Debi Banerjee, 'Top Lodge', 2020. 4mins 14 sec

Morwenna Kearsley

টপ লজ

Did you ever have one of those heart-shaped necklaces you could break apart and give to someone: one half-heart sitting comfortably between your collar-bones, light as toast? I find myself searching the internet and learn that this familiar ritual has its roots in Freemasonry. I learn that an apprentice Freemason would have enrolled with a master craftsman to learn his trade. Once time has passed and the relevant skills acquired, the apprentice becomes a ‘journeyman’, able to work under the supervision of the expert but not quite ready to begin trading completely on his own. A ‘Fellow Of The Craft’, if you will. It is at this point that the journeyman is given one half of a broken token by the elder, which allows him to work away to some extent but binds him to his mentor, who keeps the other half. I’m thinking about this symbolic and practical gesture as I edit Debi’s film—there’s no master and apprentice here but the notion of our work binding us together as we nudge the video into shape appeals to me.

The film’s title is Top Lodge and it is a bricolage of interconnected images, objects, films, performances, workshops and information, produced by artist Debi Banerjee through a series of collaborations and conversations. The title is borrowed from a game played by Debi’s daughter Lotta and her cousins: hidden away in a bedroom together, they squeak and laugh and keep the adults at bay. When the children are asked separately what the game entails, they have differing interpretations. The game exists separately in each of their three distinct imaginations, blindly guiding each other forwards, from one track to another, like a railroad switch.

Debi uses WeTransfer to send me the videos I will edit, the data reduced to 1’s and 0’s and then reconfigured into coloured blocks, placed one on top of the other to make an image of her dancing on my screen. She films the footage herself, propping up her phone on a chair and using the self-portrait mode to check that she fits into the frame before hitting the record button and running backwards into position. Debi is practicing a dance routine choreographed by Aniela Piasecka as part of a collaboration between the two. She sent Aniela the Bollywood track Jaan Pehechan Ho and the videos document her learning the carefully constructed sequence—eventually they will perform it together.

When I import the videos into Premier, I smile as I watch Debi perform again and again, mirroring the practiced movements between my fingertips and the keys of my laptop as I edit. We use the same song for the video and I listen to it in fragments, over and over, as I bind the footage together. I taught myself how to edit video clips and it probably shows. I used to just import everything randomly and then move the videos from the footage bin to the timeline in one lorry load. Sometimes, in times of despair, I would just make an architectural shape with the footage, laying each brick on top of the other and seeing how it played out. Never well. Instead, I’ve had to take time as my master, dragging myself along behind her as she shows me: practice, practice, practice. Like a rehearsal, each movement and its corresponding action must be learned and remembered, transforming slowly over time from instruction to muscle memory.

I move a lavender-coloured brick onto the timeline, sliding it in beside the lime-green ones that show Debi dancing as she hoovers. The camera-phone, propped up on a shelf to one side of the room, records a scene that can’t be easily contextualized. It’s performative but it’s not a performance; it’s domestic but not private; it’s funny but feels slightly transgressive to watch, like reality TV shows before the advent of social media. I slide the cursor over the wall of blocks and we shift from the intimacy of home to a pixelated crowd: women dancing in the dark, neon bands suggesting the location of moving wrists and gyrating hips. They’re in a space called Basic Mountain, located at 1A Hill Street in Edinburgh, once a calisthenics exercise and dance school for girls (1860-1890), a Masonic Lodge (1893-1923) and now an artist-run space (2014-2020).

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Debi Banerjee, 'Top Lodge invite', 2018

During her residency at Basic Mountain in 2018, Debi invited seven women to the space to dance to a playlist of songs selected by each member of the group prior to the event. I watch them dance on my screen, the everyday voyeurism of looking at filmed images enhanced by the visual paradox of blindfolds and free movement. They sing out with the music, their eyes covered with black cloth; dancing together without touching, like bats in the night. At the end of the event Debi recreates a photograph she found in a public archive that was taken in the space in November 1914, showing a local fraternity posed and seated, wearing Masonic aprons and sashes. For her image, made 104 years later, eight women sit, black sashes covering their eyes, their shadows thrown on the wall like doubles. Debi tells me:

I started to think about the gendered private practices that took place in this space, the ceremonies, dance classes, meetings and conversations of the past, of rituals of initiation and belonging. I was particularly drawn to the imagery produced by the masons and the objects and uniforms associated with membership. I thought about these things in relation to my own cultural history and experience and of creating a sorority complete with uniforms and rituals of its own.’

In other work, made alongside the videos and images, Debi sews intricate designs into utilitarian garments: a chorus of embroidered hands (one holding a cigarette) reaching out from the top of a standard black waitressing apron; a ruby-red mouth on a simple black facemask, formed with hundreds of tiny beads and pearls for teeth; a cheap nylon tabard covered with delicate, hand-sewn roses. Onto a dressmaker’s dummy she pins a skirt of coral, lavender and lemon-coloured gloves, decorated with gold fake nails, a watch, and a bracelet. It’s a reference to Kali, the Hindu deity, often depicted wearing a skirt of severed arms. I add an image of Kali into the video, placing her between a doubled image of Debi dancing, which in turn references a set of collages in which Debi inserts Kali’s image over the top of the Masons’ faces in the photograph taken at 1A Hill Street. I think of Kali as a master builder or perhaps a master editor: the goddess of time, creation, preservation and destruction.

I’m told the words Top Lodge can’t be translated directly into Bengali without it sounding odd, but you can find a transliterated version as the title of this text. The curved shapes forming porticos to shelter under, the straight lines anchoring the word to the page like foundation stones. I don’t know the meaning of the word ‘transliterated’ (Debi uses it when she sends me the Bengali text) so I look it up and realise that we’ve been using a similar process to create the video. I use the closest corresponding grammar of cuts and joins in an attempt to mirror the processes of choreography, rehearsal and performance. It’s a conversation played out through mistranslation, intuition, conversation and friendship: each of us guiding the other, like the children, neither fully aware of the rules of the game. In the third and final stage of his transformation into Freemason, the journeyman reaches maturity and becomes a recognized craftsman in his own right. The token is given back and becomes whole once again, the promise of future collaborations resting within the hairline fracture at its center.

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Debi Banerjee, 'Untitled', 2018

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Debi Banerjee is an artist and researcher based in Edinburgh. She has worked as a curator at Stills and in education roles at Collective Gallery and the Edinburgh International Festival, she is currently the Curator for Learning at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop and teaches a post-graduate elective at Glasgow School of Art. Debi often works collaboratively with performance, selected projects include: Massive Thanks with Aniela Piasecka (2019), Paleo Futurists with Daniel Brown and Jenny Hogarth various projects (2016-2018), Unknown Outcomes with Kirsty Hendry (2016), Impressing the Czar (2014). Her research interests include workshops, participatory practice and archives, she has published journal articles in Visual Culture in Britain (2020) and Studies in Material Thinking (2017).

Morwenna Kearsley is a visual artist based in Glasgow.

This work was generously supported by Edinburgh Visual Artist Award and Hope Scott Trust.