We live in trying times. Many smart people have tried (and mostly failed) to provide comfort, offer explanations or devise solutions. I wouldn’t dare attempt that. What I can offer are my thoughts in a meandering stream of consciousness.
In April 2015 I made a short video. The piece was fairly straightforward—a quick, rough and impulsive experiment in filmmaking or performance art that happened to hit upon something that was emotionally genuine and true. The short was an unauthorized music video for the song “Station” by a young English musician named Låpsley. If I am to be completely honest, the video owes more than a little of its emotional impact to this hypnotic song, which I was quite obsessed with at the time.
The video was about love. In a departure from my deliberately unemotional approach to making art, I created a very personal piece about how it felt to be in love with someone who didn’t love me back. How long would I keep coming back, enthusiastically craving something that was ultimately disastrous for my wellbeing? The original idea for the piece was to be repeatedly slapped, but the final video is far more nuanced.
And so, on a cold day in early spring, I stood at the open door to my backyard and was splashed in the face with water—some 50 times. The water was warm and steam rose from my body in the cool air. In the background, life goes on through flickers in my neighbors’ window; they are oblivious to the person getting drenched outside.
My eyes hurt from the water. Although I knew the splashes were coming, or perhaps because I knew, the expectation of each new wave was nerve-racking. I laughed uncontrollably—partially because of the ridiculousness of the situation, and partially out of desperation from the repeated water attacks. I showed the video in class and it had an odd effect: Some people found it funny and uplifting, others moving and sad. There may have even been a few tears.
Two years later, I was asked if the video could be featured in “Alice.” I gladly accepted. And there was a further request: I was also asked to submit a short text that addressed my experiences as an immigrant in the current U.S. political climate. Even though the theme of immigration is central to my actual art practice, the idea of such a text accompanying my atypical water-splashing video made me nervous. How did the two relate? Should it even matter? The video was one of only a handful of projects I’ve done that was unrelated to the immigrant experience. Or at least the intention was personal rather than political. There was, however, a very visceral, yet unconscious, connection that later became clear to me.
Like so many, politics have become increasingly personal to me; I read the news and feel anger and sadness in ways that I have rarely experienced outside the most intimate realm. Our current political climate is full of rage and spite, more reminiscent of a quarrel between vengeful lovers than of discourse among political opponents.
The day after the U.S. presidential election of 2016, I watched the euphoria of the previous day melt into scenes of stoic New Yorkers crying on the F train. That evening I met a stranger in a bar and we spent an intense, wild night together. The political insult felt so personal, a slap in the face (pun intended), and it had to be exorcised on an intimate level—to feel wanted and alive.
We (the people) have a peculiar relationship to the future. It does not exist, yet we see it vividly and treat it as something tangible—a precious object we possess. Breaking up with someone important has a strange effect on this vision of the future. A landscape of recognizable markers is replaced by a dizzying chasm. Suddenly, there are interruptions in our cognitive processes—thoughts and ideas cannot find their target. Our perceptions and identity, once anchored to an idea of the future, have become loose ends that dangle in the wind of uncertainty. So, too, does our political reality feel like a dramatic break-up.
Now, not to be the ever-gloomy Eastern European, I will say that this might all be a good thing, a great thing in fact. A vision of a brighter future can be a motivating source of strength; it can also be a crutch. Once free of the distracting protection of a fictitious future, we can truly take on the present. Since November though, both the present and the future seem unrecognizable and scary.
The U.S. has always been a better concept than a reality in my opinion, no matter what the people with the red hats think. But until November 2016 it seemed to be inching slowly and unevenly forward. To an immigrant, the future can often be hazy, conditioned by the next interview, the next visa, and the next status. I made a film about navigating the visa system, but since the election even that seems irrelevant; the immigration system itself is in question. I had been exploring the tedium of bureaucracy but suddenly I was afraid of far more dramatic situations—worried for friends who are asylum seekers or happen to be from the “wrong” country and rushing to a number of hastily arranged weddings at City Hall.
As a white European and a permanent resident in liberal New York City, my status is similar to that of a U.S. citizen. I am well aware of the privilege this position affords me. But last month on a trip abroad, I imagined the unlikely scenario in which my country, Serbia, caused a diplomatic incident and, after an angry tweet by the president, I end up on some list, suddenly unable to return to the U.S. I knew, too, that I would be relatively fine if this were to happen; for so many others, having to leave would mean disaster.
The person who inspired my “water” video is no longer a part of my life. While making the video I thought about the difference between a good person who, unknowingly, repeatedly hurts others, and a bad person who deliberately does so. I determined that, at some point, the distinction doesn't matter, only actions do. It took a while to understand this and even longer to accept, but after all my attempts and efforts to talk and understand, all the beauty had washed away and all I could see was the ugliness. In the end it was easy to walk away.
I understand people who contemplate leaving the United States. The idea of breaking up with a country that we feel has betrayed everything it’s meant to represent is very tempting. But this line of thinking is reserved for those of privilege—those who have a choice. With that privilege comes a responsibility to those who don’t. There is still hope that I can help things change for the better. I’m staying for another splash.