Jesmyn Ward

There is beauty to be found in the lives of my characters

The latest novel from the awarded writer Jesmyn Ward is a sinister road trip through the poor South of the United States. Sing, Unburied, Sing is the first of her novels to be translated into Dutch. I meet her in a coffee shop close to her favorite bookstore in New Orleans.

One of your favorite quotes is by William Faulkner: “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” After reading Sing, unburied, Sing I think I understand life in America’s poorest state a little bit better. Is this what you set out to do?

One of the reasons I appreciate that quote so much is because I’m a black writer from Mississippi. There are stories there that need to be heard. I want to tell the forgotten stories. That’s why I had to write this book.

You tell the story of Leonie, an addicted black mother from Mississippi. She has two bi-racial children: Jojo and Kayla, for whom she’s doesn’t care very well. That’s the job of her parents. Leonie, Jojo, Kayla and Misty (a friend of Leonie) set out on a road trip to pick up the children’s white father Michael, who has been released from Parchman Farm Prison. This goes against the will of the grandparents, because the trip takes place during schooldays. What sparked the idea for this story?

I wanted to write about a road trip through modern Mississippi, where strange things would happen to a family. Then I started to do research, and soon I read more about Parchman. The story that I initially set out to make wasn’t enough. That wasn’t where the fire was. It was in Parchmen. Black people were detained for the smallest things, like vagrancy, and forced to work. They were enslaved. Amongst these people were also minors, children like Richie. I just had to write about them, I realized the moment I started reading about them.

Richie is a spirit from the past who was brutally murdered as child, like many inmates. He’s a ghost from Parchman Farm Prison who travels back with the family after they pick up Micheal. What was it like to embody him?

I wanted to give him a voice. I wanted it to be believable. I wanted it to take place in the present. To do all those things I had to make him into a ghost. I had to construct a world where ghosts exist. As real, as vivid as possible. Never before had I used magical realism in my work. I had to do it. I wanted to show that the past still resonates in the present. That’s why he had to be a ghost. Only in the tenth revision I dared to do it.

Why then?

I had to embody a child that really existed, knowing that the child was tortured and died a horrifying death. That had to be done right. Personally it was hard because of my brother [Ward’s brother died at nineteen in a car accident; killed by a white man who was drunk driving. She wrote about it in her memoir Men We Reaped, Ed.] In everything I write I create a shadow of my brother, to keep him alive in a certain way. If I don’t write about him, who will? Richie is the most important character for me. He brings the past and the present together.

You have revised the novel fifteen times. What changed with every draft?

First I write a rough draft. If I discover a flaw four chapters in, I keep writing forward. I don’t go back to the beginning. Then I let it sit for two to three weeks. After that period of time I make a list of improvements. I go over the list one by one. I go back and do a complete revision with just the first point. That’s how I work through the list. My fear is that I mess up if I deal with all of them together at once. Only when that’s done I’ll ask a group of writer friends to please read it. I’ll give them three months. After I have revised their feedback, I’ll send it to my editor. I was lucky with Salvage the Bones; there were not a lot of notes. It didn’t go like that with Sing. On almost every page there was a note. With every book I write, I fear “how do I get all of this in?” I’m in no way a confident person, especially when it comes to my work. I feel inadequate.

You won the National Book Award twice, for Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing, last year you received the MacArthur Genius Grant. How is it possible that you still feel insecure? And how do you cope with feeling that way?

It’s who I am. I can’t change that. I feel so desperate to tell stories. The need to do so is bigger then my insecurity. That wins.

On the way back from the road trip the family is being pulled over by the police. Almost everything that can go wrong, goes wrong. How did you set up this chapter?

During the writing of this novel, almost every month a black man was being killed by a policeman. I knew from the beginning that they had to be pulled over. They’re poor, they drive a shitty car, the mom is black. I knew that scene was coming, but still I wasn’t emotionally prepared. I don’t plot, I’m a pantser. That moment was important; I didn’t know what would happen. I wrote blindly. Maybe Jojo would die. I know the characters well, they lead me. I think it’s important that I didn’t know. I think the reader feels that.

The contrast between the poetic prose and the harsh environment of the story is very distinctive. Was that a deliberate choice?

My prose is poetic because of that. I’m not sure if this also counts for the Netherlands, but in the US there is a trend to write clean, straight forward, without adjectives, no metaphors. That’s not what attracted me to literature. Those things made me love reading. I think my work would be very hard to read if the prose was spare. I feel like there has to be some beauty to endure. It also shows that there is beauty to be found in the lives of my characters. Leonie might be a bad mom, but in her heart she has love for her brother.

Even though Leonie neglects her children, I did feel sympathy for her. How was that for you?

In the beginning, I had a hard time writing from her perspective. Jojo came to me first. He demanded that I tell his story. Leonie was difficult. She’s awful to the people who love her. Still I can’t change her, she is who she is. What if she lost a brother, I thought. Is it possible she’s so horrible to everyone because of grief? Then I wrote about how her brother had lived and how he died. Then Leonie made sense. She can’t sit with loss. She glances at it, but can’t sit with it. In order to be healing you have to learn how to sit with it. Leonie keeps running away from it. Everyone who has lost someone knows it won’t go away. You have to accept the pain. You hurt, you cry.

You say you can’t change Leonie even though you are the writer. Could you explain that?

It’s hard actually to explain. A character presents itself. As a writer I can build on that, but the core will remain the same. That’s impossible for me to change.

Do you know women like Leonie?

Unfortunately, yes. I come from a really small town in Mississippi where mostly working class or poor people live. It’s a very tight community, generations after generations keep living there. A lot of the people have to walk a tightrope. They live from hustle to hustle, being hungry and poor. Lots of them fall prey to addiction. Age range from teens to elderly. Everything comes later to Mississippi. For a long time it, was crack cocaine. Now it’s meth and opiates. It’s not an easy thing to try to solve. There’s so much behind addictions, like poverty, stress of racism, bad education, so many factors. Drugs are a secret relief. That’s what it is to Leonie.

In your acceptance speech for your already second National Book Award you started with a rejection from a publisher early on in your career: “People will not read your work, because these are not universal stories.” Thousands of people read your work, it will be translated into many languages. Your stories prove to be very universal. What is it in your stories that make them indeed so very universal?

