Repetition, Pleasure, Mourning: A Conversation Between Francisco-Fernando Granados and Ricky Varghese
In the summer of 2016, artist Francisco-Fernando Granados and therapist and writer Ricky Varghese were invited to engage in a dialogue on the subject of repetition. Initially, their intent was to explore how the thematic of repetition has played a conceptual role in framing Granados’ art practice over the years. This plan changed after Granados’ father passed away that very summer. The dialogue that developed afterwards between them took up the difficult task of addressing more immediately the ways in which repetition plays out in the context of death, loss, and the ritual of mourning. Together, they considered the gesture of repetition as a structuring mechanism in experiences of both pleasure and pain. The exchange is grounded through personal anecdotes, reflections on artwork, and theoretical perspectives that contextualize the gesture as both a queer and aesthetic phenomenon always already in dialogue with the experience of profound loss. The resulting encounter allowed for an opportunity for both of them to think carefully about how repetition influences simultaneously the realm of aesthetic practice and the space of the intensely personal and psychical.
Francisco-Fernando Granados: I just woke up from the first dream I had with my father in it since he passed away almost a month ago. It will be a month tomorrow. I’ve been trying so hard to delay having this dream, not that one can postpone such things, partly because I’ve feared that I can’t control what it will be. Not going to bed early, finding random things to do instead of going to bed, going into the most random YouTube holes to fill my head with other things. I was reminded of the way Rebecca Comay talks about resistance in analysis as this almost bad faith way to cheat analysis (Lecture, June 2014). My father was a psychoanalyst. Funnily enough, I dreamt that I overheard him on the phone, doing something I heard him do so many times for as long as I can remember: giving strategic advice to friends and relatives who would call him to talk about their problems. I remember always thinking of it as him giving free therapy. I was afraid the dream would be sad, but it’s a comforting feeling I am left with as the details of the dream fade away slowly into the awareness of the daytime.
Ricky Varghese: What can be said, then, of repetition in the context of this dream? It would appear – there’s a sense within it, at least for me – that you are trying to approach something, re-live something, recover something, some ‘thing.’ Freud referred to dreams as a sort of wish fulfillment (The Interpretation of Dreams, 1913), an opportunity to work something – again, this some ‘thing’ – out. In this sense, dreaming is hopeful, as is repetition. The German word that Freud mobilized for repetition was ‘Wiederholung’ – a ‘marriage,’ so to speak, of two words: ‘Wieder,’ which is intended to mean ‘again’ and ‘Holung’ which stands for ‘recovery.’ Further to this, thinking of the term ‘Wieder’ brings to mind that other and rather related German word ‘Wider’ which means ‘against,’ as in the case of a mirror, a reflective thing, an object, in front of which you position yourself, your face’s or body’s image reflected back to you, and not just back to you, but against your material embodiment, against your corporeality. Something of the dream sequence you speak of brings this to my mind – some ‘thing’ feels like it’s being reflected back to you, both again to, and against, you in this image that came to you overnight.
Something about inheritance, as well, seems to be there – all inheritance might be this tug-of-war between images – the image of yourself in the dream against your perception of yourself in everyday life, the image of your father in the dream against your experience of your loss of him, the image of your father in your memory of him against the fading of that memory over time.
F-FG: In this context, it feels like repetition becomes an unexpected emergence. The thing I seem to be noticing about mourning this time is that it is experienced as an uneven pattern of emotions that weaves itself into the fabric of the everyday once the initial shock of the loss begins to fade away. It interrupts the everyday by making connections between the smallest details, often banal things, and connecting them with forgotten memories, bringing back with them the weight of the absence of the person who is gone, but also perhaps a degree of surprise in the joy that can come from remembering these details. It feels like I’ve recovered a memory of the particularity of my father’s generosity. In some ways, repetition perhaps sharpens the contours of that which has faded away. It has the potential of bringing something into focus. And that can be an unexpected pleasure. One thing I’ve been wondering about is this relationship between mourning and pleasure, and the way that repetition seems to play a role in structuring both.
Also, thinking of inheritance is interesting here, as I am his firstborn, and there is such a psychic charge to this particular father-son relationship in the context of patriarchal cultures.
