April 17, 2017

Corridors of power: Drawing and modelling Sri Lanka’s tryst with democracy

 Led by the input of Asanga Welikala and in collaboration with Channa Daswatta,  ‘Corridors of Power’ will through architectural drawings and models,  interrogate Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution since 1972. The  exhibition will depict Sri Lanka’s tryst with constitutional reform and  essentially the tension between centre and periphery.

The output on display will include large format drawings, 3D  flyovers, sketches, and models reflecting the power dynamics enshrined  in the the 1972 and 1978 constitutions, as well as the 13th, 18th and  19th Amendments.

Speakers include  Jayampathy Wickramaratne MP, M.A.  Sumanthiran MP, Rohan Edrisinha, Ambika Satkunanathan, Sunela  Jayawardene, Lakshman Gunesekara, Amantha Perera, Jagath Weerasinghe,  Gehan Gunatilleke, Kaushalya Fernando, Senel Wanniarachchi, Deborah  Philip, Ruki Fernando, Krystle Reid and more!

Panels and keynotes

All panels, keynotes and discussions will run from 5.30 – 7pm. The opening night reception will be from 6pm to 9pm.

15th September, Opening night

  • Sanjana Hattotuwa, Introduction to exhibition and curation
  • Channa Daswatta, The centre cannot hold: Centripetal evolution, centrifugal desires
  • Asanga Welikala, The cartography of change: Constitutional reform and the imagination

16th September, The constitutional vision of the new government (Keynote)

As reported in the media in May this year, Jayampathy Wickramaratne, the leader of a three-member team that prepared the 19th  Amendment, called for a new Constitution which will include a fresh  Bill of Rights and address the issues of devolution of powers to  provincial councils and power sharing at the Centre. After the General  Election on 17th August, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was  reported in the media expressing hope that a political consensus could  be reached within months on a new Constitution for Sri Lanka, because in  his opinion the issues that needed to be resolved were fairly narrow.  This triumph of hope and optimism over bitter experience may not last  long, and the window for substantive changes in Sri Lanka’s  constitutional fabric is small. If our present constitution is  fundamentally unsound, what can be done in imagining a new one to ensure  the flaws are addressed? And if in addressing these flaws, hard choices  have to be made, how can a constitutional reform process secure the  requisite political will, above purely parochial and expedient  considerations, to stay the course? How will citizens be a part of this  process – as mere onlookers, or as active participants? What are the  core values the government will anchor the new constitution to and seek  through its passage, the entrenchment of in the popular imagination?  Ultimately, independent of the success or failure of the project around a  new constitution, what does the new government aim to achieve around  constitutional reform in a manner qualitatively different to attempts in  the past? 

17th September, The challenge of constitutional reform: Mediating change and managing continuity (Keynote)

The process of constitutional reform in Sri Lanka, if only just the 18th and 19th Amendments are taken into account, is deeply problematic. The opposition to the 18th Amendment, in terms of substance as well as the way in which it was pushed through the legislature, was in comparison to the 19th Amendment far more pronounced and widespread. And yet, even with the 19th  Amendment, significant concerns around the lack of information in the  public domain around the draft bill, the resulting lack of strategic,  planned, public consultation or debate and the perplexing inability (or  unwillingness) to translate into Tamil and Sinhala in a timely manner  the substance of the Amendment is indicative of enduring challenges.  Negotiations over substantive and core issues aside, the failure to  architect a robust process of constitutional reform seriously risks the  needless strengthening of spoilers, and the eventual derailment of the  best intentions. How can one manage to secure public trust in a  constitutional reform process? What can be done to encourage public  interest in issues and considerations that so many see as largely  peripheral to more existential concerns? How does a reform process deal  with the legacy of the present constitution, and the common law  jurisprudence that pre-dates it with the need to reimagine the State,  nationhood and citizenship? What is the role of compromise, and at which  point does necessary compromise turn into expedient connivance? How can  vital substantive issues around the reform process, even if they don’t  find direct expression in a new constitution, be publicly discussed,  also leveraging the raft of technology tools available today?

18th September, The chiaroscuro of power: Architecture’s role in hegemony and change (Keynote) 

Channa’s note on this exhibition avers thst “the premise has been  that architecture is essentially about creating relationships between  various spaces occupied by people and thus making the potential for  interaction between them.” When the Design Museum in London named world  renowned Hahid’s Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan, the winner of  the Design of the Year award in 2014, critics noted that Hahid’s lack  of concern over who commissioned the edifice, and who it commemorates,  was deplorable. As Russell Curtis, a founding director of London-based  architects RCKa, an award-winning design practice noted at the time and  in response to the award, “It’s naive to believe that architecture and  politics are mutually exclusive: the two are inextricably linked.” What  is an architect’s role, if any, in critiquing the status quo?  Is there a greater social or civic responsibility around public  projects, for example those commissioned by the State, or does the  client, which could be an authoritarian government, to the exclusion of  all other voices, determine the final structure and order of things?  What are instances where architecture, through design or appropriation  and in terms of the geo-spatial organisation of space, has fuelled  reform and even revolt? And if that is possible, is the converse also  true – can architecture create more harmonious social relations through  spatial relationships?

