This is an edited version of a proposal I wrote for the India Foundation for the Arts in 2006.
The budget and time break up for Labels
This project is now at the execution. For the past one and a half years I have been conceptualizing and that process has led to a theoretical paradigm that hinges on identity and is played out in the Indian nation state context within the rubric of a democracy built on the foundation of cultural pluralism, and in the world at large as an understanding of identity in a dialectic with freedom (individual, religious, communal and substantive)
In many senses this project’s idea is not new. It is in fact what tired academics everywhere have been battling for with each onslaught of the right or of an erasure brought about by the global media. Again and again however, these ideas need to be reinforced for an individual to attain both freedom and mobility, away from the forces of fundamentalism, chauvinism, colonization, imperialism and bigotry.
‘Labels’ operates in an interesting linguistic sphere. The name itself is a vacuum. It’s an English word that could mean anything. A label is like a container, one in which an identity can filled in. It’s an empty signifier, which allows for multiple cultural connotations, linguistic and cultural differences.
The process so far.
The process within the Fine Arts Faculty where I’d begun he work hinged around discussion and the stories came from these (sometimes one to one) discussions. These stories were of a girl who’d undergone sexual harassment by her tuition teacher as a child, of a boy who gets rebuked for being interested in feminine arts in the boys’ hostel where he stays, etc.
I remember that personal interactions were the most vital when it came to the making of any real art-work. Within the group synergies were mixed and people were sometimes antagonistic towards me, the woman acting as boss. And also because this was an experiment and I didn’t always know where it would take us. It is really crucial in collaboration to work with people who are willing to try things out. And I develop steady work relationships with interested people who I meet online or physically.
On, the internet most pages I have set-up provide the sort of interaction you could have in a chat list about a specific issue, for example Racism in post colonial countries, for which I’ve set up a community called ‘Unfair’ on Orkut.com. Orkut.com is a networking portal, and currently, around 12% of its members are Indian. People, mostly young come here to meet other young people, seeking friendship, romance and the kind of encounters that the internet, with its anonymity and lack of social surveillance can give you. But it isn’t just about meeting and greeting. The site allows for you to share and synergise with people who think alike, and has a huge number of burgeoning communities on various concerns like sustainable livelihood, design, street children, etc. The reason I chose Orkut is because of the sheer number of Indians on it.
The other site is the domain of blogs, what is known as the blogosphere, linguistically dominated by English but also catering to Hindi, Urdu now even languages like Tamil and Kannada. Blogs are free web –based portals and function on the basis of the development of communities around themselves and other blogs.
The reason I think that this project will function well on the internet is that the narratives will be played out like reality TV, and the stories will have people curious to know what is going to happen next. The build up for all the narratives will be pitched dramatically and my participants, along with receiving encouragement and an audience to narrate their tale to will also have people advising and interacting with them about their specific context and its complexities.
I propose to employ many forms of story telling from magic realist to science fiction, blending these with real life facts and truths about community attitudes and unearth histories that connect to the performer/collaborator’s life as an individual.
Meeting collaborators will be online through communities and groups as well as through presentations at colleges and spaces where I can arrange for performances and presentations. Discussions and interactive questionnaires about the project will initiate people into the social implications of the work. This process will then be taken online for those who use the internet in order to facilitate interaction. For those who don’t have access to the internet (and I hope to be able to reach out to as many people as possible), there will be public discussions and I will engage media like the news and radio .All these interventions will be designed depending upon the stage of involvement that the project demands, in whatever phase it is in at that given point in time.
The community called Unfair on Orkut now has 11 people, three or four of whom are really active. The steady aim of this community is decolonization, and when the people on it are firstly educated and enthusiastic enough to try out an online performative event, and then we work it out. Unfair is just one of these communes. I run a google-group and two other communities on Orkut to find interested people. Right now the focus is with Unfair.
