I’ve been following the work of Indian artist, propagandist, and comrade, Anupam Roy, since early 2018 – after his work was included in the New Museum Triennial, “Songs for Sabotage” in New York. I sought Roy out after reading a review of the exhibition, “How the New Museum’s Triennial Sabotages Its Own Revolutionary Mission,” by the Marxist art critic Ben Davis. Davis is perhaps best known among North American socialists as the author of the (very useful) 9.5 Theses on Art and Class. I felt the approach Davis took to Roy’s work, however, was oddly cursory — almost dismissive. Davis seemed, in this review, to misrepresent the dynamic between art and politics and the character of Roy’s work, even as he was trying to make a more or less correct argument against the art world’s cult of ambiguity. I was particularly interested in Roy’s work as his emphasis on the concept of “excess” (Georges Bataille) is similar, in some ways, to my approach to the concept of “differentiated totality.” In April, Roy and I talked over Skype about his artwork, ideas and politics. That conversation was transcribed by myself and Tish Markley, and then edited by myself and Anupam for publication here. — Adam Turl, May 6, 2019.
Adam Turl: In addition to being an artist you are a member of the Communist Party of India Marxist-Leninist (Liberation), you describe yourself as a propagandist. You work in both “art world” spaces and spaces of social struggle. In Excess: A curatorial project, you created an installation in a burned-out theater – which you described as a “non-productive space within the institutional space.” This work raises, to me, a series of questions, again, about the individual “hand of the artist” (the unique individual) and the collective. What is the relationship of your political activism to your studio art practice?
Anupam Roy: In 2008 I completed my bachelor’s from a rural college in West Bengal. Then I came to the city of Delhi for my survival. I worked at an advertising agency for less than a year. Meanwhile I got closer to the Communist Party and started working as a cadre. From 2014 to 2016, I did my Master’s Degree and got to know about the art world more closely. Now, of course, I can speak English, and know some theory, the dominant art world discourse. So now I can speak some of the “languages” the art world speaks. After I completed my Master’s, I joined the biggest private museum in India – the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. It is run by the HCL Company. I worked in the archive as a documentarian, dealing with their art collection. Through this I got another layer of knowledge about art history and the art market (including how and why corporations fund culture). In 2017, I quit that job and had a bsolo exhibition at an alternative gallery space in Kochi (Kerala). You probably saw this in my portfolio. In 2017, I was also selected for the New Museum Triennial in New York. In a sense, I was beginning to work in the art market. This was my first work that was displayed in the so-called “art world.” Just after that I had a solo show at Project 88, a prominent art gallery in Mumbai, India. I also got the FICA Emerging Artist Award; because of that I am now doing an artist residency in Lucerne, Switzerland.
You know that the art world spaces, from the perspective of an art practitioner, are not unlike that of a factory where workers work. I am not saying that I am oppressed like a factory worker, but in material terms, the cultural institutions are part of a cultural industry. I am a part of that industry as a person trying to get money for survival. When you ask, “what is the relationship between your studio art practice and your political activism,” it seems to me that the studio practice is connected to market and art world practice. Let me clarify the opposition between art market and political practice. I don’t really believe in “Art Activism.” In the 1990s, this term came to be used by liberals or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It is in capital’s dynamics to appropriate political voices and actions.
I see political practice more as a parallel practice. When I exhibit in group or solo shows, or sell my work, it does not necessarily have a direct relationship with my political interventions. Whatever I produce in my studio, if someone wants to buy it, or support it, the art ends up being separated from political life. I believe in the present context one should mark this difference sharply. Otherwise we can’t address the question of cultural capital.
On the other hand, what is the difference between the individual, which you describe with the phrase, “the hand of the artist,” and the collective? This question is complex. Whatever I’m doing in my day to day participation in different people’s struggles, I’m learning and experiencing new things. But I cannot get out of my body. The hand is part of the body. In India, the caste system is seen as a body with upper caste as the head. The heart is also a privileged section. Then you have the legs and so on. Dalits, the outcastes, aren’t even considered as part of this social body or the body politic. In other words, some working-class hands aren’t even considered to be part of this body. In fact, only the brain has the privilege to decide to create. This is really abnormal, unnatural. I think, in reality, the upper class and upper caste only have heads without brains. Today we have to bombard the headquarters of this social body. We can’t choose our birth, because it is constructed by the social system, but after knowing history, we should decide our side and serve the interest of the precariat, Dalits, Adivasis, etc. Our working class is divided by caste, gender and religions, but these identities are not enough to decide collectivity. For me it is only a possibility-in-becoming – but not in preexisting categories. Because we witness in history that people do not always serve the interests of their classes and identities.
