Binding the Bones
The first time I encountered Lorraine Doran’s “A Film of Our Life, Played Backwards” [here's an excerpt over at Gulf Coast] I read it through twice. Then, I called a friend. “Listen to this,” I said, and I read the entire essay aloud over the phone. I feel emphatic about this essay in a way that I rarely do about writing. It’s not that I don’t love and appreciate and respect a great deal of writing. But this essay comes with a kind of urgency, a thick vein, visible and pulsing, just under the surface of the text. The essay speaks keenly to a need we all have and to a need that is so often overlooked, unseen, unacknowledged. That need being intimacy and vulnerability, the act of sharing our stories out loud and in person. The need to unbarrier and unblock ourselves, even for a few moments, to reveal who we really are.
Doran takes us through her experience serving in a position called “intervenor” for an art piece at the Guggenheim conceptualized by Tino Seghal. For the piece, the walls hung bare, the sole objects for consideration being the bodies of those leading the museums goers through and the museum goers themselves.
But that’s not where she begins. She begins with a story about her own birth. A story in which she was folded in half to be delivered because her mother’s pelvis was too small, this decision resulting in her clavicle breaking. When her mother discovered the fracture, she brought Doran to the doctor, William Carlos Williams’ son, and he told her that if she continued to nurse, the milk would bind the bones back together. The milk would bind the bones.
We all live lives of the mundane that are then tied together by moments of incredibility, metaphors that speak not only to our solitary stories but a collective one made up of all of our individual movements on this earth. Doran writes, “Our life stories do not begin with our own birth, they are not shaped by our memories alone. Our narratives can be altered by an event that occurs beyond our consciousness, and by the briefest interaction with someone we’ll never see again, or by someone we never met at all.”
In the exhibit, there were four different guides: a child, a college student, a middle-aged person, and an elder, who led each participant through, asking questions and engaging each visitor in conversation. Each encounter lasted no more than six minutes. And in this time, a time that most of us would think is inconsequential, there was room for so much disclosure and intimacy that when Doran’s own mother went through, she said she couldn’t talk with her daughter about the conversation she had with her intervenor. “It was too personal. I will never forget him,” she said.
As Doran weaves in and out of the memories recounted by participants and her own witnessing to these memories, the line is blurred between them. It is true that the intervenors are controlling the experience to a certain extent: walking the participants through, asking the initial questions, leaving them when each intervenor’s time is up. And yet, this is not an experience that can be fully controlled by those in charge. The participants have a say. They not only choose how and how much to engage, but they also speak and, in speaking their stories or even in refusing to share, leave an indelible mark on the intervenors.
Ultimately, this essay is about engagement and dismissal. And what lies beneath these, courage to be vulnerable or the act of backing away: out of ego, out of fear, out of lack of recognition. The truth is that we are all impacted by those around us regardless of whether we choose to acknowledge that impact. Do we choose to engage? Do we back away?
Doran’s essay embodies the sort of engagement it describes: telling the readers intimate stories, asking them to consider their own answers, their own memories and associations.
She writes, “We live in an age of individual universes that bump up against one another but rarely touch.” This art “that exists in this moment, and is documented only by memory” is an antidote to the fierce and furious documentation of our lives. Nowadays, everything, every moment must be recorded—“to dos” must be spoken into our iphones, meals must be photographed, statuses must be thought of and instantly shared. The immediacy of our digital lives is a sort of tension bridge, the snap of the line always reminding us of each moment’s impermanence and ultimately of our own impermanence, in our bodies and on this ground. But these encounters with strangers, if we choose to engage and connect, can reveal a different kind of immediacy, one that acknowledges life outside of and yet connected to our own. Doran talks about one day in which she spoke with a visitor about the house that Doran’s grandfather built which was demolished two weeks after he died; the visitor was about to return to Indiana to see her childhood home for the last time before it was razed to the ground. We can choose to see this as coincidence or instead as “some form of grace…these moments of synchronicity between two lives previously foreign to one another.”
Doran also brings in the work of French conceptual artist Sophie Calle, who took a job as a chambermaid and catalogued items left behind by guests, considering what they meant about each person and imagining encounters between those who had just left and those just arriving. She also talks about her own participation in Marina Abramovic’s piece The Artist is Present, in which she sat across from the artist, both of them staring without speaking. These pieces add complexity and depth to Doran’s discussion of why and how artists try to create intimacy among people and, in doing so, somehow preserve elusive moments in time.
Positioned at the entrance to the exhibit, the first intervenor, a child, introduces herself to the museum visitor saying: “This is a piece by Tino Sehgal? Would you like to follow me?” Doran discusses how, before word had spread about the exhibit, visitors would dismiss the child, walking by, walking on. They had come to a museum to look at art. They were educated. They were serious. And this child—with her youth, exuberance, lack of knowledge—was in the way of their experience.
How often do we shrug off and walk by authentic experience or the possibility of authentic experience in our day-to-day lives? Because it comes in a form we have learned to see as less important. Because we have already decided what we need to do with this time. Because we need to believe we have it all figured out.
Doran creates a contemplative space in which we can all consider the ways in which our stories have been shaped, marked, defined by small moments and by events that happened long before we were born. She offers, too, a kind of challenge to not look away. Sehgal’s piece opens with a child asking the question “What is progress?” and then asks participants to define it more specifically and then discuss other memories as they walk through. The piece, whose name is only announced at the end as the visitor leaves, is called “This Progress.” Doran delineates the choice we all have in our lives. Moving through life is inevitable, but how do we choose to progress?
A native of New Orleans and resident of Tucson, Lisa O’Neill teaches writing at The University of Arizona. She has also taught writing workshops with incarcerated students at Tucson detention centers and presently serves on the board of Casa Libre en la Solana, a literary nonprofit supporting Tucson writers. Lisa received her MFA in nonfiction writing from The University of Arizona. Her work has most recently been published in defunct, The Fiddleback, drunken boat, and DIAGRAM. At her blog and literary hub, The Dictionary Project, she writes posts inspired by one dictionary word, selected at random, each week.