How does a moderately sensitive-progressive person feel if on an uneventful evening, walking along a footpath in a canonical Indian city, she encounters a figure frantically running across her path? Startled? If it then registers that the running figure is of a woman in a burqa, then astonishment, excitement and premonition? By the time the viewer probably notices that the runner’s legs are in fact bare under her chador, she might have gone too far away for the cause of her distress to be investigated. A panting, fleeing, distraught image of a burqa-clad woman: one of the most acceptable visual stereotypes representing violence-generated distress for the sensitive-progressive mind, which now keeps wondering: Riot? Rape? Domestic abuse? Mass-massacre? Madness? An about-to-be missed train?
Daminee Benny Basu’s performance work Project Stereotype II – premiered on March 5th at the brand-new dance/movement-oriented festival in Kolkata curated by the newly-formed contemporary art hub ‘Pickle Factory’ – is about this run. Maybe not ‘about’, rather the performance is the run – suggesting narratives and realities around itself, solely through this single action/movement strategy. But which of the several suggested realities do we hold on to? The source of confusion seems to exist at a breach of clarity between the Performer and the Performed.
Project Stereotype II is a bold work created by a strong performer that raises critique against patriarchal oppression as well as discussions on performing forms; it experiments how familiar actions and icons can be pushed ever so slightly to create immense ‘discomfort’ by provoking the viewers a little, measuring “the impact of unpreparedness” – as an audience member put it. It seems, in raising so many intense, experimental points, the ‘project’ slightly loses its thread, despite its strict and effective adherence to simplicity of physical form: a principal movement strategy of continuous running around a bare space, a single musical loop, a body – Benny’s own, a simple suggestive costume: the incomplete burqa, and minimalistic shadowy lighting, as if to indicate the entrails of an unhelpful habitat.
The choreographic intent behind this work – using the body as an agent of critique through repetitive, self-violating actions in ‘public space’, is in the league of the ‘Performance Art’ genre that formally came into existence in India in the 1970s. Benny does not have qualms about her being a Performance Artist; it is also clear in her method: physical and emotional submission to the often adverse consequences of her premise of running in a burqa for an hour. She improvises with fatigue, sweat, pain, fall, weight of the shoe, lack of oxygen due to the hijab, repeated tackling of the upward slope, an audience comprising of known and unknown faces offering reactions as varied as boredom, sarcasm, bewilderment, suffocation, empathy…none less difficult to tackle than the rest. The hard work on the artist’s part is quite visible here.
During its advent in India, Performance Art primarily held hands (and sometimes cut-off fingers such as Performance Artist Inder Salim’s) with visual and theater artists. Though the “Performance Artist’s body is her studio”, not too many artists from the background of body-oriented disciplines have intentionally taken to this form. Given that, it is of an immediate interest to the contemporary dance-audience to find Benny’s work curated in a festival that precisely explores movement-oriented performances.
Let me take a moment here to roughly define what Performance Art is. It is a willful statement embodied (as against simply verbally stated) with a critical underlying thought, performed by means of physical improvisation and installations in a partially non-narrative manner; certainly not staged, has a deep and often discomforting affect; strongly against capitalization of art – therefore preferably ‘happening’ in public spaces, resisting the exclusivity of art in enclosures facilitating un-accessibility at various levels; denies all elitist/expensive prerequisites of making, distributing and appreciating art. Now, for experimental and practical reasons, Performance Art does not technically necessitate the presence of real bodies in real public space. But Benny’s work claims to be precisely that, so, let us talk about that.
Space, Mind-space and Time
An obvious dispersion in Benny’s work from this understanding of Performance Art is in the choice of space for this showcasing. How far does a space like this facilitate artistic inclusivity? Pickle Factory Season 1 performance gallery is interestingly a former ‘public space’ – an abandoned movie theater named Gem Cinema in Entally. Presently it is a spectacular art-hub, but fairly un-accessible in economic and cultural terms. The festival itself is not limited to but certainly targeted at a filtered audience. This filtering lies in the manner not only Pickle Factory but most urban contemporary art curatorial collectives in India design their sponsorship and publicity goals and artist-audience interactions; it possibly also lies in their physical and intellectual distancing from the art-world lying beyond a classed circle. But it is not the festival, rather what this work implicates when placed in this festival is of interest. And nobody can deny that it is an interesting work curated in an interesting space.
