Jasmeen Patheja began addressing critical social issues early in her career as an artist. While still an art student in Bangalore, India, in 2003, she initiated a project that ultimately led to the formation of Blank Noise, a collective that emerged in response to the widespread harassment and rape of women.

Blank Noise creates interactive works, including Talk To Me, in which Action Heroes invite strangers to have conversations about anything except sexual violence in neighborhoods where people feel sexually threatened. The project has been staged in Bangalore, New Delhi, and Kolkata. In 2015, Patheja—along with Blank Noise—was awarded the second International Award for Public Art for Talk to Me.

Patheja, 35, grew up in Kolkata and lives in Bangalore. She talked with Jack Becker, publisher of Public Art Review, when she received the international award in Auckland, New Zealand.

JACK BECKER: Tell us how your development as an artist came to include a strongly social component.

JASMEEN PATHEJA: I studied fine art at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore, within which I was part of a year-long lab called Communication for Social Change. The lab focused on how artists and designers can influence social transformation. It led us to think about artists being at the start of a process of building change, rather than at the end, and about collaborative ways of working.

Geetha Narayanan, the director of Srishti, took us through very experiential challenges. We looked at how different organizations were tackling AIDS and what kinds of practices they were following. It made us think about communication, messaging, community, and medium by examining multiple approaches and practices followed by various nonprofit organizations. It was a very, very insightful learning process.

I was also taught by Ravindra Gutta, who was perhaps the first man I met who said, “I’m a feminist.” That was very important for me to hear from a man. He could see that I was deeply interested in addressing sexism and attitudes that perpetuate sexual and gender-based violence.

He introduced me to artists including Guerilla Girls, Suzanne Lacy, Judy Chicago, Barbara Kruger, and also to a book called Women, Art, and Society by Whitney Chadwick. He enabled me to think critically about feminist art practice and create projects.

As an art student, I was invested in questions around art and healing and confrontation. I was interested in art that was created through participation and built community.

What was the genesis of Blank Noise?

For my final-year diploma project at art school, I got together all the girls in college. There were about sixty of us in one room. We made a mind map with the word “Public Space” and in less than three minutes there were only mostly negative associations: fear, invasive, groping, don’t want to be seen, anonymous, scared—all of these words emerged.

This gave the basis to ask the question: “If we’ve experienced all of this, why don’t we start a conversation?” Out of the sixty, only nine were willing to do something about it. The rest said, “It doesn’t happen to me—that’s not something I want to be part of right now. Men are like that. Feminism was in the ’70s. You can’t change the world.”

With the nine, a series of workshops were initiated that went on for about three months. It was a period of insight and exchange. The closed group identified, shared, and examined personal histories.

Sexual violence or the threat of experiencing street harassment every day felt like “blank noise.” It wasn’t being addressed that feeling unsafe was a given. The environment was that of denial and silence. Yet there was this kind of noise that was prickling and shaping behavior, manifesting in warnings, fear; cautious, hunched girls and women walking with folded arms, only in groups.

The collective workshop experience led to the formation of Blank Noise.

Now I feel like the conversations again have shifted because the issue is so much in the spotlight. But back then, when we started out, the conversation was appropriate and it felt that we had to call it nothing other than what it was: an experience.

What happened next?

At that time, I was preoccupied with wanting to address the silence. If so many women and individuals experience it, why don’t they talk about it? What medium? Which public? These questions informed a decade at Blank Noise.

The first phase was very much about building a safe space, becoming a collective and becoming a community, and gathering testimonies.

Our first street action was in 2005. We would appear at a traffic signal, and each of us would be a letter in the alphabet. We would create questions like: “Why are you looking at me?” Not to say Don’t look, but to throw open a conversation on how are you being looked at and how are you looking.

Did doing actions in public lead to the term “Action Hero”?

We arrived at Action Hero rather intuitively, when the first nine participants started doing actions every weekend. We began to refer to ourselves as Action Heroes and to address other potential Action Heroes in our calls for participation.

I think our first definition of it was: somebody who does not surrender to power. It was about harnessing your own power as an Action Hero. It was also an easily relatable phrase. It can be appropriated: Oh, I want to be an Action Hero too. So it becomes an identity.

