December 13, 2015 § 3 Comments
This is a post about the effects of working with trauma in a creative practice, and most specifically about using the notion of postmemory to direct research and create output.
My project centres on the rupture within my family at the hands of the Franco dictatorship, which in 1939 succeeded in ousting a democratically elected Republican government in Spain. The subsequent lifelong exile of my father in England formed the emotional texture of my own beginnings and has dominated the landscape of my psyche in secret ways, for this was a history unspoken due to trauma and repression. I grew up not knowing why my grandparents lived in Barcelona or why we shuttled constantly between this idyl and the bleakness of 1960s-1970s Birmingham where we lived.
In my own work there is an additional dimension of Specific Learning Disability (SpLD). Again this is something that has dominated but remained secret (or rather unknown) and is becoming revealed to me later in life.
Recently I discovered that I have dyscalculia which crosses over into dyslexia. Following sequential steps and linear argument is hugely challenging, and I’m essentially unable to access the realms of number, science and many abstract areas of thought. My natural territory is swooping intuition based on what I can touch and see. I am also awaiting a formal diagnosis of autism. This is a process I have decided to be very open about, in part because I believe autism is crucial to my ability to work with postmemory material in a multiplicity of ways.
Autism is a plus in both my life and work. It makes me both more susceptible to emotions (contrary to stereotype) and more visually sensitive than average. I am socially capable but with strong preferences for solitude, order and the blissful flow of creative life in my studio. My most valuable tools in this work are my abilities to focus, to absorb emotional material like a sponge and to draw in diversely connecting layers of information in both written and visual forms.
But this hyper focus sometimes leaves me particularly open to traumatic material such as (while obsessively following news events) exposing myself to a video which appeared online the day after the English parliament voted to bomb Syria, in which footage of a five year old Syrian girl who had later been killed by Russian bombs featured. As I opened the link I knew it was risky and hesitated, my finger hovering over the command key. You can’t un-see traumatic material. After some moments I gave way to the stronger sense of moral obligation to witness
This experience revealed to me that I was becoming numbed by internet exposure to recent developments in world events including terrorist attacks and a political situation in my own country I felt powerless about and experienced as deeply alienating. To my horror I could feel nothing. What I viewed felt remote and as unreal as a movie. Registering this as a troubling signal of creeping emotional brutalisation I headed for the studio.
It is with particular sensitivity that I have sensed the political landscape in Europe unravel in recent months. Since the refugee crisis peaked during our Indian Summer I’ve felt a horrendous and uncanny deja vu with the events I never lived through via a combination of second hand information (research) and the information I now know I imbibed through family atmosphere – postmemory material.
In my work I’m piecing together the unspoken and potentially unspeakable, yet speak I must. When I’ve attended rallies in support of refugees it’s been with a keen sense of a family obligation to do so – the wheel coming full circle.
The #RefugeesWelcome banner made with a dear friend Alex van Hensbergen.
It’s not the first time I have bumped up against the knowledge that not only my subject but also the internet based reach methods I use can expose me to trauma. In honouring my family and exploring inherited trauma I have often had to do a species of one step forward two steps back dance. I’ll re-traumatise myself if I’m not careful. The dilemma is that I must do this work as the sense of obligation is acute. I must keep going and yet to re-traumatise myself is not only undesirable personally speaking, it would also stall the project.
It all boils down to looking without looking too much, yet knowing when to stop and when to move forward can be difficult. Hyper focus means my research stamina is almost limitless and stopping isn’t easy, but I’m also a trained art therapist and my compass for what is healing is strong. Tried and trusted methods are at hand and it becomes possible to navigate the postmemory ravine (as I shall call it) with a paint brush in my hand so to speak.
Painting it out is a powerful antidote to the creeping numbness and other symptoms of traumatisation such as acute anxiety and insomnia. Pausing is generally a good idea too and getting back to the good in humanity through positive human contact. I would suggest that almost any creative act brought to a level of resolution is potentially healing. Most valuable also in these periods of recovery is the opportunity to experience the work and in particular the working processes of other artists.
As recovery is a process itself, it can be that a combination of these healing factors is needed to get back to a place of sufficient recuperation to work again.
That very day in my studio I resolved a painting and created one of the most explicit and uncomfortable pieces of work I’ve ever made on war. “Trajectory of your bomb through my washing line” was a direct response to the vote on Syria and my act of witness. But I still couldn’t conjure an emotional response to the girl.
“Trajectory of your bomb through my washing line.” Sonia Boue, mixed media, 2015
Days passed, I took time out, couldn’t sleep and felt useless.
I heard Cornelia Parker speak at the new Western Library in Oxford. It was extremely inspiring. She’s an affable and charismatic speaker who exudes brilliance through a seemingly boundless creative curiosity. This was a real treat.