The other communities are, ‘Whose Body’ and ‘Changing Indian Education’. Whose Body is a community to create awareness about bodily experience, the second ‘Labels’ concern. After a consciousness of identity comes the phenomenological experience of an embodied identity. The principal aim here is to puncture and destroy the mind body dichotomy, which I think is the stepping stone towards the development of Eastern Sciences again, after the blow that both western science and medicine has given them. Once bodily experience and consciousness is investigated, only then empowerment is possible, because existence is seen more as a whole. The body bears memory of oppression and violence (physical and sexual), denial and starvation. To free and heal it is to develop healthy attitudes of sex and sexuality, of freedom, life and morality. Corporeal experience is mediated today by all forms of technology. My performers with their vital online parts will investigate how they can traffic their labels online, utilizing the freedom and space that cyberspace allows. Their performances will be documented on the blog, under a chronicle of events.
The third community is called Changing Indian Education and herein the focus will be on channelizing my concerns into educational initiatives that are for diversity and the development of knowledge resources in this part of the world. This community is an idea tank or a think tank for rethinking Indian education along the ideas that we’ve been thinking about in the other communities.
Estimated time for narrative creation: 4 months. An approximate of six(including me) narrative tales all complete with all complete with their tropes and scale. Identities to be examined closely are the feminine in general (no specificities yet but I’m keen on minority and post colonial histories of women), Muslim, Dalit identities and Adivasi or tribal identities. For now these are the identities that I’m aware of that bear a history of conflict with the nation state and its mainstream nationalist rhetoric. The reason for bringing in Dalit and Adivasi identities is to destabilize both institutionalized religion and modernity. I understand that there are many more others that play at the margins and put up a threat to established tradition, Sufis, bairagis, Bhakti saints…lets see how many of these permutations I can work with. I’m open to all of them. In a more global context the emphasis will be on women and the feminine, on the Islamic identity and its changing faces, and on racial and historical ‘others’ (such as the Blacks).
I draw from Matthew Barney, noted American artists’ view on myth and narrative. In an interview for the PBS series Art 21 , he says about Cremaster 3, third in a five part cyclical film/sculpture series,
It’s also about taking on a mythological structure and then imposing an internal logic on it. Like if you were inside the stomach and esophagus, you’d probably say that same thing about somebody throwing up. You’d say, “Wow, the stomach is heroic for getting that mutant material out.” In other words, it is about taking a structure that’s mythological and putting it into a frame that’s more about something doing what it’s compelled to do, there to do. So a lot of my work has to do with not allowing my characters to have an ego in a way that the stomach doesn’t have an ego when it’s wanting to throw up. It just does it. But it could also be looked at from a heroic, mythological angle for sure.”
The process of narrative creation is played out like a game with many levels. These are the levels I’ve thought out up until now:
People enter the project, through ‘Identify Yourself’, where they’re asked who they are. I’ve tried and succeeded with two such events. One at my studio here in Baroda where I had twelve people over and asked them to answer the question on my blog, and the other at Bangalore at the College of Fine Art where I studied. Online this event was posted on the Sarai Reader List, an e-mailing list run by the Sarai collective of CSDS (Center For Study of Developing Societies), for which I received at least 12 responses. I posted on another list, bringing ‘Identify Yourself’ to Bombay, with a list for women in the media called nwmmumbai(Network of Women in Media, Mumbai), but my post was not relayed. On orkut this event didn’t draw any takers.
But the event is going to go through a lot of variations with different sets of audiences being asked who they are. The estimated time frame for events such as Identify Yourself are dependant on the level of participation I’m able to achieve. For Identify Yourself this is 1 month.
The next step is a questionnaire centered around locating the person in The Grid. Lines of enquiry are where and how are you, when was the first time in your life when you felt you belonged to a certain gender…the emphasis is on drawing out a person’s past so that instances from her/his life can be cast in narratives.
Participants are then lead to a level called the ‘Zone of Pure Choice’ where we trash out new labels from the stories and personal histories. The emphasis here is on choice as the defining factor of your label.
From thereon we move towards ‘Trafficking Labels’ where my team of participants will be wearing their new garb/label and showing up in online performances. This is the stage where my character, Screen Sifar, the Abominable Eagle is now. Simultaneous to Trafficking Labels is the garment that we will work on for her or him. In physical performances s/he will be seen with this insignia. Online we will depict her or his avatar through pictures and motifs which could be a line or a characteristic statement. Presence can be shown online in different technical ways. On blogs you are allowed a picture, some sites have widgets that show who has been there. These are mostly on the blogosphere. Through e-mails and mailing lists, performative experiments can also be carried out.
