Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ecological Mandalas: Aesthetic Notes from Portugal

From the 18th of this month, the Instituto Camões in Panjim has had on display images of the works of Alberto Carneiro, a prominent Portuguese artist. This particular exhibition represents the latest of a series of exhibitions that the Institute has been organizing for some time now, representing a reopening of dialogue between two cultural spaces that were suspended, somewhat uncomfortably, subsequent to the actions in 1961. What is refreshing about these exhibitions, and in particular the exhibition of the works of Alberto Carneiro is that they introduce us to a Portugal substantially different from the Imperial representations of the colonial era.

The works of Alberto Carneiro do not draw from the Imperial Portuguese tradition, and with the sole exception of a work titled Vessels Ploughing Never Before Navigated Seas, make no reference to the Age of Discoveries or similar imperial imaginations. On the contrary, the imagination that Alberto Carneiro employs is one from the agrarian heartland of Portugal. Carneiro was neither born and nor raised in the Portuguese metropole or former centers of the empire and presents therefore an alternative perspective into the Portuguese mind and the sources of its inspiration. A Field After The Harvest For The Aesthetic Pleasure Of Our Body is
an installation composed of dried sheaves of corn tied into bundles, arranged upright on the floor. It celebrates the cycles of agriculture suggesting an alternate source for aesthetics and sensorial pleasure. Beyond agriculture though, it is nature (that is if one wants to see the two as distinct) that forms the inspiration for Carneiro’s work and the materials with which he crafts his art. The Cane
Plantation: Memory-Metamorphosis of an absent body is presented to us as one of the works that marked a fundamental departure from his earlier works. Subsequent to this work wrought in 1969, Carneiro would work primarily around ‘ecological’ themes and their relation to our bodies and the relationship of our bodies to these ‘natural’ stimuli. Indeed, thanks to his authoring of Notes for a Manifesto of Ecological Art Carneiro is hailed as a pioneer in encouraging the utilizing of an ecological idiom in contemporary art. In doing so, Carneiro’s work opens up a mystical path toward contemplating contemporary existence and its relationship to nature.

The opening of the doors of mysticism in ‘69 seems to have Carneiro towards explorations of the traditions of the East through the 80’s and the 90’s. The ‘Eastern’ influence is manifest through his utilizing the motif of the mandala to structure his installations. A Tree Is A Work Of Art When Recreated In Itself As A Concept For A Metaphor is a particularly impressive work of this category, which one wishes one had a chance to encounter first hand and not merely through the photograph of the work on display in the exhibition. Arranged in a vaulted cellar, Carneiro has arranged a mandala-like placement of mud, tree roots, branches and twigs to make the meditative point rather elaborately articulated in the title of the work. Despite his acknowledgement of Eastern influence however, one can sense the urge towards expression in the form of a mandala in his work entitled A Forest for Your Dreams wrought in 1970.

It is a real pity that the Goan audience has to encounter Carneiro primarily through photographic representations of his work, since the scale of a number of his works are significant, more easily absorbed through immediate and intimate encounter. Indeed, it appears that this is the manner he would wish his works to be encountered. Since the late 90’s it appears that Carneiro has taken his art from out of the confines of the gallery space and released it into the expanse from which he drew inspiration. We have as a result the Mandala of the Forest in Ireland, and the Mandala of the Landscape in Quito, Ecuador, and the House of Earth and Fire in Ordino, Spain. These mandalas are truly monumental; the first two composed of tree trunks rooted in the ground in conversation with the environment around them. These installations would perhaps also serve the larger role of prompting popular contemplation of our relationship to the environment. The Mandala of the Landscape for example, is one that forces our contemplation of the devastation of natural forests in countries of the Third world.

While Carneiro’s works are prompted by an ecological ethic, the works prompt certain questions. I was lead to these questions when viewing the image of his work entitled The Orange Grove.

