Graffiti and other varieties of rebellion
Ronni Ahmmed and Imran Ferdous in discussion
'Art attracts us only by what it reveals of our most secret self'
– Jean-Luc Godard
Imran Ferdous: What's the reason behind the antagonistic position of the society, or the state for that matter vis-à-vis graffiti?
Ronni Ahmmed: Grafitti is a kind of violation of the law, a social disturbance of sorts. Say, you draw or put down something on a clean wall or on a constructed edifice which the government has propped up, this transgressive act reflects the lust for freedom we all harbour in our mind, be it the general public, or an artist. The mind has no law imposed on it. Law is required when numerous minds conglomerate. A solitary mind has no use for the law. Laws and regulations become a necessity when one is in company of another.
Imran: Is it for this mutuality that rules are created?
Ronni: Hypothetically, laws can't be your guide when you exist in isolation. At least two are needed to make it meaningful. As the group enlarges, the codes of law also branches out into various sections and subsections. It's a mind controlling system.
Now, those who refuse to accept such a disciplinary framework aimed at mind control, turn to graffiti. Resorting to art itself is an obvious stance against mind control. If you're a true artist, seriously involved with your work, your art will surely be a rebellion against all kinds of mind control.
Imran: Graffiti does exactly that…
Ronni: Then again, there are those working in conformity with power and control, the slave-artists, who are not artists in the true sense of the word. That's a separate matter which I don't want to bring up. Authentic artists are spurred to protest against the very idea of mind control. Of course, we are aware of the preoccupation of society with this power and control. In order to have power over you, it is not profitable for the rulers to impose control over your body; so your mind becomes the locus of control, which is an assurance of the eventual control of the body. And when you stand in opposition, society, the government or the state will not hesitate for a moment to ensnare your body in its legal mesh.
Imran: Talk about the means of exploiting and manipulating the public, the rulers have myriad tricks at their disposal…
Ronni: The use of torture is a popular method of making the body docile. Mind control, on the contrary, is carried out in a very sophisticated manner, by using the media or some other interesting methods. That too, is a controlling system, which George Orwell neatly outlined long ago in the presence of the Big Brother – one who watches over everybody, and an invisible watch tower – from where to release the controlling gaze. The Kutub Minar had once also been a kind of watch tower, used for surveillance to become aware of the presence of the enemy. Now-a-days, the number of 'invisible watch towers' is on the rise. These are no longer limited to the archetypes; how far it has gone is beyond general grasp.
Imran: We are constantly being bombarded by images from all around us; at every step, we are made to course through billboards and hoardings as we traverse the roads.
Ronni: I think the concept of mind control had its start with the introduction of the wristwatch.
Even before that, it was there in a way. But in my understudying, if we are to fathom its modern structure, I feel that mind control might have had a link with the wristwatch. It's like – now I tie you to this and you have to abide by its movements and schemes, you must synchronize with it all your activities, your interactions with people, etc. Other manners of indoctrination also follow in close succession. And bodies or subjects are enjoined not to break these rules, as any such breach of social contract would be considered punishable sins.
Imran: Yes, we have seen this during the British rule, like the evening curfew…. However, now-a-days, in certain countries, artists are given conditional freedom to create graffiti which they paint in broad daylight.