My point regarding the idea of collectivity in art practice is: when we practice, as an art teacher in a school, a professor, a practitioner in a studio, or an activist, whatever our praxis is, these “different parts” do always amalgamate in some way. You may learn something from a student, a quotation maybe, and you may use a lot of text in your artwork. It is not a one-way street. Everyone is influenced by other things. How do these things come together? We often don’t know. It is in this way that there is a connection between the studio and political practice. In my studio we create posters and banners for protest as well as my art. The difference between these two is articulated when they go out into the streets or the galleries.
I create a strategic discourse about those differences: what can I show on the street, and what can I show in the gallery? When you think about the political world you cannot consider it your own property. I cannot sell it. It is not a commodity. It has other people’s labor inherent within it. When I choose a quotation from a poet for a protest banner or poster I don’t ask for permission. But when I do it in a gallery space, I do. When I do posters for political propaganda, I don’t ask anyone. Because I’m not using it for a market purpose. But in a gallery, it is a sellable object regardless of political content. When it comes to the political struggle it is not a commodity object. It is almost a counter-mode of production. In the street it does not produce capital as such. But it produces cultural capital. In the gallery space that cultural capital supports us; and our duty is not to use it. But sometimes you may not realize how all these factors play and you may not be able to resist.
When I come to a gallery space, people often ask me to represent something, as a political artist or a propagandist. For example, I had a show in one gallery. They wanted me to give an artist’s talk. Because this particular work was about a certain political struggle I said “no, I can’t give the talk. If you allow me, I’ll call those activists: the people who struggle day-to-day for their land and survival. They can come and they can talk on their own behalf. I can’t talk on behalf of anyone. Even though I am part of those movements, I can’t stand here and talk on behalf of them.”
What I’m talking about here is the impossibility of representation. If someone is very much involved in any movement, it is that person’s engagement as well as situation which will decide whether he or she can represent that movement or not. If I start talking about a particular movement, for instance the Pricol workers movement, no one is going to kill me as I’m sitting here in Switzerland. I won’t be hit by the bullet. In Kalahandi (Odisha) and Thoothukudi (Tamil Nadu), there is a company called Vedanta that kills people. Even if I made posters or propaganda, circulating them online or giving them to organizers, the bullet will not come and hit me. Every day, it is the actual people of that land who confront the police and corporate goons. No other person is going to be present in that everyday confrontation. Even if we are working from outside, we have to understand this difference. The people need some banners and posters. Some postcards and leaflets. Some design for their magazine or newspaper. We create some of that. Sometimes I’m also on the barricades, but my day to day life is different. If someone is fighting for their land, they are going to lose or win the fight. I will not lose my land (though I don’t have any). We have to be specific about what we are going to lose. If I’m not going to lose my land, or my job, what am I going to lose? So, what am I fighting for? Am I fighting for any universal truth, human purpose, or, the ideal of Communism?
So, the people on ground are the real revolutionary vanguard. They alone have the right to talk on behalf of the ongoing struggle; because they confront, they die. We can only work as counter-apparatus, making those things that the people need for their struggles. Otherwise we should confront the bullet not the blank canvas. But if one can break the barrier between “we” and “they,” then other possibilities will appear.
Adam Turl: In your installation, Surfaces of the Irreal, at the New Museum Triennial in New York, you quoted Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, “…the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Can you talk about the different ways your work deals with these “morbid symptoms?”
Anupam Roy: Gramsci wrote this line to articulate his idea of passive revolution, if I am not wrong. It is from The Prison Notebooks. He’s trying to describe the core of passive revolution. I don’t believe that today’s situation is the same situation. We are not living in an age of passive revolution. What I understood from this line is the dynamic between one world dying and the new world in a state of not being born. In the Indian context, because that is where I live, if we look at Indian political history, if we look at the earlier political movements like Tebhaga, Telengana, Naxal Bari, or Bhojpur movements, which are part of the lineage of the Communist Party movements, or the naval mutiny, or the indigenous movements, and compare that to today’s movements, we will see that they are not happening in that same way. Earlier indigenous movements had a different kind of organizational base. Today it is different. But what we see in the movements today could be described as having these “morbid symptoms” that Gramsci wrote about. When people recognize the impossibility to resist, either as individuals or as collective, that’s when the morbid symptoms appear.