Puncturing Labels is the next phase where the monolithic identity we have set up is strategically faced up with an ‘other’. This is a performative confrontation, a challenge to the participants’ identity, a zone of conflict. These conflicts will be engineered by me theoretically and physically, in the form of a performative dialogue. This is going to be solely on the blog, www.whosebody.wordpress.com (for now that’s how I’ve thought it out).I have endured these tests personally in confronting alternative sexualities and alternative religious others. Often the results are a relief in being able to ease one’s frustration with one’s ilk. But the stresses and questions these encounters raise are huge.
This process is structured around rediscovery, affirmation, othering and then negotiation, towards looking at identity as an outwardly evolving spiral.
The next part of the project, ‘Kiska Jism?’ or ‘Whose Body?’ is workshopping with the body using dance and movement. A major part of these narratives will be with people from Gujarat so the workshopping will be in Baroda (ideally) or Ahmedabad.
Production: the overview
This phase is the culmination of Labels in performances, and the actual clothes line, ‘Kiska Jism?’
This clothes line will be a bearer of the project’s stories. I want to create a clothes line because I want there to be translatable market oriented end for this project, because it is about indigenous production and stepping up thought in these directions. This is where art meets design towards workable sustainable development.
As an artist I want to employ the tools of design in the entire project. Be it fashion design or graphic design. The difference between art and design lies in art’s ability to think out of the box and design’s capability to think within it. This work employs design for many aspects such as performance, scenography, graphic design for the net, information design, communication design and most importantly social design using thought pattern generation in my internet communities.
I like working with minds. In our mediated cyberspace encounters led by the English language, my future collaborators and I try to translate our aims and ambitions, our needs, our hopes and disappointments through language patterns that are discernible, mostly. What I can see here are nodal spaces for creating awareness and interrogating deeper more intense and friendlier forms of existence. Someone wants to make a song, someone writes a poem, someone else will be willing, I’m sure to give this more thought and time.
I cannot create for Indians without engaging with spaces that are outside of my computer and studio. Because I’m so impaired by my education that I need to continuously translate for my myself and my mind where I am and how different my mental spaces are from those of the world outside.
The internet thus is the ideal audience for my work because I know that the average middle class Indian with some exposure can access a blog and is capable of interacting with it. That gives me hope of translatability of media for myself and my audience.
A large part of our lives is led just consuming and desiring, space, money, sex, love…If there could be a medium today where you’re asked to sit up and do something else, then it is the internet, just for the possibilities of communication that it offers for meeting and conversing, with so many different people.
A large part of the ground for Labels has been laid on the blog http://www.whosebody.wordpress.com, and all the links that go along with it. The blog is a multi level space stretching out into core concerns about identity and globalization.
Workshopping and Performances
The performances will also be played out on the blog, at spaces on the internet, and in real physical spaces chosen by me and the performers.
I haven’t laid a structure for the performances. They will be based on the performer’s story and comfort level.
First, the story.
The drafted story of the performer will be put on desk for us to create a script or storyboard.
Performance in this project is an act that empowers a person to see his or her condition differently. To espouse and overcome one’s bodily angst is freeing both physically and mentally. These acts cannot be defined using language because the process of performance has with it the potential to liberate far more than intellectualization does.
Depending on the tale we have to tell, the two of us will choose a location, and a medium in which we will document the performance.
This is however, a rough framework and a list of media we will be employing.
A large part of performance raw material I expect to develop while workshopping with the participants. This process consists of exercises that draw from the form of dance therapy practiced by Tripura Kashyap (Dance therapy, recognized as a distinct therapeutic discipline since the 1940s, attempts to unlock our bodies’ capacity to communicate through the use of creative movements, by getting people to move freely and allowing them to develop their own body language, it aims to reveal hidden emotions and begins the process of self-expression*)
Dance therapy is a personalized exercises in which the trainer, on being aware of the patient’s history (mental and physical) designs exercises with which s/he can work, in order to heal. The movement, its pace and rhythm, and kinesthetic variations are all decided depending on the patients’ state of health and well-being.
In this case since I want to use dance therapy and performance both as means of healing. I expect my performers and collaborators to draw inspiration and cathartic healing from both acts, thereby leading to a resolution of their angst related to identity.
