by Zohra Malik
One of the most distinctive ways that we choose to talk about cities is usually with reference to how how they warp time, how fast or slow they seem to move. It’s not just our imagination, fortunately, because studies show that the reason why cities warp time differently is because of the pace of social life. The pace at which people move around in their city, their rhythm, interaction all of these make up the pace of social life which is how we identify with our city and negotiate with our space. In this context, the central hubs that facilitate this construction of how cities move and breathe generally turn out to be public spaces.
Cities have grown out of a basic need to live as a community and public spaces were traditionally designed to facilitate public interaction. However, the need to exploit real estate and construction potential of a city have left no real open spaces that encourage public interaction. Places like Oval and Cross maidan that are located in and around Churchgate; the parks we find at every turn in Chandigarh; even the MMRDA garden located in the suburbs of Mumbai; these usually have the odd group of children running around, a cricket team being coached, a group of adults playing football but other than that they seem to be missing the energetic vibe that one would hope to find in places like these. It’s almost like these spaces have come to embody the quality of “chill” that has taken our generation by storm. We could complain about the dearth of space, and yes, this is an issue but one that is being addressed by the movements like Open Mumbai initiative. For our part, we are trying to address the issue of stagnancy in these public spaces and what sort of a role performance, art as well as design can play in reviving them.
A lot of the public spaces in India seem to be designed keeping in mind the principle of function following form. According to movement generalist and co-founder of Mumbai Parkour, Cyrus Khan, the main reason for stagnation in public spaces is because most people stick to the limited possibilities of movements in these spaces and allow mono-utility to thicken like a bubble around us. When asked about how parkour changed the way he perceives public spaces Khan replied, “Parkour is this little pin that you find one day with a simple message. “Everything is for whatever you want it to be.” And with this pin, you go around popping all these bubbles, jumping down stairs, balancing on railings, climbing the walls – just releasing yourself from the narrow blinders to see a world full of possibilities.”
He also cites the similarities between the designs of these spaces as one of the reasons for stagnation. “You see replicas of nearly the same play set in most gardens, with the only other spaces being walking tracks or open grounds.”
However, that is slowly changing with the government and organizations like ST+ART who are trying to add to the aesthetic appeal of the public spaces as well as encourage more activity. In Delhi, Gurgaon as well as in some parts of Mumbai, parks have been revamped to include machines for exercise that are absolutely free to use. The restoration of Hauz Khas Village and Deer Park and the re-painting of railway stations in Mumbai, have also significantly brightened up these spaces.
Performances and art in public space change the way we look and think about our surroundings, and potentially challenge the design and diktats that we have created for those spaces. While we may sometimes catch the odd performance or two by the NSPA at stations or witness a street play, there seems to be some amount of hesitance in taking art out of theatres, galleries, auditoriums etc. You aren’t as likely to find someone playing a guitar and singing on Marine Drive as you would be to find someone playing the saxophone on the subways in London. Part of the reason could be that when you produce work within an institution there are certain rules and etiquette that need to be adhered to and one’s boundaries as an artist are respected. This isn’t so when the audience is unpredictable and accidental and interaction between the artist and audience can lead to confrontation.
In an article by The Dance Current, Julia Taffe who is the artistic director of a dance company in Vancouver substantiated why it was worth embracing the uncertainties and ambiguities associated with performing out on the streets. “When I was a contemporary dancer working in the sanctity of the studio, I thought I needed to put space between myself and the world to protect and polish my artistry. After many years of public practice I’ve become more resilient, affable, collaborative and intuitive as a choreographer.”
It is glaringly obvious that to make art accessible, it is necessary for artists to trust the public. Amanda Palmer’s TED talk, The Art of Asking reiterates the same sentiment as she regales us on a time when she stripped and let her fans draw on her at a Kickstarter party in Berlin, the visceral feeling of trusting strangers and the blurring of boundaries between artist and audience. Artistes in India like Anish Victor and Shaunak Mahbubani have picked up on these ideas and are curating and collaborating on projects such as UR/Unreserved; which is a series of performances that will take place on trains in four destinations, all the while contemplating notions of identity; and Traversing Experiences which was an art installation curated to showcase the experience of traversing through public spaces as a woman.
Shaunak Mahbubani’s Traversing Experiences
So we are able to recognize public spaces where art and culture can be celebrated; festivals like Kala Ghoda and Kochi Bienalle are proof of that but to make using public space for art a long-term commitment we need to recognize how performance and art transform urbanized, individual spaces into a space that is communal, congenial and invites participation. As artistes, we need to show some Palmer-esque grit and trust the public and as spectators we need to create spaces that care about art.
To join Cyrus Khan and his barrel of monkey men AND women, you can follow them here:
Mumbai Parkour | Facebook
Mumbai Parkour (@mumbai_parkour) • Instagram photos and videos
To know more and contribute to Anish Victor for the UR/Unreserved project, go to:
UR/Unreserved- a 30 day arts project on trains