Public Art, Technology and Citizenship - Blank Noise Project

Jasmeen Patheja speaks about the active citizen in the digital age, its challenges in the public and private spheres and interdisciplinary methods to overcome them.
Reconceptualizing Eve-Teasing

CHANGE-MAKER: Jasmeen Patheja

PROJECT: Blank Noise Project: A volunteer-led arts collective community

STRATEGY OF CHANGE:
 Fostering an active, participatory and horizontal model of citizenship,
 empowering its volunteers to participate politically and address issues
 of street sexual harassments in the public sphere.

METHOD OF CHANGE: Public space interventions using community art and technology.

To open the interview series for the Making Change project, I interviewed Jasmeen Patheja. She is the founder of Blank Noise, a volunteer-led arts collective community that started in Bangalore and has now spread to Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Calcutta, Chandigarh, Hyderabad, and Lucknow. It seeks to address street sexual harassment and violence by triggering dialogue and building testimonials around notions of "teasing" and "harassment" in the public discourse. The collective has garnered attention and momentum since it was founded in 2003, and ever since, it’s fostering a model of active citizenship across India through its volunteer network. The story of Blank Noise and the working of community art with technology highlight the need to create spaces of expression and experience in which civic and political creativity can develop and unfold organically.

One of the main reflections stemming from my conversation with Jasmeen was the question of how technologies can create a sense of ownership and active citizenship. At the moment, we are moving on to a scenario in which technology has a more pervasive and complex presence. It is no longer judged merely on its connective utility, but is also understood as an actor, a space and a context within the ecosystem of social change and political democratic systems. For this reason, it is paramount to get to know the citizen that is being exposed to, influenced and impacted by these technologies and identify the ways in which his self-identity, social membership and political participation (King and Waldron 1988, Turner 1986, 1990) are being molded by them.

In this post, I aim to unpack ‘active citizenship’ drawing from political science literature around citizenship and civic engagement. The analysis will be based on two dichotomies proposed by Turner: the tension between the active-passive citizen, and the contradictions between its private and public presence. I will then refer to Westmeister and Kahnein, Kabeer, Gaventa and Bennett to identify the type of citizen that Jasmeen Patheja hopes to yield through her project and the main challenges of manoeuvering in the public space. Finally, I will look at some of the tactics taken by Blank Noise to reconcile these tensions through community art and technology. This exploration of citizenship is a first stage in the journey of detecting the undertones of citizen action for social change in the digital era.

Unpacking Citizenship


ACTIVE VS. PASSIVE CITIZEN

What is the difference between an active and a passive citizen?

A passive citizen comes to existence as a subject, recipient or client of the state (...) regards its rights as privileges handed down from above (...)complies with norms yet does not act to change circumstances (...)and its security and survival are merely determined by constitutional and common law traditions

Turner places the citizenship question on two points of contention. The first: the vectorial nature of citizenship and how to recognize an ‘active or passive’ citizen. According to his analysis, a citizen either comes to existence from above as mere subject of the state, or from below as an active bearer of its rights (Mann 1987, Ullmann 1975, Turner 1990). The force and direction from which the citizen emerges has important implications for the self-identity of the individual, its confidence and disposition for political participation (Merrifield, 2001). A passive citizen regards its rights as privileges handed down from above, in such a way that citizenship becomes a strategy for social integration and cooperation (Mann, 1986). Westheimer and Kahne find the manifestation of this model in what they call a “Personally Responsible Citizen”: a dutiful citizen who complies with norms, pays taxes and obeys laws, yet does not act to change the circumstances of other communities (2004). However, defining the citizen as a passive actor constraints its role within its network. If the citizen’ security and survival are merely determined by constitutional and common law traditions, and the negotiation between institutions and the individual (Weber 1958 - refer to Turner 1990), the individual is a disempowered recipient or client (Cornwall, 2007) as opposed to the proactive agent Blank Noise looks to recruit and shape through heir interventions.

Patheja, as shown by the interview, aims to disrupt the passive citizen model by fostering political participation and putting its counterpart: ’the active citizen’ forward. Blank Noise believes the citizen must ground its claims from the grassroots and grow from below; yet still be visible and present in the public space, redefining problematic concepts looming in society’s social imaginary; what Turner would describe as revolutionary citizenship (1990).

