Jesse Darling: Notes on Bricolage (an elegy for Haiti)

The following is adapted from the final chapter of Jesse’s dissertation, a full version of which is available on request.

“The ‘bricoleur’ is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but, unlike the engineer, he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand’, that is to say with a set of tools and materials that is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions.”
~ Claude Levi-Strauss, p. 17, “The Science of the Concrete” in The Savage Mind, 1962

In December I took part in an international art event in Haiti’s Port-au-Prince: the Ghetto Biennale. Haiti is the wasteland of the world, desperately poor and held together—quite literally—by faith and community and a couple of well-placed nails; there is very little else with which to build. Port-au-Prince is built of corrugated iron and concrete-rot, thrown together haphazardly; pure bricolage, built for a purpose.

I went to Haiti with the idea of building a church from the waste. More specifically, I went to Haiti to see bricolage and magical thinking in its native habitat.

But there is no waste in the wasteland.

Of course there is plenty of waste in Haiti: the stuff and things that America no longer needs or wants. There is garbage and there is decay; poison trash piled up high on every corner, stacked soft and wet on the banks of the viaduct, towering above the city in the shantytowns with no infrastructure to dispose of it all. Port-au-Prince smells like human faeces and rotten flesh, and in those rotting stacks, the remains of chickens, dog legs, a baby dead in the afterbirth, one eye gazing out at the sky. But the Kreyòl word for this kind of waste (human and animal remains, hollowed-out grapefruit shells, random components from obsolete technologies; shit, plastic bottles, and sachets that once held water)—fatras—must be distinguished from waste, by which we mean unwanted surplus.

There is nothing wasted and nothing spare. Bits of trash too fragmentary to warrant a moment’s thought in an affluent Anglo-American reality are engaged to perform discrete functions, or used as part of greater constructions: houses, businesses, contraptions to keep the sun out, or in substitution for a tool; in downtown Port-au-Prince, for example, there’s no such thing as a department store. With the exception of school uniforms, all clothing is imported in aid packages from the USA and resold on wire hangers in the street; this is known as pèpè, and sold by weight. The young men of Port-au-Prince, fully cognizant of sartorial subcultures, languish on street corners dressed just like young men in Atlanta, New York, and Miami: but this too is bricolage, since the young men of Port-au-Prince assemble their outfits, in perfect pastiche, from the cast-offs of young men in Atlanta, New York and Miami. Vodou churches are hung with bright balloons, incongruously advertising the Christmas sale of a small franchise in rural Massachusetts, or commemorating the 50th birthday of somebody called Val.

During the final stages of my dissertation, in which I intended to write extensively about my experiences in Haiti, there was a terrible earthquake in Port-au-Prince. Everything I saw, everyone I knew, everywhere we’d been: suddenly gone.

News of deaths confirmed started filtering through that abstract timespace, one by one. I kept writing through the pain, which–like all suffering–is both universal and indescribable, and so of no special relevance to this story, except that I couldn’t bear to exemplarize a culture in such suffering and so rewrote a few sections of the text. However, the relevance of Haiti as a microcosm for the wasteland of our world is more pertinent now than ever.

I am not equipped to provide a history of Haiti, nor to give an extensive commentary of what is happening there now, but I will say this.

In my writing and my work I have attempted to make a case for bricolage as ideal praxis for the artist/human being living in the super-saturated wasteland of consumer culture. I believe that my case is a strong one, since by all counts – economically, environmentally and socially–it’s time to stop consuming and start (re) creating with what we have, employing a little bit of much-needed magical thinking to help the process along.

But this is an ideology. And although passionately felt and probably correct in intention, ideology is always a luxury.

No such luxury existed in Haiti.

In sculptural terms, the bricolaged object is composed of several disparate elements not designed to fit together. There is no fusion, no melding or welding, no tessellation; the elements exist in perfect frail symbiosis. The sculptor-bricoleur solves the problems faced by every earthbound object – the problems posed by gravity (let us think of it as the “dust-to-dust” principle) and entropy (or: the “this-too-shall-pass” principle)–using the objects at his disposal, and the special sculptural qualities provided by these.

Such structures are built for a specific purpose.

Such structures are not built to last forever.

In the event, of course, they did not. “A native thinker makes the penetrating comment that ‘All sacred things must have their place.’” (Fletcher, quoted in Levi-Strauss: p.10: 1966) “It could even be said that being in their place is what makes them sacred, for if they were taken out of their place, even in thought, the entire order of the universe would be destroyed.”

No amount of aesthetic ideology can bricolage a wasted city back together. The wasteland is what we inherit.

This is not a conclusion, but an elegy.

London, UK, September 17, 2011

*   *   *

Jesse Darling (b. 1980) is a journeyman artist currently based in London, UK. Responsive, collaborative, often site-specific, her work plays with entropy and contingency: structures (social, societal, archetypal and architectural) bricolaged together by magical thinking, gaffer tape and the “black foam” of intersubjective networks. JD works in installation, intervention and video, “dasein by design”, and the spaces in which performance becomes unmediated experience. She has performed, published, collaborated and exhibited internationally, and was one of the participating artists in the inaugural “Ghetto Biennale” at the Grand Rue ghetto in Haiti’s Port-au-Prince.

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