by Pallavi MehraJan 12, 2023
My email was recently inundated with forwards from multiple senders, all urging me to sign one of two petitions that had been doing the rounds. One was titled 'For a Better KMB' and asked supporters of India’s first art biennale to endorse a 'document and proposal for a detailed charter of principles and a how-to for a future KMB.' It was apparently initiated by participating artists and art workers from past editions of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. The last version I received had 125 signatories—from art dealers, academics, curators and artists. The ‘cause’, so to speak, is noble. The final recipients of the signed petition are the board members and advisors of the Kochi Biennale Foundation. The ‘letter’ never calls itself a petition, but it echoes the pleading spirit of one and contributes significant propositions towards producing what it frames as a 'more robust and sustainable KMB for the future.’
Potential signatories were asked to sign their name if they agreed with the charter and to add their institutional affiliation. I minutely read and agreed with many of the demands in the charter. I was also deeply impressed by the level of commitment and work that clearly went into its drafting. For instance, one hyperlink took viewers to an annotated critique of the existing contract that KMB has been using. The summary of the charter being presented by the art workers’ body to the board includes at least 20 succinct suggestions, all clearly emanating from experience with on-ground realities. It asks board members to be more committed to financial planning and to be conscious of gender bias when it comes to selecting new members, among other numerous compelling requests. And yet, I chose not to sign it.
The second petition was a 'Statement against the arbitrary termination of KNMA employee Dr Sandip K. Luis.’ It used a Google form to gather signatures decrying the move by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi, to fire Sandip Luis, who had, not too long ago, published an op-ed critiquing his employer’s role in enabling an art exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. Though originally a social media post, the piece which was eventually published on Kafila urged the art community to redirect their focus. Instead of concentrating on the complicity of the participating artists whose endorsement of the show could be read as supporting the ideological vision of the head of state, Luis argued that the spotlight should instead be on the figure of the art philanthropist, now indispensable to almost every artworld’s function, and the ‘dark matter’ of labour surrounding/enabling this figure.’ It’s a powerful piece and re-reading it in the light of Luis’ subsequent termination from KNMA makes it even more compelling, because one learns he was clearly also implicating himself as a member of the ‘dark matter’ force that holds up and supports the edifice. The statement petitioned for Luis to be 'reinstated.' Unlike with the KMB letter, one couldn’t access the list of people who had already signed it. I can confirm that you won’t find my signature on this petition either.
My absent signature doesn’t automatically signal my disagreement with many of the core issues both these petitions raise. It is motivated by an enraged ennui with the very form and nature of petitions and my own personal experience drafting them for similar causes and the volumes of energy spent circulating them in order to solicit signatures. All for nought. I learned, or rather, I arrived at the conclusion that the petition is a peculiar kind of document. The more signatures it receives, the more useless it becomes. Its circulation and endorsement by multiple players invalidate its purpose. However noble the intention, the moment a reader who is a stakeholder in the enterprise reads and agrees with the premise of a petition and agrees to sign it, they somehow, subconsciously, perhaps, consider themselves free of the obligation to perform or enact any meaningful change. In a country like India which is characterised by casteist structures, classist hierarchies and corrupt mechanisms, the petition serves like a dangling diamond that speckles the illusion of phenomenal change without always providing a road map for true infrastructural transformation or addressing systemic inequities. The casualties, however, are usually the ones already oppressed, the ones whose livelihoods are incumbent on the very institutions they would like to have transformed. The ones who already have power and add their heft to the list of signatories get to feel a temporary high from doing something morally uplifting without having to task themselves with the labour of enforcing the changes they would like to see. It’s a lose-lose situation that masquerades as a win-win. In the end, whatever traction the petition/letter/statement might have generated dissipates quickly and everyone continues with their daily entanglements.
The need of the hour in artworlds across borders is a commitment to infrastructural activism. We need institutions to not merely host exhibitions on gender equity but to do the work of creating equitable environments. It’s always heartwarming to see galleries platforming art that speaks to crip realities and the conditions of the dark matter that is labour, but do they actively facilitate crip-friendly viewing spaces with access for disabled viewers? Most don’t have valid agreements with the people with whom they work, or if they do, the pay is often not on par. Art workers and culture labourers continue to be exploited and mined without recourse to empowering mechanisms. Many of the signatories of the KMB statement, for example, do not have mechanisms for employees to report sexual abuse. It’s thus rich that they should back a plea asking KMB to have one. I am not saying the KMB shouldn’t create such a body. I am only pointing out the internalised hypocrisy of the whole affair of petitioning within work environments whose toxicity can be taken as fact.
We need to conceive of more impactful means of endorsing and facilitating change. There may have been a time when petitions worked. But that era is long gone. In a digital age when issues have their 24-hour glow in the trending spotlight, we need to return to guerilla tactics, we need to argue for more creative ways of enabling artists and art workers, particularly in spaces marked by hostile political climates and repressive regimes. Particularly in these conditions, the art community must bandy itself together and forge more intersectional alliances that can serve as counters to ideological oppression. Statements, petitions and letters are no longer useful because they falsely pin the blame on one person, or one institution but do not target the systemic failures that often arm-twist people into being complicit.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)