(Published in Indie Art Zine, August, 2016)
Looking into the possibilities of art-activism symbiosis
STE is a branch of SPACE—The Society for Promoting the Arts, Culture and Education, based in Goa. It functions as a travelling theater troupe offering workshops and performances, featuring a varying number of young energetic artists. Content-wise, their areas of interest also fit into the category of cultural activism. One finds that intriguing, because activism and art do not always go well hand in hand. Although both involves, in their own ways, means to reach out to people—the more the merrier. At various levels they need each other too.
A direct information-feed provided by an external agent—in particular an activist propaganda— may sound like a dictation or a sermon if it lacks a physical, emotional and intellectual involvement of the audience. Because it becomes either decontextualized and uninteresting due to lack of exposure of the audience to the corresponding history (hence their lack of identification with the underlying issue), or a drag due to lack of articulation skill on the agent’s part. Whereas an indirect representation of the same information through art may appear more approachable, and thus may be able to propagate that same information to the same audience through an abstract ‘masking’ of the feed. Thus the audience who were at the receiving end of the information turn into an active interpreter of the information and hence an insider—an ‘activist collaborator’. The skill of a good political orator, for example, or even of a teacher is comparable to that of a performance artist.
Artistic representations sometimes may also be able to provide a succinct, self-sufficient background of the context (e.g. through skits or songs or infographics), which then may be perceived by the audience as an abbreviated version of the larger scenario and generate interest in the latter.
On the other hand, art is essentially a faction of semantics—creating meaningful signs that the artist uses to express observations and opinions. Moreover, art too often aspires to talk about socio-political-economic issues in some form or the other through its various tools (forms and techniques) of ‘masking’, and needs to be seen—in order to become worthy of exploration—not merely as whims of individual agents, but a channel of development of communication among growing number of people. In this perspective, art may and does become a parallel documentation of not only culture but history and sociology, economic and political theories.
This is why it is important to understand for every artist where her art comes from. Not just the brain and the soul, but in terms of sources of inspiration, intent, target audience and last but not the least funding. It is equally important for every active member of the audience to demand to probe into the process as much as the product which is being presented to her through art, in particular performances. And this is also why it is vital for the artist to differentiate whether to perceive her creation as a commodity or an expression. Because, even when it comes to commodity products, the audience (or the buyer) is some sort of an insider within the producer-seller-consumer chain. But that is not the same as the ideal of comradery among the activist collaborators.
Speaking about sources of inspiration—it is indeed a performance by STE that inspired me to write this essay. It was not so-to-say a perfect show, nor was it an embodiment of absolutely everything that I would hover on here. But it gave me a very strong starting point to start this discussion. As I try to express in the title, it is not just about reviewing that one particular performance by STE. It is more about some of the above-mentioned aspects in the case of performing arts and activism, in terms of my own understanding revisited through that performance. Nonetheless, I am grateful to the STE performance for representing images and processes of this kind of activist collaboration that has haunted me for a long time.
Activist collaboration in art via STE