Thursday, October 12, 2017

Would Public Be Slavish to a Curator? Chandni Guha Roy and Rhetoricity - Curating in Baroda Part IX

Chandni Guha Roy
Chandni Guha Roy, final year MVA Art History, MSU, Baroda, the cub curator in discussion in this part of the series has a bachelors’ degree in Applied Arts from the illustrious College of Art and Craft, Kolkata. She has a curatorial theme in hand which is magnificent in content and ambitious in approach and has immense possibilities as a curatorial project. Chandni calls her project, ‘Rhetoricity’ (Rhetoric and City). When she presents the concept everyone is keen because it is for the first time one cub curator is going to handle the notion of public space as a space of public opinion, how such spaces are created in generating public opinion. The theme has already been doing the rounds and everyone is keen to listen from the curator herself. According to her concept, Chandni does not want to deal with any kind of opinion/action that is expressed in the public domain. She wants to see how public opinion is created in the form of hand written posters. She further explains that her curatorial theme finds its anchor in the Naxalbari/Naxalite posters that had once generated a public domain for itself and created a thorough social change. I look at the faces of the peer group gathered around the table. Some faces have this expression of ‘disbelief’ and some faces are absolutely blank. I can see justification in both of these expressions. The faces that show some expression all belong to the students hailing from the eastern part of our country including West Bengal. The faces that are blank belong to the students from elsewhere. I don’t want to praise the Eastern students and condemn the rest.

Naxalbari Movement celebrates (?) its golden jubilee this year. This statement reeks with the smell of establishmentarian language. Taking the history of Naxalbari Movement of 1967 in Naxalbari Village near Siliguri in North of West Bengal, and the Naxalite Movement that followed in various parts of India including Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, the party workers and revolutionaries living today may not take it as a occasion to ‘celebrate its golden jubilee’. Fifty years of struggle and what has it brought to the country that they have been wishing to revolutionise? From the imaginations and partial realizations of an armed struggle against the state as well as a cultural struggle against the minds of the people that had been gone numb by the rhetoric of the changing governments both in the central and states, the erstwhile revolutionaries have transformed into spiritual seekers, staunch critics of Communism as a political ideology itself, completely sunk into cynicism, crossed over to mainstream parties, established new revolutionary outfits thinking that the initial moves were wrong and the current one would change the scenario, shifted their field of action to social work and environmental protection and many into complete silence. They all have seen how the country moves from red to saffron and the rhetoric has absolutely changed. However, this is the year when Naxalite Movement turns fifty years old. The bearded guerrillas of that time have now become sixty year and above old men and women. For all of them it is a time for retrospection and introspection.

I could justify my students’ reactions to Chandni’s theme because by the time they were born the Naxalite Movement had already turned thirty years old. And by the time they are able to understand the nuances of that political movement, it is already fifty years old; half a century. Then it all depends on how political the contemporary students are; if at all they are political how they are interested in the history of a movement that had shaken up the foundations of feudalism in this country but frittered away due to the suppression and cruelty unleashed against the Naxalite revolutionaries by the state/s. I don’t say that the revolutionary romanticism has totally abandoned the minds of the contemporary students (Chandni is the best example as she would like to look back at the public opinion that this movement had generated through its posters pasted in the public domain); in the universities we see how students organise and agitate taking ultra left positions. Also we see contemporary students coming out in gangs to protest against the state and even hold candle light vigil. These are the transformed versions of the revolutionary zeal which the youngsters in the Naxalite Movement had held up thinking that instead of candles and placards they could hold guns and bombs. But they were not just wielding guns and bombs only, they were holding placards too. Each night those revolutionary youngsters used to stick posters with revolutionary ideas and slogans. Each day people used to read it and form opinion about the ongoing political developments. Even if the middle class of the time remained insular (as today to certain extent) they too took notice of these bills that spoke to them with such vehemence. Public spaces were effectively used by these revolutionaries through interventions with posters, songs, street plays and so on.

Chandni wants to deal with the very idea of forming the public opinion using the public spaces through posters. She focuses only on the posters, not any other medium that could generate public opinion hence it is a very focused project. She does not even consider the film posters as potential ideological vehicles. She wants to see how the letters, calligraphy, slogans and the messages in them influence people’s opinion. It is also a sort of social experiment to see whether more and more people could be influenced through this project. The class room/board room asks her whether she wants to come up with the actual exhibition of the posters that had been written by the revolutionaries in those years. However, Chandni informs the class that there are no such posters archived; there are two reasons for this absence of such posters- one, they were temporal interventional and were not archived. Two, even if someone had wanted to archive them for the posterity to understand the ‘handwriting’ of revolution, the public as well as administrative interventions had sanitized such public spaces immediately. Three, even if none had touched them and let them be there in the public spaces, the time had eventually destroyed them. Besides, children used to tear them, the other bills were stuck on them etc. Chandni tells us that such posters could be now seen only in the photographs of the streets or the protest sites and she may not be able to procure them as example in the limited time that she has in her hand to execute the project.

As a curator, Chandni wants to create a wall of public opinion. Her idea is to bring a carnival of languages, underlining the plurality of this country as reflected in the student population of the Fine Arts Faculty itself. They all congregate near the canteen for their daily bread and banter and one of the walls which is already a sort of notice board by default is going to be marked out for the students to intervene with ‘posters’ that speak of their minds. And Chandni insists that the participants/the public constituted by the students should write in their mother tongues. There shouldn’t be any visual element in them to retain the quality of the revolutionary posters of the Naxalite times. The project seems to be really exciting even though the idea behind it may not be really what the students understand as they contribute/intervene/express in that space. Chandni would give them papers, felt pens, colours and brushes to create their own posters then and there. Soon the peer group is alert. They ask the curator whether she is confident about the students that they would come up with something really revolutionary or nasty. The area she has chosen as the ‘public space’ is under CCTV surveillance. While Chandni assures anonymity to the sloganeers/poster makers, can she stop the intervention of the CCTV cameras? When the CCTV cameras are there, will there any student dare to put up some ‘revolutionary’ comment for the fear of being implicated later of insurgency, considering the prevailing political atmosphere of the country and the general suspicion within the campus? Even if they do, how that public space would become a public space as Chandni as the curator insists that there should be only mother tongue? So how this reduction of meaning into the aesthetics of calligraphy be challenged? Even if she tries to give a translation of these posters in the link language, will it do justice to the given topic? How curatorially sound is this whole process?

