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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Giessmann

Post-MFA: Reflecting a year later

Originally posted on Facebook on April 11, 2021.

It’s approaching a year since I completed my MFA so I decided to reread my thesis and reflect on what I wrote. I wanted to see how differently I feel and how that research may be fueling the newer work I’ve been slowly developing over the last few months but isn’t really at a stage that I’m ready to share. The conclusion for one of the chapters brought up some uncomfortable and painful feelings and I thought I’d include it here.

“Surviving trauma leads to shame as survivors struggle with the fact it occurred and was not prevented while compounding with the anxiety it might happen again. a second bed embraced the discomfort and grief that accompanies that pain and recognized it as a necessary and natural emotion. During the six hours, I had the opportunity to consistently reflect on the moments where I have endured loss, the deaths of loved ones and several instances of sexual assault, and grappled with the responsibilities of being someone’s last caregiver. Those situations put me in a position where I felt helpless and compelled to stay in order to maintain that connection at my own expense. Listening to wheezing until the sound eventually stops, my shaking becoming noticeable because my focus was now directed at something horrifyingly still, is a sensation I will never forget. It mimics the realization I had after being assaulted that I had been hurt, the grief suspending time and the tension in my chest verging on suffocating. The torrent of anger was crippling and resulted in the amputation of certain parts of myself, the ones that were vulnerable and wounded, to try and retain some sense of fortitude. Intimacy and trust were foreign concepts that existed in a world that was not my own and seemed impossible to reach. Laying on the bed for hours and remembering when I have found myself in a similar place and the sadness it elicited, and how many other people might have gone through something like this, was an attempt to retrieve the bits and pieces I had forsaken. Like Hoang [Tan Nguyen], I was yearning for something barricaded from me, his by time and mine by grief, and desperate to find figments of it regardless of the consequences. There is a realization about the men in K.I.P. that the actions they are enacting on the screen might have been responsible for their contraction of HIV, if not at that moment one later with similar circumstances, and it would kill them. I cradled a substitution for someone as it disappeared and hurt me inside and out, realizing that trust and intimacy needed vulnerability to exist and that the prospect of losing it was an inescapable condition–it is what gives those bonds value, and being exposed in that way is also one of its most difficult challenges.

Jennifer Doyle is an art critic and writer who specializes in performance art and wrote about the hard emotions that can be involved in Hold It Against Me, particularly those that feature taboo subjects like death, self-mutilation, and even abortion (Doyle xvii-xviii). She opens with a confession about missing her appointment to participate in Adrian Howell’s performance Held (fig. 11), something Doyle had been looking forward to but later realized she was intimidated by, which contributed to her poorly scheduling that day and inevitably missing her slot. Doyle, someone well versed in confrontational and intense artwork, struggled with the intimacy that would have been involved in Howell’s performance which had participants curl up with him in his bed while he held them for an hour (Doyle 2-3). That closeness, the act of someone simply holding her and dedicating themselves to her comfort, was frightening. Relinquishing that control involves embracing the potential to be hurt again, by that person or the experience ending, and those are increasingly tough terms to accept when they can be easily avoided. I find myself yearning to receive the kind of care Doyle evaded but its consequences feel dangerous, so dangerous that after having endured moments where it was dangled in front of me but inevitably denied by death or assault, it feels like finally having it might be shattering. I might break down, unable to process finally obtaining something that was unimaginable, and the pieces left over will require far greater patience and compassion than I am capable of providing myself. Intimacy is tantalizing but I’ve seen what it has done to others, people who lost lover after lover, and those scars look irreparable–the grief is cataclysmic.”

Having come back to Alberta, where several instances of homophobic violence occurred in the weeks following my return and where there have been countless attacks against women on a daily basis, I’m finding that a lot of the things I buried here are creeping back up. While I’m no longer in the closet and I’m somewhere safe, the landmarks here are interlaced with the grief and anxiety I nestled deep down while I grew up. I’m having to renegotiate with unsavoury memories in a way that was mitigated by the distance I had while studying in the US. But the scars throb more persistently here and it has been challenging to hold my ground while juggling the onslaught of other, larger issues we’re facing at the same time. Thankfully, my time in Buffalo came with its own set of lessons that provided perspective on intimacy and vulnerability that are proving to be useful now, however, I’m also facing the mistakes I made during my studies in New York now that I’m further away and have that space. I’m noticing the similarities and differences in my boundaries between here and there, then and now, and the scenarios where they were respected or neglected. I’m also recognizing some of the insidious ways my poor experiences with men feed into the projections I make onto others and the deep-seated insecurities I’m still grappling with.

I feel as though the work I’m trying to make right now is reckoning with where I want to be and where I am, while where I have been continues to bellow all around me. This is in regards to more than just geographically, it includes personally and intellectually and socially and professionally. I feel a great deal of pressure, all of it self-imposed, to simply be better. Not to be better than, at least not externally speaking, but to just be better. That has been really hard to deal with because I’m mostly working alone, my network is small and the number of people I’m comfortable really opening up to about these struggles being a handful who are dealing with their own lives too. And I’m also wary of the burden I place on others when it comes to my own growth, especially because my circle is primarily women and I want to be mindful of the emotional weight I would be asking them to bear with me.

I’m in a weird place and I’m unsure if the work I have planned will be what I hope it to be, I think I’m placing an unrealistic expectation on these objects and images to somehow provide the keys to things that may actually just require vulnerability and time. I’ve been told I’m impatient, which I’m well aware of but like to pretend isn’t the case, and the uncertainty of so many positive futures right now makes longing seem like a futile exercise in impossibility. I have trouble retaining optimism, I’m hyper-critical and underappreciative, and I think that doesn’t make me the best role model. But I’d like to be a better one, one mindful of the space he occupies and whose primary goal is generosity, and I hope that will be enough to encourage me to foster the qualities I admire so much in my peers.

This became less about what I wrote last year, though the doubt and fear are residues lingering from some of those experiences, and instead feels like an apology and confession. I don’t necessarily know what I’m apologizing for, it may be a result of that criticality I mentioned previously and the sensation I’m disappointing people, but it might also be to myself for belittling the growth I have made and thinking of it as unsatisfactory. But that’s a realization I’m unlikely to condone for long.

I wanted to say something without any of the veils I use in my artwork to protect myself because the unfortunate reality is that right now I don’t really have that part of me to rely on for safety and expression, and apart from one thing I hope to post about soon, I don’t know when the next opportunity for me to share will be. This doesn’t feel coherent and it’s not something I’m confident posting because it’s rough around the edges but I want to see if there’s value in that. I think there is something worthwhile in these thoughts and this process but I imagine it won’t reveal itself to me until well after the jump. Thank you to anyone who managed to read this far, I’ve been grateful for the support I’ve received these last few years and I am looking forward to improving how I reciprocate that care in the future.

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