The Public Secret (Dispatches no2)

It’s hard to say this without sounding whingey, physical toil has been a common experience in this installation. Self-manufacturing my materials by shredding piles of paper “secrets” and pulping them by hand into paper and clay has been exhausting, time consuming, an act of minor industry. The same can be said for printing, cutting and assembling the paper “houses” to create a vacant cityscape. 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. This has made it possible to celebrate the grossness of this material experience (by “gross” I mean both: the grotesque associations with effluvium and the tactile qualities of material plasticity).

In other words my pulp totems look like nothing so much as grey-white shit. Decimated dog shit, like you used to see in parks and beer gardens.

Using my body’s labour to process this waste into material 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. I have a reliance on tobacco, alcohol and caffeine which isn’t healthy but isn’t rare either. This common experience is represented in the turd-like totems which resemble mugs, beer glasses and ashtrays. A desire to connect with others through pleasurable, sensory experience and temporarily escape capitalist drudgery is what Mark Fisher called “Acid Communism”, after the drug-fuelled 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 utopias.

Soft beer glasses and ashtrays squat alongside the turds. The vessels represent a material culture I associate with pleasurable escape.

I’m not brazen enough to call my art utopian. It contains no specific political or historical points of reference. The primary experience of utopia is never escapism or nostalgia but longing. In this regard there is utopian sentiment, at least. Excited as I am by utopian theory, this is a topic that has been put through the wringer enough in recent art writing. So as not to bore I will be specific and brief.

“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

The novels of Francois Rabellais are important expressions of the optimism, utopian longing and the most radical desires of the people. At the time of their writing any form of laughter or free spirit was not condonable by church or state and common humour was pushed out of official spheres. Therefore it coalesced in self-organised events at the market and 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 marketplaces were places of frank speech, this informality eventually extended to religious parodies in the form of passion plays. Although mocking of sacred text was not approved by most clergy it was tolerated when deemed to be instructive. 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. They were not considered to be preventative fables, least of all by his censors. Brant’s Ship of Fools or Lydgate’s Order of Fools are acceptable examples of Grobian cautionary tales (mockeries of the peasant caste and the mad but still significant works of early secular literature) but despite Johann Fischart’s assertion, Rabellasian fiction is actually the opposite, 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 exclusive bourgeois rhetoric whereas parody is a 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 itinerant salesman from neigbouring nations. 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 progressive melting pot for a limited time in the yearly calendar.

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 and Shakespeare due to their explorations of class and madness which are secondary themes in the genre.

Wolfgang Kayser describes the grotesque as “the estranged world” and an expression of the the id essential to “invoke and subdue the demonic aspect”. To lampoon the source of fears we overcome it, even 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 at least, “foolery” which in the medieval context is madness interfacing with hierarchy) muddles class and provides a pretext for liquidating the staid social order. Remember- “every joke is a tiny revolution”.

Foucault writes on the disarming power of the madman’s laughter, in a more pessimistic manner: “When the madman laughs, he already laughs with the mask of death, the lunatic, anticipating the macarbre, has disarmed it.”

I mention this because mocking death/other existential anxieties and suspension of official “reason” is vital to most of what I’ve covered in this blog and vital to what inspires me. The next voyage of research will surely have to be an exploration of the grotesque jubilence of the aforementioned counter cultures of the late 20th century (of which Foucault was an active participant to put it mildly). One of the mainsprings of which has to be Crowley, whose Church of Thelema is rooted in Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel.

The purpose this blog was to explain the carnivalesque appearance in my sculpture and provide a reason for the darker contents and also to provide a sort of roadmap.

My art ia not naturally pessimistic, I’m not depicting a dystopia either. I am attempting to reconcile Fisher’s Acid Communism with Grotesque Realism, using materials and symbols of the everyday, rather than relying on visual references to medieval Europe or Stalinist Russia or 70s psychedelia. I’m coming to terms with the fact that whatever I eventually produce may look unfinished or mid-tranformation but that’s what grotesque IS.


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