The publication of my first novel was a battle. The first reaction often was: why is this relevant? If your characters don’t look like the majority, your work is not recognizable. People are looking for similarities. After winning the first National Book Award, people started to see something. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to maintain relationships? What does it mean to love someone and lose them? Yes, these are stories about black poor people, and they are just as relevant. They are universal.

Narrated botany

Plants narrate. They tell us stories about ourselves. They create our fiction and illustrate our imagination. They tell stories in words we inflicted on them, but which we forgot how to read. In the 1868 November issue of Science Gossip (a monthly British popular-science magazine), an unknown author (signed H. C. Richter) wrote an article entitled “Vulgar names” in which he states that vulgar names of plants present ‘a complete language of meaningless nonsense, almost impossible to retain and certainly worse than useless when remembered – a vast vocabulary of names, many of which signify that which is false, and most of which mean nothing at all’.

I find vernacular plant names fascinating. They present our languages at their richest, most vibrating and imaginative. Common names of plants need not be formed according to any rule and can change as language, or the user of language, dictates. There is no convention governing the way common names can be written or applied. In fact, in their truest form, common names arise from common use by people in contact with the plants – most often by people who are not aware of the scientific naming of plants. These true ‘common names’ are therefore in a range of different languages, different scripts and not codified in any way. The same species of plant can have very different names in different places, and could have different names in the same place according to different groups of people. Sometimes names used by some people are adopted by others, sometimes the pronunciation gets corrupted in the process and the meaning of the words shifts. This makes the language of plants’ common names the freest language there is. The whole story of vernacular nomenclature is about misspelling, misunderstanding, mistranslating, construing, confounding, confabulating, transforming, transmuting, transposing, twisting, twiddling and turning. The language we use for plants pushes language to its limit, to its outside, to its silence. It seems to have a “foreign language within”, because it is in a constant process of overcoming itself, becoming-other or becoming-foreign to itself, perhaps becoming its own future and its own past.

Naughty-man’s playing1 careless2 with wind3, thunder-and-lightning4, shooting stars5, snow-balls6 and fire balls7, smoke of the earth8. Jupiter’s beard9 bristles10.
Its11 prior12 madness13 quickens14.
It-brings-the-frost15, snow in summer16.
Poor man’s weather glass17.

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1. Urtica dioica
2. Amaranthus retroflexus
3. Convolvulus arvensis
4. Ajuga reptans
5. Dodecatheon meadia
6. Cephalanthus occidentalis
7. Lychnis chalcedonica
8. Fumaria officinalis
9. Centranthus ruber
10. Setaria
11. Apios americana
12. Nicotiana tabacum
13. Heracleum maximum
14. Agropyron repens
15. Aster L
16. Cerastium tomentosum
17. Anagalis arvensis

The subtropical climate of New Orleans fosters an unending cycle of massive vegetation, dwarfing man and architecture by the vigour of its growth. Vegetal life thrives there without intention, builds without planning, takes over, adapts and feeds on fields, swamps, houses, roads and paths. The stupendous flora both colonizes and is colonized, controls and is controlled. Surrounding landscape can be seen as a microcosm of the global environment, manifesting both the challenges and possibilities inherent in the ways humans interact with urban and natural ecosystems. My interest in plants was fuelled by the saturated green environment of New Orleans region and is motivated till today by my curiosity to explore new disciplines along with the plasticity of language. During my 4 weeks residency Deltaworkers provided me access to information about plants and local vegetation. One of the most enticing places I visited with them was A Studio in the Woods, a nonprofit artist retreat and learning center near New Orleans, formed with the mission to protect and preserve the Mississippi River bottomland hardwood forest and to provide a tranquil haven where artists can reconnect with universal creative energy and work in the middle of woods. I hope to get back there for a stay and to observe and collect plants. I’m dreaming of compiling poetry-herbariums from different locations. The Louisiana one would start like this: “Devil and angel stick tight. Pricking monsters bind black nightshade with morning glory and purple daydream with ruby moon.” And would end like this: “Drunk Indian shot farmer’s friend. White sage’s long beard bristle with wind.”

I am interested in the subject of plant life, and, by extension, in the relationship humans have with plants as reflected in language. The general classification of plants as dangerous or useful, invasive or native, forming a “green Hell” or, instead, mirroring the “earthly Paradise” testifies to the political nature of our engagement with flora. Humans have forged strategic alliances with plants which are echoed in their naming, reflected by the words associated with them and by the expressive linguistic combinations used to identify various types of plants.

Yellow rockets1 poke2 yellow cosmos3,
Yellow sundrops4 spike5.
Silver comet6 rapes7 the blue of heavens8,
White false indigo9 sweeps10 thousand stars11.
All die12.

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1. Barbarea vulgaris
2. Phytolacca americana
3. Cosmos sulphureus
4. Oenothera serrulata
5. Lavandula
6. Cortaderia selloana
7. Brassica napus
8. Allium caeruleum
9. Baptisia alba
10. Centaurea nigra
11. Aster tripolium
12. Oenanthe crocata

Yet, what botanical nomenclature tells us is that we look at plants with a certain human bias. We anthropomorphize them. We give them attribution of human traits, emotions, and intentions. Plant names illustrate human characteristics or associations connected to human assumptions. The associative element in vernacular plant naming drew upon comparisons with parts of the human body and with bodily functions, upon their uses, taste, behaviour, effects on us, etc. Fanciful ideas of a plant’s association with animals, ailments and festivities, and observations of plant structures, perfumes, colours, habitats and seasonality have all contributed to their naming. However, all common names mostly refer to plant’s character in relation to humans, rather than to anything about the plant itself. The names we gave plants (mostly stuttering cultural meanings, patriarchal interpretations and assumptions in relation to our senses) are fascinating because of the malleability of our languages, but also because they are discerning facets of how narrowly we understand and communicate nature and reality.

Devil’s tongues1 speak2: look up and kiss me3.
Devil’s head4 and angel’s trumpet5 consound6.
Youth and old age7 bind8 with holly9 sin dew10.
world’s wonders11 live forever12.