We started inviting participants to be idle in public space. Numbers started growing. Participants started to talk about idleness as a challenge and personal confrontation. This was the start of the Being Idle project.

Do you have to be brave to do some of these actions, or you have to be strong, or you need certain powers?

Anybody can be an Action Hero. An Action Hero is somebody who is willing to take agency. A person whose agency builds a safe space. An Action Hero is any and every individual who believes in being able to take that agency, because we really work with the premise that every person has the power and ability to influence a safe space and to build a safe space.

One of our projects was called Safe City Pledge, which was a one-year campaign about identifying the smallest action you can take from whichever role you’re in. If you’re a taxi driver, what is the least you can do within your capacity as a taxi driver to influence a safe space? That you can was the ignition. Getting somebody to identify and articulate what they can do was part of that person occupying the position of the Action Hero.

Where did those actions lead?

Blank Noise started in response to the need to do something about street harassment and sexual and gender-based violence. It was also out of very personal experiences of feeling extreme threat and defense. Blank Noise has been a process of examining, addressing, questioning, and unlearning fear. Fear that is taught. Fear that is inherited. Fear that is transferred.

Ss much as that fear is a given in India, it’s also a given anywhere: “Be careful, don’t go out. Are you going out like that? How are you coming home? Where are you going? Have you taken your phone? How are you coming back?” These are the list of warnings that people, especially women, around the world get to hear. We have to plan so much that it’s become invisible, almost, that we have to take all of these things into account.

Given that we’re brought up in an environment of fear, a lot of what we do at Blank Noise is creating actions. Becoming Action Heroes is a way of dealing with fear, not with an individual in particular, but of exploring fear within ourselves and probing who we fear, why we fear, how have we been taught to fear, how we inherit fear, and how we transfer fear.

When we hear about sexual violence in the news, for example, it’s a good thing that it’s reported. But there’s also the question of the tone of the reportage. Is it “Oh, it’s become really unsafe—don’t go out, and women should be careful”? Or is it “It’s become really unsafe, and therefore we need to make sure we’re visible and outside”? So being outside as a responsibility to make a place feel safe, and being more visible in public spaces, is part of the Action Hero identity.

At one point, we invited Action Heroes to send in their wish list for the city. We were very struck by how simple some of these things seemed: I wish to be able to walk when it’s raining and not have to worry about my clothes getting wet and people staring at me. I wish to be able to hum a song while walking. At that time I also added my wish: I want to be able to take a nap in a park.

The next year we proposed to actualize the wishes. I remember Action Hero Saraswati, who said, “Today I dared myself by yawning and stretching on a park bench and reading a book alone.” I went with a pillow and a mat and I said, “Today I want to be able to take a nap in the park.” And so there was a group of us in different parts of the park, doing different things.

While I was trying to perform or actualize my wish for the city, I realized that it was actually really, really hard for me to go to sleep, even knowing that in the not so far distance there were people whom I knew. As soon as I almost went into sleep mode, I would wake up, hearing a sound. I would realize it was just a leaf that fell, or a dog that passed by. There was so much fear associated with allowing yourself to be that vulnerable.

Just at that moment, I had the thought that there are more of us in fear of each other than with the actual intent to harm. That experience of trying to take a nap really shifted things. Everything we’ve done at Blank Noise since then has been more towards building trust rather than working from defense.

So that has led to a project we’re doing now: Meet To Sleep. It also led to Talk To Me, which was about how we move to a place of working with trust and connection rather than exclusion, defense, and fear. Talk To Me originates there.

Tell us more about Talk To Me.

I was working with a group of students who were part of an Action Hero workshop at Srishti. They did a range of things in that one month, including mapping Yelahanka, the neighborhood in which Srishti is located.

The Yelahanka Action Heroes kept referring to the “Rapist Lane.” So we went there on a site visit and identified several aspects, including the fact that lights were there but not working; at the front end was a public urinal; at night the lane was occupied by different men who would come in their bikes and cars and stop there and have a drink. We didn’t hear of any reported rapes, but it had earned that nickname and it was perceived with threat. A lot of the Yelahanka Action Heroes said, “There’s no way I’m walking there alone,” or “I’d walk there really, really fast if I have to walk there alone.”

