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!”

samfrancisread.com

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Can symbolic acts manifest themselves within lived experience?

2018 was the year when I had to ask the question the above title poses…

Neoliberal Me (An Exorcism of) and #GE18 (The General Election of Governing Emotions)

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2008 to 2009 – I learnt a harsh lesson: devoting a year to mapping one’s inner and external fortified walls into one symbolic gesture (one which was nod to Pink Floyd’s concept album The Wall) cannot wish it into a transformative moment.

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Surely only an idiot would expect such a ‘Big Other’ moment transforming their life? Surely only an emotional wreck, somebody who wasn’t thinking ‘rationally’, would expect an higher body to come down, wrest its hand on their head and suck out their demons?

Maybe, but apart from being ideologically-highly strung and being obsessed with the poetry of The Event, am I that different to everybody else? If we were fuelled by rational choices, devoid of the sense of higher powers, good and bad, fine-tuning the grand scheme of things, why did so many people reject the more sensible options offered by the Remainers and Hilary Clinton in those infamous 2016 elections?

Of course we can take the higher ground. Cathartically rage at the bigots and culturally uneducated who fucked it up for everyone else, totally ruining something that just needed ‘tweeking’ here and there… “They aren’t like us…”

But who’s side am I on? My heresy is that I was so so close to voting Leave back in June 2016, and mainly refrained from doing so due to knowing I couldn’t back up my reasons in ‘rational’ debate amongst my more educated friends. Equally, I felt hurt the next day when the supposedly most neutral news broadcaster in the UK presented people from my home town as at fault for the decision to leave the EU; clickbait for the educated to share and condemn these undeserving citizens.

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I knew my reasons for almost voting leave, for wanting to press the ‘do not touch!’ button were deeply emotional. I knew that those feelings, personal to me, were also a justifiable reaction to the experience of the texture of life in this country 16 years into the 21st century. As the country became the most passionately divided and judgemental it had been for a generation, I saw people responding emotionally to their own experiences of the past.

Why am I focussing on this? Because it forced me to revaluate what sort of language my art practice was using. My work had always been explicit in showing my ill ease with life in an advanced capitalist world. But was it the fault of ignorant ( = bad) people for climate change? Were people who voted Tory my sworn enemies? Are the people going crazy on Black Friday personally to blame for the shame upon the human race? Are the people using derogatory terms in passing conversation inherently a set of scumbags?

What I have learned is that calling them so isn’t going to change their ways anyway…

7 years ago I would have rejected such a suggestion…

…but I’ve been pretty lost in those years since any youth-based substitute for confidence kept me airborne. I’ve become more at home sustaining sad-passions, drifting into dead-end pleasure-seeking. Although I’ve maintained a practice that I believe as depicted the experience of the past 10 years pretty fucking well, I’ve also been unable to find any positive to fix my identity on; my pride and self-worth has been non-existent, allowing my work only a reactive, compulsive, and inevitably fatalist response to contemporary lived experience. It became clear that I had no right to judge others on how they should and shouldn’t think and act.

But in 2018 I decided I didn’t want to be this shadow of a human being. Yet I also recognised that my practice could work through this.

Through the violence of language on and offline during the past 2 years I began to see trauma and lived-pain as the main things all the opposing sides had in common; ego’s formed out an entrenched sense of there being a need for self-preservation; hatred formed out of slow and sustained humiliation; nobody free from anxiety or bouts of mental ill-health.

I came up with two project proposals that were fundamentally one of the same: one a symbolic point of closure in my own life, and the other, a wager on the premise that what I was wishing to put a closure upon what was, to a large extent, a shared longing: a wager on the premise that many features of contemporary life pressure us into emotional states and behaviours that feed negative and unhealthy cycles and close down our receptiveness to the possibilities around.

I can roughly describe this as an endeavour to put into practice a recognition that emotional and social/political transformation go hand in hand.

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I gave the introspective side the loaded, yet necessary name ‘Neoliberal Me (An Exorcism of)’. This work borrows from a body of work I have been developing over the past 5 years, in an attempt to but a closure on it – most notably, my work ‘the Mary Celeste Project (The Scene of The Crash), which I completed in 2014 , and ‘Stories From Forgotten Space’, a series of both psychogeographical and hauntological accounts that I made into a book.

The box in the work was ‘symbolically’ buried on the moors above where the work is largely focused (geographically-speaking), with its peaty mud it acquired giving it the look of something exhumed.

