Urdu-English class at the Whitechapel Gallery's Guernica Room
Preface to a History of the Museum of Non Participation
Pancho Villa, 2009
We know enough to make up lies which are convincing, but we also have the skill, when we will, to speak the truth." (The Muses to Hesiod. Hesiod, Theogony 25)
What is the Museum of Non Participation? Does it have a mission, and collections? Is it an enigma, a paradox, or a joke? Might it be all these and more, or simply one more art-world folly competing for attention? Do its founders ask serious questions, or question seriousness? Is it disinterest or complicity in disguise? Is its title a misnomer? Many questions confront this project; perhaps that is its purpose, because in querying it we are forced to interrogate the boundaries of participation and museums. Museums are respectable institutions charged with the preservation, interpretation and display of objects. They are good places to visit while on holiday, or on rainy days out with the kids. We rarely stop to question them. Perhaps it is the combination of well-trained smiles emitted from visitor-enquiry desks, the lure of gift shops, proffering ersatz antiquities and the bottled Lethe water sold in air-conditioned cafes that makes museums feel so comfortable and cuddly, and encourages us to avert our eyes from the violence, both mythical and real, that lies at their foundation. Who after all would want to hear the 'hapless soldier's sigh, that runs in blood down palace walls' while trying to grab a bit of culture on a Sunday afternoon?
But our museums are far from innocent; they are at best a bloody pirate's treasure trove. So why not question them? After all it would be comforting to know that the previous owner of a painting that we so admire had not perished in a gas-chamber, or that the wonderful display of marble sculptures in gallery X hadn't been nicked by an upstart ambassador and bequeathed to the Nation in exchange for some ignoble honour. But even after pushing aside the violence of plunder, our museums still confront us with successive layers of brutality disguised as culture. There is: the violence of restoration, which has erased so many works of art; the violence of sacrilege that denies the religious significance of countless 'curated' objects; the violence of professional discourse that cocoons the initiated and intimidates the 'untutored'; and the violence of desecration, which haunts so many living peoples. Then, least we forget, there is the plagiaristic violence perpetuated by a Frankenstein monster that, with the heart of a rebel and the hands of a colonial despot, calls itself, in true military fashion, the avant-garde. And of course there is the violence of denial implicit in all interpretation. Europe possesses no word to fully express its cruelties, but Mexican Spanish does. It is a word that evokes the Conquest, and the wealth that flooded Seville and drained into the coffers of Italian renaissance banks. It is a word with countless facets; whole sentences can be constructed by manipulating its inflections. It flavours everyday speech with bile. The word is Chinga. It means fuck, rape, destruction, pillage, hopelessness, despair and theft. It evokes a mythical time and place; la Chingada, - the rape of mother earth - which in European parlance connotes the discovery of the New World. Thus: Chinga tu madre! Chingamos los chingones, hijos de la chingada, quien nos chingaron con chingaderas might be politely translated as: for the abuse of your mother lets upset those toffs, the descendents of conquest, who treat us unfairly and lie.
But la Chingada is not confined to a resentful memory inscribed in the argot of Mexico. It thrives today in countless 'third world' cities. It is carried in the genetic code of AIDS. It is the force that decimates natural habitats in pursuit of profit. It is the life-blood of the global arms-trade. It is the secret sponsor of our museums.
Our word 'museum' is a sham. The Mouseion (Greek) Museum (Latin) was the temple of the Muses, inspirers of creativity and daughters of Memory. Their house was a place for comtemplation, and debate, the presevation of ideas, creation of poetry and playing music. The idea of a 'museum' as repository of acquisitions is an adjuct to colonialism. Hence the Museum of Non Participation's desire "to swim against the grain". Its collection of metaphors and actions are available for reinterpretation by anyone at anytime. It is a museum of values not valuables, a museum committed to the principles of 'copyleft', not copyright - a museum predicated on the idea that its collections will grow only by giving them away - and the conviction that the reification of Memory is a distortion of her purpose, which is to aid us in imagining our future.
