Trinidad Diary: “the glorious chaos of community in all of it’s paradoxes”

Third 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. You can find her previous guest posts here

Dry Season

It’s hot and walking slows to a sluggish pace, minimal movement to delay the inevitable saturation in sweat and dust.

It sometimes feels like during the day the only people here in the street are vagrants and other outsiders like me, existing outside of the normal way of things. Stepping along the pavement feels alien, tracing a map which is has long been abandoned for the comfort of cool car interiors. We stare at one another, trying to figure it out, or avoid eye contact. My eyes squint in the sun.

In the early morning and early evening, people come out and walk, gently reclaiming the public space, making the most of the cooler air. It took me until now to realise this and find a way of walking alongside. Heat and light create more private space than I ever thought possible.

Making stories by walking. Telling stories is like trying to develop photographs. Fragments, light, dark, framing and process.

 

Breath

Walking is a way of mapping space – our constant considerations of the internal and external, our bodies in space. A woman watches herself walking, observer and observed.  We are not Columbus laying claim, but we walk in his wake, awake and aware of the fragilities of our respective bodies: explorers are always white men with stakes. Thoughts evaporate like the sweat glistening on my sternum and the breath escaping from the chamber of my chest. Last night I dreamt the island swallowed me whole. It gulped me down hungrily and I was deep inside it’s warm dark belly. When they came to look for me years later I had crumbled into petrified fragments which rose to the surface after heavy rain, sticking up sharply from the dust.

I take a sharp knife and slice open a ripe mango, it’s juice spills across my hands and mouth, sweet and fragrant and slippery.

Embrace and retreat, create and fade.

Failure

During the past two weeks a lot of people have spoken to me about failure. Former Alice Yard resident Charles Campbell wrote a blog on what it feels like to fail in this place and “the chance to fail publicly”. I think that might have to be my process too, it’s impossible to really make the work I set out to do here, because the core ethos of the Yard is community, and community means mess, polarity, conflicting opinions, generosity, multiple readings and approaches of the work, multiple expectations, dialogue and response, and within all of this of course the highly problematic nature of being a British person sponsored by the British Council in a former British Colony. Creating tentative work which actively responds to the community runs the risk of fragmenting beyond recognition as each person who passes through adds another facet to the kaleidoscope I am trying to view the work through. However, as many people have also said, this becomes part of the work: the recognition that it is impossible to distill this place into neat outcomes or allegories, impossible to create parables or fables in my usual creative language, instead I must find a way to represent the glorious chaos of community in all of it’s paradoxes.

Charles Campbell said:

“The way [the network] changes how one goes about making work is profound. It means that anything you do is in negotiation with others and everything you create is an exchange. The network becomes your studio, your support, your sounding board and your audience. Informal open networks are one thing we do well in the Caribbean. While the impoverished state of our infrastructure, suffocating hierarchies of our institutions and Byzantine structure of our bureaucracies conspire to frustrate us it’s the informal networks that we turn to when we need to get things done. They are more resilient and efficient and the bonds of trust and responsibility that they create humanize us. They demand we share not only our talents but also our vulnerability.”

Fragments

In vulnerability and generosity, I must find a way to share the fragments I am unearthing, both within myself and in the space. The weight of the land and it’s history is heavy on me, thick and oily. Community and generosity counter fear and fragility on this island. Liquid borders contradict the lines we draw on maps and my normal conceptualisation of space.

Norman McCaig’s words come back again and again, like waves on the sand: “I turn from these paltering beautiful things, in case I see your image fade, and myself fade with it.” Time is contended with differently here: the past crumbles into dust in the hot tropical sun, and we breath in the dust, and it sticks to our skin in the heat. We consume it in a powdery way and it enters the bloodstream. I swallow the island as it swallows me and time comes around again, to tower or fade in the light.

 

Joanna Helfer

Alice Yard, Port of Spain, Trinidad

Wednesday 5th of April 2017