In the Margins

Alternative arts spaces in Toronto and Bangalore
By Tara Atluri
 

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A night can only be told in song. Saturday nights of hazy lyrics and sharp beats in a city of endless ringtones, calls to prayer and calls to arms that mark our time as one of noise. The city of Bangalore hums along to the tune of endless traffic. The space for music in a city like Bangalore is everywhere. It is here and there, in the pitter-patter song of a rural woman turned city maid cleaning a room, in a language I cannot place. The musical prose of the sound of a call to prayer marks the hour in an infinite time of faith. Despite burgeoning spaces of malls and private parties with guest lists as long as names missing from the voter registry, the city maintains a resilient D.I.Y spirit.

Across an expanse of oceans and cultural divides, the city of Toronto is haunted by the endless sound of construction. Condominiums and luxury homes are erected daily, with immigrant middle classes building swimming pools while the water advisory warnings on Indigenous reserves rise. The sound of the city is both dreamy and melancholic. A city of immigrants will string together anthems out of intangible hopes and the lament of endless labour. A city so young will sing of first loves and crafty ambition, a willful naiveté.

Walkin Studios is an artist run center and music venue in Bangalore. Unit 2 in Toronto is also an independent venue, recording studio, and creative hub. Worlds apart, these spaces meet in the margins of the mainstream.

Walkin Studios, Bangalore. Image 1.

Walkin Studios, Bangalore. Image 1.

 
 
 

Vivek Chockalingam of Walkin Studios and Rosina Kazi from Unit 2 offer inspiring thoughts and anecdotes regarding the ways that artist run spaces throughout the world create new worlds of meaning, communion and political integrity. What unites these seemingly disparate creative worlds is the lack of cynicism that both spaces and their aspirations exude.

The guiding ethos of Walkin Studios is simple and yet ambitious in its unapologetic love of art. Vivek discusses their manifesto:

"Ultimately, we want the ethos to be about fostering creativity. We like to push boundaries, experiment, and not be afraid to be bold. We have worked on a manifesto that initiates a workflow in the space. It is fairly short and is as follows:

      1. We intend to be brave and bold, make a habit of loving fearlessness.
      2. Making new experiences is a way of self-discovery. It engages the person with a process of action, emotion, thought and senses.
      3. Experiments in environments, where free expression, collaboration, audience participation and rituals are emphasized.
      4. We will be the forefront of experimenting, and unafraid to fail.
      5. Connecting in a meaningful way is what makes people happy.
      6. My favourite artwork is the next one I make…"

(Vivek Chockalingam, Unpublished Interview, 2018)

Unit 2, Toronto. Image 1.

Unit 2, Toronto. Image 1.

The mandate of Unit 2 in Toronto is similarly aspirational in its utopian thinking but focuses on the promotion of subaltern art, creating pockets of belonging for those exiled from the dominant imaginary. The mandate is as follows:

"We are QT2S/BIPOC (Queer / Trans, 2 Spirit and/or Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) and friends. This is a radical arts and community space dedicated to building community and building bridges! We are a DIT (do it together) space.' (Rosina Kazi, Unpublished Interview, 2018)

Spaces of cities are resplendent with the historical markers of many epochs comingling in an often chaotic and memorable assemblage. Michel Foucault once wrote, "[o]ur epoch is one in which space takes for us the form of relations among sites. In any case I believe that the anxiety of our era has to do fundamentally with space, no doubt a great deal more than with time." (Foucault, 1967)

The urban polis of an Indian city was once designed for the entry and exit of colonial powers whose aim was to extract cheap goods and labour from colonized people. Today, the postcolonial city is an open book, with many unfinished stories unfurling across half finished sidewalks.

Walkin Studios, Bangalore. Image 2. Memory Salad by Tara Goswami poster.

Walkin Studios, Bangalore. Image 2. Memory Salad by Tara Goswami poster.

Spaces of art and creativity are often not prioritized in development goals, with imagination being seen as frivolous in comparison to practical concerns of basic infrastructure and economic justice. And yet, the doors of avant-garde culture open us to worlds of possibility. Spaces such as Walkin Studios in Bangalore, India evade the neoliberal logic of an India of burgeoning malls, and the colonial puritanism that lingers like the smell of bleach. Chockalingam states,

"Walkin Studios was initiated in 2015 with the collective effort from my colleagues of artists and designers. It was a slow growing concern that there are not enough creative practices and exhibitions in the city (Bangalore). No space pushed limits, and for inspiration some of us even travelled cities. This also gave insight into the gap in the art scene that was needed to be addressed.