But where does this leave the idea of Non-participation and the slogan: Participate in the Museum of Non Participation. Like the final lines of the first Dada manifesto if you disagree with this manifesto you are a Dadaist it appears to be a paradox. Personally I refuse to take part and consider this museum miss-named; better that we call it the Museum of Heresies, the Museum of Awkward Buggers, or the Museum of Non-acquiescence. Whatever it turns out to be, dont expect to find me dead in it.
Since then they have pursued ideas connected to their position that day - through conversation, images, activities and narratives following strands of dialogue to different people, places and contexts.
Working over an eighteen month period with street vendors, Urdu translators, architects, estate agents, housing activists, lawyers, hairdressers, filmmakers, wedding photographers, newspaper printers, artists and writers, they have played out different manifestations of The Museum of Non Participation.
The project first appeared as an English/Urdu language class in September 2008. The free class invited English and Urdu speakers to exchange conversational language under the guidance and mediation of Hasan Navid. It became a space for cultural and linguistic exchange travelling from the Oxford House community centre in Bethnal Green to an invited space behind Yaseens Hairdressers on the Bethnal Green Road and to a public performance at the Guernica room in the Whitechapel Gallery.
Hosted by artist collective VASL, Mirza and Butler returned to Karachi for a second time in December 2008, where they occupied a space at the Pakistani Arts Council; this open space became a location to work through ideas with (non) participants and a base from which they conducted interventions outside in the streets of the city. They distributed newspapers as packaging for food sold by the tandoor wallas, presented performance interventions at Sunday Bazaar, and worked with sign writers to produce text banners and wall paintings that demarcated the Museum as a pop-up institution, announcing a new way of moving through and looking at the city: in a city with almost no museums, the city itself becomes the museum.
The project 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 Pakistans oldest and largest media group.
This newspaper preceded the official launch The Museum of Non Participation, a month-long festival (25 September - 25 October 2009) behind Yaseen barbers shop on Bethnal Green Road. It brought together the multiple faces of the project in a programme of film screenings, talks, discussions, Urdu poetry, and performance.
The Museum of Non Participation raises questions about resistance and the choice and consequence of action vs inaction. The strictures of conflict, class and monetary divisions within a globalised world provoke engagement with the problems of participating or not participating in such a system, whether in Karachi, London or elsewhere; The Museum of Non Participation examines how our lives in one space have implications on the other.
The Museum of Non Participation
25 Sep - 25 Oct 2009
Behind Yaseen Hairdressers
277 Bethnal Green Rd
The Salon and the Public Sphere
A series of salons held behind the Barbers, an intimate gathering for conversation and an exchange of ideas.
On Language as Violence
Thursday 1 October
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Davies led an informal discussion on the role and power of the media in an international context drawing on ideas in his controversial expos of the truth behind the headlines, Flat Earth News. Nick Davies has been named Journalist of the Year, Reporter of the Year and Feature Writer of the Year for his investigations into crime, drugs, poverty and other social issues. He is currently freelance, working regularly as a special correspondent for the Guardian.
Writing the City
Friday 2nd October
Kamila Shamsie is the author of four novels, and a regular columnist for the Guardian. She lives in London and Karachi, and is presently teaching in New York State. This salon took the form of a discussion on the relationship of writing and literature to the way we imagine the metropolis.
Thursday 8 October
Artist and curator Alana Jelinek delved into the politics and ethics of museum and gallery collections. Alana Jelinek is currently a fellow at the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Thursday 15 October
Critic and curator Fatos Ustek discussed the future of the Museum of Non Participation with Karen Mirza and Brad Butler as a real institution. What might the collection be, and where would it exist? Fatos Ustek is a freelance critic and curator, and edits the online contemporary arts magazine nowiswhere.
Flat Earth and Other Stories
Saturday 17 October
John Phillips gave a reading and led a discussion under the title Flat Earth and Other Stories, dont participate if you want. Plus a history of non participation through artistic, political and literary examples. John Phillips co-founded the Paddington Printshop (now the London Print Studio) in 1974. He has devoted much of his life to the running of this highly successful non-profit printmaking workshop, now an established model for many global art-activism initiatives.
Sunday 18 October
The British Pakistani Foundation hosted an informal poetry recital focusing on Iqbal's Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa. Themes of identity were discussed in terms of the relevance of Iqbal's vision in today's political climate.
