I have been thinking a great deal about barriers and limits lately.
Perhaps this is in part because I have been travelling, and spent several days as a gypsy before I began settling into living elsewhere for a few months. Lately, I’ve been living a fair bit in the semi-public, half-private world of hotel rooms and bed and breakfast accommodations. Spent several days in a city where my native tongue was serviceable, but my need of it revealed my limited capacity to really communicate and understand – there was a lack of nuance to all that I said regardless of which language I spoke, a limit to my comprehension to be sure, and I felt the lack acutely. So many things, some potentially important ones, went missing.
There seems to be no end to the list of things that can come between people: between what we understand to be ‘true’ and new information that might allow us to develop different ways of thinking or knowing the world & each other (and of course ourselves, along with it). It strikes me as both tragic and all too typical that although many of us live in a world infused with the constant flow of information, that we can know so very little of our neighbours and are so quick to judge. That we resort to simplistic explanations, assumptions, and stereotypes based on misinformation and partial truths to frame our perceptions. Somehow, it is easier not to know, not to make the effort to find out more: for better or worse, we feel somehow entitled to make up our own version of reality as it suits us. Box it up, call it ‘truth,’ and move on.
In so doing, we build utterly arbitrary & false divisions. Us and Them. Definition by negation, by absence.
We all do this to one degree or another, and I am no shining exception. I try to be cognizant of the places in my understanding where I am most prone to lapses into the world of the sweeping generalization, so I can try not to go there at all (very much worse when I do this unconsciously, recognizing I have done so only after the fact). But of course I fail at times, and my lack of awareness and sensitivity makes me feel awful.
Railing against assumptions and generalizations is nothing new, of course. My desire here is not to point accusatory fingers, since doing so would be falsely superior and would shut down dialogue, instead of fostering it.
Rather, my aim is to take a closer look at my own limits, and what more I learned about them and my view of the world through what I saw at the York. To this end, I have been considering my recollections of walking through the halls, walking into the rooms.
What it felt like to be faced with all of those doors … .
I remember feeling: An open curiosity/ Naive/ Sudden & intense loneliness/ What felt like a million questions running through my head all at once/ Fear/ Like a voyeur/ The weight of responsibility/ That I was being watched somehow/ Anger/ A sense of discovery/ I was a trespasser/ Many voices wanting to speak/ That I was in over my head/ Incredibly isolated/ The pound of adrenalin/ Bone-deep sadness
… All this, and much more I still don’t have the right words to describe, all at once.
A presence or an absence, the door is a double thing. It protects and repulses, welcomes and turns away, is at once inside and outside. There is no spiritual itinerary that does not invoke the idea of the door. Images of doors are omnipresent in all myths and rituals, in representations of salvation and deliverance, as well as of loss. p.86
Both. Neither. Liminal.
I remember being on the third floor, and coming across a locked door. It seemed strange – not right somehow – but I was so far inside seeing the place and its rooms, I didn’t register why or what it could mean. A short time later, we were shooting on the second floor, and Marian heard footsteps on the stairs. Three people emerged from the stairwell; one of them held a camera of Marian’s that she had put down briefly.
Squatters. Some people who kipped there for the night to avoid sleeping on the street.
But they weren’t the trespassers – we were.
How appropriate, then, that I was drawn to reopen How Are Things? again, and to find this statement of Droit’s about doors, after having spent the better part of two years looking at the images we took that day:
It is a thing that conjoins opposites, makes them collide, confounds them almost. We are naturally of the opinion that it must either be open or closed, there or not there. An error. The door is all of these things at the same time. It unites these opposites not as two incompatibilities but as two faces of the same reality. p.86
Face to face with strangers: people who we weren’t expecting to be there, who didn’t have “permission” to be there … but we were the ones who didn’t ‘belong’ and in truth, had far less right to be there regardless of any points of law or bureaucratic paperwork.
Face to face with ourselves: I went from being absorbed by the project one minute to feeling exposed, vulnerable, out of place the next. Feeling guarded, because we had no prior knowledge of the people we were now speaking with. Wondering what the best way to handle it would be. I remember wondering if we should actually be afraid, since we’d be easy targets; I felt suddenly naive for dismissing all the caution the people at the City took as being middle class bias. And realizing I was a bit afraid, even though neither of us were ever threatened by these people.
Face to face with the very real limits in our understanding: what we did know was based on the media (which tended to focus on the violence and other problems in the place), on information from the City (the staff were cautious, didn’t like the place, needed us to sign waivers and have insurance). We had no extended firsthand experience of the hotel when it was open, or of the neighbourhood’s residents. I’d had a studio close by for about a year and a half, but I didn’t meet many of the people who lived around there – just a few of the street population, who were generally good folks (though sometimes erratic in behaviour) and with whom I had passed the time of day on several occasions. But this was different: I realized that I had been feeling safer and more confident than perhaps I should have. But I also felt awful for feeling that – that I was somehow betraying these people by making assumptions about their motives toward us.
I often have the intimation, when I push open a door, that I am entering a different universe. P 87
Nothing could have been more true. Each room was a different universe: the York struck me as a series of discrete cells or pockets, somehow separate from the world outside, somehow entirely cut off from the rooms beside or across the hall.
And we were there, but at yet another remove, cut off too in a way, but wanting to find a way in.
The York Hotel was perhaps a place that ‘othered’ people – an environment that fostered isolation and distance. It certainly was a place/context through which residents were ‘othered’ by the media and by the assumptions bred from differences in income and race, and complicated by other factors like alcohol, drugs, mental health issues. Differences that were fuel for some people to view York residents and habitués as problems rather than people. I don’t know for a fact that the environment at the York had an isolating effect on the people who lived there, as I have never experienced what it was like to stay there firsthand – but it wasn’t a place that had a very welcoming ‘feel’, and its dinginess would have been quite depressing, I think.
Still, we have also been told by some people that there was a real community at the York; that people looked out for one another there. So perhaps what I experienced was nothing more than a projection of my own understanding of isolation and loneliness. I will never know for sure.
Regardless: I think what we captured in the images from the YORK project speaks more to the commonality of human experience than the differences between us.
The need for shelter, but more importantly, a place to call home.
A place to be with people we know and care about.
A physical space to echo who we are in some way, that can hold objects that hold importance to us beyond their simple usefulness.
How fragile all of these things are.
Work Cited: Droit, Roger-Pol. How Are Things? A Philosophical Experiment. Trans. Theo Cuffe. London: Faber & Faber, 2005.