It almost sounds like a pathological, or a very demonic, turn. But how we use this term, “demonic” or even “draconian law” in the context of India or elsewhere, raises the question of ‘whom we perceive to be the devil’. Whom do we imagine as demonic? It is the working-class people, lower caste and indigenous people. What they look like, how they act. They’re ‘uncultured’ and ‘uncivilized’. The demon is someone who is not civilized or enlightened. If you look at the deities and gods in Indian myths, if you look at who they kill, you will see that they kill Asuras. In India, Asura is actually an indigenous community. In India, the tribal people worship the Asuras. They are part of the community. In Hindu mythology and culture, upper caste Hindu culture, which is also patriarchal, they portray this demon, Dracon, as the indigenous people, lower caste people. But here Asur community or any other indigenous community doesn’t even do the puja, which is more of a Hinduized practice, since they celebrate festivals. But upper caste Hindus celebrate killings, murders and massacres, and worships killers, murderers (of the indigenous people).
Even if you look at the history of political poster or political cartoon in India, you see how people use the demon’s metaphor or in other case the image of donkey. This prime minster or that politician is looked at as a donkey because “donkeys are dumb.” Or they use the image of a pig. If you look closely, however, the images of donkey or pig are associated with working class life. A donkey is a beast of burden. When people use these metaphors today, even if they have left-wing and working-class political goals, they use them in a problematic way. So, when I invoke the morbid or the draconian I’m addressing that question. But here, specifically, when I mention morbid symptoms it means, for me, the symptoms that are not digestible, not civil, not Brahmanical aesthetical symptoms. I don’t believe in reclaiming, reforming, rewriting or more re re re… these post-colonial/post-modernist/post-Marxist terms. I am not into this rhetoric. I believe, rather, in the annihilation of this system and the possibility of actual liberation.
If someone stands all day in a factory, and they don’t eat, and they die after a hunger strike, everyone will salute. Everyone will appreciate them. It sounds nonviolent. But recently in India, an art student was suspended and he went to the Vice Chancellor office and set it on fire. In 2013 in Jharkhand, an area that still has a huge indigenous population, when the land acquisition bill passed, the Adivasi people organized long-term struggle, agitation, and protest rallies. No one listened to them. But then the protesters literally shat on the bill. “When nothing works then real shit happens”.
There are other examples as well. The earlier mode of movements is not happening in the same way. Things were happening in a different way. Take for example the Brahmanical imposition on the Dalit community where the women were not supposed to cover their breasts. There is a story about a Dalit woman, Nangeli, who covered her breasts. When the tax collector came she cut off her breast and paid her taxes with it. Recently an artist and graphic designer made a narrative comic based on that story. Of course he presented that woman as very sexually appealing and traditionally beautiful, with voluptuous breasts, and so on. Through that graphic novel you get to know some of this history. But I believe that the woman, Nangeli, is not an individual woman. She represents an entire history of oppression when she cuts off her breast to pay the tax. It is not about a particular individual. Again, to go back to your first question, about the individual and the collective, it is not just one woman doing that act. It is collective consciousness enabling that act. That’s how the collective and individual merge. An individual act has taken place. Making collective political action into a separate and isolated action is always the capitalists’ goal. At the same time, we should not mix the collective and the national. As one friend said, “national issues always serve the ruling classes.”
Adam Turl: In your project, from a lost-referential land, you use what you call a “metafictional analogue” – an expressionistic diary of nomadic experience. You describe this as “conceiving of myself and my fellow beings as ‘bodies in with-ness,’ who [collectively witness] a reality unrepresentable and unrecountable.” This seems related to the idea in my work of “differentiated totality;” a representation of workers and the oppressed that isn’t reductive but at the same time remains faithful to the Marxist conception of totality and mass social change. You’ve also connected this aspect of your work to Georges Bataille’s concept of excess. Can you talk about this, as it relates to individual pieces, but also to the installation of these works together?
Anupam Roy: The problem with making narratives, as I indicated in my earlier response, is, that if you focus on anyone’s life, or any single event, it seems to contain one body talking. So, let’s say, you, Adam, are asking me a question, but it is not just you asking the question. The question comes, in part, from all the information you’ve gathered in your own life. If I don’t share my works with you, you can’t ask me about them. It always depends on others. It is not an individual person either asking the question or giving the response. It is an amalgamation. This amalgamation, different from accumulation, is a kind of excess.
