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An Interview with Agni Raj Singh

Updated: Apr 15, 2019

Agni Raj Singh believes in the power of empathy. The LA based filmmaker/photographer/visual artist centers his work around the study of "the changing sensibilities of an ever-changing world" (according to the about page on his website). This gives the impression that his work has an impermanent quality, and though it is fluid/influenced by the circumstances surrounding its creation, I would argue that his oeuvre is as much about what stays the same as it is what changes, serving as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

I was first struck by the tasteful simplicity of his visuals, in terms of photography and film. Agni favors uncomplicated and clean-cut design, but the greater meaning behind his work is much more surreptitious, in a hidden-in-plain-sight sort of way, like an optical illusion you have to look at multiple times to discover all the possible ways to see it. From his junior thesis film “Requiem,” which follows a woman as she is being pursued by a mysterious hooded figure, to “The Fringes,” a short film he wrote in 2018 that focuses on human interaction in a futuristic world fraught with isolation, Agni’s films certainly require more than one viewing.

But I realized, at the core, his body of work is humanistic in nature. I am reminded of the concluding line to Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”: “Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all.” There is a certain absurdity to the very nature of existence that we are all united by. Often folding a component of surrealism into his pieces, Agni’s work relies on his ability to visually articulate these themes in an attractive manner, but is substantiated by his exceptional understanding of what it means to be a person.

Born in Darjeeling, India and very well-traveled, Agni synthesizes both his personal experiences and his observations of humanity into his art, lending his work a sort of captivating dualism of intimacy and universality that highlights the omnipresence of human compassion and strength.

Who are your biggest inspirations?

Stanley Kubrick’s vision & perfection, Chopin’s depth of emotion and my father’s beautifully open-minded perspective on life.

If you were to create a 3 song playlist to your life, what songs would you include and why?

“All My Loving” - The Beatles: My love for music exploration & collection kick-started one fine afternoon when I was 13 and had this tune hopelessly looping through my head. It also made The Beatles the very first band I actually sat down & gave a listen to. It was the first song I really loved.  “O Superman” - Laurie Anderson/“Runaway” - Kanye West: Ok, so I cheated a bit with 2 songs. But they’re both here for the same reason! My favorite instrument is the human voice, natural or manipulated, and despite the over-usage of autotune today, the chilling digitization of our natural tones can be phantasmal when done with intent and passion. Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” is the legendary forefather for creating & employing this technique to it’s full intended effect while “Runaway” is the same in sharpened perfection. Kanye West cowers behind bravado as he faces a complete breakdown in his relationship and embodies his inability to communicate with a 3-minute auto-tuned outro where his inaudible warbles create this lavish soundscape of heartache that no words possibly can. 

“The Story of An Artist” - Daniel Johnston: As an artist, this song is both immensely inspirational and incredibly heartbreaking. Daniel Johnston’s lifelong psychological struggles empowered him to create tour de force works with piercing sincerity & childlike wonder and this song is a timeless treatise by an artist on what it means & feels to be one.

On your IMDB page it says you're a trained dancer. What style of dance are you trained in?

So technically I was trained later. I was actually self-trained. I taught myself through YouTube when Michael Jackson died in 2009. I saw all the tributes, and I was like 'Oh this looks cool. I could kind of do that.' I taught myself through YouTube how to moonwalk and do simple things, and then I graduated into actually training a bit, a mix of contemporary and hip hop. In high school I ended up choreographing some school dances, and along with that, we had two musicals that we did my sophomore year and senior year. We did Jesus Christ Superstar my sophomore year and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in my senior year. I got to choreograph on both of those, which was really fun. So I did some jazz choreography as well.

Do you think you'll ever do anything more along those lines in the future?

Interestingly, I think if I start going the music video route, if the concept suits me/if I don't find anyone to put in front of the camera, I can jump in. But the problem is I'm very specifically a dancer. I've tried drama and I'm horrible at it. If it's just limited to movement though, I can definitely do that. I would be interested. Currently, I'm very focused on being behind the camera and writing, that sort of stuff, but I love dancing. That's the first thing I ever really taught myself. Everything else came from somewhere else. Dancing was completely self-motivated. I did for 6 or 7 years just on my own. Our school had no facilities for dance, so I got a bunch of stuff started in school while I was there just because I wanted to do it. It was my first love basically. Even before music, dance was my first love.

What has been the most transformative experience of your life?

Do you mean something that happened to me or something that I undertook?

Something that you undertook.

Honestly, I would say dance. It was the first thing in life I pursued out of just sheer wanting to do so. If I think back to that time right now, I don't remember there ever being a reason for it. It's just something that I connected with on such a base level. I just saw it and I wanted to do it. And I did it for six years straight. With piano or music, I really had to motivate myself. But dance, I would just do it anywhere. Anywhere at all I could dance for an hour, two hours, drenched with sweat. Dance basically [inspired] my love of art and the understanding that having a work ethic can really do wonders. I went from not knowing how to dance to doing a Michael Jackson tribute solo onstage in two months. Just two months of me consistently dancing. I used to dance like 4 - 6 hours a day just on my own. Basically it gave me the understanding of a work ethic. What I realized looking back at school is that a lot of those bullshit useless assignments that they give you aren't for knowledge. It's to build a work ethic. It's to build that kind of tenacity. That's what I learned from dance. I learned that if I found the right activity, I didn't need the push. I can do that thing for the whole day. That was the most transformative experience of my life.

