The Museum of non Participation has variously taken the form of film, an Urdu/English language exchange, street interventions, a radio show and performances. On 20 September 2009 a newspaper publication featuring some of the different voices and interpretations of the title was distributed across the UK as a supplement of The Daily Jang – the international newspaper from Pakistan’s oldest and largest media group.
Below is text and imagery provided by Karen Mirza and Brad Butler about the Newspaper that was published for their ongoing project the Museum of non Participation.
Working with print has coursed through the Museum of non Participation. The idea of working with print in the journalistic mode, creating an art work with the poorest, recyclable materials germinated at Clifton café, located near the beach in Karachi. In Pakistan and much of South Asia, it is customary to use recycled newsprint as paper towels in cafes. Sitting in Clifton café with friends from Karachi, we idly started to read and engage with the newspaper napkin. Though these fragments of text were contextually subservient to their practical re-purposing, once unwrinkled, the lexicon on the page formed a message-in-a-bottle constellation. This led to us wondering how we could use this format – the purposing of newspapers for paper towels or wrapping food – as a way to intervene into the texture of the city, and cross the boundaries between different neighbourhoods. In Karachi the proximity of rich to poor is so intense as to require its citizens to be in a state of unseeing in the midst of seeing. High boundary walls allow the wealthy to construct a spatial separation between their homes and the street. Our idea of producing a newssheet specifically for distribution through the packaging and consumption of food was with the intent that the text on the napkin/news-sheet might traverse those boundary walls.
During our stay in Pakistan, we had maintained an online research space for the Museum of non Participation, between London and Karachi. The text used in the newssheet came from this site, and addressed the geopolitical disjuncture and similarity between these two bases of the project. On the newssheet, in Urdu, we detailed the times of the discussion forums at the Headquarters where we worked from in Karachi, We pulled together snippets of text from this site, and spoke with the tandoor wallahs selling Roghni Naan, always sold wrapped in newspaper, who we had met many times at the stall we frequented most days for chai and naan. With an agreement under way, we found a tiny print-shop in the market. Once printed, we took this sheet to the tandoor wallahs who wrapped their bread for sale in the news sheet. The roghni naan stall was interesting to us; the elite and poor alike bought bread from here, meaning the sheet was distributed across classes, and over the boundary walls.
The next stage of working with print was back in London and continued along the theme of interrogating the media and systems of distribution. In Spring 2009, we began a conversation with the London editor of the Daily Jang, Pakistan’s biggest circulating broadsheet which has syndications across Europe. We also met regularly with the designer of the paper, Yousuf Haider, and began a process of collaboration with the intention of producing a dual language Urdu and English Museum of non Participation supplement to the Daily Jang. The logistics of collaborating with the Jang were complex, and the process of negotiation raised questions about cultural dislocation, value and the relationship of art projects to journalism and documentary.
A broad range of voices contributed to the newspaper, from investigative journalist Nick Davies to artist Suzanne Lacy. We also reprinted original articles from the Jang; including Ayesha Tammy Haq’s Riding with the Chief which detailed the struggles of the judiciary in Pakistan, related to the Lawyers movement which had been on-going during our initial visit in 2007. The Emergency Telegraph which detailed suggestions for holding public protests was also included within the folds of the paper, a piece of political ephemera written by activists and circulated by email during the demonstrations against the state of emergency in 2007-8.
The aesthetics of the newspaper as an art object were developed through working with Jang designer Yousuf Haider. By working with the regular designer of the Jang we emphasised the importance of not imposing a particular aesthetic onto the newspaper. As an intervention into the flow of media, the newspaper appears strangely familiar. Distributed inside the Jang, it registered itself in subtle shifts of visual language, as well as shifts in content. For Yousuf the designer this enabled the possibility of playing with the usual designs he created for the Jang. In the Museum of non Participation newspaper, a variety of typefaces are utilised, text forms images, and far more space is given over to the visual as compared to within the Daily Jang, or other broadsheet newspapers. This play in design contributes to shaping the overall aesthetic of the newspaper, coupled with the shift in content. Whilst some of the articles were journalistic, others stepped into an experimental or literary register. All articles were written in English and the process of translating these into Urdu took place in Karachi; we were interested in how this affected the different modes of writing and though present, for example, what happens when the conceptual became journalistic? Following the publication on 20th September 2009, we also displayed the supplement alongside a daily copy of the Jang during the month long Museum of Non Participation programme behind Yaseen Barbers on Bethnal Green Road. Here, the Museum of non Participation newspaper was free to take home and also displayed on newspaper grippers, commonly seen in cafés.
Working on the Museum of non Participation newspaper fed into our next stage of collaborating with the Jang on a regular ‘column occupation’. For the duration of our exhibition at Vivid in Birmingham in 2010, we invited a different cultural figure or journalist to occupy a column in the Daily Jang each day. Each morning, copies of the newspaper were delivered to the gallery and kept on display alongside the original Museum of non Participation newspaper. Within the column occupation, contributors were free to write whatever they wanted in response to the title ‘The Daily Battle’. The column was titled as such because ‘Jang’ translates as battle in English, and moreover in relation to The Museum of non Participation’s interest in languages of reportage as a terrain of conflict and violence. The Daily Battle column hosted a range of writers, including journalists Sara Wajid and Rahila Gupta, artist Auj Khan, and curators Shanay Jhaveri and Nada Raza. Like the Museum of non Participation newspaper, these columns accumulated to form a constellation of voices.