I took a day out with Ali Berrett a dear longstanding artist friend with whom I have over the years spent many hours in deep conversation about art and life. Our day included a viewing of Anne Hardy’s exhibition Field at Modern Art Oxford. Beforehand we were two somewhat worldweary people taking a break. Afterwards we felt uplifted and cleansed of the contamination of terror and it’s endless reflections in mass and digital media in our lives. I was immediately impressed with the power of Hardy’s immersive installations to transform me, to shift more than mood.
Cornelia’s work resides in open planes, by which I mean there is no one fixed reference point in our culture for what she is doing with her work although there are many distinct allusions to be found. Paradoxically it is rooted in the specifics of quotidian life and the physics of the material world. It strikes me as an intensely playful if not anarchic practice tempered by serious method and an aesthetic of the highest order. The significance of her most famous work Cold Dark Matter – an exploded shed – is not lost in a discussion of bombs on domestic spaces.
Cold Dark Matter by Cornelia Parker
As I came back to myself in conversation with my friend I experienced a painful flashback to the video of the child. My emotional life had been kickstarted by quality doses of human creativity.
For the next two days I did very little work creatively speaking. There’s always admin and thinking to be done in a creative practice but I succeeded in mainly tripping myself up and losing my keys.
In the evenings I’ve watched What do Artists Do All Day, giving myself another dose of Cornelia Parker and also finding new artists to look at. Polly Morgan and Shani Rhys James were also memorable to watch. I listened extensively to Spanish guitar music and realised anew that the warmth of the strings, deeply expressive quality and lively rhythms have become intensely meaningful in my life since beginning my project.
Samuel Diz is a wonderful new discovery for me.
With Anne Hardy there was also a sense of return to a sensory world of before’s. I often now rehearse the phrase I’ve hit upon that exile is the after of the before. The before being the golden time prior to rupture and loss. Probably a time when we didn’t know what we had till it was gone a la Joni. Though I’m talking about childhood innocence.
Hardy’s practice is also also gloriously playful, taking the viewer to far off elemental places deep inside the sensory memory banks of the psyche. In particular I found myself in kindergarten spaces and the wonderment of the nursery. The spaces we inhabit prior to our knowledge of the vile destructiveness of the human race. Spaces where the sensual world dominates in which texture and hue, pattern and form nourish us as directly as the milk we hungrily suck down. This is what we respond to with the abstract form. I was five years old again in the Modern Art Oxford John Piper gallery, with my shoes off responding to the extraordinarily rich 1970’s vibe of this marvellous composition of colour and stroke by Anne Hardy.
Detail of a kindergarten painting I’ve returned to often, painted when I was 5 in Mexico City.
Art and creativity matter more than we can ever know in the mediation of trauma. It is immeasurably significant in our lives in terms of remaining human in our responses. So it perhaps comes as no surprise that our current government has been seeking to erode it from our schools and public life.
There’s a symmetry here which must not be missed. It is not simply that art is deemed an uneconomic and superfluous activity -a spurious argument at best. It is that art keeps us human and provides us with freedom of thought and expression. Our government doesn’t want this for it’s people and devalues art as it carries out it’s political agenda to undo the welfare system and promote the values of finance.
Through art we play, problem solve and grow. Through it we are able to mediate the most difficult aspects of our existence and resolve some of the most painful feelings known to us. Beauty alone is worth cherishing – it too keeps us human and connected, reminding us of our responsibilities to the planet and each other. Art also allows us to tackle the ugliness of life, and to face our truths and speak their name. We can be overt or we can work obliquely if we wish. Art is about free will and this is what’s at stake in the world today.
Art is how I survive and art is why I continue.
Nine days after viewing an online video of a five year old Syrian child with footage of the families razed property in which we learn that she was shortly after slain by Russian bombs my heart was finally pierced and I wept freely into my morning porridge.
December 11, 2015 § Leave a comment
Here is a short (less than 2 minutes) video with my take on the backbone to my creative practice; the concept of postmemory. First developed to describe the transmitted trauma to the children of holocaust survivors, this term is incredibly meaningful in anchoring my own experience of living with my father’s traumatic lifelong exile from Spain.
The video says it all.
December 3, 2015 § 4 Comments
As the debate about bombing Syria has been raging in England we’ve witnessed a decent and honest politician being vilified in many quarters for opposing this action. Polls have shown that the majority of citizens don’t want to bomb Syria and yet somehow this doesn’t count. We are being silenced and a horrendous cycle of violence perpetuated in our name. The dominant political narrative is that we MUST eradicate ISIL with our bombs when we all know that this is a virtual impossibility (how do you kill a movement based on the notion of jihad in a globally connected digital era) and that bombing will mean civilian casualties – a common euphemism for killing people.
