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Walking with Disaster

In a summer filled with news of the election in the United States, global terrorism, and Brexit, the swift resignation on July 24th of Nepal’s Prime Minister, Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, hardly made the headlines. The only two news sources reporting on the event outside of Asia — Al Jazeera and the New York Times — also produced somewhat dissimilar commentaries. The New York Times framed the resignation in the context of party politics, the challenges of running a multi-coalitional government, growing demands for federation, and geopolitical tensions with Nepal’s powerful neighbors, India and China. The Al Jazeera report also associated the resignation with demands for constitutional reforms and federalization, but the commentary largely focused on the numerous street protests that had been disrupting daily life in Kathmandu since Oli’s ascent to power in October 2015.

It is very probable that Oli’s resignation was triggered by multiple factors, and the two media commentaries are not mutually exclusive. Yet what is unique in Al Jazeera’s reporting is that it underscores the extent to which the streets of Kathmandu are seen as the space to congregate, express political opinions, and — in the words of activists themselves — to exercise democracy. Al Jazeera’s coverage of Nepal is also a reminder that in the case of people who are left voiceless or marginalized by constitutional clauses, political processes, or social stigma, democracy is only possible in alternative spaces — such as the streets — where new forms of political engagement emerge, claims for social justice can be made, and popular pressure can trigger reform.

Artivism and the space(s) of democracy: Ashmina with Bipad walking along the Thamel-Basantapur (Kathmandu) © Marina Kaneti

During a March 2016 visit to Kathmandu with the India China Institute, I had the chance to observe such use of alternative democratic spaces in the “artivist” performances of Ashmina Ranjit, a leading artist and political activist in Nepal. Like many others, Ashmina has been a vociferous critic of the 2015 constitution, and specifically of its failure to uphold the rights and freedoms of women and children. According to the current legislation, the state does not grant citizenship rights to children born out of wedlock and to children born to men who are not Nepalese nationals. Somewhere in between the jus soli and jus sanguinis, the constitution essentially chartered a different version of citizenship rights: as mediated through marriage and the nationality of the male parent. “Jus matrimonium et masculum,” as this retrograde constitutional provision/citizenship law could be called, appears to completely disregard the legal, social and political status of the mother, making her all but a non-entity. Even worse, children born out of wedlock would appear to be non-existent, relegated to statelessness before they are even born.

Artivism and the space(s) of democracy: Ashmina with Bipad walking along Swayambhu (Kathmandu) © Marina Kaneti

Ashmina’s work aims to raise awareness and mobilize support for constitutional reform. As part of the performance, she walks the streets of Kathmandu and other cities with a shiny white skeleton tied to her back. The skeleton, named Bipad, which translates roughly to “disaster,” is meant as a representation of the politically rotten, morally decaying state. In Ashmina’s own words, “If the state deprives us of our rights and strips us even of the possibility to claim citizenship rights for our children, then the state is essentially dead. Dead for us, for women.”

In addition to raising awareness, Ashmina also wants to stimulate a discussion of the ways in which the state can be made accountable. As part of the performance, she engages in conversation with anyone who is curious about Bipad. She is willing to stay as long as necessary and welcomes controversy and disagreement. Her aim is not consensus. Rather, her intent is to trigger engagement and inspire a political response. In the meantime, until changes are made to the constitution, she is determined to carry Bipad, Disaster, on her back.

Artivism and the space(s) of democracy: Ashmina with Bipad walking along Times Square © Marina Kaneti

After seeing several of her performances — both in Kathmandu and later in New York — I realized that Ashmina’s artivism is not only a claim to individual rights and call for social justice, but also the type of democratic engagement that has the power to turn spectators into activists and on-lookers into emancipated spectators (Rancière 2009). According to Rancière, the moment of emancipation occurs when there is a “blurring of the boundaries between those who act and those who look; between individuals and members of a collective body.” The reason why Ashmina’s artivism can achieve such “blurring of boundaries” is because there are actually no boundaries between her and those who occupy the space of her performance. Both mobile and limitless, the performance appears in areas where on-lookers are not spectators, but equally share that space to walk, interact, or engage. At the same time, the performance has a boundless mobility: tied to Ashmina’s back, Bipad can be anywhere — traversing the streets of Kathmandu that were once part of the fabled Thamel-Basantapur trade route, or strolling along Fifth Avenue; on top of the sacred hills of the Swayambhu, or in Times Square. This combination of no-boundaries and boundless mobility allows Ashmina’s performance to redefine the spaces for engagement and emancipation: it is up to passers-by to interact with and become part of the performance themselves.