In this work the spectator is confronted with a triple representation of an orange grove; in sketch, drawn and projected - and also with the orange tree itself and its fruits, all of it arranged on a bed of earth that includes an audio recording (an auditory representation of the orange tree) that speaks of the relation between the earth and the orange tree during the different seasons of the year. What was troubling was the extraction of the orange tree from its ‘original’ context and placement within the space of the gallery. Does this whole arrangement of ecological art not lead at some point to making a fetish of the natural environment? Rather than exposing ourselves to the aesthetics of the agrarian life, arguably more rooted in the earth, do these art forms in fact suck ecology into the cycle of capitalist consumption? For example, what is the manner in which the materials for the installation are procured? Do they come via an anonymous transaction, or are they sourced from a landscape and community one is in communion with? Do such installations then merely act as token acknowledgements to the need for an ecological sensitivity, in that process maintaining these aesthetic and the cultural patterns they emerge from perpetually on the periphery?

The Carneiro exhibition is a wonderful example of the manner in which the Goa-Portugal dialogue could be resumed. It manages to avoid the exclusivist parameters of earlier dialogue, and open new ground for a democratic conversation between related cultural spheres. One hopes though, that photographic images of originals will soon lead to more substantial exhibitions from the Instituto Camões. The Carneiro exhibit is on display until the 2nd of September and open to viewing weekdays from 10 am to 5:300 pm. Catch it while you can!

(Published in the Gomantak Times 27th August 2008 as Ecological Mandalas)

(All images courtesy Instituto Camões)

Calling for a Mystical Renewal of the Goan Condition

This column appears on the eve of the Konnsacho Fest, the great harvest festival of my adoptive village Taleigao. Tomorrow the gaocars of the village will march to the field from which the corn is traditionally cut and subsequently distribute it among themselves. The feast however is being celebrated alongside rumors that dark forces seek to purchase the traditional field of corn, even as the physical context within which this field now sits is sought to be transformed. There are plans to plunge a ten-metre wide road into the heart of green that surrounds the field of the konnos. But it is not just the operation of speculative real-estate development that threatens the continuation of the Konnsacho Fest of Taleigao. For some years now the corn that is distributed among the gaocars of the village is not corn from the field of the konnos or from the fields of Taleigao, but grain purchased from outside of the boundaries of Taleigao. Materially this may not affect the celebration of the feast, but the feast is not just a material event. It is also an event of spiritual significance when the villagers give thanks to the deity for the bountiful harvest and maintaining the environmental order and the social order that rests on it. More crucially, it is a feast that reaffirms the bonds of the villagers with the land that sustains them. To obtain corn from outside the village is to retain merely the material aspect of the festival, asserting a certain social order, without asserting at the same time the spiritual aspect, the bonds between the village and the earth that the festival sanctifies.

In these days of Goan upheaval, much noise is being made about the need to also preserve Goan culture. Without going into that elusive debate of what exactly constitutes Goan culture, we can safely recognize that as with any culture, it is a spiritual base sustained by a physical environment that one is in communion with that sustains a culture. As in the case of Taleigao, it is this spiritual rot that threatens the Goan, her environment and culture. This spiritual rot stems from a near total divorce of the Goan from the local environment, the environment being debased to a mere saleable commodity, not regarded as a landscape replete with spiritual significance. The challenge before us therefore is not merely legal change, but simultaneously, a spiritual one.

It is in this context that the recent statements of the Goan church must be viewed as providing appropriate direction to the Goan Catholic, and inspiration to other Goans resident in the territory.

The first statement, is the more recent, where the Church of Goa, through the Council for Social Justice and Peace has asserted that it supports the right of the people to participate in planning sustainable development in their respective villages and towns, while at the same time committed to motivating the people to fulfill their duties. This statement lays the material basis for the re-establishment of our relationship with the land, the physical environment. Early in the environmentalist movement conservationists in India were faced with a dilemma. How was it that groups that had a culture of caring for the environment now plunder it mercilessly? Decades of research and policy experience has revealed that when the right of decisions over land are divorced from the people, no matter what their earlier culture, they begin to see the land as a commodity to be exploited. Any sense of communal spirit is simultaneous destroyed, in the dog eat dog world that follows. Restoring the balance with nature and within the social order thus depends on asserting the rights of local people to communal stewardship of the local resource base. As the Church has rightly pointed out therefore, the step toward reanimating the Goan spirit lies in asserting the right of the village/town over its resources. This was the spirit of the gaocarial system, and while we cannot in today’s democratic age re-create the inequalities of the gaocarial system, we can imbibe its spirit.

