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Radical Housing and Socially-Engaged Art

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In October of last year, when we had gathered for the live arts workshop at Khoj, I was reading Hélène Cixous’ Tombe. Ensconced in the project space during days of unrelenting rain and shiver in Delhi, for an extended period the panelled and carpeted room resembled a tomb, a subterranean place transformed into a magnet by schedules but also the flinting of ideas, notions, friendship. In the text, Cixous grapples with two matters which had a bearing on our assembly at Khoj: the operation of metalepsis and the feeling of surrender. Of the latter, Cixous writes early on—’I write books which quickly gain the upper hand’. Over the course of ten days questions of authority, voice, intention, responsibility and trajectory in a performance or live act arose and we found ourselves returning to the prospect that perhaps no ‘body’ is ever truly singular. As schedules started dissolving amidst confrontation of fundamentals—What do we mean by bodies, intimate and vast (planets, cosmogonies); Is body a fiction?; Where does a body end?—I could witness metalepsis at play. If a structure was desired by the construct of the programme, the disintegration of given structures and the healthy appraisal of any proposals for alternatives became its de facto characteristic. The body simply would not be assumed into institutional docility; the body gains the upper hand. 

The Live Arts Workshop is designed such that practices which are otherwise segmented by institutions and underserved by categorisations such as ‘traditional’, ‘experimental’ and so on have the opportunity to engage in a meaningfully protracted form. As a workshop, it strives towards achieving occurrences of sharing, learning and making. To what degrees is the making of live acts impacted by the sharing and learning which precedes it? Is it necessary to delineate these methods from their imbricated, entangled unfolding? In the early days of the workshop, which were conversational and structured through presentations and responses from the participants, gestures of revealing and unconcealing were at play. In the sharing of past or ongoing work, participants were propelled to a position of exposure and vulnerability, and those responding had to assume an ethic of attention and openness (attention is critical to embodiment, a participant offered). In recalling these discussions, I notice that the intent was not one of emergence—whether of conclusive statements or epiphanies—but minor shifts in inner sentiments or positions towards questions. These shifts could be hazarded or were discernible through bodily signals—the pitch of voice, the exchange of glances, the dogged pursuit of a proposition, and the atmosphere of the room—which was a palpable, vibrant sensation, a shared invisible membrane that united our nerves and skin in a constant weft. The workshop, which brought together practitioners whose work coalesces history, community, and self, was not a theoretical exercise, a thought experiment or a game. In bringing their bodies and practices that are channelled through the body, the practitioners in the room were presenting strategies of survival, visibility and resistance; furthermore they made pertinent the weight of such strategies upon the performer, which include the transformation of a body into a site or becoming a ventriloquist in an absent archive. The burden of performing radical acts, its accrual in muscles and disposition were given space to be recognized as valid concerns to performance-making. It was rare to get to experience and lay bare the emotive scale of the body otherwise not permitted in the more officious character of seminars or workshops: agitation, perplexity, alienation all found a register of acknowledgment.

As a writer, I was challenged by these effects. In an episode of Between the Covers podcast, poet Jorie Graham urges writers to assume the task of writing as spilling beyond the desk to an expansive act or an invitational mode of being in the world. Something as simple yet diligent as walking down a street with your nose tuned to new smells. In workshops, the critic or the writer is often relegated to occupying an external space—someone who orbits the creative practice of their fellows and comments on ‘final forms’ it assumes without coming in contact or immersion with their process. This leads to a separation of the embodied mode of presence and listening from the deferred act of writing-as-conceptualising or cohering into a whole a necessarily frayed experience. How to resist this separation? I entered the workshop asking: How to write from a ‘submerged’* standpoint? But I exited it wondering: Beyond the page, does writing end? Is the document the tomb of writing, a place where it can be laid to rest?

Wading through these questions, I was struck by how liberating it felt to be in the presence of artists and researchers who were committed to constructing bibliographies and projects rooted in counter-epistemologies. It was a relief to be freed from the shadow of oppressively male epistemes of continental philosophy—and to look the continent as a matrix of colonies squarely in the eye. In the presence of these bodies, I discovered the works of thinkers, philosophers and artists who had hitherto not entered the axis of discourse in para-academic institutions. 

João Simões, introduced us to the concept of ‘spiral time’, which manifests as gesture, research, material, and philosophy in their practice. Like coir, João’s presentation twined fundamental questions of restoration and reimagination in the experience of ‘helical time’, from the very constitution of the earth in crystals, to the evocation of deep, geological time. The work of philosopher Leda Maria Martins, integral to João’s practice, was a revelation to the cohort. Deploying fabulation, movement, participation, and crucially, erasure, João made us think of the many ways time can move, and how to circumvent the violence of racialised time. 

Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja’s practice through strategies of research, performance, and visual emendations, raised questions such as: How to negotiate the implication of the performing body in its encounters with colonial archives? Can we think beyond the colonial archive to other ways of recording? Nashi evoked paradigms of elemental constitutions: ‘fire’ as epistemology, as a site of gathering and exchange; the fellowship of the rubber tree—a plant, a tool to erase, a tool for friction; ‘frottage’ (Keguro Macharia) as a mode of frictional contact with forms of knowledges, and the possibility for ‘critical intimacy’ (Gayatri Spivak) with bodies that archive poly-semiotic possibilities.

River Lin introduced us to the impulses guiding their work, which is situated across multiple institutional sites, where culture coagulates such as museums, galleries, and festivals. Working with an expanded paradigm of choreography, River showed us explorations of how inherited histories—especially heteronormative, Euro-centric art history—can be refused and retold. Imagining bodies as queer museums, as autonomous sites of presence, and as orators of history through a decentred lens, River’s practice grapples with what emerges in the acts of gathering, working together, and creating conditions for radical hospitality.

Johanna Huesser introduced us to her methodology, which distils counter-positions into highly charged gestural acts. Huesser’s work explores bodily practices in popular culture such as in sport and recreation. Approaching these ‘bodies’ of knowledge through the lens of personal experience and immersion within communities dedicated to the form, Johanna shared trailers of two works which explore the embedding of nation and masculinity in the Swiss wrestling form Schwingen, and the neo-liberalised, global commodification of Yoga.

Kaldi Moss introduced us to the desires which pulsate through their practice, and their sustained study of epistemologies that revolt against anthropocentric and heteronormative frameworks of relationality. Approaching the world from the ethics of submergence and from a nuanced understanding of networks, they brought into the discussion vivid sensations of the sonic field—the range of 20 hertz to 20,000 hertz—which they find as their space to experience (an)other way of being. Their affinity with the textures and mechanics of the non-human—be it the moistness of moss, or the decentralised intelligence of mycelial networks is supported through their own practices of entanglement as well as philosophies of Anna Lowenhaupt-Tsing, Jakob Johann von Uexküll, and Albert-László Barabási among others.

Aseng Borang’s practice, emerging from a stark refusal to capitulate or acquiesce the performing female body to the ends of pleasure or productivity, positioned intersecting axes of enquiry. Grappling with instruments that define and control identity, be it the popularisation of slurs against persons from the North-East in other parts of India, or restrictive legislature that can possibly dispossess female members of tribes from passing on their property to their successors, Aseng turns every ‘given’ construct over and over through performance acts, crafting argument through movement and abstraction. Through her works, Aseng creates spaces freed from complacency—for both viewers and herself.

Khursheed Ahmad’s practice draws from the form of folk theatre and entertainment practiced for centuries by the Bhand community indigenous to Kashmir, and to which he belongs. Khursheed presented a series of works which detailed his engagement with the schema and stories of the Bhand tradition, his experiments with text and image-based work through interpretation and performance of literary texts, and his work with sound, body and installation. Through his works Khursheed highlights aspects of existence under unceasing occupation. Exploring elements of Bhand folklore—through characters, hybrid figures, and narratives—Khursheed is keen to develop a critical revaluation of the Bhand form as socio-politically urgent mode of activism.

Sharanya Ram Prakash introduced us to proximate but distinct projects that intersect in critically formulative ways with the making and doing of history through the gendered body. Sharanya shared her research into Yakshagana, a traditional theatre form in coastal Karnataka which has continued through the centuries, which traditionally features male performers embodying all the characters. Sharanya’s training in this form, and with it the arrival of a female performing body along implications both near and far in time, brought up questions of making histories through performance. Sharanya’s work with transwomen in Bangalore alerted us to producing theatre under socio-carceral constraints and turning absence into generative silence. Sharanya’s study into the lives and experiences of female actors and performers in modern Kannada theatre and cinema, who are presently missing from archives and scholarship, foregrounded modes of translation and transgression as necessary acts to animate the silences of history.

After spending hours with one another’s personal inventories of ideas, references and exemplars, the transition to making—a physical dispersion across the blueprint of Khoj felt like a jarring switch for me from being in a web of sharing to feeling located at its outermost stings. But the performance artists came alive—discussing ideas, sharing inputs and resources, scouting for glitter and dancers and ink and broomsticks. A part of me knew magic is best when it is uninterrupted, another wondered: how to enter this circle of enchantment? Peeking infrequently into studios or catching glimpse of fabric moving against wind, I was happy to be basking in this—the ungirdled chaos of making. Somewhere in-between, a schedule of performances was agreed upon. “Showing”, which is an oft-torturous process for writers, even more unthinkable when it concerns first drafts or early iterations of an idea, is at the core of live acts. There is tremendous faith in the body to speak—across territories, languages, opinions; and there is remarkable courage in inviting a strange world into an axis of meaning which holds great personal and political significance. On the evening of the public showing, each performance witnessed a responsive—if not, relational—engagement from the audience. 

