Back where I belong: traumatic memory in an art practice.

March 17, 2019 § 6 Comments

I’m a little in love with this picture. It features one element of my new installation, which I’m about to show as part of a large group exhibition called Neither Use Nor Ornament or NUNO for short.

My work is called Conversation and it features an audio piece with an excerpt from my play Playa y Toro, (2014)

A bit like a Russian doll, my play contains a play, and it also combines characters and action from my father’s play Tierra Cautiva, which was written in about 1951, with characters from my art blog Barcelona in a Bag. The typewriter you see in the picture is the exact model he used to write his play. Those who follow my work will know that my father was exiled from Spain in 1939 when Franco’s Fascist forces defeated the democratically elected government. 2019 sees the 80th anniversary of the tragic events in which nearly half a million Spaniards fled for their lives across the border to France. My father’s early plays were a response to the continuing dictatorship and the beginnings of the tourist boom.

Since 2013 I’ve been working with my family’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War as a postmemory project. Postmemory in my case meaning that I grew up with an unspoken, yet inherited trauma. The Spanish Civil War was not my own first hand experience, but I lived with all the consequences of it, and it’s effects on my family, which were significant.

I’ve been aware that on a professional level I should be producing work in this year to mark the terrible events of 1939, and yet I’ve fallen largely silent, just when I might be expected to be most vocal. In part NUNO has taken a great deal of my time, but more truthfully I’ve felt emotionally overwhelmed.

For many of my 5-6 years of professional practice dedicated to this work, I’ve attempted to address the silencing of this history in some quarters, and the lack of awareness in others. This year I can’t complain of that. There is a tidal wave of material which is at last coming to light, and I predict swathes of responses to it in years to come. I’m delighted, but I’m also rendered mute.

I’ve had to think through why my response is one of flight.

Working with traumatic memory has consequences, and I’ve often been aware of the need to pace myself over the years. You can’t work close up with this material and not be affected. What I’ve learned in this anniversary year is that it’s incredibly hard when such a tidal wave hits your online networks. I finally realised this when a friend sent me a video the other day which I just couldn’t open. Earlier in February I wept at 6am, as I logged onto FaceBook with my morning coffee and viewed footage of countless Republican Spaniards streaming towards the border. That was my family, my dearest ones. I can’t help myself, I scan the screen searching for them. It’s quite terrible. Any such footage, photographs or mentions have this effect. I relive this moment of flight in my mind, and the deeply painful truths that were hedged as my family gave my sister and I golden summers on the beaches of Barcelona.

I think it’s the type and volume of information which appears randomly at any time of the day which makes me recoil. I spend a lot of time online. Exposure can happen when least expected. When I’m on a specific Spanish Civil War project and researching, I’m in control of the flow. Probably that’s the difference.

So I’ve been working quietly, and am so very grateful to my NUNO group – there’s a sense of safety in numbers and my work nestles within the collective showing to the public. My piece is gentle, but it does probe at the trauma site.

I’ve called this blog Back where I belong, because in the last 24 hours I’ve reconnected with a font of inspiration for my play – a series of recordings made by Federico García Lorca of Canciones Populares Antiguas. They recall a period of intense studio practice in which I was truly connected to this unspoken family history and surround by ghosts. Project management has in many ways disconnected me from this, but on hearing the music on my iPod I’m transported back there.

I’m also back where I belong in terms of my identity, in at last regaining my Spanish nationality. This feels like a pretty spectacular year to have done so.

Once more thank you so much Arts Council England, your funding of my work for NUNO has been a profound award in so many ways.

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Not a programme to do your ironing to! #Radio4

March 23, 2018 § 5 Comments

 

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It’s not a programme to do your ironing to, my producer, Anna Scott-Brown, warned me minutes before the transmission of, The Art of Now: Return to Catalonia (an Overtone Productions programme for BBC Radio 4), which you can listen to on iPlayer on the link above.

I’d spent the previous three days feeling like I was trapped in an elevator shaft with the lift about to drop on my head from the tension of waiting to hear it!

With such a short run up time I’d  thrown myself into the project and relied on hyperfocus to develop the creative concept and refine every detail needed to retrace my father’s exile journey from Spain to England in 1939, making creative responses along the way.

We finished our recording in Spain, and my part was over. Anna and (co-director) Adam Fowler, then toiled at the edit and sound design to craft the woolly mammoth of material we’d created into a 28 minute programme ( we generated so much material in fact that the editing software groaned, registered full, and would take no more!) I just couldn’t imagine how they would do it.

