Storytelling as Performance: The Ugly Indian and Blank Noise 1

This post compares the production behind a performance with the process of storytelling. To illustrate this analogy, we explore the stories of the Blank Noise project and The Ugly Indian- two civic groups from Bangalore making interventions in the public space. This post looks at the stages of pre-production and the screenplay to explore methods and narratives in storytelling.
spectacle
ˈspɛktək(ə)l/
a visually striking performance

performance
pəˈfɔːm(ə)ns/
an event in which a performer or group of performers behave in a particular way for another group of people: the audience. Sometimes the dividing line between performer and the audience may become blurred, as in the example of "participatory theatre" where audience members get involved in the 
production.

One of the mandates of this project is to locate discrepancies between "spectacles"[1] and realities of change to identify less visible examples of citizen action. However, an alternative route is to identify the characteristics of the spectacle, and learn how they can be used to make activism more visible: that is, more legible, intelligible and accessible. In this context, storytelling comes across as a method that can provide the same experience and benefits of a performance. This potential manifests itself in two ways:

a) First, in its infrastructure. We find that the structure holding stories together plays an important role in their ability to deliver a clear message. By unpacking the process of staging a performance -from what happens in the dressing rooms to what happens on stage- we will identify the building blocks of performances and by default, those comprised in effective storytelling.

b) Second manifestation occurs in the audience. The dynamic of performances resembles how we behave every day in our "socially and constructed worlds". We are constantly telling stories about ourselves and this 'sense of being' is what determines our actions and behavior (Holland et al, 1998). Furthermore, as social beings, we also build identities as a community and engage in "collective moments of self-enactment" (Urciuoli, 1995).

Linking this back to our project, understanding the performative potential of storytelling; its infrastructure and how it can touch on issues of identity, agency and collective action, is relevant to tackle challenges in activism and civic engagement -where the collective is very much linked to the political. To illustrate the relationship between storytelling and performance, I will use the example of two civic groups thriving in Bangalore: Blank Noise (founded by Jasmeen Patheja, who we interviewed back in January) and The Ugly Indian; and I will ask you to think about them as theatrical productions:

(The following images are 'Broadway posters' adapted to the identity of these groups. They were created merely for the purpose of this post and do not reflect the views of these organizations).

The Ugly Indian

The Ugly Indian
stop talking. start doing.

Blank Noise

Blank Noise
set new rules for street behavior

These groups were formed (in 2003 and 2010 respectively) to re-conceptualize how we understand our presence in the public space; Blank Noise focusing on sexual harassment and women safety and The Ugly Indian on waste management and civic interventions. On this post, we will look at their campaigns and identify features of the spectacle/performance in the storytelling methods they are using to communicate their mandates and interact with their volunteers. So, without further ado, let's explore this glossary of tweaked theatrical terminology:

How to navigate this post:

Section Performance
Storytelling
Pre-production Preparing all elements involved in a performance including locations, props, costumes, special effects and visual effects.
Preparing all elements needed to convey the message of the story including: spoken word, text, images, audio, video or other artifacts.
Screenplay A written work narrating the movements, actions, expressions and dialogues of the characters. 
Building a narrative in storytelling
Actors
Actors performing characters in a production.
The relationship between storytelling actors and agency
Stage
Designated space for the performance of productions
The public space as the stage for storytelling
Action!
Cue signifying the start of a performance
When storytelling leads to action

1. pre-production
ˈpri-prəˈdʌkʃ(ə)n/
the action of making or manufacturing from components or raw materials prior to the initial performance.

The stage of pre-production is when all the locations, props, cast members, costumes, special effects and visual effects are identified. It works in tandem with the screenplay to ensure the maximum consistence, coherence and clarity in the story. In the same way, planning storytelling also implies selecting the right elements and materials to hold the story together. Initially, only traditional mediums were available, such as spoken word, text and images; but storytellers today (the directors orchestrating these productions) are experiencing an urgency to re-invent and adapt the language of their stories to make it accessible in the network[3] (Hull and Katz, 2006; Urciuoli, 1995) and the practice has evolved into 'trans-media' or digital storytelling. Formats like audio-bytes, videos, sms, mobile apps are also part of its semiotic makeup and these mediums are mixed and matched to enhance the visibility of the message. As Scott McCloud suggests in ‘Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art’: “we need to invent new ways [and] develop new techniques of showing the same old thing” (1994) to make sure people still listen to what we have to say.

