Week 2 in Trinidad

Second guest post by Dundee based artist, Joanna Helfer who is currently on an eight week residency at contemporary arts space and network, Alice Yard in Trinidad as part of the British Council’s Transatlantic Artists Residency Exchange (#BCTAARE).  She is writing a weekly journal documenting her exploration of Trinidad and her work in progress.

I’m New Here

Met a woman in a bar

Told her I was hard to get to know

And near impossible to forget

She said I had an ego on me

The size of Texas

Well I’m new here and I forget

Does that mean big

or small?

(Gil Scott Heron – I’m New Here)

This week has felt like running to catch up: a crash course on life in Trinidad. I have been spending most of my time over the past few days trying learn as much as I can about the context and culture of this place. The thing is though, it is hard to get to know, and near impossible to forget. The more I find out the more I realise the enormity of what I do not know.

One reason for this slow orientation process might be that, unlike many other Caribbean islands, Trinidad does not have a large tourism industry. There is no “Trinidad-lite” condensed and simplified for touristic consumption. The result is that as a newcomer I have to investigate everything more slowly and experientially. It has made me reliant on others in a way I find challenging, being accustomed to independence and familiarity in Scotland. The people I have met are extremely generous, going out of their way to help me navigate the city; sharing time, food recommendations, fruit from their gardens, safety tips, money, taxi journeys, shopping trips, how to avoid sunburn and much more, with a great deal of variety and at times contradiction. I have realised that there is widely available, cheap and safe public transport, but using it requires a preexisting knowledge of the geography and layout of the city.

I sometimes refer to the Situationist practice of the ‘dérive’ in my work, an action or intervention defined by Guy Debord as “one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there” (Situationist International Volume 2, Paris, December 1958). There is a notion of desire explicit within the concept of the dérive, as the participants are drawn to instinctive or familiar routes according to an emotional response to urban space. This is something I have borrowed and reappropriated for the work I am undertaking during this residency, as I ask people I meet to walk with me in a place which means something to them and has significance to their practice as a creative person. The purpose of the walk is to provide a platform for relational conversation, exploration, sharing stories and emersion into another’s experience of space. The only containing factor of these walks and conversations is that the person is somehow connected to Alice Yard. The intention of these reimagined dérives is to create a map of sorts, charting Port of Spain and the surrounding areas according to the people who connect with this particular space.

My challenge is that the cultural context is very unfamiliar to me, and I have a lot of learning to do to place myself within this context with an appropriate awareness of the problematics of making work in this very charged location. Coming from the UK to the Caribbean has it’s own layers of concerns and part of my orientation process is to try to learn more about that – for example learning about the role of Scotland in the exploitation and colonisation of the Caribbean, something which is largely unknown at home. With the national conversation in Scotland reaching a frenzy in the past few days with the announcement of a possible new independence referendum it has been important for me to learn more about Scotland’s role in the world historically and how that impacts our daily lives and innate privileges. Today when I visited the National Library of Trinidad and Tobago with writer Andre Bagoo I saw an exhibit about the life and work of the scholar Lloyd Best.  One idea in particular stood out to me within his writing on epistemic sovereignty: “If we all discovered who we were, where we came from, and how we came to be what we are it will give us an enormous abundance of resources to deal with the rest of the world.” That idea feels particularly important for me as my own country grapples with its future in the world. It also relates to an idea I came across from the American writer Rebecca Solnit, who describes the act of walking embodying this concept of epistemic sovereignty – one foot is in the past, the other in the future, and our bodies are poised in the perpetual present (from Wanderlust: A History of Walking).

This week has been saturated in very emotional and at times very overwhelming experiences, and I feel it requires further reflection before I try to condense these experiences into writing or artworks. As I explore hidden stories about the island it reveals difficult truths to digest, but hopefully a response of sorts will begin to come to the surface and I will find the language to communicate my thoughts and observations with more clarity.

Joanna Helfer

Alice Yard, Port of Spain, Trinidad

Monday 20th of March 2017