Episode 5

EPISODE 5

Art in the Service of Public Knowledge

In the final episode of our inaugural mini series, we are in conversation with artist Jasmeen Patheja. Jasmeen is the founder of BlankNoise – a multi city / multi country collective that has been instrumental in building public discourse and shifting conciseness on sexual violence in public spaces.

Transcript

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SECTION 1: OPENING

You are listening to the Unsettling Knowledge INEQUITIES podcast, presented by the Knowledge Equity Lab (housed at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Critical Development Studies) and SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition). 

SECTION 2: INTRO

Safa

In the final episode of our inaugural mini series, we are in conversation with artist Jasmeen Patheja, based in Bangalore, India. Jasmeen is the founder of BlankNoise. 

BlankNoise began as Jasmeen’s graduation project at the Srishti Institute of Art Design and Technology in 2003.  Since then it has grown into a multi city / multi country collective that has been instrumental in building public discourse and shifting conciosness on sexual violence in public spaces. 

They do so through a range of multi media interventions, including public performances, video, audio, live action, and more.  

Blank Noise interventions are designed to shift the fear based relationship women have been taught to have with public spaces in their cities. 

All of Blank Noise is built  on the lived experiences and insights of its community participants – referred to as action Sheroes, Heroes, and Theyroes. 

SECTION 3: MAIN CONTENT  

Jasmeen  

My name is Jasmeen Patheja and I’m an artist, as I call myself, an artist in public service. I live in India. And I’ve been working to end violence against women, girls and non-binary persons since 2003. The work that I do started in response to street harassment. In India, or South Asia, it was referred to as ‘teasing’ as ‘eve teasing’. I’m an artist, and I’ve been working to build discourse on this, build consciousness on this issue, to build agency in ending sexual and gender based violence through community mobilization. 

I grew up in Calcutta, and I moved to Bangalore in my early adulthood, you know, I moved here to study. And being on my own in a new city meant that I was out and about on my own, experiencing harassment on the streets, not really having a vocabulary for it, not really having a community to address it with. And the ones that I did bring this issue to, you know, they were my classmates, my friends. And the only kind of response I would get back then was: it’s normal, it happens, don’t make a big deal out of it, boys are like this. But when I started noticing, you know, these are some things that could not be unnoticed, or unseen after that. I saw that my friends, women around me went out in groups, or they had equipped themselves with patriarchal tools like a boyfriend. So yeah, there were these unspoken rules that people lived by, that women lived by, and fear was normalized and invisibilized. And that’s really where the need to have these conversations and to address this and to build community around this emerged, for me personally. I think one of the thrills of being on my own in a city as a student, was the idea of exploring the city, going to places, setting my own timelines, or no timelines at all or no deadline, you know, just navigating freedom and claiming freedom, and navigating experiences that made the body or my body threatened. I found myself walking with a fist, walking with, you know, a death stare. And recognizing that something in this wasn’t right. This is not how it’s supposed to be. But why aren’t we talking about it? And besides that, an art student, I was interested in questions around art practice that was built by community, you know, how do artists work with people? Who makes the art? Is it one artist? Or can it be built by many? Can art heal? Can art shift consciousness? Can art confront? These were some of the questions that I was exploring, and I was introduced to community arts and public arts and feminist art practice with this kind of inquiry. And I was also part of a year long lab where I was studying at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, you know, which brought art and design students together for a period of one year, and where we learned about social issues and learned about our role in navigating and working with social issues. And it also addressed the fact that traditionally speaking artists and designers were brought in at the end of a vision program to address social issues. They were brought to make communication tools, they were proud to apply their skills to solve a social issue in a more traditional way – like you make a film, you make a poster, and you work in that space. But can artists also be at the start of the process? Can artists bring stakeholders together? Can artists be visionaries? Can artists be facilitators? Can artists build new questions for inquiry? And can artists contribute to public knowledge and build public knowledge through community? So these were some of the questions that I was introduced to, and also introduced to social issues as not something that can be resolved through didactic messaging, but needs community building, community engagement, and I think experiences of street harassment are missing community, and this deep interest in questions of who makes art and being introduced to feminist art practice led to me proposing a need for this conversation. And that’s how BlankNoise began.

Safa  

Over the years, BlankNoise has initiated various projects designed to build community, creatively and powerfully question taken for granted ideas about street harrassment, facilitate dialogue about patriarchy and rape culture, and reclaim the right of women, queer and non binary people to feel safe in public spaces. 

