No. 3, 2017

Listening to the World: The Gift of Voice and the Question of Silence — aCCeSsions

Shuddhabrata Sengupta
Listening to the World: The Gift of Voice and the Question of Silence

The following is the revised text of a lecture given by Shuddhabrata Sengupta, the 2015-16 Keith Haring Fellow in Art and Activism, at Bard College.
Through an elaboration of an ethic of fearless listening and thoughtful speech, Sengupta, artist, curator, and member of Raqs Media Collective, proposes new intersections for the aesthetic and the political. Mining his conversations with students at the Center for Curatorial Studies and the Human Rights Program, he reflected on the question of political commitments in art in a way that avoids foregrounding the artist as the tribune or representative of the people, and instead positions the artist as a speaking and listening citizen.



From ‘The Return of Tipu’s Tiger’ by Raqs Media Collective


Annandale-on-Hudson, NY – Delhi, India


During my time at Bard, everything ripened in the Hudson Valley and turned to gold—the Gingko trees were on fire—then shed, and turned green, as if nothing had happened. A museum, which was under wraps, under sustained renovation, became fulsome and active. Students have almost become curators.


At the Center for Curatorial Studies, at the Hannah Arendt Center, in the Bard College library, in classrooms, in conversations and in the silence of the commute home, I had the opportunity to think and ask myself many questions; this is mainly a distillation of those questions.


Following my semester at Bard, I returned to the turbulence that always awaits me back home. In Delhi, in India, we have moved from the winter of discontent to a spring of resistance to the summer of rage. It is as if a whole generation has risen in rebellion. University campuses across the country are caught in a maelstrom of protest actions: against authorities, the government, and the diktats of right-wing militias. Thousands of workers are engaged in wildcat actions within and outside factories, and a nervous but callous regime is resorting to the only language it knows—repression.


After leaving Bard, my colleagues in Raqs Media Collective and I had taught a semester in “curatorial studies” at the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nenru University. The conversations I had with them are not worlds apart from some of the conversations that we had at Bard, in and out of class. It is just the intensity, immediacy, and urgency of the conversations that are different.


I dedicate this text to those conversations both at Bard and in Delhi, and to all the chatter, whisper, and crosstalk that is going on in the world right now. My concerns, as my students in Annandale know well, goes beyond what artists can “say” in their work. Rather, as we discussed repeatedly, we were concerned with the art of listening. How can we listen to the world? 


Fearless speech – Fearless listener


Our work in Raqs Media Collective over the last twenty-four-odd years is an attempt to be present and attentive to the world as we find ourselves in it, and to the histories that preface and shape our encounter with the world. One of the imperatives that we think and work with is the necessity to consider the materiality of the world—not as a field of already worked out concepts, but as a field of investigation, and of creative practice. This agency of investigation requires the cultivation of a hermeneutics of listening, of listening very carefully. Of paying attention to the things that are being said, not only aloud, but also in whispers, not only in proclamations and manifestos, but also in forms of disguised and coded speech, and not only in reasonable discursive forms but also in acts of fearless speech in various parts of the world.


Can Foucault’s idea of parrhesia, a mode of discourse that a person can use to speak truth to power openly and freely, despite the risks, be complemented by the idea of mode of fearless listening, and the figure of the “fearless listener”?


A young woman called Azra Tabassum, in the Cybermohalla project at Sarai, taught me this a while ago, when she wrote: Bina dare bol-ney ki azaadi ke liye bina dare sun-ne ki azaadi ki zaroorat hoti hai—“For fearless speech to exist, it’s necessary that there must be some fearless listening.”


Furthermore, I have been thinking about the voluntary decision to stay hungry as a form of protest, of festive acts of feeding, of speech, of stammering and of silence, and of sounds that exist before, after, and between acts of speech.


One of the things we discussed in class at CCS was the relationship between hunger and voice. Many of the organs and body parts involved in speech—the windpipe, the tongue, teeth, lips—are also the tools the bodies uses to receive, ingest, transport, and break down morsels of food. The anatomy of vocalization and speech that allow us to transport air from our lungs back into our mouths, and have it resonate in the larynx and be shaped by tongue, lips, and teeth, are in some ways a spandrel, an incidental epiphenomenon of the need to eat.


What is it about sharing food and about abstaining from food that inevitably leads to conversation and silence? When do words and silences become “food for thought”? Must we cook images and ideas? Or can they be had raw? Is that cooking—that marination—what we mean sometimes when we say we are curating something? What does it mean to say “we are hungry for justice”? Can we be hungry for beauty in the same way?


