Gregg Smith - Notes on narrative (2005)

In the winter of 1998, I had recently given up painting again and was at an impasse regarding how to continue artistic practice. My gradual disillusionment with object making and object selling had resulted that at the age of 28, after several years of independent survival as a painter, muralist and performer, I found myself abruptly without an income. In this case, I moved back to my parents home in the suburb of Kenilworth, began working mornings as maker and seller of sandwiches in the local office parks, and spending afternoons in a small 9 square metre studio that I had moved into on Barrack Street in Cape Town. I had taken the space mainly as storage for my large stock of paintings, accumulated over the past 5 years, and also as a small office and place of retreat in the centre of the city. It was compact, but it had a window with a pleasant view of the busy intersection with Plein Street. I installed a couch, a work desk and a telephone and spent most days reading quietly under a blanket.

During one of frequent visits to the Central Cape Town Library I was looking at books in the psychology section, and came upon one which was to consume my attention for some weeks following. It was an account by an Austrian doctor, Bruno Bettelheim, of his experiences in the concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald, and how these had subsequently shaped his theories on the treating of a damaged psyche and particularly those of children who suffered from autism. Reading and making notes from his book, I immerged impressed by one notable idea in his theory, a proposal which would mark many of my experiments in performance and art making over the years which followed.

The idea which struck me as extremely useful, was Bettelheim's suggestion that, in order to treat a patient who was suffering from a trauma, one needed to adopt two parallel strategies, one which was analytical, seeking out the sources of the trauma in the patient's past experience, and another which countered this regressive process with activities which sought to redirect the individual into the present, promoting the positive urges and desires in the patient. The idea seemed of particular use in the traumatised condition of the South African psyche at this time, and the comparison to Bettelheim's experiences in the camps was a useful point of reference.

This insight was partly responsible for a new turn in my work, during which I began a series of ephemeral and street-based interventions. ‘A Book of Giving' was one such project, during which I purchased a bunch of 25 pink roses and presented one to a parking assistant who operated in the road beneath my studio, earning his living by informally helping people to park their cars. I asked him if there was anyone else in the town who he would like to send a rose to. After some moments of unsureness, he said that he wished to send a rose a young woman who worked in a sandwich shop further down the road. I then took her the rose, told her it was from a secret admirer, and asked if there was anyone she would like to send one to. During this day, I crossed the city 16 times on my Vespa scooter, taking roses to different people. Having begun at street level, the chain reaction of deliveries came to a close in the high up corporate skyscrapers on the foreshore.

Several other books like this followed, exploring the potential of simple positive gestures to traverse physical and psychological barriers which existed in the city and peoples perceptions of public space. At the end of 2000, I left Cape Town to spend a two-year period living and working in Amsterdam. Removed from the aggressive social demands of South Africa, and placed in a society where the individual seemed to be suspended from most of the hazards of daily life, I realized that the only way forward for myself was to turn inwards and begin to explore the mechanisms of power, shame and passive aggression as they had manifested in my own body. This move involved my first step into fiction and reclaiming a subjective viewpoint to narrative. Performances such as ‘Trams taken and trams missed' and ‘We met at the bus stop,' involved recounting personal narratives in public places whilst carrying out physical activities, skipping with a skipping rope for 20 minutes and dancing to music on headphones.

Not long ago, out of a need to refocus my thoughts, I decided to resume research of Bettelheim and typed his name into Google, I was surprised to find articles which gave testimony that the real life Bettelheim had been a suspicious character. Several posthumous biographies and accusations had emerged in recent years, written by scholars, ex-students and family members of ex-patients about the doctor. Few were flattering. In one such account, entitled ‘The Creation of Dr. B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim,' by Richard Pollak, a portrait is created of a man who fostered an atmosphere of terror in his famous school in Chicago, and who fellow scholars accused of plagiarism, falsified credentials and shoddy research. Secrecy and concealment, angry and cruel accusation, anti-Semitism, and lying were some other flaws accredited to Bettelheim.

According to these reports, Dr Bettelheim's fresh start in the United States, following the war, was enhanced by shameless self-promotion on his part, to the point of fabricating false details of his past in Europe before and during the war. The value of his insights seemed also to be undermined by his conviction that the main damage in the psyche of autistic children was caused by the selfish behaviour of their mothers, and to this end he was to direct much hostility towards the families of his patients. His life ended in depression and suicide in 1990.

This revelation regarding Bettelheim's complex personal life came as a surprise. But with reflection I realized that such a case revealed the full dimensions of a dilemma which faced the individual emerging from a culture of oppression, a dilemma which was also central to my own work: How was it that an intelligent, educated and sensitive person who had taken a position against a violent and destructive forces surrounding them, could unwittingly re-enact these same destructive mechanisms in their own behaviour. It was a phenomenon which was painfully visible in South Africa during the years of apartheid and also in the years of transition. A consciousness seemed to have evolved whereby decades of self-censorship, fear and helplessness in the face of senseless violence had produced behaviour patterns where the anger and frustration of the individual had to be turned back on one's self. Finding no possible outlet which did not entail personal danger, personal discomforts had to be numbed into a tolerable form through various anti-social and self-destructive habits.

