Beyond Binaries

The term ‘queer’ denotes subversion, where something works against the grain of normative structures of thinking and acting. Having moved away from its pejorative connotations, the word today implies an emancipatory occupation of space, where the body can be looked at through a pan-gendered lens. In addition to radical activism for the decriminalization of same-sex relationships in South Asia, queer idealism implies a fluid matrix of desires and individualities. In addition to claiming rights to a safe livelihood[i], the imagination of this future assumes a dissolution of pronoun-differentiation where bodies can exist without the threat of violence, overt or otherwise. As set out by the curatorial premise of the Queer Futures Potluck Party, it necessitates the creation of a safe space that denounces actions reflecting power-based aggression while simultaneously excluding expressions of cis-privilege, intolerance[i] and other vectors of discrimination more prevalent in mainstream spaces.

The Queer Futures Potluck Party, curated by Actants Shaunak Mahbubani and Vidisha Fadescha as part of the After Party Collective, set out to create a non-hierarchical space of participation premised on the tenets of “community gathering, political utterance and affirmative care”. Against the confusing landscape of a society that both celebrates the invalidation of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code and threatens to invade safe pockets of habitation, the Party’s curatorial premise was to create a safe space within the institutional premises of Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan by borrowing from the “spatial and temporal structures of a house-party” where marginalised bodies can come together and enjoy themselves at ease. A safe space is the ideal of guaranteed safety for everyone, particularly the vulnerable and precarious. Decriminalisation on paper does not mitigate oppression in social spaces, and the party attempted to create a space where bodies could enjoy without being hyper-alert to potential harassment.

The Party used the framework of the project to create a setting in the context of queer nightlife in India, which offers a parallel reality separate from public spaces governed by normative prejudices. A screen in the space played an assemblage of videos (a work of artist Filth Ave) that drew from visuals in South Asian popular media. This leads me to think of the role that digital spaces have played in queer activism as well as the phenomenon of digital memes in harnessing local forces of queerness. The music, which included techno and other electronic music as well as retro and disco tracks from Hindi cinema, was played by non-binary DJs in a conscious departure from the cis-male DJ culture in Indian nightlife [i] whose music mainly thrives on misogynist refrains. A dated gender divide is thus dissolved and a new coalition is formed in the space of the party.

DJs at the Queer Futures Potluck Party | Credit: Hugo & Gabrielle

The need for a balance between visibility and safety governs these alternative spaces which, for the longest time, have functioned mostly under the radar. “Queer is non-norm ideas, bodies and sites”, say the Actants. Through the digital interface of music, text and mediating bodies, they draw attention to the urgency of the recent Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill that institutionally polices trans-bodies through a proposed list that reeks of aggressive surveillance in the guise of progress, as it invalidates their bodily autonomy against an invasive hetero-patriarchal gaze.

But does this Party adapt the dimensions and attendant political discourses of the ‘party space’ (with its genesis in the Western queer landscape) in the South Asian context? The increasing prominence of the language of safe spaces has developed around identities that have been marginalised, and the Collective announced publicly its preference for communities such as the hijra, kothi (figures that are quintessential to South Asian queer histories) and the differently abled in their open call for performative pieces. But do these intentions critically translate in the party space? Furthermore, how does one regulate unpredictable influences on the participant’s body in a space pre-designated as safe? What about breach of consent between queer bodies in a space? Dominant power relations can still percolate into the room and reproduce toxicity in tangential ways, but there’s no way to engage in these politics in isolation either; the Party provokes these discussions beyond its immediate temporal scope.

Queer Futures Potluck Party at Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan | Courtesy: Annette Jacob

The foyer area outside the hall became a space for gatherings, conversations, dinner as well as a series of performances organized as part of the project. One of the performances was titled the SKUM Manifesto. Performed by Urvi Vora, the piece attempted to play with the male voice in the Kamasutra by physically navigating the different sexual positions enumerated in the text with a conscious erasure of the male partner. Using a conversational tone and including audience members in the enactments of the text, the performance opened up a freewheeling engagement with the Kamasutra, which is otherwise tailored to a male audience (and has been the subject of many feminist and queer revisions till date). By using her own body to dissect the text and arrive at a non-binary understanding of it to create an alternative manifesto for sex, Urvi extends the conversations around physicality, intimacy and consent that constitute her own project within the Five Million Incidents framework. Titled ‘The Naked Lunch series’, Urvi conducts Sunday lunches for a fixed group of participants every two weeks on the premises where time, food and bodies come together in a leisurely concoction to discuss matters of the body.

