What is it like here (there)?
Interactive installation by Madhu Kaza narrated in first person.
Madhu Kaza is an artist and thinker. She has spent time teaching prisoners and juvenile delinquents. Her interactive exhibit projected the participant not onto a screen, but onto an Other. Through a subtle simulation, Madhu Kaza, an artist and a teacher provoked a conversation that built a bridge between her-Self and the Other and vice-versa.
“What is it Like Here (There)?” is an interactive performance project in which I engage participants one at a time and ask them to share an experience or memory of a place in Hyderabad. Through conversation and the use of objects I will guide participants to tell me a story, offer a description and explore their associations with that place. I will respond to each participant with a story or description of my own of another city (real or as imagined in art and literature) that responds to a particular element of the participant’s story. This project opens up a brief, intimate moment for participants to connect with a stranger and explore what resonates about life in cities, both here (in Hyderabad) and there (other cities).
In the artist’s words:
On the afternoon of December 14th I sat down to talk with various attendees of the Do Din Festival, one at a time, for my art project, “What is it Like Here (There)?” Participants sat across from me at a small table on a platform surrounded by trees as I guided them through a few gestures and a brief exchange where they spoke to me about aspects of life in Hyderabad and I spoke of similar aspects of life in other cities, particularly New York, the city which is my home. The conversations were occasionally awkward, often quite easy and always enlightening.
Several participants asked me questions about the nature and purpose of the project, as they were trying to understand how it was related to art. One young man asked me if I was an actor or singer, since the project had been listed as an interactive performance art piece. I explained that while the project was not a traditional piece of theater, dance or music, I had staged an opportunity for an encounter – between the participant and myself. We were the performers, seeing what would happen if, through a set of constraints and guidelines that I had constructed, a conversation was opened up between two strangers.
When participants sat down with me, I first asked them to describe their journey to the Do Din Festival that morning. I created a map of their transit while they talked. Then I asked them to randomly select five cards from a stack of forty yellow cards. Each card contained a topic that related to urban life. Topics included: traffic jams, waste, shopping, food, arts and culture, religion, wildlife, violence, work, history and heritage, nature, entertainment and more. Participants selected one topic to talk about. Later I asked participants to relate to me one memory of their experience in the city, good or bad. Based on the particulars of what each participant told me, I responded with a corresponding story of my own, situated not in Hyderabad but in New York or another city.
Through these conversations I began to create a collective, experiential map of the Hyderabad. People spoke to me about their experiences of violence, gender and sexuality, traffic and recreation in the city. They told me about favorite eateries, reminisced about childhood haunts, and spoke about memorable moments with friends and loved ones. The vision of Hyderabad that they provided me with through their words was not one that I could have predicted; nor was it objective. I was less interested in the “facts” that an official guidebook would offer me and more interested in opening myself to the subjective, everyday, urban experience of others. For instance, participants located Banjara Hills to the North, the Northeast, or the West of Hussain Sagar respectively. Whether or not people knew cartographically where in greater Hyderabad Banjara Hills was situated, they provided rich descriptions of the area and knew how to navigate between different neighborhoods in the city. I was particularly interested in the forms of attention that people paid to the environment around them, and the incidental insights they provided me. One participant noted that he had never been inside Birla Mandir, but that it was a building visible from many parts of the city, a building that unlike many of the other old buildings of the city, gleamed an immaculate white. Another participant noted that violence against women in the city extends beyond physical assault; she argued that there is a psychological violence implicit in verbal insults and in the need for women to constantly be on guard against harassment. Another participant lamented the changes in book culture in the city, noting that the Sunday booksellers in Abids are increasingly forced to sell exam books over literary or general non-fiction paperbacks. Someone spoke about the joy of sitting down to have Irani chai in the old city and watching the world pass you by. Yet another person spoke about the difficulty of talking to strangers in the city.
The project was meant to create a small window of exchange that might not necessarily otherwise happen, an opportunity to reflect on life in the city with a stranger. It wasn’t a given that any particular encounter would be productive or meaningful. It required the active engagement of participants, rather than the passive consumption of a performance or an artwork. This activating component is important. The quality of life in a city depends on many factors, including, in the end, the active engagement of individual citizens on many levels. For a brief moment, I asked and trusted individual citizens (and a few visitors, too) to share their experiences of the city with me. I had to trust, too, in my own attention and capacity to respond to each participant as we discovered the resonances of what life is like “here” and “there.”