PSi#21 Fluid States - UnKnowing, by Silvija Jestrovic, India Correspondent

Exercises in Unknowing:

the Broom and Ready-Made Art

by Silvija Jestrovic

24 April 2015

PSi#21 Fluid States - India: Rethinking Labor and the Creative Economy - Global Performance Perspectives

Silvija Jestrovic subjects the concept of 'unknowing' to deep scrutiny in the contexts of estrangement, defamiliarization and the limits of knowing.  She does this in a very unusual way by focusing on the broom film, Jharu-Katha (Broom Stories), which was shown at the conference.

PDF available here

This title sums up some of my thinking post- very inspiring encounters on the PSi’s ‘island’ of New Delhi last March. What follows is by no means an essay, not even a set of coherent arguments. These are only sketches of ideas, associative rather than analytical - open-ended reflections potentially fruitful and erroneous in equal measures. Yet I hope they will be somewhat useful to think further, to discuss, question, disagree, correspond more…

I have been thinking of the concept of unknowing (Blazevic), interwoven in the overall PSi dramaturgy this year, as both a process and a strategy of putting the knowable into question that descends from the long lineage of many who have sought various ways of making the familiar strange -- Freud, Shklovsky, Brecht to mention a few. Their various concepts of defamiliaristaion have estranged the familiar and domesticated the strange, aimed to make us see the well-known critically though its own contradictions, and awaken automatized perceptions. In all its instances the notion of defamiliarisation, newness, new seeing, ostranenie (Shklovsky), Verfremdung (Brecht), whether channelled though cognitive faculty or though senses, is epistemological in nature -- a process of knowing anew through unknowing. Nevertheless, in the context of this PSi cluster focusing on labour, a different aspect to these defamiliaristaion theories has emerged. The trajectory of unknowing is not only epistemological in a sense that at the end of it there is a new kind of knowing, seeing, re-learning -- better perhaps, and deeper than it used to be -- but also a consciousness of an epistemological limit, or at least challenge, to go with it. This is a form of Schopenheierian apperception -- a perception conscious of itself -- in this case, of knowing through what it recognises as both unknowing and unknowable.

Questions emerge (not necessarily with answers to follow): How does the process of unknowing unfold and where is the unknowable located in the context of labour and performance? What kinds of forms, encounters, spaces, devices facilitate this process of unknowing? How has the well-known been playing into the various performances of unknowing?

The epistemological process is cognitive, suggesting a critical perspective, and affective, offering a hint of empathy, yet the full realisation of the performance of unknowing (as both new knowing of the familiar and recognising the unknowable) occurs on the level of embodied everyday experience. It is located in the performance of labouring bodies -- of a broom-maker sitting cross-legged on the floor, her hands performing a fast-paced choreography of shaping grass and shrubs into an object, of a dancer panting and sweating in the rehearsal room, of a stiffed-neck academic typing on her computer… These are, however, vastly different embodied quotidian (with hourly rates that vary shockingly for each of these different kinds of labours). The embodied quotidian shapes the experience physically, but also socially and politically, so that the body acquires a kind of Brachtian gestus— a social gesture, so ingrained that it might appear as a biological trait. The embodied quotidian (or rather the contradictions between different embodied experiences), thus, emerges as a physical, political and ethical challenge to the epistemological process.


Jharu Katha: Broom Stories has been one of the contents featured at the New Delhi PSi cluster that I have been returning to most often when thinking of the performances of unknowing and the challenge of the embodied quotidian knowledge shaped through various forms of labour. This documentary film, featuring  marginalised communities of broom-makers, is dedicated to scholar Komal Kothari, the co-funder of the folklore institute of Rupayan Sansthan in 1960 and later, the Arna-Jharna: The Desert Museum of Rajasthan. He initiated the concept of the broom as the key object, which as Project Director of the Museum, Rustom Bharucha, points out in his introduction to the film, is not just a tool, “but a repository of relationships.” In the film, this seemingly ordinary object reveals a complex semiotic system from its mythical and folkloric to its socio-political meanings. It is also the object through which the knowledge of the embodied quotidian of different communities has been shaped. Upon the screening of the film, a conference participant exclaimed: “After this film, I will never look at the broom as I used to!”

The film (and also the concept of the Arna-Jharna museum) introduces the broom as a critical tool. The concept of “broom stories” and of the Arna-Jharna museum, giving this ordinary object central position, made me think about curation, framing, display items and artistic objects. Moreover, I have felt compelled to pick up the broom as my estrangement device to un-know a concept well-established in my mental archives—that of ready-made art.

I have often used the concept of ready-made art as analogy to explain various dimensions of performance studies. I bring up Marcel Duchamp and his famous retinal art—manufactured objects that the artists modified and displayed—as an analogy to unpack notions such as is performance/as performance (Taylor) to demonstrate how everyday objects/acts could be framed, featured, analysed through performance concepts and scenarios. At times, Duchamp also comes up when artistic provocation is mentioned, slap-in-bourgeois-face tactics, the question of subversive artistic practices and their expiry dates. When performance curation and site-specific art is on syllabus, I again bring up the notion of ready-made art. I focus on the star curator Hans Urlich-Obrist. I sometimes show his inspiring TED talk (, where Obrist mentions his first curatorial project—an exhibit in his own apartment featuring the contents of his kitchen cupboards. The students and I discuss the difference between Duchamp and Obrist’s approach to ready-made art, the role of space and if the exhibit of Obrist’s kitchen contests was site-specific… However, so far my focus has always been on the artist/curator—the concept, the wit, and the subversion—and on the audience—the process of critical reception.

How is Arna-Jharna different from these other sites of display? How does it feature/ perform its central object—the broom? How does the object/ tool become an active subject? Finally, what has the broom done to my analogies of ready-made art and performance? I’d like to think of these questions further and at greater length.

For now, I can just say that when I’ve picked up the broom — my estrangement device—I wiped the dust off ready-made objects I had featured so often in my own performances of knowledge sharing.  Now I no longer see only the artistic concept that has framed the objects and perhaps given them new functions and meanings, but the entire labour/food chain behind them— from the worker making/ assembling the object, to the owner of the manufacture, to the artist/curator and  audiences. I have only begun to imagine various vastly different lives of others that have been involved in the entire production process that is the Western concept of ready-made art. To paraphrase the conference participant I overheard: after the Broom Stories, I will never look at ready-made art as I used to. I might even question its very existence.

Images of ARNA-JHARNA: THE DESERT MUSEUM OF RAJASTHAN, where Rustom Bharuca was the Project Director between 2007-2009.  This is also known as the Broom Museum.  The film was made as part of the museum's activities. A booklet is available here.


Copyright –  Silvija Jestrovic (2015) “UnKnowing”, PSi #21 Fluid States: Performances of UnKnowing LOG, ed. Marin Blazevic, Bree Hadley and Nina Gojic, Performance Studies international (PSi), 1 January 2015-31 December 2015, available

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