Performance in Public & Public in Performance

Performance in Public & Public in Performance

Interweaving Paradoxes: Reflections on a few marks from Anga Northeast

Any sort of Public Art, by condition, inherits some characteristics of a performance. If one does not agree to call it a Performance, at least, some performative aspects are always there. Any artwork situated in Public, or, addressed to the public, constructs the notion of public according to its spatial and conceptual location. There was never any absolute definition of the public out there. The process of constructing its own audience, defining the public, the essentially important concerns around time and space, the interactions with the environment, the materiality, the plastic embodiment and the process of decay, the presence and absence – all can lead our attention towards the performativity of the existence, of the being. Likewise, a piece of Performance Art at large has a tendency of palpably becoming an evidence of Public Art. A performance always seeks an audience. Even if there is no one, (say, in case of an isolated and intimate performance art experimentation), still there is an audience. A conceptual embodiment of a spectator is always there. That audience is always plural and public. Again if we go back to the enquiries on why performance as Art occurred in the history, if we put light on the fact that it somehow tried to destroy the white cube practice of the elite aesthetics, then also we would agree upon the fact that performance as art also tried to physically reach out a larger audience; a public audience that consists of passer-by onlookers. Thus, performance art and public art both categories have close and intimate relations. But as practices go on, we have tendencies to classify evidence and to define generic dispositions. From this point, we meet some paradoxes.

Father & son observing public art

Performance Art, the genre is intrinsically a notorious one for its constant shift from any kind of normative definitions. Still if one looks closely for a common feature, then perhaps it would be a tendency of instigating a critical dialogue against the ‘normative’. In that way, by nature, Performance Art is non-confrontational, radical and interventionist. At the same time, one can say any kind of Public Art also does the same by pulling the Art out of the white cube, by freeing it from the historical museums and galleries and seeking for a much varied and accidental encounters. Still, there are some severe and intricate problems, some paradoxes, and some conversed theoretical positions in interweaving the both: the public and the performance.

All kind of art needs a trained audience. Particularly the performing and entertainment arts, dance, theatre, cinema, always need a tradition: a tradition of performing as well as a tradition of spectatorship. That is how a language gets developed and a mutually participant community of the performers and spectators is built up. Within literature, perhaps poetry is the medium where the search for newness or novelty is more intense, and thus experimentation goes vigorously.

Likewise amongst the arts, in visual art’s people always look for something new. Whenever an idiom is established, very easily it tends to become cliché within a short period of time. This is astern point of crisis a practicing artist may face once he or she asks the conceptual location of the spectator. One address is always there in case of art, unlike a journal writing or a public intellectual where the target audience is very much clear, that is, it is always ‘to whom so ever it may be concerned’. Debates may grow up here onwards, as, the Performance Arts at the same time seek a wider range of audience, invite accidental encounters in the public sphere and on the other hand to make the communicative signs more functional it also aspect a trained gaze of the spectator. This is a paradox because we know that it is not possible to happen. You cannot try to reach out a ‘public’ outside the art-institutional space, and aspect the public to be well ‘educated’ at the same time.

Neighbourhood area

The problem of spectatorship is more complex in Assam for the diverged linguistic, cultural, ethnographic, migratory and political social history. The North Eastern Indian State of Assam could be seen as a microcosm of India. The idea of a nation has been a process till now. A social or political history could not be written in singularity. And as the modernist History of Art in India has its base in the colonial period, in Assam it could not construct its own history of art since the colonial rulers entered that land quite late. Moreover, the social tapestry full of indigenous aboriginals was inherently reluctant towards the modernist attitude. The rise of the middle class was a late twentieth century phenomena. This statement was important because it is the middle class who palpably builds concerns around nationalism, identity and constructed methodical history as well. Even before the national identity had gotten an apparent contour for itself, the world suffered from globalization and open market, and the impossibility of a totalitarian superstructure was realized. The Ethnic assertion, search for a nation-state identity and coping up with the global economy – all these three facets were ever intolerant to each other.

Under these conditions, an artist in Guwahati, Guwahati not as a city but a locale, tries to make a body of work in the public. The instance, without even looking at the artwork, without going to the formal experience, immediately addresses these set of problems: to whom it may be concerned? Whose subjectivity is it addressing? Which set of Public? Which community?

