Like a good autistic I’ve been in hyper-focus. Lockdown has brought a surprising clarity to my work. It’s as though my practice was made for this moment.
It sounds like a strange thing to say, and it is. Other autistics have written about being naturally wired for danger. Hyper-vigilance can be super normal for us, though I mustn’t generalise.
It’s partly this, but also due to an intense seven year focus on exile in my practice. I’m still unpacking (through making) the ways in which a body of work, and the visual languages I’ve developed in response to a family (and wider) history, speak to now.
The object of my hyper-focus is the iPhone capture of a performance ritual on a beach at Argelès-sur-Mer, made while recording a programme for BBC Radio 4 in 2018. This was an incredible year in which I barely stopped to breathe between projects. Lockdown has prompted me to look back at footage I had thrown unedited onto YouTube, while still on the road.
Editing began as a modest affair but quickly evolved into a compelling and time consuming process. I’ve gained more editing nous in the past 2 weeks than in all the time since my A-N Professional Development Bursary in 2017.
I’ve sourced additional footage and taken new photographs to do justice to my unexpectedly mushroomed project. This has reconnected me to the subject. Writing introductory captions (storytelling super-succinctly) and subtitling, have further deepened the reencounter. Having worked so hard on these elements to begin with, I found creating a voiceover track afterwards didn’t work. A lesson learned. Spoken language can be so different to text, especially when condensing a lot of storytelling in the third person (as artists are often required to do). The voice itself matters too, I found. It introduced new elements which muddied the waters. So reluctantly, I put the voiceover to one side, reasoning that I can’t (by myself) cover all bases, and I can think ahead when captioning in future, and write with the voiceover in mind.
I’m an intuitive maker across all forms. I must have viewed this footage at least a hundred times in minute detail. I dump all my content in the edit, never preselecting or ordering files. I need to see it all and pour over it many times, tweaking this way and that, until it starts to ‘sing’. That’s when I know I’m almost there.
Editing has involved a deep processing of my subject. I’ve found that my past work and present experience elide. I’m ineffably moved by the need for socially distanced grieving under Covid-19. Dying apart from loved ones, the usual funeral rites socially distanced, there is a sense of crushing yet arrested grief.
Perhaps I’ve also needed two years to fully process my ritual, created under the pressure of a radio commission and the expectation that I provide context for listeners, in juxtaposing Spanish republican exile with the Catalan Crisis. What was the significance of my actions? What did I achieve by them?
During my enactment on the beach at Argelès-sur-Mer I cut and ritually bury half a blanket – I now see it as an act of distanced mourning for my father. I would have liked to perform it silently, but this was radio. So I talk my way through it followed closely by a boom mic. I’m now so glad I did.
In lockdown it emerges as a ritual honouring the memory of my father, who died unexpectedly 30 years ago. At the time we were separated by geography, there was no burial and no grave to visit. His ashes were scattered in my absence. My enactment centres on my father’s traumatic exile and interment in an improvised camp on that very stretch of beach at Argelès-sur-Mer, in 1939. It’s an act of witness and solidarity in the face of the official erasure of Spanish exile, but it’s also a rite for my father’s passing. He died without the resolution of the trauma of a lifelong exile, or the reparation of historic memory in Spain.
I hope this will be a really special film. I feel it’s important, and that I have something to say about grieving at a distance – and the value of creative ritual in our lives. I hope it might bring comfort to others.
I’ve told my father’s story many times now. Unresolved trauma draws you back. I feel destined to retell it for as long as I’m able. It’s in my DNA. Revisiting my enactment feels like a step forward in my process, and I want to share it to embrace those grieving at a distance due to Covid-19.
I’m an atheist but uploading my film to Vimeo feels like sending a prayer out to sea. Watch it and you’ll see what I mean.