Performance of “Banality of Life” as Class Presentation
The Daily activities in Class Performence
The Performing art in class
When our group staged a performance as part of the class presentation for Performance Studies course, the audience was divided. Our performance was applauded as well as booed. It was labeled a "joke"; while some held a different opinion. The latter half thought of it as "creative".
Our experience apes the art world at large. There is no unanimous voice on the appreciation or dismissal of performance art and/or artists. "Forget the common people, even artists in the Western world don't find a common ground regarding it," share Saurganga Darshandhari and Prithvi Shrestha, both performance artists. Darshandhari and Shrestha are few of the young Nepali artists making their way off the beaten track. The genesis of performance art in Nepal was in 2001and in view of its late introduction, the two don't feel deterred at the ambivalent response to this new genre of art. They opine that with time people will come to terms with it. As of now, people don't seem to know where to place performance art- either in the "art" or "scam" category.
Case in point is our reading (or should we say misreading) of art. "But more than that it is about what we call art or how we define art," adds Darshandhari. According to Shrestha, "Everything is art but it all boil down to presentation; how one plays with the subject—which is different from that done/performed/acted by the ordinary people. The interpretation and mannerism of exhibition differs." Also art is a subjective matter. In conjunction, art is not supposed to look beautiful but the essential task of art is to make people think. However, Darshandari makes a brave remark. "Many artists take the uncalled for leeway in the name of art. Off record, they don't call their own creation as art. And many are reluctant to explore new avenues. Because performance art is about going out and performing in front of a set of audience, artists groomed in traditional format take a step back since it is an unchartered territory.” Artists are used to sitting in a room, all by themselves and paint or sculpt; but when audience is involved in the act of meditation, they feel violated and therefore embrace procrastination instead of coming to terms with the decision to perform in front of people. And those who finally agree to participate in a performance art do not always get the crux or essence of it.
Or to put the same question differently, what measures as performance or performance art for that matter? Can any behavior, practice, and action be labeled as ‘performance’? Stalwarts of performance art studies like Strine, Long and Hopkins agree on the discord over the concept of performance and have kept the definition pretty open-ended. Endorsing the same, Ashmina Ranjit, the celebrated performance artist in Nepal and internationally states, “I always take ‘seemingly’ ordinary themes in my performance. But my objective is to hit people’s consciousness with the same ‘seemingly’ ordinary themes; to raise issue and make people think.” She takes up issues of sexuality, identity, gender, human rights—mostly concentrating her themes on women. When Ranjit started off in 2002, there were not many who got it. At a moment when we are talking about the ill-treatment of performance art, the flashback looks pretty pitch dark. She was more often than not dismissed as mad and even labeled as a whore for having brought into public issues related to sexuality. “See that’s my intention—to bring to the fore issues which are everyday stuffs; yet because it is always there, people don’t see it and through my art, I want to shake them up and put things into perspective,” comments Ranjit.
For the class group presentation, we sat down and racked our brain. When nothing materialized, each then pitched his/her individual ideas to the group. We discussed over each and finalized on the Mime act. A professional instructor was invited to demonstrate the performance to us. We were bowled over and gazed at each other since it was a hard nut to crack. We contemplated over the prospect of doing that on our own and pictured a hazy scene. Some even volunteered to emulate the acts of the instructor; but failed majorly. We decided to sleep on the matter. After an interval of some days, we regrouped. Many ideas were floated and finally we decided on the ‘Banality of Life’ performance. We thought the theme embraces every aspect of the performance studies theories taught to us.
The performance was designed in such a way that the approximately-five-minute-long-act was punctuated by a host of mundane actions: sleeping, reading, laughing, eating, thinking. Art borrows from life. And we were aiming at the same. What we meant to attain with the performance was to dispel the message concerning banality of life; that our life is dictated or governed by some force/authority or the other—be it boss, time, wife or husband—all wrapped around the social, cultural, political, and economic centers. To reflect the mechanized subjectivity, we decided to mimic the mechanized lifestyle. We, the participants were mere puppets who had no subjectivity. We were acted upon. We had no agency. We were all governed by the voice. The voice was our cue to switch actions—to start and stop. The timing for each order was pre-decided. The act used sound and silence alternately to give symmetry. The opening scene had us sleeping—i.e. silence. Then we started reading—i.e sound; followed by thinking—i.e silence, which was immediately followed by eating—i.e sound and finally ended with sleeping—i.e silence.
At every one minute, the voice would speak and the action would change. Mechanized voice was the only voice prevalent throughout the performance—be it the voice that gave us the order or the mechanized reading or the laughter that the participants produced (or made to produce) during the performance. Free will had no role to play. Nothing sprouted from the individual actors of their own accord.
