One week on: Processing Paris (Je T’aime)…

Paris, I was walking your streets, taking in your spectacular views, drinking your champagne, laughing and conversing with colleagues and friends without a care in the world less than a month ago. I was immersed in your beauty and spectacle late into the night, looking to the heights of your architecture and the sky above whilst sat drinking coffee and eating pastries outside cafés thinking about my day ahead or my day just past. I wrote about you and your energy…thinking about my place in your space and the next time I would see you…

“There will always been streets that you walk down in life, some that make you feel better about yourself, others that make you feel worse…some that give hope, others humbling, some a horror. For some reason walking through the streets of Paris today has made me question so much of the past 60 hours here. I’m not sure if it was because of the art fair train I’ve been on for the last week between London and Parisian borders, or if it was down to the fact that I was on my own, travelling solo…a usual wordgirl affected state of mind when in transit, usually questioning, is this a reality? A reality I like? A reality I want? Making me understand who I am, as wordgirl, a little bit more.” – Written on 20 October 2015

These words I wrote as the end of last month on my phone’s office notes app now have extra weight and clarity, resonating with a strange sense of foreboding (I won’t say premonition) 23 days on. Paris, you have experienced an attack…another attack nearly exactly 10 months on since the January shootings at the Charlie Hebdo office. The recent happenings initially seemed random and absurd…absurd for such attacks to take place in so many of your city’s streets, public places and social situations…unfolding over days to reveal a carefully planned and calculated social attack with a gross (double-meaning here) message, meaning and vision of loss.

One week on since the fateful event on the Friday 13 November…the Paris terrorist attack (PTA as I’m calling it)…wordgirl has been lost in words and the news and media, after firstly making sure friends and colleagues are safe and well (which they all are). I’m overwhelmed by the multi-perspectives, specifically the social media-based conversations and prolific coverage of Paris when there is so much other unrest, war and loss happening in the world RIGHT NOW. I’m not sure why I’ve become so interested…whether it’s because I’m older and more interested in my place and position in the world, or if it is because I have lived in, and visited, many other countries, that my brain has become more of a sponge, wanting to learn more about the PTA and more so, how the political and media power(play)s represent themselves and their nations and try to move forward to  deal with the situation. Is the funnelled focus due to France’s proximity to England? To Eurocentric media play and accessibility to the scene? To an imposed Westernised, nationalist polarisation, which should be viewed globally? To a French openness and want to the bring transparency to the situation and thus, strength? To create a clear standpoint and voice to dissipate fear? Also, I’ve become drawn in by the (visual) languages people are using to translate, digest, come to terms with, process, lay to rest, support, unify…whatever it is you are trying to do with the situation. It’s incredible how people are presenting and discussing the situation. One example of global unification and support is through iconic architectural light play and flags…shown below in some of my many homes across the world…where even here in small town Stafford they are flying a flag for solidarity at half mast.

paris birmingham
The Library of Birmingham, UK
Pearl Tower, Shanghai, China
Pearl Tower, Shanghai, China
Stafford flying the French flag
Stafford flying the French flag

The next PTA (visual) language comes from Instagram and the viral sharing of the now iconic ‘Peace for Paris’ image by Jean Jullien (funnily enough, created by a friend of an artist friend in Manchester as they studied together, small world as always), accompanied by the hashtags #peaceforparis #prayersforparis #prayforparis (though I’m not sure how much praying actually happens). It has been shared globally including by celebrities…but is this an easy way to support a situation? I know for some it is the only way. It seems that Twitter has also become the most successful and impactful platform to inform and help…to offer refuge for those who couldn’t get home when the attacks happened and also for the police to provide vital information to the (Parisian) public. It has become a resource rather than an opinion. After learning about the PTA through Twitter, Jean Jullien began drawing. This is his recollection of the process…