Even the Performance Artist, abhorring all exclusiveness in art in theory, has to make work and eat, allow herself certain comforts in order to meet her creative requirements, and earn herself a paycheck every now and then. Question is, whether the purpose of Performance Art ends there, or whether the politic of the work begins only beyond that. How far does an artist like Benny, whose work banks on a mutual exploration of ‘discomfort’ by the artist and the audience, allows discomfort to creep into her own reality of an art-maker practicing Performance Art?
She says, however much she would like her protagonist to run in the streets (so-to-speak the ‘real public spaces’), getting permission from the authorities is next to impossible. True indeed; and unsafe as well. It is not coincidental that only a handful of women artists are in this game. Most work with film or other visual media, where they do not have to risk audience-hostility. What stops an urban upper/middle class artist (as most Indian Performance Artists are) from taking the leap of ‘claiming the public space’, which is seemingly easily taken by street-performers from the so-called lower social groups or even political protesters who are performers of a sort as well? Why is an art-work deemed safe and sanctioned to some, only when the provision comes from power-holding certified institutions? Coming to think of it, one wonders, what is more difficult in today’s heavily privatized art-distribution industry! An artist getting enrolled in a large-scale art-fest that ensures the paycheck, safety and permission for reproducing copies of a certain realness, or adjusting oneself into that realness while being deprived of such comforts? Maybe the real risk also lies in the fact that the really unprepared public might even completely ignore the performance, not even jeer assuming a prank. And how does an artist deal with that rejection?
So, I am sitting at the performance for over twenty minutes now, watching the run – intrigued, but slightly confused. There is something marginally unconvincing about the jog – a disconnect; perhaps the Performer has perfected her running-skill too well, but the woman being Performed need not have done so – or am I stereotyping? Suddenly without a warning, my tear-ducts begin to get active. I silently weep for some time with no specific thought. It is expected, as I let myself settle into the routine of repetitive expression of pain well-enacted by the Performer. This catharsis is the reward especially available to me – an audience-member in a contract of time and mind-space with the artist. A fellow-audience once observed that often the shows curated in art-fests demanded not just money, not always, but the equally expensive time and mind-space that the performers could take for granted in such guarded spaces. The real public space is not so. Even our sensitive-progressive person walking on the footpath – unprepared to be moved, unrelated to the running figure in any way other than ‘chance’ – would not part with time and mind-space half as easily as she might part with her money in helping the runner out, if it comes to that.
Let us now look at where this performance is taking place in an objective sense. The newly contemporized avatar of Gem Cinema, incidentally placed in one of the ‘Muslim-areas’ in Kolkata – largely accommodating a working-class population. Perhaps, as we watch Benny’s show, such a run is taking place in one of those lanes in the surrounding area, or in the head of one of the inhabitants out there!
Inside, the Performer is accompanied by Islamic chant: certain Surahs that address pious Muslim women, instructing to cover themselves except in front of a selected few. Old, war-time precautions turned into norms today in the name of religiosity, practiced by factions of Muslim community; but practiced as vehemently by factions of ‘Hindu’ community in the same name of religiosity and social norms. Benny’s critique is a painfully relevant one in the context of Indian women, and not only Muslim women. Is the burqa just a symbol here? But when the form itself is so political by definition, does the artist not owe us an explanation for making use of socio-politically significant symbols?
Not just space, this ‘project’ is premiered at a significant point in time as well: the communal forces in India at a horrific-high; the confusion of whether or not to support the politicized and appropriated but painfully relevant agenda of banishment of triple talaq; wars in the ‘Muslim world’, xenophobia in the West – and the reflection of all that within ourselves; and all this while, the never-diminishing patriarchal violence on Indian women – domestic, public, legal, economic, irrespective of caste, religion, age; the protests being snubbed, suspected, sabotaged, financialized…
This line of thought may now land us at the political stereotype of what is popularly insulted as liberal guilt!
