A history of madness

“UFO” by astraverkhau is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

I remember reading Derrida take issue with Foucault. It was about madness, funnily, and the founder of deconstruction asked how it was possible to bear witness to insanity, The essay was ‘Cogito and the history of madness’, and while much flew over my head, I was struck by the humility with which Derrida showed to take on Foucault and critique his former teacher.

It was a long time ago. I was 28, 29 years old. Derrida was at first utterly incomprehensible to me. Then eventually I got to grips with some of his thinking. It was on an MA course in critical theory at the University of Sussex and it gave me a lot of confidence, to engage with deconstruction.

My former teacher was Professor Nicholas Royle. It was the first year he led his module on Derrida and much of the course formed the basis for his book on Derrida in the Routledge Critical Thinkers series. My cohort are all there, in the acknowledgements together. It was a very generous act by our former teacher. But if Derrida describes himself as a disciple of Foucault, that is surely what we were in a way and for a while: disciples.

I should probably keep this quiet and any Derrida expert reading this could probably deconstruct this post in no time; but I’m no longer so convinced about what I learned about my strand of Derrida.

My dissertation was on madness and much of it revolved around a phrase which appears in an interview from the collection Points; Derrida says “A madness must watch over thinking”. That is to say, we should not allow our decisions to unfold by reason alone because to do so would render our lives too mechanistic. That way danger lies and, yes, we should avoid an excess of reason.

But to inform a decision with madness? I must now be honest; it seems a bad idea. Madness, to my mind, is choosing cigarette brands according to religion. Or believing you can tune into radio stations on your teeth. That sort of thing. It should not watch over thinking. Emotion should inevitably watch over thinking, but emotion is not madness and I no longer subscribe to the idea that madness and emotion are on a sliding scale.

Madness is not an absence of reason or an excess of emotion. I think the mad have plenty of reasons for most of what they think or do. And I don’t believe they are any more passionate than those of us above ground. And yes, I do think one can bear witness. You can witness madness by observing the barefoot guy picking through the trash outside the shopping centre. You can observe it by reading Judge Schreber, or even Swedenborg.

Swedenborg was in contact with aliens, apparently, while remaining one of Earth’s first rank philosophers. Derrida asks, with what I recall seemed like alarm at the time, in his essay Passions: an Oblique Offering, “How is a Swedenborg possible?”.  How indeed? This is a profound question, and it indicates that Derrida’s understanding of madness has its limits. As does mine or yours. But you would not want aliens to watch over thinking.

Walter and Zoniel, A Simple Act of Wonder (2020)

Before I heard about this exhibition and community-based artwork, Moulescoombe was just a destination on the front of the 49 bus, a neighbourhood so different from the middle-class bubbles in which I’ve lived, I had never gone there. And yet go there, properly, we did, myself and co-writer/co-photographer, 9-year-old Aysha, who enjoyed spotting the newly painted murals from the passenger side of a car driven, too slowly, by me, around the unfamiliar suburban streets.

I can only say we did experience a simple act of wonder to find bright geometric painting on the side of characteristically grey council housing. We found five such interventions, each resonating with the others, and each one a testament to the occupants, brave enough to foray into exhibiting contemporary art on the side of their traditional housing.

By this wondrous act, artists Walter and Zoniel have brought Moulescoombe and adjacent neighbourhood Bevendean into dialogue with city centre gallery Fabrica; in this central hub, the murals now relate to an immersive installation, all bright carpets and stretched plastic tape, which echo the loud colours and geometric forms deployed around the two estates on the edge of town. It was hoped that many Brighton residents, especially those who are often excluded from contemporary art spaces, might come and explore this show. But a global pandemic has meant that the gallery is closed to the general public.

Our family got access (a blogging perk) and we got to enjoy the space as light streamed into the colours here, on one of the last days of summer 2020. Liz Whitehead from Fabrica recounted the genesis of the project: the time the artists had spent on the two estates, the fact that a few of the houses will retain their new appearance, and also the origins of the show title; ‘A Simple Act of Wonder’ emerged from a conversation between the artists and a resident who apparently exclaimed “That’s it! That should be the title!”

Simple art, perhaps, but for people who are clearly never simple. A good few from these neighbourhoods have got to grips with a disruptive new artwork. And as for me, I got to navigate a new local environment, quite different to my usual haunts. And I got to share the wonder of Aysha; my daughter wrote, unaided, a review of the show at Fabrica. (She also took the photos for this post.)