How is your practice building a stronger model of citizenship?
Change cannot happen only at one level. It would involve more people and different groups from different communities. For example, with citizen-led street action; we can’t end it there. It needs to push home the cause and make [the issues] visible with the government. How do we work with the government? Learning to ask and not assume it’s all their responsibility, but learning to assert our citizenship. What does it mean to do this? What does it mean to ask for safer cities in a way that it doesn’t become somebody else’s business entirely but that it’s about being able to see we are a society. We must understand the process of citizenship; what it means to be in a democratic country and what means to be a female citizen in it.

nullSafe City Pledge - Delhi

Safe City Pledge - Delhi
Safe City Pledge - Mumbai
Safe City Pledge - Mumbai
Courtesy of Blank Noise blog: http://bit.do/fHMm

The message is: “this is your city, this is your space. Don’t be apologetic for your presence” And over time, Action Heros are reporting change: ”I'm getting my space. I'm not thinking twice about what I have to wear.” [...]So it was not only about a vocabulary shift, but a shift in attitude.


An active citizen comes from below as an active bearer of its rights (...), feels impelled to engage and mobilize its network (...) keeps government and community members in check (...) and evolves with a higher sense of individual purpose favoring solidarity and maintaining networks of community action.

 

Westheimer and Kahne label this stronger orientation towards a social-change approach as the second degree of civic engagement or as the behaviour of a ‘participatory citizen’; an individual who feels impelled to engage and mobilize its network, skills and action to respond to a community need. This participation impetus is one of Patheja’s main expectations from its Action Hero Network. However, this entails relying on intimate shifts of behaviour and attitude among the volunteers, which are in essence hard to demand, inculcate and entrench by a third party.

Their approach also reflects a vision of citizenship that relies on collective action (Montgomery, 2004) to, not only keep the government in check as suggested by Westheimer and Kahnne, but other community and society members as well. From Bennett’s point of view and taking the role of information technologies into account, he would define the ideal Action Hero as a self-actualizing citizen. In contrast to its counterpart: the dutiful citizen,  who sees its obligation to participate in government-centered activities, the AC evolves with higher sense of individual purpose, favouring and maintaining networks of community action, backed up by a growing distrust in media and the government. In this sense the role of technology is also paramount to how Blank Noise spreads its predicament and expands its outreach:

What is the role of technology and media in your project?
Using the web for example, we happened to stumble upon blogging and we realized there was a community there. Once [Action Heroes] started blogging and the press started writing about it, it created a community further. So, going back to the fact that our constant thread of conversation has been the web, there is a large percentage of the English speaking youth who are action hero agents anidd now have the responsibility of taking the conversations and actions forward.

On the other hand, this is not always the case. In Delhi we did an event in collaboration with Action Aid. Many of the Action Aid volunteers weren’t necessarily on Facebook. They were people who were largely Hindi speaking; their stories were about harassment in slums and these were men and women wanting to do something about the issue. So being a loose volunteer is one way, but identifying different communities is also important. Every space is a point of engagement and we use different forms of media to enable that.

Citizen participation, communication and mobilization mechanisms, mediated by the state in the past, are now taken up by the people in the form of social protest, civil disobedience, digital activism, consumerism, etc. (Bennett, 2008). The emphasis on collective action also calls for a broader understanding of the citizen, away from the state-conferred rights and duties, and a definition that includes solidarity and membership to broader communities (Ellison 1997), Heater and Kabeer defines this as a “horizontal view” that stresses the relationship between citizens over that of the state and the individual (Heater 2002, Kabeer 2007) and Berlin has also made the connection between group identity and affiliation as a building block of citizenship  (1969).

[on Giving Letters to Strangers] We trigger a conversation and it takes its own journey. Over time, what does it take to lean back and relax? Each person participates establishing their own level of comfort and every person’s narrative is different. [The project is] happening in Delhi while it is happening in Bangalore; allowing it to happen in a very individual, self-confrontational and at the same time, collective experience. They are doing this alone knowing that others are doing the same.