Or, as with Georges Bataille’s ideas, which I take inspiration from, there is an excess of desires, excess of information, excess of data. But at the same time there is an excess of emotions, an excess of feelings and experiences. That surplus is not what we would understand by the idea of surplus value in its economic sense. It is not extra. It is not the surplus of production. And it is continuously producing. It cannot be extracted from your production. It is always within. That excess of emotion actually counters the economic surplus. So, in a way, when we talk about an individual, if we really understand that individual, in the act of resisting and subverting against oppression, it is not just what that individual is doing, there is also the collective consciousness. That collective consciousness helps someone to act.
So, historically, in literature, in art history, people are always using metaphors, using rhetoric. My point is that this rhetoric doesn’t work today. I’ll give you a beautiful example. In political cartoons you’ll see the big fish of capitalism eating the small fishes representing the working class and oppressed. The problem is that the predator fish eating the small fish is a very natural act, the way the whole ecosystem survives in terms of biodiversity. But if you use that to mean capitalism eating the working class in a similar way, this doesn’t work. If there is a tiger, or another predator, in the jungle eating deer or smaller animals, no one is being oppressed. If you remove the tiger, remove the predator, the jungle ecosystem will change and may collapse. There is a hierarchy, I know. There is a lead tiger who gets the most sought after parts of a cow. So that tiger remains powerful, gets more sex and all. But if you look at that metaphor, the big fish eating the small fish, or the predators hunting the deer, we are, nevertheless, outside of human history. There is a wasp species, according to the ecologists, that has its own “caste system.” If we accept that example, we will say that the caste system is natural in the world. We can’t take their example. When we use metaphors in that way to represent our own oppression, resistance, or subversion, they don’t fit in. Rather it will help the dominant caste and class in every society to propagate their ideology more easily.
So, what we have to do is to search for the real image. What concerns me is that real image. So, for example, I’ve used, as you see, the Venus of Willendorf in my work. For me, that image is a historical image, holding in a way the history of women’s bodies. So, in my work, the Venus of Willendorf has a broken breast not to represent Nangeli (an Ezhava-lower caste woman). Rather, I try to capture the presence of her historical act. To understand the historical relevance of Nangeli or her particular subversive act, we have to understand that her individual assertion comes from the historical and collective consciousness. I don’t believe in metaphor, and thereby, I try to enter into something more real. In that painting someone is also cutting off their own head and instead of blood, rats are coming out. I don’t want to represent, in a ruling-class idiom, the caste that “eats rats” – the ‘Musahar’. When you cut any part of a human the blood comes. Because this caste of people is often not considered human; they don’t have blood. We are not going to use the same metaphors, the same kind of reality, which are used by the upper caste and the ruling class. We have to identify the real image – if we really are with the people, on the people’s side, then we can visualize and realize our image, and we don’t have to bother about the superficial Brahmin-upper caste metaphors. Counter image, untimely image, true image can only come from the real people. And to realize that image, we have to engage with the peoples question not as another artistic project but as a real ground of with-ness, that is, by gradually being another person of that larger collective, who fights for real liberation. And I believe this can’t be human-centric as we used to believe in and practice for. First, I think we have to liberate ourselves from the existing hegemonic perspectives that historically dominate us. In India we similarly have the need to liberate from the existing Brahmin perspective/upper caste mindset.
It is almost impossible to find that real image; in which that excess is produced. It is not one singular image; it is the excess of images which address the impossibility of representing the subject; what you describe as differentiated totality. It is not that we are against totality. We are not against universalism. If we want to talk about universalism we need to see that it is also about particularity. As one of my friends said “When I stand on the top of Niyamgiri mountain [an indigenous land movement site in Odisha, India] I can see the whole world; but from the whole world I cannot see the mountain.” Similarly, we can’t be pulled into any sort of national politics. National politics, national issues, are always ruling class issues. Particular experiences or struggles we should not simply identify as isolated. Sometimes even specific caste struggles are unable to connect with the larger collective (Bahujan) movement, and that is similarly problematic. Or, on the other hand, when the gender question comes we can’t simply look at that with other tools and relations like class/caste maters. Even the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government talks about class. Even Trump talks about class. But what class, and how do you identify that class? If we talk about the masses, the people, that same mass killed Hafiz Junaid while returning home from Eid shopping. It isn’t as if the BJP said “hey, kill this guy.” It was the mass that killed him. The mass is not neutral. Class is not neutral. So, in order to talk about totality, we have to understand our own particularity. As Dr B R Ambedkar said in “Annihilation of Caste,” that ‘It is a pity that Caste even today has its defenders. The defenses are many. It is defended on the ground that the Caste System is but another name for division of labour and if division of labour is a necessary feature of every civilised society, then it is argued that there is nothing wrong in the Caste System. Now the first thing is to be urged against this view is that Caste System is not merely division of labour. It is also a division of labourers. Civilised society undoubtedly needs division of labour. But in no civilised society is division of labour accompanied by this unnatural division of labourers into watertight compartments. Caste System is not merely a division of labourers which is quite different from division of labour—it is a hierarchy in which the divisions of labourers are graded one above the other. In no other country is the division of labour accompanied by this gradation of labourers.”
