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Monthly Archives: October 2012

While we’re on prisons, the other weekend I met my mum, Jackie and my aunt, Sandra for a cup of coffee in the Royal Festival Hall. Just for fun the authorities have reduced the number of chairs and tables there by about half which isn’t really relevant here apart from in the way that someone in charge was nonetheless somewhere having a kind of laugh at everyone who wanted to sit down, like the laugh that More Power has at None, or at anyone for that matter subjected against their will and by necessity to the minor expression of More Power’s petty sadism, including that of criminals, penal or cultural institutions, like for example when one buys balcony tickets in British theatres to feel that the physical pain and/or sensory deprivation we experience when we sit there are nothing less than deserved. Nonetheless and aptly, at the RFH first we were outside, then we were inside (because it got cold). Then we were about to leave but it had started to rain. So we were trapped.

Jackie and Sandra were at the RFH because they’d been to see the exhibition F R E E CURATED BY SARAH LUCAS (by SARAH LUCAS the brand, not just a person with that name in the way anyone has a name). F R E E  is a ‘showcase’ (yep) of ‘art by offenders, secure patients & detainees’ (i.e. the NOT-F R E E-AT ALL?) organised by the Koestler Trust, where visitors (who I can only think the exhibition’s title wants us to imagine are themselves The Free being referred to. Ha. Wishful thinking.) have the very freedom to vote on their favourite of the works that Sarah (The Most Free) has pre-selected (because The Public/Free ought to be able to judge the Not-Free, after Sarah has of course, because The Public are after all better positioned to do so than the other way round for example, although not as better positioned as Sarah, all of which stands to REASON), and the maker will receive a special award in addition to the ones already distributed by the Trust. That must feel nice, to be in prison and to win a prize. And not to win a prize? Culture. Is it any wonder most of the entries are titled works whose makers share the name Anon?

In previous years this annual exhibition was curated by GROUPS of individuals “with a close connection to the criminal justice system” (young people from Lambeth Youth Offending Scheme; female prisoners… etc.). But this year is special. Our Trust is 50 so the show is curated by a SINGLE individual, SARAH LUCAS [cue photo of Sarah looking pensive in a room heaped with Arts Stuff. Hold your chin with your hand, Sarah. Look down as if you are considering.]. Kudos. If any of this is sounding tainted so far I’m really not doing that much more than re-twitting the accompanying booklet as Jackie, Sandra and I are deciding to go and see the show (for them, again), to do time until it stops raining outside (I was already ranting).

So that’s what we did, stumbling onto the tail end of a free exhibition tour I think lead by one of the ‘ex-offender interns [really real ex-offenders??! Really? Anyone for a nineteenth century World Fair?], all of whom are aged older than the Koestler Trust. Specially recruited… and trained… [for the exhibition, to] challenge the assumption that internships are for youngsters, [quite right, that’s just the sort of assumption that it is imperative for us to challenge] prey upon the older and already also widely reported as discriminated against and help give a voice provide cheap labour to prisonsers aged over 50 a self-congratulatory arts project despite its best intentions.’ [italics – my insertions, obviously]. I couldn’t stop to listen because my ears were too agog with what my eyes and then my mouth were taking in and pushing out, a kind of bodily convulsion/repulsion at being again cast in somewhere I didn’t want to be, in the theatre of this theme park.

Whether or not she’d chosen the colour of the walls (prison grey) or the carpet (a mustard that convinced no-one of sunshine), there were two things that Sarah did for sure introduce to the display: white ceramic toilet bowls, some just empty placed alongside/in between works, some as the support/display structure for selected paintings that spring out of or are being sucked in (either way like waste) to them on the end of coiled metal strips. This is what they looked like:

and grey breezeblocks that formed a kind of post-Andre plinth-on-a-plinth platform:

and a wall:

The painting displayed on this wall is called ‘Hope’:

I guess there’s always been something like a revelling in just such a collapse that this kind of gimmick suggests in Sarah’s own artwork but there, in her work, to me it is often astute, funny, belligerent, accurate – not so much an end of language but something more blatant and also complex to the extent that language just doesn’t feel so necessary/useful/worth it. An upfront-ness that is an undone-ness. But the point is that F R E E  isn’t an artwork. Sure, the checks and balances of curatorial decisions can be as plastic as we like, but…