Mystified Icon = Stereotype?
So let it. Because, placed in this specific time and land unsuitable for experimenting with communal icons without a real investment in it, the choice of this stereotyped symbol of burqa is precarious beyond liberal guilt, lest it falls in the hands of the appropriators – common facilitators of communalism and patriarchy – divide, hierarchy and violence. Let is, because this work leaves me struggling to look for subjectivity, for ‘subtextual obligation’ of art; because, the Performer, in her formal abstraction of pain through pre-planned, skillful, sleek performativity, leaves the Performed as an undefined, generic, mystified object away from herself. The only visible clues – the burqa and the nakedness underneath – can indicate various narratives. Without knowing the right one, the ‘used’ icon paves a path for a wider gap in understanding, who the work is speaking for! An art-work, which is an ally to the struggle against patriarchy, must think of clarifying its stance, as it should clarify the matter of ethical agency and ownership behind its scheme of artistic representation of icons. Especially so, if that icon is a socio-political stereotype – such as a burqa, lest the artistic representation unscrupulously ends up justifying the stereotyping.
The betrayal on the Performer’s part cuts deep, since it is this icon and this jumbled rush of mixed emotions around the subtexts under the icon, where this work most heavily draws its intended ‘discomfort’ from, and not from simply performing the solo act of running – however heart-wrenching and cathartic an act it is. When in the burqa – half-naked and full of fear, as Benny says she is in the beginning of the show – even though she is running alone, she is not on her own. There are real people represented by that icon accompanying her, aiding the effect her work aspires.
Prank versus Form?
Funny thing is, there is always a possibility that the Performer is aware of all this! And that is where Performance Art is a very distinctly interesting form in a Mad-Hatter manner. It can totally live with being problematically, obscurely funny. In its mission to intensely criticize and ridicule, it sometimes deliberately acts blind to its interpreted effects, to its own ridiculousness. Jonathan Jones writes in The Guardian: “Performance art is funny for a very simple reason – it takes itself more seriously than appears justified”. He further writes: “…when the gap between ostentatious importance and self-evident silliness is as vast as it is in so much performance art, the only honest response is laughter. Add to this the pomposity of an art cult that defends such stuff against the mockery of the multitude, and you have a recipe for biting satire. […]what else so perfectly captures the cultural inanity of our time?” So perhaps, ‘screwing with the audience’s head’ is a conscious choice on Performance Artist Benny’s part…?
But Benny’s content is set apart from just another Performance Art piece, say, Martin Creed’s Work No. 850 (Performers running past an ‘unprepared’ audience in art galleries) by the fact that something larger and more violent than ‘how art should be viewed in an art gallery’ is at stake here. And that sets Benny apart as a Performance Artist, on top of the potentiality of bravery that her work contains as a Performance Art venture taken by an Indian woman movement-practitioner. So one wonders, if in the coming shows, this powerful actor will choose to clarify the stance of this work, placing it at a space and time that she subjectively belongs to, instead of criticizing from the fringes. Probably then, the Performer and the Performed would together embody a critique to a larger audience who would have a real stake in the ‘risk’ that this work proposes.
Marilyn Arsem specifies in her manifesto on Performance Art that the Performance Artist must take physical as well as psychic risk. Dutifully following that necessity, for the sake of protest through Performance Art, Performer Inder Salim’s left little finger might still be lurking under the mud of the dead Yamuna river, being remembered as an interesting but ineffective art-world gossip in the context of reaping of rivers – remembered by a filtered audience of art-watchers, a filtered readership of art-history. To what avail? Perhaps that question is unnecessary for an artist, unlike say, for a social worker. One is, of course, inclined to disagree. Rather, one hopes that Project Stereotype II does not remain a fond memory of an intense mini-marathon in the history and politics of contemporary performances in India.
(Madhusree Basu is a dancer and co-editor of Aainanagar magazine)