River Lin’s Frottage Exercise—the title signalling a cross-pollination of ideas between participants—was stacked with vibrations! And movements! And teasing! And squealing! And laughter! And confetti! Inviting visitors to inhabit a queer garden, by transforming the site of the Khoj terrace into a place of erotic/exotic encounters, Lin transmitted a sense of aliveness through the crowd.

Next, we were draped with wet air and moist metal, with Kaldi Moss transforming the modular greyness of the project space into a lair for unexpected encounters between skin, sound and a sheet of metal curved into a gateway in Moist. Bodies entered, played, whispered, lingered and dispersed, with only their presence and the feel of dipping one’s hands in a bowl of water as the traces.

Right across, in a defunct office room Aseng Borang and Manjari Kaul were telling a story—about Senga, a museum object exiled from land and suspended in air. Moving between swings, Senga performed the mundane aerially—putting on socks, changing clothes, all the while enveloped in the narration of her history—the story of Senga and her collection of bodies.

Descending to the studios below, Johanna Huesser was grappling with what means to make work in contexts other than one’s own. To Compensate, a witty, participatory activity invited viewers to engage in an act of finding balance on a swing which held Johanna’s body; working with a stranger to retain productive tension. 

Next door, Khursheed Ahmad presented his reading of Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown, assembling text, image, body and sound. Weaving Bhand folklore, the occupation of Kashmir, and the figure of the Yach, a ghoul that haunts villages, Khursheed donned velvet vestments, performed, recited and played with specific instruments from Yach-e-gam as an extended meditation on the figure of the clown as a figure of revolt against dominance.

Right across the room, clad in a white robe and headscarf, João Simões channelled winds through recorded sound and by whirling, into the site of Khoj, holding a totemic brush that whirled with them and painted the walls in streaks of black. In the studio, sounds of Californian winds, rough and slight, recorded by the artist’s partner Claudio, met the winds of New Delhi—summoned by another participant in the workshop, and both were held within the breath and gestures of João’s body. Inspired by the philosophy of spiral time, and the traditions of whirling as acts of divine or inter-dimensional encounters in Sufism and Brazilian cultural practices, João moved to the tandem of air—as wind, as breath, as the matter that resides in-between bodies, while drawing on the ground and walls. In the act of ecstatic whirling, the head is transformed from the centre of reason to a pivot for balancing the body as it turns repeatedly, through eruptive mark-making that foregrounds connectedness. In watching João whirl with the brush, I was crouched at the front of a burgeoning crowd, and as my eyes followed their movement, I imagined us all sharing one profoundly deep breath—a breath across time and space.

The evening concluded with, as assiduously promised by Nashi—a party! In a room painted all black, sat a box painted the same. As we entered the room, we heard snatches of a chorus singing, then beats switching something else as the lid of the box wobbled. With precipitous care to each muscular twitch, Nashi emerged, covered in black paint and wearing a belt, their eyes gradually depicting surprise, recognition and joy. In Kwere Kwere, a pejorative term was appropriated to a position of assertion and celebration—reclaiming Kwere Kwere (a term used to refer to African immigrants in South Africa) to a position of queer embodiment and solidarity. Drawing on African queer theorist Zethu Matebeni’s thinking which situates Queer in relation to Kwere Kwere, Nashi showed how queer and migrant experiences are not mutually exclusive. The performance also evoked acts of ‘smuggling’ by placing the body of the performer within the box, as an act which refuses the authority of borders and territorial control. Mixing acts of trespass, rhythmic movement and samples of popular songs from Africa, the performance ended with dancing—by the audience, by Nashi and the crisp air in Khoj.

All throughout these scheduled acts, ran a quiet ripple of a performance throughout the venue of Khoj. Sharanya Ramprakash’s Remains to be Seen, a four hour durational performance saw her don many roles with costumes to go, bringing a touch of theatre to the evening—albeit one which needed visitors to pay attention to sites of service. In an earlier conversation, Sharanya noted that a performer’s work is inherently visible in nature—it is an art of the seen. What happens when the performer chooses to perform roles that are socially invisible? Speaking to, spending time with and learning from the workers of Khoj, Sharanya spent the evening as many hands that contribute the upkeep and operation of prestigious art institutions do—working. 

Looking back at the closing days of Body as Barometer, I am struck by how our time was generative, not productive—a mandate encouraged by the provocateurs who joined in acts of thinking out loud or dialogic ways of untangling knots in articulation—Neha Choksi, Zuleikhaa Chowdhary, Mohammed Abdelkarim and Vinay Kumar. It was attentive to the need to ask questions, to dwell in propositions, and explore the texture of prospective knowing, together. It was a time of sharing and receiving intangible, enduring gifts—the authenticity of our rugged, uncertain selves; new critical dimensions to think about in the making of our work, and the amorphous, chimerical thing that keeps the world going: friendship.

* The submerged perspective, is defined by Macarena Gomez-Barris in The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives (2017) as that which ‘pierces through the entanglements of power to differently organize the meanings of social and political life.’