Both Blank Noise and The Ugly Indian have led highly visual campaigns in the online space, as they combine blogging with videos, audios, images and active community managers that interact with their volunteers. A few examples of the mediums they are using to capture the public's attention:

Video: Blank Noise did this art intervention, using real rape and sexual harassment reports from 2003 to challenge what we consider 'normal' and 'news'-worthy when it comes to sexual harassment and domestic violence:

 

Artifacts: ‘I never ask for it’ campaign: Blank Noise asked women to send garments they wore when they experienced ‘eve-teasing’ to challenge the notion “that women ask to be sexually violated”

I never asked for it 1I never asked for it 2

I never ask for it. http://bit.ly/1mnEhMJ

Audio: Blank Noise documents and disseminates stories of sexual harassment as told by their Action Heroes' This is: Kitab Mahal's story.

The message transmitted by the garments, the video and the audio are based on cultural and social constructions of what ‘sexual harassment’ means. Removing one of the garments from the installation, for instance, removes it from its resistance identity and hence, it can only exist in the narrative context Blank Noise is constructing alongside its volunteers.

On the other hand, The Ugly Indian's mandate is to change people's "rooted cultural behaviour and attitudes [...] to solve India's civic problems"; starting with the visible filth on the streets. It does not pursue systemic change, but seeks impact at the behavioral level. One of the methods it uses to achieve this, is the dissemination of images and videos showcasing their work. Their publications minimize the use of text in order to drive attention to aesthetics:




TUI Before After 2

They recently complemented their graphic stories, by starting a blog that documents "the philosophy and the process" that drives The Ugly Indian. This excerpt from Chapter 3 explains their visual strategy and why they have chosen before-after pictures to communicate their work:

“The citizens of the online world are brutal – they only care for instant gratification and real results. So are citizens in the real world. They too only care for results. [...] V & X know that and have focused all their energies on delivering this dramatic result, this single Before-After image, that is proof of dramatic change. And it has worked – in terms of creating initial positive impact (both on the ground and online). Whether it will survive and change community behavior is another story. But this initial impact is crucial, as we will discover later, in generating respect from the community and the authorities.”

“When pictures carry the weight of clarity in a scene, they free words to express a wider area. And when words lock in the meaning of a sequence, pictures can really take off” Scott McCloud on comics

 

This is how pre-production is important for storytelling. Planning, designing and choosing the right elements, and how they interact with one another, will determine the level of legibility and meaning we give to the story (McCloud, 1994). Each medium: video, audio, text, music, etc.- becomes “a new literate space” or “symbolic tool” storytellers have on hand to portray narratives about the self, family community and society (Hull, 2006), and the introduction of digital technologies into storytelling space, coupled with the current hype around the method, signals we are moving towards a more strategic use of technology to produce and share knowledge more effectively.  In this way, the choice of mediums and technologies will reflect a "conscious construction of identity" and "performances of the self" (Vivienne, 2011); a theme we will explore further in the 'screenplay' section.


2. screenplay
ˈskriːnpleɪ/
The script including descriptions of scenes and some camera/set directions.

The process of writing a screenplay is a careful exercise of creation and articulation. The dialogues, expressions and actions of the characters are narrated and located in a specific context that will determine how the events of the play unfold. The ability to build a coherent narrative structure is, in itself, a powerful tool of self-expression that enables the storyteller to a) construct an identity for the story and b) expose it to the public. Let's take a closer look at each stage:

a) Self-expression is directly related to the amount of freedom we experience in our ecosystem. Barriers to expression can come through our political regime or in the form of social norms and taboos, as is the case of conservative pockets in India. In either context, storytelling comes across an alternative outlet to describe ambiguous, unapologetic and personal truths (Vivienne, 2011). It enables less visible voices to claim a space and construct their own narrative within. Blank Noise has been very active on this front, as it creates opportunities for its volunteers, participants (dubbed Action Heroes), and otherwise silent voices to articulate their emotional and physical experiences in the public space. One of the ways they did it was by publishing a step by step guide to unapologetic walking, and then requesting people to participate:

Step by step
step by step guide to unapologetic walking: http://bit.ly/1bz3MZZ

" Our street actions over the last few years have been based on emphasizing small simple scenarios- which can be challenging even though they appear 'normal' and everyday. For instance- should it be hard to just 'stand' on the street as an 'idle' woman? Would you 'dare' try it?"


