Documentation excerpt from the event, ‘Slow Violence, Tracing the Invisible’ – a film in real time (bike ride) produced in collaboration with residents of the Lower Ninth Ward/ Holy Cross. The live film was shown on Instagram.
Counting, walking, getting lost, then dissolving into the landscape. Such is the movement in which Elsa Brès involves us in Sweat, a film shot in the Mississippi delta. At the very beginning, at the pace of a walker, the mischievously incomplete count of steps, captured in fragments. A scansion that is both a recollection of the first mapping of the delta (as suggested by the outfit), and an elementary impulse to measure the world. An opening gesture that the film quickly erases to better go with the flow, drift, and immerse us into the meanderings of the river, between flood tides and overflowing. We drift from one nameless place to the next, following tributaries, through a luxurious nature, bearing scars of human presence and exploitation, like the gigantic oil complex we catch a glimpse of. Through this both sensorial and mental journey, between yesterday and today, while alluding to fruitless fights to try and tame the elements (flood, swarms of insects), the film gives prominence to brief encounters, either with men or animals. An invitation to let ourselves be absorbed into the very matter of a space with unstable contours, made of indecisively drawn banks, like so many convergence lines. Thus, Sweat draws the passage from a charted area to the shapeless, from the ridged map to the smooth space, to borrow Gilles Deleuze’s words. And here we are, plunged into an environment teeming with the noise of its inhabitants, rustling like so many cautionary news about the excesses of a delta that is lived-in, oozy, sweaty, as indicated by the title, like a body, a living organism. (Nicolas Féodoroff, from FIDMarseille catalogue)
Original version : English, French. Subtitles : French, English. Script : Elsa Brès. Photography : Elsa Brès. Editing : Elsa Brès. Music : Méryll Ampe. Sound : Elsa Brès, Maxence Ciekawy, Rémi Mencucci. Casting : Liam Conway, Alanna Maureen Geare, Libbie Allen, Chase Mathey, Telltales Collective, William Jackson. Production : Parkadia (Elise Florenty & Clémentine Roy). Distribution : Elsa Brès.
For the Corona Cookbook by Markus Miessen and Lena Mahr, Deltaworkers contributed a cocktail that has it’s roots in the history of creating cocktails during each residency season, brought to perfection during the Covid-19 lockdown.
The Mummke Pitt Mix in tall glass: 1,5 shot Vodka? 1/2 Grapefruit ? 1/2 organic Lemon 4 thin slices of organic Ginger from Whole Paycheck 6 fresh Black Mulberries 3 slices of Jalapeño Pepper Dash of Bitters ? Pinch Black pepper Steens to taste ? Shake of red ‘Slap ya Mama’ ?
Mix all ingredients together, stir, add ice to fill glass, and stir again. Wash hands with Florida Water before serving The Mummke Pitt. Canoe down any bayou?, one alligator distance apart.
?any not too sweet vodka is fine ?Louisiana Pink Grapefruit ? Underberg ? Sugar Cane Syrup ? Authentic Cajun Seasoning ?“Bayou” originated from the First Nation Choctaw word “bayok”, which refers to a small stream. The current spelling of the word comes from the Louisiana French variation of the word “bayouque.”
The Mummke Pitt is offered to you by the 2020 Deltaworkers New Orleans Corona Cohort: Artun Alaska Arasli, Carly Rose Bedford, Nhung Dam, Maaike Gouwenberg, Inas Halabi, Maggie McWilliams, Siegmar Zacharias, Jeff & Sugar the ??, and six ??????.
Bonus limerick from local New Orleans musician and friend Tom McDermott ?
Some people think I’m a goof; others might say I’m aloof. Now, I’ve assistance: with new “social distance” it’s easy to confound the truth.
Stupid smile in my new Nikes, down by the river that My ancestors linked to the stars.
