It’s Good To Be Needed: A Conversation with Michèle Pearson Clarke – Tracy Tidgwell

As Audre Lorde says, “that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.”[i] Michèle Pearson Clarke’s new photography project, It’s Good To Be Needed, makes visible our queernesses as well as our shared experiences of sadness and loss, as it presents images of queer women who are ex-partners but no longer friends, holding hands. It’s Good To Be Needed offers an archive of experience that explores the powerful possibilities created through opening up to vulnerability and performing intimacy.

Michèle and I got together for this reflective conversation on a cold April afternoon at the Feminist Art Gallery (FAG), in Toronto. She didn’t hesitate to hold my hands when I reached out for hers in search of connection and warmth.

GoodToBeNeeded

Tracy Tidgwell: Since we already covered the “how are you?” part, let’s begin with how this project began for you.

Michèle Pearson Clarke: When I first started working on this project at the end of 2011, it was four months after my mother died. Losing her has dredged up a lot of old unresolved grief related to other previous losses in my life, including the end of my marriage in 2009. I had also started a new relationship just before she died and my partner, Suzanne, and her ex-husband are very close and my ex-wife and I are not. There’s this idea that dykes are usually friends with their exes and that people in straight relationships are not. The contrast around that in our own lives was interesting and got me thinking about creative ways to move through loss.

As I continued to search for ways to heal and to figure out how to move forward in my own life, I realized that many of us lack the capacity to resolve things that linger. And we don’t necessarily have structures or rituals in place to address that. The idea of photographing ex-girlfriends who are not friends came to me as a way to revisit a site of grief in an attempt to explore whether a moment of emotional vulnerability and discomfort could offer a letting go.

When I began to develop the idea and talked to people about it, they would tense up and say, “Oh my god, well nobody’s going to want to do it but I want to see it when they do.” So immediately there was intrigue. I had questioned whether it would be a viable project to do but the response that it provoked made me think that I had something here. Even right up to launching the project I still wasn’t sure whether it would be something that people would actually want to do.

TET: Have people wanted to do it?

MPC: I launched the project in December, we’re now in April and there’s still only one photo. In some ways I’m surprised. I didn’t expect hoards of people to do it but I’m surprised that I’ve only had one set of participants so far. At the same time, I’ve had a tremendous amount of interest. People contact me and say that they love the project. It strikes a chord. I think what’s interesting is that everybody seems to try to imagine whether or not they could do it. People seem to immediately think of a particular ex. And most people break out in a cold sweat. It resonates with people.

Sara-and-Lisa-NMP

TET: People seem to be very stirred by your project.

MPC: Somebody came to me recently and told me that they had been at a dinner party with a bunch of dykes and they were discussing my project. They went around the table and each shared whether they could be part of the project or not and why and with which ex. They had this group processing together. There is this way that people are participating without having their picture in the project. Ultimately the project is an attempt to shift things in a healing direction. And even simply having these conversations or imagining the process may be part of this shift.

TET: The participation process seems very involved but I wonder if it’s missing something, like processing? Holding hands for a photo with an ex you likely have unresolved stuff with seems like it might revive some unresolved feelings. I’m curious to know if participating in your project will compel exes to do some more processing.

MPC: I can’t speak for everybody but I think, for most queer women, an enormous amount of processing has already happened in order to decide to end a relationship. Most of us feel the pressure to be friends. It’s a norm and expectation in the queer community. Most of us desire harmony in our lives in general so we’ve done a lot of processing around breaking up. If you aren’t friends then that processing obviously didn’t resolve how to be friends. The project is an experiment that asks, is performing intimacy a way to offer some of what processing was not able to provide? What if we bypass more processing and just perform intimacy? Is it possible that to agree to have this ritual, to meet each other in this place and time, to hold hands, and to let this moment allow for letting go – might that negate the need for more processing?

TET: In a blog post on your project, Charlotte Cooper extends the paradigm of partner-type breakups to community fractures among friends and groups.[ii] She suggests that queer communities haven’t created spaces or structures for meaningful processes that might lead to healing. Do you see your project as a nuanced approach to making stronger relationships and communities?