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During transmission I was transfixed. I honestly sat staring at the radio with my ears cocked like a spaniel – I really did – as a dazzling geology of sound whizzed about my ears seeming to stop time.

It is the most extraordinary radio programme I have ever heard – due entirely to Overtone Productions artistry. I’m incredibly proud to be part of it. It’s a rich, immersive, sophisticated listen – the imagery piles in from moment 1.

My extended family sat 60 miles away gathered around the radio, listening intently together as families once did. My teenage daughter surprised me by slinking onto the sofa unbidden to hear it.

Messages flooded in. Enhorabuena! The layering is really beautiful! Your voice sounds wonderful….

A poet watched  patches of sunlight dance on the wall which she said  looked exactly like the sound of my voice as she listened. She sent me a video – it really does.

The following day I heard from friends who’d toiled up the mountain of listening (like the exiles crossing the Pyrenees) to unpick the intricate soundscape. Hearing is not always a given we must remember, and in this case a husband lent his ears to transcribe it from iPlayer for his wife. An act of love and dedication (on so many levels) echoing the love which went into making this programme.

I’m immensely grateful, and somewhat in awe – I feel I’ve reach a summit. This was my dream job – an artist can ask for no more. To open up my soul on Radio 4 has been quite extraordinary  – to have shared this journey with Overtone Productions is even more precious.

The genius of their work is that in each listening (and I keep on listening) you hear more layers. It took 5 times for me to catch my own voice lowered and playing under the sound of me digging in the sand – ¡Buenos días, dictator! I intone…the title of my recent exhibition, which is so so resonant in this moment of my ritual.

Having murmured into a recorder almost every day and sent endless files through WeTransfer, I realise that few people will understand my work better than they. They’ve heard me talking down my demons on my walks around Oxford, and know that I have all my best thoughts in the shower. It has been a revelation to record myself – something which I will continue to do as it’s such a useful creative tool. I will miss talking to Anna though – she has been such a wonderfully encouraging and receptive creative companion.

If you haven’t heard the programme yet I urge you to give it a listen. An art piece in itself, it’s a portrait of creative reliance in the face of inherited trauma. This has so much to say to us in present times.

A great deal of the visual output from this project can be found on my website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Confronting my fear

March 19, 2018 § 2 Comments

Enactment Argelès 4

This blog post was first published on the Overtone Productions website on March 2nd.

My journey to Catalonia with Overtone Productions for Radio 4’s The Art of Now has honestly been the trip of a lifetime. I set out with some trepidation (for the first time) to trace (in reverse) my father’s exile journey from Barcelona to England at the fall of Spain to the Franco dictatorship in 1939.

But I’m coming home with a deep sense of reconnection, and new insights into the profound value of a creative practice in confronting a most painful history, and I’ve been able to shine new light through some of the darkness.

Having carefully planned my artistic journey through the sites of two infamous French concentration camps of the period (Le Barcarès and Argelès-sur-Mer) with a stop-off at the Museu Memorial de l’Exili (La Jonquera) to make a personal donation to the archives, I was, nonetheless, anxious that my work could be met with hostility in some quarters.

Sonia Boue

The Catalan independence referendum of October 1st 2017 appeared to have heightened tensions in the region. As friends and contacts on the ground back then began to send me news and impressions (including video footage of police violence at the ballot box) I feared these horrifying scenes held echos of the Franco dictatorship, and I felt a new uncertainty. Since 2013 I have been creating work about the Spanish Civil War but I have never had the opportunity to show my work in Spain before. Whether I could do so now became a burning question.

Returning with the programme also involved breaking a family taboo, and a history of silencing through fear and trauma. Aspects of what followed feel a little dreamlike, bordering on the remarkable. I can’t wait to share some of my encounters in the broadcast.

Sonia Boue - Enactment Argeles

I learned that the memory of Civil War in Catalonia was never truly erased (because ‘the people’ remembered), and that there has indeed been a proud history of protest and resistance in the region. The somewhat infamous policy of ‘official amnesia’ has not been swallowed by the populace necessarily – though tensions about it remain, especially where Francoism lives on.

But to my delight, I was met with an overwhelming welcome for my project at each stage of the journey, including an invitation to exhibit and talk about my work from Queralt Solé at the history faculty in Barcelona University, which has opened up the possibility of a whole new creative dialogue.

Sonia Boue's exhibition

Making this programme has enabled me to find my voice in Catalonia, and to hear the multiple voices of all those wonderful friends old and new I met along the way.

Sonia Boue at Barcelona University - photo by Kayte Locke

My special thanks go to the Alsina family in Barcelona whose long and profound friendship to my family (dating from before the Civil War to the present day) inspires and sustains me. My deep gratitude also to Helena Buffery for her steadfast support and guidance on vital aspects of this project.