Giving out letters to Strangers



Dear Stranger:
Giving out letters to strangers in the streets of Bangalore. Courtesy of Blank Noise blog: http://bit.do/fHJw

Giving out letters to Strangers 2

In this way, Blank Noise has envisioned and designed a project that fosters an active, participatory, self-actualizing and horizontal model of citizenship. This combination builds a citizen prototype with a positive disposition and attitude to civic action; traits that Gaventa identifies as elements of empowerment and political agency that can derive into higher possibilities for social change. Having citizens identify community’s ailments as their own and their network’s responsibility, results in conversations that act as causal nexus of community action. The main challenge at the moment is the implementation of this model. To what extent will the Action Hero represent this model uniformly and steadily, preventing dissonance between Blank Noise’s discourse and its practice. And secondly, how will Blank Noise volunteers negotiate their political participation between public and private spaces?

PRIVATE VS. PUBLIC SPACE

Where should the active citizen operate?

The second tension on citizenship, as identified by Turner, is its political expression on the public arena versus its manifestation on the individual’s private space. We asked Jasmeen about the crises and spaces in which Blank Noise is operating:

To what crisis is the project responding to?
The project responds to the crises and experiences of street harassment. To the sense of getting defensive, agitated, angry; creating a wall and feeling vulnerable in a city. Blank Noise was initiated at a time were street harassment was disregarded and dismissed as teasing. This ‘eve-teasing’, just going by the pulse of things, included concepts of molestation and sexual violence. There was denial, there was silence.

First point on the public vs. private dilemma lies on the issue at hand. Volunteers are working to re-conceptualize social norms around ‘safety’, ‘agency’ and ‘gender’, that are not only deeply entrenched in society, but that can also be traced back to the private domain of traditions and culture at the household level. By openly discussing ‘sexual harassment’ in the public space and enabling volunteers to express and act on the basis of a new understanding of citizenship and freedom, the collective is possibly also redefining dynamics at the private space of its volunteers. What is more, the motivation and determination to be an Action Hero, as mentioned by Patheja, must be grounded in a "personal shift and challenge".

How does this translate it into citizens taking ownership of the cause and sustained behavioral change in everyday practices?
Anger is a good starting point. It is worrying when there is no anger. And then it has to be a personal shift. We’ve learned from conversations and feedback that volunteers who would say: “we came to address the issue and we are realizing that we are doing something in ourselves”. So what is the spirit of an Action Hero? Allowing something to shift and challenging something in yourself. Last year for example we worked towards having locality specific Action Hero networks and on how this intuitive citizen can become a full citizen, in terms of being an informed citizen as well.

Action Hero Game

Acton Hero Game. Courtesy of Blank Noise blog: http://bit.do/fHKq

The expectation of a personal pledge at the individual, community and public level, signals the project is blurring the lines between the private and public domain and fostering the politicization of the citizen at all fronts. This suggests that in order for the claims and behaviour of Action Heroes to become sustainable, they must also trickle into the common citizen’s routine. In words of Arendt: “the space of appearance comes into being whenever men are together in the manner of speech and action, predating all formal constitutions of the public realm” (1989). Establishing the private-public space as a common ground works towards bringing consistency and coherence to the interventions, yet it remains in many ways problematic and threatening to individual freedoms.

Does your project create new spaces for citizen expression and action?
Our role is to build testimonials and translate them back into the public domain. An example of this is the blogathon that happened in 2006, initiated by our Action Hero. She said: let’s invite bloggers to share their experiences of street harassment. 4-5 male and female Action Heroes made the event happen and in a couple of days we had hundreds and hundreds of testimonials and people talking about this for the first time. Maybe it was the first time speaking about it, remembering things that happened ages ago and that they had never shared. Suddenly the web was seen as a space where people could speak. Suddenly people had so much to say about the issue, the person dismissing the issue and their relationship with their body and the city.

