Blank Noise Project

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The Blank Noise project was Jasmeen Patheja’s final-year diploma project at the Srishti School of Design, Arts and Technology, and little did she realise that her work may not end up being art. It was a tight rope that she chose to walk. Jasmeen’s engagement with the Blank Noise project was a reaction to the manner in which she experienced her body in public spaces, and the manner in which she chose to channelise such reaction. This has, in many ways, been definitive of the project. As the founder of the project, Jasmeen conceived it to be a participatory effort where she was taking the issue of sexual harassment to the streets, even as she was networking to include a wider participant base. Successfully for her, the project today includes a diverse set of participants ranging across gender, professions, exposure and age.


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Are You Looking At Me, Street intervention in New Delhi


Contents

Defining New Genre Public Art

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In India, new genre Public Art is a category that exists in the margins of our imagination and commonsense, may be that is why it is difficult for us to do away with the binaries of art and activism, and view works that fuse these aspects. New genre public art [is] visual art that uses both traditional and nontraditional media to communicate and interact with a broad and diversified audience about issues directly relevant to their lives [and] is based on engagement. It is art designed for a life outside of the gallery, art that emphasizes a process of engagement with issues. (Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art Edited by Suzanne Lacy, Seattle, Bay Press, 1995)

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New genre public art in India is only now becoming visible. There have been some scattered but bold interventions. Some camps are being organized, workshops are taking off and there is also a bit of funding in place for a few new genre public artists. Like in England in the 50s, strands of influence are seeping in and networks are being formed, all leading to a new radical urban youth culture that is as yet in its nascent stage. Trying to locate the strands and influences that inform Jasmeen’s work was a difficult journey, but there has an interesting hint at the Blank Noise blog. The first link in the “Art (Society Change Public Community Activist)” section is an external link to Guerrilla Girls website. Of course, one can see the ‘spirit’ of Guerrilla Girls in the radicalism of certain street interventions Blank Noise has executed, but that does really explain the possible strands which inform Jasmeen and her interventions through the Blank Noise project.

Tracing Her Career

Early in her student days, Jasmeen saw a slide show by Shelly Saks on new genre public art that transformed her understanding of what art is? And what are the various possibilities through which art relates to the society. What really took this early fascination ahead is a year-and-a-half long lab that Jasmeen attended, which focused on artist and designers as agents of social change. It was revealing for Jasmeen to learn that that as agents of social change, artists could go way beyond physical art making and become involved in a deeper/holistic manner. She picked up certain key skills form the lab; conducting workshops and coordinating discussions around issues has been central to her current practice. But more than anything else, the lab made it possible for Jasmeen to imagine that social change through art was possible.

If one has to put Jasmeen into mediumistic brackets (like painter, sculptor, photographer), then the most plausible, yet flexible, categories will be ‘blogging’ and ‘performance’. Of course, as a category ‘blog’ is more transparent than ‘perfomance’, as the strategies and devices used are defined by the medium of the blog itself. But, defining Jasmeen within ‘performance’ is more problematic as she uses varied mediums like posters, street interventions, installations, etc., often in combination in the performances she coordinates as part of the Blank Noise project.

Method of Working and Community Building

It is this process-based nature of Jasmeen’s works that makes it difficult to engage with when one’s access to it is only through aestheticised documentation. The project itself is concentrated in building communities and orchestrating performances that serve both to strengthen the communities and articulate actions against gender abuse. At this point, the project is beginning to take a life of its own, with the result that certain traditional questions around authorship are bound to pop up. The role of an author has been traditionally seen in the context of the knowledge he/she brings into a work. It took quite sometime to understand that the Blank Noise blog works at a different level vis-à-vis the events that Blank Noise puts together, and locating Jasmeen as an author in the Blank Noise project requires one to understand where the blogs and the events meet and where they separate.

It seems that the blog is a relatively private space, where the Blank Noise community comes together and shares their experiences and opinions (very often, in the context of the events Blank Noise coordinates). The blog is thus the primary site for community building. Events like street interventions or the clothes campaign are (in a sense) more public acts, which also serve to enlist ‘memberships’. Jasmeen’s authorial interventions in the blog are almost limited to coordinating, but, by and large, the blog is a space where one can hear a lot of voices…anxieties, desire, angers, and initiatives. The blog is also a place where one can hear many male voices. It is a space for sharing.

For Jasmeen, the street interventions have a strategic role to play in Blank Noise’s resistance to eve teasing/gender harassment. And in that strategic mode, she positions these acts of resistance within a radical feminist mode and this is the other side of Blank Noise. In this realm, Jasmeen’s authorial role is very strong. She brings in her training in art, conducting workshops, coordinating discussions and her pursuit of holistic interventions, and tries to take the events from being ‘just street interventions’ and turns them into interventions among the participants themselves. The combination of events and workshops is a mediumistic shift necessitated by the impossibility of conducting long workshops, as members of Blank Noise were not able to take out time for participation. Now, workshop intervention is limited to the day before the event, the intervention itself.


Socio-Political Interventions

Confronting the Blank Noise Project makes one realize that the categories of Formal and Political are often inadequate, and maybe one needs to bring in hermeneutic interpretations to be able to gauge the impact of the Project on social behavior. Intervention is often understood as to coming from one agency and molding ‘others’, however interventions can also mould the ‘self’ through interventionist projects feeding back on the alleged interventionist. Instead of looking at how the Blank Noise Project has had an impact on urban male behavior or even what impacts it imagines it can have in the long term, it is fascinating to try and observe the impact it has on the founder and the participating members.


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Campaign For Street Intervention , An Advertisement On The Blog


The manner in which the Blank Noise Project’s events and workshops have induced self-confidence and made the female body feel more confident in public spaces is the most intangible and least documented part of the project. Similarly, how sharing through the blog has helped give confidence through a sense of community is another aspect that can only be understood hermeneutically. But just because such dimensions of the project exists in the margins of documentation and analysis, by no means should be an indication that they exist on the margins of Jasmeen’s intentions. In fact the stress on the workshop model is a self conscious attempt to ensure that the therapeutic possibilities of the intervention are never lost in an attempt to ‘change the world’.


References

  • The Blank Noise Project
  • Feminisn and Social Change
  • About Suzanne Lacy
  • Indian Laws on Sexual Harassment
  • The Gender and Space Project