The work with the body is a means of engaging with bodily survival strategies, such as self defence, drawing personal boundaries, building self esteem, thinking out of the box, learning to connect to one’s inner voice and rebuilding natural mechanisms such as sensitivity towards colour, touch, using forms of expression of the body itself like emotion, voice and finally, movement.
The work with performance in Trafficking Labels is about making public or known something that is hidden or people refuse to acknowledge, like for me, wearing the hijab in a gathering accentuates and affirms my being Muslim. To some people this could be a performative gesture in the sense that they perceive me as Muslim woman first and thereby react to me with that frame in mind. This brings light their own attitudes towards Muslims (in this state particularly they are very negative), and towards women.
This process obviously has a dual purpose, firstly for the performer; it’s a means of first espousing, and then coming out with his or her angst. This process therefore briefly gives him or her a sense of perspective over it.
The second impact to be brought out by means of costume is having that person engage with the history of his or her identity, in a public space so that s/he can face, and confront all the perceptions that underlie it. Because it’s an act of performance that is not so stated, people who are watching are often forced to react in a way that would draw their attention to that identity.
A large part of the purpose of this work being located here in Gujarat is to address fundamentalisms of religion in their damaging attitude towards difference, and towards the body.
My work with the body is specifically directed towards healing for many of the victims of sexual violence in 2002.All of this work may not be performative, but it will feed my (and any other participants from among the women if they come up and want to perform) work with identity and its history in India and specifically this state. But I do not want its scope to be registered just as this but to widen to include all identities in conflict, or identities that bear a history of discrimination (ethnic or racist).
I’m still trying to locate physical spaces for workshopping and performance. The spaces I’ve marked out so far are Himmat,a chaali in Ahmedabad called Kasai ki Chaali. Through an NGO in Baroda called Kaumi Magaz(A group providing legal aid to displaced victims of 2002),I will be also working in rural districts of Gujarat.
General workshops with participants will take place in Ahmedabad, Baroda, and in Bangalore if I can afford and arrange the travel. In one or two sessions I want to mix victims of sexual violence with other victims of oppression in order to create a space for sharing. But I feel that victims of sexual violence need to be dealt with in a separate space. I will give the participants of the project a choice about this.
Bodies are not ahistorical. They carry with them the memory of a generation, coded information of all that the mind has seen, felt, done and digested. Writing about new directions in Indian Dance, choreographer Chandralekha says “If our so-called ‘traditions are largely superficial post-colonial ‘inventions’ which subsume genuine experience and accumulation of the past, with its treasure house of complex and holistic concepts of body/energy/aesthetics, then our so-called modernity has turned out to be a movement that privileged the bourgeois self, enabling an elite aesthetic to distort and de-eroticise the real and liberating energies of the body.
By a workshop I mean an interaction and physical work with movement and movement therapy.
Workshopping will have to be carried out at different levels. Once I have a list of likely collaborators I will chalk out dates and times when they and I can get together to workshop. Logistically difficult collaborations with people across the country will have to be managed over the internet. But the actual performers will need physical work-shopping. The performances will be scripted based on the level that the participant is dealing with in her or his tryst with identity. The workshop will be based on that level and I will try to achieve breakthroughs of thought and experience using the body as a tool. This process will flow into performance when she or he is ready to take it to that level, within the time frame of the project.
Commitment will be demanded of the participants in this project who wish to take their involvement to this level. I expect a written confirmation and commitment of time.
The workshop space will be structured around the following points
- An awareness of the body
- Claiming/reclaiming the body
- Exercises for freedom
- Exercises for healing
- Exerting resistance: creating boundaries, defences and protection
- Bringing it out: through the body, telling its own tale.
- And this last one is an attempt and search; Uncovering the experience of an embodied identity. Asking and answering whether the history that someone is bearing affects her or his movement, her body.
The media we use for performance and documentation are dependant on the privacy level and comfort level of the participant/collaborator. Proscenium performances require a concerted effort and are difficult for non performers. I expect to achieve a natural flow from workshop to performance.
I want to work a lot with non-proscenium or non stage based performances except with performances which I imagine for the stage or a gallery with scenographic and narrative detail. Documentation will be in photography and video. Not all of these performances are for a live audience. With a performer who is not ready to face an audience, for example, we will set it up and record it on video, and the video will be the product of the work. Two or three performances will be excerpted form each story. And then, bringing characters and protagonists together to create collaborative performances will also be explored.