“I turned on the French radio and I heard about what was happening. So I just sort of started checking on my friends and family through social media, and everybody was saying ‘I’m OK’ and just because this is what I do, I draw, I reacted graphically, just drawing something spontaneously with pen and paper and then sharing it as a raw reaction. With so much violence and tragedy—we just want a bit of peace…This was the first thing—when I put my brush on paper, this was the first thing that came… It was just me trying to combine two thoughts – Paris and peace. And somehow graphically it seemed to work. I just wanted something symbolic, something that everybody could understand easily, and everybody could share regardless of where they’re from… I just wanted something universal.” – Jean Jullien

@jean_jullien on Instagram - Peace for Paris
@jean_jullien on Instagram – Peace for Paris

He intended it to be an “image for everyone” and that’s what it became. This image has become a key visual marker in the national, and global, history books (well online platforms…books are less and less a resource now). Simple and telling…it is globally translatable.

As the image went viral, it accumulated hashtags, where the Dalai Lama even questions the use of #prayforpeace #prayersforpeace saying not to expect help from God or governments

“People want to lead a peaceful lives. The terrorists are short-sighted, and this is one of the causes of rampant suicide bombings. We cannot solve this problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place. We need a systematic approach to foster humanistic values, of oneness and harmony. If we start doing it now, there is hope that this century will be different from the previous one. It is in everybody’s interest. So let us work for peace within our families and society, and not expect help from God, Buddha or the governments.” – Dalai Lama

The key words here being to foster humanistic values, of oneness and harmony, which in my opinion can’t happen all online in the digital realm. It requires a human reality and face-to-face interaction…engagement…empathy in the real world.

Facebook has played a huge part in the PTA conversation…the social media platform I love to hate as you well know from my recent letter to them ‘Dear Facebook…’. I applaud you Facebook for your digital ability to tell the world who is safe through your new ‘Safety Check’ mechanism (though I’ve never seen it for other global situations…and I feel it is a little late in the global game as such)…and your French flag Tricolore filter for profile pictures is clever and brings a moment of unity and realisation that everyone or most people are acknowledging what has happened. In the same breath, I haven’t engaged in this as it’s not my way to process the PTA…this blog post is! That’s not to say I don’t think people should…these words are my way of focussing and processing. The Tricolore filter works for others. So, in response to this self-questioning over my decision not to, I came across two perspectives on the subject…one from a Facebook status that went viral…”my heart is with the world”…


…and the other, a fierce point of view coming from The Independent newspaper – ‘Got a French flag on your Facebook profile picture? Congratulations on your corporate white supremacy’ by Lulu Nunn. The writer states a clear standpoint that using the French Tricolore filter does not make you a hero…but do people see themselves as heroes for using this visual digital tool?

“So you want to show solidarity with France – specifically, with those killed in Paris this weekend. If you’re a British person who wants to do that because you feel sympathy and sadness for people who are brutally massacred, regardless of their nationality, then fine. I just hope that you also change your profile picture to a different country’s flag every time people are wrongly killed as the result of international conflicts – for example, during the attack on Beirut in Lebanon just the day before.” – Lulu Nunn

Obviously, the world-wide web now provides the option to have a flag filter from any country attack by Isis through the ‘All Flags Profile Photo Converter’…a few countries and nations missing on there but it’s good to see it exists!

All Flags Profile Photo Converter
All Flags Profile Photo Converter

Seeing Facebook (as I do) as Eurocentric or as a Western controlling construct where if you look at their news feed, it is largely Western relayed media stories…where’s the world Facebook? Where’s the change you have the power to instigate? The global conversation you claim so well to initiate? I’m torn between Lulu’s words as I see her truths yet there is a certain glamourisation and media-play in what she is saying, to a point of extreme antagonism that is a little unnecessary – “It’s a dismaying and damaging truth that Westerners care about and empathise with images of white-skinned women grieving in Topshop bobble hats far more than brown-skinned women grieving in niqabs and, when you lend your voice to Euro-centric campaigns such as Facebook’s flag filter, you exacerbate this. When we buy into such easy corporate public mourning, we uphold white supremacy.” Yes the Tricolore filter does in part become what she calls a ‘get-out-of-jail free card’ in the sense of it being an easy option, but in turn it might be the only option, the only way in which some can engage…it’s just a shame that there can’t be a more global conversation alongside this (I’ve seen little global reflection through articles on the bigger picture – let me know if you have).

