The Arts

Interview: The Art of Listening to Conversations

Painter Baaraan Ijlal's sound project 'Change Room' is a constellation of audio recordings of anonymous voices.

Contemporary culture doesn’t court anonymity. Instead, there is constant pressure to produce imagery – images of ourselves, of others, of our moments of agony and joy. Against such a background crowded with faces and names, where identity is paramount, the painter Baaraan Ijlal has put together a sound installation project, ‘Change Room’, grounded in anonymity. She has recorded narratives of women and men, their conversations about fear, apprehension, loneliness – everyday realities. ‘Change Room’ is a constellation of audio recordings of anonymous voices.

Ijlal is a Delhi-based visual artist. She works with paint, video, sound and installation. She is self-taught, draws inspiration from history, peoples’ movements and poetry. Evolution, hybridity, migration and automation are her themes.

It may be difficult to imagine a room without visuals at an exhibition site. A room covered with fog when you enter, where a pre-recorded discussion is playing. The disembodied voices narrate their experiences of abuse, violence or simply the fears they have to live with. The viewers entering can also anonymously narrate their own experiences, which become part of the exhibition’s audio ambience. The anonymity of the space allows the artist and the viewer to engage in a candid dialogue.

This April, Ahmedabad’s Conflictorium, a museum of conflict, which presents itself as a medium that helps build bridges creatively, hosted ‘Change Room’. Currently underway in Delhi, the project has a steady stream of people joining the conversation.

In her interview with The Wire, Ijlal talks about the impetus behind the project, what drove her to the idea of ‘Change Room’ and her experience of listening to the conversations that are often cathartic and liberating.

What made you think of this unique project? How did you conceptualise it?

‘Change Room’ is a sound installation of anonymous voices. What drew me to using faceless sound as a medium to convey is the paranoia that I sense around me, a constant state of mistrust and fear of the other, a pent up feeling often manifested in verbal and physical violence. There is, on the other hand, an increasing tendency of people to go quiet and censor their thoughts in the face of intimidation and lack of redressal. Women have to do it all their lives. The possibility of speaking is not there because we don’t want to hear what will be said.

In scenarios such as these anonymity comes as one of the most functional, if not the ideal, mode of expression. Hence, ‘Change Room’ was conceptualised as a room, a house or any enclosed space filled with fog and recorded anonymous voices, with fog as a premise for change from a definitive single identity, to fluidity of not requiring to define ourselves in limited terms of caste, class, occupation, religion, gender, race or nationalities. ‘Change Room’ for me is like a blank sheet that doesn’t require the details of identities (qualifiable to the mainstream) to be filled in.

Tell me about the process of ‘Change Room’. Two months ago, Ahmedabad’s Conflictorium hosted the show. Recordings are currently underway in Delhi.

Art comes with the capacity to engage and start dialogues. The idea of anonymous voices was full of possibilities, and Conflictorium Museum lent itself as a space of possibilities. I strongly believe that we need spaces that engage with communities and conflicts openly through art.  I found all that and more at Conflictorium. I started my two-week artists residency with Conflictorium Museum in early April and launched ‘Change Room’ at the end of my residency. It is an ongoing project and I continue to record with people who wish to speak.

Could you tell me about the spatial arrangement of these sessions. Do you sit across the speakers?

Yes. The recordings are done in a room sometimes with just chairs, a mike and a recorder. My role is that of a listener. A witness. I give them all my attention and all the time they need to talk. I listen without interrupting. I ask questions only when needed. I do not give any analysis. I sometimes share my own experience of a situation.

The person is relieved to know that I’m a participant too. That we are a community. I’m a listener and a speaker. But mostly I’m a listener and am thereby a witness. I don’t know if I offer any solution, I only offer my time and my eyes. I listen. I tell the person that whenever they need a break or want to stop talking, the person can do so. There are no rules here. The person asks, no rules? Are you sure? We begin.

You listen to narratives of violence experienced by women. Just to clarify, is it just voices of women or of men as well?

The voices cut across gender, caste, religion and nationality divides. What I’ve experienced so far is that there are sometimes more commonalities than differences in people. They share the same human emotions…of wanting to be loved, fear of being lonely, the feeling of hurt and loss.

Could you specify the kinds of narratives you have had?

The narratives are varied. From unresolved childhood memories, abuse, fear of the other, violence, including gender and identity based violence to sharing secrets of unfulfilled relationships. A lot of women have responded to the call and have spoken about abuse. About how they are not heard enough. About the fear of them being the first casualty in any situation of conflict: be it in a situation of a riot or a street fight gone violent. About the ways in which they are “shown their place” every now and then. About desire. The queer community speaks about the judgement and violence they face almost on a daily basis. Sometimes from family and almost always on the streets. Instances of abuse and deep seated hurt and neglect often come in narratives.

Sometimes people have just come to talk about how lonely they feel.

What does the experience mean for the speakers of these narratives?

Sometimes all we need is a listener. People talk to plants, if we are lucky we find listeners in friends and family. But a lot of times our voices go unheard and go quiet. It’s never easy to share something so intimate with a stranger. Even if it’s an anonymous space. But I feel this very anonymity and the desperate need to be heard gives people the courage to speak. There’s this feeling of exhaling sometimes.  The responses are reassuring and make me want to continue I would think.

What does it mean for you?

I seek community with these voices. It reinforces faith in the other. I listen because i want to be heard. In this listening I feel we are equals.

You are an artist who has been engaged in producing a different art form. What does the sound installation mean for you? How was the experience for you?

I’m drawn to stories that are not told. Either because they are considered marginal hence not important enough or they are too inconvenient to acknowledge. In my work I try to experiment with forms that best take these narratives forward. It’s my space of protest. It’s sometimes through painting, archiving, through collective embroidery and now through sound.

The installation is exhibited also in a way that it’s more experiential for the audience. Also this installation stresses more on the sound and listening than seeing. I had used fog to create a screen and to give a sense of being a voice amid voices. You enter a room with a murmur of voices talking simultaneously but you can hear what they are saying when you go closer.  It’s also a take on the over abundance of visuality which has also made us numb and we just browse to the next image without a problem. Here it is easier to feel the emotion.

Announcement about the future recordings will be made available on the Conflictorium Museums website. Participants can write to [email protected] to register.