If it was a closure on a body of work which I would class as a kind of mourning process, of lost futures, both personal to me and socially felt, and greatly inspired by Mark Fisher’s works on hauntology, then the grossly oversimplified explanation of these recent projects is that were paying respect to the writers/friends who picked up the pieces of defiant optimism in Fisher’s later works before he took his own life; probably best encapsulated in the work on ‘Acid Communism’

But it was a post titled ‘A wager on a Shared Experience’ (since seemingly taken down) by an old friend who knew Fisher that gave punch-drunk emotions to a cause that was neither dogmatic or classifiable, but for something beautiful in the face of the ‘depressive realism’ Fisher critiqued so passionately.

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I was apprehensive, burnt-out by the prospect of engaging in political debates over the Internet, that I wanted to speculate that by and large the majority of us shared a common experience of trauma adjusting to the fabric of contemporary life, that outweighed political standpoints, and that here was the appropriate ground upon which to propose that my wish for a symbolic act of closure on aspects of my life was a shared experience.

This became an event held on June 21st called ‘#GE18, the General Election of Governing Emotions’.

It was premised on the idea that there had been a mental health strike earlier in the year, born from a collective agreement to mentally withdraw from our libidinal economy, because the contemporary conditions were making it all but impossible to maintain good mental health. The ‘what if’ strike was trying to reimagine the theorist Franco Berardi’s jaded belief that ‘depressive withdrawal’ may be the only way to grind the contemporary capitalist system to a halt into a proactive moment of collective consciousness.

#GE18 was motivated by a wish to build a participatory practice that makes political conversations seem like they aren’t political by holding them up in empathic structures, that not only locate commonalities but also create a real space for idealism about our life and society.
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The project was instigated by trying to put a call out for people to make cassette tapes based around their own take on a specific set of songs I held dear as ‘songs for my punch-drunk idealism’. I don’t have the most eclectic music taste, it is more one that is woven around my memories, ideals, lost futures. But I felt that others must surely have punch-drunk idealism songs; songs that [to use a line suggested by a friend] punch a hole in your heart that is both political and dogmatic/romantic; songs that put the fight back in you when life and times seem so dark. I asked participants to imagine making this cassette tape of personal moments as a gesture of good will to the nation for such an election night

 

The election night itself was held over two venues: Leeds Print Workshop and the Art Hostel, also in Leeds.
A series of prints wrangled with the difficulty of stepping into the unknown as personal and social transformation meet in political events, playing on the analogy of a cross roads point in a psychotherapy process: recognising we have the problem; that for the sake of ourselves and of others, we cannot carry on like this. However, the alternative seems far more frightening, because it is the unknown. 

 

At the voting booths, people were given 3 votes. Which asked questions both of how they, and society feels, and how they would ideally like themselves and society to feel.
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A good number of people attended, and the ‘votes’ are currently being typed up by a neutral source, to be revealed in some form in the next event to be staged by the Retro Bar at the End of the Universe, later this summer…

But what is the real result? If symbolic acts alone cannot be transformative, has anything been set in motion that is working towards empathic enabling? Both personally and politically there is a real desire to square a circle here, inside of which the symbolic moment still reigns supreme…

There is a deep struggle against waiting for the universe to align, it requires proactive development that years of aimlessness and what Fisher termed ‘reflexive impotence’ try to prevent at every move. Because we live in a neoliberal ‘ecology’, telling people to take responsibility of their own lives, and to ‘be the [fucking] change you want to see’, is received as a violent attack on ones negative ego that they’ve compromisingly had to build to survive such an hyper-individualist age. Even though such advice is delivered with empathic intent, it is received within this ecosystem as a right hook of one-upmanship.

The ghosts of yesterday’s near misses and own goals cannot be exorcised in one full swoop; the task is to challenge the stories they tell us as individuals and collectives. The symbolic exorcism was a wish to totally rid oneself of them. However, is a person banished of all ghosts nothing but a living blank?

Our ‘always on’ present relays these ghosts, even algorithmically sources the ghosts that retell the same stories. This isn’t to say there isn’t humongous transformative potential bursting at the seams in our hyperconnected age, yet the more potential the bigger the circle that needs squaring. It’s a huge task, because whilst ever the fabric of the present is so individualist, the challenge feels like a lonely one.

There isn’t a final outcome from these projects, there’s only an awareness that things (speaking more from a personal perspective here) cannot carry on like this, even as the resistance to change digs its heals further into the ground…

 

 

Stories From HMS Brexit

(Originally posted at the future date 1.4.2017)

This is HMS Brexit

It’s not even JG Ballard’s ‘Glorified Lifeboat…’

…because it’s sinking.
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This voyage, perhaps even whole flat earth that it navigates, has reached an end point.

This is an epochal moment – yet we duck, dive, and talk about following our forefathers’ impossible footsteps into yesterdays’ jobs, homes and families, where hair goes grey and skin wrinkles with the pride of purpose.

These footsteps lurch over the void – momentarily held in suspense by a binge on artificial enhancers (or Zombie economics).