Even in using very exposing media like video and photography there can be ways in which presence is mediated. I’m not suggesting that all we will have to say is going to be confidential, but care will be taken to protect her or his comfort zones with audience, especially since we are drawing from real life.
I will also encourage collaboration in documenting and illustrating the performances. I would love to do most of the work myself but in cases where there is a possibility of someone else’s artistic vision overlapping with the work, or if I may be involved in organizational aspects of the performance.
PRODUCTION: Clothes Line, ‘KiskaJism?’
‘Kiska Jism?’ is the visual, textual and material outcome of the labels process. The clothes line will bear the narratives of each performer, and through the medium of performance, clothes will be used as signifiers, strategic devices and tellers.
Clothes are intimate objects that carry meaning. They bear a sense of the wearer’s taste, her or his experience and her likes, dislikes and preferences. Clothes are about identity, in a very basic corporeal way they are extensions of the lived body and bear its insignia.
A lot of connections can be drawn between saying and seeing. The artist Ann Hamilton works on these continuum. In one work she places a pin-hole camera in her mouth and shoots portraits of people, thus marrying the spoken with the seen. In another, she pulls out scrolls of text of her mouth, trying to ‘speak’, unfurling meaning. Her work thus can be seen as the marriage of performance with textual, technological and narrative elements.
In another work, she uncovers the history of sweat shops associated with the site of a gallery in Soho, New York, through text and performance, sound sight and smell. One enters to find the gallery floor covered with wine drenched rags, emanating a pungent odour and a solitary female figure at a table with her back to us fills a wicker basket with lumps of dough, after making impressions on them of the inside of her mouth. There is a sound piece in the background where poet Walt Whitman’s work is being read out, on themes of remembrance, privacy and history. The artists’/woman’s performative activity could be interpreted as something that is trying invoke the body and then leave traces of past bodies in the wicker basket, which was traditionally used to keep corpses. Stacked on the wall in font of her are rows of bed linen, dimly visible.
I realize that I’m working with a space that is entirely potent in terms of India’s rich textile history. From the burgeoning and dying out of the mill economy to the inception and development of khadi, to the still dominant practices of making textiles such as block printing and dyeing, Gujarat has been a site for these critical and crucial layers in Indian ‘history’. The state’s history if rife with conflict, it being the site for both the Freedom struggle of the 1900’s led by Mahatma Gandhi, and in the 1980’s the Narmada Bachao Andolan, perhaps the only semi-successful movement for the rights of Adivasis asking for transparent and people friendly development.
And in the years before and after 2002 when political and cultural Fascism of the Hindu right have mushroomed and blown themselves into a shibboleth, fed and fired by the rapidity and fast seepage of globalization. This dangerous and virulent ideology needs to be dealt with from every front, at every level of social interaction. Gujarat is the site for this work for all these myriad reasons, and since it is the coming together of concerns so intrinsic to this State’s political and cultural and economic milieu.
During the grant period I’m going to continue my research on the way that the actual work I make, in terms of its stories, internet work and the clothes line will be evocative of these linkages between textile and the socio cultural bio politics of this region. The Labels exhibitions will tell these tales, using video, sound, sculpture fabric, photography and performance.
The clothes line is Labels’ sellable product. The clothes line will stitched for the most part by an Ahmedabad based group called Himmat, which is a tailoring collective started by widows who were displaced after their losses in 2002.The state rehabilitated them to Vatwa from Naroda Patia where they are from, and an organization called Sewa gave them sewing machines. After a sustained intervention and interaction with activist Monica Wahi, they came together to build a collective wherein they could create livelihoods by stitching clothes by taking orders from the garment market. They now have a rented space and good quality machines, and have had exhibitions all over the country, selling exclusive clothes.
The intention of working with Himmat as a collective was to
a. Empower the group artistically and design wise, with clothes as a working design, art and livelihood paradigm. In order to help them put forth their products in the market, this brand that we create together will give them a sense of aspects such as exhibition design and marketing.
