Storytelling as Performance: The Ugly Indian and Blank Noise 2

This post compares the method of storytelling with performances. To illustrate this, we explore the narratives of the Blank Noise project and The Ugly Indian, two civic groups from Bangalore making interventions in the public space. Part 2 looks at the role of actors and the stage in performances to explore the role of agency and the public space in storytelling.
Storytelling as Performance: The Ugly Indian and Blank Noise 2

The Ugly Indian. stop talking. start doing. (Poster adapted to identity of the group and created for the purpose of this post. It does not reflect the views of the organization).

This is part 2 of our analysis of Blank Noise and The Ugly Indian, two civic groups thriving in Bangalore by making a strategic use of storytelling to intervene in the public space. In the previous post, we explored the mediums and narratives used by these organizations to craft an identity for themselves. This one will look at the impact of this identity on the agency and actions of their volunteers. We will also draw some final conclusions relating the analysis back to the Making Change project.

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

3.actor
ˈaktə/
1. a person portraying a character in [a dramatic or comic] production
2. a participant in an action or process

The cast of a production learns the script from beginning to end; rehearses the lines and internalizes the characters they have been chosen to represent. In the same way actors sustain the narrative of the production while they are on stage, we too act upon the identities we have chosen for ourselves in our day to day (Giddens, 1991). Oggs & Capps call this: constructing agentive identities: “participants assume agentive stances towards present identities, circumstances and futures” (1996; Hull, 2006). Embracing a set of traits and integrating them to the ‘story of the self’ (Gauntlett, 2002; Giddens 1991). This suggests there is a direct relationship between self-identity and agency, that will influence how we conduct ourselves in the public space.

As seen in the last section, The Ugly Indian’s self-ascribed identity frames their speech and action:

The Ugly Indian

We are a group of Ugly Indians who feel strongly about the state of visible filth in our cities.
Our philosophy can be described simply as: Kaam chalu mooh bandh. Stop Talking, Start Doing.
We believe in direct action, with a common-sense problem-solving approach. 
We do not finger-point or blame the system. We aim to make a change from within - 
one that sustains because everyone wants it and is comfortable with it.

This means the online identity of the organization (on Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and their website) must be consistent with the offline actions of volunteers in clean drives and TUI inspired activities.

Indira Nagar Rising Koramangala Rising

null

Clean Drive 2

TUI Clean Drives (Click to enlarge)
Photos courtesy of The Ugly Indian Facebook Album.
Visit the rest of the album here.

"[Join us] if you think like us, and want to achieve something meaningful in your immediate surroundings."
The Ugly Indian

Given the anonymity of the voices behind the narrative, the ideas and attitudes endorsed by TUI organizers can only remain at the discursive level, and it is TUI volunteers who collectively translate the set of beliefs into action. In other words, volunteers are the agentive extension of the movement, as they use their agency to execute the plan of action designed by the anonymous TUI organizers. The narrative in this case becomes somewhat of a ‘creed’ for responsible civic action, and while most volunteers choose to “stick to the script”, they are not really given the opportunity to explore their own narrative within.

In the case of Blank Noise, if we take another look at its mandate, it is collaborative by definition.

Blank Noise
Blank Noise is a public and participatory arts collective that seeks to
 explore the range of street interactions and recognize 'eve teasing' as
 street sexual harassment/ violence.

The processes to translate the Action Hero identity into action are far more open-ended than in the case of TUI. There is further room for volunteers to interpret what being an Action Hero means to them (as an identity), how they will respond to it (as agents), and how do they fit in the larger context of the Action Hero narrative (in the collective). The role of volunteers is to participate in the construction of a new narrative for the public space, defined by how women feel, what they think and do when they navigate it. It is not conclusive, and each intervention is an invitation for further dialogue.

"Adding agency to the equation gives the actor a purpose and new -revised- conception of the self and aligns its behavior with who he wants to be. "[2]

Blank Noise volunteers take ownership of who they want to be in the public space. Through their testimonials and actions, they do not only draft an identity for themselves, but they create one -or many- for the streets, for women, for men, for sexy, for safety. Stretching out our 'performance' analogy even further, their type of action is what we would deem improvisational theatre: the improvisation and intuition of BN volunteers takes over the dialogue, action and characters, as these are “created collaboratively by the players as [the play] unfolds in present time”[1]

4. stage
steɪdʒ/
a raised floor or platform, typically in a theatre, on which actors, entertainers, or speakers perform.

Finally, the stage. This is the space where actors display these learned identities in front of (or with) members of the audience. While stories are not necessarily presented on a conventional ‘raised floor or platform’, stories are meant to permeate "the stage" of the 'public space'. In spite of what Sartaj Anand told us in his interview: “stories as increasingly personal and local”, in order for them to trigger imagination and public discussion they must also be public and visible. Hannah Arendt posits in Essays for Understanding, that the task of storytelling is to extend the meaning of the actions, symbols and allegories into the public, making them visible to broader audiences and initiating a process of critical thinking among them (Jackson, 2002; Oni, 2012; Arendt, 1994). Hence, the role of storytelling in the public space has two functions:

a) Visibility:

Enhanced visibility is an extremely powerful asset. Narratives produced by activist-oriented storytellers do not only reflect greater autonomy of production, but also enjoy a wider rate of consumption[3] (Vivienne, 2011). From a tech-optimist perspective, multimedia representations of these stories further this visibility, making it also accessible to broader online audiences.

