How We Walk With Time
by Verena Stenke & Andrea Pagnes, Scheuerberg, February 2015
The plantain (Plantago lanceolata) is a perennial, herbaceous plant.
The old High German word 'Spitzwegerich' comes from: 'wega'=path and 'rih'=king. The plant’s distribution occurs via its glutinous seeds that stick to paws, shoes and wheels. In times when there were no paved roads, the plant was used as a way guide, as it was rumoured that it grows only where someone or something has gone, driven or ridden before - along the way.
But their forefathers have left them a grave legacy. ….
It is not a case of coming to terms with the past. That is not possible.
It cannot be subsequently modified or made not to have happened.
However, anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present.
Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity is prone to new risks of infection. (1)
We shell time from the nuts and teach it to walk:
time turns back into its shell. (2)
The Question: Which Story Do We Tell Ourselves?
To recall, remember, to live and head towards is a difficult dance.
A plant needs water in order to survive, and it needs the right amount of water in order to thrive.
Scattered feelings and buried tragedies might be intended as poison or as well as water for human growth, provided to balance the truth, not intended as a simply pragmatic de facto reality, but as a dynamic act, a source of possibilities, never ending, never concluded, non-static, a motion detection.
The urgency to undertake an artistic research capable of dealing with these issues, arouse by observing our unease while gathering fragmented information about the years of the war exodus of the ancestors. We begun to question what was not working in their stories: personal dysfunctions, individual omissions, collective frozen fears, social hesitation between wrongdoing and right-doing, the forgotten and unsaid things, unconsciously and perhaps on purpose.
Being performance artists and filmmakers, we imagined a way to bring light on those stories, to unveil what was behind the human endurance, quality of which so many man and women have proved to be capable in those days and later. However, to re-trace history through the recollection of the others, is like navigating for the insidiousness of misleading interpretations.
Thus the notion of a false/un-false view of the world contains the assertion that the possibility of objectivity is a myth to begin with and could be well issued through artistic praxis, if anything, it exacerbates the problem just temporarily.
The 20th century is marked by a litany of genocides, deportations, displacements and world wars. Yet, even today we are facing atrocities at different latitudes, witnessing an exercise of power often indifferent to human ideals and immune to human morality. This view of our time is frightening enough, but it turns doubly frightening for the grotesque embodiment of the increasing amount of distorted information that we digest every day from media, wry remarks that the worst things in life still never happened, or are always on the verge to happen. We have spent more than a century saying and believing the worst about ourselves, but the human spirit – along the course of history – has always been a sorcerous counterpoint and evidence to the goodness and brilliance of our basest capabilities. So then, as contemporary artist, which cultural commons can we identify between our time and a previous one, to offer a new insight?
The Action: The Displaced - Replaced - In-Place Body
Our present time is animated by unique political and geophysical landscapes, which have also evolved from post-WWII displacements. Time past, present and future affect the ways we perceive, experience and think about our own bodies and the bodies of others. From a phenomenological perspective, the foundational role in perceiving our own and the other's body, the world and its history, as well as engaging with the world and its history through the body, is a dynamic cognitive process to recognize in the present the consequences of determined transformative situations occurred along the time line.
According to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the French phenomenological philosopher who was inspired by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, the constitution, production and transformation of meanings in human experience, art and politics is firstly because of the body, the primary site of knowing the world. Placing consciousness at the source of knowledge, the body and that which it perceives could not be disentangled from each other. Arguing on the primacy of embodiment, Merleau-Ponty surpassed phenomenology toward what he came to call "indirect ontology" or the ontology of "the flesh of the world" (la chair du monde), where the nature of being and its relations, becoming, existence and reality deal with questions concerning what has been, what now exists or can be said to exist, and how such concerns can be related with each other, by similarities or differences. (3)
Within this philosophical context, an interdisciplinary performance and artfilm project such as Plantain is an opportunity to engage with the recent past while focusing on the issue of the displaced – replaced – in-place body of today. To investigate how past and present speak (or do not speak) to our 21st century bodies about ethical, social, and existential challenges that frame it in the here and now.
Questioning such themes means to consider what it does actually mean to be tied to time, and simultaneously to be in and beyond time that also holds past and future, and with them, the regrets and possibilities of different generations.
An Issue: Identity
If it is erroneous to decry an alleged distortion of history until we've lived on our own skin the told and untold remembrances, at the same time it would be unethical to set an artistic operation only to over speculate about other persons’ motives. Hence, Plantain inquires into self-identity mainly through a social and cultural perspective. While questioning the labelling construct of ethnical, relational and merely contextual identities, the project is interested in the act of identification / identity formation and its changes during a lifespan, hence considering identity as inherently processual. The performative act implies a cognitive aspect of self-reflection and awareness to be raised through the action itself in any unpredictable form, as it leads to deepen the inquiry about the influence of historical identity – not merely ethnical or national, but genetic and psycho-dynamical – onto the being. Therefore, why do we have to peer into the memory archive of someone else? Where does this need come from? Why do we have to ask and truly see into a person's private truth?
Because we continue to believe this: The assumptions that people make about the motives of others always reveal a great deal more about the assumers than the assumed-about. Therefore to gather "memories of others" means to identify the deepest responsibility we’re called to exercise being artists of today, be our experience to agree to what we attend to.