_____________________

1. Sansevieria
2. Lavandula
3. Viola tricolor
4. Linaria vulgaris
5. Brugmansia
6. Symphytum officinale
7. Zinnia elegans
8. Convolvulus arvensis
9. Ilex aquifolium
10. Drosera
11. Mirabilis jalapa
12. Sempervivum

It is captivating to look at plants as texts. All of a sudden vegetation becomes a big dispersed chronicle containing information and an affective assemblage, a biosocial becoming, a biophysical landscape with which human actors are entangled. New Orleans was the perfect place to start to built a “plant thesaurus”, a bank of phrases, expressions and words of many variations with information about the corresponding plants.

Mother of thousands1, mistress of the night2, pulling3 dead man’s hands4.
Corps candles5 and organs6 stink7.
Dead man’s bones8 speed well9.
Rush10, rush skeleton11! Rush like Timothy12!

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1. Achillea millefolium
2. Polianthes tuberosa
3. Eriophorum spp
4. Dryopteris filix-mas
5. Verbascum
6. Origanum vulgare
7. Datura stramonium
8. Linaria vulgaris
9. Veronica chamaedrys
10. Equisetum hyemale
11. Chondrilla juncea
12. Crypsis schoenoides

Now back in Europe, I still collect vernacular plant names and I am trying to link them within a narrative. I also try to “read” them as they grow. Reading any green spot through vernacular terminology politicises and romanticises nature more than one would expect and we, humans, are always present in the story. When decoded into words, vegetation becomes a mirror, refracting our mental projections on the natural world. The words we use for it seems to unify the world of botany with the world of human nature, culture and language by creating a “strange inversion of reasoning”.

Field reading: Devil’s playing1 melancholy2, wind bent3 sword and spears4 all heal5, love leaves6 priest’s crown7.

 

Field reading: Lady’s slippers1 couch2 ranty-tanty3 passions4, fox’s foot5 and floating foxtail6.

Love lies bleeding1 speak2 sorrow3.
Password4: love in idleness5.
Fairies’ clocks6 rattle7 crazy8 time9,
True love10 trickles11 bleeding hearts12,
Melancholy13 cheats14 innocence15.

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1. Amaranthus caudatus
2. Lavandula
3. Rumex acetosa
4. Primula veris
5. Viola tricolor
6. Adoxa moschatellina
7. Pedicularis palustris
8. Rununculus acris
9. Thymus vulgaris
10. Trillium cernuum
11. Cardamine diphylla
12. Fuchsia magellanica
13. Achillea millefolium
14. Bromus
15. Collinsia

I try to unscramble (more or less) coherent “materialized texts” the syntax of which, in turn, is finding expression in the random growing of wild plants or in herbaria arrangements. Taking the plants’ highly allusive common names as a point of departure, I’m trying to unfold a (visual) anthology of stories, using the (names of) plants as “organs” of language. I like how filtering the human language through plants and the appearances they have generates some sort of weird poetry, both visual and linguistic; it is a language we can also see, rather than only a language as phonemes; plants can be visible logos, connecting words to the essence of being.

Black man’s posies1 ripple2 white man’s footprint3.
White archangel4 chuckles5.
None such6 crazy7 smart ass8 couch9 life everlasting10 patience11.
Remembrance12 cures all13 malice14. Mind your own business15.

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1. Lamium purpureum
2. Plantago lanceolata
3. Plantago major
4. Lamium album
5. Aquilegia canadensis
6. Medicago lupulina
7. Rununculus acris
8. Persicaria hydropiper
9. Arrhenatherum elatius
10. Sedum telephium
11. Impatiens
12. Lathyrus odoratus
13. Melissa
14. Malva sylvestris
15. Soleirolia soleirolii

I am often seduced to think there’s an etymological connection between the words “plant” and “planet”. There is none, but the connection between the two is much deeper than a linguistic one. The plants ARE our planet. They are perhaps the most fundamental form of life, providing sustenance, and thus enabling the existence of all animals, including us humans. But although they are everywhere – dead or alive, wood or food, grown or wild, meds or cloths, paper or ink – we only notice them in passing, mostly as a green background. Even if we do look at plants we don’t know much about them. There are relatively few plants known to the majority of people, in most cases they are anonymous and mute. I am trying to recover from this pandemic “plant blindness” and to understand how can learning about them teach us about ourselves. The idea of narrated botany is concerned with the nature and meaning of difference. Tales, legends, poetry, history, politics, are embedded in the names of plants, in the fields, forests, meadows, gardens… If observed in time, the fluidity of language is dissolved even more by the plants themselves. They are constantly “interpreting” and remixing any linguistic connections we can think of through their own language and behaviour (the way they dry, die, grow, colonize the space around or overtake each other’s territories), they underline or discard certain parts/words – some lines grow bolder, some flower in silence, some die out. Inhabiting the language and overlapping various modes of communication eventually develops into a “biosemiotic turn”, into a third, unpredictable message, a “text” out of control, a phyto-poem with surprising spirit.

Love entangled1 blind eyes2 see bright3.
Leap up and kiss me4.
Kiss me quick5, kiss me quick, mother’s coming6.
Kiss me over the garden gate7,
Blow me down8,
Touch me not9,
Forget me not10.

_____________________

1. Sedum acre
2. Papaver dubium
3. Salvia sclarea
4. Viola tricolor
5. Euphorbia cyparissias
6. Centranthus ruber
7. Polygonum orientale
8. Dianthus barbatus
9. Mimosa pudica
10. Brunnera macrophylla

Walls & Wills

During my time at Deltaworkers I created one of a series of film ‘sketches,’ tentatively called ‘Walls & Wills’. The film explores a movement American Painting called ‘Genre Painting.’ The film is my way of making sense of the current class struggles present in America.

In New Orleans, one is confronted with an increase in class disparity, an issue which dominates contemporary America, amidst other issues like poverty, racism, police violence, a crumbling infrastructure and so on. Aside from this, the city has an abundance of cultural offerings and beautiful natural surroundings. However, a street that divides two rows of houses may be much wider than it appears in regards to living conditions and opportunity.