RV: I like how you describe repetition as ‘an unexpected emergence.’ I would add that it is that and, simultaneously, felt as a sort of emergency – an emergent desire, an emergency, perhaps the most pressing one at that, to preserve the self in the gesture of recovering, or at least trying to recover, what was lost. It is precisely unexpected – because it happens so profoundly unconsciously that we might not even know it, or recognize it, when it is happening, when we are engaged in it. There’s pleasure – in the form of surprise, for one instance among others – in this. There’s also the pain that comes from recuperation, from living through it all over again, despite the fact that each time you repeat, something is different, some thing gained, some thing lost – almost like the act of textual translation. The original and the copy bound to one another as radically and simultaneously similar and other to one another. It also reminds me of the repetitive gesture by which Gerhard Richter produces his abstracts, the overlaid and repeated paint strokes he effects upon the canvas almost, as though, without immediate intentionality to see where he might end up. Feels psychoanalytic in its intuition.
To return briefly to your remark, then, about patriarchy – is it not apt to speak of patriarchy immediately after one speaks of Richter? Patriarchy becomes all the more complicated when you interweave the experience of queerness – of sexuality, of birth order, of temporality, queerness as an experience of non-linear time – into the mix. Queerness arrives at the scene in the form of how inheritance is transmitted as well. You speak of being the firstborn and how that created a particular set of expectations with respect to how you might have responded to your father and now to your loss of him and to his posthumous memory. Where I come from in India, Kerala – there is a tradition among some Jewish and Orthodox Christian families, where the question of inheritance is answered from the back, from the end of the line, as in the inheritor of the ancestral home, for instance, is often the youngest son. Still – and, of course, again I recognize that this is still very patriarchal and a little parochial – something about the temporality of inheritance, as in inheritance starting from the youngest, always felt rather queer to me. It feels like a repetition of patriarchal inheritance, but with a slight and somewhat queer difference. Being the firstborn in my own family, I have found it fascinating to contend with both my queerness and the queerness of this strange time in which inheritance occurs.
F-FG: This is precisely the tension, and likely the pleasure, in repetition: the way in which the recognition of the pattern that emerges not only points toward past iterations, but also begins to slip away, to be both an iteration and a process of differing. Aesthetically speaking, this is what is at play for me in a project like spatial profiling… (Granados, 2011). A work that began as a formal experiment in the studio, and that I was able to recognize as a project only as different iterations made me notice this tension between the seeming sameness of the work, a repeated drawing of a profile as the body of the performer moves slowly through the space, and the subtle difference that emerges from profile to profile.
RV: There is a tendency in popular culture or the space of colloquial rhetoric to think of repetition as inherently a ‘bad’ thing – a negative affect or experience. It can be that, but it is never that alone. There’s a push, when seen in a ‘bad’ light, that repetition needs to end, that all that is required is a ‘break in the pattern,’ an end to the cycle itself. As though repetition is some external operative logic that imposes itself upon us; as though we are not complicit in the repetition that we both simultaneously engage in and resist, sometimes in equal measure.
Psychoanalytically, the compulsion to repeat, I would suggest, is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ – it is an act in which we wholly participate, both to our supposed detriment and within the context of our capacity to redeem ourselves in the very act or gesture itself. We are not, in this sense, bystanders to our own repetitions; we are not complacent in relation to them. Passivity even in our repetition is a form of activity. What I found particularly compelling about spatial profiling… is that in the act of placing the body of the performer into the gesture of creating the trace, you made the performer, yourself, complicit in the gesture. Each trace a different trace and with each trace you move further away from the traces already created, marked; with each trace, you leave a little of yourself behind. In all of this, you are still there as performer, as both subject and object. Your complicity in the gesture of this repetition is never disavowed. You become an accomplice to your own desire for repetition.
F-FG: I’m curious about the connection between emergence and the compulsion that makes it feel like an emergency. In work that is deeply structured by repetition, like spatial profiling…, I feel like there is an urgency to avoid narrative, to do away with the compositional problem of what to do next, to have to make meaning. Instead, it becomes a matter of staying with a gesture and playing with the repetition until something else emerges. Hopefully that is something greater than the individual elements. At times, I’ve been insecure about this strategy being ‘lazy’ – you know a critic dismissed the project by saying it seemed like the work of ‘a student’ – but in fact, there is a level of commitment that is needed in order to push the repetition past the point of banality, and perhaps into a kind of flattened pleasure zone. John Paul Ricco articulates this form of repetition with regards to queerness, proposing it as a process of edging (Lecture, March 2016), a focus on means rather than an obsession with a teleology of the end.
