I was involved in an amazing live art project on the weekend, which was both challenging and incredibly rewarding.
The theme of the weekend was to explore an idea of ‘non-space’ and places in the modern world that can conceivably described as ‘non-space’. This would tend to be in-between places, places of transition, places of borders, border crossings etc. Hence the project’s name, ‘The Terminal’.
10 international artists were chosen to participate, all responding to the stimulus in different ways. Some political and historical: Abu Ghraib prison; Irish women travelling to the UK for abortions; the position of the immigrant in UK society; the transportation of cows for food. Some were more abstract: deconstructing an object and using it for something entirely different to its original purpose; attempting to become invisible; bringing one’s awareness to the objective physicality of the space around and inside one’s body and the connections between them.
My proposal was quite literal: I proposed to write a poem about every airport terminal I had ever been in my life. Furthermore, I would use the poems to build a visual representation of my life in airport terminals, mapping my life in a very different chronology then the ones commonly used. I would also invite the audience to share their memories of airport terminals in an attempt to create an alternate map of the world through memory, rather than through longitude and latitude.
My idea was looking at ‘non-space’ and ‘borders’ on several levels. Obviously it was looking specifically at borders and trying to represent what happens in those points of the world where there are borders and we are trying to cross them. However, it was also about attempting to represent temporal ‘in-betweeness’, as memory exists/is created in the past, but is remembered/recreated in the present, so sits in a half-way place between the two (in my opinion). Finally, it was also about a state of creative ‘in-betweeness’, in that I was displaying these poems before I had the opportunity to properly polish them. Mostly I was doing only 2 drafts and then inviting people to read them. They were also being invited in to watch me (as a writer) work. Not that watching someone write is necessarily that thrilling, but they were able to sit in this creative in-between space with me and see what that was like.
Those things all sounds very well-thought out, but the truth is most of my justifications were discovered through the course of the work. I told the curators I wanted to write poetry about airport terminals, they said ‘sure thing’ and then as I was working through it I realised all sorts of (more) interesting ways that my work was related to the theme of borders and border crossings and terminals.
When I went into the space on Friday, I was terrified. Reading all the other artists’ bios, they seemed to have much more abstract, well-thought out, political ideas than me and they were all much more experienced. But at that point there wasn’t much I could do.
I had made a list of airports ahead of time, which clocked in at about 47 separate airports that I had been at. Many of those airports I had been at multiple times, but the main aim was to get just one poem about each terminal up and if I managed to get some more out that would be an awesome bonus.
The first problem, once I had put the map on the wall and set up my writing lamp, was that I did not know where to start. To be honest, I don’t really write poetry all that much. I mean, I write poetic plays, which is related. But I wouldn’t call myself a poet. How does one even start with a poem?
I began with my first ever memory of an airport, of travelling overseas at 3 years old and decided that was as good a place as any. I scribbled down some lines. They seemed ok. So, I put them on the wall. And that’s how I started.
Friday was difficult. I constantly struggled with the fact that me sitting in the space and writing was very dull. Without many poems up and attached to the map, the space didn’t look that interesting either. I had deliberately chosen to do something very insular, very non-performative as I think my performances often suffer from a desire to be constantly entertaining, constantly physically and emotionally active. I wanted to do something that was very much taking place in the brain. That was quiet and still and see how that felt.
Well, it felt goddamn weird. Every pore of my body was revolting against it. My brain was screaming, ‘Be interesting! Be interesting! Put your pen in your mouth! Make a face of concentration! Look like a wise writer! More wise! Don’t worry about actually writing! Just look good!’ The fact that people would come in and stare at me (which was the idea, which was what I signed up for) was also very disconcerting. I like to write in cafes. I like to write around people. However, I’m usually the one staring at them. I’m usually on the edges, not in the middle. They usually ignore me. And I like that. It was strange to be so ‘on display’ for what is usually such a private act.
By the end of the night (11pm) I felt I was finally getting somewhere and easing into the work. I was starting to draft pieces before attaching them to the wall and it felt like they were getting better because of it. My perfectionist side was still not very happy about what I was deciding to display (‘This is shit, its not even poetry. This is shit, its not even poetry.’ Was a fairly constant refrain throughout that first night), but because of the need to create this alternate map and visual representation, as well as the need to write down at least 47 ‘poems’, I had to kind of get on with it.