This process will entail
1. Developing their own design and conceptual base, in terms of fabric, texture, weaving and embroidery.
2. Exposing them to artistic initiatives and artists who have used the medium of fabric, textile and clothing in their work.
3. Exposing them to Indian design and the history of textiles in India, with all its traditional techniques of making and doing. A trip to the Calico museum of Ahmedabad will be essential, and I also hope to get textile designers from NID to facilitate one or two sessions. At the start of production, I will be working with fashion designer who will be an integral part of the project from hereon.
b. Strengthening their economic base via the brand that Labels will create. The brand, ‘Kiska Jism’ will comprise of 300 pieces of clothing. Part of this label will be used only for purposes of exhibition initially, complete with the exhibition design of the entire project. Part of it will be the sellable commodity whose proceeds will be divided to further both Himmat and Aarzoo (the group making the clothing labels) financially.
The design prototypes we will make will be the property of Himmat as a collective.
c. Uncover the histories of these women and think about healing processes. Again, within the larger rubric of working with the Muslim identity in Gujarat, I will workshop on the body specifically with the Himmat women. This fits in the larger design and research for ‘Kiska Jism’, and also will make them look at and think about the project.
The women right now rely on the local markets to get orders. The markets themselves are not lucrative. Work needs to be sought, continually and wages are low. The status of the group is that sustainability issues for long term are in the pipe line. But right now the group has been building its profile as a production unit, conducting both training and skill supervision within itself. The group now has women with different sets of skills.
The group lacks a design core for it to think through and manage a product of it own. Monica Wahi’ and Zaid Ahmed Shaikh’s intervention with the group has been the source of their designs. The two of them also sourced organically dyed khadi from an NGO, and the Himmat garments are created out of this fabric, native to Gujarat.
Although they have their products they have not been able to sustain sale and production enough for the group to rely solely on it for its income. Exhibitions are a source of additional income but that alone has not been enough, and the group’s initiators Monica and Zaid have had other involvements so this product is a periodic produce. Their daily wages are earned from stitching orders that they get from the market.
While Monica Wahi and Zaid Ahmed Sheikh, see Himmat becoming a multi pronged space for the community, the women themselves have obviously neither the time nor resource to imagine at this point in time. They are still getting back on their feet in the aftermath of 2002 and their individual and collective loss.
This is the stage at which my intervention with them is hinged. On part of the group of women I see a need for engagement theoretically and politically with liberation theology, feminism, art and practices of liberating the body. On part of its initiators, Monica and Zaid I see my intervention at the level of individual goals, skill sets and engagement with the context that each is in.
Needless to say I’m as grateful as I can be for this extraordinary space and group of people. I have a lot of hope for what the future will bring, for each one of us.
The clothing labels or the entire range will be made by Aarzoo, a group run by Zuleikha Ali. Aarzoo is a center for learning located in a chaali called Mohandarji ni Chaali in a very communally sensitive area called Behrampura. Zuleikha runs the center totally on her own, with the income she raises from making and selling hand made paper products that she and the kids make. She gets the children to interact with various resource people from institutes and conducts additional learning classes for them.
While Aarzoo uses paper making as a creative group activity for the kids, Himmat has not yet explored the creative potential of clothing as a medium. For Zuleikha too however, the proceeds feed the center itself and she is trying to push the paper products in campus festivals as well as with galleries. With her I already have a friendly work relationship and seek to collaborate and share energies on the design of the Labels for our clothes line.
I also need a designer’s help to source fabric and help me cut and tailor the brand. Also I would rather focus on the story-telling aspects of the line. A designer can handle the market-worthiness as well as finer technical nuances such as cutting and styling.
I’m looking for someone with an experience of retailing, styling as well as designing a range, someone with an interest in artisanal development and crafts. Part of the designer’s job would also be to help source material and artisans like embroiderers. I want to work closely with a designer also so that the input I get from her or him in terms of clothing would feed the project in terms of narratives or exhibition design and other outputs such as sculpture and video.
Printed publication about the project’s entire process
This is a book on the entire process of the work. The stories, performances and the making of the entire project. I will approach a publisher in order to further circulate the work.
I think that a publication is necessary because this project is about stories, and is also information intensive. Having a register in print will mean a transfer of medium from the internet to a book, and that’s a linkage and exchange I value.