Lulu goes on to reference Isis’s use of social media as a tool for sharing political propaganda…as though the Tricolore filter in no different from this, when in fact no social media or online platform is free from corporate, commercial or capitalist propaganda that we are confronted by every single day. Yes, it is a ‘paint-by-numbers solidarity’, but people have to learn how to “paint” somewhere…and hopefully, from the point of profile picture change, people will talk more, share more and become more unified in their views and opinions for a common good for the way we live. Lulu’s conclusion I fell gives clarity to this phenomenon,

“Instead, seek out that context and the options that Facebook doesn’t give you in a simple, clickable add-on. If you want to show true solidarity with those who’ve been wrongfully killed, the first step is to acknowledge and mourn their deaths equally and genuinely, not just because they’ve brought to your attention by a tech giant’s misguided marketing tool. Quite simply, we owe victims of oppression round the world so much more than this.” – Lulu Nunn

When I posted the article on my Facebook page saying “this is why I won’t be changing my profile picture”, I expected a few comments here and there. In reality, I got a series of extended responses that were all very personal…deep-rooted…emotional…real…showing me, people were actually critically-engaging and being self-referential about the situation…but also mis-reading my perspective, in part why I’m writing this blog post…

“I commented about something similar the other day. Spiteful, condescending, self-congratulating load of nonsense. Clearly the author doesn’t care about the victims worldwide else surely the focus of the article would have been elsewhere. I mean, it’s the same logic right? It works both ways, hundreds of people getting killed worldwide and you choose to write about a largely inoffensive, honest and sympathetic momentary gesture on social media? Where do you draw the line with this way of thinking? Do we start criticising those who didn’t acknowledge any of these events and simply posted a picture of their dinner/pet/child on that day? Do we not wear poppies on remembrance day now or Pudsey bears on children in need day? Ffs. What about when people could use the Rainbow filter for progress for same sex couples, do we start writing about those not choosing to use the filter as they must be homophobes if they don’t? Or was there a more important law passed at that time that should have had its own face filter thing? I’m confused and saddened by the suggestions and generalisations thrown about here. Most people writing/sharing these types of articles seem to be saying ‘I’m a better person than you’. And maybe that’s the case, but where do you bank with? where do you shop? how do you get to work? where do your clothes come from? where do your products and food come from? There are so many variable things we could nitpick over and sit on high horses about, but why bother? It just makes people feel shitty at an already shitty time.”

I replied with, “Lulu Nunn who wrote the article is actually Engagement Officer at Shape Arts, one of the key disability arts charities in the country and is known for her dedication to acknowledging the individual and diversity. Her tongue and cheek approach in this article reflects the often tongue in cheek approach of the public to issues of this kind and others…this doesn’t mean that I am defending what she is saying as there is a sense of glamourisation in her choice of phrasing, though I do see some truth in her words…it is very easy to click and change an image online (and given for some might be the only way they can acknowledge and support), but at the same time it doesn’t take much to open up a bigger conversation like we are. As you are confused and saddened by the generalisations, she is actually reflecting a real world generalisation on the situation, on other global issues…the world isn’t that critical a place and won’t take the time to dig deeper or talk more. And one thing, I never said what people should do, I said what I was doing…and if people make the decision to change their profile picture, they should have the conviction to stand by it and not misinterpret my words. I’ve lived in countries where media power plays are rife, some with bleak oppression, which stifles and controls freedom of speech, so the fact we can talk in this way here is a privilege and use Facebook to share so much of our worlds and to create a unified solidarity if only through an image Tricolore filter…”