I say, I’m grateful for the money and the time and then I cry boo hoo. Green totems stacked on my (male) brain with (white) glue (matter), Keep it high up so That Master can see I’m pretty enough To move my legs For a living, and I love to be alive but that Part’s mine. The trucks pass by and Must think I’m crazy I’m Running Really Running Until I fly and the stars waterfall out the sky
Into the water. Running while Crying A freshwater whale Song next to the water, Cry like Diamondback shake Picking up silver Foil and enjoying myself way Too much, crystal Sweat and Heavy cursing under Smoker’s breath that’s my secret Propaganda, It’s what I have I can’t throw it away because that’s how I was raised To be more than I am.
Knowing those Dirty constellations. What stars in the dirt? My Finger pull At small scrubby weeds, part Gray flakes from Eczema I got served for Free. For free! Next to my lover’s profile picture I place a piece of it.
I don’t need to Go to Natchez, my Bitches, I Only know the Olu Dara song about love and that’s Enough telescoping For me.
I make Friends with Weapons I’m not surprised, I know All About It and I’m on their Side.
When I Meet with the man from Shell I play it like I’m mad I wear sunglasses And slurp my Iced coffee that He ordered for Me. It feels weird cause really I have a car And I love TV and the Smell of gasoline but I don’t mind wearing horror makeup Almost ever it makes me feel more like myself Disarms people In power I let them think I’m a Dumb Faggot I’m more of a Lost lesbian Goblin.
When I meet Wilma, dirt chemist, Heavy blue Blankets behind her Lids Roaming through gas and listening for dogs in The River, I say, I got too scared to go in above my shins. She knows Trouble from God gonna Get in, above my waist one Day and it’s okay to get angry sometimes and Kick a door in and say DARNIT and be pulled apart by the dust from Old Stars and Be technical about things I only heard about on the Internet and In Bars. Learn to Defend yourself Love yourself in Front of Some MAGA Men driving Too fast down the highway near The plant by your House, where your grandchildren are sleeping where you are supposed To feel safe, where Surround is an appropriate tactic of Mourning and Retaliation, she Sweet syrup pink skin and tired eyes, she say DARNIT like she’s a tired black lady, and my mother is a tired black lady.
When I go to a zone Where I Am Seen In the most Racist state In the country, Where I Said I Would never Ever Ever go, They call me “Brother” Say “Our ancestors blood” And crush me. I am destroyed. I join our dirt lost Whale song Tears I bring seeds I’m from a city I Can’t know. I bring Crumbs Back to my lover, to Pray over I put my anger out to the Sound of Rotten carp crackling in the Reservoir I Slouch by the Pearl River with my hydrophone and trap soundtracks I Record the toilet Flushing in the gas Station for Comfort. I am A ghost baby floating in the
Water. Watching and not Knowing how to Speak or move in this clown-ass heat. She said It’s about that Time I had To run Which time? I’m stunned from a snake next to water at night.
I leave The critique Cause its About field and I “ain’t” about to Be that lost Lonely figure Wrapped in Anger in The middle of some Pastoral scene.
My friend come to visit And get stopped at the door Cause his Stories were too long and He was my family and The cops targeted him and I say “Overcooked pasta” and then kick a door.
I can’t see The Dollar Store kids it Reminds me of something I tried to Forget, it’s the truth that
I’m really a boxer, Imma stick Out my chest at the chicken spot and Men will respect me, I could be in Law school, I got Issues.
I seen skinny men in Heavy spaces, rattling Saying I could. The Persmission I could learn to carry how I am Black everybody Knows its an inheritance You just cannot throw Away even if It makes you a more difficult person to understand, says the tattoo I wanna get On my face.
I once had Two tits but Still cry Remember when you Get hidden By rules you didn’t make up? Live the politics Underneath expletives Imagined enemies Shout at you in Your history that becomes The stop sign of
Research dreams. 80 hours of Crumbling walls next To the river to get Into Soggy fingers Glinty shards Grills and peels of yellow onion And silver wrappers. And How to how to In the way I can handle a tub of dirty wires It’s a Swamp too. Thank you.
