by Maesy Angelina, Beyond the Digital series
Blank Noise, as many other digital native collectives, may seem to be complete horizontal at first glance. But, a closer look reveals the many different possibilities for involvement and a unique way the collective organize itself. One day, during an afternoon stroll to the M.C. Escher museum in The Hague, I stumbled upon a painting called ‘Fish and Scales’. On the first glance, I saw two big black-and-white fishes and some smaller ones, but on a closer look I found hundreds of fishes, heading to different directions and merging seamlessly into the bigger fishes as their scales. Upon this discovery, I exclaimed out loud, “This is just like Blank Noise!”
No, I do not mean to imply in any way that the Blank Noise Project is like a fish, although it is definitely as fascinating as the painting. Rather, I found that this painting from the master of optical illusion is a great analogy to the structures of Blank Noise.
In the words of Kunal Ashok, one of the male volunteers, the collective consists not only of “people who volunteer or come to meetings, but anyone that have contributed in any way they can and identified with the issue.” In this sense, Blank Noise today consists of over 2,000 people who signed up to their e-group as volunteers.
How does a collective with that many people work? Firstly, although these people are called ‘volunteers’ for registering in the e-group, I would argue that a majority of them are actually what I call casual participants – those who comment on Blank Noise interventions, re-Tweet their call for action, promote Blank Noise to their friends through word of mouth, or simply lurk and follow their activities online. In the offline sense, they are the passers-by who participate in their street interventions or become intrigued to think about the issue afterwards. These people, including those who do the same activities without formally signing up as volunteers, are acknowledged to be a part of Blank Noise as much as those who really do volunteer.
Blank Noise is open to all who shares its concern and values, but its volunteers must go beyond articulating an opinion and commit to collective action. However, Blank Noise applies very little requirement for people to identify themselves with the collective. The main bond that unites them is their shared concern with street sexual harassment. Blank Noise’s analysis of the issue is sharp, but it also accommodates diverse perspectives by exploring the fine lines of street sexual harassment and not prescribing any concrete solution, while the latter is rarely found in existing social movements. The absence of indoctrination or concrete agenda reiterated through the public dialogue approach gives room for people to share different opinions and still respect others in the collective.
Other than these requirements, they are able to decide exactly how and when they want to be involved. They can join existing activities or initiate new ones; they can continuously participate or have on-and-off periods. This is reflected in the variety of volunteers’ motivations, activities, and the meaning they give to their involvement. For some people, helping Blank Noise’s street interventions is exciting because they like street art and engaging with other young people. Many are involved in online campaigns because they are not physically based in any of the cities where Blank Noise is present. Some others prefer to do one-off volunteering by proposing a project to a coordinator and then implementing it. There are people who started volunteering by initiating Blank Noise chapters in other cities and the gradually have a more prominent role. Some stay for the long term, some are active only for several times before going back to become supporters that spread Blank Noise through words of mouth. The ability to personalize volunteerism is also what makes Blank Noise appealing, compared to the stricter templates for volunteering in other social movements.
Any kind of movement requires a committed group of individuals among the many members to manage it. The same applies to Blank Noise, who relies on a group of people who dedicate time and resources to facilitate volunteers and think of the collective’s future: the Core Team. Members of the Core Team, about ten people, are credited in Blank Noise’s Frequently Asked Question page and are part of a separate e-group than the volunteers. In its seven years, the Core Team only went for a retreat once and mostly connected through the e-group. In this space, they raise questions, ideas, and debates around Blank Noise’s interventions, posters, and blog posts. Consequently, for them the issue is not only street sexual harassment but also related to masculinities, citizenship, class, stereotyping, gender, and public space. However, there are also layers in the intensity of the Team members’ engagement.
The most intense is Jasmeen, the founder and the only one who has been with Blank Noise since its inception until today. Jasmeen is an artist and considers Blank Noise to be a part of her practice; she has received funds to work for Blank Noise as an artist. Thus, she is the only one who dedicates herself to Blank Noise full time and becomes the most visible among the volunteers and the public eye. According to Jasmeen, she is not alone in managing the whole process within Blank Noise. Since Hemangini Gupta came on board in 2006, she has slowly become the other main facilitator. “It is a fact that every discussion goes through her. I may be the face of it, but I see Hemangini and me working together. We rely on each other for Blank Noise work,”Jasmeen said.
Hemangini, a former journalist who is now pursuing a PhD in the U.S., explains her lack of visibility. “Blank Noise could never be my number one priority because it doesn’t pay my bills, so I can only do it when I have free time and my other work is done.” The same is true for others in the Core Team: students, journalists, writers, artists. Unlike Hemangini who still managed to be intensively involved, they have dormant and active periods like the volunteers.
The Core Team’s functions as coordinators that facilitate the volunteers’ involvement in Blank Noise and ensure that the interventions stay with the values Blank Noise upholds: confronting the issue but not aggravating the people, creating public dialogue instead of one-way preaching. This role emerged in 2006 when the volunteer applications mounted as the result of the aforementioned blogathon. They have also initiated or made Blank Noise chapters in other cities grew. Although some of them have also moved to another city due to work, they remain active touch through online means. Together, the Core Team forms the de-facto leadership in Blank Noise.
I am tempted to describe Blank Noise as having a de-facto hierarchy in its internal organization. The form would be a pyramid, with Jasmeen on top, followed by the coordinators, long-term project-based volunteers, one-off-project-initiator volunteers, and then the casual participants. After all, it was clear from my conversations with the many types of volunteers within Blank Noise that they acknowledge that some people are involved more intensely and carry more responsibilities than others in the collective, that there is an implicit leadership roles. This is also shown by the reluctance of many volunteers to call themselves as an ‘activist’, claiming that the title is only suitable for people within those leadership roles and preferring to call themselves ‘supporters’, ‘part of the group’, or ‘volunteers’ instead.
However, doing this will be a mistake in interpreting the internal dynamics within Blank Noise. Firstly, the line between the types of participation is not as clear-cut as it appears to be. With the exception of Jasmeen, everyone from the coordinators to the one-off volunteers has active and dormant periods depending on what happens in their personal lives; they can shift roles quite easily. Some of Blank Noise coordinators, for instance, are now pursuing higher education abroad and could only be very active when the return to India during the holidays or when the school schedule is not as demanding. During momentary dormant periods, they turn into casual participants because those are the only roles they are able to take. Secondly, a hierarchy implies that casual participants are not important for the collective, whereas they turn out to be the main “target group” and the reason why Blank Noise has grown internally and in the public eye.
This is again a reason why I was so taken by Escher’s painting. There are definitely “big fish” leadership figures, but their scales are actually smaller fishes in different forms, symbolizing how the roles of a person in the collective could shift from “big” to “small” and vice versa depending on your perspective. The many fishes are not depicted horizontally, but also not in a clear hierarchy. Instead, they are interconnected with each other. The type of connection is not very clear and the fishes seem to be swimming in different directions, but they make a cohesive unity. This is the beauty of both Escher’s creation and Blank Noise.
This is the eighth post in the Beyond the Digital series, a research project that aims to explore new insights to understand youth digital activism conducted by Maesy Angelina with The Blank Noise Project under the Hivos-CIS Digital Natives Knowledge Programme.