“I’ll start off by saying that I did not change my profile picture after this tragedy, nor did I change it to the rainbow flag in support of LGBTQ rights. I never wore a red ribbon for AIDS or a pink one for cancer. As an atheist, I can’t even say “I’ll pray for you”. Hell, I don’t have any bumper stickers in my car. If you do all of these things… Then great. Doesn’t bother me at all. We all have our reasons for doing the things we do. Firstly, I don’t require validation from strangers for the things that I care about (and if I want your opinion I’ll… Well, actually if I don’t know you I don’t want your opinion). Secondly, and more importantly, I make these choices so as not to condition myself into thinking that these visible (and publicly acknowledgeable) acts of support are enough. Giving a “like” on Facebook to support eliminating hunger is perfectly fine and will give a brief sense of solidarity and participation in the cause, but actually going out and doing something in support or relief might actually have a real effect.

But this brings us to the specific situation in Paris, and to these generally increasing senseless acts of faith-based violence. So what are we to actually do to help? Most of us have no fucking idea. Many have (my opinion) the wrong fucking idea. And those that think they know are hopefully trying their best to do it. To all those Facebook people in the first category feeling frustrated and impotent – changing your profile picture is at least something. Go for it. The only other thing we can do is try our best to educate ourselves and be ready to make the choice for a real constructive action when we see an opportunity. (Let the rest of us know when you do)…As for the writer of the article – this is why good people are so frustrated. When you throw out words like “Euro-centrism” and “uphold White Supremacy” in such a pretentious hate-fueled manner, you are merely adding to the environment of zealous indignation that is already causing problems. Should we all be educated about the nuanced history and origins of extremist ideologies? Should we be reminded to recognize the other geographic arenas of tragedy? Of course. But not by a righteous prick. All you do is make people say “Well fuck it. I guess I’ll should just keep my mouth shut from now on.”…Turning a simple act of support around on the person and essentially extending the blame for this horrific tragedy on them by saying things like “European … colonization of the Middle East and wars carried out in Muslim lands put down the roots for extremist groups such as Isis”. Now you’ve made my 64-year-old aunt feel like she is a tool of corporate nationalist genocide. Feel better? Her act of changing her profile pic to a french flag may not have helped in the global ideological conflicts, but neither did your whiny self-righteous article. By the way… What obnoxious stickers do you have on your car or plastered on your MacBook for everyone to see? Wait… I don’t care.”

I replied, “I agree in the respect that I make decisions as they are my own choices, not for others or to impose on others. I write my blog to share opinion with the world, not to be the oracle or final word. Lulu is being antagonistic out of frustration using choice words that she knows will cause a reaction and fuel conversation…knowing that it will create a (needed) stir, which actually makes people process the situation and learn about the situation more. Through her dedication to disability arts, she’s a veteran in talking about difficult subjects and very much stands by what you feel of not caring what bumper sticker you have on your car. This is what she believes and she has the right to state it. As does anyone else. If you can’t deal with it, well don’t read it right? But if you’re choosing to deal with it (through the Tricolore filter or beyond) then surely you must expect more of a response rather than reacting with distaste…”

