Sunday, 11 February 2018

MCP505 Intro Paper

I am interested in how we Germans deal with collective memory, with suppressing and forgetting the past as opposed to remembering and striving to come to terms with the past.

Formerly, my work critically examined and analyzed the different identities that places like Berlin can take on over time within paintings. With this new body of work, I scrutinized German collective memory, investigated power structures and the overstepping of personal boundaries. I combined ideas pertaining to home land and my own personal memory. This body of work consists of paintings, drawings and the video History as Personal Memory.

In my video, I introduced working with my body to see if I could use it as a tool of investigation. I recorded my voice reading texts by Nietzsche, Foucault and my own texts that I included as a voice-over to imagery. I captured my hand working on a painting. I poured tar onto the canvas and rubbed it into the surface. In another scene, I walked on train tracks. I projected my grandfather's portrait onto my body. I am interested how can I can use my body as a tool to reactivate memory. 

I investigated Foucault’s ideas about various models of power structures, which contributes to a dialogue my work embodies. I am interested in how people can gain power over others.  Also, I explored the rationale associated with people who are not necessarily in a power position but who enable those in that role by assisting them. I was also interested in the power structure of the church and the power certain individuals have over others. I was interested in finding out about the psychological consequences of those who had been overpowered by others and what happens if a child’s boundaries are compromised, reflecting on my childhood sexual abuse experiences.

I approached my canvases with tar, the medium I used when I started to paint many years ago, when I also melted lead and poured it on metal. Lead was of major importance in Germanic mythology. Working with this medium helped me reflect on what it means to be German.

I wanted to take heed of the recommendation to ‘own’ my work. I needed to give myself time, space for intense reflection and investigation through my art practise, to see if I can work through the torment of residual memories that persist in inflicting me with anguish. Recurring hateful, rejected memories assert themselves at inexplicable times.

Correlations between my childhood abuse that I endeavor to forget and Germany’s history, that we Germans are trying to erase from our memory exist in the film. I tore pages from a history book about the Third Reich, a time in Germany’s history that Germans would like to eradicate from memory. Germans would like to expunge this part of our history and to put a leaden blanket onto our past. Yet, it is important to face and to discuss this past, to show how it was possible for the Nazis to come to power, to prevent its imposed trauma and desecration from ever happening again.

This work also references my childhood memories of trauma that I attempted to forget for so many years - without success. Through my research, I have learned that only by consciously working through memories, by writing them down, finally articulating them in my work, can healing start to take place. 

I started my second MFA year research with Michel Foucault’s publications (‘Wahnsinn und Gesellschaft’, ‘Der Wille zum Wissen’, ‘Discipline and Punish’). These books describe his thoughts with attentions to various concepts of possible power structures. My research lead me to writing pertaining to memory work and I read Frigga Haug’s books ‘Female Sexualisation’ and ‘Erinnerungsarbeit’ (Memory Work) and Simone Weils ‘Ueber die Ursachen von Freiheit und gesellschaftlicher Unterdrueckung’ (‘Reflexions sur les causes de la liberte et de l’oppression sociale’). Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery was then recommended to me. Herman’s writing is the result of extensive studies with people who have experienced trauma in their childhood. I found this book especially supporting, reassuring, while I investigated and worked through memories of childhood abuse. I was able to be authentic, be cogent, strengthen new work with this research.

Foucault's theories primarily address the relationship between power and knowledge. He showed how this association results in a form of social control. Foucault asked many questions and presented opportunities to understand concepts from distinct, exacting perspectives. 

In Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish, he described power as something exercised, implemented through action and relationships. Power is an active relation rather than a possession or static state of affairs.
...[power] is never appropriated in the way that wealth or a commodity can be appropriated. Power functions. Power is exercised through networks, and individuals do not simply circulate in those networks; they are in a position to both submit to and exercise this power. They are never the inert or consenting targets of power; they are always its relays. In other words, power passes through individuals. It is not applied to them.”  Foucault continued : “Power is relations; power is not a thing, it is a relationship between two individuals... such that one can direct the behavior of another or determine the behavior of another. Voluntarily determining it in terms of a number of objectives which are also one’s own”. Power is “the exercise of something that one could call government in a very wide sense of the term. One can govern a society, one can govern a group, a community, a family; one can govern a person. When I say ‘govern someone,’ it is simply in the sense that one can determine one’s behavior in terms of a strategy by resorting to a number of tactics.”[1]
I did not find all the answers to my questions in Foucault, but his inquiry into power dynamics and responses to his examination have helped me think about power structures in novel ways. He clarified how power evolves. When we think about the Nazis’ rise to power, for example, Foucault suggested that power relations do not operate only through repressions. He wrote, ‘In defining the effects of power as repression, one adopts a purely juridical conception of such power, one identifies power with a law which says no, power is taken above all as carrying the force of a prohibition. If power were never anything but repressive, ... do you really think one would be brought to obey it? What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse’  [2]
If power was only perceived as a negative, then people would not allow themselves to yield to power. They would not allow themselves to be manipulated by those in power. Power has a strong fascination. Regarding the Nazis especially, many uneducated people were happy to be able to openly despise the members of the Jewish community. There are people who love the sensation of hate. Foucault’s texts and discussions about power allowed me to discuss German history and structures of power under the Nazis. His ideas created the perfect bridge and associatory relationship for me to my work. Simultaneously, the impetus of reading Foucault allowed me to reference my personal history.
I have used Foucault texts in my paintings and my films ‘A la recherche de Michel Foucault’ and ‘History as Personal Memory’. Please find further descriptions in the later chapters.

I question morals. When I was a child, I already wondered why it was possible for people to go to church and have their sins forgiven. People who sexually abuse children should be going to jail. Charges must be pressed against perpetrators and they need to be trialed and incarcerated. Growing up in Germany after the war meant living in a society where sexual child abuse was a bagatelle. 

Since the mid 18th century industrialization, society has devised rules that impact how our lives should appear to others and how we should conduct ourselves in public and in private. Why has it become so difficult to question immorality, the 'mendaciousness' of society, and abusive power structures? The church has had a malicious influence on society. It set up rules about what is morally right and wrong, yet forgives pedophiles, if they are upstanding members of the church? Reading Foucault is a very helpful tool when one wants to investigate power constructs and form questions about ethics within society, especially pertaining to social groups like the church that insist upholding morality is their justification for existence.

(I also read Gunhild Buse’s Macht, Moral und Weiblichkeit, eine feministisch-theologische Auseinandersetzung mit Carol Gilligan and Frigga Haug (Power, Moral and Femininity, a feministic-theological debate with Carol Gilligan and Frigga Haug). (I will add another sentence later here)

Female Sexualisation by Frigga Haug explores the sexualization of women's bodies, charting the complex interplay of social, political and cultural forces which produce a normative 'femininity'. A series of projects which focus on concrete instances of sexualization lead to a broader examination of the relationship between power and sexuality, the social and the psychological. 

In her book Erinnerungsarbeit (‘Memory Work’) Frigga Haug focusses on the social science method of using women's experiences to remove the blind spots in existing socialization theories. Her idea is that individuals build their personality during their life in a way that creates a coherent reality for them.

I needed to investigate if memory work, the structuring of my emotions and painful memories would help me analyze and mitigate my reactions I have today to certain situations that trigger my present reactions to damaging memories. The work is not done by remembering the events of our past, when we ‘live historically’, we learn that we don't accept ourselves as we are now, but that we are ‘changeable’. [3]

It is very interesting to read concurrent thoughts about how we knit ourselves into or develop ourselves into societal constructs. For memory work, I learned that it is important and helpful to refer to myself in the third person. The distinguishable distance allows us to write and speak about what happened. Transporting ourselves into the third person allows us to ‘treat ourselves with more care’. [4]

We can see the becoming of the person we are today as a deposition of layers of the things that happened to us in our life, our experiences. Revisiting the past is a kind of archaeology. One finds little scraps or memory fragments of past events, interactions, from which we create a new architecture.

We are used to maintaining our balance by suppressing bad memories as quickly as possible, by glossing over and forgetting the images of the past. When we consciously remember those images, we destabilize our being. At the same time, we can try to create are more ‘sustainable tissue’. [5]

Fear of conflict, anxiety, fearful vexation, inability to interfere, avoidances, anger, a paralyzing sadness, can all be related to traumatic events of our past that we have not yet processed properly yet. [6]  What we remember has relevance for our identity. 

