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Postscriptum: Before I Die...

Previously, I wrote some reflections on the ‘Before I Die’ blackboard, on which passers-by were encouraged to write in chalk their hopes for the future. Some were written in earnest and others in the spirit of subversion, but ineluctably my mind then, as I passed the board, was drawn into finding the cycles of life and death within the signs of the constantly regenerating urban landscape.

The blackboard, according to schedule, was taken down some weeks ago. Within a brief period of a day or so of its removal, if walking past the area where it once stood, you might by chance have seen what remained there in the form of a chalk square on the ground made from part of the messages which had fallen from its surface and gathered.

While people were participating in the project, part of their messages, their aspirations, fell and continued to fall each time a statement of intent was made. This was what each statement of intent had in common, that part of what constituted its initial meaning would drop to the ground and sit formless. The common ground of all aspirations was in this way marked out on the floor.

It was difficult to notice this while the board was there. Whilst a promise of the future briefly stood strong, the common ground repository for parts of the dreams that broke off and fell was not quite as visible, nor did it seem to signify anything. At any rate, why would you stare at the ground to analyse what had fallen when the blackboard stood tall?

It would only ever stand for a finite period. We knew from the beginning that the messages would not be there forever, as the art project was predestined to end when the SICK! arts festival ended. This was known from the beginning, as banners throughout the city made it clear. In this way, the messages of individuals to do with aspirations in life were always already inscribed by a sense of ending. Though perhaps this was necessary for them to have meant anything, for if they were everlasting they would have become another permanent ornament of the city, as meaningless as an advertisement board, often changing and yet essentially remaining exactly the same.

After the words had gone, this white square of chalk lay marked on the ground, and as I was passing I thought that this could be seen as a memorial to the board, in so far as the white line demarcating the position of a murdered body commemorates life.

The chalk for a moment demarcated an empty square, in which expressions of intent once existed. Once the board had been removed, the chalk marked a death, a murder of the aspirations expressed, but was marked with the surplus residue of those very aspirations. Chalk, I thought, here was a tool of possibility, a weapon for suicide, a starting point for investigation, and a memorial plaque.

The pen that writes or the voice that speaks of hopes can also simultaneously write and speak of failure. It does not speak or write of failure separate to the words of hope, but does so within the same action, through that which is either left over, not accounted for or sacrificed in the act of hopeful proclamation.

The moment of paralysis interrupting the clattering of fingers on keys, the single letter in a written phrase which seems slightly ill-formed, as if expressing hesitancy and exposing the reasons behind why one needs to write it, the upwards inflection of one’s voice in the presence of someone with which one is not quite comfortable that creates an air of uncertainty and worry in both the speaker and listener – all this can mark the death of a message within the very act of expressing that message.

And all this could be seen in that white shape on the ground, in chalk which fell from the messages on the board during the act of those messages being marked on its surface, whose formlessness later became an empty square, commemorating words which carried the signature of ephemerality.

Thinking about these implications, as I walked under darkening clouds up Oxford Road to the Central Library soon after the board was removed, I was partly aware that I was using received wisdom, employing a tired literary trope that I just about knew to be false. For on that evening in the liminal point between winter and spring, many of these thoughts had proceeded from the wilfully inaccurate notion that chalk is used for marking out the position of a dead body at a crime scene.

Where this once was the case, it was primarily not so for the practical purposes of the police investigation but for photos to be taken by the press. In this way, my inquiry into the scene of vanquished aspirations represented a picture taken at a certain moment, rather than a laborious investigation carried out from different angles.

In reality, drawing a chalk outline of a body would contaminate the crime scene. The only place that it cannot contaminate the scene is in fictional narrative, where the scene can be constituted by its presence. Perhaps my rendering of the chalk into an outline of a dead body, unless part of something fictional, was contaminating my view of what was there and thus making a consequent analysis doubly contaminated.

Rain began to fall as I walked across the threshold of Albert Square and finally entered the Central Library. It would be impossible for me to retrace my steps as if for the first time, as is the nature of crossing an ultimate border; as is the nature of making decisions, even if they are uncertain. I was now past that space on which I reflected and could not re-read a passage of time to which I had already and finally inscribed my own doubtful meaning.

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