Jasmeen  

I wanted to address this. And I didn’t know what to call this, I said, and I muttered and mumble is it eve teasing? I want to address this issue. And didn’t have a name for it. And I said, you know, I’d like to work on this for my graduation project, there were three months given to each student. And that’s, you know, where this proposal began to see life. And this was immediately after the Communication for Social Change Lab. And I brought all, you know, the girl students – at that time Srishti was a very young college, it was just 3 years old. And there were very few students, I think we were 100 students in the entire campus, so about 60, you know, 60 students, mostly in from their first year, women students, cis women got into the room, and they were given the word public space, and invited to make a mind map with it. In less than 3 minutes, there were largely negative associations, there were words like: groping, feeling uncomfortable, discomfort, feeling sick inwards. So these words emerged. And then the real question was: if we’re experiencing this, why aren’t we talking about it? How do we talk about it? So out of the 60, about 9 stayed back and said I’d like to do something about it. And that led to our first 9 action sheroes, and it set off a 3 month period of workshops, where I was locating myself as a facilitator and building conversations. And we really explored our private identities and public identities and, you know, access to memory, questioned what was lingering still in the body – we hadn’t forgotten but hadn’t verbalized yet, did not have vocabulary for it yet, or questioned our silence, or questioned, like the kind of intergenerational transfer of fear. So it created a safe space to address street harassment and the emotions and feelings associated with experiencing any kind of violence, be it in the street or any other space. But we created solidarity and there was a consciousness raising process within this group of 9 and me, 10. And then I graduated with an in house exhibition. But with these large looming questions of there is, you know, the 9 of us have affirmed a certain truth to each other. And we’ve created a safe space together. But how does this issue which affects all of us really be one that can visibly be all of us? Right? Like, I don’t think back then at 23 or when I was graduating, I didn’t have that vocabulary to call it a ‘movement’. But I look back and I can see myself, and yeah, it was always designed  – or envisioned rather than designed, it was always envisioned to be a movement. Why aren’t we all talking about it? Why aren’t women who are experiencing violence talking about it? So that set, I think these kind of questions and how do we talk about it? What are the forms and methodologies and media in which we talk about it? How do we break denial even? Right, like, and I think that’s why ‘BlankNoise’ because we continue to work towards breaking, you know, denial, or sitting uncomfortably towards being self confrontational today, in different ways, in different spaces that we continue to grow in or live in or inhabit. As I said, I look back and I see that it was really always about movement building. And back then I didn’t call it that. But now I can see it as that, you know, those inquiries, those questions, led to now 18 years or 17 years of a collective that has been built by many – on the labor, the generosity, the lived experiences of many.

Safa  

Through her work as an artist, oral herstorian, facilitator – whether through collective actions, talks, community sessions, classes and more – Jasmeen is consistently challenging and contributing to public knowledge exchange related to the various layers and dimensions of gender based violence, especially victim blaming.  