Talk to Me
Talk To Me:
Creating spaces for conversation and collaboration. Courtesy of Blank Noise blog: http://bit.do/fHKq

Turner reflects on the French revolution tradition to shed light on this particular challenge for active citizenship, as what bound Frenchmen together was their citizen identity (Baker 1987). Passing on from state subjects, to actively voicing their political, civic and social aspirations coupled with meaningful mechanisms of participation. However, how do we reconcile this tradition of positive democracy with the American understanding of citizenship that enshrines the autonomous sanctity of the private space. American individualism values personal success and the main way to exercise political participation is through voluntary associations that do not represent a large-scale force -or a threat-  with enough power to shape their lives (Bellah et. al 2008, Turner 1990). Translating this to the Bangalorean context: a changing society in which community- based traditions in the household are coexisting with an agitated and growingly individualist youth culture; the issues and interventions must be addressed in an implicational manner. The connections between the issue and individual freedoms must be made, in order for these actors to be willing to politicize their action in both the public and private spheres.

MIDDLE CLASS ACTIVISM

Can everybody be an active citizen?

The second challenge is rooted in the socio-economic group that comprises the body of volunteers of Blank Noise. I asked Jasmeen the extent to which the Action Hero Network was being led by middle class citizens.

Are you only reaching out to the middle class activist that has the resources to be part of the Blank Noise project?
Yes and no. A large percentage of our volunteers are usually web-savvy, English speaking, teenagers or in their early 20s. Others have been around for the last decade. The mainstream media also reports back mainly to the web-savvy groups. But it is also about one action hero inspiring another Action Hero. I find [the project] fascinating in terms of the spaces it leaks into. Some people tell me they were at their religious meeting and they overheard two women talking about the project, who were not necessarily web-savvy. Ultimately the media is not only reporting us but we see them as  point of engagement in which more and more citizens take ownership of the issue. Although our network is largely urban middle class, we are at the point where we collaborate largely with other groups that are working with different communities so it completes the entire picture. The question is: how do you take the conversation forward? What can be that medium? and what kind of technology can get to people?


“We use different strategies to enable dialogue across communities. It could be on the street, on the blog, within a workshop; the web has been a constant space. If you are an Action Hero, yes you may be web-savvy, but you also carry the responsibility to take the conversation to another space."
Jasmeen Patheja


This demographic is ultimately an interest group leading a movement and has taken on the responsibility of spreading the call to action among its network. Foregoing the assumption that every Indian citizen wants to challenge concepts of sexual harassment in the city, the fact that one group is spreading a specific opinion puts forward a tension between the dynamics of public social protest and the existence of privatized dissent. Turner reflects on Mill’s On Liberty and shows how this could entail a threat of spreading mass opinion to the extent it makes all people alike (Turner, 1990).

Kabeer also highlights this by exploring the tension between universality versus particularity — a debate that questions the extent to which human rights advocacy in the public sphere will be equally received and supported by every group, given diversity of opinion within as well as obstacles to freedom of speech. Nyamu-Musembi attempts to bridge this dichotomy by framing universality as “the experience of resistance to general oppression” and particularity as “how resistance speaks to each relevant social context”. In order to have the issue speak to all citizen groups, Blank Noise is currently also depending on the the ability of its Action Heroes to pass on a message that speaks to the different needs and cultural sensibilities of communities who do not belong to the Anglo-speaking middle class it is currently operating with.

In response to having the protest of a specific social group translate into homogenized dissent, Jasmeen is looking to increase her outreach by approaching and working with other groups.

How can you build effective solidarity networks among middle class activists, their networks and further communities?
It is an attitude we are trying to push forward: have that conversation with your grandma; with your domestic help. We would love to do something with domestic workers for example. We don’t hear enough stories of who empowers or harasses them. That’s definitely a rising concern within the collective. We really need to have the complete spectrum and what kind of technology or strategies can be used to get it. Identifying these groups is a proposed future project and also an ongoing preoccupation.  For now, our role is to trigger conversations and have them take their own journey.

 

METHODS FOR CHANGE

How does the combination of art and technology foster active citizenship?

Some of the strategies Blank Noise has devised to overcome these obstacles relate back to the interdisciplinary design of its interventions. First, they are designed to be highly visible and aimed at triggering dialogue. This enables opinions and thoughts to flow from the private space into the public realm. Also, community art and technology as tools of expression and reflection, work as effective channels for responses to flow back and forth between both spaces.

