Embodiment and History

Today is a landmark. All the different processes are caught up and are in synch now. This morning’s writing, page 26 (28-31 of the original) is the first page that was “revealed” (paint applied) immediately after the writing (debossing) was finished. Up to yesterday these two processes were asynchronous (there were more pages written than were revealed) due to various delays at the beginning. I had to order the paint crayons from a US supplier, then I had to wait for the red crayons which were out of stock, then there was the paper crisis, then there were various proposals to be written, then there was the website (this one and for Ephemeral Monument), then the process of inviting participants, testing installation material, meeting the gallery, etc, etc. And all along the copious research and reading for Ouster Remixed script. Yet I had already also started the writing/embodying in order to find the flow in that process and to ground everything else. The writing is truly the ground. It is where the project starts and where it takes shape. Everything else flows from that.

In today’s part of the story, I re-encountered Schwarzkopf. Earlier, last week I think it was, I’d re-written him beating his chest — “taking to his assignment with relish” — assuring the coup planners that he could get the Shah to sign the two required “firmans,” one dismissing Mossadeq and the other appointing Zahedi. Schwarzkopf was certain that he had the clout and the power to make the Shah do what they wanted. Well, it wasn’t so. In today’s episode, he failed (and so did Roosevelt and the SIS lackey Rashidian) because the Shah refused to sign the documents, leaving the good general and his cohorts frustrated because of his “entrenched attitude of vacillation and indecision.” It is Schwarzkopf’s colonial attitude that is remarkable, his certainty that he could get the Shah to bid his orders as a master would his servant. I felt pleasure at the general’s failing rather than pride for Shah’s backbone in spite of the persona they had always projected of him of one given to indecision and weakness. It takes quite a bit of strength, I would imagine, to resist their “relentless pressure” from all sides.

But that’s no credit for Shah. He obviously had other calculations. He was unsure of the “loyalty of the army” which I interpret as uncertainty about Zahedi, a Nazi collaborator turned US+UK head pawn.  He wanted to approve who’d be on the future cabinet. And he was so suspicious of those surrounding him that he met Schwarzkopf in the “grand ballroom” and they both sat on a small table he pulled to the exact center of the room for fear of microphones planted everywhere else. The master only thinks he knows what goes on in his servant’s mind. Shah was not indecisive. He had decided he was not going to be done away with the way his father was, by the same people who brought him to power. And he showed in the next quarter of a century that he had the backbone to repress any opposition most brutally. To prove it, Shah disposed of Zahedi only a few years after Zahedi led the coup in Shah’s name.

I’m developing a particular empathy for historians. It is hard to sit with this material, to put it in the context of other material and to resist making a certain claim to history. I struggle with my ego as I write(embody). I find my ego raising her head saying “me, me.” From the beginning of the project, I’ve had the impulse to find my own family in these events. I’ve followed several trails. It is not important where each led. It is the desire to find myself, my ancestors, in the pages I read that is interesting. Of course I am there. The coup touched me years before I was born in very specific ways that are revealing themselves to me as I learn more even as I fail to find my family traced and documented in “history.”

What I find misleading is the need to be special, to be able to say this is precisely what happened to my family and what I inherited from the coup. What of others who can’t trace themselves in “history” or in ways that are directly and visibly related to the coup? Are their traumas any less severe, any less specific? This was a collective experience. Specificity of individual experiences is meaningful only in the context of processes of collective reckoning and healing. For me this project is the space for those processes. The farther I go, the more I am convinced of my resistance to personalize this project by focusing on what happened to my father or others I know or have heard about. (This was a suggestion early on by a good friend and artist as I bounced my ideas off her.) It is easy to win the sympathy of the audience with that approach. But sympathy is only a cheap substitute for response-ability.

Something happens inside me when I write(embody). The slow, demanding and very physical process of debossing (on dry surface which requires more force; with a blunt instrument, a ball burnisher, which doubles the required force) leaves little room for intellectualizing the words. They hit me in my guts. They force me open and reach my depth. There they mix with the knowledge that the events they chronicle caused so much pain and suffering for my people for so long; that what they did irrevocably changed the course of our history the way rape forever changes the life of the one raped. Then from my depth into my writing hand Wilber’s words are no longer his but an indictment, making visible that biggest crime of all: that entrenched sense of entitlement, that self-righteous megalomania, that utter ignorance that characterizes (neo)colonial projects and white supremacy. The labour of writing transforms my body into the site of that reclamation.

Posted in Artist's Notes

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