Jasmeen  

Everything that we have been working on has been towards shifting public consciousness, towards creating public knowledge – and it’s built by a public, it is for the public, and towards really creating a larger understanding that’s rooted in empathy. “I Never Asked for It” started as an idea back in 2004, in recognizing that there were women who didn’t wish to speak. I was getting responses like, it’s not something that happens to me, how can you ask me such a question, I’m not that type of woman. Or I want to talk and I was wearing my school uniform, and it still happened. So I started noticing that women remembered what they were wearing. And they were bringing that in almost in a way to check in with themselves. And that led to, you know, that noticing has led to what we call our mission today, “I Never Asked for It” mission. And from the very beginning, we’ve been asking people, women to send them clothes they were wearing when they experienced violence. That garment is memory, witness and voice to an experience of sexual assault. And what we are working towards is to bring 10,000 garments together, 10,000 audio and physical garments together and unite them at sites of public significance in 3 years. And the reason why I say 10,000 is so that it can really propel and foster a collaborative approach. That it can be built by all, that it is built by all and it’s designed to be built by all -it’s a facilitated process. All of BlankNoise rests on, you know, collaborations and solidarity building without assuming solidarity – that it is a process, it’s a relationship building process, it is labor. And that’s really what “I Never Asked for It” rests on. I also want to go back and forth in timelines here. When we started out, it was about noticing that women remembered these clothes, remembered what they were wearing. Then it turned into making that visible and asking people to share what they were wearing, and then contributing to a public discourse to say that clothes don’t matter. So this is again 2004,2005, 2006 when we were consistently, persistently saying clothes don’t matter. And this is what our  “I Never Asked for it Work” is revealing to us. But now, the discourse has shifted for BlankNoise and also I mean, we know clothes don’t matter. That is public and global discourse at the moment. But what we are working on is to recognize internalized blame, to recognize and heal from blame. You know, that’s what we are working on, whether it’s not about the length of my skirt versus the length of your skirt, and us having to bring that and make that visible. But it is really about going beyond that. It is about the garment being memory, being witness, being voice to an experience of assault, to being a witness to an experience of abuse, an experience of threat or violation and stepping in in a way to say I was there. And in 2012, India experienced the murder and gang rape of Jyoti Singh, it was known as the Delhi Gang Rape. After which it led to a new conversation in the country, it led to violence in public spaces being addressed. Many new groups emerged since then. There’s a lot more emphasis on violence against women in public spaces at the moment, which is great. It also led BlankNoise – for us to think about the question of how are spaces of violence interconnected? So I found that after 2012, what became clearer to our work was that we were working with the idea of how is home connected with the street? With the campus? With the bus? With the airplane? With the web? And what is this thing that is, you know, permeating across these spaces? And it is indeed, victim blaming. Violence against women and girls and non binary persons across spaces, is justified through victim blame. And that became the entry point to work with a new focus on “I Never Asked for It”,  with “I Never Asked for It”.  To bring in, you know, she made me lose my temper, I hit her – domestic violence, intimate partner violence. Blame is used to justify the action. So it’s not about what you were wearing in that sense of having to defend ourselves. This is what I was wearing. It was nothing provocative. But it is about the garment coming as memory and witness. So yeah, so “I Never Asked for It” is not here to defend what we were wearing. But it is here to create solidarity, to create our listening capacity. It is not enough at this stage to tell survivors of violence to speak. It is us, It’s on us to build our capacity to listen. And behind the proposal of 10,000 garment testimonials, is the kind of labor that rests on podcasts and listening and creating listening circles and also building networks and structures and systems. So for example, the project for campuses is really where they’re studying what is patriarchy on campus. And can a “I Never Asked for It” installation disrupt that climate, disrupt that campus climate and nudge it towards being a feminist climate. So we have been building internships, and doing research projects, and setting up pilots for building “I Never asked for It” on campus.

Safa  

In envisioning and facilitating this work, Jasmeen aimed to expand how the role of the artist is understood in society and contribute to community knowledge production and exchange regarding gender based violence in public spaces. She has facilitated various creative interventions that address and confront street harassment and shift the climate of fear and blame. 

