Filter My Prejudice by Sapna Chandu and Michael Warnock is a public art campaign, originally planned for distribution in Melbourne, in May.
This photographic poster project injects humour and reflection into a conflicting yet seductive image of prejudice.
Behind the scenes: Filter My Prejudice
Interview with artists Sapna Chandu (SC) and Michael Warnock (MW) by Next Wave Associate Producer Nikki Lam (NL)
NL: Can you please tell us how Filter My Prejudice came about? What was the initial motivation of the project?
SC+MW: We were motivated by the idea that acts of prejudice and discrimination against people are most likely something that exists in us all. As individuals, we can play both the perpetrator of discrimination and its victim, depending on different scenarios and contexts. We think that othering happens not only across different cultures but also within them. We are interested in how this dynamic of power occurs within interpersonal relationships, the insidious spread of prejudice and discrimination and more specifically, how it can be propagated under the veil of cultural norms and traditions.
SC: I was particularly interested in exploring some of the issues I have experienced in my own Indian upbringing but wanted to express this with humour and optimism.
SC+MW: We very much want to avoid reinforcing the blaming tendency of one group (whether it be cultural, political, social etc.) being more inherently prejudiced than another. We are more interested in why tendencies of prejudice are propagated through culture, than pointing blame toward specific cultures.
MW: In many ways, we feel the answer to this is in its relation to fear. Prejudice arises because of fear of the unknown. Many cultural norms are themselves products of avoiding the unknown, because it is often perceived as a threat.
NL: I am really interested in the way in which this project subverts the language of advertising campaign, much like a public service announcement.
Can you tell us a bit more about how you intend for it to engage with the public, and why?
SC+WM: Advertising obviously attempts to sell a product, but in so doing, also propagates ideologies of consumer culture. In being surrounded by advertising images, we can’t help but to absorb these ideologies to a certain degree. We think this is an interesting analogy for how we want to talk about prejudice. That is, prejudice is formed not through direct and conscious exchanges but rather, through a more indirect form of enculturation such as cultural upbringing and media representations. Ambiguity is important to us in creating a space for thought and interrogation. In our work, in contrast to advertising, we aren’t propagating a single product or ideology of consumption, and so perhaps we have, in a small way, subverted the language of advertising. We want the hypothetical scenarios to consider how prejudices are propagated through generations, but in a way that doesn’t force a singular message or intention onto an audience.
NL: Storytelling is an important part of this project. Can you tell us how do you navigate the complicated territory of unpacking prejudice through the personal?
SC+MW: In many ways, we are trying to make the personal universal by taking experiences and feelings from our own lives – specifically, personal experiences of prejudice from Sapna’s Indian upbringing and culture. Michael could relate to these partly through his own Greek Cypriot upbringing, but also through sharing life with Sapna as her husband.
MW: Although Sapna’s personal feelings drove the poster narratives, I approached the delivery of the stories through the imaginative space of myths and tragedies. As the writer I felt that these were the most pertinent writing styles because they were easy to relate to. Using common human traits with emotions, sometimes in uncanny ways, that may have otherwise felt unapproachable.
SC+MW: Complemented by the humour in the poster series, we feel the myths have created a space for awareness and reflection.
NL: What has been the biggest challenge in making this project?
SC+MW: It’s hard to say, there has been a number of them.
SC+MW: Firstly, the messaging has been tricky. How do we open up thought and awareness about prejudice and discrimination within a migrant community with sensitivity and compassion and without being dogmatic? We had to bring together a diverse community of advisors to help us understand whether it was all making sense and whether we were being considerate to the representation of those stories being told.
SC: I was always keen on using humour in the poster slogans, as humour is a feature in my practice. But then we had to fill in the personal content in the text to engage viewers on a more intimate level and that was difficult. Initially, I had the intention to create a space for mindfulness or reflection through the text and sound work in a guided meditation style, however, it felt overly forced or preachy or something. Michael’s idea of creating contemporary myths seemed to open the space for another type of awareness.
MW: I had that difficult task of creating imaginary characters that also tapped into common themes that people could relate to, and which also related to ourselves and had potential to create a space for mindfulness or awareness of the prejudice.
SC+MW: Working with each other as wife and husband had a variety of insane challenges, which included bringing together our practices for our first collaborative project.
NL: The current COVID-19 pandemic has caused a new wave of xenophobic behaviours against migrants and people of colour, particularly those of Asian heritage. With the rise of racial attacks and discrimination, how do we communicate to those who might have unspoken prejudice against us?
SC: I think communicating with people suffering from heightened levels of fear and anxiety is tricky – all the time. Though it also depends on the degree of the threat and whether the communication is from an authority or between individuals. Empathy, compassion and humour spring to mind, as methods of communication that can humanise a perceived “other”. This is where a form of storytelling or narrative can perhaps bridge the fear of the unknown (other) in public service announcement could work.
On the other hand, as an individual, when I’m faced with being the target of someone else’s intense fear and aggression, my knee jerk reaction is to defend, run or hide. Let’s face it, although responding with courage and compassion is a more enlightened or “growth mindset” way of being, it really is hard to practice when caught up in what physically feels like a “fight or flight” moment.
NL: How do you think artists could take leadership in this shifting world?
SC: I see artists as agitators, interrogators, motivators, creative problem solvers, lateral thinkers as well as makers. Rather than aspiring to be leaders (which can sometimes feel a bit authoritarian or superior or something dominating perhaps…) I would like to think that we, as a group, could inspire by keeping it real. Take the time needed to re-assess and navigate so that basic needs and self-care are met. Take the time to feel the loss, grief, isolation, depression, and frustration of the changes that have happened almost overnight. Acknowledge that it can be hard to keep making when the focus becomes survival and when the usual incomes and outcomes like exhibitions, festivals, galleries etc. may no longer happen. Keep thinking, asking questions, expressing thoughts and ideas about the things that we’ve built our practices on, and somehow work that into this “new normal” whether it’s through new platforms or new forms of interactions, or with themes responding to the changing scene (like this symposium on Basic income) or even shape-shifting existing practices… that would be inspiring.
Sapna Chandu and Michael Warnock’s Filter My Prejudice will populate public and digital spaces when you least expect it. Keep an eye out in your neighbourhood in the coming months.
Sapna Chandu blends photography, video, sound, and performance to cross-cultural narratives that unfold through immersive and participatory experiences. Influenced by her Australian Indian up bringing as a person of colour the 1970s her work responds to broader themes of colonisation, globalisation and intersectional feminismin ways that playfully challenges established power structures, cultural norms, and notions of authenticity. Her current practice aims to engage existing audiences in unexpected ways and create new audiences in the public artspace. She has exhibited nationally and internationally over 10 years, includingCo-curator of Immerse Festival (City of Knox), Kwality Chai Live Art/Public Art project (2014-2017), Artistic Director Manifestations of Now Federation Square, 2012.
Michael Warnock’s practice extends across photography, installation, advertising and creative writing to intersect in solo and collaborative projects. His work explores ideas of identity, consumerism and migration and at times references his own Greek Cypriot background. He often borrows the language of advertising to create works that don’t quite fit within a typical advertising context. His current collaborative works mix the aesthetics of campaign photography with narrative writing, in a public and urban context, to reflect on the ways cultural ideologies are propagated and plagiarised inter–generationally. At present Michael is completing a Master of Fine Arts at Monash and works as a campaign photographer for Milligram and Telegram Co. Some highlights include exhibitions in the Testing Grounds (Fringe Festival 2017), MGA (Bowness 2016), and NGV Studio (Manifestations of Now 2012) and commercial works published in magazines like The New York Times, Vogue Living and Monument Magazine.