Why did you take a multi-stakeholder approach and brought together technology and art?
The entire collective is really based on defining strategies and identifying approaches to breaking denial and building conversation. Our role is enabling dialogue across forms of media and using different strategies to enable dialogue across communities. There are also lots of questions of how to create an art practice that can be collaborative and participatory. Where does art exist? How can art exist, be, feel confrontational? Can arte provoke? How can we build testimonials? Could be on the street, on the blog, twitter or within a workshop. The web has been a constant space. We also work with the web in a way that we have a growing community of Action Heroes, and if you are web-savvy, you carry the responsibility to take the conversation to another space.

Twitter
Twitter campaign. Courtesy of: http://bit.do/fHLK

I never asked for it
Public art installation to redefine sexual harassment and eve-teasing. Courtesy of Caravan Magazine: http://bit.do/fHLV

Bennett and his work on civic engagement in the digital age, notes that one of the main strategies for positive civic engagement is nurturing creative and expressive actions in this generation.

How does this approach work towards creating sustainable change?
We are creating tool kits for different ideas so the community can take it forward.  There are many creative processes that equip them to initiate action in a community space. For instance, the Yelahanka Action Heroes workshop (http://yelahankaactionheroes.wordpress.com/), was a one month initiative that got Sristhi students to arrive to action heroism through games, like the Hahaha Sangha for example. We invited women out of their homes, and we would speak through pure laughter, gibberish and a sense of play. In doing that, people felt they knew each other. Anonymity was broken, people felt comfortable and safety was established. We are working towards creating safe public spaces and going beyond the biases that come from language or through age. But through the Hahaha Sangha we found there is still a need for facilitators to continue the project with the purpose of creating a safe space. Also, one of our interns is in charge of creating an Action Hero College Network and spreading information about different events, calendars, etc. It is still fluid but we are moving in that direction. Action Heroes are the strength of the project.

Hahaha
Hahaha Sangha sessions - Courtesy of Blank Noise blog http://bit.do/fHMb

The ideal of an engaged youth must be sustained by the empowerment of young people; getting them to recognize their personal expression and identities in collective spaces (Bennett, 2008). By setting in place mechanisms and opportunities to critically dissect societal problems and develop a political perspective as put forward by Westheimer and Kahne, as well as the awareness, self-identity and political confidence to act, as noted by Gaventa, the Blank Noise interventions become a context in which active citizenship is more likely.

Conclusion

This analysis, part of the Methods of Social Change research project, aimed to shed light on how change-makers such as Blank Noise still place a heavy consideration on the notion of citizenship when designing, framing and implementing their projects. What is more, it is paramount to identify the working characteristics of an ‘active citizen’ and reflect on whether these are desirable and necessary in the populace to make political and social change more likely. It also contributes to the Making Change project by unpacking the workings of a change actor that is not confined to the ‘category of citizen’ but is still closely linked to processes of citizen action and social change in Bangalore.

As seen throughout this post, the analysis of our citizen is not grounded on its relationship with the state, but instead on its disposition, self-identity and notion of social membership. After identifying our ideal active citizen: an active bearer of his rights, that defines itself horizontally in relation to other citizens and their rights, participates in political processes and is informed about and at odds with power imbalances, the Blank Noise experience demonstrated spatial tensions in implementing this ideal and practice in the public and private realms. Designing strategies and identifying technologies that enable a flow of thought and action between both spaces is a way of restructuring the ecosystem in which volunteers from the Action Hero Network interact with each other, reclaim their citizenship and alter the status quo from within. While Blank Noise is not starting a revolution, it is consolidating a process of steady and growing resistance in the public and private discourse of sexual harassment and eve-teasing in the city.

Shah also notes there are implicit codes allowing only certain people to embrace this model of citizenship. This was evident on the demographic that comprises the activist bases of Blank Noise and the risks of homogenizing the political space with their discourse of change. Jasmeen Patheja brought this point forward herself, but with full confidence on the ability of dialogue and conversation to keep luring other social groups and communities into joining the debate. We discussed opportunities from exploring the foreign women experience in the public space in India to expanding the Blank Noise basis through simultaneous international interventions enabled and coordinated through technology. The network is ever-growing and its mechanisms of change are constantly innovating and adapting through its content. In the meantime, the ‘active citizen’ remains at the core of it all, pushing the project forward; fighting among other battles, that of its identity’s reassertion in the landscape of change.


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