Running amok

Running amok

Candid camera

Running amok

Telling a story: From Jasmeen’s ‘Indri’

The stories she tells are not fictional, but of real people. For instance, currently taking up Jasmeen’s time is an ongoing photo series that stars her feisty and free-spirited 82-year-old grandmother, Indri Patheja, as muse and collaborator.

A product of Bangalore’s Srishti School of Design, Art and Technology, a fellow at Sarai CSDS, an artist-in-residence at Khoj and a fellow resident at Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, Jasmeen’s work is created in the hot discomfort of the real world, with the camera as her most constant companion and preferred medium of expression. Pictures of streets, head-shots of eve teasers, friends, strangers, spaces, cities, boys, girls, boys dressed as girls, children, mannequins, random images of everyday life — all of these find space in Jasmeen’s image bank.

A fluid space
An “unapologetic hot hudgi” as a status message proclaims her on the website of Blank Noise, a public art initiative against sexual harassment that she started, Jasmeen wanders into the fluid spaces between art and not-art, truth and fiction, galleries and cyberspace, aesthetics and activism. “Why are public spaces seen as threatening”, “what would happen if everyone on the street smiled at each other”, “how would the smile be interpreted”, “are women conditioned to feel afraid”, “why do men think women are asking for it” “is eve-teasing a frivolous term for sexual and street harassment” — these are some of the provocative questions that Jasmeen chooses to negotiate through her art, pushing the viewer to move out of solid ground and into uncomfortable spaces.
In fact, Jasmeen’s genre of art-making echoes the new sentiments of the age of Web 2.0, Facebook and Twitter and comes built-in with the values of participation and collaboration, rather than walking an aesthetic one-way street. An example of this brand of art-in-gloves-with-activism is Blank Noise, a public art project started off by Jasmeen in 2003 as part of her final year student project at Srishti, to confront sexual harassment and eve-teasing on the street by building and dispersing testimonials through a range of media.

While this dichotomy between the goals of art and social change, or art for social change may seem double-edged and an either-or proposition to most, Jasmeen doesn’t feel the need for semantic hair-splitting. Uncomfortable with tags like artist versus activist, she explains that all her work, whether sociological or aesthetic, is part of an authentic expression of who she is, the work she believes in and a manifestation of her unique process of art-making. “I don’t see art and activism as separate. Blank Noise is an integral part of my art practice,” says Jasmeen.

“Many artists have addressed or engaged with social issues through their work. However, the medium and the audience varies, the nature of approach varies. Perhaps that is what one sees in the work of Peggy Diggs when she uses milk cartons and prints domestic violence helpline numbers to reach out to women. Or the collective Gran Fury, who used the language of advertising in their work addressing AIDS in the late 80s/90s. Marina Abramovic and Valie Export have also worked with the public, but by placing themselves in it, via performance. Several artists have been activists. Several artists have triggered social transformation,” she adds.

The same out-there quality pervades Jasmeen’s art as well — chances are that you may encounter her work as much in cyberspace, or on the streets, as on a gallery wall. Jasmeen has plugged into and leveraged the power of the digital revolution in the world of art and social interaction to make her work community-centric, rather than an activity performed in isolation. “Today with YouTube, Facebook, mobile phone cameras and cheap digital cameras anyone and everyone has access to building, telling and sharing the story. In New York, Hollaback started a mobile camera project where they encouraged women to send photographs of men who violated them. Simultaneously, sitting here in India, I was doing the same. Today there are several women I know from Blank Noise who carry cameras to defend themselves if needed. The focus is not on pure aesthetics, but the aesthetic emerges from the intention of the project. Clearly women won’t spend hours before the perpetrator to frame him — it is about the confrontation. In this case the camera also becomes a defense tool.”

Blank Noise has now turned a page from its earlier explorations in blame-shame, male versus female and victim-perpetrator perspectives to being proactive and empathetic. 2010 will see the Blank Noise blog investigating into the nature, notions and definitions of masculinity with an archive of testimonials. The same kind of evolution is visible in Jasmeen’s artist persona too. From being able to “lift the camera to the face of an eve teaser who I feared” to the aggression of snapping pictures of the offenders as evidence, Jasmeen has moved on to a position of empathy and collaboration in her art work. Where the camera is not a defence mechanism or power-trip, but a tool of engagement. And where the subject of the image is not a lab-rat or object, but a co-creator.

Jasmeen explains her process of picture-taking: “I am interacting. For me it is important to have what is being photographed participating in building this image. I do not spend hours constructing an image, or have the intention to ‘capture’ something. But it is important for me to see what takes place in front of the camera or between me and the photo participant. I am building a story with someone.”

People watching
Jasmeen says she photographs “almost anything”, ranging from children, family, weddings, and city streets as seen in her 2008 series ‘Running Amok’ to collaborative projects such as the ongoing one with her grandmother, Indri. With an earlier series, ‘Birth Control’ (2002), she photographed a group of young heterosexual boys in Leicester, United Kingdom, dressed up in women’s clothing. But the common thread running through all these seemingly diverse themes is the idea of interaction with people and engagement with the world at large. “While I am interested in what happens to people in front of the camera and how they want to represent themselves, I take forward this interest while viewing profile photos of people on Facebook or Orkut. Much of what you find there is no longer about the photographer with a camera taking photos of them representing themselves, but instead it is them, with their camera,” Jasmeen explains.

A short introductory course on photography in her first year at art school got her hooked to photography. Since then Jasmeen has been using the power inherent in pictures to be an agent of provocation and change, but not without understanding the complexity of the medium. “The photograph as a visual carries a sense of lived reality because of the nature of the medium. But there are different kinds of storytellers, different kinds of image makers and two photographers in the same location will have different ways of approaching and responding to the situation.”

Jasmeen’s stories are not black or white, but inhabit the layered realms between. Whether she is questioning gender representations in popular media, or photographing her grandmother as a granddaughter, her work compels you to look longer, look harder and look for the answer to that unanswered question.