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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Time Out: Sexual Politics and the Question of Progress

This post was contributed by Dr Tara Atluri, visit 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 approaching BIH and Birkbeck Gender & Sexuality (BiGS) workshop on sexual politics (February 18,  1.30pm-3.30pm, room 402, Malet Street Main Building)

Chinese artist and political dissident Ai Wei Wei states that, “The internet is a wild land with its own games, languages, and gestures through which we are starting to share common feelings.”

And yet, how can one access cyber-utopias of meritocratic dreams on street corners and back alleys, in the traffic of cities, with no place from which to revel in blissful platitudes?

The “It gets better” campaign is predominantly a viral media campaign that began as a response to the suicides of queer youth in North America. The campaign involves online videos staging inspirational narratives of those who have overcome adversity. It is undoubtedly a tool of support for those who experience oppression.

However, one can consider how this viral media campaign exists in cyberspace, apart from the politics and economics of material space. ‘Betterment’ can describe individual embodiment. And yet, “betterment” can also describe “development” in ways that assume that economic wealth and the gentrification of cities are improvements. (Watch Guardian video: Anthony Gormley: “London is bought, developed and abandoned”)

We are told that cities “get better” with more expensive coffee bars where one can access Wi-Fi, and yet rising prices in rent and the disillusion of the commons can spell suicide for sexual politics in the streets.

Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner state, “There is nothing more public than privacy”(547) They further discuss `sex publics’ stating that,

Some of these publics have an obvious relation to sex: pornographic cinema, phone sex, “adult” markets for print, lap dancing. Others are organized around sex, but not necessarily sex acts in the usual sense: queer zones and other worlds estranged from heterosexual culture, but also more tacit scenes of sexuality like official national culture, which depends on a notion of privacy to cloak its sexualization of national membership. (547) (Read more here)

The authors discuss zoning laws that came into place in New York which lead to the closure of many gay bars on St. Christopher Street, once a well-known queer area. They state,

Now, gay men who want sexual materials or who want to meet other men for sex will have two choices: they can cathect the privatized virtual public of phone sex and the internet; or they can travel to small, inaccessible, little-trafficked, badly lit areas, re- mote from public transportation and from any residences, mostly on the waterfront, where heterosexual porn users will also be relocated and where the risk of violence will consequently be higher. (551)

Similarly, one can consider recent closures of many queer spaces in London such as the bar, The Joiners Arms in East London. While “betterment” within neoliberal discourse involves images of financially successful queers working overtime, the doors of the after hours that once housed alternative sex publics are slammed shut.

Far from being endemic to the West, questions of space, sex, and “betterment” cross borders. As Mayur Suresh writes,`

One of the first documented protests against police harassment of queer men in India was held in response to police raids targeting gay cruising in Central Park, Connaught Place in New Delhi. (Suresh, opendemocracy)

In the traffic of Mumbai, in the traffic of Delhi, flamboyant sari clad dancers strut between rows of cars asking tourists en route to airports, businessmen en route to offices, and middle class families in SUVs for change. Hijras, often referred to in secular English language discourse as male to female transgender persons are often found in contemporary neoliberal India, begging in the traffic of cities. The genealogy of the Hijra is connected to mythologies pre-dating colonial rule. Hijras originary religious role lay in blessing children.

In the space of neoliberal urban India, the Hijra body has not necessarily gotten “better” with Victorian colonial moralities and laws policing sex, or with capitalist models of “development.”

Suresh discusses a 2004 case of a Hijra who was gang raped and subject to police harassment,

Kokila told the police about the gang rape, but instead of registering a case and sending her for a medical examination, they harassed her with offensive language and took her along with the two men to the Byappanahalli Police Station. (Suresh, opendemocracy)

Beyond the tempo of Google there are bodies in the streets, beaten and harassed, living and loving in the streets. Solipsistic urban publics stare into cell phones, ignoring those whom they encounter in shared space. Privacy exists for the privileged few. Fear is fuelled by gated communities and an infinite array of private passwords. In the meantime, cities of wealth turn citizenship into a question of capital, dividing insiders from outsiders, with the colonizing spirit of settlers extending to the gentrification of dark corners of cities.

If we are to envision inspirational sexual politics today, we should perhaps avert our eyes momentarily from the glare of mall lighting and MacBooks. Before it can ever get better, perhaps it should get critical.

Tara Atluri will be giving a BIH and Birkbeck Gender & Sexuality (BiGS) workshop (titled “Time Out: Sexual Politics and the Temporal Maps of International Development”) on 18 February (13.30 -15.30), Room 402, Malet Street Main Building. Book your place here.

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