The Architecture of Destruction
Wednesday 21 October
Architect and theorist Eyal Weizman along with other members of Goldsmiths Centre for Research Architecture led a discussion which interrogated the political relationship of architecture to violence across the globe. Eyal Weizman is an architect, curator and writer based in London. He also directs Goldsmiths Colleges Centre for Research Architecture.
Miss Bs Salon behind the Salon
Thursday 22 October
Artist Ruth Beale hosted a salon event with Dave Rushton on media and autonomy. Dave Rushton was a member of Art & Language in the 1960s, he is the founder of the Institute of Local Television and has been a powerful voice in campaigning for media freedom since the 1970s. Ruth Beales salons take the form of open debates at public galleries taking subjects pertinent to art discourse and artists practice. In the last year subjects have included artists' political responsibilities; copyright; uses of the word 'space'; psychoanalysis and film; attraction to fascist cultural products; and the regulation of social space.
The South Asian Womens Creative Collective:
Friday Night Social - Fun and Games Behind the Barber Shop
Friday 23 October
The South Asian Women's Creative Collective hosted an evening of participatory art, fun and chat - an evening of 2 halves.
Artist / comedienne Yara el-Sherbini hosted 2 rounds of her alternative pub quiz, Lahore-based video journalist Farzana Fiaz gave the latest from the ground and a sneak preview of some unseen clips, artist/ photographer Sara Haq offered individually tailored 2-5 minute holidays as part of her project: Space/ Time Travel Holidays Inc and Sonia Mehta brought the evening to a close with one of her unmissable unaccompanied vocal performances.
Women's Only Events
An ongoing discussion and series of performances around the issue of The Body, Social Space and the Aesthetic of Resistance led to the decision to create a women only space, posing questions about how women might reclaim space, and imitate, accelerate and "own" everyday encounters. Tuesdays in The Museum of Non Participation sought to intervene in the assumed power dynamics of the everyday social space in Karachi, London and elsewhere. Women were invited to use this day as they wish, groups and individuals were welcome to initiate as well as participate.
Tuesday 6 October
Publisher Rukhsana Yasmin and playwright Yasmin Whittaker Khan hosted a special women-only Mushaira, or poetry reading. A poetic symposium held in Urdu and English.
Writing and Activism workshop
Tuesday 13th October
Founding member of Southall Black Sisters, journalist and writer Rahila Gupta drew on her experiences to lead this workshop which explored the relationship between writing and activism.
For Urdu speakers wishing to learn English alongside English speakers wishing to learn Urdu. Three versions of The Museum of Non Participations original Urdu/English language exchange including beginners drop-in sessions, womens only classes and a continuation of the previous terms activities.
Saturday 10 and Saturday 17 October
A taster language class based on exchanging skills in Urdu and English.
Wednesday 7, 14 and 21 October
Led by translator and language teacher, Hasan Sheikh, a continuation of our Urdu/English language exchange.
Tuesday 29 September and 6, 13 and 20 October
Arjum Wajid has worked as a journalist both in English and Urdu for over 25 years. Her informal language class provided an environment where English and Urdu speaking women could begin to learn and/or practice and improve their spoken English and Urdu through exchange, activities and conversation with some basic teaching structure.
Saturday 26 September, 3, 10, 17 October
The Museum of Non Participation and Zammurad Naqvi led a series of experimental scriptwriting workshops for a pilot television soap opera in order to develop characters and plot lines that explore Pakistani life in the UK.
Friday 16 October
Come to the Museum of Non Participation for a special Friday night film screening. Between 6-8pm we will be showing the infamous Zinda Laash - Paikistani director Khwaja Sarfraz's Urdu-language version of Dracula, made in 1967. Also known as Dracula in Pakistan and The Living Corpse, this Lollywood classic was the first film in Pakistan to be x-rated.
The Exception and the Rule
by Karen Mirza and Brad Butler
London Film Festival
Sun 25 October
Shot primarily in Karachi, The Exception and the Rule employs a variety of strategies in negotiating consciously political themes. Avoiding traditional documentary modes, the film frames everyday activities within a period of civil unrest, incorporating performances to camera, public interventions and observation. This complex work supplemented The Museum of Non Participation.