Saturday, 31 May 2014

A Date to Remember

This week has been busy in terms of dates, and it's fantastic. Yesterday, Norah took me to Rose Borchovski's in-world installation, The Inevitability of Fate. I had been before, but much more briefly and it became apparently very quickly that I had only seen half of what the sim had to offer. Norah's quick wit and considerate, empathetic brain deepen any and every experience, and I just love spending time with her.

but then the war came
Borchovski's piece is part installation, part experience, and part memorial. The Holocaust has had, now, a lot of artistic treatments, and there's always a danger in approaching a subject as painful and enormous as this with any kind of creative lens. It's too easy to dismiss, to belittle, and to appropriate. Of photographing atrocities, Susan Sontag wrote "people want the weight of witnessing without the taint of artistry, which is equated with insincerity or mere contrivance", but looking at a photograph of a past event is passive and in many respects, too safe to provoke anything more than compassion. 

That isn't to say that compassion is useless or pointless - not at all - but it is an "unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers". Compassion for the victims of the Holocaust has a limited ability to manifest itself in action because the event is past and, as I have said, attempts to create additional memorials are fraught with difficulty. 

At no point during the installation is the word "Holocaust" used. We are introduced to the characters of Beth and Lot, whom the narrative follows, and at no point is it stated that what becomes of them is a fate that was forced upon anyone else. It is obvious, though, from the semiotics and "the war" what this is about. In the subtlety, there are no label-boundaries, nothing separating the audience member from touching, if you like, the horror of what one might otherwise claim as a Jewish experience. At the same time, sitting before my computer, I know that I was not a part of this event, that I hold no claim over anything pictured on the screen before me. It is a flaw of empathy that we struggle to negotiate the ownership of suffering - and that, in my experience at least, we seem to find it easier to respond to the plight of an individual than to the mass murder of a whole.

I am tiptoeing, here, around my own explanation and analysis. I am wrighting, as opposed to writing, it out. If I can keep my foot out of my mouth, that would be a good start.

Beth reaches for Lot
Empathy and sympathy are dangerous, too, in that experiencing them whilst forcing ourselves to look at images of atrocity make us "feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering". If we look beyond the individual, do the multiplication to make the many Beths and Lots, we begin, too, to feel that "the sufferings and misfortunes are too vast, too irrevocable, too epic to be much changed by any local political intervention". Both of these systems allow for personal detachment, both from the event itself and from any responsibility to do anything other than remember it. "Lest we forget", we mumble as we file passed - and then we go home and put the kettle on and watch reruns of QI.

What the Inevitability of Fate does, then, is offer us a way in to the whole through the individuals Beth and Lot. There is a narrative to follow, but there is little to stop you wandering from tableau to tableau in any order you choose, doubling back to see them again or working backwards. It is still a flat image, yes, contained by the computer screen, but it utilises the liminal space of the virtual as best it can, and employs movement and sound in really interesting ways. Things spring up out of nowhere, other things drop down. You dance, you fly, you hide, you climb. You are bombarded, literally. You are given space to think.
There is no accusation in the installation, not pointed fingers. From the beginning, Borchovski has really worked to make the audience feel watched, but that watching is done by a faceless, nameless power that seems to be omnipotent, omnipresent. Placards fly up from the ground bearing the new rules for the new regime, and the voices that repeat them are heavily distorted, inhuman. You are watched by floating, disembodied eyeballs.

you are not allowed
A real effort has been made to include the audience in the narrative, with countless poseballs dotted through the tableaux allowing you to literally insert yourself into the frame. You do not, at any point, however, take the place of Beth or of Lot in any (virtually) physical sense. We are alongside, witnessing, sometimes joining in.

Happy Birthday, Lot!
in happier times
There are no images of atrocity, no reliance on the familiar photographs of the Holocaust that we have come to accept as part of a social consciousness (although there are some photos on display in the sim, they are not emblazoned across the walls and floors and burned onto the retina). Nothing about the scenes feels familiar in any boring, dismissive way, and there is so much going on that the act of looking and exploring never gets boring. At no point, either, does it become too much. The semiotics, as I have said, are recognisable, understandable, but not stale. 

Ultimately, I think the sim works because it can be understood as an expression and memorial of grief - Beth's grief for her daughter, Lot, who goes missing and can safely be presumed dead. We aren't asked to appropriate the horror that befell people who died before most of us were even born, and we aren't told to take to the streets and hang the descendents of those responsible. We aren't asked to imagine that we ourselves have been tortured or killed. We have all, at some point or another, felt the fear of potentially losing a loved one, and the personal horror of that is easily transmutable from the all-too-human and contorted faces of the models before us. 
Honestly, I think their expressions are the most human things I have ever seen in Second Life.

Lot and a forbidden book
Beth, in grief
 Again, personal grief is an individual route into an otherwise enormous and difficult subject matter, and taking such a personal interest in an event that categorically did not happen to you has criticism.
So much more could be said about this sim, and where it might fit within a canon of memorials and installations. I haven't touched upon the props we are given and told to wear as you follow the narrative (and which have an afterlife as they remain in your inventory when you leave the event). I haven't talked about the use of light, or the installation walls which are covered with names we assume are the names of the dead. I haven't made any kind of list of symbols for further analysis, and I haven't reached for any text books beyond Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others from which I have source all of the academic quotes in this post (if you'd like specific references, I will gladly give them). I haven't touched at all on the performance of guilt, nor on the significance of a memorial in an ephemeral realm. There is criticism in abundance of everything I have brought up here, but I wanted to focus now on what the sim achieved (which I think is a lot) and not what it may have wrongly assumed or been lacking in. But I think, for now, that I have written more than enough.
no chance
Thank you so much, Norah, for taking me here and letting me experience it with you. If you would like to visit the Inevitability of Fate, you can do so by clicking here - here! If you would like to share your opinions, comments are always welcome.

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