Outdoor performance by Urvi Vora at the Queer Futures Potluck Party | Credit: Hugo & Gabrielle

Conducted in both Kolkata and Delhi, the lunches are held in intimate spaces with only Urvi and the participants present and nothing but a microphone recording the ensuing conversations. Each lunch is designed around specific menus (often regional cuisines), games of taboo and charade as well as textual/photographic media that act as triggers for verbal discussions. Conversations are centered around ways to theorize the intelligence of the body, about how bodies are deployed in nationalistic roles and how it is regulated by the law and the state. While Urvi facilitates the discussions to avoid major digressions, she is also currently testing her role to see if she can invisibilise herself as a facilitator completely with the effect that conversations continue even when she has left the room.

Video: Urvi preparing for lunch | Credit: Annette Jacob

For Urvi, the lunch becomes a tool to break through inhibitions with, and ground the conversations among an otherwise unacquainted group of participants (the comfort is established with every subsequent lunch). While eating, says Urvi, the person’s focus situates itself outside the body, which takes away a bit of the performative pressure to talk. Food takes away from the body’s awareness of itself and helps aid the flow of dialogue through a shared experience of taste and texture. In Kolkata, Urvi uses an empty classroom on the premises where she gathers everyone around a dining table. In Delhi, she uses a private office room. The flexibility of objects in the setting and the arrangement of the seats (whether around furniture or on the floor) also alters the nature of the conversations—something that Urvi is flowing with organically and intends to study only when the project and conversations have matured over the following Sundays.

देखो मगर प्यार से।

As Urvi puts it, spaces aren’t safe by themselves; the rhetoric of a safe space doesn’t fortify its status as one. A safe space is one that’s built through conversations that establish safety for its occupants, where questions of intimacy and consent require constant negotiation. The ethical metres of the body are contingent on the context and the degree of comfort it begets for the person concerned. Through the Naked Lunch series, Urvi created a space for strangers to come together and share a kind of intimacy only strangers can share by virtue of the performative freedom enabled by unfamiliarity. By letting each other into their contexts, the participants (including Urvi, who became one through immersion) developed an image of themselves as well as of each other through a process of “sustained curiosity”. Starting from a point of broad wonderment about the idea of consent and ways to explore it ethically with willing bodies, the lunches enabled a charge cultivated by uniquely individual desires to see and be seen intimately.

Both the projects use the premise of ‘intimate publics’ to realise their ideas around intimacy as it manifests between consenting bodies in social spaces. Urvi takes the route of sustained engagement that runs over months and thus, uses time to build relationships that generated out of discussions around the body—fat, ageing, regulated and otherwise—and how it is looked at both as matter and concept. Following the end of the project, the group has become its own entity, as the conversations continue over beverages in informal settings. The Queer Futures Potluck Party used the temporal span of an evening to stage their project, where bodies came together in spontaneous engagement through music. The Party is rooted in a different context of intimacy, where the charged space of the dance-floor enables the queer body to engage in a space of intimacy denied or discouraged by normative social designs. Bodies may or may not be naked at the lunches, or align with designated constructs of public visibility in name and attire. A safe space is then a negotiable construct and issues from a collective contract of care and empathy[i]; solidarity and intimacy are thus navigated through specific conduits of desire, consent and spatial configurations.

PS: The essay has been edited following a second conversation with Actant Urvi Vora prior to the public realisation of her project, ‘The Naked Lunch series’ on the premises of Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi on December 18, 2019.

[i] Interview with the After Party collective

*all quoted words and phrases have been taken from interviews conducted with the respective Actants

Cover Image: Indoor stage at Siddhartha Hall, Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan by After Party Collective | Credit: Vinicius Gomes

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