Adam Turl: There seem to be similar concerns in your project, Present Continuous, in which you create multiples of drawn figures superimposed on themselves. There is a sort of ur-alterity in these images that reminds me of what Asad Haider describes as an “insurgent universality.” This also gets at the question of representing the unrepresentable; perhaps because we don’t yet know exactly what an insurgent universality will look like?
Anupam Roy: In most of my work I use a kind of dynamism, movement, multiplicity. If there are eyes there are four or five eyes. Or sometimes two or three images, one by one, or layered. The point is there is no form that can contain us. There is no solid container that can actually hold us. If you look at my way of expression, which is more expressionist, there are two reasons why I follow this kind of stylization. First, because we make posters and graffiti for the movement and things like that, we have to do it quickly. The expressionist mode allows me to do those things fast. Also, if you look at the early Russian posters, the form is very solid and concrete that presents a sort of absolute body. A guy like this [Anupam mimes an “heroic worker pose” from a Soviet-era propaganda poster]. Today, things are different, because of the nature of oppression and so on. Marx talks about alienation. We are in the very last days of alienation. We are self-alienated. We are alienated form our own selves/being. Of course, we are alienated from production. We are alienated from society. It has become so fragmented. The body itself has become fragmented. There are changes everywhere, compared to history, our linkages to the past, in terms of reading, and sharing like we’re doing here, in terms of class and gender.
For example, I’m from an upper caste family. I am from the oppressor caste and the oppressor gender. The point is not to engender a fight between men and women, or the fight between the Brahmin and the Untouchables, it is a fight against the Brahminism that creates the Untouchables. The oppressed don’t choose their caste and gender. I didn’t choose my caste and gender either. So, it is not my fault being in a certain caste or gender. But it is my choice which caste and gender that I serve. So, Frederick Engels may have been born to an upper class family but his whole life he served the interest of the lower classes. But this is the impossibility. If someone loses their job, Engels will not lose his job. Engels may serve the working class continuously, and with full dedication, but he will not lose his given class. So, whatever I do I will not lose my caste position, my caste privileges, which I got before my consciousness came. I understand today that my caste is an oppressive caste. Before, whatever privileges I got, education or social mobility, whatever I got from my childhood, I cannot pull it out of my body. It is already there. What I can do is continually question that; continually work against it.
This means criticizing the social and the self at the same time. It is a continuous process. I’ve heard from a lot of my communist friends that they’ve joined the party so they think that they are de-classed, de-casted, de-gendered. But when they get in front of a vagina, they practice gendered masculinity. They practice caste in their own family. They practice gender when it comes to their own social relations. When they come to academia they get good salary. We all experience this. So, if you’re going to fight, you have to be with the oppressed class, the oppressed section. It is a continuous process in which I am being with them. It isn’t “join the party and then you are with them.” If that was the case, the communist parties all over the world would be the largest parties because the most number of people are in the working class. When capitalism arises, the working class becomes more and more. If the working class, the oppressed section, becomes more and more, the communist party should become more powerful – if it were to have that kind of equivalency. But what we actually can see lot of different oppressed identity-based organizations appear.
Why is this not happening? It is not just because of the failure of the communist parties alone. They lose their position because they are unable to understand their own society properly – like in India we are unable to understand the caste question, which is also the failure of working-class people. Communists too often romanticize the working class. It is a necessary part of the working-class struggle to criticize the working class itself. Every day, you or I will say, “I am a cog in the machine, what can I do? There is nothing to be done. I’m trapped in this system.” We always say this. But as long as we accept this logic, no resolution will come. First, we have to say, “Okay, we are cogs in the machine but we are broken cogs in the machine.”
