How does one resist State terror?
Counter-terror was tried, and failed, for it only made State terror worse, and more pervasive. The relatively non-violent rallies and demonstrations over democracy deficits in and around the Fort Railway station and Lipton Circus spring to mind, if only because everyone over at least two generations has either witnessed them in person, learnt of them through the media, or courageously taken part in them. Informed by the recording of human rights violations from around the country, op-eds, TV and radio spots and interviews, press releases and other mediagenic output are the familiar to those who seek better governance and accountability through greater public awareness. Face to face representations, overt and covert, with influential individuals and lobby groups in capitals around the world and both the participation in and the organisation of workshops on inconvenient truths are also employed frequently.
The challenge however is in the fact that State terror comfortably coexists today with the good life and its pursuit. Those who seek economic prosperity and wealth are not those who will hold architectures that favour the corrupt and violent under greater scrutiny. Three brothers from single family today control every imaginable avenue of social and commercial enterprise at all levels and across the country. Maintaining this deep and vast oversight requires violence at many levels and in many forms, from the outright physical to the psychosocial, from the individual to the communal. Because this violence is deemed necessary, it is perceived to be just and even karmic – those who are excluded, killed, maimed and just disappear don’t generate sustained social or political outrage and are seen to somehow have invited their fate by what they said or did. The new, horrendously violent ordinary is just fine with the majority – why, they ask when confronted with discontent and dissent, can’t you just enjoy a country post-war? The veneer of open roads, landscaped parks, influx of tourists and a soaring skyline suggest progress and the trappings of cosmopolitanism. The reality is anything but.
Ai Weiwei’s According to What? on display till the end of February 2013 in Washington DC’s Hirshhorn Museum, captures this harmony between development, wealth creation and State terror, albeit around his own country. Given China’s tentacles in Sri Lanka’s political imagination and architecture, Ai Weiwei’s art is a cogent interrogation of our own polity and society. The violence he has faced as an artist reflects our own silencing of dissent. A surveillance camera sculpted from pure marble is both stunningly beautiful to look at, and precisely because of this, disquieting – suggesting that most embrace technologies and artefacts of enslavement and subjugation. There is a brain scan showing trauma to his head after police brutality in 2009 is the most didactic of his art on display. Cube light, an installation that appears to be suspended off the ground, featuring tens of thousands of crystals lit from within is jaw dropping in its visual lure. Your columnist went on all-fours to examine just how the massive cube was elevated off the ground. At this level, the artist’s message is clear – what appears resplendent and alluring in fact has very flimsy foundations. In ‘Remembrance’, the simple act of recording the names of the dead (in an earthquake) is an act of defiance – counting those who are inconvenient to register, making their numbers matter, making their deaths known. In a powerful article published last month in the Guardian, the artist notes that “art needs to stand for something” and that “widespread state control over art and culture has left no room for freedom of expression in [China].
Perhaps the resistance of State terror requires us to invent a new vocabulary through new media, using as Ai Weiwei does, the digital as well as the tactile, the physical as well as the virtual, the visual as well as the sensory, to communicate the real violence of our social and political compact post-war. Perhaps the danger of simply bearing witness and expressing dissent through placards, posters and public rallies is that it exists in its own world, and doesn’t really capture the attention of those who are in fact agents in a violent socio-political system, who may at best silently agree with activists, but never risk social standing, career and life to join them. Rather than attempting to forcefully convince the majority, to present violence as violence, providing the masses with new ways of seeing our country today beyond a sanitised sheen can be a powerful channel to foment dissent. New scalpels of mixed media, literature, art, theatre and culture can incisively interrogate our own repressive government but only if, as Ai Weiwei suggests, it is informed by a critical gaze.
Few in Sri Lanka have this gaze, and use it for public good. They need our support.
Published in The Nation, 21st October 2012.