I’ve been writing this post for weeks. Adding, editing, proofreading and questioning the intention to publish it. Obviously, I write because I want to, but mostly because I feel the urge to express myself and words are always my place of solace. In my mouth, words taste raw; often too dramatic and erratically poetic. As death kept looming in the horizon, I stopped questioning the purpose of this overexposure. Everything is unimportant. I’m very much aware of that. Yet, that does not affect the relevance of making any choice: the choice to think, to say, to write, to make, to create, to act and to share.
Agony has been a constant companion. Being alive never felt natural and has always been a major source of anguish. I came to understand agony is something that results from feeling violated. I’m talking about being violated by images, memories and thoughts, but also about being forced upon situations or environments that attack one’s sense of self. In my case, agony manifests itself in the upper part of the body: back, shoulders, bowel, stomach, esophagus, skin, jaw and head. Never have I been able to create images that express that feeling. Someone may experience that sensation when encountering this or that work of mine, but I don’t, so the catharsis doesn’t arrive and the process generates further distress. Words, on the other hand, are nicer to me; they’ve been an ally since a very young age.
Expressing myself through photography only provides solace when I’m in a lighter place, even if reflecting on darker days. When people invite me to collaborate on this or that project and start asking me about my work, I regurgitate a bunch of common places in order to end that conversation as soon as possible. Everything I do, in my creative practice, is unimportant and meaningless and I hate talking about it. Yet, that practice is essential, like water. Many of us feel this way regarding our creative practices, but those that go on to have a professional career as artists are the ones who, among many other aspects, feel they have something to share. Egos are of major importance in the art marked. They’re not everything, but if you’re not willing to build on your ego, you’ll fail to thrive. So wanting to find an humble artists is not a quest worth pursuing. They just don’t exist. Is humbleness that important? Of course not. We’re like fish stews, most of the ingredients can be found in there, one time or another.
Some time ago I started a project based on my diaries, which I’ve been writing since my teens. The process was so harsh, that I felt the need to drop it. At some point I though all the years of therapy endured were pointless compared to those readings. Everything is there. Often quite bluntly, but most of the times on a subliminal level. My urge to die is there since those very first diaries. Not that I wasn’t aware of that, but reading its cadence hit me on a different scale. I started feeling pity for that younger self and the pain it endured. I didn’t want to carry that feeling. On the other hand, a particularly transformative thing arose from those readings. Like those memories we one day realize were constructed and based on a reality beyond events, I’d constructed a memory of my former self as someone without a voice. Someone who was passive, having out-of-body experiences, keeping quiet and letting things happen to her. If you knew me now, you wouldn’t believe such a thing, and as the reading of these diaries made clear, that was not what was going on. If I spoke up and defended myself, why do have such a recollection of my younger self? I did find some answers for that, but they are just out of scope, even knowing this post is verging on narcissism and self-commiseration. As I’m only able to understand now, when I started that project, I was in a good place and able to create images, but when I dropped it the mood was another.
As things would have it, in recent years I’ve been more dedicated to writing, though often things are left unpublished. I’m 100% comfortable with that. Given that the process gets completed, my expectations are met. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes I really want to make an effort to communicate, even though I might be unsure about what that ricochet effect might add. Let it be said, maybe. Maybe that’s just it. When people invite me to write and praise my way with words, I wonder what the hell are they talking about. Have they been able to step inside my inner space and read what I write? Are expectations so low that all I’ve been sharing in this blog is enough to originate that praise? I’m not special or extraordinary, am just another radical thinker. Most people who write about art, in the public arena, have their egos to attend to. They are polite, often insincere and inauthentic, and society likes this. Democracy calls it the art of diplomacy. Fuck that. Diplomacy holds things together and I have very low tolerance for hypocrisy. Understandably, I often say things out loud that some people claim they wish they had the courage to say, but that’s not true. Neither do they wish that, neither is it about courage. I don’t fear the consequences, often don’t give a damn about them and don’t mind being made fun of or saying things out loud with which I’ll soon after disagree. It is not important. It is not important. It is not important.