So we decided the first thing was to call it the “Safest Lane” to change our own attitude towards it, and then to design. So that’s where the word came first and then the action followed. In every other thing that we’ve done at Blank Noise, I think, we’ve arrived at words last. But with the Safest Lane, we made a deliberate attempt to make it the Safest Lane and change our attitude, because it was also coming from a rationale of wanting to change our perception of fear and shift that.

With that, we set up tables and chairs and invited passersby to also occupy the position of the Action Hero by sitting at a table and building a conversation. Instructions included that the conversation has to last an hour; that it can be about anything except sexual violence; there will be tea and samosas along with it; you’re not to exchange contact details; and you’re not to create a fictitious identity of yourself. You are to be yourself as Action Hero X.

Passersby were told that it’s not an interview. It will have to be an equal conversation; it has to be a place of exchange. Yes, it will be uncomfortable and it’s unscripted, but that’s part of the process. It was met with a sense of enthusiasm, fear, willingness, openness.

The Talk To Me Action Heroes who were in Bangalore were not the ones who were in Delhi, and the ones who were in Delhi were not the ones in Kolkata. It’s a different set of people who care and want to do something about sexual violence and gender-based violence. Being in that place of willingness is crucial for Talk To Me to happen.

Was it a challenge to get the necessary permits?

No, because we said we’re just setting up tables and chairs. The police didn’t see it as a threatening experience. And they didn’t question our intention to build Talk To Me, but rather saw it as an invitation too. When we did this in Delhi, it was right in front of a police station, so we went inside the police station and invited them. They’re so used to activists in Delhi, protesting, and they’re used to saying no. There was this confusion on their faces because while we were asking permission we were also inviting them to join in. I think it confuses people, and I love that.

What kind of impact has the project had?

The Yelahanka Action Heroes had things to say, including, “Today I really feel like an Action Hero, and sometimes maybe strangers are not so strange.” They expressed a sense of seeing a person, a three-dimensional human being, instead of a stereotype based on differences of many kinds, from language and gender to socioeconomic class.

Because it’s received press support, and it’s received support here, I think Talk To Me has gotten more and more people to think about trust and empathy at the core of building safe spaces. In the documentation of this project being shared, the conversation it is impacting, and as a lived experience, it’s shifted something. Hopefully, it’s shifted something for the two individuals who sat in front of each other and have had very, very uniquely different conversations based on what transpired at each table.

When I was part of Talk To Me in Delhi, I sat in front of this man who said, “Because you’re a stranger I can tell you everything I want to, and I know it will be safe with you.”

What’s next for the project?

We’re playing with the idea of a toolkit. How do we share an idea so that it can be appropriated and locally contextualized? And it’s not just about step one, step two, step three. It’s about facilitating a tone, and to create tonal accuracy. And how do you have tonal accuracy and a toolkit? These are some of the questions that I’m trying to explore.

Tonal accuracy? That’s a good phrase. Could you elaborate?

When we were doing Being Idle, we were interested in exploring what it means to lean back by the railing and to make eye contact. After the press reported on it, some people in the public would say, “Hey, you’re that project that goes through the streets and stares back at men.” We didn’t want to be that project that stares. That’s shifting the tone, and that’s shifting the intention.

If somebody hears about Talk To Me, they might say, “Oh, you sit at a table and tell people how to talk about sexual violence.” That shifts and that moves away from our intention, and it shifts in tone. Talk To Me is not about telling. We’re not preaching at people.

So one of the things I’m thinking about is maybe to create three to four actions which are tonally accurate and share them as examples to refer to.

What’s important to you in your art?

I think art should trigger something—something meaningful, something that is a kind of self-realization or a self-confrontation, or a place of desire even.

In addition to working with Blank Noise and with its Action Heroes who form the community and the collective, I also work very, very closely with my grandmother. She and I collaborate on a premise based on something she said: I wish I’d been an actor. She transforms into or she becomes characters or identities that she desires to become. We’ve created photo projects where she transforms into a queen, a fairy, or a politician. It’s not sitting in public art, but it’s still a process in which two people are deriving something from and contributing to.

In both spaces, I feel like something should shift for the person entering that space. It should shift something for my grandmother and me. It should shift something for Action Heroes in the community. That’s important to me.

Jack Becker is Forecast Public Art’s founder, and lead principal consultant.

From Public Art Review #53, where this article appeared as “A Shift Toward Trust.”