“Me, Mark and Mummy went to this really amazing art exhibition. There were so many colours there. Later in this review I will show you some pictures of it. It was so colourful it made me want to run and jump around. We were told to take our shoes off before we went in, because there were so many different kinds of textures on the floor that they wanted us to feel them and it was really fun. The artists’ names were Walter and Zoniel. It was in town in Brighton. Some of the colours were red, orange, yellow, green, blue purple pink and grey.

Here are some photos:

“In the picture you can see at the end there are some photos of stuff like cats, dogs and people doing stuff.”

“There you can see that there were little things like toys.”

A Simple Act of Wonder runs until, at least, the 10 September 2020 in various sites in Moulescoombe and Bevendean. A map trail can be found on the Fabrica website where you can also explore the gallery show, virtually,

Be a rambler

In the late 90s, Diesel ran an ad campaign promoting tourism. It was the age of cultural missions in advertising, and the fashion brand encouraged you to “Be a tourist”. Diesel’s target audience were taking gap years and backpacking in the Far East with a dog eared copy of Alex Garland’s 1996 novel The Beach. They were self-avowed travellers not just sight seers. But hey, the ads were too funny.

20 years later, we are still falling over ourselves to eschew tourism. But why? For my PhD I’ve been reading a bit about tourism and discovered the theory that tourism is the quintessential human condition, for post-industrial westerners. Dean MacCannell, who founded the discipline of tourism studies, has argued that we assert our modernity by gazing on evidence of the past. We do this because we cannot allow ourselves to identify with our oft tyrannical ancestors.

Ironically, travel (not tourism) is one aspect of our premodern past. Tourism evolved from travel, and not vice versa. With roots in the 16th century notion one could complete one’s classical education with a Grand Tour of classical Europe. The world’s first travel package, from Thomas Cook as it happens, was a chartered train to a rally in support of temperance. Why would you want to go back to either of those travel propositions.

So I was stopped in my tracks, in my hometown, on the beach, where I was neither tourist nor traveller by the exhortation on the side of BTN Bike Share hire bikes. You can read it in the photograph above. Unlike the most iconic Diesel campaigns from the nineties, it was not clear to me who was being addressed here. Surely no one living in Brighton. Day trippers are most likely, but it’s incredibly pretentious to consider yourself a traveller in a town set up to cater for hedonistic Londoners.

Of course, Brighton does have its fair share of travellers. But most of those are parked up on the edge of Preston Park in converted horse trucks. I’m not sure they’re the corporate, app-driven, bike hire types.

Interview: Sofia Karim

FreeShahidul protest at Tate Modern, Turbine Hall, October 2018.
Photo by José Carlos Mariategui

In my last post, I detoured away from art to ask why the Indian Government was locking up students. Since then I’ve spoken to Sofia Karim, a Bangladeshi artist who has a few answers.

“When I speak to people in the UK most people don’t even know what’s happening in India,” she says, “and they can’t even compute such a thing as fundamentalist Hinduism exists”.

An architect by training, Karim became an artist activist by necessity. In August 2018, the Bangladesh government arrested her uncle, prominent photojournalist Shahidul Alam, and he spent 102 days in prison for drawing the world’s attention to the repressive violence of India’s neighbour. Tate Modern was instrumental in his release; when a friend contacted Tania Bruguera, the Cuban artist agreed to accommodate a Free Shahidul protest within the wider performance piece taking place in the Turbine Hall (her response to the 2018 Hyundai Commission).

Karim talks with evident gratitude about the hands-off support an international museum such as Tate could offer. “Those institutions weren’t places that were for us, until then. I grew up in an Asian household where there was really nothing for me in those institutions but that experience changed my whole relationship with Tate and I love the way that they didn’t interfere as well.” She now speaks with a mixture of authority and urgency about the plight of dissenters in India. She is tireless in her activities on social media and fearless in opposition to the systemic racism of the Citizen’s Amendment Act (CAA).

Karim finds it ludicrous that the young female students accused of inciting a riot could have done so. And is clear what the state calls a riot, was in fact a pogrom which targeted Delhi’s muslims. Perhaps more likely to blame were inflammatory political rallies, hate speeches, and terrifying racist lynch mobs.

“What once was ostensibly the world’s largest democracy has steadily turned into a Hindu-suprematist fascist state, with relative ease,” Karim points out. “The West,” she says, “is generally okay with Hindu fundamentalism because they have a common enemy, which is Islam”. Thought experiment: imagine if the nascent superpower in South Asia was Islamic.

The artworld has nothing to say about the blood on the streets of Delhi, because thanks to sky high profits and culture washing, “they are part of the system of power”. But a more radical form of art – art as activism – could be found on the streets of Delhi, as part of a women’s occupy movement in the southern neighbourhood of Shaheen Bagh.

