Blank Noise Founder Jasmeen Patheja on art, collectivism, campaigns, and feminismFrancesca Ferrario
Blank Noise — an art collective focussed on sexual violence — is like a house with infinite doors that keep multiplying every time something enters or exits. Founded in 2003 by Jasmeen Patheja, the collective marches in tune with the holistic and all-embracing approach of art.
Blank Noise is in itself an ongoing discussion where contributors keep adding new inputs. The result is a complex set of perspectives, which try to reflect what reality actually is, as opposed to what it should be.“It is not a static process. Our goals shift because it is a collective process and it’s been informed by a lot of experiences. We witness other lives,be it street harassment or a rape case, and the discussion about that is evolving, is shifting, is iterating, is burning from its past. I don’t see art as an application or as a tool but rather as a language that an artist creates,” explains Jasmine.
In conversation with HerStory, Jasmeen explains what led her to start Blank Noise and what it is all about.
The creation of Blank Noise
“As an art student, I was interested in feminist art practices, feminist activism, and the role of an artist in social transformation – namely how art can heal and be co-created. Secondly, I too have experienced harassment. The frustration and disappointment I wanted to express made me realise that there was actually no space for people to talk about it and even feel safe bringing it up,” says Jasmine.
Jasmeen observed that there was much denial and silence around the issue. The expression ‘street harassment’ didn’t even exist: people talked about ‘eve teasing’ instead:
“When we started Blank Noise, I was graduating from school and we began with workshops; we provided an intimate space to talk and this is why the conversation happened. Then, in 2004, I started blogging and a broader community started building.”
Volunteers at the art collective Blank Noise – which is currently sustained mainly by donations – identify themselves as action heroes and come from every part of the country. “We see ourselves as a collective that’s engaging in and building a public conversation through various concept media and tackling attitudes toward sexual violence by building safe spaces for that process. Action heroes are the initiators and enablers of the debate, it is a very co-created process in this respect,” explains Jasmeen.
Most of Blank Noise’s work has revolved around the attempt to understand and define street harassment: How violence takes different shapes on the street, at home, or elsewhere. “When I started, the focus was more on providing a space for discussion to oppose the general attitude of mere spectators of street violence. We didn’t have a sense of what our plan was, but we had a sense of one step following the next. Now, our job is mainly to individuate those spaces where people are starting new conversations and understand why,” says Jasmeen.
Their last project ‘Talk to Me’ was about two strangers sitting on a table and talking about everything, except sexual violence. The focus, says Jasmine, was on empathy and on taking time to talk with a stranger: “This encouraged facing one’s fears and biases, which eventually would help understand whom we feel intimidated by and why.”
The campaign, which they will be working for the next couple of years, is called ‘I Never Asked For It’. “It is about tackling attitudes toward victims’ blame, which is at the core of perpetuating sexual violence” explains Jasmeen, “Currently, we are looking at how blaming manifests in different spaces. For example what it means to be in an abusive relation and be told ‘don’t make me lose my temper’; what is means to be a sex worker and be told ‘ you deserved it’; and so on,”says Jasmeen.
Penetration of the debate
Although Blank Noise has earned huge popularity as an online community, its reach in non-digitalised and non-English speaking areas is still open to exploration. The collective presence in remote areas is through workshops and offline media like live action, performance, video, sound, web based media, posters, pamphlets. One of their future projects will be translating ‘I Never Asked For It’ in different Indian languages:“Inclusiveness is an element we take into consideration because the focus remains that of bringing debate in spaces where there is not.”
Still, penetration in remote areas is limited and Jasmeen openly shares that Blank Noise has received critiques about this.The collective, however,reacted by acknowledging and welcoming the observation: “This is where we are right now, we haven’t accomplished everything. If someone’s got a great idea is welcome to come and work with us!When I said that to a person who criticised us defining Blank Noise a ‘stupid initiative’, she immediately changed her tone!”
Jasmeen argues that “as an artist, you are an activist”. However, differently from other types of activists, “art allows to step back to get insight to see the whole picture.”
She shares that one of the next topics she wants to explore as an artist is whether there are some patterns behind sexual harassment around the globe: “I’ve recently had a conversation with someone from Argentina, who is also working on a project about street harassment there. We were exchanging notes about patterns and it seems to be a very similar story. In the past decades street harassment initiatives have been revived. I was asking myself why this’ has happened: are there some recurrent elements in that?”
Blank Noise is one example of how feminism is not a discourse by angry women in blind search for revenge, but a means of confronting the reality of facts.
Jasmeen explains that the core of Blank Noise campaigns is an affirmative attitude, rather than anger and aggressiveness. She recalls an episode in 2005 during a demonstration held simultaneously in different cities to reclaim public spaces for women. “We were interested in understanding what it takes to be asked to make eye contact with a stranger. The aim was to show up in public spaces, look at people in their eyes and being very idle there. In one of the cities, one of our action heroes gave it back at a man, but that was not what we wanted to do, we didn’t want to get into a competition. We wanted to show that if men are uncomfortable being looked at in the eyes, the problem is not in women but in men’s inability to relax there.”
This attitude is what Jasmeen calls a “choice to be affirmative.” It is not about deciding to do something controversial, but just being coherent with one’s beliefs. “For the simple fact of being an action hero you decide to be unapologetic, affirmative, putting forward desire, seeing there’s no excuse for sexual violence” she concludes.
When asked whether the debate about sexual harassment in India has changed in the last decade, Jasmeen nods but adds that, “Although we hear more women speaking about their experiences, sharing is still an issue sometimes. It requires dealing with vulnerability and we should be in a position of owning our narratives, speak , share if at all, when we want to and are ready to.”
Be part of the discussion and check Blank Noise website.
Image credit: BlankNoise.org