“I haven’t changed my profile picture to include the French Flag as it’s not the way that I personally want to pay my respects to the people who died on Friday, but I can see why people may be looking for an outlet to display their solidarity with the French and the dead. If they choose to change their picture, then let them. I find it offensive, patronising and extremely sanctimonious to suggest that this is some how, an inferior way to grieve or that those that do display the Tricolore do so only out of some kind of corporate brainwashing. For some people making a public show of support through a social media site is cathartic. They feel the need to publically show support, and grieve. I have no idea why people should be castigated for doing so. The article goes on to infer that people who change their profile pictures are somehow racist, “empathising with white skinned women grieving in Topshop bobble hats far more than brown-skinned women grieving in niqabs” because they didn’t publicly announce their grief on Thursday when Beirut and Lebanon were attacked. What happened in Beirut and Lebanon was just as horrific as what took place in Paris. As is the Boko Haram insurgency and the Syrian civil war. As is the Israeli-Palestine conflict, the Turkey-PKK conflict, the Somali Civil war, the war in Nigeria, the war in Darfur and all the rest of the tragedies that are playing out all over the world as we speak. I do believe that in the UK, our media does have a problem, in that it fails to adequately report conflicts that do not directly affect us. A large chunk of the media seems to have a problem adequately reporting the conflicts that do effect us. I also believe that a large proportion of the public are under informed about what is happening beyond Europe’s borders and this is probably due to the lack of adequate media coverage. To equate these things to mean that anyone that changes their profile picture believes that “white, Western lives matter more that others” is just nonsense. I can understand why people may feel more empathy when a neighbour is killed, when people are murdered in a place that they have spent time, somewhere that they know people and have friends. This does not make them bad people or racists. It does not lesson their horror or revulsion at what goes on elsewhere in the world. It doesn’t mean they don’t care or don’t morn the loss of life. Just because they don’t fly a different flag every day for all of the death in the world doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be able to choose how they morn the people who died on Friday by placing a French Flag on their profile. I’m surprised and disappointed that people are judging others in the way they pay their respects. Let people grieve and show solidarity in the way they see fit.”

I replied, “I agree that Facebook is used as a cathartic tool…hey, you’re talking to the girl who shares blog posts about her everyday battles through here (whilst getting at Facebook)! It has a presence and power in so many ways. I felt that Lulu, the author, was trying to reflect and instigate a kind of generalisation of the flavour in which people speak about the world, or deal with these situations, not necessarily her point of view, though I know she is someone who isn’t frightened to say what she sees as she works with disability arts every day. She knows how to talk about difficult things. What I don’t think is acknowledged is that many of the other places where attacks and loss are taking place don’t have access to platforms like Facebook, so don’t have the freedom or opportunity to state their feeling or point of view, let alone show a solidarity, which could even play against them politically and make situations worse. Having lived in places where media is extremely controlled and freedom of speech isolated and restricted, I find it hard that most people don’t even realise how privileged they are to have an exchange of this kind…and should as you say be allowed to grieve and show solidarity the way they see fit. I just want more talk and less clicking on mice…(says the girl who is always online). Ultimately, it comes down to mutual respect, for each other whether we know them or now and learning how to work with and acknowledge different in the world…which comes down to communication…on any level or platform…”

As the profile picture filters were added, the ‘Peace for Paris’ image shared, and the hashtag #prayforparis #prayersforparis #peaceforparis retweeted…statements, articles, tweets, statuses began to appear wanting to know why there was a clear focus on Paris when the day before 147 university students were killed in northeast Kenya…#prayforkenya as much as #prayforparis…


…when the reality was the Kenyan attack happened on 2 April 2015. Someone had actually managed to make a BBC news story from 15 October 2015 resurface and go viral, showing how quickly people jump on something without thinking about it or doing any research. ‘Within two days, over 10 million people had clicked on the story, almost four times as many did when the attack actually happened, according to the BBC. It’s evidence of how little attention was paid to the attack in the first place, another example of how little attention is paid to attacks that happen outside of the West, or selective outrage as some have called it‘. This jumping on the bandwagon concerns me…and reinforces my cynicism in part of people and of the media, a cynicism that has dissipated over time (seem contradictory when people need to be more cynical of what they are spoon-fed everyday through every media outlet). I’m not sure if it is because I have lived and worked in other countries, like China and America, experiencing other places as my home and thus, other types of news and media including their selectivity, censorship, restrictive content and polarisation, that I have a different role and way of reading the news. Hmmmm…something I am always grappling with in my non-stop mind.

One of my favourite films in actually ‘Paris Je T’aime’ (2006) which depicts multiple fictitious stories of love – veiled, revealed, imitated, sucked dry, reinvented and awakened in the neighbourhoods of Paris. It gives a snapshot of the diverse realities of one of the world’s most “loved” cities. I have placed “loved” in inverted commas here as what happened last Friday showed quite the opposite…in fact, showed a love lost for Paris and humanity…the Paris many of us know, have experienced and live in. Conversely, it has created a greater (global) love, unity and solidarity in the people making Paris Je’Taime another well-used phrase in media.