The second statement of the Church that merits consideration is the Pastoral Letter of the Archbishop for the year 2008-2009. The Pastoral letter lays the spiritual ground for the rejuvenation of the Goan condition, filled as it is with ecological imagery. The Letter compares faith to the fonddaro/ onddo; ponds that dot the paddy fields of Goa, to the paddy field and to the golden grain that the field produces. Indeed the very grain that we celebrate this month. Disappointment was expressed in some quarters with the choice of imagery in the Pastoral letter. The fondarro is not something nice. It is seen as the location of chickol (dirt and muck). I choose to disagree with this point of view. The letter has taken the ubiquitous feature of our landscape and converted into a sign worthy of contemplation. No longer is it merely the giver of water (important in itself). Further, the letter urges us to change our attitudes to the fondarro. Falling into the muck of the fondarro, is no longer the falling into muck, but a process of being enveloped in the life-giving waters and soil of our land. To move to this position is to be unable to see the field and its ponds as merely a saleable physical entity, but to see it as the giver and creator of life itself!

In itself the statement of disappointment is indication of how far we have fallen from a respect for the land and the person enveloped in its life-giving water and soil. The Letter does not merely point to the physical features of our land as signs worthy of mystical contemplation. It points also to the figure of the farmer as worthy of contemplation. It is true that despite Christ having lived his life among fishermen, we don’t have much respect for them, but it is possible that the genuinely mystical contemplation of the figure of the farmer will allow us to generate the respect that this figure genuinely deserves. This respect is perhaps at the bottom of the key to Goa’s solutions, since it is the disdain and disrespect that we reserve for the farmer that is in part responsible for the abandonment of the Goan paddy-fields. A result of this contempt for physical labour has ensured that even if we may not have any other work to do, we will not step into the fields for fear of the lowly status that we will then earn. An abandonment of the ideals of the farmer, indicates also our abandonment of a spirit of humility and poverty that allows the farmer to depend on forces larger than oneself. As we can see all around us in Goa, we are today animated by the spirit of fast-money-here-and-now. Nothing could be further from the spirit of the monsoon dependent farmer who earns from the sweat of her brow.

The two statements of the Goan Church should be seen as articulations of a single position. The change required in Goa is not merely legal; it must be accompanied by a spiritual renewal. The key lies not only the realization of the oft-touted 73rd ad 74th amendments to the Constitution, but in simultaneously rebuilding a spiritual relationship with the land and its produce. When that is done, our task will have been complete.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 20th August 2008)

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Resignations, Popular Politics and the Force of Law

Dr. Oscar Rebello, formerly Convenor of the Goa Bachao Abhiyan is reported to have made the following statement while announcing to the Press his decision to resign his position in the GBA; “So on the one hand you have GBA members insisting that the spirit of these two amendments be included; on the other hand you have a situation where no one is willing to say how this can be accomplished”.

I can scarcely believe that the GBA lacks the imagination to operationalize the 73rd and the 74th amendments to the Constitution. Perhaps there is a lack of will to translate the radical visions of democratic planning, but then that is another matter altogether. Let us take Dr. Rebello’s statements as fact though, and attempt an injection of imagination into the body of the GBA.

We must remember that it was GBA’s amplification of the cry for Participatory planning that got the GBA a place in the Task Force for the Regional Plan 2011. Realizing the ideal of participatory planning within the Constitutional framework rests on the elaboration of the idea of the Village Development Plan contained in Article 243 G of the 73rd amendment to the Constitution.