Two days ago I blogged (sorry that the link is currently unavailable) about being impotent with rage at this Conservative government and that I was unable to paint. I had worked on an unresolved painting and made a hash of it. Yesterday I made this brief video having reached the understanding that after all painting was the only thing left to me to do in these dreadful circumstances. It felt important to keep going, make gestures and find a voice again.
Today I was able to make more inroads and complete the vision that had begun to come to me through the fog of bad painting days and rage. It’s the most explicit work I think I have ever created. Usually I like to leave my work more open but the circumstances are exceptional.
My first title was “ghosts” but I like the longer “trajectory of your bomb through my washing line”. There’s no ambiguity there and yet the work contains both ideas. You can see the previous work underneath – the ghosts are present viscerally.
Somehow through trusting in studio rituals and my eventual ability to work through the not knowing how or what to say I got there.
The vote in favour of bombing is devastating and I don’t sleep. My days are scrambled I’m sleep walking through. The ground beneath me feels unstable and I’m afraid.
Imagine then life in Syria. Imagine ordinary people, who must hang out their washing and wait for the bombs to fall.
November 20, 2015 § Leave a comment
Today’s post is a mediation on the line. The line has become a constant motif in my paintings since the introduction of the typewriter ribbon in Exilio 2014 shown in the first image below.
During Q & A after a performance of The Sadness of Being Nothing at Bangor University Department of Modern Languages and Cultures Research Forum the question of the line emerged and coalesced.
I saw that it runs across the forms I engage in whether it be assemblage, performance or painting.
I began to see it in the landscape as I drove home and later in the hasty images captured in the view from my hotel room.
I see it today in the news that the US is withdrawing it’s relief programme to Syrian refugees. We are crossing a line.
For me the exploration of inherited exile trauma has brought an understanding that many people can relate to exile because it is a loss. Metaphorically I have chosen to focus on the line (sometimes as a block of colour which separates the visual field) as the marker for decisive upheaval – usually a shift in being or state over which we have no control.
Exile is the after of the before.
We have a choice about the refugees fleeing from war. They are our fellow humans not rabid dogs. But in the US the “othering” of Syrian refugees is taking a new and devastating turn.
It’s a time to be vigilant and to speak out. It’s a time to fall into my metaphor and draw it out as far as I can. Rope – one of the lines used in my performance – is also used in the game of tug-o-war. I’m not about war or it’s damaging rhetoric but I am about grabbing the rope of reason with all of my creative might.
Exilio 2014, mixed media on canvas, 24 x 34.5 inches.
Performance shot – typewriter ribbon and LED tea light
The lead line within the window view from my hotel room.
November 5, 2015 § 3 Comments
To my surprise I made this video today. I was finishing up working through performance ideas when it occurred to me to speak to camera. It had been a productive morning. I decided to strip back my forthcoming performance The Sadness of Being Nothing, to it’s bare essentials as I suddenly saw that it had been too cluttered. Most of the objects had to go.
I was also vacillating over whether to wear some vintage/character clothing for the performance as originally planned. This may also have to go in favour of neutral black performance wear. I have to consider the aesthetics of the piece very carefully and can’t quite decide which way to turn yet.
It wasn’t until after I instinctively turned to the camera to speak and recorded a full 3 minutes that I realised that I had achieved a kind of fluency that is usually difficult for me when in front of a camera.
This is an example of how when I myself can control the speed and flow (demands) of speaking, when the pressure’s off (any recording can be deleted), and when the subject is incredibly familiar and has been rehearsed in various forms I can own it. I too can be a taking head.
I noticed too that I was still wearing my costume. Was I speaking in character? Did my clothing help me become a talking head? This is a question I can’t yet answer. My actions were so instinctive I can only say that the act of dressing up was part of the process. Receiving instant feedback on camera as I spoke was also a factor in enabling me to gain unusual fluency.
There are simple accommodations which can allow the neurodivergent mind to flourish and join the conversation.
What I should say most of all is how glad I am to be able to talk about refugees. It’s such an important subject.
November 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
Today I worked through some ideas for a forthcoming performance piece The Sadness of Being Nothing. As I worked I realised deep within me that video making is like blogging and raking my fingers through the sand. Video making has become thinking, and the more I learn (as I make) the more helpful the process becomes.
September 30, 2015 § 2 Comments
The visual poetics had me quite breathless today at the glorious Abbey at Sutton Coutenay, Oxfordshire. My assemblage, entitled Refuge has survived 11 nights sleeping rough and today in the late Summer sunshine finds echoes in it’s surroundings. What an extraordinarily beautiful place this is. Visit if you can – open 1-5pm until Saturday 3rd October for the final days of Unravelling Time.