Lately I’ve been having these funny conversations with a lawyer. All over the phone, we never met each other. It’s been made clear he understood my intentions and I confess that’s been surprising. Am 100% sure if he were to face me during those conversations it would be something entirely different. Prejudices, you see… anyway, in our most recent discussion, he was purposing I’d try and charm this other person in order to get what I want. For about 10 minutes he kept describing this other person and suggesting what I could do. At some point I just chose to sum it up and ask if he was suggesting some sort of game of seduction and charm and we both laughed as he confirmed it. Because he’d been painting a very ugly picture of this other person, I also confirmed something he knew already, namely that I had no intention of charming such a person and that I was unable to fake that. He then suggested I could try and be a diplomat. If that other person came off as arrogant and authoritarian just abort the mission (his words). Even if the outcome is not ideal (I’m not going to meet and charm this other person, so I won’t get what I want), it’s been invigorating. At the core of this seduction game was an impossible scenery: this other person is an aristocrat, whose title has been given to her family by Salazar. This person has never worked a day in her life and all she cares about is money – so he said. I knew this after asking if there could be some common ground to start a conversation, while in the back of my mind I knew there was absolutely no chance. I kept thinking about my looks and all the tattoos and thinking it would be a battle-worthy scenario. All the lawyer knows is that I teach at the university, which he judges as some sort of inner quality, something dignifying. We then ventured into a discussion about privileges and at some point we agreed there was no chance I could build an empathic conversation with that other person. We talked about capitalism, speculation, money, etc.
Funny enough, privilege has been a recurrent theme in my recent encounters. Sometimes the word is not mentioned, yet it lingers at the bottom of the discussion, quiet and unseen. It’s an extremely difficult theme. Often I observe people restrain from participating in such discussions for fear of propelling a heater debate or harsher confrontations. Yet, as I see it, this topic, as any other, is subject to something else I’m particularly interested in: perspective. We each have our own struggles and, derived from many circumstances, end up choosing to hold some banners closer to our hearts. I would think it’s pretty obvious what mine are, for I wear my heart on my sleeve, but I understand that’s not the case, for we feel, read and hear people from diametrically opposed perspectives. What we dim as relevant is often what is relevant to us. Censorship and cancel culture have also made discussions about privileges difficult to maintain. A friend recently said we just have to endure it, let those who have been feeling like victims and minorities speak up, even if they perpetuate violence and promote divisions. I don’t agree and what I see happening around me, particularly regarding woke culture, is unsettling.
Again, it’s a hard subject, so I’ll try not to be as simplistic as usual. As I was talking with this friend and manifesting my rejection about an event where a man we both know was accused of harassment and then immediately cancelled with no clarification made on those allegations (the accusation was public, immediately accepted as truthful and legit and no further public clarifications were made from thereon), she suggested we just had to accept it, support the transition period and promote those conditions that let us speak up after centuries of enduring discrimination and abuse. Yes, of course I agree with that, yet I like the grey areas and think we can all engage in more enlightened debates. We can both promote a safe space for complaint and still promote truth. But apparently that’s harder than it looks. When a student decides to create work based on any place of discrimination or prejudice, wanting to be engaged and use photography to speak about that experience and the rage resulting from it, a couple of things always happen: for once, it’s more difficult to help these students understand what photography is and is not, can and cannot do; it’s also more difficult to help them realize that often the strength of their works lies more in the statements made than in the photographs themselves; finally, when the work is showed people’s reactions are conditioned by fear – fear of speaking up, fear of perpetuating the wounds, fear of coming off as cruel. Some further questions arise from this, namely: is it fair to other students? should fairness even enter the equation? is our job/duty to make space for that to happen and be less critical than usual? I don’t have answers for this, but I don’t like that place of silence and fear; think it promotes power structures and should not be nurtured. If students want to address themselves as subjects of discrimination, we will obviously keep empowering them to do so, but I no longer want to endure being the screen for that anger. Because I feel like a sponge, soaking up all the energy around me, it affects me profoundly and my stomach can take it anymore; literally.
Poverty is something I understand as being the thing that robs us of our rights, liberties and privileges. I’d put poverty over everything. But even the condition of poorness is very subjective. It really depends on circumstances: what choices are ours to make and if the condition of poorness prevents those from taking place. One can live with little money and yet feel free and privileged, but only if it is a choice. We don’t all want the same things, that’s difficult for certain people to understand. If we want to participate in a societal living and the social paradigm doesn’t let us, then I’d say that’s poorness taking over our freedom. Historically, racial prejudice has been one of the biggest factors for social clashes, violence, disadvantages, discrimination, etc. It is obviously interlinked with poverty, as any other prejudice is, but something is happening amidst the talk of racial justice that’s extreme, simplistic and moralistic, as if traumatic heritages could reduce everything to the condition of being a victim. Furthermore, being a victim is not a condition; if we want to mature and grow up, we have to work thru it and let it go. Easier said than done, I know. Gabor Maté provides great insight into the wisdom of trauma. I think we can all learn from him, if not regarding ways to deal with trauma, at least regarding ways to be more empathetic.