Adam Turl: In Transgressed Forms of Tools, you deal with stratification and caste within the working-class itself, creating an “archive” of transgressed tools. The question of development is dealt with straight on in a 2013 painting that presents the entirely of “development” as a grotesque machine. Before neoliberalism the question of development was often championed by the left; but what used to the project of non-aligned and “communist” governments, has become a neoliberal project, in which the character of development is often articulated by international capital. In this way Transgressed Forms of Tools operates in a specific local way (in Delhi construction sites) dealing with caste and class, but with global economics and politics as well.
Anupam Roy: From 2010 to 2011 I did a series of works related to the Commonwealth Games around which a lot of “development” happened. The whole city of Delhi was changed. I visited a lot of places and saw how, in the name of development, they evicted people. This was the beginning of my close political engagement. In 2012, I went to Bengal to work full-time for my party and a few other people’s movements. I was closely confronted with evictions in “slums.” In the 2010s, the new Trinamool Congress Party government came into power after several decades of Communist Party of India Marxist (CPIM) rule. The CPIM still has some power in the Kerala government in the Southern India. When I was doing my undergraduate degree, I saw a lot of conflict around development under the communist government before they were voted out of power. In a village called Singur, the Tata Group, a conglomerate based in Mumbai, wanted to create a car manufacturing company called Nano. In the name of that development the government became increasingly neoliberal. I experienced first-hand how this left government adapted to this logic. It is the “good bourgeois versus bad bourgeois” trope. Now, we are told, there is “good right wing” and “bad right wing.” Congress is “good right wing.” BJP is “bad right wing.”
The point is, again and again, whichever side you choose, and whoever wins, it is you who lose – this argument is derived from the classical questions of Marxism. But in the Indian context, as Dr. Ambedkar said, it is not a division of labor, it is a division of laborers. In India, the caste question is so deeply rooted in the long history. So today, it is not just that the British came and colonized us. As the revolutionary communist Bhagat Singh said, ‘the white English will go but the Black and brown English will stay’. The white people will go but the brown colonizer will stay and continue this oppression. In India there is a ruling class and there is a governing class. The mainstream “progressive” organizations see the workers as their tools. That’s why the situation in India for the communist movement is so horrible. No working-class person actually believes in any communist governments. The worker loses his political mass power. The historical, undivided communist party of India itself had practiced caste in their party offices. For example, there were two water fountains: one for the upper caste people and another for the lower caste people.
The Harrison Malayalam Ltd. in Kerala took land from landless workers to make their factory. When the landless laborers and the indigenous people started struggling against that factory the CPI and CPIM (CPI - the undivided communist party that broke into the CPIM and CPIML and many others) stood for the factory. They said, “If this factory goes, where will the workers go? They will lose their jobs.” So, what is your main oppressed class? It is the landless workers. They will not have any means of production. The land on which that factory was born was taken from someone else. This produces a lot of hypocrisy and mistrust.
Let’s come to the particular work: in Delhi, the government concealed construction sites with flux boards and plates. You cannot see the small tools. You only see the big, giant tools; the construction equipment, the large machines. I asked myself, how can I archive the small tools? But when you archive these tools, they cease to be tools. They become craft. Tools are tools because a human being uses them. When you put it in a box, when it is museumized, it is no longer a tool, it is a craft object. I tried to deal with that impossibility -- the impossibility of representation. At the same time, I’m trying to deal with how, even in this progressive circle of academia and so on, they museumize these things. It is impossible to represent these things in a museum. There is something you can’t grapple with. You’re always trying to grab it and make it a solid thing. But it is not solid.
It sounds very abstract but the militant possibility of art is here: in understanding the incompleteness of things. If you make something complete it loses all of its possibilities. If you make it fixed, you categorize things. I’ll even say that Marx was wrong when he says the lumpen proletariat is a retrograde class. The lumpen proletariat is actually a kind of waste of the working class. If you think about the juice of a mango or an orange, if you suck the juice out of the fruit, whatever remains, in this metaphor, is the lumpen proletariat. They don’t have anything.
For instance, take prostitution. They have nothing to sell but their body. Is that not simply labor? Why, then, isn’t the prostitute working class? Why would you say they are the retrograde class? People will say you can’t organize the lumpen proletariat, but when the CPIML was formed, a lot of lumpen people were organized. They became revolutionaries. I understand, in one sense, that they have no class interests and can therefore “go anywhere” politically. Upper class people can use them as tools. But today, we also see working class people being used as tools. Nothing is solid. We should not romanticize any class. No class is necessarily a given revolutionary class.
