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The possibilities and the future | Art & Culture

“A spectre is haunting Europe,” warns the first line of The Communist Manifesto from1848. It still haunts the world, even after the dissolution of communist governments across the globe.

“A text that certainly has exercised a major influence on the history of two centuries,” says Umberto Eco, “must be reread from the point of view of its literary quality.”

There are other, less known, yet important manifestos, in literature as well as art.

Eart: A Manifesto of Possibilities at Manchester International Festival (July1 to 18, 2021) is distinct from other manifestos for two reasons:(a) it does not refer to art in its usual and narrow sense; (b) in a paradoxical tone it does not offer a single formula, but presents possibilities and options. Conceived and created by Rashid Rana (with various collaborators and contributors), this project/ presentation is a culminating moment in Rana’s work, and a turning point in viewing our world.

For two decades, the creative practices of Rashid Rana, “widely considered to be a leading artist of his generation”, expanded to digital based mediums; a choice that liberated him from location, tradition and identity. It also reduced the gap between manual fabrication and mechanical production. His digital prints, produced through a process not dissimilar to industrial manufacturing, were conceived at one place, printed at another venue, exhibited at a different site and collected at some other location. All distant marks on a world map.

His current work leads in different directions. The presentation contains chronologies of close sounding terms: art, ART, EART and eart. EART is a concept coined by Rana. Its etymological roots “lie in an archaic version of the word ‘art’ denoting a particular indicative of the word ‘be’”. It is “a term to identify intentional acts of (self)expression outside (or perhaps inclusive of, but not limited to,) art and ART”.

The work exists in the realm of ideas and possibilities. Rashid Rana taking a ‘final’ leave from the much-chewed debates of local and international, man and machine, past and present, micro and macro and moves to an arena where everything is attainable. He presents three projects, in/ through which an individual, a people’s, a community’s self-expression is materialised.

Art, traditionally is believed to be a mode of self-expression. Not denying this definition, but also not being confined to it, Eart includes art and Art (“practices in the past that were not called art at their time but are now identified as such”). Rana does not subscribe to the notion of public art and has often called it a problematic idea. He appears to be questioning the publicness of what is mostly claimed to be ‘public art’. Through EART, he proposes the absence of the idea of audience as we know it in the context of Art. He proposes the concept of a ‘default audience’ – those who “willingly come into contact with an Eart concept by virtue of engaging with its function”.

Among three proposals, Rana’s Glocal Minus was physically installed for almost a month at 10 Hanover Street, Manchester – a grocery store, the first of its kind in many ways. Rashid Rana, in this project, abandoned the typical constructs of aesthetics – which inherently serve the interests of ‘unavoidable’ (actually avoidable) parties.

In the worldwide grocery stores proposed by him, items available for sale won’t have a label, brand, or tag, but code numbers. Information useful in recognising an item – milk, butter, juice, soap, tea, etc – will be part of the code. Rana hopes thus to eliminate the role, presence and share of profits now appropriated to advertisement. As a shopper, if you need milk, you drink milk – not a particular brand. Demarcations that allure a consumer appear to add to the value of the product, but in reality, mean nothing. In Mario Vargas Llosa’s words, these “which Marx called ‘fetishes’ – money, advertising, and the like – have been transformed from instruments at the service of man into instruments that enslave man.”

In the ocean of multinational businesses, various – often competing – brands of a product – say tea bags, belong to one joint/ giant organisation, for example Unilever, or Johnson and Johnson. So the choice, decision, argument for preferring one brand to another, is pointless, as both have the same function, are the same stuff and serve the same master.

Rashid Rana imagines a different version. A grocery store where stuff from the producers/ suppliers is received and displayed in standard packaging/ container/ depiction hence cutting down the cost of ‘identity’ of an item like cooking oil, shampoo, biscuit, jam, ketchup etc. The sign in front of Manchester’s Glocal Minus store says, “Minus the advertising we bring you quality for less.” This is a form of accepting essential expressions, exchanges, investments that do not deny art, advertisement, market but unfold a vision where everything one produces – an object, an image, information – is as important as life and as eternal as art.

Eart addresses physical making as well as virtual marketing. Rashid Rana’s two other projects map a desirable, possible world where one can live without any interference, invasion and influence by outsiders.

When we visit a shopping mall, we levitate from the ethnical, religious, cultural grounds. Likewise, when we open a social media app we enter a world that is beyond borders, creeds, ethnicities, classes and castes. But the freedome does not come without a cost. The social media platforms have an evident or inherent commercial component. The companies decipher, analyse and react to posts, comments and searches. They (and more powerful official organisations) watch, tab and guide (read instruct) a user to more products of interest, relevance. This network of global connections cannot exist without the backbone of a capitalist structure.

This, at some point make you realise that you are not as free as you might presume. Rana’s 1001 Minds Glocal, introduces a social media platform, without the watchful eyes of a ruthless regime or a greedy group of corporate businesses.

The independence is further explored in Exit Glocal. Here he proposes a future locality, constructed on the DIY model. The structure of buildings is devoid of any cultural, regional, class-connected features. The same housing scheme could exist in Mali, Maldives, Mexico, Marseilles (or Manchester) along with certain local needs and functions; like areas dedicated to community use (mosque, church, synagogue, temple, graveyards, markets, schools, hospitals, restaurants, gyms, cinemas etc.).

In all these possibilities from his manifesto, Rashid Rana reflects upon the system of present economy, where a customer picking a pickle jar is connected to the CEO of the company. He suggests an alternative scenario, without the outside exploiters. In a sense his manifesto reminds one of Coomarsawamy’s Swadeshi (self-sufficiency), a grassroots nationalist movement.” It suggests an interaction of ideas, expressions and goods in the realm of Glocal, a world/ word made of global and local.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

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