I never did well in groups, still don’t. A few years ago my kindergarten librarian had tracked me down on Facebook. She wrote a short message: “I remember you well, always sitting in the corner of the library all by yourself, your head in the clouds”. I too remembered her well. I did not respond.
Growing up in a relatively affluent environment in post-communist Poland, the worst punishment my parents could ever possibly bestow on me was to introduce me to other children in the hopes of germinating a play session.
Playgrounds, playrooms- the stuff of horrors to me, the site of inevitable humiliation and loneliness. Still, throughout the years, as my mum flipped through club-med catalogues advertising for perfect, family-appropriate holidays in Tunisia, she would look over at me wistfully: ‘they have a children’s club!’. Fat chance- halfway there, as the child-safe gates came into view, I would double up in the heat, become a stone fixture among the palm trees. Scooped up and taken away, much to my mother’s disappointment, I would never walk down that miniature path again.
As I grew up, I did have friends, I did become sociable, but the problems I had with being initiated into a group remained. I would become reactive, cold, arrogant, before I eased into the idea that the people surrounding me were not necessarily out to get me, but by that time considerable damage could have been done. I would often miss my chance at becoming ‘one of’ something. One of the family, one of the team, one of US.
See this picture of my kindergarten class all dressed up like princesses and pirates? I am the pig.
All this to say, the prospect of joining a house full of artists (“Wait, what does artist residency mean? I don’t get it”, “It basically means artists living together somewhere for a certain amount of time”, silence) did fill me with some dread.
Especially since, after years of abhorring anything faith-related (the way in which religion is used as a shaming tool in Poland will do that to you; the predominantly literal interpretation of scriptures anywhere else will too), painstakingly deconstructing anything I came across (without bothering to reassemble it into something that could actually help me function)- I was finally going through a spiritual renaissance of sorts, my own brand of faith, one that I knew I couldn’t easily explain and that would not make any prospective initiation rituals any easier.
I had come into an unshaken conviction that there is no separation between biology and mysticism, God and us, metaphor and science, right and left, allegiance-fueled identities and tyranny. Prodding the limits of the things you are comfortable to associate yourself with had become a practice to me, engaging with ‘evil’ and understanding its position in a long history of inherited or learned trauma a sort of religion. A return to scriptures which- whether you like it or not- have informed the way our societies have been structured, was in order if I was to understand what archetypes our passive, active and reactive behaviours were infused with. Some anecdotes I found incredibly helpful in understanding human nature, others less. But that is tricky to wear on a name tag: my religious views are nuanced and I believe in God (the cosmos, the spiritual matrix)- but not in icons. The image often denigrates the cause it aspires to serve, banalises the complexity of a belief. If I am anti-anything, I am anti-icon.
At this stage in my internal development, there was arguably no better place to explore than New Orleans. The residency was both as difficult as I dreaded and a completely natural situation to be in. It felt very fitting given the portals that were opening up in my mind, and yet tough on account of my well-camouflaged social anxiety.
Not least because of how polarised U.S. society currently is. As I ventured into the streets of New Orleans, with a surprisingly large proportion of encounters I felt- and believe this is not just paranoia- shrewdly scanned for my allegiances. It is as if a whole lot of contemporary Americans are now completely fluent in some form of ‘Newspeak’: the right combination of slogans will unlock approval or disapproval with you interlocutor, depending on their ‘tribe’, and on whether they classify you as part of it or not. Disapproval is invariably synonymous with refusal to engage- or blacklisting, to be blunt. It is exhausting, and it is scary. There is no longer any tolerance for nuanced views, for overt thinking and searching. You may not lend your ear to just anyone, you may not give most people the benefit of inquisitiveness. You are either with us, or against us.
This is the oldest trick in the book. When you refuse to engage with people who may not share the same political views as you, when you regard them with a mix of superiority and contempt (at best, condescendance), you effectively start dehumanising them. This is the first step to any reign of tyranny, no matter the guise of political or social cause.
