Karen Mirza and Brad Butler conceived The Museum of Non Participation in 2007 when during the Pakistani Lawyers movement in Islamabad they viewed the protests and subsequent state violence from a window in The National Art Gallery.
Since then they have pursued ideas connected to their position that day – through conversation, images, activities and narratives following strands of dialogue to different people, places and contexts.
Working over an eighteen month period with street vendors, Urdu translators, architects, estate agents, housing activists, lawyers, hairdressers, filmmakers, wedding photographers, newspaper printers, artists and writers, they have played out different manifestations of The Museum of Non Participation.
The project first appeared as an English/Urdu language class in September 2008. The free class invited English and Urdu speakers to exchange conversational language under the guidance and mediation of Hasan Navid. It became a space for cultural and linguistic exchange travelling from the Oxford House community centre in Bethnal Green to an invited space behind Yaseen’s Hairdressers on the Bethnal Green Road and to a public performance at the Guernica room in the Whitechapel Gallery.
Hosted by artist collective VASL, Mirza and Butler returned to Karachi for a second time in December 2008, where they occupied a space at the Pakistani Arts Council; this open space became a location to work through ideas with (non) participants and a base from which they conducted interventions outside in the streets of the city. They distributed newspapers as packaging for food sold by the tandoor walla’s, presented performance interventions at Sunday Bazaar, and worked with sign writers to produce text banners and wall paintings that demarcated the Museum as a pop-up institution, announcing a new way of moving through and looking at the city: in a city with almost no museums, the city itself becomes the museum.
The scars of colonialism, partition and subsequent post colonialist ventures of improvement run deep in Karachi. Representations of Pakistan by Western media portray a rogue state suffering from conflict, extremism, natural disasters and sporadic martial law, made more fearsome by its nuclear status. The Museum of Non Participation seeks to discover the patterns and realities of everyday life and to find other languages and other voices.
The project has variously taken the form of film, an Urdu/English language exchange, street interventions, a radio show and performances. On 20 September 2009 a newspaper publication featuring some of the different voices and interpretations of the title was distributed across the UK as a supplement of The Daily Jang – the international newspaper from Pakistan’s oldest and largest media group.
This newspaper preceded the official ‘launch’ of The Museum of Non Participation, a month-long festival from 25 September – 25 October 2009 behind Yaseen barber's shop on Bethnal Green Road. It brought together the multiple faces of the project in a programme of film screenings, talks, discussions, Urdu poetry, and performance.
The Museum of Non Participation raises questions about resistance and the choice and consequence of action vs inaction. The strictures of conflict, class and monetary divisions within a globalised world provoke engagement with the problems of participating or not participating in such a system, whether in Karachi, London or elsewhere; The Museum of Non Participation examines how our lives in one space have implications on the other.