Public awareness project on toilets

My first encounter with Anga Northeast, a collective made by some students and alumnae of Government College of Art and Crafts, Guwahati was in 2012 through a public interactive venture done during the “Regional Art, Performance and Events”, R.A.P.E 2012. The collective built up a series of public toilets with locally available natural materials in the heart of the city Guwahati. Those makeshift toilets were actually not for use, as they were perceived as artworks, according to the collective’s claim. No promise of permanence was there. The project was a good example to look at the collective’s attitude towards public art for many reasons. People were curious and passerby used to visit with a curiosity to see – what is inside. The local public and the town authorities were astonished to see the sudden presence of those structures, as there was no permission taken or no public announcement made beforehand to create a more interventionist gesture. It was a project to disturb. Collecting materials, preparing over the night and installing the makeshift toilets in the early morning – the series of action were considered as a collective performance. In recent years the collective continues taking up ventures systematically to ensure their attitude towards practice in public.

Any work in public, by condition, is bound to be an intervention. The methods, experiences, and gains of the intervention become more profound over any other concerns. Anga Northeast has been executing a new venture, an ongoing project, where the artists recreate an image that they encountered in their art classes in random spaces. In a conversation with the artists they stated, they tried it out of the curiosity – to see how it could create a dialogue amongst the ‘ordinary’ people. Art institutions and the artists’ community always have been isolated from the ‘everyday’ of the public life. Evidence from Goya or Vincent Van Gogh inside the classroom may have different significance. But when it is placed in public on a different material and surface it would embody a different set of context. It is a process of creating a context by pulling out materials out of the context.

In the collective’s own voice,

Famous painting copied on a tea-stall

“A collective project intended to become the catalyst for generating multi-layered reactions, interactions, and meanings in the Ganeshnagar area of Guwahati. It aims to pull out art historical narratives towards the local and immediate context of Ganeshnagar suburb. This painterly response towards immediate surrounding begun with the collaboration between the local community and the Artists of the Anga Northeast. The community is providing the multi-textured surfaces (walls, doors, windows etc.) for the ongoing project which is making the art historical imagery more textured, ordinary, accessible, and a thing of everyday. In this way this collaboration is liberating the art history from its aged context and institutionalized spaces”.

Noteworthy that, Anga Northeast was formed back in 2010 by a set of students as a revolt against the pedagogy of the Art College.

“During B.F.A. we, a group of student used to go outdoors for watercolor. We roam around collectively, working together, discussing, arguing, and sharing our thought with each other. Indeed we visited the art gallery in Assam and the works, their practices, and the visual language cannot quench us. We were searching for new or beyond the convention. We realize the collective power which unconsciously emerged in between us; also we called as a group or water color group or discussion group. Apart from this, in the academic structure we didn’t get enough space for work; college’s studio is open for limited time, even no space for any discussion, we did not get new things or contemporary works attitude from our faculty or from the students”

 – an artist form Anga Northeast states.


Artists working at the tea-stall

Anga Northeast is a collective with a large number of young practicing artists. The associated artists collectively, and with individual efforts are trying to intervene in the public sphere. In all the efforts they are trying to examine the nuances of an intervention; develop the understanding of material and surface. Not only through the formal execution of the work but also with the process and verbal communication, they are constantly creating a dialogue within and outside. As a result, the performative gesture they adopted so far is not limited to the ways that the Performance Art (as a piece of work) usually does.




