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Radical Housing and Socially-Engaged Art

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On our second day here, Tanaya walked across the street and got her hair closely cropped by the barber who sits right across the building, on the street side. It was incredible to watch- standing at the ledge on the facade of the building, I was allowed that privilege. For those twenty minutes or so, we inhabited two different worlds within the same space, and what created this change was the fact that Tanaya had crossed the street.

This space in between us- the Khirkee street- is a space of movement, risk and curiosity, a width pulsating with the lives and eyes of the people who are perhaps accustomed to seeing strange things happen within and without this white building, and are perhaps still curious about it.

Spaces and people mostly operate on correlation- spaces change people as much as people transform spaces. If it has to be broken down into its logistical fragments, it was a casual action on a casual afternoon- one day, a woman walked across a street and another one, along with so many others, watched her from a distance. An artist had placed herself in a space otherwise not inhabited with ease by women.

Spaces in between spaces are the silent carriers of minuscule transitions. They go unnoticed, and are easy to dismiss, because they appear insignificant, if at all. But this is also the machination behind chaos theory, butterfly effect, whatever one might choose to call the devil in the detail- one casual action, a slight alteration in a transitional space somewhere results in unforeseeable consequences elsewhere.

When Tanaya recreated her experience for us later, she said she had felt a palpable tension between the barber and the man standing at a distance shouting at him. The former continued his work and calmly asked to be left alone while he was on the job. This tension is not unique to the barber and his disgruntled acquaintance. When people with differences inhabit close quarters, tension is a relentless, spectral companion, always lurking around the corner, always geared to take to the streets. Melting pots boil over sometimes.

Tanaya believes that people always carry within them stories, stories they don’t tell, stories maintained on the fringes while the body is at work, and perhaps allowed to boil over only when the performance of daytime is over.

So much opining over so many lifetimes about who and what an artist is or should be, with no consensus whatsoever. Is it the artist’s job to extract these stories? To occupy these middle grounds, the in-between spaces that others might not, to step out of their regular performances and inhabit a zone ridden with conflict, even if it is a subliminal one? To cross the street?

Some questions should be left alone.

This haircut became for me a larger experiment with people, a way to gauge their understanding of the space they occupy, people who are shocked out of their comfort zones because an outsider decides to walk into their space, because a woman’s body inserts itself into a space largely occupied by men- the street side.

But artists are not afforded the luxury of comfort zones; comfort has the power to anesthetize. Along with several other things, art is a constant crossing-over to a different side for a glimpse of the people and their lives and their fights, because that is where art is created- in zones of conflict, the in-betweens and spaces one cannot map, the things one cannot explicate.