War in Words 1: Dialogue with Lara Pawson

25 October 2015
Image: Vlatka Horvat from her Up In Arms series

In 2014, Kaaitheater in Brussels ran a season titled Up In Arms, which featured a range of projects by artists responding to questions of international conflict and the legacy of World War One. They invited me to do a series of dialogues or correspondences with artists involved in the season, the results of which were published in Kaai’s quarterly bulletins. I’m posting those dialogues here in the Notebook, just to give them a different profile. The first correspondence, below, is with the journalist and writer Lara Pawson, the others are with Pieter De Beuysser, Vlatka Horvat and Pieter Van den Bosch.

Image above: Vlatka Horvat from her Up In Arms series

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Dear Lara,

In the text you wrote for the sound installation Non Correspondence you recalled your time as a radio correspondent reporting from Angola during its civil war. In your description important, weighty and dramatic scenes – great violence and suffering, fear and trauma – are often placed next to many kinds of banality, everyday actions and incidents. In our conversations it has seemed to me that one of your impulses in the writing was effectively to humanise war – to deal in some way with its ordinariness and its banality, or to stress the persistence of the everyday (boredom, trivia, laughter, sexual desire) even in the fearful environment of war. In your text the image of a soldier who has shot off his head, his body slumped motionless on the stump of a tree, circulates in the same act of remembering as the image of a bunny rabbit being looked after by a bunch of guys that run a bar, or your description of searching for tampons or good coffee during the conflict. At the same time your descriptions of ‘peace time’ or life away from conflict – drawn from your childhood and later life in the UK – are often shot through with intimations of violence and everyday tensions around identity, gender, race and politics. It is as if you want to point to the peace in war, and the war in peace, and I am wondering if you see yourself as countering the common media description of wartime as something ‘outside’ of the human, distinct from the everyday; something purely awful and inexplicable.

What is it about that media description of wars that seems wrong to you and what interests do you think it serves to maintain? Do you think there’s a political dimension to the media insistence on the time of war as time of pure conflict, devoid of all other qualities or experiences?

All the best,

Tx

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Hi Tim. Yes, I do seek to counter the common media description of war but I really couldn’t have written a text without the persistence of the everyday, because that is precisely my experience of war, or conflict. It is the everyday.

We can’t ignore the fact that we are both writing in London, in the UK. Although we have had conflict here – the so-called Northern Ireland conflict – many of us have never experienced war. Yet we hear about wars all the time, sometimes conducted in our name, sometimes far off and apparently “foreign”. The raw effects of war are largely absent from our lives. We don’t have to run from shelling; we don’t have to confront soldiers with RPGs on their shoulders when we drive two miles from home, etc. When I came back from Angola, what really frustrated me here was the widely held view that war is not something “we” do. People would ask me about what I’d witnessed in Angola as if it was another universe, a place with aliens that had nothing in common with our life here. And yet, what I had learned there was how fragile life is and how fragile we are, and how little it takes to reduce a society to rubble, both physically and mentally. Until you’ve actually seen a city blown apart by bombs, it’s quite hard to imagine how it happens. But once you’ve experienced it, there’s no going back. The line between apparent peace and apparent war is very very thin. We are all living on the precipice.

To come to your question, I think there is a gap between how war is presented, particularly in mass media, and how war really is. That’s not to say that when you see images of, say, Gaza being bombed, it is not real. Of course it is. But – perhaps because of the screen or the paper at which we gaze – it seems far away and so other. Due to the restrictive structures of 24-hour news, journalists are under immense pressure to show the extremities of war: the blood-stained dead children and broken buildings. All of this is real, I’m not denying that, but we rarely see images of the shops that continue to sell, of the man who continues to buy condoms, the woman who still argues with her sister while making mint tea or rubbing moisturiser into her skin.

In most journalism, restrictions on time and pressures to be fast push reporters to seek shocking scenes to hold their audiences’ attention. In doing so, they omit the other things that are also happening – the everyday – creating an idea of a place that is partially truthful and partially false. There is a political dimension to this. In part, it’s often – from the position of being in London or Western Europe – a desire to reproduce the idea of the so-called civilised “we”, up here, in our clean and tidy former empires, gazing at the chaotic “them”, down there, in their messy, confused, out-of-control state. It feeds our political arrogance as well as our foolish superiority complexes of being humanitarian. Importantly, the media coverage that most people consume also feeds the idea that those wars out there are not part of our lives and that we are not complicit. Of course, we are.

Lara

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Hi L,
Thanks so much for what you write. I also wanted to engage with you about remembering and forgetting. In Agota Kristof’s The Notebook, which I’ve just worked on with Forced Entertainment to adapt for the stage, the protagonists witness the passage of a ‘human herd’ of two or three hundred civilians being marched at gunpoint on foot through the town in which they live. Clearly troubled by what they have seen, the protagonists are told by another character:

“You’re too sensitive. The best thing you can do is to forget what you’ve seen.”

The two boys who narrate the story, perhaps inevitably, insist in response, that they “never forget anything”.

