Fence and offence

September 6, 2020

The space for dissent and experimentation is shrinking

Is there a way (ii).

In the spring of 1982, when I got admission to an art college, it was different from how you see it today. Of course, with the passage of time, teaching blocks have been added, recreational spaces expanded, studios adjusted and new trees planted to replace old ones. Current students’ sculptures adorn the campus while old graduates’ works have disappeared. However, the boundary wall has become taller. Earlier, it was just a small brick affair with cast iron railing that allowed passers-by to see the courtyard. Students and teachers were also spotted from a distance. Hence an outsider was hardly an outsider.

I don’t exactly recall when another deck of iron railing was added. Next, I noticed the corrugated aluminium sheets installed to block the openness of metal bars later fortified with swirling circles of barbed wires. The latest addition is a printed flax that completely conceals the view.

This is only the account of one building. Barbed wires, sandbags, check posts, metal detectors, walk-through gates and security guards have enhanced the atmosphere of surveillance everywhere.

Before the advent of Covid-19, these were necessary steps which resonate ‘years of terror’ when we were fighting another, undetectable, enemy that appeared asymptomatic, normal, just like one of us, but carried a threat to societal existence. In order to protect lives — like the face masks, hand gloves, and protective suits now — these shields were added not to one but all educational institutions, offices, restaurants, hospitals and to almost every public building.

Many artists including Bani Abidi and Neha Ashraf Syed have depicted these security devices in their works as contraptions that have become an integral part of our urban architecture despite the sizeable decrease in threat. This reminds one of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s comment that wars have bequeathed to peacetime a “series of fateful technologies”, from barbed wire to nuclear power plants.

Fences, a common element of our environment, now perform something extra for an art school. They clearly mark the division of inmates and visitors, or distance between us and the other. These security measures protect lives but also ensure privacy, intimacy, secrecy, turning the entire institution, individuals and their activity invisible — and safe.

More than a physical edifice, a fence around an art school is a symbolic body. It represents a society in which you are afraid of others. You do not reveal your premises, acts, opinions, and works of art, fearing that these would invite assaults, actual and virtual. Art produced or taught here could be offensive to general public’s sensibility; it may hurt morality, ideology, patriotism or political correctness.

Besides reinforcing boundary walls, installing alarm systems, arranging surveillance cameras, you also control your opinions, edit your views, and censor your visuals.

Within these guarded spaces, there is a second layer of security that is not seen from outside but is more firmly wired in the architecture of our mind. If one compares the attitude of creative persons living in the 1970s and ’80s to the one from present times, one realises that it is not an external threat, but our immune system.

Not a fundamentalist militant but a friend living next door, not a diligent policeman but a socially active citizen is feared. So in order not to offend someone in person, print or electronic media, on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook, we have to repeatedly assess our views, our expressions and their consequences.

Can an artist survive being called a traitor or being insensitive to colour, gender, class or environment?

Some years ago, there was a court case filed against an academic art journal on the ground of hurting religious sentiments. In the past years, artworks have been desecrated on allegations of nudity; and several art pieces suspected of ‘disagreeable’ content removed from public display spaces.

Anticipating both real and imaginary harsh response, artists have developed an ideal secluded cocoon, populated by only a few: gallerists, curators, critics, collectors and fellow artists. They create works which are not objectionable and safely satisfy the standards/definitions of race, religion, gender, nationality.

However, if you happen to visit an artist’s studio or access the maker’s mind, you realize how creative phenomenon unfolds — like chaos. To begin with, artists are unbound, unhinged and unconventional. It is only in the process of production that they come to terms with restrictions of all sorts: technical, formal, traditional as well as ethical, legal and social.

Creative individuals succeed when they break away from convention. Artists who reject existing practices, concepts, movements and methods emerge as new names. But in relation to art matters, the norms of society are more powerful, homogenous and unavoidable. Hence the bigger problem is how to deal with subjects that can irritate various groups. I recall lawyers’ announcement to protest against their representation in the state-controlled television plays. Other sectors and professions have also been issuing threats on any hurtful aesthetic production on grounds of misrepresentation.

You dismiss a writer because he talks about the other gender; you condemn a painter because she draws models from another race; you reject an actor because he utters rants of an anti-Semite character; you denounce a musician who has traded his oriental tunes for Reggae rhythms; and you abhor a dancer who abandons her indigenous compositions for Western style. You accept that all of them must stick to their boundaries, and not venture into alien territory. Because they have no right to do so, and it’s not right.

In every discipline of art, fences are meant to contain creative expression. But before becoming popular, public and viral, some of these fences were forced by the state — in the form of official codes. These prohibitions were addressed by a number of artists, and some appropriated the format of border to comment on political situation in their works. Border in classical Mughal imagery, essentially a decorative competent of miniature painting, was transformed into barriers, a politically charged image by artists witnessing restrictions during Ziaul Haq’s military dictatorship.

Persecution and prohibitions imposed by past rulers are no more. But there are other boundaries now fixed within our surroundings. Not a fundamentalist militant but a friend living next door, not a diligent policeman but a socially active citizen is feared. So in order not to offend someone in person, print or electronic media, on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook, we have to repeatedly assess our views, our expressions and their consequences.

Fences have become so much a part of our existence that they cease to be offences.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

Fence and offence: The space for dissent and experimentation is shrinking