In conversations with friends and family, I was familiar with a stalemate situation which emerged in discussions, where logic seemed to be overridden by a nonnegotiable emotional response. A kind of sawn-off logic would prevail, reluctant to follow a rational train of thought to its conclusion. In a society which is urgently trying to renew itself, the most frustrating thing is to find one's self opposite someone who is essentially of the same well-minded and progressive intentions, but the channels of communication are somehow blocked by unconscious suspicions and prejudices. Emotions of guilt and remorse are handy levers to operate in situations of conflict or insecurity, causing blockages in relationships across generations, genders and race groups as well as in intimate relationships. During this time of transition, many people became obsessed with painful experiences of the past which had shaped irrevocably their experience of the present. In isolating these painful events however, the individual could find only a limited concession, through being able to blame present difficulties on the injustices of another in the past. But in gaining satisfaction through venting frustrations on others , the individual remained bound to a to a condition and a set of relations which were incontrovertible.

During the period of the transition in the South Africa and the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings, there was an availability of workshops and sessions which provided support for victims of the oppression. In attending some of these workshops it was evident that there were two kinds of victims. Those who had been directly affected, through physical violence to themselves or their family members. And those who were unfamiliar with physical violence and loss, but felt scarred and personally undermined in ways they found difficult to define or defend.

It was here that I first began to appreciate the power of narrative for the individual. In one such workshop, entitled ‘The healing of the memories,' participants were led through a series of rituals and variously requested to recount their experiences of the past. In hearing accounts of how one participant had lost their leg through police violence and another had lost their brother, it seemed inappropriate to contribute my own relatively tranquil recollections of the same period, marked mostly by a sort of anaesthetized tolerance of the injustices happening in neighbourhoods nearby, by family disagreements and a sense of what I can only describe as suffocating sense of voicelessness. In hearing these different stories alongside each other however, I soon realized the existence of a common bedrock of emotional experience, which all those who had inhabited this time shared, whether they were aware of it or not. The experience left me with an overwhelming sense of the density of a psychological and emotional field to which we were all exposed and how much space this had assumed in the individual consciousnesses, to the exclusion of anything one might commonly regard as sanity. This realisation was an important step in retaining a sense of self which could be negotiated without constant reference to guilt and blame.

I began to see narrative as a powerful medium whereby the individual could reinhabit their own subjectivity and shift their perceptions of past experiences as well as their position regarding the present. As an artist working with narrative therefore, there exists in my mind two dimensions. One, the story as it is being told, and two, the story being projected onto this narrative through the interpretation of the spectator. The narrative has the power to return a sense of complicity to the individual. By complicity I mean a sense of awareness of one's position in a sequence of events through which one is passing, as well as a capacity to respond to these events. My experiments in film, video and performance have focused on this point of access which permits the spectator to expand into the narrative, both physically and emotionally and to shift their perception of how past events effect the present. This aspect of story telling is an underused potential in most contemporary cinema.

There are several devices which can assist in realizing this potential, some of which I will attempt to outline. Before doing so however, it would be a good to also say that my experiences as a South African are not necessarily unique to that cultural context. The situation there during that period heightened one's awareness of how far the individual could become distanced from their natural impulse and responses to stimuli. But it is also my understanding that the functioning of most societies relies on this kind of alienation or suppression of the individual. In talking about trauma in the context of art, I see no value in raising the status of extreme experiences above those more ordinary. Nor do I believe it is beneficial for art to take on the role of therapy. In talking about ‘trauma' in the context of art making , I find it useful to use a most fundamental definition of the word (one which I believe was proposed by Freud): that trauma is simply a condition of discomfort whereby the individual finds them self to be in a posture which is at odds with their essential nature. The definitions of art, on the other hand, are as innumerable as there are artists and viewers. In my own work I am interested in the potential in art to return a sense of self-consciousness to the individual and to activate the interface between the individual and the reality which surrounds them. In the context of a global culture where the individual and the environment are increasingly imposed upon by mechanisms of blindly freewheeling market values there is I believe there is value in privileging the individual as an active member of the creative process.

For those interested in this field of research I would like to put forward notes of my own findings. Firstly, given the earlier assertion of the desire to activate the interface between the individual and their immediate situation, it seems logical to take the phenomena of daily experience as an essential component of the art-making process. The difficulty in putting forward the findings of artistic research is that art is not a science. An artist always has some subjective intention, a point of view which seems important to put out into the world. But as soon as this gesture is made, the original intention becomes subject to unpredictable forces which the artist has no control over. While I think it is important for the artist to know what he meant to say at the outset, it is pointless to fight these forces, or to try to over ride them. This should not be seen as a failure as it opens the way towards a quickening in which the mechanism of one's strategy must negotiate the chaos of reality. In my opinion an artist reaches a mature stage when his or her will is to a certain extent abandoned in favour of intuition, curiosity and acceptance of a limited control.