….
To acquire a space for art is always difficult, as I mentioned earlier it does not have much value here. One must have funding and enough support to build something from scratch. The alternative that is happening in Bangalore is artists are opening up their homes and studios as cultural art spaces to gather and showcase. This is breaking many patterns and establishing a bottom up network of creative people."
(Vivek Chockalingam, Unpublished Interview, 2018)

Walkin Studios, Bangalore. Image 3.

Walkin Studios, Bangalore. Image 3.

Grassroots creativity waves its own flag, with artists in cities such as Toronto also collectively organizing and building their own life worlds. Unit 2 is an independent music venue and studio space in the city of Toronto, Canada run by Rosina Kazi and Nicholas Murr who are part of the band LAL. It functions not only as a place of pleasure but one that cultivates and sustains ethical communities. Kazi discusses the history of how Unit 2 was created,

"Unit 2 started over nine years ago. Nic and I grew tired of the Canadian / Toronto music industry and I personally found it difficult to find my place in it and wanted to do something different and more locally focused. So we had friends who had a space at 163 Sterling and luckily, we got into an amazing space that was built by a black photographer and her father I believe. It' also on the main floor and was small but accessible!" (Rosina Kazi, Unpublished Interview, 2018)

 
 
 
 

Vivek discusses the relationship between market-based capitalism and art, a common theme that unites the struggles of artists from India to Canada. They state,

"Market based capitalism has made abundant platforms/venues for artists and musicians, but this has taken the art into an environment where selling other consumables becomes the primary objective of the platform/venue. This can only be justified, if the artist is paid well. There has been an influx in the independent art scene along with the growth of commercial events. Though the independent art scene is often temporary, they disappear and re-appear as they cannot sustain themselves (unless they are backed by Funding)." (Vivek Chockalingam, Unpublished Interview, 2018)

Discussing the negotiations that artists make between creating communal spaces and making a living wage Rosina Kazi states that they,

"…don't see it (Unit 2) as a capitalist venture, but we have to recognize it is a business in some ways in order to be accountable. I hate brand culture, but I think we just need to re-imagine and question the language we use, versus always trying to sell something." (Rosina Kazi, Unpublished Interview, 2018)

Kazi states that Unit 2 is a D.I.T (Do it Together) space that negotiates an art market saturated by branding in an increasingly gentrified city such as Toronto.

Unit 2, Toronto. Image 2.

Unit 2, Toronto. Image 2.

Jacques Ranciere discusses how art is a matter of the "…distribution of the sensible…" where aesthetic gestures are diffused across a range of sites to create visual common sense. (Ranciere, 2004) Art is always political as it involves using certain aesthetics to counter an edifice of transnational capitalist similitude often oriented towards conformity. Reflective of Ranciere's understanding of art as having the capacity to shift our sense of meaning in radical ways, Chockalingam asserts the political responsibility of the artist:

"Art spaces are bound to work on social justice inevitably. They have the responsibility of fostering conversations on all topics and critically analyze society." (Vivek Chockalingam, Unpublished Interview, 2018)

Kazi discusses the racism of the mainstream music and art industry in Turtle Island and the role that Unit 2 plays in sustaining social justice movements and art that critically engages with questions of colonialism. As Kazi states,

"I think we have a huge systemic issue in Canada when it comes to race, across the board, from education, to workplace, to government to the music industry. In the case of the Toronto music and arts scene, there are still a lot of old/ young cis white men at the helm, this is changing but it's too slow. This definitely needs to change! That's why we don't tell the media cuz we don't want it to be just white folks showing up and mainstream media is really geared towards middle class and up and white communities." (Rosina Kazi, Unpublished Interview, 2018)

Unit 2 functions as a liminal place of belonging for those whose embodiment marks them as targets of violence. Kazi states,

"As a brown, gender fluid, fat, radical person, I'm not embraced by the industry, but mostly cuz I refused to part of gender expectations and I don't kiss ass, especially white peoples asses and the arts industry has a lot to do with how well you ‘network' verses in the arts community that we are in where it's about cultivating and supporting real relationships." (Rosina Kazi, Unpublished Interview, 2018)

In an arts industry often defined by contacts, those who are disconnected from the hipster family tree of cis-gender white men are often strange fruit, either made into spectacle or made invisible.