MPC: I love what Charlotte wrote. Clearly we don’t always resolve the pain from our breakups, in whichever relationships they may occur. These hurts continue to linger and they trickle out into other dynamics in the community. So yes, I would say that my project is an attempt to offer a structured process that might lead to healing.

One thing I’d like to make clear though is that this is not a project for everybody. There are many ex-couples who are not friends for very good, valid reasons. The project is in no way trying to suggest that everybody should be friends with their exes or that reconciliation with somebody who’s hurt you is the ideal stage to get to, especially if someone has been abusive emotionally or physically or in any other way. Sometimes not being friends with an ex is the best way to take care of yourself. I’m not saying that reconciliation and letting go is the ideal state to reach or that participating in the project is the first step in becoming friends with an ex. What I’m saying is that there are some of us who wish to shift the dynamics of what is unresolved and we don’t have ways to do it. The project is trying to offer those people a way to explore risk, vulnerability and letting go.

I’ve thought a lot about the ethics of what I am asking people to do. I’ve thought a lot about how people could use this project in ways that may not be healthy and how responsible am I for people who may not have enough of a sense of self-awareness to do something that might be unhealthy for them. I had to work through many of these questions before I started to do the project.

TET: So it’s a ritual between people who have shared a history of intimacy and there’s something reparative going on in performing this intimacy.

MPC: Exactly. People who have expressed interest seem to have a shared desire to manifest something for themselves but I think people get that doing this is giving something to other people too. People keep saying, “I want to see more!” as though it’s healing for people to see people trying to heal. I think the people who are interested in doing this get that there’s something in it for them personally but also that sharing this experience publically offers something too.

TET: How is the photograph an important part of this process?

MPC: I see the photograph as the last step. I describe the project as part participatory performance. To do this project you have to go through a bunch of emotional and practical steps. In the end I’m documenting that final moment.

I think that the documenting is important as an output for this process because of other people’s responses to it. There’s a lot of power in understanding what’s possible and with this project we can reflect on our own lives when we see what’s possible for other people. We learn about each other and ourselves from that and maybe this can help us heal in other parts of our lives with exes, friends, or in any relationships really. We’re human beings and we hurt each other. It’s what we do, over and over and over again. And that pain and that shame aren’t emotions that we learn how to deal with. We don’t learn how to have those difficult moments and conversations and move through them and still be ok with each other.

TET: You’re documenting traces of former intimacy, disconnection and, as you say, what’s possible from this. Do you think the project and its images are signs of both something reparative and something irreconcilable?

MPC: This question makes me think about scattering my mom’s ashes. This was not a reconcilable thing for me but scattering her ashes was still reparative. It was a ritual, a process, a step, a symbol, an act. Scattering her ashes was this thing that I did that allowed me to let go of something I needed to let go of even though that loss will never truly be repaired in my life. I see the project as an opportunity to attempt a similar thing. As I said, processing didn’t work so more processing is not necessarily going to help months or years later. Maybe doing this different kind of thing, this kind of ritual, offers an alternative to processing and helps let go of something. Not with the intention of becoming friends, not to fix it all, but to let go of something or part of that thing that you’re still carrying.

TET: It’s Good To Be Needed is such a fitting project for NMP’s Crush theme. Your images picture people who had once fallen for and been completely crushed out in love with each other and who had later been possibly crushed by the despair of breaking up.

MPC: What I like about Crush is its connection to relationships. Part of what the project recognizes is that when we break up we are consumed with negatives. But every relationship begins with a crush. You once shared a beautiful, magical connection. But when we break up we often don’t have ways to continue to honour that. If you’re exes that continue to be friends, you find ways to honour what you love about that person and what they bring into your life. In thinking about the theme of Crush in relation to the project there’s this recall, maybe, to the first time you held that person’s hand and how that was a beautiful moment of possibility. The project offers a different moment of possibility.

TET: I get a real sense of embodied experience from your project through ritual and performing intimacy through touch.