The splits we practice everyday can be violent. Arno Gruen often speaks about the violent nature of these inner schisms. Furthermore, he makes a point regarding their risks, in case we get comfortable with them and let them take over our shared realities. Overall, the idea is that creating a split between the inner self and the social self can be a necessity, a survival instinct, but, sometimes, with no turning back. The other day, as I was listening to someone share her own struggle with those violent splits, I realized I’m a fraud. Though I often come off as genuine and sincere and people make notice to give that feedback to me, praising how rare it is and whatnot, what is usually lingering in the back of my mind is how detached that is from my inner self. Living with depression makes anyone an expert in these routines. As soon as we step into common ground, things shift. It’s not like our agony doesn’t affect that public persona, but it’s molded into something bearable to the public eye. Anyone with chronic depression will have very similar experiences regarding this: often riding to work and thinking about how to die, over and over again, considering crashing the car, etc., etc,. and then parking the car, wiping off the tears, putting on a smiley face and doing the work. If that work entails dealing with other human beings, as is my case, that shift can break you. That’s how violent and dangerous the practice of schisms is. I blame no one for not noticing and know several people with similar experiences that feel the same. It’s all on us, no grudges. Connections, empathy, embraces, can go a long way to help brighten the day, but they do little to nothing to provide structural changes, those that are needed. Let me be clear: this is not a cry for help. I’ve been living with depression since thirteen and I’ve gotten a bunch of tools to navigate, accepting this condition as mine to learn from. If one practices these splits as survival mode, certain things are to be expected. The violent nature of the clash between the private and the public grows and some people can’t handle being alone, with harsh consequences. But our bodies and minds are resilient as shit. That lesson was learned. It’s extraordinary how we have millions of defense mechanisms, no matter where the menace lingers.
Sobriety and vulnerability go hand in hand. Connecting with people is another side effect, often an unpleasant and/or nauseating one. Once we connect, we realize what people are projecting onto us; how we act as screens. I don’t think I ever had the habit of letting people know I’m not the person they like to think I am, but if I ever did, I’m sure I stopped doing it by now. So relations have been a roller-coaster for the past three years or so. Sober and connected is like everything becomes too transparent and feeling that way can be overwhelming. Anyway, we all feel that now and then, but for some of us that’s a permanent feeling. When connected, we are confronted with the harsh reality of why we/they choose to be disconnected. Yet we prevail and connect. Some things are worth it. On this trajectory, I’ve learned that because of this multitude of beings we carry along, what other people project onto us is of little importance. Whether they’re praising and giving thanks, whether they’re insulting or humiliating you. In equal measures, it’s not mirroring the self. Because we have egos, of course, praising feels good and insulting feels bad, but both are unimportant and they travel like the wind.
Other feelings, those that spark from the inner self, that dungeness of energy and electricity, are worth pursuing. They come rarely and I always feel excited to experience and recognize them. Those things that spark from the inner self obviously have their own screens. In my case, they are mostly triggered by encounters that do not involve another human being, but sometimes another person enters the equation. The sort of cultural dimension surrounding most of the western world, insists on praising communal living, putting the concept of citizenship at its core, but many of us can’t find happiness there. Societies, recognizing this, then try to diagnose this “not fitting” as a disease, which can be treated and/or medicated, so that these outsiders can adapt, go back to communal living and be productive. We might be unhappy, but at least we’re productive. In recent decades, an ancient approach has been gaining momentum: the one that recognizes that society is ill and those who do not fit are just pursuing their authenticity. I do not recognize myself in any of these approaches, but obviously empathize with R.D. Laing’s theories. My experience has been that part of the harsh nature of growing up depressed derived from the pressure to “be normal”. Fortunately, reading brought me new ideas, the anti-psychiatry movement and so many other things that helped me understand there’s no joy in trying to go against nature and intuition. That wasn’t enough to feel comfortable in my own skin (nothing ever will), but it made a huge difference. This is me, this is the path, and I accept the journey and will learn from it the best I can.