The idea behind this intervention is to re-conceptualize how women navigate the public space, drawing inspiration, ideas and encouragement from the “personal truths” and stories shared by women who are doing it. This grants them greater autonomy at representing themselves through their online and offline presence and the narrative is continuously re-shaped through new submissions and testimonials. 

b) Self-representation is how you create yourself: who you want to be and how you want others to see you. Miller’s work on identity and storytelling explores the role of storytelling in socialization and self-construction: “stories change depending on who is listening” (1993) as we construct ourselves with and for other people. In the same way a character in the script cannot come to life without an audience, the identities we create for ourselves need a public that recognizes who we are and our role in the world. Anthony Giddens' work on identity also draws a relationship between our identity and its narrative: “self-identity is not a set of traits but a person’s reflexive understanding of their own biography (...) and the capacity to keep a coherent narrative going: integrating events in the external world and sorting them into the story of the self” (Gauntlett, 2002; Giddens 1991).

The Ugly Indian took a solid stance against middle class apathy and idleness in its narrative, and with this premise, it built an identity for the organization that represents the opposite: a selfless, active, responsible middle class citizen. These are some examples:

Anonymous identity Middle class citizen
How they are different to the common middle class citizen
“They call themselves The Ugly Indians and operate anonymously [...]. If you aren’t aware of The Ugly Indian (TUI), that’s understandable – they work hard to stay anonymous and underground, and want only their work to speak for itself.” (Chapter 1) The more the urban middle-class see ‘people like them’ mucking about in garbage, the more they will face up to the issue and start thinking about it [...] This leap from ‘it’s someone else’s job’ to ‘it’s my duty to fix this’ is what can transform our cities – this leap has to be made in the mind!” (Chapter 6) “There is a specific purpose to making Amir (the garbage truck driver) talk. X and V are looking for cues on what really troubles him, what improvement in his daily working life he will really appreciate. Too often, well-meaning urban middle-class do-gooders think they know what the working class needs (gloves, better equipment and so on) and they get it so wrong. Listening without being judgmental is an art, and X and V are good at that. (Chapter 8)
You can read more about TUI’s story here.

 

“Human lives become more readable and intelligible when they are applied to narrative modes borrowed from history and fiction; and in function of stories people tell about themselves.”
Ricoeur, 1991

The set of traits chosen by The Ugly Indian is important. Their initiative is intentionally gentrified as they want it to resonate specifically with the middle class (as they are "people like them"). But at the same time, they integrate a reflexive understanding of their role as citizens by mentioning the need for a personal awakening ("this leap has to be made in the mind!") and further interaction with stakeholders outside of their network ("making the truck driver talk"), that will enable the common middle class citizen transition into the level of 'street and citizenship authority' TUI is at. On top of this, their clean drives back up this discourse, and while their identity remains incognito, the work is widely shared on social media every week -drawing a coherent narrative between their speech and their actions.

 c) Interaction with audience: Finally, once the storyteller has created a coherent identity, its sense of purpose must also be evident for the audience. The possibilities for this are endless, but I would like to draw attention to the super-hero narrative chosen by both Blank Noise and The Ugly Indian. Both groups are seeking an internal awakening in their volunteers by juxtaposing their experiences with what a 'hero' would do in the same situation.

Bangalore Hero video on The Ugly Indian:

 

 “Our message to all Bangalore citizens is simple. Go out and be a hero on your own street.
Take charge of it. Don’t be helpless. You have the power. You just need to go and us
e it”

 
Blank Noise's Action Hero game:

The Action Hero Game is built on a series of personal challenges in the city.
The game is simple. Your game partner and opponent is you.
There is no one method or quick solution to be an Action Hero. 
Each potential Action Hero goes to a new area in his / her city. On arriving there potential Action Heroes receive 'challenges' via phone messages 
Action Heroes across locations receive a set of 6 tasks over 4 hours via sms
If you don't wish to do a task (eg task 1a) text us and we will send you another task (eg task 1B) 
Are you an Action Hero? 
Find out! Play this game!

Action Hero

 Blank Noise Action Hero
http://bit.ly/1fld8cV

“Share your Action Hero experience: An Action Hero sets new rules for behaviour. She could experience fear and threat, but devises ways to confront it. Being fearless is a process. Every person is a unique Action Hero.Tell us how you said NO to sexual violence. [...] This blog set out to record testimonials of when and how you became an Action Hero; documents and shares the memory of when you surprised yourself, did the unexpected. [...] You are an Action Hero not by the magnitude of what you did but how it made you feel. You are an Action Hero by the way you define your own Action Heroism. We don't have a reference for you.]