Jasmeen  

So I don’t see art as an application. It’s more of – as an artist, what language are we creating? What forms are we working with? What forms look familiar, but can be, can be used in a way that opens something else? You know, for example, in India, there is a popular kind of community – it’s a community space where people meet in the mornings, and they laugh. It’s called Laughter club. So we looked into that, we looked into this idea of the Laughter club that on the front of it, on the face of it, it’s a familiar form. But what if this was a women’s only Laughter Club? And women came in and essentially what we did was we created this Haha Sangha, where women from across the neighborhood were brought together or invited in, and anyone could come in, you know, you bring your friend along, and it was facilitated. But the idea was to really keep it open, and to ensure that we had, you know, a group of women coming together from the neighborhood and simply laughing together. Now, on the face of it, it looked like a Laughter club. And it was, but it was also a deliberate attempt, a conscious attempt, a deliberate attempt to bring an intergenerational group of women together, to get them to know each other, to build familiarity and friendships, and to also occupy a park, to also claim your park, your neighborhood park, as a woman, through laughter, through the sound of laughter when we’ve been taught for so long to cover our mouth or giggle. What does it mean to roar in laughter and to do that publicly or in a community? And what happens when intergenerational women get together? Can a place be experienced as safe and welcoming versus threatening? So again, I’m just sharing this as one example. But what we do is responding to situations and I just see it as one idea building off another idea, you know. At BlankNoise – when I look at it from a distance, I see it into halves really, where one half of our practice or my practice as a community artist or a artist in public service, one half of this practice is really about building testimonials of violence, and finding ways to do so. And finding ways to do so is where the methodologies meet this challenge of denial. How do we understand denial? How do we understand the silence? How do we understand that behind the silence is victim blame? Is shame, is guilt, is the fear of being not believed. Is the fear of being judged. So all of that, I think, in 2003, it was about being confronted with silence and denial. And everything after that was around – that’s where the “I Never Asked for It” mission began, was really about recognizing what was behind that silence. What was behind that denial. Why is it that back then in 2003, when I would ask women, and again, I say women, but there’s a shift in the vision over the years, because it’s also an ongoing public conversation. And it’s been shaped by that – by multiple responses and persons in the community. But yeah, back then, in 2003, you know, when I would ask women to talk about their experiences of street harassment, because it started in response to street harassment, I would get varying responses from: how can you ask me a question like this, I’m not that type of a woman. I have never experienced it. Or I have, and I can’t believe it happened. And I want to talk to you about it. I was wearing my school uniform, and it still happened. And I was wearing a sari, and it still happened. And I was wearing something very traditional, and it still happened. So I started noticing, back then, that women remembered their clothes, women brought up the memory of the garment. So that’s something I’ve been attending to since 2003. But to just go back to how we work, when I see it, again, from a bird’s eye view, one half of the practice is listening to testimonials of violence, and finding ways to build these testimonials, because there has been for too long, and now we see that chipping away in a good way, that climate of denial and silence and shame. The other half of BlankNoise is uniting people and creating solidarities through a place of collective imagination, of you know, desire of creating the world we deserve to inhabit, the cities we deserve to inhabit, the homes we deserve to inhabit, the parks we deserve to inhabit, the new memories our bodies deserve. So those collective actions are really rooted in that – and to again, reiterate that I kind of see it as why not? You know, the question of why not and to recognize and make visible an injustice and the ‘what if’ – which is what is possible? So it’s not problem solving necessarily in a direct kind of way. But it is rooted in these questions of recognizing, making visible what the issue is. And when it’s hard to see the issue because there’s denial around it, we’ve been working to build those methodologies on how to have those conversations. And the other is the what if  – you know what, what if women were sleeping in the open? What would it do to our bodies? What would it do to memory, the memory of the body? What would it do to the – could it disrupt the intergenerational transfer of fear? What would it do to public spaces? What story would it tell collectively too? So again, I’ll just come back to the building testimonials. I mean, we’ve been responding to the silence and the shame and the denial. So we had to learn to ask questions differently. So our project, the “Museum of Street Weapons of Defense”, which was initiated in 2005, we asked people on the streets of Bangalore and on the blog, you know, is there something you don’t leave home without? And that led to responses like set of keys, and always between my fingers. Or a pepper spray, or chili powder, or just recently, somebody told me a really heavy object in my bag. And then I said, what is that, she said its usually a water bottle. But this sense of preparedness, you know, so the “Museum of Street Weapons of Defense” revealed that we experience fear on the streets of our very own cities. And that back in 2005, was a nudge or an entry point to a conversation about fear. That which was made invisible was in these ways, we were trying to make it visible. And of course, the press over the years, has played a tremendous role in amplifying what we’ve been doing, and also building community in that way.

Safa

As Jasmeen explains, the press has played an active role in the conversations and collective actions that BlankNoise has initiated.  

Jasmeen  

In 2006, one of our fellow action sheroes, Smeeta – it was around March, end Feb, and she said, why don’t we propose an event where various bloggers can,you know, speak about street harassment, can speak about their experiences in public spaces. And then a team of action shero,hero, theyro volunteers got together and they organized this, you know, they wrote to various bloggers and it led to over 250 entries, back then, of bloggers sharing their experiences of street harassment on March 8 2006. Every other blog was speaking about street harassment, had championed the call to the blogathon. And many were speaking for the first time about something that they had not articulated yet something that had affected their relationship with their city, some were recalling incidents that were very recent, some were recalling incidents that had happened 30/40 years ago, but they hadn’t forgotten. And that blogathon really kind of travelled. It travelled various Google Groups back then and mailing lists back then, and also reached press, nationally, internationally locally. And I really think like the power of people’s testimonials, the action shero community, the bloggers were now also action sheroes, as we call ourselves. The power of these narratives led to people writing to us from across the world even, saying, you know, we want to start chapters where we are, we want to have these conversations. you know, and that led to BlankNoise Hydrabad, BlankNoise Calcutta, BlankNoise Chennai. Most of these people, or these persons were in their early 20s, back then, they were bloggers. And that’s really how, from the blog to a network, a community of bloggers to a network to a collective kind of started growing and building itself. And when we were designing these actions, like being idle, because there was a BlankNoise Bombay and a BlankNoise Hydrabad, these actions would happen simultaneously across the country. So it’s really been, you know, if we didn’t do “Being Idle”, we wouldn’t have done “A Walk Alone”, if he didn’t do night action plans, we would not have built a “Talk to Me” in 2012. So every project, every intervention, every idea that has emerged is rooted in what the blogathon testimonial said, what women and survivors of violence have said. And listening, deep listening has inspired new action. Sharing and speaking about experiences of harassment, of violence has allowed us to identify and create vocabulary and verbalize what these experiences were, to create space to speak and be heard and be believed. Like the blogathon revealed feel, and then our street actions on being idle and claiming our bodies and our public environments and building a relationship with our cities and our public spaces that wasn’t rooted in fear, but in pride and belonging, that’s the kind of narrative and that’s the kind of work we started creating. So the blogathon testimonials were a start to both making it visible and building a community around what was being made visible.