Haug compared our childhood experiences to archeological layers. Every memory of experiences becomes layered, and creates the person that I am today.[7] In my previous painting work I had often talked about and worked with layers. discussing the different identities Berlin had taken on over the course of time. 

The process of experimenting with how I can possibly work through memories and come to terms with my past is the vital part of this new body of work.

What I have gained in creating this work is a degree of self-confidence. Research and exploration, creation of this new work, incorporated transgression of boundaries, is a new territory within my work practice. As Frigga Haug suggested, once publicly acknowledge the events of our lives, ‘wriggling free of the constraints of purely private and individual experiences, from a state of modest insignificance we enter a space in which we can take ourselves seriously.’  [8]

I vehemently agree with Frigga Haug when she said: ‘Thus writing itself became a practice of active chance, the initial step away from an attitude of suffering and resignation, the first attempt to acquire knowledge by bringing to light our memories and displaying them to others. Writing forced us to develop a more consistent approach to our perception of ourselves’.[9] I realize that by articulating my memories in my work, by stating the facts aloud in my films and by writing the words that describe my trauma down in my paintings, I discovered different means of interpreting myself in the world.

Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery, The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror was recommended reading. I found this book very helpful for me because it showed me how to configure my research to include my past. Judith Herman’s instructive book showed me how to approach my memories and work through them.

Studies show that in the climate of profoundly disrupted relationships the child faces a formidable developmental task. She must find a way to form primary attachments to caretakers who are either dangerous or, from her perspective, negligent. She must find a way to develop a sense of basic trust and safety with caretakers who are untrustworthy. Also, the child feels that she has been ‘abandoned to her fate. This abandonment is often resented more keenly than the abuse itself’.[10]  This was important for me to learn, because I have been struggling with this resentment towards the closest person in my family while I was growing up.

I learned that when survivors recognize the origins of their psychological suffering in an abusive childhood environment, they no longer need attribute them to an inherent defect in the self. This shift in perception allows the the creation of new meaning, regarding past experiences and a new, unstigmatized identity.

Studies also show that survivors tend to lack the verbal and social skills for resolving conflict. The survivor must find a way to preserve a sense of trust in people who are untrustworthy, safety in a situation that is unsafe, control in a situation that is terrifyingly unpredictable, power in a situation of helplessness. She is left with fundamental problems in basic trust, autonomy, and initiative.

The survivor is at great risk of repeated victimization in adult life. Survivors of childhood abuse are far more likely to be victimized or to harm themselves than to victimize other people. Perhaps because of their deeply inculcated self-loathing, survivors seem most disposed to direct their aggression at themselves.[11]

I could not censor my childhood memories of experiences of my childhood sexual abuse that severely impacted my life. As with German history, we need to confront, challenge complacency to prevent the repeat of historical atrocities. I needed to face my past personal pain. I know now that the grappling with my dire living memories, healing must include mindful restatement. I have included my healing process in my work through writing, painting, verbalization and the inclusion of my body in film work.

Invitation to show my work in the exhibition History and Personal Memory curated by Wendy Welch at the Slide Room Gallery in Victoria from February 16th to March 12, 2018 pushed me to use my memory and my own experience as a basis of knowledge combined with a collective memory of the German past.

[1] Foucault, Michel: Discipline and Punish, page 26
[2] Foucault, Michel: Discipline and Punish, Page 27-28
[3] Haug, Frigga: Erinnerungsarbeit, page 64
[4] Haug, Frigga, Female Sexualization, page 45
[5] Haug, Frigga: Erinnererungsarbeit, page 35
[6] Haug, Frigga, Female Sexualization, page 51
[7] Haug, Frigga: Erinnererungsarbeit, page 62
[8] Haug, Frigga, Female Sexualization, Page 36
[9] Haug, Frigga, Female Sexualization, Page 52
[10] Herman, Judith: Trauma and Recovery, Page 104
[11] Herman, Judith: Trauma and Recovery, page 114

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