Shaheen Bagh should by now be shorthand for the largest political women’s movement of our time. It especially interests Karim because most of the protestors are muslim women. In the West, few would expect to find this demographic on the cutting edge of art and activism. You know the stereotype, Karim tells me: “muslim women just sit in the hijab at home cooking for their husbands”. So another compelling facet to events in Shaheen Bagh is the creation of libraries, painting areas for children, and reading spaces for children. Karim: “They’ve created this safe zone for themselves in a very, very dangerous climate and it was just completely revolutionary, the kind of art that was being produced there. “

Forgive the confusion around grammatical tenses: the movement from Shaheen Bagh is alive, but, thanks to Covid-19 and lockdown, the occupation has melted away; Karim’s plans for an art event in solidarity with Shaheen Bagh are also very much alive, but thanks to the virus, she is waiting for Tate Modern to reopen and the time to ripen. Her return to the fray and to the Turbine Hall is imminent as a result, as Karim plans to stage Turbine Bagh, a collective artwork and performance piece designed to highlight the growing fascist element in Indian politics and the violence suffered by dissenters and muslims alike.

The Turbine Hall may be imposing and vast but Karim plans to make the message immediate and even festive. Her intervention will include choral music, dance, and a decorative ring of rice on the concrete floor. She explains: “There’s this very traditional form of South Asian art called the Rangoli or the Alpona.”  The circular designs are made in the morning and swept away in the evening, according to ritual, and usually by women. In Chennai, the making of a recent rice paste Rangoli, together with a few slogans opposing the CAA, occasioned eight arrests. She will also be printing work by a network of activist artists onto samosa bags, the type that are very commonly made out of newspaper or magazines throughout South Asia. The idea came to her when she found herself eating out of a list of court cases pertaining to unfortunate individuals against the Bangladeshi state.

Supporting her in the Turbine Hall will be members of South Asia Solidarity Group UK, South Asia Students Against Fascism UK, and SOAS India group. The diaspora members, including Karim, are determined to use their privilege of safety to speak out for their homelands.

“It’s very important to us; It’s life or death,” Karim says. “Our spaces for dissent have shrunk there. We’re at huge risk. So international solidarity is crucial for us.”

I asked Karim who she’d most like to design a samosa packet for the project. “When my uncle was in jail,” she tells me, “I was just desperate to get a letter from him. I just used to imagine that world he was in. In my other work, I built architectural models based on my imagination and his memory. I used to imagine myself in that prison and seeing the lives of all those people. So I think I’d love to see a samosa packet with drawings of what life is like in that prison and what they’re are all going through.”

The Indian government may be locking up students, but the guilt is squarely with those who would persecute muslims: the writing is on the FB wall, the Insta feed, and a consignment of samosa bags soon to be found at Tate.

For updates on Turbine Bagh and events in India, you can follow Sofia Karim on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Why is the Indian government locking up students?

Scene from Shaheen Bagh; photo Deepta Chopra

For the last two and a half years I’ve been pursuing a PhD in Art History at the University of Sussex. In the last month, the fate of another Sussex alumni, Devangana Kalita, and several other students in India, has come to my notice, hence this blog post.

Student protest: it’s a welcome phenomena. Students bring idealism and courage to politics, the world over. We all have a friend, a cousin, a child who has marched and shown up in the support of black lives, or Extinction Rebellion. Maybe simply a protest against fees.

In India, for the last few months, most student protests have centred around an unjust law which, when taken alongside the National Register of Citizens (NRC), disenfranchises the country’s vast muslim population. It’s been called the Citizen’s Amendment Act (CAA).

Unfortunately, for many of the poor and for the muslim population, who were dispossessed around the time of partition, and for whom droughts, floods, and fires have caused constant displacement, citizenship papers simply do not exist.

The situation is especially dire for women – with patriarchal norms in the country making it impossible to trace back names and lineage, let alone papers. As a result, these groups face deportation and internment. The climate, since the rise of hindu fundamentalism under strongman PM Modi, is such that muslims throughout India are facing a rising tide of racism and prejudice.

Devangana is one of the many students who form the conscience of the nation. Alongside Natasha Narwal, Ishrat Jahan, Safoora Zargar (who is 20 weeks pregnant and whose bail applications have been denied so far) and many, many colleagues, she took time out from her studies, to organise and to demonstrate, against the pernicious CAA, and for the rights of women in general. Tonight, these idealistic and peaceable young women are in prison, framed for charges including murder, sedition, and now, specifically terrorism. They face detainment for months and years under another draconian law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).