Genre painting in the Golden Age, developed as an independent art form in Protestant Northern Europe, alongside the Dutch Realists of the 17th century, such as the Haarlem School, The Leiden School and the Delft School led by Jan Vermeer. In America, the movement flourished during the 19th Century, a time of intense social, cultural, economic and technological change. The paintings reinforced popular notions of American Identity and fundamental national values. Economic uncertainty and class conflict eruptions were not omitted from the scenes but were rather dealt with in an often humorous or proverbial manner. For instance many of the paintings depict card playing and gambling scenes or the raffling for a goose (see William Sidney Mount Raffling for the Goose) to express the fluctuations of economic boom and bust. The marginalized place of women and people of color in the public sphere were played out in paintings like ‘Laundry’ by John Thomas Peele, or Thomas Waterman Wood’s’ Reading the Gazette.’ Many of the paintings also depicted the new role of the man in society, for example ‘Young Husband: First Marketing’ in 1854 by Lilly Martin Spencer.

American Genre painting took place in the transformative years following the Civil War.  Like the old master Dutch painters, they created clearly delineated scenes, humorous domestic and rural scenarios, and were often didactic and moralizing. After the brutality of the Civil War, there was an effort to increase empathy within the hearts of Americans again. What attracted me to these paintings were the depictions of the fraught relationships between blacks and whites, men and women, and immigrants and native workers – issues that remain relevant to this day.

In ‘Walls and Wills’ you may recognize the famous ‘ Fur Traders Descending the Missouri’ (originally titled “French Trader & Half breed Son,” but changed for its sale to the American Art- Union) created in 1845 by George Caleb Bingham. These paintings often depicted tranquil scenes and were designed to appeal to the urban spectator as a contrast to the tensions that were undoubtedly stirring in the South during this time of transition.

The artists of the time acted as poets, historians and sometimes comedians. Their paintings now function as historical records, albeit fabricated – photography is of course today’s equivalent. Strength and stability can help us to sustain our culture if we have knowledge and look to the past as a way of understanding the future.  In ‘Walls & Wills’ I take the viewer into people’s homes, through doors and windows to discover a past that struggles with class, race and gender. The camera sometimes emerges onto the streets to experience a more contemporary scenario. The film weaves together the past and present in order to re-experience these painterly interpretations or records of New Orleans.

I would like to thank Deltaworkers, the Mondriaan Fonds and Camp Abundance for ensuring my introduction into New Orleans culture was a stimulating and informative experience.  I have developed a heartfelt love for this city and have met many new friends and collaborators. It was an honor to have the talented drummer Doug Garrison perform live for the final screening of my film in June.

Rattus Norwegicus

The following is a transcript from a performance that Siri Borge worked on during her residency in 2017.

Before I start this story- there are a few details that you need to know. This is a Christmas story, and it takes place in Stavanger, a city on the south-west coast of Norway. We have the Christmas dinner and open our gifts on the 24th of December, not on the 25th.

This is a story about me and my friend Steffen, and it takes place Christmas eve, 2002. At the time I was 17 years old, and celebrated the evening with my Mother and her “friend”.

But few guests did not mean that I could get out of the dress code tradition, so all three of us were wearing our classiest outfit to make the dinner party feel like a real celebration. Despite the fact that we are all non-believers.

After the appropriate amount of time hanging out with my mother and her friend, I was allowed to go visit my friend Steffen, and they even gave what was left over of the Aquavite- a traditional Norwegian, 40% hard liquor, that taste like liquid wood. Not that a 17 year old cares that much about what free liquor taste like.

Steffen was 16 years old, all alone, in a big house, celebrating Christmas eve- for the first time in his life. He grew up as a Jehovah witness, and Jehovah doesn’t celebrate Christmas. Steffen came out as gay to his parents in the summer that year, and told them he would not be baptized. And as long as you opt out before being baptized, you won’t get shunned. But you will not be invited to go to the family cabin in the mountains during Christmas either.

I walked right into their house, finding Steffen rolling a fat joint on the kitchen table. He had also dressed up for the occasion, wearing black pants with a plaid skirt, black nail polish and eyeliner. It must have been lonely but at the same time liberating for him. It certainly was for me. The days leading up to Christmas, he had stayed away from the house, staying with one of his lovers. I proudly presented him with the Aquavit, and complimented him on his rolling skills, which had improved greatly the last months. We smoked up, talking about boys and stupid parents, and about how Christmas would be when we moved out. We felt very mature.

Walking upstairs to use the restroom, i passed his bedroom. The door was halfway open, and the odour leaking out into the hallway was quite intense.

“Steffen, you pig!” I said when I came downstairs. “If you’re going to have pet rats, you could at least clean the cage! It stinks!” I told him.

Steffen looked at me surprised “I cleaned it a couple of days ago, it can’t be that bad!” He said.

I stuck my finger in my throat and rolled my eyes too make a point, and he went upstairs to check the cage.

I heard a high pitch scream coming from upstairs, followed by him dramatically running down the stairs.

“WTF is wrong?!”

“THE RATS….” he cried, “The rats! They killed one of their own!”

Steffen had two white female rats, and recently introduced a third rat to the party. They are social animals, and the owner thought it would be best to give this rat to Steffen, so it wouldn’t be too lonely after it’s sister died.

He went on describing the bloodbath in the cage, and how the the new rat had looked him straight in the eyes while holding the lifeless- and now headless cadaver of his pet rat between her paws. They were both bloody around their mouths, so they had been in on it both, he concluded.

“I used to have 3 rats, now I only have 2 and a half!”

What follows next is events that might have been very different if under adult supervision, if we were not stoned, and if we had internet in our lives. Here goes:

Me: This really scary thing happens when proteins from meat gets into the diet of a pet rat. It will actually become more aggressive, and crave blood. They can’t help it, it’s a chemical reaction.

Steffen: And they ate another rat, so they are basically cannibals now.

Me: So, basically- you will be alone in a house with cannibalistic killer rats.

Steffen: What to do?

Me: Well, we have to kill them.

Steffen is a patient and empathetic boy, and he truly did love his pet rats. Before me he did not really have any friends outside of Jehovah witness where most limit their social interaction with non-Witnesses, making his rats the friends who comforted him after numerous pray circles, with Steffen as the centrepiece where family and other witnesses tried to pray away the gay. However, being 16 years old, and home alone in this big house with cannibalistic rats was too much for the kid. He concurred.

Steffen: How? The vet is closed now, but I won’t spend a single night with them!

We discussed over drinks the best way to do this. Neither of us had any experience from farms, and even though Google did exist in 2002, we did not really know how to use it.

I suggested hammer to the head. It seemed so brutal at the time, and since I did not want to touch the rats, and Steffen never hurt a fly in his life, this was too violent for his taste.