Our practice and research is to identify elements, which we notice and encounter, to shape our minds. By doing so, as artists, we allow ourselves to not merely reflect and interpret life, but to attempt to in-form life, because this is our role: to lift people up, not lower them down; to generate reflection and make people think, whilst preserving and heightening our faith in the human spirit.
Another Issue: Memory
Returning to the question of what is true and what is false in recovering a past view to decipher the present, and what bearing this question has – if any – on what we call reality, we might say that the stories that we tell ourselves, whether they be false or true, are always real. We act out of those stories, reacting to their realness.
History after all is an entity that always insists, over and over, to underline that despite our many imperfections, we are inherently kind and capable and full of goodness. In fact, evil (and consequent guilt) only prevails when we mistake it for the norm.
The preciousness of memory is something good for the world: All we have to do is to remind one another of it, to show up for it, to recognize its value, and to refuse to leave it behind. Whatever its size, memory helps to shape the stories of how the world works. Those who speak of our deepest longings and fears, at their very best can empower our moral imagination to envision how the world could work better.
Memories may function as metaphors for a necessary self-refinement in personal growth, and help us to mediate between the ideal and the real by cultivating the right balance of rational reflection and hope. Misinterpretation, forgetfulness, oversight, inadvertency and "missing pieces" belong to this mediation, but everything is guided primarily by what we are made to believe is real. Finally, a shape will come by that looks completely different, with no missing pieces, or still uneven, as if to say that a new generation is the missing piece of the previous one, waiting in turn for the new one to come. This is what we might call a "lasting continuity."
To re-trace way back a historic path makes of the research for memory, loss and restoration of identity, the meaning itself, though a difficult one. In this specific case, grief, sense of guilt, loss and later gratitude are intimately stitches together and lead to freedom. And there is meaning in this freedom, rewarding in its entirety. Rather than re-tracing, the action here is to re-start.
Displacement and exodus is a dramatic no-way-back for many, but a miracle for others. They make the long walk coming with what they let themselves get away with. This idea might be overwhelming, but inside it resides the most easily recognizable wonder of Life: To be alive from moment to moment, which is maybe all we have.
The Process: Processing Memories
Memories reside in specific brain cells. The simple activation of a small number of neurons can conjure an entire memory. Our fond or fearful memories leave memory traces that we may evoke in the remembrance of past things, complete with time, place and all the sensations of the experience. Neuroscientists call these traces memory engrams. So memories do reside in specific brain cells, but as they can be recalled through inducted stimulation and external agents, they can also re-surface distorted. For example, one environment can condition the memory recall in two ways, to the point of not remembering anything at all, or amplifying and transforming the original memory into a new one.
To remember is likewise dancing with the mind between mythmaking, truth and forgetfulness.
To scrutiny the memory to revisit an incident is a hard task for everybody. Our brain weaves that same memory of myth, truth and forgetfulness at different degrees, depending on how painful it is to remember that situation. Only later one maybe realizes how much it has been changed.
In The Night Of The Gun, David Carr argued that recollection is merely self-serving and self-referential: "Some of it is reflexive, designed to bury truths that cannot be swallowed, but other memories are just redemption myths writ small. Personal narrative is not simply opening up a vein and letting the blood flow toward anyone willing to stare. The historical self is created to keep dissonance at bay and in some cases to render the subject palatable in the present. Memories can be helpful to conquering dramatic lived adversities of the past through the recollection process, but still the gap between who we were and who we are will always still remains, despite the achievements of the personal growth."
The issue of abasement followed by salvation is an extremely delicate issue, specifically in the frame of determined historical circumstances, but does it abide the complexity of how things happened? People may tell just as much as they need to recall, because recall results from what they know, including the self, and what they don’t want to know. Paradoxically, people remember more often how they could have lived, than how they actually have lived: It is memory that speaks, not the event, and this is the actual power of memory.
In Notes from the Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky explains that recollection – memory, even – is fungible, and often leaves out the unspeakable truths: "Man is bound to lie about himself," and we will add: Also to forget about himself.
Grand aunt, who was 15 years old during the exodus: "I don’t know if it will ever be possible to keep a collective memory of those times accurate and accountable. Whenever a forced displacement occurs, it spells beside the mountains of death and the hills of despair also a valley of extinct human ideals, and ideals are the material of the human spirit. Many people I knew have triggered a self-rescuing amnesia, because many of the breakages that occurred could never be fixed. Many preferred to rely instead on the power of silence, of the unsaid, or worse, of the untruths. Yet I suppose that in the end I am grateful, because I'm alive. Now, talking to you, slowly after all this time, it is like remembering who I was, where I came from, and where I have been. My hope floated, and the small pleasures of being alive buoyed me within that constant fear, which for countless days has been the only evidence of my being alive. Perhaps you will listen to other memories, but remember, all you will hear – as now with my own telling – has already been edited by time and the mind, resulting little more than insects of a fragmented time, skewed and prepared."
1 - Excerpts from the speech of former German President Richard von Weizaecker on May 8th, 1985 in Bonn.
2 - From: Celan, Paul, Corona. Translation by John Felstiner.
3 - Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Le Visible et l’Invisible, suivi de notes de travail. Edited by Claude Lefort, Paris: Gallimard, 1964; and, L’Œil et l’esprit, Paris: Gallimard, 1961.