RV: At one point, during my work with my psychoanalyst Dr. Oren Gozlan, I remember expressing a sort of boredom – ennui – at feeling like I was telling the same stories, recounting the same complexities of the same relationships, over and over again – again and again. It would feel endless, at times. I found myself feeling profoundly frustrated, having to hear myself repeat and recite these stories. In order to assuage my anxiety and draw me out of this boredom, I remember he used a word in relation to the gesture of repetition: tolerate. He encouraged me to think about what it might mean to tolerate this gesture. Following up on my earlier comments regarding the impetus in popular culture to break with the pattern of repetition, to resist, as such, as a mark of ‘being cured,’ psychoanalysis, to an extent, might suggest a different approach. The radical act is not to break from the repetition; rather, the radical act, if it can even be called ‘radical,’ might be to tarry with it, to give into it – staying with the gesture with a level of commitment, as you suggested earlier – to see where it leads you, to not hate yourself for it or get bored by it. Or, if you do get bored by it, to stay with the boredom as well. Repetition is a waiting game in this sense and Ricco has already suggested that waiting is always ‘interminable waiting in the midst of incessant coming’ (The Logic of the Lure, 2002). Mourning is also this, a mourning always to come, a mourning you have to wait for, never knowing when or if it will arrive.
You speak of ‘mourning this time’ as though in reference to a past already, in reference to a mourning from another time, that already occurred within an earlier time. What is different here and what is similar? I feel the word ‘again’ becomes important here to consider – again.
F-FG: Mourning my father in this queer body has been strange. And I truly cannot use any word other than ‘strange.’ My lived experience of queerness is partly the interruption of many of the features of inheritance that are meant to be passed on through a hetero-patriarchal line, and here, finding ways to hold on to my father, to continue something of him, from this non-reproductive position by trying to find an alternative temporality. I mourned the loss of the first man I loved after he passed away when we were both 23. Last time, I folded. The pain was completely inarticulatable. I really couldn’t see any context; it was overwhelming. This time I’ve been able to remain in touch with what’s around me, taking comfort in the support of both biological and chosen queer family.
RV: Yes, Usamah… we both lost him, for you a lover, for me a friend. In fact, after you moved to Toronto to pursue graduate school and after we met, our mutual loss of him cemented a bond between us. We would’ve become friends no matter, but something about sharing in that loss, in the ritual of mourning that loss forced us to engage in, and in the pleasure we got from remembering him, did form a sort of kinship between us, I feel – a kinship borne of loss. You did a piece, The Dedication (2008) – a sort of performative elegy in his memory, where you plucked petals from flowers, uttering the words ‘Usamah, no Usamah’ with each alternating petal that you plucked. A cyclical, repetitive gesture, that you sped up as you were coming to the end of the bunch of flowers you were holding in your hands. How did it feel to remember him in this manner? How did it feel, that gesture of repetition, invoking your lover by his proper name and simultaneously making him present and absent by the insertion and removal of the ‘no’ before his name? How does that work feel now as you learn to mourn your father?
F-FG: There is something annoyingly neoliberal about pop cultural notions of ‘getting over’ things, or wanting to stop repeating yourself. A lot of my work starts as phrases I keep saying in my head, linguistic obsessions that eventually transform and can come back out as material for a project. Both The Dedication and refugees run the seas… (2015) started that way. A couple of months ago, when I was still in Toronto before my dad passed, I went on a night walk and a phrase started forming: Sometimes it’s so thrilling, it gets boring. Sometimes it’s so boring, it gets beautiful.
Most of the media I am drawn to as an artist have repetition embedded within it. More recently I’ve gone back to forms of printmaking, and the creation of ephemeral multiples, but also performance. There’s a rich history of duration-based performance work that I feel very close to: Tanya Mars, Paul Couillard, Naufus Ramirez-Figueroa. It’s work that frames repetition, simultaneously extending the artwork into time and space and intensifying the rhythm of the everyday. And indeed, it is about making complicity sensible. Certainly as a performance, by staging the process of making, but also as a trace. This is one of the ways in which spatial profiling… has evolved. I am currently much more interested in the trace of the body in its absence. Perhaps a certain awareness of the mortality of the body, but also a way of imagining the body within art as something other than figural. As a ‘position without an identity,’ like Gayatri Spivak (2007) says.
Building up tolerance to practices of repetition seems important in terms of one’s relationship to both pleasure and pain. In some ways it feels like there is no choice but to repeat. How else do we learn? Waiting, building up patience, holding back, allowing repetition to become slippery rather than a mechanized hammering. To let it come, as it were… is this where healing begins?
