Quarantine Q&A with Mohar Kalra

Updated: Jul 17, 2020

Greetings again folks.

This week we have another Quarantine Q&A with the excellent Mohar Kalra. We released Mohar's incredible book Novelty in June last year, and if you haven't picked up a copy yet, go grab a copy from our online store now!

We checked in with Mohar to see what he's up to amid the pandemic. Enjoy!


GC: How have you been finding lockdown so far?

MK: Honestly, I really lucked out. I moved back home with my family in New Jersey once the quarantine began mid-March. My town is small enough that there’s nowhere really to go anyway except outside so it hasn’t been too much of an adjustment to stay home. And we’re sparsely populated enough that going out for a walk or a bike ride doesn’t pose much of a risk either so I’ve been able to get some time outside, change of scenery and whatnot whenever I’ve needed it.

Especially in the first month or so, maybe in a bit of a perverse way, I actually appreciated that I could slow down for a bit as time froze and all deadlines didn’t matter, because who knew what was going to happen? It gave me a lot of time to just recalibrate, take a breath and spend a lot of quality time with my family for the first time since high school really. Obviously, I’m really fortunate that things worked out that way for me, as so many people have really been hit hard these last couple months.

How are you keeping yourself occupied? Are you managing to continue your studies?

Since most in-person engineering lectures consist of a professor talking at you alongside a PowerPoint, that experience actually translated into the online format pretty well. And the great thing about online lectures is that you can tune in without your audio or camera on in Zoom. So, I was able to use lecture time to draw!

I’ve been working on a big project Close Up which I’ll describe a little more later on, and I’ve also been trying to force myself to slow down a bit more. I’ve realized that, if I allow myself to get absorbed in a project, especially with quarantine, I’ll end up deep in a rabbit hole of work and I’ll forget to come out for air. So, I’ve been trying to give myself more time to spend outside in the nature reservation in my town, go biking, call friends etc. I love calling people because it’s always very intimate but also pretty low-pressure. You can talk for a lot longer than you would usually be able to in person when we’re all so busy.

Have you taken up any new hobbies since lockdown began?

My little sister recently got me a Ukulele which is exciting! Unfortunately, I have absolutely no clue how to play it. My fingers are very clumsy, so that hopefully will evolve into a hobby I can say I’ve taken up by the end of the summer.

I’ve also just been using the time to just brainstorm more for different projects. Considering how much time we’ve been spending online, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on arty technology projects I could work on that might either humanize the digital worlds we’re in, or alternatively draw us back into the real world. For better or worse, our Zoom culture provides a lot of fodder for new ideas about our relationship to technology, and coming up with the idea is half the fun of any project!

It's almost been a year since novelty was released! Feels like only yesterday somehow. Have you worked on anything since then, comics or otherwise?

Yeah! It’s been a weird year for me productivity-wise. I had been working on a couple much bigger projects, one of which was Close Up, before the quarantine happened, and so while I was working, I wasn’t really finishing anything which made me feel far less productive than I may have actually been. But it’s also been a bit of a year to try and wean my self-worth off of my productivity. It’s been a process to say the least but I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to chip away at that.

As I said, I’ve been working on a few more tech-oriented art projects. So, before Covid, alongside Close Up, I was working on an AR installation where you move through space populated with virtual models, but you can’t see them until you “touch” them and only the part you touch becomes visible. I’ve been noticing how our main interface to the reality around us is our vision and from there we infer the physicality of everything filling in the world. I wanted to challenge our reliance on vision and the predefined interfaces that mediate our lives by offering touch as the participant’s primary access point to the world. This project has been on hold since quarantine because I was working on it at a lab on campus, but I’ve been building off those ideas for some other projects!

Last month I built a pair of Goggles out of two SLR camera bodies and lenses. You’ve got to manually focus to see anything and, if you move your head, electronics in the headset will completely obscure your vision for a second. I wanted to created a vision apparatus that is profoundly difficult to see out of. You can’t really build a sense of 3D space without being able to fully survey your surroundings from multiple angles, and so I wanted to create an experience where you’re forced to view the world almost as a 2-D canvas comprised of only form and color and detail, rather than recognizable objects. It’s heavily inspired by the ideas of Stan Brakhage.

Can you tell us a little more about Close Up? How did it begin?

Speaking of profoundly difficult experiences, Close Up has been my crazy little comics project for the past year! I came up with the idea last June and started drawing in November and it’s going to be a pain to read, which is the point I guess. It’s a 10-page long comic printed on newspaper broadsheet size paper (so probably closer to 60-70 mini-comic pages) and it is largely non-sequential. Each page is filled with images and text and content, but there is no clear reading order or chronology of images. There’s a loose chronology to the pages overall and all of the content is thematically linked but it’s a hodgepodge, kind of like memory being recalled. So, whether you read the full comic or skim it, you shouldn’t be able to get any fuller a picture compared to the next person because there is no full picture to get. It’s up to you the reader to string together a narrative and causality out of the pieces I’m providing.

Now what I’m excited about, and will piss readers off, is that I’m going to build the comic so that it locks open when you open it and you can only close this inconveniently large book by individually flipping through every page. (I’m only going to make one or two copies of this I think. It’s for my amusement more than anything). Ultimately, I want to make the book an uncomfortable reading experience but also one where you, the reader, dictate the narrative as a metaphor for the process of moving through difficult periods in life. For me personally, if I’m feeling down or in a funk, I often need to just sift through everything I remember doing or feeling in the past couple days and construct a narrative of why I’m feeling the way I feel – why something feels wrong – and that’s the process I want to mimic with the book.

As of this writing, I’ve finally finished all the pages and am about to start building the actual book mechanism!

Before the pandemic kicked off, you were able to attend some festivals such as SPX and MICE. Will you attend more shows once normality returns?

I’m not sure. I loved SPX and MICE and met so many awesome creators but I want to make sure I have some new material to show when I’m there. Close Up isn’t the kind of thing I can imagine selling much of at a con because of how niche it is and how labor intensive it is to produce. So, it’s really a question of what I’m producing by the time we come out the other side. But, in theory, I definitely hope to attend more festivals in the future, though maybe not the immediate future.

Do you have any parting hints or tips for people - creative or otherwise - to help them in this weird time?

I’d say it has helped for me to actively try and reconnect with the parts of my life and my work that I really enjoy – that parts I’d choose to keep around now that I’m removed from the expectations and the pace of the outside world. I’ve personally really appreciated having the time to just get completely lost in new ideas for the first time in several months. I don’t know what if anything is going to come of them, but for the time being it doesn’t really matter too much. We don’t know how long the weird will last, but I think for a lot of us this quarantine has forced us to reevaluate whether or not we’re ok with the status quo of our lives and of our communities (read: most of the United States, racially, economically, you name it) up till this point. And we have the time now to reorient and consider what we want to build upon and what we want to rebuild as we move forward.


Thanks Mohar!

You can check out more of Mohar's engineering and comics work on his website and Instagram.