Can we argue for an analogy between articulation and silence on the one hand, and being sated and hungry on the other? Can that which nourishes also be toxic? Can what heals be poison? Can there be too much or too little speech and or silence, just as there can be of food? A hunger strike tests the limits of how long one can stay without food. How long does it take before we reach a point of no return when it comes to expression, to speech, to articulation, or to silence?


These questions become important when considering that so much of the question of politics and ethics in the arts is a discussion of what is said, who says it, how much is said, who is addressed, and about when things are expressed or held back.


Student activists at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Insurgent Joy contra Sad Passions


Keith Haring left us an imperative: “The contemporary artist has a responsibility to continue celebrating humanity.”


Despite Keith Haring’s call to joy, activist art is often unfortunately still in thrall to what used to be called “sad passions.” Today, while advertising and popular culture oscillate between horror and relentless good cheer, the engaged arts have become the primary cultural instruments for the exculpation of liberal guilt. The world is ruled by a new triumvirate: terror, fortitude, and melancholia—sad passions on steroids.


This makes for a strange passivity, a lethargy of the spirit disguised by a hyperventilation of the injured conscience. Despite bursts of curatorial enthusiasm, staged in high-octane, high-decibel settings, the response to this kind of art invariably oscillates between the sob, the yawn, and the sigh. The limited attention economy of the moment ensures that the artist-advocate of each pressing cause competes for airtime with his or her impatient successor, resulting in a carousel of abbreviated, ritualized gestures to the world, our time, its aches and pains.


Ever so often, in biennales, in museums, and even in the occasional art fair, the “committed” artist delivers, with monotonous regularity, at the request of the “engaged” curator, a catalogue of miseries. This is true especially, but not only, when he or she hails from, or bears witness to, those parts of the world where war, poverty, epidemics, and repression make for the bread of daily news. Here, contemporary art becomes the awkward, ill-prepared bearer of bad news.


Whatever else it may be, this is not the way Haring would have had us own up to our responsibility to continue celebrating humanity. What one does not need, especially if one considers the world from the point of view of those who labor, of those who are incarcerated, of those who are in pain or in circumstances of exclusion—is a set of aesthetic reminders of how bad things are. Broadcasts, tweets, and status updates tell us more bad news than can be processed in any given day. Only those who have no idea of how bad things are in need of these alarms. And those who have no idea of how bad things are in this day and age have no excuses for their ignorance.


The point is not to tell the world the story of this or that struggle, or to bear witness, or to offer up an image or icon for it, for that is being done already in many different ways. It is to find ways to think and reflect on the implications of all the stories, testimonies and images that come to us, almost unbidden.


How can artists, critics and curators, intellectuals and practitioners of the arts, listen to this noise and begin to hear the music?


Play, Pleasure, Politics


Just as the “unmusical” cannot hear music but only sound, so too, the artistic gesture can be recognized only by someone prepared to be receptive to a pure act, who understands what it means, even if inarticulately, to act in the world.


And so, I recall one of the students on the thirteenth day of his hunger strike at the university I spoke about earlier walked in with a friend into the academic council meeting of the university and gave the vice chancellor, who called in the police to arrest his students, a gift of fruit. Perhaps the students felt that their vice chancellor needed to eat their words.In the event, the vice chancellor ran away from his meeting faster than his own security guards. The unmusical face of power could not deal with the music of its subjects. The hungry students would laugh if I called them artists, but their acts were, and continue to be, works of art. Not activist art, but art.


The Dilemma of the Activist-Artist: Looking Towards Heinrich Blücher


The dilemma of the activist-artist (for which one can only have sympathy) goes like this: if his activism succeeds, then his art is no longer of any consequence, because the reason that caused it to emerge no longer operates. On the other hand, if his activism fails, then his art is suspect, because it may have contributed to political failure. This is why yesterday’s radical poster is forever destined to be the kitsch of tomorrow, devoid of significance, defeated either by premature triumph or by the belated weapons of irony, exhausted in either instance by the draining away of its intended purposes into the river of unintended consequences.