On the video documentary in the exhibition where Sarah describes her “process” (not so dissimilar from the selection of favourites after all) she says that the breezeblocks and toilets are things she always uses in her artwork. So that while some visitors to the exhibition (like me) might think they refer to the construction of a prison theme décor, they are being a bit stupid and reducing them to one-liners, because actually they are not one-liners, because, well, because she always uses them in her artworks (none of which are here). That’s alright then. Oh, Sarah.

Just because an artwork can be the site of a strategic ‘lapse’ of judgement of the most disgusting/liberating kind, when you think that art is life or the permission to behave in such a sloppy way to the work of others then it is just a belligerence, nothing more than privilege. But maybe you’re right Sarah – I am simple, and F R E E  is actually incredibly clever, because what occurs there is a nasty, insidious kind of inversion. It constructs the visitor as a character who you, Sarah, want us to be while having a laugh at us for being so. What really are you giving to who and who in relation to yourself? Ticketty-tip-toe down the prison corridor, la-di-da a lovely Sunday on the South Bank. “Look at the little things that those have made who live in grey corridors and know breezeblocks as something other than material for an artwork. Oh I can just imagine. It makes me think of little Munchins all busy busy in their little cells. Cheeky little potters. Lovely. I don’t know why, I just like it.” Of course it wouldn’t be surprising if one of these characters moving around the exhibition would say, “Look at that”:

“Who’d’ve thought that someone in prison could make THAT?” Meaning, it’s really good (‘good’). Which actually didn’t make me laugh but made me really angry and I wondered why the-person-in-prison is not us, or, me. Or could as easily be me as anyone else. Why not? It could be. And what might I make? Well, ‘why not’ here, in this show, is specifically because the prisoner-artists are also cast, they are also characters, definitely Not-Me’s, subhuman, elsewhere, subjectless, encased, as in incarcerated, as figuratively as literally. And so I said to Jackie and Sandra “Maybe [the reason why such a thing could be made is because] all artists are now in prison. That is where they all are.” By which I meant that none of us are not in prison.

F R E E ‘s construction of the visitor-as-character is a gross mediation, the smug rhetoric of this F R E E  and of all frees. As such it is a total misrecognition of what is actually brilliant in the artworks on display, which might generally be seen as a rebuttal, a refusal, a disregard of the standard kinds of mediation that otherwise condition artistic production and its associated economies that make ‘Sarah Lucas’s into brands rather than people and that of course are, by necessity and display reinscribed here by not much more than the holding power of Blu Tack or parcel tape made into a loop and used sparingly.

Right now, I couldn’t care less about fighting any kind of art-ethical war over these things, about art as social work, rehabilitation, the ignorant lauding of personal expression or whatever else and all the fucked-up other lies the framing of this show spews in which you have more than a part and that ought to be stopped by the mark of respect on a common ground. You can get on with it. I can’t be bothered/haven’t got time. What’s important to me is what there might be of use in all of this.

In the same way, two days ago I looked for something of what was advertised in Tate Modern’s Collection Displays: ‘Energy and Progress’; ‘Structure and Clarity’. I’d like to say I found none of these things there because the idea that I was really looking for them is pretty funny, but that really wouldn’t be true. I found again for the first time in years Matisse’s late collage The Snail, 1953:

At school I scoffed and mocked this picture as if it were nothing. But now I don’t. The story its wall text tells is much the same as the one I remember: ‘Confined to bed through illness, [Matisse] had assistants paint sheets of paper in gouache which he then cut. [Which was the only thing he could do because his hands were so mangled with arthritis]. The shell of a snail inspired [‘inspired’? really?!, ‘inspired’?! Oh, please] the spiralling arrangement… “I have attained a form filtered to its essentials” {Matisse] remarked.’ Oh right – ‘essential’ – to….? But what clicked two days ago with what I am writing, its answer-without-a-question, was/is that in this picture it is Matisse’s INability that we are looking at, and that also it cannot be seen by the institution without qualifying the work as ‘inspired’ (plain stupid: what isn’t, then, or what is and when do You decide it is so?) and in the artist’s own words as ‘essential.’ And this says more to me about who the institution(s) (museum/artist) want the viewer/reader to be than it does about anything like what this picture could mean – and by implication, who I do not want this person to be, who I do not want to be and where I might find meaning. Which is to say that there might be something to be said for something I’ve started already to say more often: that from this, ignoring all this other stuff, I propose regardless to take the thought that snares me, that

LIMIT IS MATERIAL.

Is to be in prison to be a player, in a play, a patient on a hospital bed, a player to players, the condition of this/my condition? In one way perhaps I am in a kind of prison defined by a particular kind of theatre, but there is a way out from it that I would prefer, different to the way where oneself is left behind, somewhere (i.e. escape/ism). This way out is not found in F R E E , which is really, precisely about this opposite and is not only made so by an act of reading, but by money, of course: F R E E  is supported by The Co-operative and ‘The Co-operative’s support for art and other offender rehabilitation projects has changed the lives and direction of a significant number of offenders…’:

Visitor:      Oh really, in what direction has this change occurred?

Booklet:   …[The Co-operative’s support] has contributed to a reduction in reoffending.

Visitor:      Oh good. That makes me feel nice about myself and all the non-offending values by which I already do and will continue to live, as if I have done this self-validating work too by coming to see the exhibition. Thank you very much.

This other escape that I think might be there or here may be no less of a fiction (because it is written), but it is urgent and hangs upon what this writing might in the end get to/be getting at, to be read as, do[?]: to be a description, a model for use, to work, of another particular kind of theatre that I have still to understand (even if it is nothing new) and still to write for myself. Of, but finally not to be described as a set of ‘no’s’ or ‘nots’, because what there is to be jubilant about is that limit is everyone’s material and it is always here. And this is where to start.

Points of information

1. Sorry this is a long one. Harry came to visit last week, which was great – he is my metronome – but obviously what there is to say built up.

2. For an absolutely excellent alternative way of organising exhibitions like F R E E  you might want to check the catalogue/evidence of ‘Beyond Reason: Art and Psychosis’ which was at the Hayward Gallery in the old days, Dec 1996-Mar 1997.

3. I am now pretty much bald. I don’t mind it and once I’m past the slightly patchy ostrich fuzz it’ll work just fine, but I know that there’s a moment of digestion for some the first time they see it. Take this as prior..

4. A return to a little bit of GORMLEY’S BALLS and more of BAMBI L. THE STUDENT DOCTOR in the next post, I promise.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading maps onto Peter Weiss’ play Marat/Sade. Or it sort of does and it does so because they are both about prisons, of sorts, which is as much to say that they are about hospitals. In ‘Beheading a man is waiting (knowingly) for his execution, although he does not know and cannot find out the date when it will happen. Marat is in his bath waiting (without knowing he is of course) for his execution that is being shown to us in the form of a play directed by de Sade, staged in, and by the inmates of, an asylum. In both death sleepwalks towards and away from its subject, the extension of a kind of circus, a gaggle of cabaret or a chorus, having a laugh, pulled/withheld by forces of which we’re sure even though we don’t exactly know what they are. Time in this way becomes plastic, something is done, about-to-be-done, undone all at the same time, we move forwards and backwards in time. Now I’m not in prison nor do I feel like this sleepwalker or its subject. But I was in hospital and it was like this. By which I mean that hospitals, like prisons and asylums as they are described by Nabokov and Weiss are theatres of the worst kind.

In hospital doctors wheel through the curtains around a patient’s bed as the intendants of C.’s prison in ‘Beheading enter his cell. The doctors and the patient are players to each other. It is a clash because there is no audience or no-one who wants to be one. The bed is a stage and only the patient occupies it. And it has a world order, ordered by conjecture, superstition, fear etc. That is, it is almost forced into being as much of an imaginary place as any other place represented on a particular kind of stage, with its own laws and its own languages, mainly internal, but there even if they are not spoken in the same way that C. in ‘Beheading does one thing while doing another, his body becoming two where one body acts upon his conjecture, or desire and is immaterial, and the other remains in reality not doing – the one might spit at someone, while the other stays seated.