Along with many other students, all four are now stuck in jail. Their only ‘crime’ has been to rise up, against the CAA, to stand in solidarity with muslim women and participate in anti-CAA demonstrations. One shudders to think of the conditions in which these student-activists are being kept and the treatment they are receiving while on remand.

Some in India will say it served these young upstarts right. But I disagree. Political activism should never be an offence in a democratic state – especially not in a state which in its very inception had student uprisings as its basis. Recent developments in India, such as the CAA, have brought students, women and humanitarians from all walks of life onto the streets of the capital. None of those are a danger; yet for the Delhi police, the very students who complained about beatings and intimidation were booked for these wrongs.

Devananga and her peers, like countless others, have done nothing wrong. They saw no alternative but to organise in protest against the daily atrocities committed by the state and police in the past 12 months or so. Hired goons invaded the campus of JNU and Jamia Milia University in Delhi, and dragged students away from desks to administer indiscriminate beatings with clubs and sticks. Riots were stirred up in Delhi, leaving muslim homes and livelihoods in ashes. There have been politically-connected perpetrators of lynchings and rapes, who roam free, with many sectarian murders, often with child victims, taking place under cover of mob rule.

The UAPA is draconian beyond measure. Anyone can be picked up by the police under this law at any time, and then have to prove their innocence. Students are a soft target. Female students on a demo are simply not a threat to national security, and I have no doubt they are being framed for wrongs committed by thugs who are being protected by the state.

I therefore call for their immediate release. I call for Western journalists to report on this injustice. I call on the Foreign Office to apply political pressure to the government of India. Any interested journalists reading, please message me and I can connect you to a few better sources for more details on the story.

UPDATE: I’ve just found out that Safoora Zargar was granted bail today. Some grounds for hope.

Back to the future in Liverpool

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Liverpool doesn’t have a prehistoric cave, but it does have a historic Cavern. So it might prove not too much of a distraction from writing on paleolithic art. Beyond the Beatles heritage trail and the football, it had become a centre for visual arts in the UK.

It is also, one might argue, a marker for the benefits of remaining in Europe. The EU has invested more than £1.6 billion into this city, constructing and reconstructing an airport, a cruise terminal, two cathedrals and the Bluecoat gallery, etc. In 2008, Liverpool won its bid to become the European Capital of Culture. The city was filled with excitement, with spectacle, and with international art, thanks to an expanded role for the city’s Biennial, which began life in 1999.

My first visit to Liverpool was in 2010, for a Biennial with the theme ‘Touched”. And I was duly moved, maddened and changed by the things I saw there. Touched remains a personal touchstone 10 years on, an example of how art can inhabit an entire city.

At artist-led studio and gallery space The Royal Standard, I spoke to an artist and critic who already had plenty to say about art in Liverpool: Laura Robertson. Together with writer Mike Pinnington, she now runs The Double Negative, a visual arts blog oriented around the North West. Their new crowd-funded publication, Present Tense, forms the occasion for this post.

Together with Laura and Mike, six writers have explored aspects of the City of Culture’s legacy: in the form of public sculpture, digital culture, zines and even gardening. it also features an interview with John Walter, whose personal slice of cultural legacy includes the purchase of recent works by the venerable Walker Gallery.

Unlike some art writing, Present Tense is accessible in tone and digestible in format. A pocket-sized paperback with judicious black and white photography, it will sit well on the shelf next to the compact catalogue for the 2010 Biennial and act as a beacon for my own writing, thanks to its clear understanding of what is at stake in discussions on art.

But we cannot ignore the fact that this is a very tense present, and the prospect of sailing away on a small austere island with disaster capitalists at the helm is alarming.

Yet in Liverpool we find a city which has survived dark days and periods of so-called ‘managed decline’.  Whatever its legacy now, we must remember years like 2008 (or 2010!)  if we’re ever to see their like again.

Present Tense is available from The Double Negative for £14.99. See here for more details.




Visiting Lascaux II

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[author’s photo]

In my last post I promised to note the lighting arrangements in Lascaux II. Well, I went to inspect them today, and, as it happens, I was not disappointed.

The tour began with a couple of gloomy exhibition spaces. But already it was clear that the cave’s original replica (indeed, ‘original replica’) was to be a more earthy, some might say chthonic, experience. And whereas the guide at Lascaux IV was armed with a slick laser pointer, our guide at Lascaux II used a battered flashlight. This says plenty about the difference between the two experiences. And yet, there was more.

Before we entered the artificial painted grotto, our guide disappeared on some pretext. We were left alone for maybe three, four minutes. He returned with an actual flaming torch. This delighted young, old, and me, alike. So we ventured onwards.