What are the elements of this class? What are the components of a medicine? Saying a class is a revolutionary class means they have certain components. That is not possible. How can you understand the components needed for a revolution? Revolution is not happening today. We’re not going to recreate what happened in Russia – ten days of shaking the world. I don’t think things will happen in that old way. So, let us look at the lumpen proletariat and what precariousness means today. Precarity is very important if we’re going to understand politics today. Think about migration and immigration. When I came to Switzerland people said, “There is no contradiction here, everything is beautiful.” But this is itself a violent fiction. Switzerland is actually more violent than my country. Here I can understand the actual meaning of silence.
Adam Turl: In some ways Switzerland operates like Saudi Arabia in terms of migrant guest workers. A good deal of actual labor is done by migrant workers who have fewer rights than Swiss citizens. To paraphrase Lenin, it’s the most bourgeois country on Earth. There are workers there but many of them are Italian, Serbian, North African. I met a Swiss union organizer. His grandfather had come to Switzerland as an Italian worker and it took three generations for them to get citizenship.
Anupam Roy: How can they say there is no contradiction? Think about Swiss banks. Think of the Swiss companies that are actually doing the mining in India. How this is made silent, how this is made illusionary, is even more violent. In India if you do something, someone might come and beat you, the police might come and beat you. But here everything is “sorted out.” You push the button and you cross the road. It seems like everything is systematic, and this is what a country should look like. But there is too much policing and surveillance. For example, my local guardian told me that I cannot smoke in my room. I’m here alone, no one can see me, but still I won’t smoke. Back home in India, my father told me not to smoke in the house but I did smoke anyway. That’s how psychological it is. I’m a revolutionary. I’ll break all these barriers, but when I come to such a country, I become part of it, I practice what they want me to.
Adam Turl Part of what I love about your work is that each project seems to contain multiple contradictions. I believe that, in many ways, all art is an argument for what art should be. What do you think art should be as we move forward, as socialist and communist artists, toward the middle of this century? And, relatedly, but in many ways more important, what do you see as the main tasks for the revolutionary left and social struggles, in India and beyond?
Anupam Roy: I’m still searching for new possibilities and all. Whenever I talk to my generation of artists, my colleagues, my friends, my comrades, I argue that, even if you are a party member, even if you’re an activist, an academic or whatever, you cannot go into the system and change the system. Don’t enter into that kind of illusion; that if you go to academia you will change academia; that if you enter bureaucracy, you’ll change bureaucracy; that if you go into the system, you’ll change the system.
You and I try to change the strategy of displaying our artwork. We conflate where the collective and the individual (sellable) work begins and ends. We do certain things. At the end, of course, all products are sellable. If it is the gallery, if you have entered the gallery system, all your work is sellable work.
And if you do not sell how can you eat? As a laborer what kind of privilege is that? Maybe you come from a landowner family. But if you come from a landless laborer family how would you survive then, without selling your work or without doing any other job? Every day, ten hours, twelve hours, fourteen hours, we work on our painting. If it is not for sale how can we eat? Someone may say, “I’m not selling a painting, I’ll do another job.” They will do work, as you do, as a teacher. Is that not exploitative? Is that not part of the ideological apparatus? All of it is part of the apparatus, the cultural apparatus, for the state, for capitalism. Every work of art is propaganda and every artist is a propagandist. Everyone propagates their own idea. If they say they aren’t a propagandist, it means that they are part of the powerful. If they say, “I’m not part of the right or the left, I’m not part of the capitalists or the working class”, it means they’re part of the capitalists. You have to choose your side.
Moreover, everyone, even if they are a party full-timer, he or she or they should also create a parallel practice. If we are all practicing in a different way, I, for example, will be more interested to ask you, “Adam, what are you doing?” You’d say, “I’m practicing this way, I’m thinking about this.” Even though you’re a communist, and I am also a communist, we are sharing different things, because we observe and experience things differently. We understand things in a different way so we should do things in a different way. The point is to create a parallel practice to contribute into materialistic change.