Thinking about it now, it’s unbelievable that it has been 8 years since Usamah’s passing. The Dedication was the first thing I was able to say, the first thing I was able to make. I didn’t rehearse how I would say it; in a way all I was doing was voicing my compulsive internal dialogue. The dedication is both his name and the phrase os ama, no os ama – ‘loves you, loves you not’ in Spanish. Hence, the flower petal plucking. It was the most direct visual reference in the face of the untranslatability of the Spanish phrase. The actual performance for the camera was much longer, but I made the work by cropping a section in the middle. So it begins and ends abruptly. It is all of that: a way to recall and mark the absence, but also an impossible wondering, a repetition without a solution… Tolerance is indeed the only hope.
RV: True – tolerance feels like the only hope sometimes. It is not as simple as thinking, to quote that famously well-trodden line attributed to George Santayana, that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ (1905). Rather, repeating is a way in which the past becomes enlivened, invoked, so that we may learn from it, so that we may learn to live with and alongside this past…perhaps. Another way to think of this might be to ask this question – a rhetorical one, but still one that demands, in my opinion, to be asked – who are we but an amalgamation of our repetitions? Or rather, who are we without our repetitions? It feels like, at once, two things in one: a complicated way of giving an account of oneself, to invoke Judith Butler (2003) here, and, as well, an uncanny love story between oneself and the other, within, who keeps searching for what has been lost.
Francisco-Fernando and Ricky would like to thank Christien Garcia, David Seitz, Fan Wu, and Manolo Lugo for reading an earlier version of this exchange and providing what was very helpful and insightful feedback.
Francisco-Fernando Granados is a Toronto-based artist. His multidisciplinary critical practice spans performance, installation, cultural theory, digital media, public art, and curatorial and community-based projects. He has presented work in galleries, museums, theatres, artist-run centres, and non-traditional sites since 2005. These venues include the Art Gallery of Ontario, Art Gallery of York University, Doris McCarthy Gallery, Blackwood Gallery, Gallery TPW, Trinity Square Video, Images Festival, NuitBlanche, Harbourfront Centre, Sur Gallery (Toronto), Vancouver Art Gallery, LIVE, VIVO Media Arts Centre (Vancouver), Darling Foundry, Fofa Gallery (Montreal), University of Western Ontario (London), Queens University (Kingston), Neutral Ground (Regina), Third Space (St. John), Hessel Museum of Art (NY), Defibrillator Gallery (Chicago), Voices Breaking Boundaries (Houston), Ex Teresa Arte Actual (Mexico City), Kulturhuset (Stockholm), and Theatre Academy at the University of the Arts (Helsinki). Upcoming projects include a new performance for Montreal Arts Interculturels (MAI) in March of 2017.
He has curated exhibitions, performance art programs, and screenings for 221A Artist Run Centre, LIVE (Vancouver), FADO Performance Art Centre, Xpace Cultural Centre, and Pleasure Dome (Toronto). As a member of the 7a*11d International Performance Festival Collective, he has been involved in the organization of the largest performance art festival in Canada since 2012.
His writing has been published in exhibition catalogues, magazines, art journals, online platforms, and books including FUSE, KAPSULA, Canadian Theatre Review, and PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art. Writing about his work has been published in TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies and C Magazine. Awards and honours include Emerging Artist Grants from the Toronto and Ontario Arts Councils, a Projects to Visual Artists grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Governor General’s Silver Medal for academic achievement upon graduating from Emily Carr University in 2010, and being named as one of Canada’s 30 Under 30 by BLOUIN ARTINFO in 2014. He completed a Masters of Visual Studies at the University of Toronto in 2012.
Ricky Varghese received his PhD in Sociology of Education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto in 2014. He serves presently as an advisory editor for Drain: A Journal of Contemporary Art and Culture and has been the lead editor for a special issue of the journal on the theme of the “Ruin” which came out in October 2014. He is presently acting as lead editor for a special issue of the same journal on the theme of “AIDS and Memory,” slated to be released in September 2016. He serves on the advisory board for Critical Distance Toronto, a new centre for curation and curatorial practice in the city. Presently, he is also preparing the manuscript for an edited collection of essays, an anthology, for the University of Regina Press, Sex at the Limit: Essays on Barebacking. Trained as a social worker, with both his BSW and MSW, he currently has a private practice as a therapist in downtown Toronto.