Safa  

In addition to the press, those that curiously view and engage with the public performances and interventions of BlankNoise also have a very important role to play in the knowledge exchange and consciousness raising that happens or transpires during the lifetime of these projects. 

Jasmeen  

I don’t see any action as designed for an audience. I believe that everyone’s part of this issue. And the question is, how does it speak to you? So for instance, back then, in 2006, 2007, when we were doing these actions on learning to be idle in public spaces and learning to make eye contact and learning to lean by city railings, and yeah, we would have people stopping by and saying: what are you doing here? Are you waiting for someone? Do you want a cigarette? And there would be mostly men stopping by and asking these questions. We would just respond by saying absolutely nothing, or that I’m just standing. Yeah, and just the idea of 1 woman or 100 women was a provocation, was a question. And that’s what we wanted to create. We wanted to ask ourselves, also, what would happen to our bodies if we did this? And what would happen to a place? How would it shift and disrupt the nature of a place? Similarly, when we’re doing “Meet to Sleep”, unless it’s announced, in terms of where we’re doing this – and we most often do not ever announce, I mean, in one case, it was announced, but we don’t announce and it’s more like a surprise, you know. And it’s a surprise in a way of the people are curious, people are wondering, you know, why are so many women sleeping or just lying down? And we’ve had people come by and say, why are you here? What are you doing? And we just say we are just sleeping. So it’s almost a way of saying yeah, this is normal, you know, in a way of really playing with  – playing with that and being that surprise and allowing ourselves to  surprise and leaving it at that, and wanting people to be a little puzzled and that’s good. There have also been other situations where you know, there are security guards at parks who have, you know, said you can’t sleep on the grass, so they slept on the bench – ‘Why Loiters’ is a group that we collaborated with to also to build “Meet to Sleep” in Bombay, and that’s where they were chased off the parks and they said that you know, they’re gonna claim their right to at least sleep on the bench. But in the ones that have happened in other cities, we hear people are puzzled, people are surprised and we want that. So there is no audience as such, but there is the person who is as much part of this, of this script, of this proposal, who is puzzled, who is confused, who is confronted, who is surprised.

Safa  

Since its inception, BlankNoise has always relied on co-creation. Numerous volunteers and collaborators of all ages have been involved in crafting and bringing its public performances and initiatives to life – not merely to help bring attention to gender based violence, but to locate themselves in the work and to transform their own ideas, assumptions, memories and somatic experiences. 