We looked for poison, there were none. Ibuprofen overdose? Nah, they won’t eat it. Drowning? No. Rats are great swimmers.

Then we figured that since people die all the time from carbon monoxide poisoning, without even knowing that it’s happening- this would be the most humane way to kill the rats.

As luck would have it, Steffen’s mother left her car in the driveway, and the keys was just lying there, between our shitty hashish and liquid pine tree liquor on the kitchen table.

I resolutely grabbed the keys and and said to Steffen: Get me a towel, and a bucket with the two rats in it. We met by the car, and I remember the bucket with the rats being a beige, vintage plastic bucket with brown flowers on it. I later learned that his mother had a full set of cleaning supplies with the same pattern on it.

Anyways, Steffen turned on the car and let the engine run in park. I placed the towel over the bucket containing the two rats, doing my best not to look at them. I glanced over at Steffen who gave me a determined nod, and proceeded to put the exhaust pipe tight between the towel and the bucket.

At first it went precisely as we expected, there was no sound or movement, and we waited for the rats to fall asleep.

Suddenly they started to run around in circles in the bucket, very very fast, and I looked over at Steffen who was just as terrified as I was:
Me: What should we do?! Can I stop??

Steffen yelled: NO, JESUS CHRIST, DON’T STOP NOW, THEY ARE PROBABLY PISSED OFF AND BRAIN DAMAGED!

I kept holding the bucket still, feeling like the biggest asshole in the world. Then, they started to jump. They were big rats, and they jumped so high that you could see their heads in the towel, like small ghosts. Steffen was screaming, and I was laughing nervously and loud.

After a while the jumping stopped, and the only sound you could hear was from the car engine. “Meheheheeeep”, the bucket said.

Steffen: This is NOT funny, Siri, don’t make that sound!!

I turned to him with a serious stare, and then we heard it again: “Meheheheeeep”. The final death rattle from his beloved rats.

Just to be sure I held the bucket for a little longer, put the bucket down, and shut off the engine.

Steffen removed the towel and looked into the bucket: “I’m pretty sure they are dead, the pupils have dilated”

Me: Do they even have pupils to begin with?

Steffen: Well, Siri, they shat themselves, I think that’s evidence enough!

I agreed.

With his head hanging low and the bucket in his hand, he headed towards the bio trash bin. Norwegians recycle everything, but this might be taking it too far…

Me: Steffen, are you crazy? Are you throwing dead rat bodies in the bio waste?!

Steffen: Uhm. Yeah?

I was not sure if this was a bad or a good idea, and I did not know where the bio waste actually went or how it was processed, but it would be a gruesome sight for his parents returning from their non-Christmas.

Me: Have you never seen “I know what you did last summer?!

“Do you want murdered cannibal rats to haunt you?!” Whispering: “I know what you did last Christmas…”

Off course he agreed.

This taking place in Stavanger in Norway, the ground was frozen solid in december, so a proper burial was out of the question.

After a quick brainstorming, we decided on a Viking burial. Burning the evidence. While I rolled a joint to take away, Steffen gathered his 2 and a half rats and the bloody saw dust from the cage in the bucket, turpentine and some old newspapers. In Norway the age limit for getting a licence is 18, so none of us were legally qualified to drive, and contemplating the fact that it would be completely irresponsible of us to drive while under the influence- we decided to steal his mother’s red Toyota and drove to the nearest lake with the bodies in the trunk. After all, it was freezing outside.

The streets were empty, everyone was inside, still opening gifts and eating seven kinds of cakes. We drove the car as close to the lake as we possibly could, our logic was to get water from the lake to put out the fire if it got out of hand.

Steffen did the honors and sat it all on fire. I remember it being a really beautiful night. The sky was pitch black and clear, so we could see the stars. I don’t think we said much while the fire was burning, just smoking and spitting. And Steffen was soundlessly crying, both of us still wearing our finest outfits, freezing in the cold night.

Then I realized that the bucket we brought with us to get water from the lake, still containing the dead rats were melting in the fire. Because Steffen really did set it all on fire…

What are we going to do? How will we put out the fire? I ask Steffen.

Steffen: Well… I kind of have to.. uh. Pee?

I will never in my life forget the sight of my dear Steffen, with eyeliner streaming down his face, lit up by the fire, lifting his plaid skirt, pissing on the remains of his cannibalistic Rattus Norwegicus. And to this day, his mother is still looking for that beige, vintage bucket with brown roses.

A city within a city

Let us say a body is a city.

The veins would be streets.
The blood and neurons become the people walking those streets.

Nurture and genetics define the basic make up of the surroundings.
Is the city set in a mountainous region or is it sinking away in swamp land?
Does it have a mosquito problem?
Or is it situated in an agreeable sea climate?
All this shapes the architecture of a place.

Memories and experiences make up the history of this town.
They embellish the streets like scars adorn a skin.

And the heartbeat, well, that is time, mercilessly propelling everything forward.

This body, this city of mine, is moving. Although the outlines are defined and recognizable, and I have answered to the same name since my earliest beginnings, my city is constantly adding and evolving detailing that changes the whole.

I used to believe there was a clear identity at work within me.
Let us call it the mayor.
I was the mayor.
I got a final say in most of what went on in my town.
I was the law maker.
I called the shots.

It was me that got to say: ‘This is my town. This is what I stand for.

In New Orleans, I am a city within a city.
I cycle over the bust concrete roads of Nola and simultaneously trace the paths within me.
What made me come out here was sickness and sadness.
Cancer is some kind of natural disaster.
As is heartbreak.
This city knows pain.
 It knows sadness.

Here is what happened:
My mother got sick.
And as I held her hand
through bright red IV drips,
the infected wound cleaning,
the projectile vomiting,
the fearful nights,
the tense check ups,
I kept fear at bay
by a schedule divided
into clear cut appointment.

Staring at screens and numbers
and eventually
seeing her grow back hair
getting an appetite again
and being declared
clean.

Then I took a breath.
The first one in months
without thinking about death
and then
my significant other
left.

I sat at my desk, hours on end.
Motionless.
I did not know what I stood for anymore.
All laws seemed useless.
My itinerary could no longer guard me.
The laws had become redundant.
What I had believed in
was wiped out.

Working hard does not secure a safe future.
Being kind does not mean you will be treated alike.
Loving someone with all you have, does not make them stay.