An Unfinished Life Gilda. Paris, je t'aime

As I continue to sit and listen to BBC 5 live and watch BBC World News – which always reminds me of being abroad…of living in other places, as it’s often the only English-speaking channel available. For that reason, I find it somewhat comforting to watch even if the content is difficult – I will continue to understand and assimilate different standpoints and points of view as the world moves on and situations change. As I write this blog post, the news on BBC 5 live quickly moves to speak of a shooting in a hotel in Mali by jihadists…making me think, does this (the reporting of unrest) exist as an expected subcurrent to daily life?

The PTA has been called “civil war”, the third ‘World War’ and other things, but aren’t these wars on-going? Having witnessed through the media, and in part personal experience through association, New York’s 9-11, the Iraq war, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Berlin Wall, Hong Kong changing borders, Israel-Palestine, London 7-7 bombings, Somalia, Mali, Amsterdam, Nigeria, Syria, Kenya, Paris and so much more (apologies if I’ve missed it, there’s just so much to remember) it seems that not title can be given to these happenings…events…situations.

Perhaps then, it is through visual language not words that we share and talk about these situations, as words are not enough, words don’t fit, words don’t even begin to unravel and understand how we are feeling or what we are thinking, words cause confusion and further fuel the negativity of the situation…words are words, what do they actually DO?

One of the only artist responses I have come across is by the Hysteria Collective

Hysteria Collective
Image by Hysteria Collective –

A visual and textual response stating a clear point of view that I would encourage you to read in full here

“‘Everyone’ seems to want to take action and comfort the Parisians. ‘Everyone’ wants to be involved in this collective, showing that they belong to the ‘masses’. Some thoughtful voices have been raised but they have found very little mainstream echo. Is that surprising?…The death toll of the Paris attacks virally spreading online illustrates a leakage. A leakage of death, violence and disorder from one part of the world and domestic population, where it presumably belongs, to another, where it does not. Because of this, the events are more ‘news worthy’ than a myriad of others. This is no excuse, but an abrupt illustration of systematic inequality within national and international relations.” – Hysteria Collective

They go on to examine the definition and understandings…well, the dilution…of certain words that are now overplayed in describing the PTA and other global situations…

“Moreover, a dangerous depoliticisation in the warfare rhetoric deployed by Western leaders (especically Hollande) is flourishing. In this rhetoric the term ‘terrorism’ is deployed as neutral. The usage of the term is founded upon the principle of pure, irrational hatred – violence fared at the hands of death-obsessed, lunatics, breeding hateful beliefs in self-enclosed religious circles. But how does the word ‘hatred’ erase responsibility for the traces of history – the incremental yet considerable causes that have fed this terrible appetite to provoke ‘terror’? The term ‘hatred’ will haunt us so long as it inhibits us from seeing the underlying history driven by the ‘love’ of our nations, our borders, our beliefs that have, in turn, given rise to hate.”- Hysteria Collective

I’ll conclude with images of Charlie Hebdo’s recent illustration and cover image…

“Ils ont les armes…on les emmerde, on a le champagne! – They have weapons. Fuck them. We have champagne!”

…depicting a no fear attitude and wanted resilience to the PTA, to Isis and a clear voice of the Parisian and French people, which the Parisian communities seem to be standing by. They are saying, Isis the future does not belong to you, it belongs to us! You will not take us down with you! Below are a few images taken from my friends Facebook pages…where I love, love, love my Shanghai artist-curator friend, Susanne’s image at the bottom of this page…she’s embracing it. Let’s all embrace it. Friday night fizz anyone? Let’s raise a glass to the lives lost, the love lost, to the hope lost. Here’s to always (re)building our shared future…in a shared global world.

Charlie Hebdo Ils Ont Les Armes and Champagne 1

Taken by Jamie Grumet
Taken by Jamie Grumet
Taken by friend Susanne Junker
Taken by friend Susanne Junker

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