As I journey home I’m already longing to return once more to Catalonia.

www.soniaboue.co.uk

 The Art of Now: A Return to Catalonia is on BBC Radio 4 at 4pm on 19th March 2018.
An Overtone  Production by Anna Scott-Brown.

Strange Transmissions – taking my work to Spain.

February 16, 2018 § Leave a comment

With You:4

(Still from my new film called, With You, featuring my father José García Lora & the gardener’s son at the Old Prebendal House, Shipton-under-Wychwood.)

Life’s a bit full on at the moment, but in infinitely good and exciting ways. My work with Overtone Productions for the Radio 4 programme, The Art of Now: Return to Catalonia, continues apace and is all consuming, partly because we have such a short window in which to make it. It’s also a compelling piece of work to be making at this time of high tension and uncertainty in Catalonia.

I am loving working with Overtone who make this easy for me, and are infinitely encouraging about all the sound pieces I’m recording ahead of our trip to France and Spain next week. The process of recording myself is in itself fascinating – a new form to learn about and enjoy from behind the scenes.

Mainly, I find myself thrown headlong into an intensely personal creative exploration where family history, the recent conflicts in Catalonia, and the opportunity to extend (embody & flesh out) the visual language of my practice collide. I’ve been scared at times that this could get messy, and I still don’t quite know what my journey will bring, but I feel so well held by Overtone and the various people now supporting this project in Barcelona that I’m mostly reassured and have begun thinking about my work in terms of transmission and reception. Amid the fear engendered by buried trauma (a second generation inheritance called postmemory) there is a new sense of welcome which opens out possibility. This is deeply inspiring on the importance of welcome and receptivity in both cultural and human terms.

The title to a Nora Jones song – Strange Transmissions – has worked its way into my brain in relation to recent conversations with Dr Helena Buffery (probably only the title to this song is relevant).  Helena works with me on my father’s plays and together we try to make sense of his creative project in the context of Spanish exile. She has also facilitated the reception for my work in Barcelona. It’s immensely beneficial to the preparation to have a sense of arrival for the project once we hit Spain.

Intense processing has led me to what I hope will be a coherent outcome in terms of the art-making side of the programme. I now have a plan, and it’s a pretty tight one at that. With so few days on the road – traveling in quick succession through the camps of Frances at Argelès and Barcarès, over the border at La Jonquera and then on to Barcelona – I’ve needed to think this through in the finest of detail possible.

Last week we recorded the English leg of our journey at Shipton-under-Wychwood. It was a cold and soggy day with enough time spent outdoors to thoroughly soak our feet and test out our waterproofs – mine being newly acquired for the purposes of this journey. It was a good excuse to equip myself properly and has paid for itself already by enabling me to film on location and capture footage I’m incredibly pleased with. It couldn’t have gone better I feel, and rain added a perfect melancholy and depth to the work.

So I’ve created a new film to take with me to Spain called, With You – the still capture (shown above) has been taken over a transition. I’m excited by this effect and the way in which it says exactly what I want to convey about the layers of my project by superimposing one image over another.

Yesterday I cracked the piece for the final leg of my journey in a momentary flash of inspiration on acquiring a new and unexpected object. I can’t wait to share this with listeners to Radio 4. Tune in on the 19th March at 4pm and all will be revealed!

The Art of Now: A Return to Catalonia #Radio4

February 5, 2018 § 9 Comments

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(I’m taking a camera which can’t take pictures to document the erasure of this history). 

The Art of Now: A Return to Catalonia

BBC Radio 4
Transmission Date Monday, 19th March 2018, 4pm
Presented by Sonia Boué
Produced by Anna Scott-Brown

So I’m finally returning. I can’t help wondering what Abuela (grandma) would say?

I wish too that my father could know that I am going back to Catalonia, via the beaches of Barcarès and Argèles (where he was held in refugee interment camps), to retrace his exile journey to England in 1939.

At the age of 18, he, along with 500,000 other Spaniards, fled for his life across the border to France. I have spent the last five years building a body of work in response to this family history, and have also cast my net wider to encompass figures such as British artist and Spanish Civil War volunteer, Felicia Browne, and the exiled Spanish writer and broadcaster, Arturo Barea.

Now, I have been asked to make a programme for Radio 4 with Overtone Productions, and my question about taking my practice to Spain will in part be answered. I will be retracing my father’s footsteps and creating responses along the way. We have a very short timeframe to make this programme and so I’m thrown into sifting and planning (in ways I am very conscious the exiles couldn’t) the artistic side of my journey.