Ronni: Oh yes! the curfew. And you'll find many such emergency measures around the world. After dominating man/woman with the concept of time, now the screen/monitor is the latest form of supervision - a lot of screens are there. Everywhere, as part of your computer, mobile, and even windows of your room can be seen as screens – they are placed in a way so you can be observed. The graffiti artists are imbued with the spirit of negating the axis of the watch towers and big brothers. They work against all kinds of visible or invisible modes of surveillance and time pieces that help in maintaining social time. They work quietly and discreetly for people to discover their work following the act of transgression – not to make them complicit to power, but to disturb their rhythm of thoughts. By disrupting the regular pattern of life the artist announces his opposition to mind control. The earliest evidences of graffiti are the engravings in the caves of Altamira; at least that's what the available history has informed us. Those were days before law became an instrument of power. So when a man saw a bison, he drew it, with no Big Brother watching, none that we know of. Man was not tied up in his entirety within the bindings of time. Now the situation is, if you keep on doing something which is illegitimate from the perspective of society or state, you may get it established. Society will accept it as a norm and that is revolution or reformation. The revolutionary element contained in the expression of an artwork or thoughts stem from what has so far been unacceptable to the general masses. So, when you keep on bringing to the fore such radical elements over and over again, initially, the government may sanction it and then, citing the country's security as an excuse, may confine you within the boundaries of preconditions. Like you said, some cities are allowing graffiti, but that is only on places specified by the authority. It's good, but not quite so from another angle. It's good in the sense that I've got an empty wall and the right to work on it to my heart's content. Okay, fine. But then the spirit of revolution is spoiled. You're granted the BSTI stamp and thus you lose the scope of putting your own statement forward. That strips all creative art, including graffiti, of their true spirit – their real value, turning them into a kind of commodity based on regular exchange value. That's what has happened to Banksy who has left his artistic freedom behind, turning more towards money-making. Banksy is a brand name now – a great celebrity of the art world. We can no longer apply the term 'rebel' to his name. Being a true artist, his thoughts and works do reflect rebellion, but as a human being he is not a revolutionary any more.
Imran: So, this is how one reaches a compromise with the system?
Ronni: Yes, you can say that. I'm not very clear about what Banksy is doing, but salability is the key factor in capitalism. Say, you castigate or criticize the system or a part of it. The capitalist machine may respond to your criticism after considering it in the context of the market situation; if it has market value, this very hegemonic system would allow you to continue with your criticism, and might even lend it momentum so that it can be shuttled from one market to another ensuring sustenance. If one maps the world politics, one can see that capitalism is funding the so-called fundamentalists, who are being tutored to speak to the center as peripheral entities. So, if you create the ground for your own rebellion by negating this money-mongering system you would also have to ensure that they incur loss against your gains, you are a true revolutionary. But the minute you let them barter your free- spirit for money, you cease to be part of the insurrection. Say, if I remove the iconic figure that is Che Guevara from every levels of the market, it will deal a deadly blow to the fashion and pop industry. All related industries will suffer, as it will bore a hole into their system. They may start thinking about creating another Che Guevara or a similar figure out of somebody or giving similar status to someone who once was a nobody.
Imran: Bin Laden met with similar fate. His renegade persona splattered across T-shirts and accessories has sold well for quite a while; money was the motivation behind this phenomenon!
Ronni: Yes, maybe there were a few ideas, some risky plans behind this. But these are schemes which represent the global hierarchy, involving high-level political gambits about which we don't have much knowledge (Laughter). So, it seems to me that graffiti is interesting as an instrument of rebellion as long as it's illegal in the market. Once legalized, it loses its status. Talent is usually indestructible unless you yourself decide to dismantle it. Many a timid soul does exactly that by way of catering to the whims of the clients. By that time the artist reaches the point when he/she has completely been engulfed by the instant exchange value his/her works create in the market, he/she ceases to be an artist.
Imran: Why is it that most of the graffiti artists tend to quote Andy Warhol more or less frequently? What's the reason behind this propinquity?
Ronni: Yes, Andy Warhol is a name closely associated with the cultural growth of the city of New York. Basically, if he had belonged to Bulgaria instead of New York, he would not be the Andy Warhol he came to be. The thing is, he is an urban artist and New York happens to be one of the world's most exciting cities for art and that helped in the proliferation of his fame. Of course, his work is interesting too.
The way, by using his innovative techniques, he came to an understanding of the languages of Duchamp and Lichtenstein, thereby taking it to a totally different intellectual level, is something worth preserving.