These are truths.

I became unfit to rule.
I gave the reign to the people in my body.
All they said was: ‘flee‘.
And I did.
Just like he had done.
I left myself.
And now I am here.

Basking in that spicy, sticky Southern heat.
Disappointment drips out of my pores.
I let it sit, dry up and sweat again.
There is no use wiping it off.
There is always more.
There is no permanence.

Acknowledging that history is fluid.
Paradigms and values change.
Learning to accept that ever shifting of my city.
To sit through the unease.
The limitations of my will.

Maybe that is my real trouble.
Not that my lover left me
but everything leaves eventually.

Nothing is set in stone.
Not even stone itself.

I try to figure out what this place is that I move through.

I hear high pitched baby possums chatter underneath the house.
I sit on the toiletbowl and bend over to the floorboards.
They fall silent when I chatter back.

First week, I try to walk to the supermarket in shorts.
I get whistled at.
Men holler.
Applaud.
Leer.
Two guys jump out of a car, trying to coax me into the backseat.

We’ll take you anywhere, baby.

It is too much.
I feel threatened and painfully aware of my sex.
I turn around, walk back without groceries.
Something inside me hardens.

I want to be free.
I crave some kind of peace.
And I need to be safe.

Desire and reality clash.
This city of mine feels confining.
I need new laws to abide by
to accommodate this new surrounding.
To set boundaries for visitors.
To meet my needs.

New Orleans is a great city for restless souls.
I end up at a jock strap lube wrestling night.
Gorgeous bodies wrestle in a kiddy pool.
Digging fingers deep down in each others assholes.
Winners making out with losers afterwards.
The dolled up crowd cheers them on.
It is all good sport.

I sing my heart out at St Roch Tavern karaoke night.
They have all the rock ballads I love.
Hole, Garbage, Eurythmics.
GT’s are only four dollar.
I binge.

I listen to bounce music.
The aggressive undertones resonate with my mood.
The repetitive lyrics are like reruns
of memories and memories and memories.
What once was good, haunts me now.

I am so tired of being stuck on mental roundabouts. 
I am so tired of feeling sorry for myself.

I need to change my narrative.

Release your anger
Release your mind
Release your job
Release the time
Release your trade
Release the stress
Release the love
Forget the rest

I watch the Walmart videos.
Girls in skimpy outfits bend over in aisles.
They shake the meat off their bones
in between canned corn and pickles.
The camera never shows their faces.
But their cheeks fill the screen.
They transcend their female form.
They morph into titillating objects.

Moving from seductive to acrobatic monstrosities.

They play out the objectification that they are subjected to.
Overturn it by exaggeration.

Lust becomes fear.
Want turns into awe.

I take bounce classes at Dancing Grounds.
My teacher is a wild eyed, broad grinning force of nature.
Moe Joe, she calls herself.
You gotta make them tits fight,’ she yells at us.
She shows us how it is done.

Her body is not just dancing, it’s undulating.
Like some kind of digestive organ
processing
that gritty substance
called life.

To see her sweat, is to watch something done right.
Her beauty is captivating.
Natural.
Wide and unapologetic.
Celebratory.

I fall in love with her.
To be in love, is to be in love with yourself.
You perceive yourself through the eyes of the desirable other.
And you like what you see.

I learn the essence of attraction within me.
What makes men jump out of their car.
Follow me into stores.
Whistle, whisper, stare.
I thought it was just the banality of sex.

A societal programming that accepts micro aggressions.
A masculine image that is groomed by behavioural patterns.
A shape I just happened to fit that is en vogue.

But it is not.
Not just sex.
Not just ass.

It is the power.

Shaking’s not sexual.
Moe Joe says.
The body is an instrument.
It’s a drum.
People hear the call and they respond.
It’s about interaction.

The stacking of a spine.
The muscles that guard a fire.
It is the light that draws them.

I become more body
less mind.

Tornado warnings go out weekly in Nola.
I bike through intricate thunder operas.
I wait out rains coming down heavy as black metal.
I let my own storms rage on Messy Mya, Big Freedia, Katey Redd.
Every song I let go a little more.

I shake on an overheated beat.
I go to pieces.
I tear down.
I feel spacious.

Moe Joe tells me about the time
four white cops stopped her
for playing her music too loud.
How she was tasered
and jailed for two days.

How dare I
white woman
compare my body
to a town with toxic history
with racial inequality and violence.

I read Ta Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me
I learn about being a black body in the world.
How fragile it is.
How dangerous.
How easily destroyed.
How often blamed for its own suffering.

I finish the book and feel my privileges.
Every time I speak about my own pain,
I am ashamed.
It feels like I have too many teeth in my mouth.
Like my pain is unreal compared to others.

But still.
Pain is pain.
I hurt.

That too is a truth.

I think about my own body in space.
How I have imitated female archetypes.
How I spent it like cash.
What I got in return.
If it was worth it.

How I should stop turning my self image into a capitalist dream.

I learn to listen.
I learn to talk.
I learn to accept
my ignorance.

America is a slogan country.
Heading into town, I pass two signs daily that intrigue me.

Resistance must now become like breathing

and

Consider you might be wrong

Now I want to talk to about the monuments.
You know, the ones they have taken down.
Three generals of the Southern War.
Jefferson, Beauregard and Lee.

What once were monuments of pride and power
represent something wholly shameful in a different decade.

I bike from pedestal to pedestal
talk to protesters that have a problem with the rigidity of:

out with the old
in with the new.

They tell talk about a history
that is not as black and white
as it now seems.

I see a black veteran
sporting a flag for his military history.
I see a white mother tying a bonnet
on her black daughters head.

The generals,
they made history
even after war.

Beauregard adopted a black child.
Jefferson set free the slaves he inherited.
They worked with the new government
as best they could.

But still,

losers usually don’t get statues.

Symbols have power.
Especially in a struggling city.
Even though you cannot rewrite history,
you can put it into a different perspective.

I watch masked men taking down the statues.
Veiling themselves because they got death threats
and would like to live a little more.

We people love everything
staying the same.
There is safety in history.

Even tainted stories carry comfort.
We want something to hold on to
in this continuous letting go.

I think of the pedestals within me.
The pictures I put on there of what I once held dear
that now oppress me.