So we all do that, project things onto others that reflect our links and empathies and we ride with those. Of course some people don’t connect at all, be it either by choice, default or any other reason. Again, society insists on installing and systematizing a sort of scale of connectivity, furthering divisions. Trauma is usually at the core of these schisms and disconnections. Could we help each other deal openly with the nature of that trauma, in order to provide safer grounds? Of course. But it’s never that simple. Trauma that goes on unresolved often generates more trauma, violence, discrimination, etc. Often those who feel victims of the violence of discrimination perpetuate the gesture. Learning from the sour taste of power, we try to transform what we know, not always acknowledging we’re perpetuating power structures and not attacking the roots of the paradigm.
As all, I’ve made a lot of hard decisions throughout my life. Recognizing people whom I considered friends were actually toxic has been part of that process. Not easy, to admit and act upon, but necessary. Taking this to the extreme will leave you alone and one must choose what provides less suffering. My tolerance, in that intimate sphere, is highly compromised. I find that the way we deal with one another is utilitarian. Some like to promote a certain discourse opposing humans and animals, either praising human’s extraordinary capacities and abilities – how we evolved, controlled our instincts, etc. -, either considering our similarities with other species. Reading Stefano Mancuso’s Plant Revolution has been enlightening regarding this subject. His description on the art of manipulation between plants and insects is particularly relevant. Mirmecofilia particularly marveled me. It pertains to plants who manipulate ants in order to get protection and thrive. As he explains, Acacias are a great example of such a plant. They provide ants with sugar and a hiding place and, in return, ants protect the plant against foreign attacks (other insects and even herbivores, diseases, etc.), as well as destroying any attempt of growth around the Acacia. The fascinating thing is how clever these plants are in the way they manipulate the content of the nectar they feed to their alleys, the ants. To sum it up, they first attract the ants with a sugary nectar, filled with alkaloids, and as the ants get comfortable, they manipulate the quality of the nectar, reducing alkaloids and increasing other neuroactive components (GABA, taurine, etc.), making the ants more aggressive.
Connected, I’ve been more aware of my place both as Acacia and Ant. At some point or another, some of us have the fortune or privilege to make decisions that really matter and positively affect our surrounding universe. Helping others, creating communal structures, moving places, changing the environment, quitting our jobs, etc. For me, the tricky part is gathering the conditions to choose and not be propelled or pressured into this or that corner. That’s where I’m at. Six years ago I moved to the countryside and the first five years were ok. I often hear I’m a privileged for being able to do so, but I don’t understand that. Money isn’t what made this possible, actually quite the contrary. So what privilege is that? For the past year I’ve been trying to move back to Lisbon and have been unable to do so, precisely because of financial restrictions. What I pay for this country house is the same or less than people are paying for a bedroom in the city. Have no clue how people manage to pay rents, so what I’ll have to decide in the next couple of months is whether to let not being able to find a house dictate my future, for it will mean having to leave my job and starting over somewhere else. Often sharing these feelings with colleagues at work, though not in a structured or intimate way, I see I’m a dense screen. That’s part of what people think of me: that I’m radical, raw, genuine and too dense. That’s fine, it’s not lacking some grounds. More often than not, people judge me on that and make fun of it. I accept the discomfort, don’t feel the need to talk about it unless it hurts. So I learned to say no on a more regular basis. Choosing not to is important, though not wanting to be the Acacia or the Ant shrinks the range of possibilities immensely.
I’ve grown to love people who embrace silence, not as restrain, self-censorship or something of the sort, but as acceptance of all the good that arises from a certain tension and discomfort. Connecting with the energies flowing from, to and around me, I feel this quite often. If and when I choose to address it, some surprising things happen: on the one hand, choosing to break the silence and start a dialogue can emphasize the empathy on which that discomfort was founded and we end up feeling light and happy; on the other hand, most of the times what that dialogue makes evident is the inauthenticity behind that tension. Choosing to be neither Acacia nor Ant, the first step is made. Will this work out for me? Who knows… But I believe we can make our own conditions, given that we accept the consequences. I don’t want to change the world. Actually, I don’t want to change anything besides the conditions that affect me. Empathizing with anarchist ideology, I strongly believe the work we do with our inner selves promotes the communal well-being. Yet again, this is a privilege.