Whilst this polarisation is happening all over the world, the U.S. seems like a particularly vulnerable target for partisan propaganda given its short history and memory.
But I digress. While it was difficult having to hear and at times regurgitate doublespeak, it was invaluable in terms of having to bolster my own sense of sincerity or truth. In short, figuring out how to move through the world with a clear conscience– something which has, over the years, become the single most important thing to me.
During our stay at the residency, we were asked to do a presentation of our craft or process. In the context of my works, which contain a healthy dose of anger and cynicism, I decided to do a presentation on Forgiveness. This was met with much, much resistance. Forgiveness, I had forgotten, is still associated in many a mind’s eye with the institution of the Church. For me, part of my individuation (therefore liberation) was to elevate Forgiveness beyond the superficial edifices of any institution. There is a trend, one particularly smack-in-between-the-eyes in the U.S., of victimising oneself and attempting to fight for social justice from that position (and often using it as immunity to criticism). Being a victim is being in chaos. I know, I have been there. To encounter harm at the hands of a person, group or system that has never been brought to justice, or that has permanently affected your sense of worth, is destructive, painful and leads to inner chaos that is very difficult to navigate. And the problem with chaos is, it is a very difficult place from which to make decisions, bestow judgment, and protect yourself- let alone fight for a whole community. I do not want to claim any pretense to having found solid solutions for this predicament. However, for me personally, Forgiveness was key. If I can try to humanise people I deem to be wrongdoers either in the past or present, I can start to understand the probable fear, trauma, complex, manipulation or other self-sabotage they acted out of. If I can understand that, I might stand a chance at stopping that from developing within me, or the people around me. Forgiveness, to me, is about breaking a pattern and resolving inner chaos. And this includes forgiving yourself, as I do believe we all share the responsibility for the here and the now. Because when you forgive, you cease to be relative to one phenomenon, and become relative to a whole universe instead. For me at least, that is a much more expansive and instructive view.
Deltaworkers was an incubator for all of these reflections. Luckily, not a sanitary one. Messy, intimate and intuitive (not to say impulsive), like human life is and should be allowed to be. But, ultimately, it was practical and led to real developments with boots on the ground, rather than being just another exercise in diplomacy and CV-embellishment.
The process I underwent did eventually culminate in meetings and friendships I can describe as nothing less than magical. ‘Chance’ is just a nonchalant word for: the natural consequence of the mental labour you put into recalibrating your energies. That, is when your predestined magnet starts working the way it was always meant to.
During the residency, I started to believe in something God-like again, I shot my first and last gun, I drove my first pick-up truck minutes before I crashed into a sports car, and I fell deeply, deeply in love. Oh, the difference two months can make.
And we embraced it. We reached out our arms and extended our fingers to hold the air. We stole ambergris from beaches and musk from deer and rubbed it on our bodies not to mask but to emphasise our animalic odours. We sniffed each other like dogs and navigated with our noses as much as our eyes. We smelled for fear, for sex, for water. We wanted to be breathed. We slept outdoors in nests hairy and entwined for warmth where we emitted a collective odour so if all were still we couldn’t sniff where one body ended and another began.
And our dreams all smelled like moss.
But at some point we began to build an inside. and as we noticed that our odours were different we preferred to sleep alone. We sheltered, turned our backs against the breeze.
And got afraid of the smell of the outside
Decided it was dirty.
It came in on the night air seeping Under doors Suspended in the wind Creeping off the swamp From the sea From the poor Rising out of graves and came through open windows and orifices So by the time you smell it it’s already in your lungs. We believed that it brought with it yellow fever, clymidia, syphilis, the black plague, cholera, amorality, poverty.
The monks identified the stench of adultery on amoral women. 4 People died from the smell of the prison as they walked by from the stench of incarcerated sin.
We tried to use even fouler smells as scent gargoyles to scare off the miasmas.
We drained civet from otters. We smoked cigarettes so the smoke made private clouds around our bodies. We sucked the air out of churches after worship and pumped it into brothels to remoralise the gases.
