Anonymity, Silence and Insurrection: Reflections on the 2018 Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life
by Matt Barlow
However, the patriarchy has been indoctrinated against apology, even retreat and self-destruction are more alluring options.
— Natasha Ginwala
There is a distinction between life and non-life that makes a difference.
— Elizabeth Povinelli
Ever since 2012 the port city of Fort Kochi has been subject to radical transformation every two years by the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB). Heralded as the 'people’s biennale' because of its involvement with the local community – mostly fisherfolk and a now burgeoning tourism industry – and its housing in the diverse colonial era architecture of the area, this biennale has always been a little different from the others. It presents logistical challenges, such as transport, humidity, and lack of infrastructure, but also social and political tensions. To create an event that appeals to an island of people whose history is shaped by colonial rule and various other forms of marginalisation, which at the same time impresses an international elite art audience, is not an easy task.
I was based in Kochi throughout 2018 conducting my doctoral fieldwork, exploring transformations in perceptions, politics and infrastructures of waste and its management. I found myself amongst the biennale space by attending public programming events in the lead up to the festival, eager to meet and engage with critical thinkers and creative people who knew this city. After one particular conference, hosted by an international group of scholars with backgrounds and/or research interests in Kerala called the Backwaters Collective, I became acquainted with some employees of the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF). I was then able to engage with a number of local artists and activists, as well as international artists visiting Kochi to install their work. This iteration of the KMB (running Dec 12 2018 – March 29 2019) is pertinent to the current theme of gender for three reasons in particular: 1 – it was the first to be curated by a woman; 2 – it was the first to have at least 50% female artists; 3 – the arrival of the #metoo movement to India’s art and film industries in the lead up to the event. The following reflections speaks to these things.
At 11am on the 14th of December 2018, I sat anxious and excited in the main pavilion of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, awaiting the lecture/performance of the infamous Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous group of women determined to change the way women are represented in the art world. Moments before the performance began, I turned to my right to see the curator of the festival Anita Dube, and behind her the president of the KBF Bose Krishnamachari and Secretary, Sunil V. As the pavilion was reaching capacity and buzzing with excitement, Anita saw the space to my right and sat down. The pavilion, designed by Anagram Architects (a small and exciting new architectural firm from New Delhi) was designed to create what Anita hoped would become a 'knowledge laboratory’, where the stone steps that curved around half of the circumference would form not only an amphitheatre for live performances, but a space for discussion, learning and creativity. Unknown to Anita, I had also been amongst a group of concerned artists and members of the South Asian arts community the previous evening as they discussed the ‘eerie silence’ around the recently removed co-founder of the KBF, Riyas Komu, and the subtle yet noticeable public praise for him since the festival opened.
Komu, an artist and curator himself, had stepped down in October following sexual assault allegations aired via anonymous Instagram handle ‘Scene and Herd’. The group met that night to openly discuss the situation and to organise some collective action, which they planned to present in the Q & A immediately after the Guerrilla Girls performance the following morning. The group had relayed their intentions to the KBF leadership team as an invitation (everyone present agreed that the statement should be heard by those in the leadership team of the KBF prior to the Q & A session), while keeping the anonymity of those attending intact. I remained silent during the discussions that evening, there more to learn and show solidarity than voice any opinions about the matter. I did however, noticed groups of men lingering in the darkness nearby, trying to listen in to whatever they could without being too obviously intrusive, obviously intrigued by a gathering of young men and women in a public space well after dark—this was Kerala after all, the first democratically elected communist state in the world. However, I couldn’t help feel as though we were being watched.
Back in the pavilion, immediately after the Guerrilla Girls performance ended, the collective statement was read as follows to initiate the Q & A session:
“We are collectively moved by the propositions grounded in artistic works of this Kochi-Muziris Biennale edition.
And its declaration to listen and enrich our solidarity through extra-institutional conversations that take place as a community.
In this spirit we have a set of questions to share.
Who are members of the KMB Internal Complaints Committee currently?
Have all workers (including volunteers and all temporary staff) of the organisation been informed about the committee, its role and scope of activities?
Is the investigation of Riyas Komu underway? What is the timeline for this investigation to be completed?
Will the investigating body at KMB and other cultural organisations take measures to protect the anonymity and safety of the survivors who come forward to provide testimony?
Can individual stakeholders within the art world commit to a zero-tolerance policy in their institutional spaces and across spheres of cultural activity?
What could the potential next steps be to ensure sustained action and safer spaces within the art world for the marginalised, disenfranchised and for women?
We are seeking to create a safe and proactive community and wider solidarity in the cultural sphere, and the intention is not to malign anyone or any institution. These are the questions we came with, and we would encourage you to take them forward.”
By the time the microphone had been passed around and the statement had been read, the entire pavilion was on its feet in support, including Anita who was now standing next to me. I turned around to notice that the other members of the KBF leadership were no longer present. They had been offered an invitation to engage in public dialogue and they had denied it. After a long and enthusiastic applause the audience took their seats and the Q & A continued. Then, before anyone had a chance to leave the pavilion at the end of the Q & A, Anita asked for the microphone and once it was in her hands she announced:
“Thank you very much for inaugurating this space as an insurrectional space…”
As of writing this, the questions raised by that collective statement remain unanswered and no further action has been taken.
Elizabeth Povinelli, 2016, Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Duke University Press, Durham.