By Bianca Lucas
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.