We are led over this cliff by the bloated reign of the Baby Boomers.

They don’t mean harm, but they are.

They are ghosts trapped in a machine. A shit machine, but one of full employment, affordable housing, and visions of a future that isn’t our present. Dictating all down below down a road that doesn’t even exist.

No wonder we are lost. Clambering for any clarity. Doing anything to cleanse our bodies of workaday anxieties.

On HMS Brexit ‘work’ doesn’t make sense, because we have lost all direction. Work was the only meaning we had, but as it dies it lives on like a zombie.

We can feel it sucking our blood when we are commanded to improve ourselves within this void.
The 2016 EU referendum was an accidental hand grenade given to those aggrieved by economic injustice for so long that they’d forgotten its source. Of course they were going to throw it, but it blew the limbs off all sides.
As limbless creatures, we we bite and bark at each other, unable to reach out and see our pain is one another’s.
The workplace is a microcosm/node in a explosion of rhizomes of exhaustion and despair. But the explosion implodes in us.  After hating everybody else, we end up hating ourselves.
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It was the same today.
The anguish of collapse is so violently played out because the Other is now merely a competitor (essentially an enemy).
My own mood is so compressed by workaday landscapes under clouds of Brexit and other breakdowns that I know my essence is soaked in a negative aura as I beat about the nearby towns in the early evenings in search of exits for my imprisoned emotions.
Like dogs that pick up on fear, others react badly. The very fact that I’m acutely aware of the expanding army of homeless means that my gaze makes a b-line to their desperate asks. As I walked down the main alleyway for frustrated begging and hipster-bar-bunkers in Sheffield, one begging man shouts “you fucking ignorant arsehole” at me – although I was totally oblivious to any earlier calls he made.
He caught me when I was already at a pressure point. I found myself yelling “fuck you” at him. Two drinks later the rage has gone. But my head was melting with an urge to inflict pain on somebody already in pain’s main firing line.
These days I feel anything can make me flare up.
Its because I want to be able to give up.
…tired of pretending it’s all OK.
But as sick as I feel, I can’t see a way out of this life of ventriloquised labour for a world I no longer believe in.
Knowing this is shared-despair sparks a lone candle flicker. But we’ve all caught the rabies after this 40 years-hate-your-neighbour, and speak through barks and bites.
Yet my despair is often disallowed such unity, such wider interpretation, by the passive-aggressive put-downs of a certain brand of hippy. They prey on my written-down honesty, and use it as a way of one-upmanship under the guise of peace.
Their smugness that implies I refuse ‘to evolve’ and that ‘they are the change we want to see’ sees people like myself as a disease that needs to be cleansed from this planet.
I don’t fit under their sunshine, and basically the underside of this sunshine is the assertion I should kill myself.
But isn’t the suicide of the ‘misfit’ what we all want on HMS Brexit?  The Troll to the Poster? The Xenophobe to the Migrant Boater? the Leftie to the Xenophobe? the Remainer to the Leaver? the Progressive to the Conservative? The Work-drained to the Work-less?
“Kill yourself and let me endure this hell all by myself!!”
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I’m scared about how nasty all this is going to get.
I’m scared for me.
I’m in battles I never knew could be fought; cages I never knew could exist.
I end up in Retrobars, where nobody speaks to anyone they haven’t already agreed to speak to, earlier on, via their smartphones.
No shit, I swear Brexit was an emotional demand for an exit to all of this.
Theresa May is no doubt the zombie of Thatcher, who, after swimming through the body of Blair, has been spat out of the mouth of Cameron. Waiting for Article 50 has become an intensifying locus for a larger sense of dread we feel above our heads.
So why didn’t we have the courage to examine this emotional demand? We should have broken down and wept collectively last June. But undead lurchings of Empire barged their way to the podium.
We now need help from another world.
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In Wakefield centre I’m approached by a woman who has reopened bloody wounds as a tool to justify her plea for legal tender. None of that which would shock me half a decade back shocks me anymore.
Is it normal to be asked for money on every town centre street?
The scenes have strayed into unfamiliar sights we seem blind to on overly familiar streets.
Hms Brexit is the blind sinking.
Brassband music blurts out into the sparse night from a surreal mock-up of picturesque Yorkshire in a pit of a subway in a station that is struggling to escape a bleak essence caused by its abandoned outpost-like nature, exposed on the eastern rim, where the centre meets the hinterland.
The music makes no sense in a land that’s lost all narrative.
The train arrives and so too do fleeting hopes of escaping loneliness by meeting a lover on this moving carriage.
A weary and knowing smile succeeds as the usual happens on The Lonely Lifeboat. And I just site facing the back of a plastic seat. The FEED feels like your friend in such points, but I’m back to looking at a pen and notepad.
I feel momentarily relieved.