There is no permanence.
Acknowledging that history is fluid.
Paradigms and values change.
Learning to accept that ever shifting of my city.
To sit through the unease.
The limitations of my will.

Nothing is set in stone.
Not even stone itself.

It is time to change the narrative.
I am a city within a city.
A body in time and space.

The mayor has not returned to her seat.
She is still out
in the streets
among the people.

My will has become a voice in a crowd
that is sometimes calm,
sometimes in uproar.

Time is a muscle.
The heart beats through pain and love.
It is all movement
to the body, to the city.

The city does not mind the change.

We contract.
We undulate.
We struggle.
We let go.

We shake.
We dance.
We change.

This is history.

Metaphors to work by, roles to live by

The practice of the artist is hard to define, hard to consider, especially when dealing with a vast research that encompasses and compares people’s attitudes, the state of ecology and nature in both the Mississippi and Danube delta’s. 

As I travel around Louisiana in mad dashes of activities, searching out scientists, alligator trappers, hermits, ecologists, artists and rocketship builders, a question keeps crouching in the back of my mind: Who am I?

What am I doing here?

 

Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell,” Walter Benjamin writes in his essay about Leskov; ‘The Storyteller‘. But am I really just a storyteller? We could just as well say I’m the collector of Benjamin’s other famous essay ‘Unpacking My Library – A Talk about Book Collecting‘. I think about the notes I took, recordings and pictures I made and experiences I stored in the memory. 

In my travels, I took on many guises. Bike rider, joke teller, manic dancer, lover, friend, cook, communicator, question asker, daughter. But when I think about the times when I was most productive, happiest, I was like a fisherman.

My fascination for the Mississippi river started years ago, I think it’s rooted in the stories of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer and in my genes. My grandfather was a truck driver and he always preferred being on the road than at home following daily routines; a bit like a fisherman as well perhaps.

I would record the river, its flowing, its washing away of land, its pollution, and something else that I can’t describe and that might be poetry. I threw out my Hydrophone and GoPro in the waters of the Mississippi, of the Gulf of Mexico, in DA BAYOU, and I listened carefully to see what would get caught in my net. The recordings I collect document a moment in time, a minute, an instant, a specific state that will never be recreated again.

The psychic center

“The idea was to start in New Orleans and from there we had no plan.” This is a line from Joan Didion’s recently published notebook South and West, written during her stay in the South in June of 1970.
Further on in her notes she writes: “There was no reportorial imperative to any of the places I went at the time I went: nothing “happened” anywhere I was, no celebrated murders, trials, integration orders, confrontations, not even any celebrated acts of God. I had only some dim and unformed sense, a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center. I did not much want to talk about this.

I spent two months in and around New Orleans, Louisiana, with a plan that was similar in its ephemeralness to ms. Didion’s. I’ve been obsessed with the Medieval flagellants for quite some time now. From my studies, a number of themes emerged: the whip, the blood, spectacle, a claim on supernatural or mystical knowledge.

The image of the flagellants keeps haunting me, but I want to move this image to a contemporary setting, using a personal narrative of obsession as its basis.

The idea of the South as the psychic center appealed to me. It’s in many ways a religious place, a place where the occult still plays a role, where mystical, supernatural ideas keep their grasp on some people. In Cajun country, people whip each other during Mardi Gras. The whipping stems from the Medieval flagellants, some writers have claimed.

And so there we were. The flagellants believed they could overthrow the natural order of things by whipping themselves. Joan Didion believed she could learn things about California by visiting Louisiana. I believed I could learn things about the flagellants by visiting Becca, a Cajun ‘traiteur’, or traditional healer, in Scott, near Lafayette.

When I arrived – hungover, I admit with shame – Becca took me to a tree that was spiritually significant to her. Her identity is largely based on being part of the community, and for her there is a transcendent component to being part of Cajun culture. A travel writer from a different state who was drawn to Becca came with us to the tree. She talked about the energies she felt there, the colors she saw emanating from the tree. “Y’all are crazy if you don’t come check out this gigantic thistle”, she shouted from across the field. “There’s a ladybug on here!” We did not comply with her request.

Do you feel energy emanating from this tree?”, Becca asked me. I said I did not. It felt like a confession. Why was I feeling guilt?

Later in the car, I talked to Becca about the significance of the Courir de Mardi Gras for the Cajun culture, for the local communities. “It felt like an echo of a tradition”, I told her. Becca nodded in agreement. The travel writer chipped in and started explaining to Becca that Mardi Gras was actually only about money. “It’s transformed into something to lure tourists to Louisiana, which is good for those people”, she said. Becca was displeased by this notion. You should never try to explain someone’s own culture to them, I thought. So I took care to listen to Becca carefully.

That night, she read to me from a notebook. She told me stories about her life, how she was diagnosed with a mental illness, that she’s a cancer survivor. Being a healer helped her at first, but now she’s transforming into an artist. I wondered what I was, at that moment. I felt I came looking for a transforming miracle myself, but I wasn’t finding it. She told me about her amputated breast, which was very real, and she told me how her deceased daughter was giving her instructions – via a spiritual medium – about how to be the healer of Cajun culture itself. She wants to bring light and love to the darkness of her culture. “My daughter’s helping me heal the collective Cajun unconscious”, she said. Here then was mystical, supernatural information, and yet I couldn’t relate to it the way I could relate to the scar I imagined to be on her chest, or the grave Becca showed me where she would come to lie upon her death.

The next day, Becca took me to the place near where her daughter had violently ended her own life. I looked for a transcending experience, yet found beauty in this kind of emotional intimacy.

To Live in the South, One Has To Be a Scar Lover. That’s the name of the book Maaike Gouwenberg and Joris Lindhout made in 2011, referencing the writer Harry Crews.

Writing, researching, is traumatizing in an abstract way, because the fabric of your expectations is always being torn up. Thankfully, scars can be very appealing. Just wait ‘til you see mine.

Somewhere at the bottom of my memory are the sunken remains of all the films I have ever seen

What the fuck are you looking at? Why are you staring at me?