In contrast to the Museum of non Participation newspaper, the Daily Battle column stood in closer aesthetic proximity to the news and stories presented in the London version of the Daily Jang. For example, the front-page images surrounded by Urdu script announce the student demonstrations of November 2010 in London whilst overleaf – in the Daily Battle column – Shanay Jhaveri details the work of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, jostling next to a short text box detailing ‘Bridal Couture Week 2010 in Lahore.’ Or another example; colour photographs of the Queen, David and Samantha Cameron and Baroness Warsi place us firmly in a British context – no need for Urdu translation – whilst an image of burqa clad women, overlaid with an inset of soldiers is incomprehensible to the non-Urdu reader. In the Daily Battle column, we wrote a text dealing with representation, language and violence. This play between reading text as image and image as text is a process led by the reader, further prompted by the dislodging of the newspaper out of a familiar context, through its presentation at Vivid gallery.
During the exhibition, the constant daily collage of headlines, images and text accumulated, and affected the reading of the other works we presented from the Museum of non Participation project. Journalists came from the Jang and saw their work in the exhibition and a review of the show appeared in the paper. The value for the journalists in seeing their work in the gallery throws up a number of interesting questions about art, value and freedom. The erosion of investigative journalism in much of the mainstream media downgrades the journalist into a hack; moreover the dwindling of print circulation has thrown newspapers and journalists into a crisis. With The Daily Battle, we opened up a site where ideas and questions could be opened up; as an ‘art space’ the column became a ‘free zone’ within the newspaper. However, this question of freedom is problematic – is this because art is seen as unimportant, not worthy of taking seriously? Or is the freedom of press that was granted to us indicative of the aesthetic realm as one in which to rehearse the values one wants to present in a social space? How can we utilise the flexibility of the aesthetic dimension as a space to try out ideas and proposals without falsely idealising art as a ‘free zone’? The registering of the newspaper in a gallery space produced a sense of reflexivity for the Jang staffers and Daily Battle contributors alike, a point at which to take stock of our current moment, where we place ourselves within that, and how we are implicated in structures we feel in conflict with.
Throughout the process of collaborating with the Jang and working in print we have utilised a variety of presentation and distribution strategies. In the Summer of 2012 we showed the newspaper at the Right of Refusal exhibition at Magazin 4 gallery Bregenz, Austria. Within the Right of Refusal exhibition the newspapers were both available to take away and also to read in the space, presented on newspaper grippers. We slightly re-configured the newspaper in this show to include an insert of pages from the Egyptian pamphlet ‘How to Protest Intelligently’. Inserted into the newspaper, the pages from this pamphlet resonate with the original incarnation of the newspaper as a supplement published within the Daily Jang, alongside the sentiments of The Emergency Telegraph, the guide to holding protests in Pakistan published in the original.
Karen Mirza and Brad Butler have worked together since 1998, and in 2004 formed no.w.here, an artist-run space for the production, discussion and dissemination of practices engaged with the moving image, politics, technology and aesthetics. no.w.here’s role as a cooperative environment is directly related to the centering of Mirza and Butler’s own practice upon collaboration, dialogue and the social.
Since 2007 they have pursued a strain of practice entitled The Museum of non Participation. The Museum of non Participation is a collection of gestures, speech acts and audio-visual works which has thus far been presented in Egypt, Pakistan, Germany and the UK. The Museum consistently evolves through the geo-political ground upon which its works are produced and presented, in keeping with its initial formation. In 2007, the Museum of Non Participation was born during a visit to the newly opened National Gallery of Art in Islamabad. As Mirza and Butler stood inside the controversial gallery of nude paintings, they witnessed the large scale protests of the Lawyers Movement taking place from within the boundaries of the museum. In that stark collision of art and political praxis, the project germinated and has subsequently remained intent on interrogating this relationship. Out of that initial formation, Mirza and Butler produced The Exception and the Rule (2010) a non-documentary that draws out tropes of ethnographic film and the ‘Other’. The Museum of Non Participation was developed through an Artangel Interaction commission which included a month long public-programme behind a Bethnal Green barbers (2010) and a collaboration with the largest circulating Pakistani broadsheet, The Daily Jang. In 2011 new ‘acts’ within the collection of The Museum of Non Participation took place at ZKM Karlsruhe and at the Arnolfini, Bristol.
Mirza and Butler have recently produced a new film, entitled Deep State, in collaboration with science fiction author China Miéville which takes its starting point in different moments of political struggle, informed particularly by the recent revolutionary processes which took place in Egypt. A sister film to Deep State, Hold Your Ground was be presented as an Art on the Underground commission at Canary Wharf Tube Station in Spring 2012. Other upcoming projects include a Bookworks commission entitled Letters to the Left, an exhibition at the Walker Art Centre, Spring 2013 and a residency at SAVAC in Toronto in Autumn 2012. They are actively involved as member of the Precarious Workers Brigade; their political alignment directly informs not only the content of their work but their collective approach to production.
Karen Mirza‘s multi-layered practice consists of filmmaking, drawing, installation, photography, performance, publishing and curating. Karen is currently a PhD Student in Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College undertaking a project which interrogates how moments of change, protest, non-alignment and debate intersect with the visual and its institutions. Karen Mirza’s art practice started within a background in painting from Camberwell College of Art and continued through her MA in film and video at the Royal College of Art. www.no-w-here.org.uk.
Brad Butler’s practice consists of filmmaking, installation, photography and performance. Brad has a doctorate in Experimental Ethnography from the London College of Communication. His doctoral research considers the potential cross-fertilisation of a structural film practice with experimental ethnography to challenge dominant assumptions about cultural representation in anthropology and to suggest ways in which anthropology can actively interrogate visual systems as a means of renewing the avant-gardism of structural film. Prior to his PhD Brad studied film at the Royal College of Art and Anthropology at University College London. Experimental film and Anthropology.