What also triggers engagement with Ashmina’s performance is the affective power the full-sized, sparkly, white, plastic human skeleton bound with colorful ribbons to Ashmina’s back. The sight of Bipad, the Disaster, provokes and challenges not only because of the powerful associations with the object itself, but also because Bipad is never static and seems to be constantly interacting with its environment. Indeed, one of the reasons I initially started taking pictures of Bipad was because it appeared as if the skeleton was directly interacting with my camera — photo-bombing my pictures, appearing at improbable places, responding to its surroundings. The skeleton twists and jerks, and sometimes Ashmina has to wrap Bipad’s legs around her torso.

Artivism and the space(s) of democracy: Ashmina with Bipad walking along Swayambhu (Kathmandu) © Marina Kaneti

The overall effect is that the skeleton becomes a powerful actant – an entity or a process that, without having an individual agency, still has the capacity to make a difference and “collaborate, divert, vitalize, gum up, twist, or turn the groupings” in which it participates (Bennett 2013). With Bipad, the merger of materiality (shiny white skeleton) and affect (curiosity, wonder, disbelief) inadvertently prompts on-lookers and passers-by to engage, to touch, and ultimately to strike a conversation about the status of women and the role of the state in Nepal.

Bipad also becomes a provocation that both frames the affective response (disgust, curiosity, amusement, fear) and dis-aligns the object from the surrounding environment (Ahmet 2010, 37) as a way to trigger interaction: What is a skeleton doing on the back of a colorfully dressed woman walking in the midst of Kathmandu’s busy market street or eating ice-cream on Fifth Avenue? Bipad can either be alienating or riveting, but either way it produces a reaction. Ashmina hopes for the latter because that is usually followed up by questions and a discussion — about Nepal, the constitution, and women’s rights. This is the moment when the aesthetic-affective energy produced by the material object (Bennet 2009) sparks a democratic engagement.

But for all the aesthetic-affective energy of Ashmina’s performance, there are many who ignore her presence or appear indifferent to Bipad, from the sacred grounds of the Pashupati Temple Complex to crowded subway platforms in New York. As Ahmed reminds us, this might be because “to experience an object as being affective is to be directed not only toward an object, but to ‘whatever’ is around that object” (Ahmet 2010, 33). In the sacred space of the Pashupati, Bipad becomes invisible to those engaged in spiritual rituals; Disaster can also be easily ignored in a bustling marketplace.

In New York, many passers-by stare, and might be quick to snap a photo of Bipad on their smart phones, but few approach Ashmina. Those who do also have a somewhat detached reaction to her political message. The distance between Kathmandu and New York becomes a gap between ontologies and meanings — there are different orientations towards Bipad, the constitutional state, and the question of women’s rights. And at Times Square, the aesthetic-affective energy of Ashmina’s performance dissipates amongst the sea of cartoon characters, action figures, and barely-clad women posing for tourists. As a material object associated with Halloween costumes and scary movies, Disaster blends in perfectly with the heightened spectacle of neo-liberal materiality. Perhaps there is, once again, a blurring of boundaries, but this one does not produce emancipated spectators engaged in the claim for constitutional and citizenship rights.

Artivism and the space(s) of democracy: Ashmina with Bipad walking along Swayambhu (Kathmandu) © Marina Kaneti

The global proliferation of performance-based political protest has been celebrated as a new democratic turn: a “performative democracy” that has the power to give voice to political opinions typically silenced by systems of representation and their limited venues for expression (Weibel 2015). Ashmina’s performances certainly speak to both the territorially and aesthetically re-configured space(s) for democracy. With Bipad on her back, she has begun mapping out the venues where new forms of political engagement can emerge, claims for social justice can be made, and popular pressure can trigger political reforms.

Artivism and the space(s) of democracy: Ashmina with Bipad walking along Swayambhu (Kathmandu) © Marina Kaneti

Yet, the sheer mobility of Ashmina’s performance, walking with Disaster, also exposes some limits to artivism and performative democracy. For example, are differences in the spectators’ engagement with Bipad a function of a particular space? Is the topography of artivism and performative democracy limited to the streets? Could the lack of spectators’ engagement be reflective of the distance between a universal claim to rights and a particular demand for a constitutional change? Ultimately, Ashmina’s performances create yet another level of provocation: one that stimulates further exploration of the very potential of artivism to redefine the spaces for democratic engagement and therefore also deliver on the call that “democracy is not a spectator sport.” Eager to push for answers and determined to continue redefining the limits and possibilities for emancipation and blurring of boundaries, Ashmina adds another space to her list of future Bipad performances: the United Nations headquarters.

Photo album – Artivism and the space(s) of democracy: Ashmina with Bipad walking along the Thamel-Basantapur (Kathmandu) © Marina Kaneti

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