MPC: Touch is an important part of the project since the instant a breakup begins, touch becomes complicated. And being physically in touch with somebody that you used to be intimate with but are no longer friends with is now charged. I think touch helps make you present in your body and this helps honour the ways in which you were once connected. Care is embodied through touch and holding hands for this picture is a demonstration of our care for each other. Even saying yes to taking part in the project together is caring.

TET: Let’s talk about the title, It’s Good to be Needed.

MPC: From my perspective, everything that we carry with us and everything that we do serves a function, good or bad. We learn coping strategies – some healthy, some unhealthy – but for some reason, we need the things that haunt us. The title speaks to that. It’s also about the fact that this was once a person that you needed in intimate ways, and through a breakup this need was shifted fundamentally. The title is about this extreme contrast. The project title also speaks to an attempt to try to trouble and provoke the whole concept of lesbians being friends with their exes as somewhat of a cultural norm. I believe that it’s a cultural norm because the community needs it. As queer community, wherever we’re situated, we tend to be a minority community within the larger society so we’re inclined to maintain community connections and harmony. I think there’s a certain cultural pressure to be friends with our exes because it benefits everybody else. When you’re not friends with your ex you can sometimes feel that you’ve failed your community somehow.

TET: Need and vulnerability seem to be intimately tied to each other and to your project. Can you say more about how you’re inspired by vulnerability?

MPC: Vulnerability is such a thread for me. I’m very comfortable with it. I think unconditional love gave me that. In working through so much grief in the last year, I’ve come to realize what a privilege it is to have been unconditionally loved by my mother. It’s a powerful privilege that has shaped my life in influential ways, similar to my class, my socio-economic position, my intellect and my education. Because until the death of my mother, I have not known fear the way I know it now. I have not known “you can’t do that.” All my cockiness and swagger comes from this unconditional love. There are so many things in my life that I’ve never questioned and now I’m experiencing doubt and fear because I’ve lost my anchor.

But I have experienced nothing but strength when I have allowed myself to embrace vulnerability. My project is an attempt to do that. It’s not about asking people to go to a place of vulnerability to re-experience shame or pain; it’s about risking vulnerability and hopefully coming out of it with strength.

Works Cited:

[i] Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley: The Crossing Press, 1984), 42.

[ii] Charlotte Cooper, “Queer community is a place of wonder and delight and pain and sadness that can never be healed,” Blog post at Death to the Fascist Insect (March 27, 2013): http://tmblr.co/Zzrh5thE_tOn.

Photographs from It’s Good to Be Needed will be included in That’s So Gay 2013: Say It To My Face, The Gladstone Hotel’s annual gay pride art exhibition running from June 12 to July 28, 2013. http://www.gladstonehotel.com/event-pages/exhibitions/upcoming-exhibitions/thats-so-gay.

Visit the project website:
http://www.goodtobeneeded.com/

See Michèle’s other work:
http://www.michelepearsonclarke.com/

Tracy Tidgwell is a queer lesbian-feminist cultural crafter who continues to explore life through the body, feelings, queerness, community and creativity. She’s friends with only some of her exes but still holds love for them all.

Michèle Pearson Clarke is a Trinidad-born filmmaker and photographer who lives and works in Toronto, Canada. She is the director of Surrounded by Water (2003) and Black Men and Me (2006). NOW Magazine’s Cameron Bailey named Michèle one of Toronto’s 10 best Filmmakers of the Year in 2006, and the following year she won the Best Canadian Female Short Award at the Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film and Video Festival. Her most recent photography project, Diplomatic Communication, was presented at Axe Grinding Workshop, part of the Civil Partnerships? Queer and Feminist Curating conference at The Tate Modern in May 2012. Her current photography project, It’s Good to Be Needed, will be included in the group exhibiton That’s So Gay at The Gladstone Hotel in June 2013. Michèle has served on the board of directors for the Inside Out LGBT Film and Video Festival and Trinity Square Video and she was a jury member for the Ontario Association of Art Galleries annual awards in 2010. Currently she is on the board of the Feminist Art Gallery and Gallery 44. Michèle will be pursuing an MFA in Documentary Media Studies at Ryerson University beginning in September 2013.

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