Then he created his own place in the fashion industry through his distinctive fashion statement, his speaking style and persona – his wigs were numerous, more than sixty or seventy in number. This is how, time and again, he deconstructed the modernist cannons through innovations both in art and life. For example, there is an advert in which he eats burger for a long time and that's all. Then there's a twelve hour long film in which two people sleep for twelve hours. He had the annoying habit of repeating himself. He had the ability to lend context to his psychological problems through his fashion and his art. His studio was a cultural hub where bands like Velvet Underground and many such cultural initiatives, can't specify which, had originated. Many film makers went there and produced strange, almost out of the world movies. A lot of experimentations were carried out there, extending the regular, recognizable boundaries of the art world, adding newer materials and value to it. Amidst all these activities, he also promoted Banksy.
Imran: The cartoonist duo of Dhaka, Manik-Ratan made a graffito on the wall of the guest house adjacent to Banani bridge. It was based on the poster of a hunger and poverty ridden child used in the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh. Then one fine morning it's seen that in the style of Banksy's Girl with the Red Balloon, a balloon has been added to the picture of the child at the point of its getting away from his grip. My question is what lies at the root of this art confronting art?
Ronni: An aesthetic movement isn't like a poster or a TV programme. Neither is it something like a speech. You may say there is a certain subtlety, finesse about it. Like, say, the image I see looking at a cloud or a piece of stone. The image reflects a mind and in art the human mind is a distinctive factor. This adds a living touch to art. There is no option of observing it as a picture of the child sitting there; he has been transformed into a real person. When the artist applies some energy to his art, using whatever level of expertise he has at his disposal, his art becomes real.
Imran: In this case, how does the convection of energy take place?
Ronni: The art gets charged with the energy of the artist only when he feels really intimately about it. The crisis in our art lies in this ability or inability in managing the discharge of this energy. The game polarized between these two issues. One who can transmit the energy becomes the artist, the one who can't, fails in his craft. The successful artist can make a dot on a white canvas a meaningful expression of this energy. And then the one, with a long eight years of toiling with his art, may find nothing to show for himself – having reached a dead end.
Imran: You once pointed out to me the work of an artist who worked with polka dots – Japanese – I forgot the name…
Ronni: Yes, Kusama – a very influential artist; had influenced a lot of transgressive art in the sixties, even had an impact on artists like Warhol. Then she returns to Japan from New York with her deteriorating mental condition and gets admitted into an asylum and is still there. That repetition in Warhol is an adaptation of Kusama's dots and other objects and elements… she is extremely psychedelic, surreal with a distinct mind frame which pushes objects and images into another dimension. You know how the Japanese are – extremely mysterious.
Imran: Yes, very quiet; wouldn't talk much…
Ronni: The element of mystery is deeply rooted in their culture. It's something beyond the concept of good or bad. Our thoughts never overstep the boundaries of this distinct territory. But there exists a larger territory beyond the binary oppositions we often take for granted, thereby making our space of operation rather small. All extreme forms or languages actually appear from the greater region.
Imran: The way the individuals do not attempt such explorations within the society, the state also do not sponsor the practice of any controversial element that may go against the grain of traditional thoughts or lifestyle.
Ronni: The citizens must not be allowed to become intelligent or it might get difficult to dominate them. It's better for them to stay dull.
Imran: As a complement to what you've said it seems to me that graffiti or pop art forms run the risk of turning into a fashion, which is a kind of let down.
Ronni: No, no, I don't think of fashion in that way. To a considerable extent, fashion is art, there's no problem with it. It's happening all around the world so creatively and in such multiple ways that our conventional concept of fashion is no longer applicable to it. It has gone much deeper into the act of creating beauty. There's no scope for you to consider it with condescension.
Imran: But isn't the situation the same over here?
Ronni: The situation is somewhat pell-mell here. Nobody knows the difference between the big and the small. No need to get into that. The truth is – be it fashion or something else, you must not depreciate anything that creates beauty.