The Ugly Indian in particular thrives on visibility, due to its beautification mission. Its highly visible presence online is used to ratify the work they are doing to erradicate "visible" filth:

"X was a big fan of the Broken Windows Theory – which suggested that if a street looked ugly or neglected, it attracted more anti-social behaviour, while a well-maintained and beautiful street discouraged vandalism and often earned respect from passers-by. [...] Could the ugly Indian’s civic behaviour be a function of the environment and the signals it gives him? If so, could changing the environment change behaviour?" Chapter 7 - Nudge


In the case of Blank Noise, they use online visibility to re-introduce the testimonials collected through their interventions and installations, back into the public space.

Reporting to remember

Reporting to Remember (2009)

Triggered by the Mangalore pub attack, the report wants to compile a list of incidents involving attacks on/threats to women under the pretext of culture, tradition and religion.

  1. By who:
  • Political parties
  • Religious groups
  • Individuals

2. Nature of attack:
  • who they attacked
  • why they attacked
  • You can also send articles/links explaining that.

3. When: Date

4. Location: Region.
Make a Sign Make a Sign (2009)
Volunteers were welcome to say anything they wanted.

What Blank Noise wants to say:
We are talking of safer cities not feared cities
We are talking of independent women, not paranoid women.
We are talking about collective responsibility- don't tell me to be even more 'cautious'.
We are talking about eve teasing as street sexual harassment and street sexual violence.
We are talking about autonomous women, not just mothers daughters and sisters amidst fathers brothers and sons.
Vocabulary Tales of Love and Lust

The vocabulary project, stems from a need to build a dictionary of 'eve teasing', Blank Noise asked participants to email in to comments and remarks they had heard addressed to them on the street. BN compiled them into an 'eve teasing' vocabulary.

The vocabulary was represented in the form of charts, school-style, simple lettering and graphics, in an attempt to desexualise and remove obscene reference from the terms that are used leerily at us on the streets.

Find the full list of interventions, campaigns and tactics here.

b) Political:

"[Politics is] the space of appearance that comes into being whenever men are together in the manner of speech and action, predating and preceding all formal constitutions of the public realm”
Hannah Arendt (1989) [4]

This visibility also re-conceptualizes how we do politics by creating political spaces. Setting up a ground for public discussion creates the opportunity to flesh out our ability to be political (Rawls 1971 in Sen, 2005). Hence, producing and consuming a story with, for and by the public, should constitute a political experience in itself -especially in the context of civic interventions as is the case of both our productions.

However, this does not seem to be the case for TUI. The identity of The Ugly Indian focuses on action; on collecting manpower to fill voids left by the state in waste management. In the words of Nishant Shah, they are aligning their work with needs and systems that have already identified by the state, as opposed to devising new modes of engagement or participation. Having said that, staying away from politics is an intentional mandate, and their focus today is removing all obstacles that stand between the middle class and their action in the public space; even if that includes extricating the group from its political nature. For now, spreading ‘action’ and its ‘visibility’ in the network is a priority. The bigger their beautification spectacle grows, the better.

Blank Noise has a different view of how to engage the middle class [5]. The group has identified the need to talk about ‘sexual harassment’ in public; a conversation that has not been addressed and is continually dismissed by the state. This void is hence being filled with stories and articulations of the communities involved [6],as a mean of resisting the stronger dominating narrative of silence around the issue. As opposed to TUI, the priority of Blank Noise is to reassert our ability to perform our role as active, visible and political agents in the public space; initiating a larger process of social critique in their network [7]

Never asked


(We interviewed Jasmeen Patheja earlier in the project and discussed Blank Noise's political nature. Read the article  here)

5. action! (and conclusions)
ˈakʃ(ə)n/
something done so as to accomplish a purpose.

As per definition, action must be purpose-driven, and throughout the last two posts, we have unpacked how this sense of purpose can be built using storytelling. We explored this looking at its methods, narrative identities, actors and spaces of action.

In the case of  both organizations, storytelling was imbued in their organizational identity, the interaction with their volunteers and; the way in which they disseminate information. Expanding on what we said in the first installment on storytelling: its interactive nature makes it a tool for empowerment. The identities created by both organizations resonated so much with their audiences, that volunteers adapted their own identities and actions in the public space to align with them and participate in their initiatives.