19th September, The ‘F’ word and the Tamil National Question (Keynote)

In Sri Lanka, merely acknowledging federalism’s role and relevance in  constitutional reform risks derailing the process comprehensively. The  popular imagination in the South invests in the term an almost  unshakeable fear of eventual secession. Years of vilification, negative  stereotyping and misinformation have been – at least for those  vehemently opposed federalism– successful. Opposition to the idea, and  indeed, a clear understanding of its central place in architecting a new  constitution, remain, respectively, high and low. On the other hand,  much of this opposition stems from the enduring inability of some of  federalism’s greatest champions to clearly address some of these fears,  and communicate clearly what it is, and is not. Lawyers often assume  society writ large to have as good a knowledge of the law as they do,  and politicians often support or decry federalism based purely on  parochial, electoral gain. Principled, reasoned arguments around  federalism, embracing for example concepts that call for the recognition  of multiple nations within a united Sri Lanka, are central to  meaningful answers around the Tamil national question. And if the Tamil  national question is seen as central to realising the democratic  potential of Sri Lanka post-war, federalism and its discontent needs to  be tackled head on. How can this be done? Given an electorate in the  South largely unable and unwilling to support federalism prima facie,  what can politicians do to strengthen critical reflection and support?  Why is it even necessary, if as some would argue, existing provisions in  the constitution are entirely adequate? Can there be meaningful debates  around the Tamil national question without resorting to federalism and  its promise? If maximalist demands continue without any compromise, and  reciprocally, majoritarian fears around secession continue to hold  hostage meaningful debates around a new constitutional framework, what  is the fate of federalism in Sri Lanka and indeed, if it fails, the  prospects around addressing the Tamil national question meaningfully?

20th September, Framing discourse: Media, Power and Democracy (Panel) 

The architecture of the mainstream media, and increasingly, social  media (even though distinct divisions between the two are increasingly  blurred) to varying degrees reflects or contests the timbre of  governance and the nature of government. How can and should media  reflect on its complicity in or contestation of cycles of violence? How  can ‘acts of journalism’ by citizens revitalise democracy and how can  journalism itself be revived to engage more fully with its central role  as watchdog? In a global contest around editorial independence stymied  by economic interests within media institutions, how can Sri Lanka’s  media best ensure it attracts, trains and importantly, retains a calibre  of journalists who are able to take on the excesses of power, including  the silencing of inconvenient truths by large corporations? Simply put,  what is the role of media in securing democracy against its enemies,  within the media itself and beyond?

Moderator: Asoka Obeyesekere

21st September, Drawing power: Framing the inconvenient, imagining the impossible (Panel)

Framing violence, and drawing an audience’s attention to it, can be  powerfully achieved through the arts. In this reading, art inhabits a  space under constant risk of expiration or asphyxiation – licenses can  be revoked, scripts can be censored, art can be banned and artists can  be silenced. On the other hand, art is also resistance – a space for  contestation. If the pervasive architecture of authoritarianism is  invisible to most, and society’s capture is through the power of deceit,  art serves to decry, dissent and deconstruct. The most critical art  risks pushback, whereas art that offers the illusion of critique often  flourishes the most. As panellist Gehan Gunatilleke avers in his review  of a very popular English play during the Rajapaksa regime, art can by  design or inadvertently help strengthen the status quo: “Pusswedilla is damaging our political culture… Instead of compelling audiences to question the absurdity of their reality, Pusswedilla  encourages them to accept the current political dispensation as the  best on offer. This is dangerous because there can be no change without  discomfort. Pusswedilla is… cleverly packaged propaganda.” How  can art frame the violent without giving rise to more violence? How can,  in a context of hopelessness, art contribute to a triumph of optimism  in the capacity for change, over bitter experience? In critiquing loci  of power, do artists lose their agency or independence by accepting  funding from various interest groups, who hold and seek to expand their  own power? Or is the choice contextual? How does one cultivate the  imagination within repressive terrains, and frame the necessary, even  when violence reigns? How can critical art’s power be strengthened, its  appeal expanded, its production strengthened?

Moderator Gihan Karunaratne

22nd September, Designing the future: Plotting change, planning reform (Panel)

If architecture is a vector to interrogate the past, present and  future, how can we architect (pun intended) a more just, equitable and  democracy future? At its simplest, can the design of public spaces  militate against social exclusion and resulting frustration spilling  over into violence? Conceptually, what can be done to fully grasp Sri  Lanka’s democratic potential post-war? To what extent can our future be  engineered, and to what degree can this political, cultural, economic  and social engineering accommodate multiple narratives, identities and  competing ideas? Youth are often said to be the architects of a better  tomorrow – but what role do they have in shaping the present? How should  we look at the past, and yet not be held hostage by it? How can we  imagine the future, not forgetting what we have been and done in the  past? The avowed mission of the world renowned magazine The Economist,  as noted in its pages, is to “take part in a severe contest between  intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance  obstructing our progress.” How can this idea take root and find  expression in our public life? 

Moderator Amjad Mohamed-Saleem

15 – 22 September 2015, 

JDA Perera Gallery, Horton Place, Colombo

Free and open to the public. No tickets. Limited seating at venue.

Led by the input of Asanga Welikala and in collaboration with Channa Daswatta

Facebook event page at http://bit.ly/corridorsofpower

Lineup of keynote speakers, including those from Government, respondents and panellists at http://bit.ly/corridorsofpowerpanels