Jasmeen  

Everything I know and everything I share today is what I’ve learned through the lives and experiences of multiple action sheroes, heroes and theyroes, and also, you know, feminist allies, groups and communities that we’ve collaborated with in recent years. But an action shero, hero, or theyro is any person, any individual anywhere in the world, or in India, who wants to do something, wants to take agency in ending sexual and gender based violence. And we really believe that every human being has the ability, the potential, and also the capacity to do something, to take one small step to influence a safe space. And it is really on us to recognize that. To recognize what it is that I can do in my smallest way to make it safe for another. And that’s really what BlankNoise rests on. It is – very often people come in to volunteer in a more traditional way of wanting to help an organization. That’s where our work begins – to change that, exactly that. To say, this is about all of us, this is about you, this is about what you witnessed growing up too, and continue to witness today. You could have even, you know, unconsciously caused it, you could have experienced it, you could have witnessed it. And this is what brings us together. So it rests on this – the journey of the shero, or the hero or the theyro rests on recognizing – that recognizing and locating themselves as to why they’re really here. And for the cis men also, to go beyond I’m here to help a woman’s issue, to really locate oneself in it. Why does this affect you? So that’s, you know, that’s the premise that BlankNoise is built on. And that’s the labor that BlankNoise is built on, the lived experiences it’s built on, and the generosity also that it’s built on. So an idea like “Meet to Sleep” has been built on collective feminist labor. It’s been built through the collaboration of multiple organizations and multiple collectives in different parts of the country, rural and urban. And it’s also relied on networks like Sangat. And so Sangat is led by Kamla Bhasin, Sangta South Asia. And Kamla Bhasin is a poet, an activist, a feminist and somebody we love and respect. And she raised the flag to action, she championed the call to action, and it led to various organizations also building “Meet to Sleep”. So yeah, Kamla Bhasin has been an ally. And yeah, just wanted to take a moment to bring this in. And to also bring in the fact that BlankNoise rests on collective labor, both action sheroes,heroes, theyroes, citizens and people , which could be even the listener, anyone anywhere, right? And the other is really the feminist networks, like _______ and VAMP, the sex workers network has also built “Meet to Sleep”.

Safa  

Patriarchy, rape culture, femicide, street harrasment and all forms gender based violence are global issues. The collective actions and conversations that BlankNoise has initiated in Bangalore have resonated with and grown to other cities in India, as well as other countries. 

Jasmeen  

I’ve never approached it as a conversation that’s just in Bangalore, or even in India alone. By that, I mean, from the vision perspective, yes, there’s something deeply local about the many India’s that one India may is made of. And at the same time, there’s something shared. And again, as an artist, I am interested in building conversations and understanding the relationship of fear, warnings and blame and also of desire in different places, in different geographies, with different groups of women. So in situations that I’ve had the chance to travel and work in a new place – 10 years ago, I was in Japan and we worked on “chikans”, tried to build conversation around chickan  or some years ago, spent some time in the UK and or in Montreal, but having these conversations and recording them and facilitating conversations and really trying to figure out this shared experience of fear, warnings and blame. Or in rural India with an organization like CREA, I was doing a workshop with adolescent girls. So there’s something extremely shared and that becomes the point of connection. And how does that also become the point of solidarity? It shapes the vision for the work we want to do in recognizing how much is shared. That’s how I approach it. I feel that as an artist, again, I’m perhaps going from community to community, or want to carry that spirit of going from community to community and asking, does this speak to you? If this speaks to you, how do you make this your own? Because if we’re building and proposing ideas towards desirable feminist futures, if that’s the kind of premise from recognizing patriarchy and rape culture and making that visible, but also through collective action, you know, designing collective action, the entry point or the invitation is: does this idea speak to you? Does “I Never Asked for It” speak to you, does the building of garment testimonials speak to you? Does the action of sleeping in public spaces or anywhere under the open sky – if you live in a rural part of the country, in rural India, we don’t have parks there, but we know of open fields there and open skies – anywhere, where under the open sky would you like to sleep? And does this speak to you and how do you make it your own? So this becomes the invitation. So I often find myself building conversations on where in your city do you feel safe? Where in your city do you wish to go but have never gone? Where in your city? Do you feel really unsafe and would never go alone? And that becomes the entry point to build solidarities. 

Safa  

In 2008  a poem called the The Step By Step Guide To Unapologetic Walking was written as an invitation to become an action shero,hero or theyro and to unlearn fear by embodying new rules while walking alone through city streets. 

The poem reads:

Jasmeen  

The journey of the action shero or hero or theyro is about overcoming something and about confronting something and shifting something or recognizing a bias or recognizing what you fear, or giving yourself the permission to speak, or building your own capacity to listen to what somebody else has to say. There are multiple actions that make us shift something and enable us to arrive closer to the ideal self. You know, that’s a continuous journey and process. But at BlankNoise, while we’ve been working to bring attention to the fact that yes, we have experienced fear, and we have been told to be careful, and we have been told to protect ourselves, we must also somewhere question the story of fear, the narrative of fear, the intergenerational transfer of fear, the intergenerational transfer of violence, the intergenerational performance of toxic masculinity, of patriarchy. And so all of the work has been built on survivors’ narratives, on survivors’ experiences and somewhere within that we also distinguish what is violence and what is the fear of violence or the threat of violence – that which is very real and resides in us every day, it shapes how we walk, how we talk. And in response to that, again, we created the “Step by Step Guide to Unapologetic Walking.” But in all of this, we also question who are we taught to fear? Is there a certain kind of man we’re taught to fear? Is fear linked somewhere also with bias or prejudice? So these are questions and the way these questions find answers or get articulated is through these collective actions. So in 2012, we did a project where I was working with students at Srishti, I was taking a class with them, and the students had mapped this area called Yelahanka, which is where Srishti  is located. There was a popular name for this street, for this lane. It was called the Rapist Lane. We went there on site visits and mapped and, you know, figured out this place. We realized that it was an empty stretch, no street lights, dark at night, men would stop and drink there. It was experienced as threatening and unsafe, and there had been experiences of harassment and a high degree of threat and fear there. So in response to the narrative of places I said, what if we flipped this around and started calling it the Safest Lane. And by the fourth week of this class, it was the last week, and before that there were three weeks of really like consciousness raising and exploring these questions of fear and intergenerational transfers of fear and all of that. And victim blaming. This idea was proposed, you know, what if we set up tables and chairs on the stretch, and we invited strangers to come and have a conversation with you? Would you be that action shero, to welcome this conversation? It cannot be about sexual violence, it can be about anything except sexual violence. So this proposal was met by the class, or by the action sheros in that class, with both a sense of excitement, high anxiety, and fear. And again, it was each action sheros journey towards actually sitting there and arriving there. Everybody built it. And strangers were invited to sit in front of the action shero. The invitation was shared by a letter that were multilingual. And they were given to strangers on the street, mostly men, male strangers, visible on the streets. And they were asked, you know, they were said: you are a stranger, come talk to me, we just haven’t had a chance to speak before. We can talk about anything from our fields, our hopes or dreams. And in that process, you know, you’ll be an action hero, too. So this invitation was met with warmth and smiles. And as an action shero sat in front of the stranger and spoke for an hour and there was tea and samosa served, the action shero reported things like, or statements like, I’ve realized that sometimes strangers are not so strange. It was more of you know, her journey, as much as she was talking to this man on the street, she was also talking to her own fears. She was very much in conversation with her fear as she was in conversation with a stranger. And at the end of this event, the two exchange flowers, and that was it. And we wanted to do it to ask ourselves, can there be a new memory for this place? Can we also have a dialogue with fear? Threw open all these questions around which man have I been taught to fear? Are we divided by gender alone? Are we divided by gender and race, gender and caste, gender, and language, gender and socio economic class, and so much more. So it made these questions visible through these experiences, through this experience, and it kind of it released these kinds of confrontations within ourselves. So that was “Talk to Me”. And in that same capacity of conversations with fear, when we are building an action, again, like “Meet to Sleep”, we invite women, girls, non-binary persons across the country, anywhere in the world, rearlly, to take that nap under the sky. And when people are trying to sleep, it is really about entering that conversation between a state of defenselessness and a state of alert. State of alert that we have been told should be our given – but the state of defenselessness that we must claim as our birthright. And that’s really what “Meet to Sleep” is built on. And that is also a conversation with fear. You know, when I was first trying to do “Meet to Sleep”, it wasn’t called Meet to Sleep,  it was- it is a long story, but in 2007, I went to Bangalore’s Cubbon Park and tried to take a nap in the park. And I was doing this because the year before I had participated in a BlankNoise action on what are our wishes for the city. And people sent in very simple wishes. And one of mine was, I wish to be able to sleep. And the following year went ahead to do that. And I wasn’t even alone – I was with other fellow action sheros, somebody was sitting on a bench and daring herself to sit on a bench alone. Somebody else was sitting under a tree reading alone. Again, daring herself to sit under a tree alone and there was me and another action shero called Shresy, we both tried to sleep and I couldn’t sleep. I tried very hard to sleep and I would wake up to realize: oh, it’s just a leaf. It’s just a dog that went by. And that’s when “Meet to Sleep” as an idea emerged, saying that, you know, there are more of us in fear of each other than with the actual intention to harm each other. And how do we, how do we look at our right to trust, our right to be defenseless? Our right to imagine the spaces we want? All of this kind of came through in that direct conversation with fear, of saying what do we deserve to imagine and my body deserves to be defenseless and how – and everyone’s been told to be careful of each other. But what if we turn that around? What would sleeping in the open do to our bodies? What would sleeping in the open to our bodies’ memory and also to a public space?  So that’s really where “Meet to Sleep” was born and it is about having that dialogue with fear, and it is also about building solidarity. It’s built by different communities of women, by adolescent girls in rural India, in urban India, suddenly we would hear from somebody in Helsinki saying I’m doing it too in solidarity – when I see somebody, I mean Vishnu Vardhani in Helsinki built it last year, before the pandemic I mean. So yeah, that’s what we do and it’s more of questions, creating collective action, and questions, inspiring corrective actions to further questions. So I think, again, when you ask me about where I locate myself, I perhaps also, I believe,  I think I’m more aligned to an oral herstorian, you know, because I’m gathering these experiences and working with experiences and sharing these experiences, sometimes through talks, sometimes through new actions. So it’s a mix.

