If silence had a voice, would it be a gentle buzz? In a room in South Mumbai, the thought lingers, amidst the click of a projector, soft music, and a cacophonous symphony of parrots. Suddenly, a train whistles loudly, and one wonders if the reverberation is within the walls, or outside them. Amidst the noise, silence reverberates across white concrete. As you begin to notice the divisions in the room, the sound begins to separate itself across multiple video projections, to reveal the exhibition titled as it rises into the air: listening in practice.

Co-curated over eight months by Berlin-based Juana Awad and Mumbai-based Zeenat Nagree, the exhibition showcases works by 13 Indian and international artists. Currently on view at the Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan Mumbai, the show focuses on artistic practices in which listening is the central protagonist. Through video, sound, text, and image-based works, the artists interpret the act of listening in an ethical-political dimension.

Due to the vastness of the subject, Nagree relies upon multiple perspectives to unfold the curatorial concept. Research for the show involved interpretations by a range of practitioners, including anthropologists, musicians, artists, sociologists, historians, activists, and philosophers. “Can we, by listening, come to experience multiplicity of positions, voices, forms of being, of spaces?” questions Awad, in a conversation between the two curators.

The exhibition requires time and an active willingness to listen, engage and extrapolate from

works that contain underlying narratives of investigation, interpretation, and the amplification of voices that have often been silenced. Awad is convinced that there is a transformation that takes place when one listens attentively, and not passively. Nagree contemplates: “even if it seems there is silence, there is some sound, isn’t [there]?”

Through recordings and transcripts that relate marginalized narratives, Sandip Kuriakose (India), Velibor Božovic (Bosnia-Herzegovina/Canada), and Karan Shrestha (India), play with the idea of literal omissions, of missing words and scenarios. The deliberate strikethrough of important conversations/scenes signifies selective listening. This is particularly distinctive in Božovic´’s piece that is made-up of text prints titled ‘Listening, How Did You Get Here.’ The artist has compiled interviews with members of the Bosnian diaspora, who were displaced by the war in the 1990s. Even though the interviews were complete, the exhibited pieces are fragmented and riddled with deliberate omissions.

Similarly, Kuriakose’s work, ‘Woh bhi line ka tha’ (he was one of us), consists of 20 transcripts printed on legal paper. The Latin script has been used in a Hindi dialogue about public sites in Delhi, where men engage in sexual encounters with other men. “Haan, idhar hi mile the, phir uske place pe gaye the hum log,” reads a line on the mint green page, that’s filled with excerpts of conversations that the artist had in these cruising haunts. “Here, line becomes evocative of some sort of secret behaviour, activity, vocation that is referred to (in) code-language like, referring to a man’s sexual habits within these spaces,” explains Kuriakose in a conversation with artist Lodoe Laura. The curators add that the use of legal paper is a reference to the legal and criminal structures that have framed these spaces until recently.

In comparison, Shrestha’s short film ‘Stealing Earth’ explores how documentary forms need to omit certain information in order to be precise. “The idea of the existence of omissions must not be forgotten because storytelling is always inexact and incomplete,” elucidates Nagree. The film pieces together moments from the history of the Chitwan National Park in Nepal. Frames shift from black-and-white videos of hunting and trade by Nepalese royalty and British colonists, to advertisements encouraging tourism. Here, conservation comes at a price: the loss of livelihood and land of indigenous communities such as the Bote, Majhi, Musahar, Kumal and Chepang. “The national park is here for the goodness of the people, not to serve the government,” says an aged Nepali tribal. He tells stories of the Nepali army and the atrocities inflicted upon the residents of the land, who have called this their home over centuries. “The army looted our homes. They took our chickens, and the pigs that we raised. If we tried to fish or take our cattle to graze, we were beaten up, ” he continues.

The scene shifts to the inhabitants of this expanse singing and dancing to satirical Nepali songs that speak of the exclusion of their forefathers from laws made by “intellectual politicians.” The onset of a storm at the end of the film seems fitting, rattling the foundations of a paradise that’s lost to its own inhabitants. Shrestha listens to these silenced voices, and weaves them into a narrative that would otherwise have left them out.

While these artists tackle the silence of oppression, Pallavi Paul (India) deconstructs silence around the contentious subject of nationalism. In her work ‘Acts, Incitements, etc.’ Paul creates a sound installation using her interviews with retired members of the famous Bletchley Park group, who attempted to break German codes during the Second World War. The members were sworn to secrecy for decades, and are now well into their 90s. The conversations that we hear in Paul’s installation were recorded long after the war, which allowed personal narratives to distort historic facts. We see an elongated photograph of members working in a room in the mansion stretching across the screen as a metaphor for memory itself, extending over time. “The workers remember the most insignificant details from the official ‘listening’ project that they were part of. After memory disappears, is there place for the imagination to be exercised?” questions Nagree.

Subconsciously, our minds often translate gestures and movements into sounds. This could be the result of a lifetime of classical conditioning that arises from our perception of human behaviour. Artist Amol K. Patil (India) tests this in a holographic projection that interprets his father Kisan Patil’s play Saatapatrachi Kahani (Postcard). Written in Marathi in 1982, the play highlights the alienation of a mill worker who longs for his life and partner in the village. The video, projected on a drawing of a postcard, creates a gestural lexicon of sounds and actions that conveys daily life in the mill and its confined lodging space.

“Why is everything so still here?” read the words on the brown paper book that accompanies the video. While this automatically suggests silence, another evocative excerpt speaks of the mill worker’s routine, beginning and ending with sirens. Here, sound organises his day. Nagree points out the peculiar relationship between sound and thebodyinthe context of labour, where habituation can render certain sounds inaudible. This is a thought that seeps into Hong-Kai Wang’s (Taiwan) video projection ‘Music While We Work’, which is based on interviews with retired workers and their spouses. She asks them to recall memories of their days of industrial work. A large number of them associated their memories in the factory with the sound of the machines. They “could close their eyes but never shut their ears.”

Tobaron Waxman’s (USA/Canada) project ‘Fear of a Bearded Planet’ is about racial profiling. In a long duration performance piece, the artist with a conspicuous beard, sits for souvenir portrait painters in various locations, including New York, Barcelona and Paris. The opening question is more often than not, ‘where are you from?’ Waxman asks them to guess, and so begins a conversation that drifts into grey areas of gender, nationality and cultural identity. Afghanistan/Pakistan? is scribbled across the white-wall where the bearded caricatures are displayed. The viewer is left to introspect with another sprawl that reads- allow the unspoken to hang in the air, instead of deluding ourselves in the name of translation. In Awadh’s words, Waxman’s silence evidences the fractures of racialization.

We are currently in the midst of an enforced silence at the heart of a crisis of democracy. Is society ready to recognise the quiet that prevails where voices should exist? As Kashmiris are forced to live as prisoners in their own land for over 40 days, as a large population in Assam fight to prove their citizenship, as the country is obligated to accept a singular language as its sole national voice, does our own silence speak volumes? In the current political climate it is imperative that listening and speaking both hold equal weightage. As it rises into the air commands this thought. As Arundhati Roy once said in an interview, “there’s no voiceless. There’s only the deliberately silenced, or the purposely unheard.”

As it rises into the air: listening in practice is ongoing at the The Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan until October 5.

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