The post also brought attention to the challenges of locating the ‘political’ within the spectacle. Storytelling as a mode of engagement is effective: it captures people’s attention and participation. However, it becomes problematic when the story becomes a creed adopted without question, as is the case of The Ugly Indian. The lack of opportunities to craft new arguments in public discussion leads to an equally passive participation to the one the group intended to eradicate. Citizens get involved without making critical connections with the material realities they are working to reverse. The citizen is trapped in the performance of citizen awakening and they are ceasing to articulate new ideas. In the case of Blank Noise, the political precedes the spectacle, but at the end of the day, it still relies on a visible and manageable network to disseminate its narrative and attract new story-lines and actors into the discourse.

On the issue of visibility: at the outset of the project we asked the question: what is it about the spectacle that makes it so enticing, and what can we borrow from it to strengthen political participation? [8]. This post visited the three elements that, according to Shah, makes an event visible: legibility, intelligibility and accessibility[9]; and started to answer some of these questions.

Performance
Storytelling
Visibility
Pre-production The mediums chosen to tell the story (images, video, text, digital technologies) are used to give clarity to the message. Legible
Screenplay Creating (or borrowing narratives) from history and fiction makes stories easy to relate to, better understood and hence, better received by the audience Intelligible
Actors Acting out these identities shows the message was understood and internalized by the audience. Intelligible
Pre-production Digital technologies are effective at disseminating the story and making it more accessible in the public online space. Accessible
Stage Telling the story in the public (online and offline) space makes participation and interaction more likely. Accessible

Finally, the main role of technology in storytelling is to provide and enhance visibility for stories (from all three fronts). As much as the thought piece criticizes the spectacle hype and suggests we move beyond it, this research is finding it useful to look further into: why visibility is desirable for advocacy and how it can bring new and different stakeholders into the process. At least, it seems to be working for The Ugly Indian and Blank Noise. Their outreach is for the most part online and digital media continues to be their best friend to scale up their visibility,  showcase their actions and/or installations and sustain their narratives.

I will not make a conclusive statement on whether we should use storytelling for social change or not. However, understanding the power of stories and learning how to craft consistent narrative structures is -as Ameen Haque, founder of The Storywallahs told me- as fundamental for storytelling, as it is for activism: At the end of the day, "movements need supporters. Supporters need leaders; and leaders need to be good storytellers".

Footnotes:

[1] Based on the Wikipedia Definition of Improvisational Theatre. "Improvisational Theatre, often called improv or impro, is a form of theater where most or all of what is performed is created at the moment it is performed. In its purest form, the dialogue, the action, the story and the characters are created collaboratively by the players as the improvisation unfolds in present time, without use of an already prepared, written script." http://bit.ly/1hnByRp

[2] (Oggs & Capps, 1996; Miller, 1995; Hull, 2006).

[3] Refer to Sonja Vivienne's ethnography: Trans Digital Storytelling: Everyday Activism, Mutable Identity and the Problem of Visibility. She puts forward the experience of activists from the LGBT community who used storytelling to reassert, negotiate and in cases, expose their identities.

[4] Find resources to read more on Hannah Arendt's work on narrative and action here: http://stanford.io/1ge7JkX

[5] While the project does seek to collect voices across traditions, cultures, religions, etc; its reliance on digital technologies to crowdsource stories keeps the practice somewhat gentrified and homogenous. Lack of diversity in public discussion is a huge constraint for democracy, but from our conversations with Jasmeen, we understand this is a challenge to be tackled at a later stage of the project

[6] Refer to Nishant Shah's Whose Change is it Anyway?. (Page 29): "only certain kinds of discourses are made possible through technology-mediated citizen action. This discourse is often alienated from specific histories, particular contexts, and the affective articulations of the communities involved. It leads to a gentrification of contemporary politics that discounts anything that does not fit into the quantified and enumerated rubric of citizen action in network societies."

[7] Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and philosopher, was a strong proponent of using dialectics to question social structures around class, and stories come across as a way to link issues around power back to our personal experiences Refer to: Shor and Freire, 1987 and Williams, 2003.


[8] Some of the questions we have been exploring in Methods for Social Change: http://bit.ly/OCKrgy

[9] Refer to Nishant Shah's Whose Change is it Anyway?. (

Sources:

Arendt, Hannah (1994) Essays in Understanding Edited with an Introduction by Jerome Kohn. The literary Trust of Hannah Arendt Bluecher.

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.

Jackson, Michael. (2002) The politics of storytelling: Violence, transgression, and intersubjectivity. Vol. 3. Museum Tusculanum Press,

Oni, Peter (2012). "The Cognitive Power of Storytelling: Re-reading Hannah Arendt in a Postmodernist/Africanist Context."

Sen, Amartya. The argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian history, culture and identity. Macmillan, 2005.

Shah, Nishant “Whose Change is it Anyways? Hivos Knowledge Program. April 30, 2013.


Shor, I. and Freire, P. (1987) A pedagogy for liberation:dialogues on transforming education. Bergin & Garvey, New York.

Williams, Lewis, Ronald Labonte, and Mike O’Brien. "Empowering social action through narratives of identity and culture." Health Promotion International 18, no. 1 (2003): 33-40.

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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