Imran: The question of depreciation doesn't arise; we better leave it to the realm of God…
Ronni: Beauty is everything. It's the purest part in the human heart – the endeavour for it. Your aspiring to connect to the Creator is also an intense striving for beauty and if someone worships the devil, that too is his way of practicing beauty of another kind – the dark kind. That means, beauty is the ultimate maxim; without it you achieve nothing. Think about a very drab product; it can sustain its popularity longer through some element of beauty introduced into its mechanical reproduction or total processing. An absence of beauty in any work results in ignorance which is a kind of sin – the sin of negating beauty. Why do you think there's so much concern over corruption among government and non-government officials? It's because corruption is marring the natural beauty of the related issues. The problem is not that people are starving because of corruption. Between beauty and ugliness, you're ignoring the first and serving the latter. Now, the job of the graffiti or any other artist is to bring to light the areas of beauty in the context of their respective society.
The time for getting fame for your name on its own is over. artwork that is only about wanting to be famous will never make you famous. Any fame is the by-product of making something that means something. You don't go to a restaurant and order a meal because you want to have a shit.
Imran: So, here in this village called Dhaka, from the kind of motifs and references we are using in sustaining the practice of art, what is your appraisal of the prospect of us achieving that state of creating anarchy or transmitting energy through art?
Ronni: I've no problem with the village called Dhaka. But where are the fields of paddy? Where are the fields of mustard? There's nothing. In their place we have roads, vehicles, traffic jams, cocktails and petrol bombs. Had there been beautiful mustard fields, the residents would have turned good. (Laughter) Right things should be in the right place. You build huge buildings and ride your cars in this village of yours. So, what would you expect?
If you wish the 'art attack' to happen, you must enhance your proximity with the public. Ignoring the public, you won't get anywhere. Consider the huge number of art produced during the congregation at Shahbagh demanding death sentence for the Rajakars (quislings of the 1971 war of independence). But these were public arts and have no relation with artists. These have happened and will have a place in history; I don't know if there has been any attempt at archiving them. Now I don't care if this popular uprising has been successful, unsuccessful or orchestrated; but I know those arts have stamped an impact on people's mind and helped the expansion of their thought, feelings and imagination. Though they united on a single issue, the significance of this platform didn't remain contained within its subject. There has been a proliferation of imagination which seems very interesting to me.
The graffiti artists too don't engage in his art without a reason. He has been incited by some questions over things nauseating or resentful to him. Then there are some who found a wall, felt an uncontrollable itch to scribble/doodle on it, realized it's a fun way of drawing and continued with it. Then the artist starts moving on to larger areas, and learns to face different questions and pauses to think: well, let me try using this medium to express my philosophy, my social commentary and other subjects like these. Say, there's a large white wall and he writes on it, 'This is not a graffiti art' and that's the end of the large white wall (Laughter).
Imran: Is it possible, then, to fill up the deficiencies in our celebration of the charm of life and living, the animate and the inanimate through this kind of therapeutic dialogue, through questions and answers?
Ronni: Yes, we have deficiencies in ourselves, in our society and state. Then again, these deficiencies can be transformed into efficiencies of some sort, if you work on it. You can see that through frequent facing of natural calamities like flood, cyclone etc. our people became experts in disaster management. Our population can be turned into a strong labour force and it may be a way to generate revenues when labour is exported all over the world. Thus, we can take our country towards advancement by orchestrating our deficiencies in a positive way. Like the Arab countries have deficiency of plant and trees, but that is balanced by their petro-dollar. And it's going to be even better in future. The world's largest solar panel covering an area of two and half miles is being erected in Abu Dhabi.
Now everything depends on intelligent governance. The Western nations have filled up their deficiencies by invading other countries, plundering the wealth of those countries to feather their own nests. So their limited resources made them enterprising. This is how things happen.
Imran: And what are we doing?
Ronni: Yes, we're trying but getting thwarted because of some people – say fifty to hundred people... It's no big deal for us as we do have potential to become a powerful nation.
Imran: And energy too…
Ronni: Halleluiah! (Laughter).
Translated by SITARA J AHMED