But the curtains are the curtains and they open, and information is given, or a test conducted, let’s say in what is also like an arena of competing persuasions. The doctors wheel through the curtains and they enter, but they do not leave their wheel. The time they spend is limited by its continued turning, irrespective of the information to be conveyed etc. Only in one way like those wooden figures on a Swiss clock. In other ways they have left nothing behind, nothing has changed, they are in their own play still, they smell of elsewhere, their clothes come from the outside, nothing changes in their language, they perhaps are subjects of the other kind to the patient. They are not ill. And to the patient who is us, they are absurd, more absurd because they have logic on their side and that’s always kind of humiliating and disorientating, inserted into this other ‘world’ this other play, the patient’s, which has its own order/disorder. Because not only does time become plastic there (nothing happens, everything happens, last Sunday may as well be last year) but the body is plastic too. The relationship to the body is indirect (as the person is an inconvenience between the doctor and the disease), informed, the body is shaped from the inside out by conjecture, imagination, desire even when it is known that these things are a bit stupid, not medical, pitiful and invariably hopeless. And when of course it would presumably be so much better in situations like this to have a direct relationship to the body and not to be inconvenient.

It is under these conditions that it should come as no surprise then that doctors lie. [We all lie, but with a different axis of responsibility]. Of course. How can they not? In a way, to lie is the condition of these conditions. They either lie because they are in the practice of doing so or because they want to get into the practice of doing so. And this is why it’s worse than admitting a mistake. So if they’d said those samples we took were sent to the wrong lab rather than the results we got from them were inconclusive and all the other bullshit etc. for a week it wouldn’t have made any difference perhaps, but it wouldn’t have been consistent with this worst kind of theatre either.

Anyway, the floor of the outpatients is designed by Peter Blake. I nearly photographed my sneaker against it – heart, rainbow, building blocks, red, blue, yellow etc – but we’d have vomited with the optimism. This is a teaching hospital. I like that, being a teacher sometimes. The doctor takes me into a side room to ask if I am willing to take part in a scheme where they pair a student doctor with a patient undergoing treatment. I feeling like a thinking, living person so I get a bit haughty and decide to say it like it is – that yeh, sure, these doctors could do with some help when it comes to learning how to be patient-focused in just the way that hospitals need communications consultants (who would make a fortune. We’re retraining to do this). I tell the doctor that I’m a teacher and that I believe in education but that as such really if they want me to be paired with one of these students then really that’s what’s going to happen – education. That I’ll not hold back, can’t guarantee I won’t be awful, that the main problem most times is that these kids in this discipline have no critical relationship to their own methodology, don’t imagine that a patient has any intelligence whatsoever etc etc. No doubt parts of this description at least are “yeh-yeh” familiar to some of you reading this, but what’s a boy to do. So, anyway, all this declamation accomplished, caveats issued, the doctor understands, I acquiesce and say that it’s fine, I’ll be paired.

We walk back into the doctor’s room to meet the student with whom I am to be paired. And what do you know. Out flies my position from under me. Ha-ha-professional. Serves me right, or I’m served right… He’s only the prettiest, blondest, most sparky-spunky bright-eyed little Bambi thing you ever saw. A slim fitted, slept-in white shirt and bright turquoise tie like the one Jimmy bought me because it was hard to find. He’s bobbling up and down where he’s standing and still bobbling around when he sits down. He’s blushing, almost and I’m not even going to say that he had a handshake like damp bread. We can’t look at each other for a kind of giggling that’s too close to the surface. At the end of the meeting he passes me a form to read, and asks if he can come to my next chemo session and ask me questions about my private life. Any bloody time. I only half-turn my head, Marschallin-like and nod, to say he can and then I say that I’ll try not to get snappy (he says he doesn’t mind) and that if I do get snappy then this is something that we will just have to negotiate between ourselves and the doctor by this time is also in on the game and he says that’s fine so long as it’s not in his office. I miss Harry.