Having said that, each of us were doing things differently even within the confined structure of our performance. Even though the voice was asking us to read, some read loudly, some read in inaudible voice, some hurried, and some took their own time. Likewise, when we were ordered to eat, individual characteristics reflected. Some ate with mouth open, some with closed mouth, some produced noise while eating, while some ate silently. We were performing as a group, but we were also individuals there—none of which was forced or premeditated or in the script. Since performance art is organic, our performance too was. In the seemingly confined, limited, banal actions, we were bringing to the fore our individualities shaped by our social, cultural, ideological, and economic attachments. And this is what performance studies hits at. Performance art gives that freedom, it gives wings to ‘at the moment’ action. Therefore, we could do our performance without much restrictions and concerns hovering over our heads.
And like every artist, we wanted to leave the rest to the audience. We wanted them to interpret our performance on their own with the help of the markers evident in our performance and the Performance Studies apparatus that we are armored with. If they wanted to interpret it as the representation of the lack of chaos and the orderly functioning of life; it was up to the audience members. What we wanted our audience to do was to ponder upon and consider if there is more to it than what they were viewing in front; to think if there is something underlying the text? And to not take things in the face value. We wanted them to think; to understand the rationale behind our performance. And that is what art is supposed to endorse.
Case 1: You see a woman with a luggage walking around. But her walk is not brisk; it is more like a stroll. She adjusts her shawl. She looks around. She looks lost. For 15 minutes or more, all you see is the same woman walking with pauses. Then she enters a room. She seems to be struggling to locate her space but finally marks her small space with duct tape. She balances herself within her fixed space. She rests. She brushes her teeth. She unpacks some of her stuffs. She puts on a second shawl. She packs. She journeys again. She reaches a spot. Pause. Marks her small space. Pause. She puts on another shawl. She enlarges her space. Then some more. She is meditating over something. She enlarges her space again. Unpacks. She adds people in her circle. One. Two. Three. Then two more. She takes her own sweet time to design and execute her every move. Her moves do not look hurried. She encircles her small pack of people and they move out of the room, into the hallway, reach a spot, then retrace the steps and back in the room and that is how the whole thing concludes.
It all ends in about one and half hours. One and half hours of silence. One and half hours of watching a woman walk. Then stop. Then walk. Meditate. Pack. Unpack. Unassured steps. Marking her space. One and half hour of trying to use reason to comprehend the acts of the woman.
Let's try reviewing the aforementioned performance through an audience member's perspective. But it depends on two things: 1. is the audience member interested in exhuming the layers in the performance and in finding something? or 2. s/he rejects it outright without even making an effort to interpret any meaning out of it?
It is from Ranjit's performance of "Passage : Migration" that she did at New School, NY, USA. One can watch it on YouTube as well. It is about migration and assimilation. One can critically analyze the discourse and say that there are many things at play here: gender, power, ideology, identity, and cultural, political and racial issues. Ranjit even borrows Homi K Bhabha's concept of "third space" to explain the theme of her performance.
Case 2: A woman in white sari. Her long hair is kept loose. She puts chopped heads of cock in front. They are not clean and dried heads but look freshly beheaded since blood is dripping from them. The stage looks very unhygienic and spooky. She then collects the blood and applies in her hair.
One bloody act! But is that all to it? Or there is something more to what meets the eyes; something underlying the text? Should we scrutinize every move, try to trace the concealed ideology, unleash the meanings and reread the interpretations? Or is it analyzing too much into nothing?
The performance was conceptualized and executed by Darshandhari. Her concept is based on the fight over power. Heads represent position, heads represent the main people, heads represent the heads of the government who shed blood to become the heads.
As per our performance is concerned, ever since the group presentation thing was put to our attention, it was unanimously decided within the members of our group that we would do a performance for the class presentation. “This close relationship between studying performance and doing performance is integral to performance studies,” Richard Schechner. As students of performance studies we had always aimed at it. The hauntology that Benjamin D. Powell and Tracy Stephenson Shaffer talk about in their essay “The Haunting of Performance Studies”, we wanted to experience that as well. We had studied theory in multitudes but we felt it the time to discover the unknown. We wanted to see the possibilities. We wanted to experiment.
Performance art is not rehearsed; "or at least we don't" says Darshandhari. If it is rehearsed, what's the difference between performance art and drama? And even if the theme is repeated, performance differs. "I normally let the space dictate my performance. But it can be other way round as well. Performance art is not well received here. People here have the habit of negating everything without making an effort to understand it. People here are very dismissive of everything. Constructive criticism is unheard of," Shrestha is recently back participating in the 17th NIPAF Asia Performance Art series 2014, Japan. Many artists in Nepal echo their concern but they also feel the deficiency of art critics and writers who could have helped in the dissemination of performance art messages to the common public. A country is measured by its cultural affluence and “rich in art” is one of the measuring elements. People should be educated on art. People should grow interest and enthusiasm on art. People should respect art.
Our group performance on “Banality of Life” was not rehearsed. We knew the theme, we knew the matter we were exploring, but whatever we did in front of the class was pure performance. We let the space and the moment take control. Many things went off-hand like the interaction with the audience members during the performance. The coordination went off track. Things went ashtray at times. There were too many unplanned moments but we suppose that’s the beauty of performance art. It sets us free. It lets the artists be themselves. Performance should be organic. And our performance was just that.