But to understand the difference between the agency of art and the ends of activism we will have to delve deeper. In a lecture on the “Fundamentals of a Philosophy of Art” given to students at Bard College, and subtitled “On the Understanding of Artistic Experience,” the teacher Heinrich Blücher underlined what is perhaps the key difference between art and agit-prop methods:


The real difference between the use of artistic means for an artistic purpose and for an inartistic or anti-artistic purpose can perhaps best be described in terms of the difference between convincing a man in an argument and trying to talk a man into something, defeating him in an argument. When a man has really been convinced in an argument it means that he gets into a productive creative line where he begins to cooperate with the other man by bringing into the discussion new arguments for the question at hand out of his own life experience. If a man has been convinced it means that he can use a truth and can contribute to it and live in that truth. But if a man has been defeated in an argument, he is merely silenced; he no longer can argue because he no longer can think of any argument against the question.



Most kinds of activism identify a figure that needs to be vanquished, and, in their quest for victory, seek converts, not conversation. Unfortunately, this actually means the end, rather than the beginning, of a political subjectivity—for on arriving at the state where one knows all the correct political (or politically correct) answers, one no longer needs to ask a political question.


On the other hand, it makes no sense to talk of obeying the dictates of art. Art asks nothing of its witnesses other than that they look again at their senses, and by doing so, report back to themselves about the discovery, or rediscovery, of their cognitive field, of their desires. The encounter with art is always an encounter with ourselves, and with others in the company of ourselves.


That is why sometimes even apparently “apolitical” works of art can generate contexts of being and being together that do many things, and some of these actions can have serious political ramifications.


Speech and Silence: Expression and Restraint


Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in his essay “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence,” says “what if language expresses as much by what is between words as by the words themselves. By that which it does not ‘say’ as by what it ‘says’. And what if, hidden in empirical language, there is a language raised to a second power in which signs once again lead the vague life of colours, and in which meanings never free themselves completely from the intercourse of signs?”


We have to find ways to listen to what cannot yet be said. We have to learn to listen to political silence.


Merleau-Ponty continues: “we must consider speech before it is pronounced, the background of silence which does not cease to surround it and without which it would say nothing. Or, to put the matter another way, we must uncover the threads of silence with which speech is mixed.”


Only art can make silence expressive. The first such acts are always acts of imagination and desire, even fantasy, often dismissed as fancy, as being whimsical, indeed as being apolitical. The only arena where they can unfold, where they can walk, and speak, is in the arts, as literature, as conceptual art, as theatre, as performance, even as music—not as activism (which requires pre-formed, ready-to-roll political subjects that have spoken even before they have lived) but as instances of imaginative action, of becoming, of play-acting.


Evidently, there are many routes in and out of the maze of our time.


Not all of them need go through the tollgates of greed and cynicism, or the checkpoints of guilt and rage. We need not be caught forever between the supermarket and the penitentiary, between having to choose between the stroke of the auctioneer’s gavel and the whiplash of the petitioner’s complaint.


There are signs taken for wonders and wonders disguised as punctuations inserted between signs. There are maps and post-mortems, there is light and darkness, there are life forms and death masks, there are incidents and insurgencies, there is bondage and freedom. There are even beasts of burden, should you choose to load it with what you find on your way. There are aide-memoires, there is déjà vu, there is prophecy, there are takeaways and memories.


Our reason for staying with art, either as artists or as curators, is to use the visual to go beyond the retinal; to deploy language in order to approach the ineffable, to create even what might be called a set of polyphonic silences along with rich sources of active noise. We could give each other the gifts of voice and audition, we could learn to speak in tongues: in the whisper of sedition and heresy, in the songs sung in pleasure in spite of injury, in forensic diction and visionary stammer, in measured timbres and ecstatic tones, in echolalia and laughter. Even in silence, and always in poetry.



Shuddhabrata Sengupta is an artist, curator, writer and co-founder, along with Monica Narula and Jeebesh Bagchi, of the Raqs Media Collective, based in New Delhi, India. Raqs have shown at Documenta 11, Venice, Istanbul, Sao Paulo, Sydney, Taipei and Shanghai Biennales. In 2016, Raqs curated the XIth edition of the Shanghai Biennale. Back in 2000, Sengupta, together with Narula and Bagchi, Ravi Sundaram and Ravi Vasudevan, co-founded the Sarai programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi. Sengupta is also one of the founders and contributing editors of the independent radical blog, one of the most widely read and influential platforms for new, dissident voices in South Asia. His political commentary and essays have been widely published in magazines, newspapers, and blogs in India and elsewhere. Sengupta was the Keith Haring Fellow in Art & Activism at Bard College, New York (2015-2016).