The Public Secret (Dispatches no2)

Physical toil has been a common experience in this installation. Hand-printing, cutting and assembling the paper “houses” to create a vacant cityscape has been an act of minor industry. Given the setting: a warehouse on an estate at the fringes of Leeds, one of the great former industrial cities of the North, this feels totally appropriate.

Work has been on my mind; the unrecognised time spent in art production and the ambivalent “value” of artwork made with hours of toil from cheap materials, which will be seen by few and will never see the inside of a respectable white cube.

Repeated failure (shall I say, unexpected outcomes?) has haunted this production as ideas fail to take form so must radically adjust day-to-day. This is, I remind myself, necessary and the reason why art is work.

Accepting unexpected outcomes and embracing the non-value of these objects has freed me somewhat and turned the repetitive slog of (unwaged) labour back into play.

Using my body’s labour to process this waste paper into sculpture is what led me to think about ideas surrounding consumption, digestion, excreta.

More on the grotesque element later.

Like many “flexible” creative sector employees and self-employed artists, I have a complicated relationship with leisure. I am always working and never working, the threshold between work and downtime is very blurry indeed. This is a common source of anxiety for artists but increasingly with the casualisation of labour, it’s seeping into industries also (at least, for those like us on low pay). By extension, the relationship with leisure and self-medicating habits like smoking and drinking becomes complicated also. There’s an underlying desire to connect with others through pleasurable, sensory experience and temporarily escape capitalist drudgery through what Mark Fisher called “Acid Communism” after the utopian spirit present in the counter cultures of the 60s and 70s. My public secret is that whether we realise it or not, we are all looking for a form of (small “c”) communist experience when we raise a glass with strangers or share a cigarette break. These are temporary, microscopic utopian moments.

I don’t refer to my artwork as utopian. There’s little specific political or historical points of reference. What I do try and convey is that the primary experience of utopia is never escapism or nostalgia but longing. This is however, a topic that has been put through the wringer enough in recent art writing so I’ll try to be specific and brief in articulating my own thoughts on the matter…

“Utopia is not already an alternative, just as Carnival is not an alternative to work. But like many carnivals and certain so-called riots, it screams of the need for a total alternative and more dangerously still, it reveals the latency of the alternative in elements of present social life. The ‘social safety valve’ function of carnivals, utopias and riots is well known, but the effort and money spent regulating, recuperating or surpressing them betrays the authorities’ fear that too much steam might be let off, leaving a dangerous void or worse, the idea of an engine. That threat lies in a refinement of the question: no longer simply ‘why must Carnival end, why doesn’t all life look like this?’, but: “what latent power, which in Carnival/utopia we PROVE is real, is so unbearable to see shut down? And how shall we perpetuate it: how could it be switched back on and not cut off again?”

-Matthew Hyland on the utopian impulse in Carnival and riot, from Self-Insufficiency

A touchstone of my work is Francois Rabellais whose novels were important expressions of the optimism, utopian longing and the most radical desires of the common people at the time of their writing. In late medieval Europe, any form of laughter or free spirit was not condonable by church or state and common humour was pushed out of official spheres. By necessity it coalesced in self-organised events in the marketplace and during peasant celebrations, motivated by consumption, production and community participation.

Under the theocratic rule of the Middle Ages, pleasure-seeking and jubilatiom was viewed as a dissident act unless performed in a sanctioned Festival settings.

(Above: installation shot from “Colony” at Hutt Collective)

As such, comical folk culture of the middle ages had its own self-governing territory and time, creating a second world within the official feudal order where behaviour became untethered from the confines of etiquette and where profanities and blasphemies were temporarily permissable. Festivals and the market were places of frank speech, this informality eventually extended to religious parody in the form of passion plays and although mocking of sacred text was not approved by clergy it was tolerated when deemed to be instructive (providing a “grobian” fable against sinful behaviour). This was the moral backdrop to which Rabelais wrote his five books about the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel in the early to mid 16th century. Unlike other works of the grotesque e.g. Brant’s Ship of Fools or Lydgate’s Order of Fools, Gargantua and Panatgruel was not preventative fable. Despite Johann Fischart’s assertion, Rabellasian fiction is actually the opposite, it is the singlemost comical and comprehensive celebration of the grotesque and enjoyed huge popularity with all classes.

The natural territory of the Grotesque is parody. Parody is more powerful than satire as it is an all-inclusive, all-mocking form of laughter. Satire is exclusively bourgeois rhetoric whereas parody is an ancient and transcendental social-leveller.

The culture of marketplace and carnival was impressed upon Rabellais in Fontenay le Comte where he spent his youth in a the Cistercian Abbey. A famous carnival came to Fontenay three times a year along with foreign itinerant salesman. We know that carnivals such as this were important sites of bookselling both for “serious” publishers and hawkers of chapbooks. This concentrated availability of literature both “high” and “low” attracted students and clergy who contributed to the folk culture of carnival by (often anonymously) writing their own recreational literature. In this way, carnival became a place in which the normally stratified social classes intermingled along with foreigners and nomads in a time-sanctioned melting pot.

This is the essence of Grotesque Realism which Mikhail Bakhtin attributes to the transformative humour of Rabelais and the anti-feudal, popular truths of carnival. To a lesser degree he applies Grotesque Realism to Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Shakespeare’s King Lear due to their explorations of class flux and madness.

Wolfgang Kayser describes the grotesque as “the estranged world” and an expression of the the id essential to “invoke and subdue the demonic aspect”. When we lampoon the source of our fear we overcome it temporarily. The essential nature of laughter underlines the power of the clown and fool in grotesque culture. In carnival, the fool is an inversion of the king, madness is a gleeful parody of reason, this explains the utopian importance of The Feast of Fools and the Feast of The Ass, which are comic counters to Lent and Corpus Christi. At these specific festivals, commoners are awarded titles for a day including King of Fools, Lord of Misrule and Abbot of Unreason. In this way, jocularity and the mimicry of madness or foolery muddles class and provides a pretext for liquidating the staid social order. “Every joke is a tiny revolution”.

Foucault also wrote on the disarming power of the madman’s laughter: “When the madman laughs, he already laughs with the mask of death, the lunatic, anticipating the macarbre, has disarmed it.” Mocking of existential threats and suspension of official “reason” were necassary coping mechanism for an overworked and de-powered medieval working class. If we believe Umberto Eco when he says we are living in a second middle ages, similar tactics may have to be deployed in order to bare the onslaught of nationalistic politics and perpetual austerity.

“Come and see the violence inherent in the system! HELP! HELP! I’m being repressed!”


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