Public Art at an unexpected place

The works and methods of Anga Northeast stand apart from the state sponsored ‘Art in Public’. They also stay away from the idea of using art for beautification. The artists of Anga Northeast mostly work with locally available materials and they are against the idea of permanence. In an article written in Assamese language, long ago we stated a few things upon the importance of performance in Assamese Artistic practice along with the understanding of the impermanence or the ephemeral. With a bit of sarcasm, I said, the geography and climate in Assam do not allow an artist to think of a long-lived plastic material production. If a wood-carve sculpture is left outside, there are termites. Oil paintings are destroyed by fungus. One cannot apply watercolor in the damp process on paper because the weather is so damp that the paper takes a long time to dry up. Above the humor or sarcasm, what we tried to do was to grab attention towards the performative artistic devices. As we stated earlier, the lack of a plastic Art History on this land was witnessed because the devoid of the modernist movements. But at the same time, it also should be counted that the cultural environment is also full of thousands of rituals and other performance traditions. Instead of looking at the Visual Art as an independent discipline, all visual experiences are to be understood as once ore even now essentially as parts of some other cultural practices. So, the modernist individual artist needs to look back at the vibrant textile of the northeast, pottery, and other crafts. Above all, at the performances: at the idea of impermanence. The predominant philosophies also said about impermanence in this land, from Buddhism through Vaishnavism: “athira dhana-jana, athir youvana”(unstable is the property, material, and life).

Graffiti on the wall

While walking out of the institutional space of Art Education and entering the everyday institute of the public, if the artists’ collective encountered the question of addressing and defining the ‘public’ itself, then why not using other means of communication to understand it better? So, the artists’ collective continued other activities like going out, meeting people, organizing a film screening to understand: the public space, the outdoor, the site-specificity, the ordinary every day. On January 2nd, 2017, there was a public conference as a protest against the Government’s

Citizenship Amendment Bill, co-hosted by three organizations in Guwahati – Uki, Literary Factory and Anga Northeast at Laksmiram Baruah Sadan. The entire set up or arrangement of the conference was intervened by installation works to disturb the environment of a regular discussion session. This evidence reminds me when some of these artists used to appear with a tooth brush brushing the teeth in a press meet, and also in a theatre festival at Rabindra Bhawan during the R.A.P.E 2012 activities. That was also an attempt to destroy the sophistication, the monotony of a national cultural and elite environment. Here we can remember another evidence of such intervention, interference or re-appropriation done by an artist from the collective.

Usually, the campus of the Art College is filled with life study figures done by students in the classroom. Once the Artist placed some bamboo sticks to the genitals of those left apart nude male figures in the campus. These evidence also inform us that for Anga Northeast the ‘public’ is not a fixed category. At-large the word ‘public’ denotes two contradictory types. One is a commonplace, mundane, ordinary, and accessible to everybody. The other is the state buildings, congregational halls that are public, but publicly accessible only under certain rules and conditions. The artists’ collective is being engaged with the both ideas of the ‘public’.

Now, what we started up with, let us talk about the problem: the problem in bringing Performance Art to the public and in locating the spectator or onlooker. After looking at the approaches taken by the Anga Northeast, we shall realize that the problem actually lies in modernist gaze: in the pedagogy, in the attempt of putting the performance in a disciplinary normative and above all in looking at the Art and the Artist within the modernist bracket. The young artists were suffering from the lack of an environment where they could explore their artistic expressions and that crisis forced them to look at the public. Then they discovered that the art-school training and the public sphere had no intimation in actual. From the basic trouble – ‘for whom the artork is addressed to’ – the ‘Artist’ eventually faced the question: where is the trained spectator?

Public involved in the project

During a conversation with an artist from Anga Northeast, who is also exploring the public sphere in recent years through performances, the artist said about one of his dream projects. It was a Performance Art project, and to achieve the desired goal he felt he needed some more time to prepare: not only prepare the self but also the desired spectators. The idea of building up the audience in context to a particular work over the period of a time was a good and fascinating idea. It could add layers to the work promising more involvement and more intense communication. In many performance ventures, we usually keep doing this: we try to reach out to the public through writings, through media, and through other mediatic extensions. But again, what exactly we are talking about by saying ‘preparing’ the spectatorship? If it is about ‘educating’ the public, again the critique of power relation may fall back. Also, looking back to the complexity of the social structure, the way the ‘public’ life is being weaved out in the land, the more profound question will be raised there: public, but what public? Which Public?

Whose subjectivity is being sought for?

[During this writing I was in communication with Anupam Saikia, Dharmendra Prasad, Ankan Dutta, Dhrubajit Sarma and Bidyut Sagar, some of the members of Anga Northeast. All the views stated here are of the writer. Image Courtesy: Anga Northeast]


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There is a connection, hard to explain logically but easy to feel, between achievement in public life and progress in the arts.

John F. Kennedy