 
 

It has somehow become "uncool" to mention difference in many music and art scenes where a post-identity rhetoric seems to imagine away historically constituted oppression through empty platitudes of inclusion. Paradoxically, there is a fetishisation of otherness as spectacle. Vivek discusses how Walkin Studios understands identity politics, coupled with a critical analysis of the commodification of the pain of others. They state,

"We try to be open to anyone, from any gender/caste/class while selecting artists. Art based on these issues can tend to become sympathy seeking artworks, that beg for someone to cry on a topic. We try to be conscious of this, and seek artworks that elevate a viewer/listener. One must have learnt more in a positive way, become more conscious of how to think about issues in a constructive manner." (Vivek Chockalingam, Unpublished Interview, 2018)

Rosina discusses the lived pain of identity politics that materializes in rape culture and other forms of violence in creative and activist communities. The artist states,

"…its hard not to consider or be impacted by rape culture cuz it's everywhere, but we do talk to folks and now have more info online about our mandate and our want / aim to create safer places. When there is an accusation of assault by someone who's at a party (the assault occurred somewhere else), I will ask said person to leave…. Our space is generally known as a feminist space so most of us are aware either through our own experiences or our communities, that rape culture has no places at unit 2." (Rosina Kazi, Unpublished Interview, 2018)

In the city of Bangalore, women are often subject to brutal forms of discipline for daring to traverse the city in search of libidinal enjoyment. While the old adage "a woman's place is in the home" seems antiquated, the absence of women in public space is especially pronounced in India where the numbers of non-cis gender men participating in the workface are disturbingly low.

Chockalingam discusses the 2017 New Year's Eve assaults on Brigade Road in Bangalore, where women were molested in public spaces of revelry. They state,

"Women have access to nightlife in the city, but majority would never go to one alone. Certainly artist run spaces are responsible for creating safe spaces, and to actually have deeper conversations about this. They are spaces that enquire about all kinds of social justice -at the same time have positive/constructive growth. The Brigade Road incident was one spark of the greater problem. Women have been suppressed in the Indian society for centuries now. This is mindset is engraved from the time one is born in India. This will not shift overnight, but we must make as many conversations, and correct people (regardless of a situation) to for this to happen sooner." (Vivek Chockalingam, Unpublished Interview, 2018)

Walkin Studios, Bangalore. Image 4. Privacy to Piracy poster.

Walkin Studios, Bangalore. Image 4. Privacy to Piracy poster.

Art and music can broach a space for translation, an embodied participation in something greater than oneself . Kazi discusses how building spaces where a cacophony of bodies and desires can meet is cathartic. Both Walkin Studios and Unit 2 are engaged in ongoing efforts to produce meaningful activist art and create spaces where people can authorize their own truths. Kazi states,

"So many shows have healed me at Unit 2. There is a grassroots / radical queer/trans/2s festival we are initiating called BRICKS AND GLITTER happening this July is super exciting…we wanted to provide a space for QT2SBIPOC people and friends, young and old, but def we wanted to let young folks know they can build something and retain control over their art and movements. So everything has really inspired me. It was def a big influence of our last album ‘find safety'!" (Rosina Kazi, Unpublished Interview, 2018)

From Bangalore to Toronto, artists create the possibility for collective experience and a responsibility to others in shared space. The sway of crowds on enticing dance floors that criss cross across world maps erodes the fearful isolation that often plagues urban publics. As Rosina states,

"I do think dancing together and celebrating together is so needed. We often fight over ideas, instead of getting to know each other first, then fighting over ideas. Trust is very important, and we can't build trust just on having the right ‘language' and social cues. Toronto is segregated, mostly by race and class, and few spaces I know hold up the true diversity of Toronto." (Rosina Kazi, Unpublished Interview, 2018)

Disparate bodies dance contrapuntally in many make shift refuges, momentarily gathering solidarities in cities of exiles.

Unit 2, Toronto. Image 5.

Unit 2, Toronto. Image 5.

Artists carve feeling out of street debris and turn empty rooms into lasting memories. Kazi centres the affective meaning of art as that which evades narrow minds and scales of judgment, offering space for human sensitivity. They state,

"But really compassion, forgiveness, positivity, resilience is at the core of Unit 2, with the understanding that we are dealing with so much pain, suffering, oppression, some more then others, and we need to try to support each other or at least not come for one another in certain spaces, understand it's a colonial tactic to conquer and divide, and try to open up hearts and spirits to challenge our/your own shit and our/your place in the world. To really know our imaginations can set us free, if only for a moment…" (Rosina Kazi, Unpublished Interview, 2018)

Breaking free from the prisons we choose to live in, artists from Bangalore to Toronto can guide us to places and spaces of stolen freedom that terrify with the possibility of tenderness beyond cynicism. On roofs, in corridors, in the heat of makeshift dance floors, guided by a cacophony of light and sound, we lose ourselves in the untranslatable prose of love.

Unit 2, Toronto. Image 3.

Unit 2, Toronto. Image 3.

Tara Atluri has a PhD in Sociology from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has written two books. The most recent, Uncommitted Crimes: The Defiance of the Artistic Imagi/nation discusses subaltern artists in and from Turtle Island (Canada) whose inspiring artwork serves as political critique. View bio.

 

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