Centre Stages of Development: Performance, Public Art, and Sexual Politics

This post was contributed by Dr Tara Atluri, visiting research fellow in the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities (BIH) and the Department of Geography, Environment, and Development Studies. Here, Dr Atluri gives an insight into her forthcoming public lecture on 3 March 2016

“The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is – it’s to imagine what is possible.”

– bell hooks

How does art create possibility in the world today? In a time of common sense consumer capitalism where public space is increasingly eroded and new skyscraper office buildings and shopping malls are erected as testaments to suspect ideas of progress and freedom, how can one creatively imagine an idea of a commons? (See Wall Street Journal video: “When Occupy Is Over, Where Will Its Iconic Art Go?“)

On the busy boulevards of the world’s cities, sexy images of mall chic fashion pass as sexual freedom. In these times of market driven ideas of success and desire, freedom of expression becomes freedom to brand oneself as a commodity spectacle. And yet, this freedom to appear in public space as a neoliberal image of unabashed sexual freedom does not necessarily come with freedom from violence, harassment, austerity, and debt.

The “sexually free” gendered body within contemporary capitalist culture is a celluloid image of bliss and abandon, frozen on an Internet screen. In the space of city streets, the branded body of the advertising billboard, the ostensibly “sexy” and “cool” body in the streets, can still be violated within a lingering lexicon of patriarchal and heteronormative violence that haunts postcolonial publics. (See New York Times video, “Free the nipple?”)

The aesthetic image of gender based ‘progress’

In December 2012, in New Delhi, India, an India of increased urbanization and neoliberal images of “progress” in the form of sexy transnational branding, a woman was gang raped and murdered on a bus in the public space of the city. The case lead to nationwide demonstrations and efforts to change national sexual assault and sexual harassment law. The aesthetic image of gender based ‘progress’ as capitalist branding and the freedom to buy does not stop freedom from violence. However, everyday people throughout India took to the streets to stage spectacular events of political freedom.

In my forthcoming lecture, I will discuss the aesthetic possibilities of feminist and sexual politics today. This talk will focus on how subversive artists and political revolutionaries use art, artistic practice, and public forms of aesthetic dissent to create meaningful forms of political possibility in the world. Drawing on examples from Europe, North America, the Indian subcontinent, and globally, I will ask what possibilities might be left today for both art and politics.

In a time in which art is increasingly tethered to big business, and politics becomes a series of private legal battles, public art and public politics can create inventive forms of disruption that offer a world of possibility. (See New York Times video, “Guerilla Girls, Going and Going…”)

Futur and Avenir

Žižek discusses two French words meaning future:

Futur stands for `future’ as the continuation of the present, as the full actualization of tendencies already in existence; while avenir points towards a radical break, a discontinuity with the present—avenir is what is to come (a venir), not just what is to be (Žižek, 134).

Discussing political futures, he suggests that, “We should fully accept this openness, guiding ourselves on nothing more than ambiguous signs from the future…” (Žižek, 134).

These ambiguous signs of what is to come might erupt in radical moments of events of the political, such as the massive demonstrations that followed the 2012 Delhi gang rape case in India. They might also trouble the banality of the aesthetic landscape, with long standing traditions of political art and theater being used to defy the tedious images of everyday capitalist complacency and political indifference.

In the Indian subcontinent there is a long genealogy of political street theatre often termed “Nukkad Natak,” a form of performance and theatre that is used to challenge public opinion through street plays, performance, flash mobs, song and dance. I will discuss uses of political theatre and art within contemporary feminist and queer movement in India, drawing on transnational comparisons.

About the lecture

This lecture will ask how the imagined stages of International “development,” often discussed within an unquestioned grammar of capitalist achievement, create obscene spectacles of disillusion.

Beginning however with bell hooks’s assertion regarding creativity as possibility; we will consider stages of International development beyond the erection of new shopping malls as markers of progress.

The raucous cries of protesters and the patient prose of poets still lingers, a beautiful chorus of everyday people’s ability to stage dissent.

In looking for signs of a political future of openness, I will suggest that we should pay attention to the street theatres of the everyday. (See BBC article, ‘Claiming Delhi’s streets to ‘break the cage’ for women‘).

We can witness the political eruptions of the everyday as passive spectators, watching Arab Spring revolts like television programmes, broadcast infinitely through computer screens. However, the political performances of the world can also inspire one to join the chorus, enacting meaningful forms of public dissent~in the streets.

Tara Atluri will deliver a BIH Public Lecture (titled “Centre Stages of Development: Performance, Public Art, and Sexual Politics”) on 3 March 2016 (6-8pm) B02, Malet Street Main Building. Book your place here

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