Art. 243 G indicates to us that the plans prepared by the panchayat should be concerned with economic development and social justice. That the two words appear together is significant, since it also points out to us the manner in which economic development must be achieved. From this point on, principles of planning take over and provide a base from which to articulate participatory planning for Goa. Participatory and sensitive planning models would argue that such a village development plan would first require the mapping of existing land uses. This is to say that we first figure out what is going on on the ground. Who is cultivating what and where, where are buildings located, which are the open spaces and what are the multiple uses they are being put to. Once this is done, you engage in a projection of how these existing demands will increase in the future, owing to population growth. Once this is figured out, you are now in a position to determine which new developments you can introduce into the area. Since you now have your facts and figures in front of you, you can predict with a good amount of certainty, the impacts that new developments will have on an area. Since you can predict some of the impacts, you can now ensure that the numbers impacted by new developments will be provided appropriate rehabilitation. For example, if we know that there are a good number of villagers using firewood, we know that we need to make adequate provisions for this firewood-using community before we axe the village forests for a government project.

Once we recognize this logic, a logic already recognized by the Goan people, we need to push it into a mechanism that will see this logic democratically articulated. The Constitution already recognizes that the Village Development Plan (VDP) needs to eventually merge with the District Development Plan. So we know what to do once we have the VDP. However, how does one articulate the VDP? This is where the ward committees come in to play. The Ward committees need to be supported by technical staff, who help them map out the various socio-economic aspects of the life of the ward, and their demand on various resources. Once this is done, the draft plan is submitted to a general body of the ward, and refined through the process of a ward level public hearing. Once articulated in this manner, the ward level maps are reworked into a village level map, once again refined through a village level public hearing process. As with the earlier process, any decision taken by the Panchayat, or the ward committee, has to be justified with elaborate reasons. The reasoning will allow the decision to stand the test of a court of law, or of the people. In other words, prevent any hanky panky. To prevent the marginalization of vulnerable groups, it is normally recommended that the mapping of these groups be commenced prior in time to the mapping of other dominant groups. This ensures that the marginal groups have the space to articulate and claim their rights to resources. While crunched and simplified to fit the demands of a column, it should nevertheless be clear that we do have a mechanism to ensure participatory local planning. This method ensures that not only are existing uses of local people recognized in a plan, but it is also possible for the State and private developmental interests to identify spaces for development with minimal resistance. When first attempted, this process will take time. However, it will lay the foundations for proper planning, which will be well worth the time.

And yet, if it is as simple as this, if this vision is now commonplace with even marginally well-schooled planners, how come this imagination has not percolated into the GBA? Perhaps the answer lies in what the Task Force sees as its goal, and not really in the lack of an imagination for popular participatory planning. While the demand of the Goan people was clearly for holistic socio-economic planning before land-use planning, the Task Force is apparently under the impression that it is required to engage only in land-use planning. As such, even if it does see this process as relevant, it does not see a role for itself in translating it into law. Since it seems to think it cannot translate it into law, or that the process of proper planning will involve a substantial amount of time, it has decided to stick to the easy bit. Take out the coloured pencils, and sketch away furiously. This may be well-intentioned, but it will not meet the demands of the Goan people. We have to recognize that the Task Force resulted from a demand of the Goan people and it should find its mandate in that popular demand. Its mandate is not to tell us what our land should be zoned as, but to set in place a legal mechanism to articulate this participatory planning process year after year. This is its primary task, one that it seems either unwilling, or unable to perform. Perhaps it is the conflicts that emerge from this situation that has had something to do with the resignation of the former convenor of the GBA?

Law exists in a tense relationship with popular politics. While law seeks to preserve and maintain the status quo, popular politics seeks to reframe the status quo. To do this, it challenges the law, seeking to empty out the obnoxious contents and fill it with processes and principles that will realize a new vision. A popular movement therefore almost inevitably stands in opposition to the law, its agenda based on recognition of the illegitimacy of the status quo framed by law. When co-opted by the State and its legal process, popular movements often flounder seduced by the ‘naturalness’ of legal process. It is time for the GBA to wake up and smell the coffee burning. A wholesale revision of planning legislations in Goa is what was effectively demanded by the Goan people, and if it is not to let us down, the GBA should stick to this agenda and demand the Task Force fall in line.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 6th Aug 2008)