So in my performance and film work, there is an attempt to set up a play between an organised or scripted mechanism, and what becomes of this mechanism when it is set afloat in the uncontrolled ebb and flow of daily life. As the mechanism strives to maintain its direction, it must negotiate the chaotic hazards of its location in an improvised manner, and there is an energy released in this process which is beneficial both for the artist and the viewer. It tests the secure position of being able to predict exactly what will happen next and in this way we become implicated in the moment, through a narrative which is in the process of creating itself.

In referring to the ‘moment', it is interesting to consider the writing of Sartre, regarding the emotions. In his short essay entitled a Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions, Sartre refers to emotion as impatience on the part of the individual when confronted by a difficult situation. Sartre suggests that emotions are a desire to ‘magically' leap beyond or transform the reality of a situation. While his theory initially seems better applied to the negative emotions, like sadness or fear, he goes on to make a case which encompasses the positive emotions as well. A young man, for example, feels a blissful happiness in the presence of his beloved. This happiness is only possible if he does not reflect on the long term responsibilities of his love as any relationship must endure both good times and hardships. In order to deal with the larger picture of life Sartre emphasizes the need for patience, the necessity to sit with reality as it surrounds one and to step by step, navigate one's way using the tools that are available to one.

Reference to Sartre is useful at this point as it leads to another interesting potential in the relationship of the viewer to the artwork. It is a common complaint of the art viewer, that the artist fails to bring them to a point, to gratify their desire for a conclusion or a climactic moment of consummation in the work. The artist seems to be teasing them. In some cases the viewer is right, there is genuinely the failure of the artist to make sufficient editing and directorial decisions, but in the best cases there is a real skill involved in bringing the viewer to this point of desire. The effect is a good one when the viewer is forced to become aware of their position and to take some distance from their desire to escape the constraints of daily life and find instant gratification. The work is a success if it manages to decelerate the viewer's rapacious desire to package and consume all before them and to open pockets of consciousness in the mind of the viewer which they were not otherwise aware of.

In working with narrative, I have found some useful tools in arranging this equilibrium. As an example, I will refer to a performance entitled, ‘It never entered my mind,' done in Amsterdam in the winter of 2002, with Mathilde Rosier. The performance took place on a small artificially created café terrace in a courtyard. The audience was located at a distance of about 20 metres away in a suspended glass tunnel which traversed the courtyard. The initial intention with this idea was to simply slow the passage of the passers-by by playing an ongoing soundtrack of sentimental jazz music inside the tunnel. If during their momentary deceleration, a passer-by were to look to their left, they would see across the courtyard, Mathilde and myself seated under an awning, either side of a glowing outdoor heater. The scene was a classic scenario, two strangers, a man and a women sitting, at separate tables on a café terrace drinking glasses of wine. With time one of them becomes intrigued by the other and would like to make contact. It was hoped that this image would lodge in the minds of passers-by and together with the soft music would plant an image which would grow in their imagination as they continued their trajectory. It was not anticipated that almost everyone who passed through the tunnel during the 20 minute performance, would stop and become transfixed by this distant image. Charmed by everything that the image promised they remained standing in the cold tunnel in the night, hoping for something to happen. Nothing ever happened apart from a brief exchange in which I asked Mathilde for the time.

This performance illustrates the power of distance and silence to accommodate the consciousness of the viewer. As in many other performance projects, a simple image is presented, an image which is in many cases a cliché, immediately recognisable and yet with unexplained elements which the viewer can only surmise. Here the substantial resource of cinema is used as a point of access for the viewer. He or she feels a kind of déja vu, as if they have seen this before somewhere. Either in a film or their own past experience, the exact context is lost. The experience is sometimes enhanced by the use of other cinematic elements like a musical soundtrack, striving to create a space for the viewer in which they find themselves at a curious angle with their direct experience, caught between the safe language of cinema where everything will soon be resolved for them, and their own narrative unfolding in an everyday situation which they can only intuit. By creating this space it is hoped to submerge the viewer, however briefly, in a sense of the density of their own perception, in which their responses are constantly shaped by past experiences and imposed behaviours. Through this moment of suspension in the rapid current of ongoing experience it is hoped to access a shift in one's relation to one's personal narrative. To allow for the realisation that the effect of past experiences is always temporal, relative to a specific moment in time and constantly open to reinterpretation.

These are some of my thoughts and reflections up till now, it is an ongoing research and so I value always the input and critique of readers. For those interested in reading further, there is a related online discussion around some of the issues raised above, as part of the ongoing project Very Real Time.


Gregg Smith

November, 2005