Chemo Round 2 today. If the floor is designed by Antony Gormley (there is one somewhere in the building) I’m going to write as many nasty things about ageing and his cock as I can.

What can be said about who and what cannot be, still. I’m hoping for this to be more like a bumping into things than any kind of license for as long as it lasts. Palliative. Spectacle. I see/I think/I hear etc. is no validation. Permissions haven’t changed. As in I AM ILL therefore I see/I think/I hear isn’t any more or less valid than before then. If this is a palliative, a self-help, it is because of something to do with a direct address. I know who is being spoken to, and why. And why we’re equally fictionalised. Precision blanks. And if this is it, well, this is it, then it is because it is too late to write novels. Or to care that much. Or at least to face that question about what should be cared about; if that question can/cannot be seen now, maybe better. Does it matter? What matters

it struck, is/was a scramble for narrative which of course does not exist because just as you think you found it, it slips between your fingers, like other things, like health, which is why we look for it and write something down at a point in time when we think or thought we’d found it, but really we’re writing when it’s lost. Stupid lies are not without purpose. Nothing here is really the truth. There is not narrative. It isn’t there/here is information [run into each other]. It is something to do.

If I see another single magpie I’ll have to wring its neck. Last weekend in Regent’s Park we actually had to get up from a bench to physically remove ourselves from being stalked around by one. It was like a joke. How fucking absurd to have to get up cumbersome and walk away from a fucking bird, twit-peck-pecking. It didn’t even twitch as we moved. Two come, but only ever briefly. One predominates. I could count the number of ones I’ve seen as a string, a total within an allowance of intervals, a one plus one plus one etc., a cumulative line. Stupid. Over the boating lake seagulls squawked and squawked. I felt closer to those birds than to any passer-by speaking with words, hung open, gobnumb. Stumbling upon someone I know with a friend on a bench, behind a tree, masked by a few leaves, thin flapped, I said I was OK and forgot as I went to blow a kiss and walk away as I usually would that the back of the hand that I was raising to my lips was still stuck with a thick white pad of gauze and tape from where they’d taken out the canula that morning. I blew the kisses anyway, two or three, I thought sharply. Eyes flinched, stuck in throats, not spoke, rung.

Back in Dagenham and at the doctors’ to register so that a district nurse who ends up being called Mary can come to teach me how to inject myself with one prepacked syringe a day for nine days of a medicine that speeds up the recovery from the chemo. Menagerie of old people, mainly women, we thought there for flu jabs but nonetheless all with feet problems. One called through to the surgery as one is delivered in a wheelchair. Mo gets up, but slowly, she’s heard where she’s meant to go, last on the left. “Nuffink wrong wiv yor ears is there Mo” – receptionist from behind the desk. It’s all a bit truck-stop dark pine, half-partitioned finger-printed glass with nowhere to lean on so everyone reaches over and helps themselves to wotever. Mo – “No, it’s my feet that are the problem, I’ve come for a transplant” [cackles] and she’s just edging now from her seat and she is wearing thick-soled Nike sneakers which are dirty but don’t seem to be touching the plastic flooring as she’s stood. And the one in the wheelchair is a foghorn, delivered and left by dial-a-ride mid-receptionist counter, honkering: “Where’s he gunna dump me; Oh, don’t; Story of my life; No” [bellow cackle]. Her voice is like a horn that comes from the tubes of her swollen ankles; she’s manoeuvring backwards, “I can push myself backwards,” [laughing hysterically like she’s wind-whipped on a Waltzer] pushing herself with one of the tubelegs because the wheelchair has small wheels not big ones you could work with your hands. “I know I’m loud; they say I’m loud,” [she’s really loud, hollering a pure, massive volume with absolutely no effort] “apparently they can hear me all the way upstairs they say.” “Oh no; Oh, don’t; Story of my life.” She’s an ocean liner. There’s general raucous. Gallows humour. You’ve got to hand it to them, they obliterate. They don’t mind where they are and frankly this is impressive.