Safa  

Jasmeen further reflects on what BlankNoise has taught her over the past 18 years, including the importance of listening to critique and listening to and working with trauma. 

Jasmeen  

I think the personal is linked to the community, that the personal was informed by community, by the community of action sheroes, heroes, theyroes, and people beyond also, who critiqued it. Who said, who raised questions on class, who raised questions on whose experiences. Who were critical. So I think for me, it’s afforded me or it’s enabled me to listen to critique. I see BlankNoise as a living entity, and it’s shaped by these multiple questions, by dissonance, by inquiries, by these questions. And in terms of how it had informed me, it is also to recognize that it needs and it takes all to make that change, to make that shift. And that’s why I mean, you know, again, going back to 2012, in terms of there were many questions including that, you know, it needs organizations, collectives, individual stakeholders to come together if we were to make some change. And so that’s really where this understanding of, you know, building collaborations with feminist allies, with organizations, with communities really started there. Because we were recognizing that it was, back then, it was indeed a blogging audience, community participant that was building the conversation – which was an incomplete conversation, if it’s just one demographic. I mean, I don’t want to reduce it to one demographic at the same time, but it was definitely something that became more conscious. And that’s what enabled what we’re doing today. So it’s informed me to recognize that this is collective labor, shared labor, and it’s on all of us. And that’s the kind of spirit with which we build conversation, build invitation, build action. It is this consciousness to contribute to a larger public knowledge that should have a life beyond our lives. It’s shaped me in multiple ways. And yeah, I think the most fundamental thing is that you’re not like a solo artist doing this alone. It’s everybody, and that it takes everybody. I think it’s also been a place of immense learning. It’s constant learning. Every day, I’m learning. Every single day. Learning about the issue, learning about whose perspective, learning to listen, listening, and then even this insight around building a community of listeners, it’s really not enough to say you must speak. It’s on us to learn to listen. And we’ve been hearing the word listen so much in recent years, but what effort, what labor is going into building the listening capacity? What tools are needed for listening to trauma? It’s allowed me to be on a journey of many new questions that are shaped by constant everyday dialogue, and working with the issue.

Safa  

As Jasmeen has reiterated throughout our conversation, BlankNoise is a constant dialogue – a dialogue which you, the listener, are invited and encouraged to contribute to. 

Jasmeen  

I’d love to see this as an ongoing conversation. So if somebody is feeling connected, and wants to talk about this more, we’d love to welcome you into the community and build the community with you and if listening to this conversation has spoken to you in any way, I would love to connect and to the conversation further. In terms of building knowledge, my mind was just going into who do we listen to? Who are we listening to? And who are we not listening to? And how does our understanding of something get shaped? And how do we be conscious of who we are yet to hear? Keeping that alive, that somebody is yet to be heard, and therefore our understanding of this is yet to be complete. And this is where it’s at right now. Just being conscious with that is important. Recognizing that, yes, we’ve done work on this issue. And we continue to do so. But who’s speaking, and who’s being heard, and who’s yet to be connected with, who’s yet to be heard, whose story is yet to be heard, really. And therefore, the understanding of the issue is incomplete. So that’s how I approach it. And I’d welcome any listener working towards knowledge, knowledge production and towards shifting public consciousness to also consider the same.

Safa

Thank you Jasmeen for the important work you do and for sharing your thoughts and process with us all. To learn more about BlankNoise please visit the link to their website provided in the show summary.

As mentioned earlier, this is the last episode of our inaugural mini series. But don’t worry – we aim to be back soon with more episodes related to unsettling knowledge inequities.

Until then,  please subscribe to us on your preferred podcast player, rate and review our past episodes and share with your friends! 

SECTION 4: OUTRO 

Safa

We invite you to join us in fundamentally reimagining knowledge systems and building healthier relationships and communities of care that promote and enact equity at all levels. 

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