The local council made a shaded place in the park where we could safely dispose of miasma we had picked up involuntarily. We held our breath as we walked past beggars, criminals or rag-pickers.
When this didn’t work then we started to fight it We shot the breeze, fired canons at the swamp to try to kill the air itself. We covered up our orifices against possibilities: infection, impregnation, stagnation. We drained the swamp, chlorinated the river and burned the boats because everyone knows that boats are just floating swamps.
We wore scented masks, built air conditioning and double-glazed windows.
We caught the the miasma in filters, shut it out and starved it.
We weaved our clothes out of lavender and perfumed our food and our lovers with Chanel no 5.
We used Listerine to remove the Miasma from our breath and dislodge it from our molars.
We declared baths immoral.
We rubbed ourselves all over with lard or Vaseline so the miasma couldn’t collect on the surface of our skin and enter through our pores.
We deodorised the proletariat and broke the union of the comrades in stench who worked with sweat and trash and sewage. And apart from the artists and the philosophers everyone was pleasantly odourless.
And after some years we thought we had succeeded, the battle was over and the miasma was gone. We declared a new war on Germs.
We could now breathe freely but we couldn’t touch or lick the sweet lead paint from the walls. We developed a new vocabulary of plastic gloves, Tupperware, soap and sanitizer and showered daily.
The air lost its elasticity and when you stuck out your tongue you tasted nothing.
But through all these years the miasma waited in the recesses of the earth The ground inhaled the fermentations from the surface and accumulated them in foul-smelling vaults and hollow sulfurous, fingers where we had mined for salt. Bursts of air spewed forth under the gulf of Mexico and gathered forces in oil refineries, sink holes and sewers Miasma breathed in by volcanoes was trapped in the hardened lava and waited to be fracked. It lay evolving, waiting, bubbling.
In the peripheries of my nose one day I was aware of a smell of woodsmoke and burning sugars and suddenly I was a kid again toasting marshmallows my hands and face hot from the bonfire. The next thing I knew I was leaving Walmart with a 14-person tent I purchased for 239 dollars before tax.
After this things get worse. The Miasma is an invisible enemy. It crawls inside our memories and mines for emotion. Those who do not have their nostrils stuffed with tissues, spontaneously stop talking mid-sentence, stare into the distance and start to cry. It manifests in the chemical combination of your grandfathers cigar smoke and aftershave, in the house you lived in before it got torn down, in the smell of your trauma.
The Miasma travels in on the highway of nasal nerves that circumnavigate the cerebrum.
It brings armies, weeping to their knees and makes angry police dogs roll over on their backs whimpering like puppies.
It grows stronger Peaches give off the aroma of burned garlic Freshly cut grass emits the scent of human sweat Flowers start to smell like petroleum and babies heads produce a strong odour of flowers so bees land on and try to pollinate them. The miasma grows so strong and omnipotent eggs stop being fertilized because sperm can’t smell them.
We close down our borders and declare a state of emergency but the gases blow over the walls, in through our ears, across the barbed wire, come from above and below.
We try to outsmart it, to breathe only bottled air. We impart a travel ban on molecules but they just ignore it.
We realize we cannot win and try to surrender to the odours. The miasma grows, in depth, in strength, in musk it reaches up our noses and shakes our olfactory nerves loose from their sockets.
And in the end all that we smell is the wet green scent of our brains.
In the end all that we smell is the wet green scent of our brains.
Residencies are not an easy thing because they are actually an easy thing: you are applying to be invited to visit a space. Thus, those who are lucky enough to be invited are also the ones who get to leave, those who can be present like a tide – coming and going, rising, reclining.
I wonder about using a water metaphor in this city. In 2007 engineers from The Netherlands were awarded 150 million dollar to ‘bring’ their ‘Delta Works (de deltawerken)’ knowledge to ‘help’ improve the levees in New Orleans.