What is the deeper meaning behind your "Self-Censorship" photo series?

That was in the middle of college, when I was getting beaten down by college. I felt like a lot of people wanted me to produce art but behind a certain kind of boundary. If you seen "Requiem," it's not a very straightforward piece. It's very veiled. I like stuff being in layers. So the self-censorship idea came from the fact that a lot people seemed like they wanted to see my art, but it didn't seem like they wanted to see me. So, I thought, I'll make myself the art and I'll censor myself while doing it. I'm in a much different head space right now. I don't feel like that now. But it's an artistic idea I really enjoy exploring. Even right now, as a filmmaker, I can't go out and make a film. I need to either spend thousands and thousands of dollars or I need to find someone to fund my movies. So there's a certain amount of integrity that you cannot put into your projects until you either have full creative control or you have enough of a reputation to just ask for money and people just give it to you. So I always feel like, with a finance-heavy art, such as film, self-censorship is always involved to some degree. So this is kind of an exploration of that idea visually. You present yourself in your own art, but you still hide some parts of yourself. That's where it started from. I don't really post pictures of myself anymore, but if I do, I'll definitely do that.

Using an analogy, how would you describe your creative process?

In Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, the eponymous character explains the path to enlightenment to his old best friend Govinda by describing the difference between searching for it and finding it.

When you “search," you are purely goal-oriented and will be unable to observe anything else, even if it’s right in front of your eyes. Conversely, “finding" means having no goals. It means being free and opening your arms wide, accepting every entity as possibly bringing you the enlightenment you desire.

I look at my creative process the same way. Finding inspiration for a story, mood, character, scene, etc. anywhere & everywhere and letting it wash over me so I may absorb everything that my life’s experiences have to offer. Hopefully that helps me find my art & some enlightenment along the way too!

Does your poetry stem from personal experience?

Most of my poetry stems from pushing personal upheavals and traumas into emotional abstraction. They are all very specific to me, but also not specific at all. 

A lot of your poetry deals with encountering ambiguous obstacles in pursuit of a goal/dream and the new ways of being that result from that. Were these poems written with similar themes in mind? And if so, can you elaborate on how they connect? Relatedly, do you find that all the challenges you encounter creatively are along the same lines or does it vary depending on the project/time? What's the biggest challenge you've had to overcome?

All of my work borrows from my life's overarching theme - fighting an uphill battle. I come from a humble armed forces background, growing up in a small town in India with big dreams and small perspectives. Now I’m across the globe in Los Angeles, California, making film & content that I love, hopping around the world with the privilege of being a truly global citizen. 

On this journey I’ve had many battles that almost folded in defeat, before firing & pushing myself to trudge on. Since I've frequently found myself on both ends of the spectrum, some of my work amplifies that feeling of Sisyphean defeat while others gloriously bask in the light at the end of the tunnel. 

My challenges in life have varied greatly, but I’ve realized that they always felt similarly intense in the moment. At 6, it was breaking my Dad’s phone by mistake, at 11 it was shattering both my front teeth and at 17 it was being rejected from most of my top schools. Every single one of these felt like the absolute end of the world.

However, observing that life moves in such phases and having a growing database of retrospect against new stresses is one of the many pleasures of growing up. Life moves linearly…challenges come and go, so understanding that nothing can really be the "be all end all” was very crucial for me.

My biggest challenge so far has been getting used to the lack of enforced structure in my life as an independent creative. I spent most of my formative years in an all-boys boarding school where we changed into 4 different uniforms a day and had a huge Main Bell that rang across the entire campus as our de facto guide every 45 minutes. Inculcating serious self-discipline is and has been an undertaking and I am glad to be getting much better at it as of late. 

How did you shatter your front teeth?

To preface this, my baby teeth started falling out really early. So I had a full set of permanent teeth very early. This happened when I was 11 or so. My dad and I were in Dubai. We'd rented this car. We were at this market in Dubai called Gold Souk. It's blocks and blocks of jewelers basically. And all of their shops have glass fronts, very clean. They keep it very pristine. So my dad gave me five dihrams, and he said to bring him change for the parking meter. I was running. I was just an excited kid, and smashed into a glass door right in front of me. My teeth were completely shattered. I didn't have pieces. I had grains of teeth in my mouth. I thought that was the end of my life. I thought I was done. I had just grown out my full set of teeth, and I shattered the two in front. It was catastrophic for sure.

Your short films span across a wide range of genres. Is there a style of filmmaking/genre that resonates most with you?

