Yesterday one of my school friends posted some pictures on Facebook. Polaroid snapshots she’d dug out from somewhere detailing the late eighties and early nineties and all the nostalgia, style-tips and family memories such things entail.
One of them was a picture of the class in school. A snapshot of a class during a break, everyone grinning and gurning at the camera while the teacher stands at the back with that look most teachers seem to have even back in those days. Weary tolerance of something unusual; neither disruptive nor productive, which of course are what most group photos generate, even back in the day, capturing the moment.
Everyone grinning, smiling, posing, looking at the camera. Everyone but me.
It’s not intentional. I’m turned almost 180, sitting on a desk, looking at something down at my forearm or behind me the second the shutter snaps. I recognise myself, the shirt and tie, shoulders already widening thanks to seven years of club and county-standard swimming. Terrible nineties haircut, the bane of my life for years, sitting there trying to learn the rules of social etiquette without ever being taught.
It’s an interesting picture, primarily for its exclusivity. Between 1990 and 1997 I have very few pictures of me, in any situation. I think this might be why I dove into photography the second I graduated, attending night courses and buying second hand SLR’s on Ebay. Back then in the eighties we had Polaroids, but they were expensive and medium format rolls of film that only gave you 8-12 shots and required a separate flash-unit to shoot when the light was crappy.
The nineties gave you better options but nothing really registered with me. The first four years I block together under the umbrella term “The Buffalo Years”, a nod to the Superbowl screw-ups by the unfortunate Bills teams, because I don’t remember nor choose to remember what happened in those years. Needless to say it wasn’t good. But it keeps my councillor in business when I see him every few months. Americans call such people “shrinks” or an “analyst”, but titles aside I find he helps me deal with everything. Not just from those years either, though even he admits that such a time didn’t do me any favours when it came to both of us dealing with the rest of it.
So the person in the photograph isn’t me?
Of course she’s me.
Just a version of me I can’t remember.
Which is a bad thing?
I was hooked on Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse within the first five minutes. Even back in 2009 personal identity was already beginning to detach and become a fluid, amorphic construct. Evolving platforms, from Livejournal to Myspace to Facebook allowed people to create alternative personalities; different lives from the ones they lead in reality; the real world and all its confining bureaucratic rhetoric.
Whedon had just taken that idea to the extreme, added a hefty dose of paranoia and intrigue and voila: an instant 21st century show that many didn’t get.
Twenty years ago avatars were defined primarily as a term to describe deities descending to earth; the roots stemming from both Hinduism and Sikhism, though the argument that Jesus can be seen as a Christian avatar if you treat The Trinity as a single construct. Then the computer game Sims brought the world into the secular domain, along with universes like World Of Warcraft and The Last Airbender and television shows like Carnivale, where the avatars were describes as conduits for the binary of light and darkness.
To me they were the authority for a band of fictional troubadours known as the Harlequins. The Harlequins were an offshoot of the Games Workshop Eldar (basically Space Elves) who were a mercenary outfit dressed in all manner of stripes, spots and bright colours, every one topped off with an ornate grinning full-facemask, described and drawn as the cream of Broadway’s dance corps, with the martial skills of ninjas.
I bought their best origins story second hand from a family friend back in the nineties. With beautiful pen illustrations by John Blanche you really saw the beautiful lethality of the concept. One of my friends in university took a shine to the concept and presented me with a gift for Christmas 1999, as seen below.
This is one of my most treasured mementos of life as an undergrad; sitting pride of place behind my laptop, next to a 4’’ x 5’’ poster of Mad Max, the ultimate in WW3 cyberpunk.
I think the main reason behind my attraction to this colourful, cheerful badass group of chaos-fighting terrorists is the clown ideal of humour and laughter juxtaposed with an ability to decapitate whoever they liked and then sit down to breakfast guilt-free. But there’s also the freedom of wearing a mask because you can adopt a persona like any other actor or actress. Not so much freedom from prosecution, more so freedom from convention, from social order.
Venice has its carnival, New Orleans its Mardi Gras, many countries have Halloween or Day of the Dead, the Jewish faith has Purim. Many different groups worldwide recognise the necessity to play socially acceptable dress-up; the idea that we need to put on costumes and makeup to play a role in doing something not normally done, nor accepted everyday by everyone else.
I’ve got a few masques from my travels, New York and Venice being the big two. They sit lined up on my bookshelf as a reminder of the masques I wear in my life. That we all wear when we step out our front doors and into the world. I guess I’m just a bit more theatrical than most.
Skin art features heavily too. I have several tattoos, two of them being masques on one part of my body and a winking clown on my shoulder. Both these constructs draw their history from my belief that we play roles in life (Shakespeare was right, but isn’t he always?). The make-up that most women and some men put on every day covers more than imperfection they want to keep hidden. They allow them to project who they want to be, sometimes easier than who they are at that moment.
The laughter from the clown goes one step further. Golda Meir once said: “Those who do not know how to weep with their whole heart, don’t know how to laugh either”.
I agree. If you cannot do one then the other is hard. I’ve laughed until I’ve wet myself and I’ve cried until my tear ducts pour dust. The extreme contrast is both wonderful and terrible, euphoric and soul-destroying, beautiful and beautiful.
“Send in the clowns”.
A term rarely understood. Is it to make us laugh when all we want to do is cry? To draw our attention away from the reality, no matter how brutal its hardships, to focus for a second on the fantastic and all its stupid, telegraphed slapstick?
Maybe that’s the point? When all you want to do is cry, maybe laughter is the only way forward. The Harlequin backstory tells the story of the fall of the Eldar, and the one Harlequin deity remaining amidst this chaos and slaughter is Cegorach, the titular “Laughing God”. Cegorach is a blunt reference to Br’er Rabbit and the trickster tales that originated in Africa hundreds of years ago. By hiding in the Webway, space’s very own briar-patch, Cegorach survives the fall, still laughing even when the rest of the universe was crying.
I think of the final episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, of Spike burning alive and laughing as he disintegrates. Of James Cagney in White Heat screaming out “Top of the World, Ma!” before the final ultimate explosion. There’s no rule that says you can’t laugh at all of this. It’s just some people like to keep the social etiquette over inappropriate humour. I can understand and accept that, it’s just a hard perspective to adopt.
So, back to the photograph. I think Matt Smith hit the nail on the head back in 2013.
We all change, when you think about it, we’re all different people; all through our lives, and that’s okay, that’s good you’ve gotta keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be. I will not forget one line of this, not one day, I swear…
It’s history; both good and bad, old and young, with cool hair and a hairstyle that really should be forgotten about on purpose.
It’s history, remember and move on.
The masques we wear in life either become us or stay a separate removal part of ourselves, either way life needs to be led. I cannot say which way is better, is the original the “proper” or the “real”? So that needs to be applauded even if it wasn’t the kindest option? The character should be discarded even if it makes more sense to remain as such?
I am me. We composite all our experiences to form something new and we call it us. For better or worse, until our bodies call time. That’s living I guess, there’s fewer rules than you think, and self-honesty often is the purest option out there.