect on you. Sometimes it hits you, sometimes not.

Ali Akbar Mehta: For me, this is the beauty of Archival work. It has the possibility of speaking to you in multiple different ways, all it asks from you is time. How, and how much you engage with it changes what you receive.

Werkleitz: Your participants’ brains control the course of the images. They are shown based on the emotional state and create individual found-footage collages based on this. Does this individual result flow back into your work? Are your participants recipients or do they have an active part in this working process?

Ali Akbar Mehta: There are two directions to this. One is that individual participants are drivers of the techno-mediated performance. They may participate once, or multiple times, for as little as five minutes and a maximum of 9 hours. These create various, different length but unique experience longs, each of which generate their own data. This data, if the participants agree to permissions asked, can directly help in re-evaluting the Intensity Map and the categorisation process.

The second is that currently, we are working based on an initial mapping, which is being done by me, which means that it contains my personal subjectivities and biases. So by inviting participants in non-exhibition environments, we hope to involve them more actively as part of the ongoing research to map the material differently. When multiple, say, over a hundred people participate, can their brain data allow us to re-configure the Intensity maps?

Of course the question that then emerges is, would it create a certain kind of majoritarian view of what a particular vision of violence means, in terms of its intensity? But definitely, we are hoping to continue the collaboration with the participants. Not just within single performances, but by creating more ongoing collaborative methodologies.

Werkleitz: How much of your work is scientific, and how much artistic?

Ali Akbar Mehta: The project is on the intersections of both, but I think that the approach, the curiosity for this work is artistic. I cannot imagine a scientific research project being curious of the realworld implications of a recreated Ludovico Method. This is not a comment on the imagination capacitors of scientists but the fact that scientific communities are geared towards moving forward in single verifiable steps, whereas artistic practice and research has the capacities to make different kind of leaps of imagination. To jump to the end and fail differently. I think there is a freedom in this that is missing in other disciplines.
Having said this, I am a science fiction fan, and I’m very curious to see how the scientific community responds to Purgatory EDIT.

Werkleitz: In the current state of multiple global crises in which we find ourselves, there seems to be almost no escape from violent images in everyday life. How close are reality and art? How close are they in your project?

Ali Akbar Mehta: Are these global crises new, or have they simply escalated into our view? Have we simply gained better, more realtime access to them in our media-saturated present? Due to the quality-ensuring processing our team does, the majority of material in the archive is historical, or at least not from a real-time present. In this sense, Purgatory EDIT is simply a sociopolitical mirror. As an archive it is desperately trying to catch up to reality.

Jernej Čuček Gerbec:
I think it is also important to remember that what we recieve from the media and the internet is somehow curated. Everything is packed in predefined boxes. In Purgatory EDIT nothing is packed in a box, nothing predefined. So you get a wild mix. In a way, that is actually closer to reality. While you may live in one part of the world, there are so many other things going on at the same time. To say that you understand what is happening around the globe because you watch the news is only partially true. There are so many things that we, personally or as a group, don't see, never have access to, or sometimes we just don't have the mental capacity to follow.

Ali Akbar Mehta: I think why Purgatory EDIT works is that you can understand it not just within the filter bubble that you may be in, but that it expands and opens up into several different possibilities, multiple kinds of realites. The significance of Purgatory EDIT is simply the potentiality of what may become available to you – as a window of memory, reality, a speculative future – however you choose to view this visual sequence.

To me what is interesting is how these narratives develop, and how the individual performing participant and on-looking audience read this material, how they develop the narratives for themselves. Often, I myself would not have imagined such sequences. So rather than a finished esthetic film it is a generatively created montage, one that actually may prove to be more powerful than any designed montage.

Art And Science
Media And Communication
Power And Politics