The job feels vast, and at times overwhelming in the time available – not helped by a brain which  likes to canter off in 10 directions at once. Reigning in and staying focused is the thing. Here is where my obsessive nature is hugely beneficial to my work. I dig in and apply myself to the detail.

My feel for the bigger picture is pure intuition – I trust I can make the stages of my journey join up by getting each stage right conceptually speaking. My work is made easier because I can draw on some existing pieces in my growing collection, but I will be making new responses and hoping to bring them all together by the end of the programme.

I’m brimming with gratitude to Overtone Productions for pitching this programme, and feel a weight of responsibility – this is a highly sensitive history. Also Lurking is the spectre of inherited trauma – as I probe more deeply into it I gain a firmer grasp on the terror through which this history was suppressed. I hear new information from my mother which confirms it and brings it closer.

I feel my father’s fear as though it were my own. As though it were live.

I conclude that it is. This is what we mean by the term, postmemory. Recent events in Catalonia serve to demonstrate how difficult Spanish history is, how tensions remain from the unresolved legacies of the Civil War.

I won’t really know how to respond until I get to the beach of Barcarès, or until I’m confronted with the entrance to my grandmother’s flat (which she left in 1975) in the Barceloneta. All I can do is plan and pack my suitcases full of artistic possibility.

Each morning I pinch myself anew. Somehow I’ve landed the job of my dreams.

 

Adventures in Object Art #MfOR

October 13, 2017 § Leave a comment

This is quite a specialised blog post. I’ve been excited to find a slide show presentation from 2014 on a memory stick (autistically I burrow backwards and rely often on chance encounters with the past – the trick is to leave a trail…)

Like Hansel and Gretel before me I left some breadcrumbs, but still I’m rather awestruck that I could have missed working my way back to this somewhat seminal moment in the evolution of a project called The Museum for Object Research.

It’s a singular slide show. Many of the references will be obscure. It relates to my father’s two earliest plays – one unpublished and the other published in the Castilian language in small number and now out of print.  Many of the references would be known only to the conference delegates of 2014 (familiar with the history of Spanish exile). Other references perhaps only I, or a handful of other people would understand. This doesn’t really matter. It’s the conceptual framework for my object work that matters – this is the exciting nature of my find!

 

 

 

 

 

Red lines and the echoes of history; police brutality and the Catalan question.

October 2, 2017 § 7 Comments

I am not Catalan but I feel the recent events in Spain very deeply. I am an Anglo-British daughter of a Spanish Republican exile born in Madrid. My grandfather was from Galicia and my grandmother from Southern Spain, but they returned from their exile in France in 1941 to live in Barcelona. This place was my home from home as I grew up. Barcelona was my long Summers’ idyl, the city of all my high days and holidays, and my absolute love.

I have written often in my art blog about the long erasure of the Spanish exiles from the history books of Spain, and how my father and my grandparents never spoke of their internment in the French camps of Argelès sur Mer and Barcarès. I didn’t know or question why I lived in two places, or why my grandmother wept so bitterly in her kitchen each time we returned to England.

This is what violent political repression does – it silences you. Not just in the streets with batons. No. The erasure of memory and the taping of tongues creeps deeply into the everyday fabric of our lives. In many ways the invisible brutality of a dictatorship is at the heart of my recent cycle of paintings called simply, Buenos Días Dictador.

The dictator is everywhere and nowhere. The dictator follows you wherever you go.

The Catalan question itself is too complex for me to write about. I am an artist, not a historian or political analyst. But I know about living with exile. I know about suppression. And I know what’s more that these wounds run so deep in Spain that even 81 years on from the start of that Civil War it is hard to talk about Spain. Mine is a postmemory experience. My contact with the history is indirect, but my fear is present and real.

I have changed my social media settings to share this blog post.

The Catalan question can be hard to grasp, but you can recognise state suppression when you see it. All the hallmarks are there – and it’s impossible to argue with the statement by Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau. A line has been crossed and Rajoy is not fit to serve. Like so many bullies before him he is a coward, one who has set armed police against an unarmed citizenry.

There have been many opportunities to negotiate, which is what democracies are made for.  Democracy is talking. Democracy can never be throwing citizens around like rag dolls, breaking their fingers, kicking and batting them with truncheons. Someone has died I believe, and more than 800 injured.

Most sickeningly there have been statements by Rajoy and his deputy claiming a proportionate  response. But, no. This is not ‘normal’ or right.

With my art practice I witness. It’s all I can do.

 

 

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