This rang a bell for me, as I remembered that when you started work on your Non Correspondence text, you wrote to me in an email:

“The funny thing is, even though I left the Angolan war 12 years ago, I still find it so hard to get it out of me. It’s there forever and feels alive inside me. I think that’s partly a kind of quasi PTSD and something to do with memory.”

I am wondering if you see the vivid persistence of these memories as an unwelcome thing – as something that you would like to rid yourself of? Might forgetting be preferable, or even healthier, than remembering in this instance?

Best,

Tx

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Tim, I love these two questions. My immediate answer is a loud “No!” Forgetting would not be preferable. In fact I often wonder why I was the lucky one, to get to go to live in Angola in the summer of 1998 until Christmas 2000. That experience has given me such insights into the world in which we live and into human nature. Given how much war there is, all the time, in so many places, I’m glad to be able to understand to some extent what people are going through. However, I can’t answer this honestly without also admitting that I became profoundly depressed about the Angolan war and the conflict in Ivory Coast too. Those memories drove me to a very dark place. There were times when I feared I’d never get out, that I’d never be able to be happy. So I don’t want to trivialise the memories because, for a while, they paralysed me. The funny thing is that now, the happy person that I am, I worry about losing those memories of war. If they vanish what will I do? I don’t want to lose that vital understanding. Will I have to go to another war? Or will war have come to me, here, by then? Consider climate change, population growth, apparently unstoppable levels of greed and super-capitalism, it seems to me to be inevitable. Maybe I’ve been reading too much JG Ballard. Or maybe there’s a part of me that wants that to happen.

L

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Lara,

Thanks again. Finally, linked to the question of remembering, I’m thinking a lot about what we are doing as artists and writers in returning to (or thinking about) the site of war and conflict. Benjamin writes that ‘”The storyteller has borrowed his authority from death” and in doing so perhaps acknowledges that there’s perhaps something parasitic in the relation between art and trauma, even if (crudely speaking) the art is supposedly reflecting on, teaching about, seeking to understand and prevent repetition.. Does it even matter, this act of returning? And does it matter that we conduct this return and consideration of conflict in our role as artists and writers, and not only as historians and journalists? What do you think art in particular can bring to the table that some other, supposedly more objective, ways of responding to conflict might not do?

It’s a beautiful sunny day in London and these are all big questions that I am shooting to you today I know. I look forward to hearing from you.

Tx

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Well, Tim, I don’t really believe in the possibility of objectivity. Although we journalists and historians may present ourselves as objective narrators, it is nonsense. We’re as partisan and emotional as anyone else. I think the advantage artists have over academics and journalists is that they don’t need to pretend to be objective. People expect an artist to be emotional and subjective, and in terms of responding to war, this allows an important and extraordinary freedom. However, I worry a lot – perhaps unfairly – about artists and writers reflecting on war without having experienced it. I get quite uptight about this. I worry that there is an exoticisation or a romanticisation of war. Could this be the element of the parasitic that you are referring to? I worry about my own parasitic relationship to Angola’s war. Recently, an elderly Angolan man and his Dutch wife spent a weekend with me and my partner. The old man wanted to talk about my work, specifically about my book about a covered-up massacre in Angola in the 1970s. At one stage, he became quite cross with writers – he named white Angolan and Portuguese writers, but I am sure he was including me – who, he said, become famous by spinning Angolan tales. These writers would be nothing without Angola and its war, he said. This old man had fought in the liberation struggle: he had put his body on the line for independence. I felt a lot of empathy for him, yet I also know that artists and writers can do so much to enable us all to think more deeply.

My own fascination has long been with Samuel Beckett’s work, much of which is a response to WWII and the Cold War. He has helped me make sense of my experiences in Angola in a way that no history book could ever hope to. Likewise, recently, I came across the work of artist, Marcelle Hanselaar, who grew up hearing her parents talking about WWII and Germany’s occupation of Holland. Today, she cares deeply about wars taking place around the world. Her paintings are dark and violent and people have told her that they couldn’t possibly live alongside her work. I find this intriguing. We live alongside so much awfulness and are complicit in so much violence carried out in our names by our states. How could anyone be afraid of a painting? Is this a sign of people’s desire to hide from the realities of the world? I find this hard to understand, because my own quest is always to be rammed up against the dark and the misery and to stare it in the face. I would love to live with Marcelle’s work because I would be reminded of the fragility of our apparently peaceful lives here. I would be reminded of my obligations.

I suppose what I am saying is a bit of a cliché: the idea that, unlike journalism or academic texts, art can hit us in our hearts without us fully understanding how. It is an organic, fuzzy process. While watching The Notebook I was fighting back tears. I didn’t know why. The last time I felt like that was standing before Anselm Kiefer’s huge textured oil paintings of fields of sunflowers. It was in Paris. I had to leave the gallery. I thought I’d explode. Now that doesn’t happen when you watch the news. Not to me, anyway.

One last thing! I don’t think that art, or journalism, can prevent war. We can’t control that. But we can keep on trying to remind ourselves of our frailty and of that very very thin line between apparent peace and war. That matters a lot. We must stop ourselves from becoming arrogant. We must try to crack that.

You wrote that it’s a beautiful sunny day in London and I agree. It is! It is! And this heat reminds me of Luanda. What heat. Thank you.

Lara