Chandni insists that it is a public project and a project in process hence she couldn’t give any conclusive answers to these questions because she is equally unaware of the outcome of a project. I understand that it is an interesting project with more chance of falling apart than turning into a very colourful one mainly because of the questions that have propped up. However, all of us want to see how the public space is formed and the public opinion take shape in the given public space. So, here we are with Chandni and her Rhetoricity. Even if she pegs her ideas to the history of poster making during the Naxalite era, there are a series of curatorial challenges involved in this project. I number them as this: 1) The word ‘Public’ is a hugely debated one in any curatorial project. 2) The word Rhetoric is now taken more as a hollow posturing than a wise statement directed not particularly at any but applicable to all, if need be. 3) Rhetoric also has a propaganda agenda behind it, as in the case of the Naxalites. 4) In a world of Information Technology, posters have a romantic and vintage value than real communicative values. 5) Due to the same Information Technology, the people who form a ‘public’ have become more ‘private’ than public. 6) There is always a herd mentality when making and receiving public opinion as we see it in the social media. If someone writes a certain expression as comment, the comments that follow are always subconsciously directed by the already existing ones. At the height of laziness people even cut and paste the same comment.

The postulation of public is problematic, especially when we see it in the context of Chandni’s project, Rhetoricity. The very definition of public is now varied and liable to be contested at each juncture. In the context of an art or cultural project, the public assumes a different role than it forms in a city square for a public rally or a protest march. The complexion of the public is absolutely different when it is in a bus station or railway station or in a restaurant or a fair ground. Public does not have a proper for or shape; like a drop of mercury it could stand in perfect shape and with the intervention of a magnetic field it could behave differently and change forms. Hence a unilateral approach to the idea of public is always fallacious. We always think that the public spaces are always public spaces; but not necessarily so. The public spaces, even if it is a street or a gallery or museum hall or corridor, are no longer public spaces as they are directly and indirectly controlled by surveillance. In the case of public as formed by human beings, we are not sure whether the members of this public really want to be a part of the public or not. Let us take the example of a crowd gather around a street magician. He can make his program successful only if the crowd/public behaves according to his demands. He needs volunteers as well as viewers. And there is some sort of temporary agreement between the magician and the crowd. And the next moment it is not necessarily so. This is what exactly happening in the case of an art project also. The public could absolutely fail an art project if they are not interested to be willing participants. However, when you are invited to be a part of public, as in the case of a performance art within the museum hall, you are a willing member in a willing public where your agency is minimum and your gullibility is maximum. But the real public is a volatile lot and it could be swayed only using some sort of rhetoric. Besides, the implosion of public into itself has considerably prevented them to be willing participants in the real time public interventions, which perhaps they would happily do in commenting in the social media or by making innumerable forwards in whatsapp, instagram, pinrest and so on.

Chandni’s project takes off almost three days before the commencement of all the other curatorial projects. However, the initial response seems to be not so enthusiastic. Chandni’s friends respond to it and they make some small posters and stick it there. But that is a willing public in a defined public space. We wait for a few days anticipating that the wall will be full of posters and slogans. But finally the result is not as expected. Students/people/the public is cautious about making a statement, even in a playful way. The atmosphere seems to have been vitiated by some kind of invisible fear; the fear of ostracising and rustication, expulsion and condemnation. Here is a curious generation. But can I make such a judgement soon? No, I can’t and I should not. There is an interesting example that I want to bring into your attention. Many years back, when the Disney Corporation created a Township in the US, they created a graffiti wall along the outer wall of the complex in order to pre-empt the graffiti writers, street artists and hopeless vandals. Their idea was to protect the rest of the complex from graffiti interventions. They put a large board ‘Graffiti Wall’ inviting the street artists to make interventions in the given space. The result was shocking. That wall remained as clean as ever and the rest of the complex was severely attacked by the street artists. It could be the reversal of the ‘nudge’ theory. The public generally behaves just the opposite as they are asked to.

Curatorial lessons learnt: one, Chandni’s is a perfect concept, perfectly presented and perfectly argued. But it did not take shape the way the curator wanted. The reason is that the curator did not debate the possibility of public’s behaviour; she expected the public to respond as per the cue. That means, whatever be our strategies to involve public in a curatorial project, a sense of regimentation should be avoided. That involves a lot of covert strategies of involving the public. A lot of interactive works of art fail within the galleries or experimental spaces mainly because the public becomes conscious about the results of their interactions. Even the presence of a security guard could change the whole fun of your idea of interactivity. Two, in a visual art project, whatever be the idea and the possibility of textual domination, the outcome or the process itself should have some visual effect as far as the viewer is concerned. In Chandni’s work this visuality was lacking. Of course, we should remember that there is always an open-endedness to the projects but even in that case there should be a method in the madness when it is a curatorial project. Three, Chandni’s project has immense possibilities as there is no dearth to textual materials regarding the Naxalite movement and its public interventions though posters are not available in the public domain now. A research based approach to the same theme could result into a wonderful museum scale curatorial project.

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