Correspondence: or, how not to belong
Queensland College of Art, Griffith University
Citation: Ellis, Seth. “Correspondence: or, how not to belong.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 19, 2019. doi:10.20415/hyp/019.g01
Abstract: Correspondence is the outcome of a month spent in a town in northern Iceland, during the unending sunlight of midsummer. It is a document of the attempt to locate oneself in the landscape—that landscape into which one has just entered, that shapes your experience and, perhaps, is shaped by your presence; and that from which you emerged, the landscape of your childhood, that inhabits every other place you find yourself. In Correspondence the reader is invited to explore these meetings of interior and exterior, through a description of the singular experience of that month in a place peculiar to itself.
I came to Húsavík in June, as a traveling artist, and so of course I had to do something about the midnight sun. That is, I don't suppose I was required to, but I felt obliged to. How often do you live through such a large, simple, mundane set of circumstances, that violates the shape of the world you have always lived in?
Of course, if you're a native of Húsavík (or many other places) you go through this every year, so either it doesn't violate your world or you're used to the world violating itself. I have an unproductive horror of making tourist art, which is hard to avoid if you're only in a place for a month. You just barely have time to get over the same first impressions everyone else had before you, but if you don't act on those first impressions, and therefore make a lot of bad art, how can you flush them out?
I always come into a new place wanting to know what it's like to belong there. I'm increasingly convinced, though, that belonging to a particular place isn't something anyone can really know, even those who were born there. You can recognize belonging, or the lack of it, but you can't describe what it consists of to someone else. Coming to belong to a new place means, in some degree, losing awareness of it.
Whenever I come to a new place and wonder what it's like to belong there, I wonder also why I don't think more about my own home town. I haven't lived there in many years, but I understand it in a way that I don't feel anywhere else—at least, I understand the town I remember from my childhood. More of the places I remember are gone every year, swept away by redevelopment of a generic, upscale sort, the kind of thing that seems impossible to belong anywhere, and the kind of thing that is happening also to Húsavík. I and my studiomates were the last artists there; our workspace, an old fish-cleaning workroom, was taken over for some shop featuring winter gear that was just Icelandic enough to sell; and the house we lived in was snapped up also for tourist rentals. Global capital is rounding off the corners of the world.
How does a transient person belong, especially when so many places seem not quite to belong to themselves any more? Well, you don't. But the act of not belonging can be interesting, and perhaps productive as well, for me and even, possibly, for the world I move through. That's the theory, anyway. In Húsavík I set out to figure out how it is that I, specifically, don't belong.