I got a good start on writing on Saturday morning before a lot of the audience came in. But this then started me on another issue. Whilst I was not getting naked like some of the other artists (another worry from the night before – ‘I’m not being edgy enough! I’m not being provoking enough!’) the poems that I was writing were ridiculously personal. Because what I realised early on Saturday was that the memories I have of airport terminals are not of the places, the buildings themselves, of course they’re not. They are memories of what I was leaving behind and what I thought I was going to. They are, on the whole, about relationships, about hopes and dreams. And my relationships, like everyone’s, have been complex, tough, beautiful, heart-warming and heart-breaking depending on the person, the day, the context, the ending, the beginning.
What I essentially ended up doing was opening up my diary, prettying up the words a bit, sticking them on the wall and then inviting people to take a stickybeak. Whilst I sat on the floor next to them. I know that I have a blog, but I don’t sit next to you watching your faces as you read each line. You can hate it in private and then tell me later you loved it, even if you didn’t, if that’s what you’re into. In this space, we didn’t have that luxury of space and time and privacy. People were murmuring to each other about the things I’d written behind me and I was fluctuating between wanting to hear every word (in case they were good words) and blocking them all out (in case they were bad words).
In some ways it was easier to expose myself to strangers than friends. I found myself justifying to my friends why some of the poems weren’t that polished. The worst people, however, were probably the ones who I only knew a little, or I had just been introduced to. The ones who don’t know me well enough to love me anyway and who might decide that I’m crazy and then decide not to be friends with me anymore (and I’d care when they decided not to be friends anymore). Those ones. Those ones were the worst. I did have to warn one new friend that he might think I was crazy when he asked if he could read the poems. I told him he could read them and also reassured him I was not crazy. Just in case (He was perfectly lovely about them all, really and said probably the nicest and wisest thing anyone has ever said in regards to my writing and theatre-stuff: ‘Make sure you keep a little bit of you for you.’)
I took a break Saturday afternoon to listen to one of the talks downstairs (we were allowed one talk a day) and that’s when I noticed how done in I was. My head was pounding from so much writing and thinking and remembering and stressing and emoting. I listened to half the talk. The other half I stared at the blinds with my mouth open. I was shocked by how much energy I was using up.
One of the wonderful things about the project was that we were essentially in a lock-down. So, were not allowed computers, phones, internet. We were also not allowed money of our own and we were looked after by the curators. They shuttled us from venue to hostel (we all slept together in the same hostel room) and fed us. This was meant to be constricting and in some ways it was. But it was also incredibly freeing. I hardly ever get given the opportunity to be free of responsibility. To be cared for so that I can just make art. (I mean, how wonderful is that??? That is WONDERFUL) The lack of phones and internet and being in a strange place made me incredibly productive – the only way I could take a break was to make a cup of tea. And whilst I did make full use of the tea-making facilities, there are only so many cups of tea you can have in a day (7 cups. Its 7. That’s how many cups of tea you can have in a day). With the other performers all working and with no need to shop for food, cook food, clean up etc. there was really only once choice: write.
Which explains why I got so much written. It was wonderful. I’m considering how I can recreate these circumstances on a regular basis. I think it most importantly hinges on getting rid of the bloody computer/internet and phone. Just giving them to someone else (that you trust. That will give them back to you again). Writing by hand in a place that is not your house. And then just getting on with it.
On Sunday night we sat around drinking together and it was wonderful. There was much discussion of what I should do with the poetry I’d written (and the memories I’d collected) now, which was very exciting and I think there are some great possibilities of where it can go. It was kind of amazing to be given this space to try out some ideas and see if they had legs (They had legs. Many useful legs. Many interesting, colourful, misshapen legs. Oh, the legs my ideas had). To make art whilst also trying out ideas is pretty special and I was darn happy with where I ended up.
I’ll also share with you some of my favourite poems. Not all, because the internet is permanent and live art is transient (even durational live art is transient) and I don’t know that I want everything I wrote over the weekend up here. But some.
Over and out.