They both advance ideals of courage, fearlessness and responsibility in the public space through their campaigns. These are not only desirable traits by any citizen -let alone marginalized or silenced voices in the case of Blank Noise- but the strategy also speaks to a language of hope and empowerment we can relate to at a human level. It sheds light on our fears, our limits and the extent to which we are willing to use our power to act.[3] Mediating this message with digital technologies also creates the illusion of an omniscient narrator who is drawing the volunteers' path to heroism and guiding their journey through it.  As Ricoeur puts it: "there is no self-understanding that is not mediated by signs, symbols and texts; and self-understanding will coincide with the interpretation given to these mediating terms" (1995) It is ultimately the interpretation the volunteers give to this ideal, and the  magnitude to which they identify with it, what will determine their eagerness to emulate it and translate it into action. As said in the last post, one of the faculties of good storytelling is turning the experience being told, into the experience of those who are listening (Benjamin, 1955).

Before moving on to how 'action' unfolds in the performance, it is worth reflecting on the role of narratives, identities and mediation in collective action. Why do we need the hero narrative to mobilize agents? Why is heroic citizenship the gold standard and why does it work as a method for engagement? The topic is unfortunately out of the scope of this post, but the next one will attempt to address how identities as these ones can mediate our agency and action in the public space.

******

Access Part 2 here to look at the role of actors and the stage in performances to explore the role of agency and the public space in storytelling. We will also draw some final conclusions relating this back to the Making Change project.

Footnotes: 

[1] Refer to Nishant Shah's Whose Change is it Anyway?. He argues that global audiences engage with local causes that embody "spectacles of the rise of the citizen". This is problematic as the more significant -less visible/undocumented- acts remain unnoticed, while they may be central to understand what it means to make change in a networked and information society. He posits we need to move beyond this 'spectacle imperative',recognize the context of these revolutions and re-evaluate how we conceptualize 'action'.

[2] Novelty: Quick exercise: run a quick google search of the words: ‘storytelling + social change’. You will find stories by influential magazines and publications, including Forbes, the Huffington Post and Open Democracy, all from 2013-2014. ‘Storytelling’ seems to be the newly (re)discovered tactic to advance business and social impact objectives, noticed by activists and corporates alike.

[3] For more on our power as agents and the role of narrative and identity, refer to Paul Ricoeur's work on the selves and agents (Oneself as another) and narratives (Time and Narrative). "As the most faithful articulations of human time, narratives present the moments when agents, who are aware of their power to act, actually do so, and patients, those who are subject to being affected by actions, actually are affected." Resources here: http://stanford.io/1c0pUwQ


Sources:

Benjamin, Walter. (1977): "The storyteller."89.

Gauntlett, David (2002), Media, Gender and Identity: An Introduction, Routledge, London and New York.

Giddens, Anthony. "Modernity and self-identity: self and identity in the late modern age." Cambridge: Polity (1991).

Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner & Cain, (1998). Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hull, Glynda A., and M. Katz. (2006) "Crafting an agentive self: Case studies of digital storytelling." Research in the Teaching of English 41, no. 1: 43.

McCloud, Scott. (1993)."Understanding comics: The invisible art." Northampton, Mass

Miller, P. (1994). Narrative practices: Their role in socialization and self-construction. In Neisser & Fivush (eds.), The remembering self: Construction and agency in self narrative (pp. 158-179). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Miller, P. & Goodnow, J. J. (1995). Cultural practices: Toward an integration of culture and development. New Directions for Child Development, No. 67 (pp. 5-16). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Ochs, E., & Capps, L. (1996). Narrating the self. Annual Review of Anthropology, 25, 19-43.

Ricoeur, Paul (1991). "Narrative identity." Philosophy today 35, no. 1 : 73-81.

Ricoeur, Paul. (1995) Oneself as another. University of Chicago Press,


Urciuoli, B. (1995). The indexical structure of visibility. In B. Farnell (ed.), Human action signs in cultural context: The visible and the invisible in movement and dance (pp. 189-215). Metuchen, NJ & London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Vivienne, Sonja (2011). "Trans Digital Storytelling: Everyday Activism, Mutable Identity and the Problem of Visibility” Gay & Lesbian Issues & Psychology Review 7, no. 1.

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