Capitalism understands, more than the Marxists, how to destroy systems very well. Look at how fragmented the mode of production has become. You can’t even imagine a trade union movement. In India the most important trade union movements in its recent history have been the Maruti workers movement, Pricol workers movement, and Sterlite workers movement; three major movements happening in factories where the local workers have been working/active. This is important. They have their own home. They belong to that land. This helps them fight against the factory owners. If you look at other factories, many of the world wide factories, the workers are often migrants. They moved to the factories. It’s harder to unite those workers. If they lose their work at the factory, they also lose their land. The BJP government purposed a merger of 44 major labor laws into four that will exempt 80-90% of factories from certain labor laws. This bill is already in progress. These factory owners will not talk to any trade union other than the largest trade union, which is a Hindu right-wing outfit (BMS). So, no change will happen. Or, on the other, even if a landless labourer manages to capture the land, there are those who have other related means like owning the tractors, or controlling the water supply, mostly controlled and owned by upper caste. Then how can these people do the farming? Now the point is so what then? I don’t have any proper answer to this but I believe if we can identify the limit of this reality then we may able to find other ways to change the material conditions.
That’s why I think, even if you’re a party full-timer, party cadre, a comrade rooted in a movement, you should also create a parallel practice. Otherwise, after a while, you won’t survive. If you look at the history of radical cultural movements, the main people often commit suicide. In India you see John Abraham from Odessa collective, K P Krishnakumar from the Radical Painters and Sculptors Association and so on. A lot of people committed suicide. What happens after a period of time is that the radical artists come to feel that they’re failures. We don’t have to repeat such failures again and again.
And, because you’re asking for the possibility, you may think that as artists we partake in some political struggle. But we have to think about a certain collective way of doing our work. A kind of “political art” is already “appreciated” in the art market. For example, such and such artist works on the land question, the tribal question, the Dalit question, so on and so forth. For example, feminists, in one sense, are celebrated in the art market. Black artists are “celebrated.” But often this is selling identity to a white audience. There is a very beautiful quotation from a Back artist that I shared with you before: “When the Black artists displays their work in the white cube in front of the white audience it is a protest, but when a white audience and owner understands that protest, and still provides that space, it is appropriation.” This kind of appropriation has been going on for the last twenty or thirty years. If someone comes from a vulnerable class, caste, gender, race, they may not understand that appropriation is happening or even if they understand after a point, any choice is not left for him or her. Make them appropriate us – but create a parallel practice elsewhere. At some point it will merge but we need to make a strong parallel practice today.
Adam Turl: What are you working on right now?
Anupam Roy: In my earlier works as a propagandist, I worked on a number of different questions: the caste question, the gender question, and so on. Whatever comes, as every day things happen, I had to create things. But over the past two years, after a lot of reading and political engagement, I’ve come to think that, not only in India but worldwide, the question of land is important today. Most of the parties, and even the mainstream communist parties, are not dealing with the question of land properly. The question of land is not just the question of landless laborers, farmers and workers.
My last exhibition was called De-Notified Land. This term is specific to Indian law; the question of notified and de-notified land. Whenever they need land to be “notified” it means this land is secured; meaning you can’t do any construction or anything like that. Let’s say they find some minerals, like bauxite, they can then de-notify the land. When the British came to India, they captured a lot of areas but not all the indigenous land. They made a law (Criminal Tribes Act of 1871) that turned two hundred tribes into criminal tribes; de-notified tribes. In 1959 that law was repealed, twelve years after independence. India was freed from British rule in 1947 but that freedom wasn’t extended to indigenous people until 1959, if I am not wrong. And still after that they are known as the Denotified Tribes, who were reclassified as "habitual offenders". This is why I called the exhibition De-Notified Land.
Related to the question of excess, I want to talk about how this land is related to the question of caste, gender, honor killing, and how the government is strategically (and sinisterly) using environmental concerns to take people’s land. There has been a large range of land acquisition strategies that have begun. I’ve been trying to go more deeply into the core issues and the question of organization. In between, I got this residency in Switzerland, and I may do something similar in London as well. Here too, I will try my best to find other ways to continue and elaborate my parallel practice, otherwise it will again be the same category that we are continuously fighting against.
Initial transcription by Adam Turl and Tish Markley, then edited by Anupam Roy and Adam Turl.
Anupam Roy is a propagandist in India, involved in different people struggles concerning race, caste, class and gender, and a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation. His work, Surfaces of the Irreal, was part of the 2018 New Museum Triennial, “Songs for Sabotage” in New York. He is currently in residency in Switzerland.
Adam Turl is an artist and writer from southern Illinois (by way of upstate New York, Wisconsin, Chicago and St. Louis) living in Las Vegas, Nevada. He is the art and design editor at Red Wedge and an adjunct instructor at the University of Nevada - Las Vegas. His website, which he shares with the writer Tish Markley, is evictedart.com.