I don’t particularly like any genre, but my affinity towards the films I like is generally defined by 4 separate characteristics: deeply conflicted characters, bold technical risk-taking, striking visuals and emotionally sincere storytelling. The greatest films for me combine all of these in varied quantities to create cinematic gold and that thankfully allows me to be selective & still enjoy a wide array of movies. Some of my favorites are 2001: A Space Odyssey, Synechdoche, New York, Wild Strawberries, The Weekend and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

What's the story behind the name Atelier Rex Leo?

I was looking for restaurants in San Francisco and stumbled across “Atelier Crenn," a deeply thoughtful establishment that feels more like an elaborate personal art installation than an eatery, run by expert Chef Dominique Crenn. They give their guests poems instead of menus for crying out loud!

“Atelier” has been used in the past to signify private studios of independent artists & designers, particularly in fine arts & fashion, but Chef Crenn’s appropriation of the word to signal her own fiercely independent, personal & artistic approach to cooking inspired me to look at all of my own work the same way. 

Hence, “Atelier Rex Leo," with “Rex Leo” being my last name translated into Latin. Having this phrase as my creative calling card almost makes it my mantra and helps keep me unwaveringly true to my personal vision in an industry that inherently functions on collaboration.

What is the most important choice you've ever made?

My high school was a private, all-boys boarding school, haircuts, uniforms, ties. It was very much like Hogwarts, except no magic and no girls. It's a very posh, corporate kind of school. Most of the people from that school are like doctors, lawyers, politicians. In the late 90s, The Economist conducted a survey of the world's most powerful alumni and our high school placed second after Harvard Business School. It's one of those schools where the people aren't that famous, but they run banks and companies and stuff. So when I was in that school, I was just doing economics. Dance was my activity. The school gave me the freedom to do it because I was talented in that, but when it came to academics, everyone did business or economics or some form of engineering.

I'd always-- even when I was dancing --had a passion for something visual. I just never, ever did it. So when I was getting my acceptances from colleges, I didn't know anything about film. I didn't even understand the basic rules of photography. And I just decided I needed to go to film school.

I had gotten into USC under an undeclared major. I looked it up, and it had the world's number one film school and you had to apply to it when you went there. I had the decision between Yale-NUS, a college in Singapore that's a collaboration with Yale and the National University of Singapore (I had gotten a full ride there under economics), and USC. I had to decide whether to take this prestigious economics degree at face value, or go to USC and try to get into film without ever having done it. And I think biting that bullet was the most important choice I ever made.

Again, that self-motivation from dance kicked in. I was sitting with my camera and a camera book, reading for like 4, 5, 6 hours a day, figuring out how it works. It was a snap decision. From my high school class, there are two people that did art degrees: me and my roommate who came to USC as well. He started in computer science, and I started in economics. Now he's doing game design and I'm doing film. We both, at some point were like, we have to do this, otherwise there will be a part of us that's empty forever.

What made you decide to pursue film despite never having made a film before?

My dad used to be an actor. He still kind of is; whenever he wants a job, he'll go audition and stuff like that. But he started trying to be an actor in the '80s. This is in Bollywood in India. He got his first really big break around '93 or '94. Essentially, he was sleeping on the floor for like fourteen years, doing nothing, alone. But there's something about his adoration [of it].

I've always watched movies with my dad, and I've always been a very visual person. The first time my dad told me he realized I had some kind of a flair was when I was five or six. We were watching the first Ice Age. There's this scene where they're walking through this frozen cave, and Sid (the sloth) reaches a point in the cave, and gets scared by something that's frozen in the ice. The shot pulls out, and it shows that there's a series of creatures frozen in the ice leading up to Sid. And he said that I pointed out that they basically showed evolution in that one shot. It was just a three second thing that they put in. He said he noticed that even though my motivations earlier lay in music and dance, I was always primarily a visual person.

My visual observations and constructions were preternatural. I've always had a good sense of symmetry and design. In high school, people always used to ask me to pack for them because we had a limitation on how many bags we could carry, but somehow I could fit more stuff inside a bag, because I understood size and how things went together. There's always been a visual undertone to almost everything I do. I think that just kind of lit up and some point. When I started watching films at the end of school, that's when I was like "this is what I want to do." The movie that triggered me to consider film seriously was The Artist in 2012. I was like, "that's some movie magic." One thing led to another, and I was like, I just have to do it.

Both "The Fringes" and the music video you directed for CID x Anabel Englund "Use Me Up" could be seen as a critique on corporate capitalism. Do you consider yourself to be anti-establishment?

I can see how some of my films could be taken as Anti-Establishment, but they are honestly not so. They are not even really political. Truth be told, I don’t have much faith in the organic occurrence of massive top-down structural changes in a Government or Country. This is the economist in me speaking, but there are too many invisible hands moving too much money around for any change to come from there.

However, what I do really believe in is the ability for us, the people, to enhance our collective conscience and move beyond these things. In that vein, I would definitely call my films “Pro-Human” instead of “Anti-Establishment”.

I’m not looking to dismantle any system, as much as looking to show how much good we can still strive for, despite our global framework generally helping the more privileged while oppressing those with inherently less to their name. 

Images used in collage c/o Agni Raj Singh


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