The space between fact and fiction
My entry point into this residency was exploring the role and possibility of speculation in approaching the archive. How can speculation be used to fill in the gaps in the archive, the things, stories, and experiences that inevitably don’t make it into the collection? What about the aspects that don’t survive, but whose tales can still be elucidated, and which deserve to be told too?
By speculation, I refer to speculative imagining, creating or constructing, a methodology and technique I have often employed in my artistic work. You might be familiar with one of its guises: speculative fiction, the watering hole of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I’ve found it comes most intuitively for me when paired with research. Much like the Tarot card Page of Wands, it’s symbolises aa potent place of making that acknowledges and makes comfortable a bridging of things deemed separate – potent precisely because of its slipperiness, evading easy categorisations.
With one foot grounded on the Earth and one arm stretched up toward the sky, this combination of speculation-research has for instance taken the form of TR333 (2021), a speculative documentary made in collaboration with Dr. Nalini Nadkarni that envisions a hybrid tree species in year 2040, engineered from three separate climate hardy tree species.
More recently, I created The Earthly Realm is Out of Balance (2022), a chatbot + choose-your-own-adventure game + resource library which explored ancestry and the possibility of big tech to facilitate intimate conversations about ancestry and intergenerational transmissions.
Speculation in the archive
However – all this aside – prior to this residency, I had never done any speculative work that dealt with:
- Real people’s lives and experiences
- Events of atrocity and genocide
- Issues that are not part of my own lived experiences or diasporic heritage.
It’s one thing to create a world, a character, and a story in response to the climate crisis or as a way to engage with discussions on ancestry, and another to do so in relation to materials, objects, or stories relating to The Holocaust, as someone who isn’t of Jewish heritage. This is not to say that my life to some extent – like all our lives – has not been shaped by the Holocaust. I was born in Sweden, a country which is now led by a coalition government steered by the Sweden Democrats, a nationalist party with roots in nazism. During my upbringing, as white supremacy became more and more normalised by the media and the political landscape, antisemitism wasn’t just something to be studied in history class, but also something happening in real-time, around me.
News of synagogues vandalised and swastikas spray painted onto schools were not uncommon. Members of neo-nazi groups, their matching jackets featuring supremacist Viking symbols, would proudly stand outside a queer bar I went to, en masse. Antisemitism and its affiliates nationalism, white supremacy, and far-right conservatism is not just something I have encountered via this residency, or via books and films – however – this is vastly different to The Holocaust playing a direct part in my family and my ancestors’ lives.
As such, a key part of exploring how to approach this archive with speculation is about learning how to embed into my research and creative process the fact that neither me nor my ancestors are Jewish. It’s likewise important that my awareness of this positionality is consistently refreshed and revisited. Speculation for speculation’s sake may work in a context unmarked by real life terrors, deaths, and persecution, but I knew from the outset that here, speculation must occur while treating the materials and stories that the Centre houses with care and nuance, attention and curiosity. How can I forge the space between fact and fiction without diluting or dismissing the gravity of the sources I’m working with?
These are questions I’m still in the process of answering, and whose answers themselves are constantly in flux, as depending on the contexts involved…
As a descendant on both sides from people who experienced the Cultural Revolution in China 1966-1976, the concept of postmemory quickly intrigued me in an early meeting when Curator of Contemporary Arts Paula Kolar mentioned it to us. After visiting the Centre in early January, I borrowed from the library a copy of The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust by Marianne Hirsch.
Postmemory is defined as:
“Postmemory” describes the relationship that the “generation after” bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before — to experiences they “remember” only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up. But these experiences were transmitted to them so deeply and affectively as to seem to constitute memories in their own right. Postmemory’s connection to the past is thus actually mediated not by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation. /…/ It is to be shaped, however indirectly, by traumatic fragments of events that still defy narrative reconstruction and exceed comprehension. These events happened in the past, but their effects continue into the present.” – p.5
Postmemory is a concept that resonates smoothly with me, a theory that cleanly summarises the importance of narrative, symbolism, and embodied affect in intergenerational transmission. I’d like to expand postmemory to go beyond the traumatic, for instance including scenes of everyday mundanity, hopes, and dreams into the inherited fold as part of a wider inherited history. Indeed, Hirsch goes on to write about the relationship of postmemory to images, and how the postmemory generation or those with an understanding of postmemory are in a unique position to deepen the contexts of images of the Holocaust due to their positioning between truth and fiction. From there, one can begin encompassing more of the information and nuances lost in the reduction of Holocaust images to tropes or repeated and essentialised narratives. To treat images as more than evidence is to begin to fathom the full breadth of what an image holds – some of which will forever remain unprovable.
It’s an entry point into working with the Centre’s archive materials that I can relate to, a site where speculation and imagination is not seen as inferior to truth, but as a methodology and a tool that can and should be exercised with care, in order to expand what may previously have seen as points of invisibility or unknowability.
Below, there are two stills from The Last Happy Day (2009), directed by Lynne Sachs, an experimental documentary where the director seeks to learn more about Sandor, a doctor, a distant relative, and a survivor of the Holocaust. In the stills, Sandor’s wife firmly emphasises to the filmmaker that she doesn’t have a grasp on truth anymore when recounting stories of The Holocaust. Time has passed, and her memories, feelings, and retellings have muddied the idealised definition of “what happened”. She seems accepting of this; if not at peace, at least grounded in the fact that she is not willing to make a truth claim on something she is unsure of. Postmemorial, in a sense. Firmly planted in the space between fact and fiction, definitely.
Over the next few months and over into early summer, I will continue working with the archive, to listen to the materials and flesh out an understanding how speculation can engage respectfully with the materials that the Holocaust Centre North stewards, and those stories that never got to be collected. It’s already been an enriching and deepening process, and I wonder where the next few months will take me!