I can’t think clearly. It may be symptomatic of my space becoming a dumping ground while The Husband sets up his workspace in a fabulous man-cave overlooking the garden. Of course I’m not jealous. I would never begrudge His Grey Eminence such small necessities when he is in residence. Apparently he thinks best while pacing up and down. And if he paces the length and breath of this modest office each day there will be no need for a Surfside Gym membership so giving Top Dog the space is a no-brainer.
Or perhaps the blame for my lack of creativity could be put squarely at the feet of his kids. At first I thought it was tinnitus but the doctor said that particular aliment is normally associated with a constant buzzing sound whereas the ringing in my ears includes language. It usually starts with “MOmmm!” and then “I’m bored.” Or “MOmmm! I’m starving”. I have tried to explain that being bored between meals during July and August is part of a balanced childhood. They remain unconvinced.
So if the failure to make the artwork I have been commissioned to do is not a result of environmental factors maybe the cause lies deep within my psyche. It would be a real blow to discover there is no one else to blame. Well I’m not there yet. There are still more contributory factors to consider. Geraldine, who after a distinguished career in HR has gone back to university to study psychology, was telling me about the importance of the hypothalamus. Her lecturer’s notes included an aide memoire reminding students that this almond-shaped, all-important bit of the brain “controls the four f’s of survival: feeding, fleeing, fighting and mating”. Clearly my fs are out of sync.
Of course the people who have commissioned the work don’t give a flying fish about my angst as long as it is all done and dusted when the hoi polloi turn up on 28 July. But I have a proper dilemma. I was asked to make work about memory in the context of a larger exhibition about the international preservation of documentary memory. The proposal they accepted had me waxing lyrical about participatory work in the community that celebrated the memories of ordinary people. They loved it. But when I started to implement said plan to make the participatory art I encountered a tiny glitch. The community did not want to participate. Out of a couple hundred residents from two neighbourhoods only two people talked to me; one heckled (‘Guyanese, yuh lookin’ sweet); one threatened me (‘You better watch yuhself’); several let their dogs do the talking; and one chased me off her property.
So I tried a different tack. I asked young people from two schools to talk to their elderly relatives or neighbours about old times and report back. I would film the result and be hailed the next Spielberg. This time I greased the path with all-you-can-eat pizza and guzzle-till-you-feel-queasy fizzy drinks.
It would be easier to get Madoff out of jail than to get these relatives to actually talk to the children and then for the children to talk to me. The children were mainly clueless about the past. Ironically most admitted to spending significant amounts of time with their grandparents or even living with them.
All of this leaves me with two choices. I could give the money back, saying how sorry I am while citing my own dysfunctional childhood as the root cause of today’s non-performance. Or, I could give them the sad reality I have found. Like my patrons, I too had sepia-toned ideas about memory and time and narratives passing down the generations. I forgot that not enough time post-independence has passed for us as a people to be at ease with our past. Economic circumstances may have gotten better but for many the changes have been incremental. Social mobility continues at the pace of a Giant African Snail. Walls dividing neighbourhoods may have come down but custom still dictates where you are welcome.
Memories are things we have a place in our history for. Trauma is the stuff that has not yet found its place. What I found was the trauma of the unfinished and the unspeakable that refuses to take its place in history. Our experiences cannot yet be done and dusted and offered up for history. And how do I stay true to that trauma without neutralizing it through art? Answers appreciated before 28 July.