He tells me, irritated, one of three guys sitting on the porch of a house on – I don’t know what street. I would have replied “ah no, sorry, I wasn’t looking at you, but at some kind of specter of you which is buried in a cinematic elsewhere. In this case a very recent elsewhere since I’ve just seen Moonlight (2016), because everyone was telling me that it’s an amazing film, and so a scene came to my mind… I don’t care what you’re doing, I looked at you with the same stupefied face as I looked at the kids playing baseball in the backyard of a house some blocks down. Me, I’ve only seen this thing in the movies. From my own personal archive I’m drawing frames or stills which I have unconsciously saved and which, just as unconsciously, pop out as I’m cycling or walking.

Obviously I don’t reply anything like that to the irritated guy. I limit myself to looking down and sneaking off as quickly as a rat when startled by a sudden noise.

One thing all films have in common is the power to take perception elsewhere. As I write this, I’m trying to remember a film I liked, or even one I didn’t like. My memory becomes a wilderness of elsewheres. […]

I will allow the elsewheres to reconstruct themselves as a tangled mass. Somewhere at the bottom of my memory are the sunken remains of all the films I have ever seen, good and bad they swarm together forming cinematic mirages, stagnant pools of images that cancel each other out. A notion of the abstractness of films crosses my mind, only to be swallowed up in a morass of Hollywood garbage. [Robert Smithson, A Cinematic Atopia, in Artforum. Special Film Issue, edited by Annette Michelson, September 1971.]

The fact is that my first week in the US, in New Orleans, is a trip down these personal elsewheres from cinema or national television. They ask me what has struck me the most in these first days in New Orleans. “Hey Gio, so what’s the most beautiful thing you’ve seen till now?

I don’t know“, I say

I like to wander around and look at the houses at different moments of the day.

In fact there is no shortage of richness in architectural styles here. I have a little booklet from the Historic District Landmarks Commission of New Orleans in which they’ve gathered all the different types of houses in the city: from the Shotgun to the Townhouse and Greek revival.

But, before I can put my new architectural knowledge to use, television images from my childhood pour into my mind. Images floating in my cinematic subconscious. “They float down here…they all float down here” as Pennywise said to Georgie before killing him in the TV miniseries IT (1990). In fact, I can’t help but notice I’m riding a cruiser bike like one of the kids in the series.

So, in order to get to the center I head towards the house of “Freddy Kruger in Nightmare on Elm Street” and then, shortly after, I cross this sort of jet market from the “Simpsons”, turn right and find myself on the street with colonial houses which seem like “Gone with the Wind” reshot in 2017… and, bam, I’m in the center”.

My mental maps are a collage of overlapping and interchangeable visions, a film privately projected in the movie theatre behind my eyes. The fiction preceding my gaze, which has crept in as a filter between the landscape that surrounds me and the retina of my eyeballs. Many are those who tell me that the first week is the one in which the jet lag manifests itself most intensely; you find yourself intoxicated for free, a constant wakefulness which slightly distorts the perception of things and of the flowing of time. You are, in other words, constantly “stoned”.

Horror movies play with our strongest emotions and the fear and distress they evoke cause their images to remain in our visual memories the longest. They are glued stuck there, like chewing gum under school desks until you lay your hand on them.

During my gothic metal teens, I watched an infinity of horror movies (to be honest I’ve always watched them but in my teens it was my duty as a metalhead), thanks to this visual baggage, Louisiana (the one geographically situated in my imagination) has become a land of horror. We (me and the metalheads) often watched interviews with the vampire.

In my mind, even films that weren’t filmed in Louisiana were filmed here. Louisiana is the name of the receptacle which contains my personal archive of horror memories. These residential areas which I’m passing through, anonymous and new to me, are not familiar because of experience but are mentally decoded by my perception to be familiar. It is this feeling that I’m “reliving” things that amplifies the unsettling aspect of them, they are an echo of a deep-seated image infesting their appearance. As in The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe.

The objects surrounding me […] I couldn’t deny the extent to which everything was known to me, and nonetheless I was surprised to perceive how strange the fantasies were that those ordinary images agitated in me.

In 1980, Lucio Fulci came to New Orleans to shoot the movie The Beyond (1981), which I have always called by its Italian name L’aldilà e tu vivrai nel terrore. Here (or in an elsewhere) is the Seven Doors Hotel that the main character reaches via the endless freeway which cuts through Lake Pontchartrain. The same dwelling, with slight adaptations, is featured in the movie Zombie 5: Killing Birds (1988), directed by Claudio Lattanzi and produced by the legendary Aristide Massacesi alias Joe D’Amato. Obviously I visited this house (now museum) during my first days in Louisiana. I needed to geographically pinpoint one of my cinematic elsewheres, to remove it from abstraction and experience it as a physical place, to then let it drift, as a mere image, in my memory.

The Otis House. The photo on the phone is a still from Fulci’s The Beyond

I also wanted to go to the house used for the movie Amityville Horror (1979) but that is in Toms River in New Jersey. Strange though, I was convinced that I had seen it on – I don’t know what street, in New Orleans.

(…) sites in films are not to be located or trusted. All is out of proportion.

Scale inflates or deflates into uneasy dimensions. We wander between the towering and the bottomless. We are lost between the abyss within us and the boundless horizons outside us. Any film wraps us in uncertainty. [Robert Smithson, A Cinematic Atopia, in Artforum. Special Film Issue, edited by Annette Michelson, September 1971.]

Still from The Skeleton Key

Current photo of the house by Giovanni Garetta

Open call for New Orleans based artists

Open call for a residency for New Orleans based artists at the Centre for Contemporary Art FUTURA in Praha, Czech Republic.

Future Prague

CCA FUTURA and Deltaworkers offer a one month residency at the A.I.R. FUTURA program for August 2017 (1st till 31st 2017).

The residency is offered to one individual artist based in New Orleans.

CCA FUTURA provides travel expenses (max $1400).

CCA FUTURA offers a 40 square meters living space, a 20 square meters working studio and necessary assistance and guidance in pursuing related research and production.

Note that the artist is responsible for their own production budget and daily expenses. Daily expenses are estimated at around $12 a day.

CCA FUTURA requires a presentation of the selected artist’s current work. This may take the form of an open studio or smaller exhibition at the end of the stay.

To apply send a portfolio, a current CV and a brief statement describing your artistic practice to info@deltaworkers.org. The deadline is April 1st.

The applications will be reviewed and selected by Michal Novotný, director of CCA FUTURA and Maaike Gouwenberg & Joris Lindhout, directors of Deltaworkers.