This is a photo I took on the bridge towards the Lower Ninth Ward, where our residency house is based, on a Saturday morning, 7 am. I tried to capture the fog and I tried photographing the broken bridge or maybe it was a pathway but it is obviously broken, and I thought about a line by Adrienne Rich. I googled and found: ‘the thing I came for: / the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth’. The artists demand to experience something ‘real’. The privileged demand to experience something ‘real’.
While in New Orleans, I got to experience speculative fiction writer N.K. Jemisin reading a story from her book How Long ’Til Black Future Month?. She reads about Tookie living in the Lower Ninth Ward while Katrina hits. Magical dragonlike figures appear in the story, but it was my most real experience of the neighbourhood since being there.
When I just arrived I said New Orleans right. A friend of a friend traveling through Amsterdam had told me it wasn’t New Orleeeens but New Orlahns. I felt happy when this was rewarded with the joy of a ‘real’ New Orleanian. I didn’t appear to be a tourist, I was only a ‘transplant’ (a word I’ve honestly never heard until arriving in New Orleans, where the use of the word surprised me daily, as it refers to a person or people, less than a structure: gentrification). But then, how disguising is the ability to blend? How telling which bodies can blend, just by pronouncing something ‘right’?
I met so many wonderful people. One of them said: it is hard to tell the difference between water and ground, here. The here – where here is located – apparently still clear. Another person said: Nature always wins here.
I’ve sensed a lot of truth in New Orleans because I’ve heard many, many conflicting stories.
Is it nature that wins? During her reading at Tulane University, N.K. Jemisin asked the audience several times whether she pronounced the street names in her stories right. Jemisin has lived in New Orleans several years. She currently lives in NYC. She knew but now she didn’t know how to pronounce those names. Is it nature that takes over or is it layers, added layers that create new shapes, sometimes resulting in forgetfulness?
I’ve met a lot of people involved with oral history. I participated in a workshop by the Oral History Project Louisiana and encountered oral historians discussing different techniques of transcribing and documenting audio files. I’ve listened to all of the Last Call: queer histories / queer futures podcasts, documenting intergenerational conversations on dissolved and reappearing lesbian and genderqueer life in New Orleans. Does water add a layer, fuse what is present or does it wash away loose surface? Does water create listeners?
After her talk Jemisin asked the audience to please come up to her and tell her when she got something wrong in her writing – in this case on New Orleans – but also on transgender experience, disability, cultural heritage. She asked to bring new layers.
In 3,5 weeks, I’ve experienced different layers, while mostly experiencing the haunting presence of so so so many more. This city’s psychopolitical multitudes, this city’s sticky love (as opposed to instant love, nothing feels instant here). I’m swamped.
As a participant in a residency program, I find it hard to believe I haven’t been eating hands while here.
I did go to see gators. I came across this sign on the do’s and don’ts. I especially stuck to the warning that alligators do not know the difference between a hand and a hand-out.
Is getting lost the most humble thing to do when entering a space, when encountering a body – or bodies? Or is getting lost a colonial romantic notion that accounts for a lack of responsibility?
Speaking of colonial romanticism, I came across this mural in the city. I don’t know what kind of wilderness is assumed here, with the beard and the pyramids, but I’ve heard there is a lot of debate about murals from artists from ‘outside’. Murals made for tourist are made to leave their site – too non-sticky for here.
In 2007 engineers from The Netherlands were awarded 150 million dollar to ‘bring’ their ‘Delta Works / Deltawerken’ knowledge to ‘help’ improve the levees in New Orleans.
The first day I arrived I went for a run on the levee in Holy Cross, in the Lower Ninth Ward. I spotted a line of graffiti that I felt was speaking to me, an arriving Dutch. I thought about taking a picture but refrained: it felt impolite to capture such ephemeral authority. Every day, I’d pass the words. On my last morning, I didn’t feel like running, but went anyway: I wanted to take a picture of the graffiti before leaving. Somehow, suddenly, the letters were obscured. Someone or something had tried to erase: ‘It’s a mixed blessing / to be brought back from the dead.’