Once inside the Hall of the Bulls, the flame was all we had to go on, as our guide stoked up the air of mystery and illuminated bovine form after bovine form.

But having established we were ‘not afraid of the dark’, he extinguished the torch, and brought up the house lights. It was still not as bright as Lascaux IV. The ochre yellows were not as cheerful. The rock appeared more abrasive. The art somehow looked more monumental. Were we at closer quarters with the art? It seemed that way. The passage through the Diverticule axial was certainly more narrow, more dramatic.

To compare Lascaux II and Lascaux IV will prove interesting. I’m glad I made the hike, (one mile uphill in 37 degree heat). I climbed a bit further to take a peek at the entrance to the real Lascaux. You can just about make out the steps. Barbed wire, sight-blocking hedges, and private property notices, seem like a strange afterlife for the most famous cave in the world.




Visiting Lascaux IV

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“Lascaux IV”by Alexandre Dolique is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

As I looked up at an 18 metre painted ceiling known as the Diverticule axial, I was, for the first time not merely intrigued by prehistoric art, but moved by it. The weird thing is, I was not in a prehistoric cave. I was in a two-year old replica.

Today I visited Lascaux IV. While a mere 200 scientists get permission to visit the original each year, Lascaux IV is a resource for the rest of us. It is extensive, atmospheric, and I’m told accurate to within a 16thof a millimetre. Really!?

It would be hard to conceive of a more exhaustive visitor centre. Our tour lasted for more than an hour; the guide was knowledgeable and personable; the replica caverns were stunning; there was no shortage of museological add ons (films, sound effects, multi-media theatre, 3D cinema, VR lab, interactive gallery of ‘primitive’ modern art, and a temporary exhibition space, gift shops for both grown ups and children.)

The Vézère Valley is baking today: 40 degrees according to my phone. But I found it really instructive to be told to think of the region as having once been more akin to Lapland or Greenland. Today it is forested. Then it was tundra. Once we were nomads. Now we are tourists.

Many on the tour are driving round the region seeing more caves, including those where you can see original artwork. I on the other hand will be visiting two more caves here at Lascaux: the first replica (Lascaux II) and an undecorated neighbour, Grand Roc. I must remind myself: it’s all about the replicas. I will try not to well up again, at either.

By the way, the image is from the Atelier section of the visit. Photography underground is prohibited, which is in itself interesting. But this was the passage which gets compared to the Sistine Chapel. It’s more cheerful than Michelangelo, at least the colours are brighter. I look forward to comparing the lighting at Lascaux II.




The faux pas of primitivism

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“Lascaux 170”by Ma Boîte à Image is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In post war France, prehistoric art got people talking. At least it got intellectuals talking, but this being France we can imagine that the zone of interest was widespread. The basis for this post, about primitivism in the years following the Second World War, is an important paper by Douglas Smith called Beyond the Cave.

While many in France thought they’d found the origins of humanity, three figures called into question the simplicity of that conclusion: Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot and René Char. Smith quotes poet Char on the dubious quest for orgins: “Cette espérance de retour est la pire perversion de la culture occidentale, sa plus folle aberration.” (This hope of going back is the worst perversion of western culture, its maddest aberration.) But all three writers complicate the notion of origins. They assert, in various ways, with critical subtlety, that the works at Lascaux are both origins and originary non-origins. Bear with it.

Smith concludes that Lascaux was indeed an ‘impossible origin’, given the efforts of the parties who wanted to find the descendants of the modernist White Cube in the Hall of the Bulls. This was the general idea behind the second wave of primitivism in French culture in the 1940s and 1950s. In the first wave, modern artists looked to exotic cultures for the origins of modernism. But now, figures like artist Jean Dubuffet, photographer Brassaï, and architect Le Corbusier were taking inspiration from the indigenous primitivism of prehistoric art, as if the first artists were already modern without realising it.

Writer, politician and former Resistance fighter, Andre Malraux claimed that the caves at Montignac were used as an arms cache for his comrades in arms. Lascaux was thought to be a place of anachronistic goodness. This was to ascribe a spurious innocence to prehistoric art, in the face of the guilt which humanity shares in the wake of Auschwitz and Hiroshima.




How authentic is cave painting?

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I have been reading a correspondence between Spanish academic José Díaz Cuyás and Dean MacCannell. MacCannell is a former soixante-huitard who lost faith in a 1960s style Revolution. But as he observes, some fifty years later: “‘The revolution’ and especially the romantic figure of the revolutionary is a myth that effectively disables the left today.”

The public are not totally alienated consumers, as Marx suggests, but more like ‘readers’ (Cuyás) faced with supermarket shelves rather than books. There will be no uprising of organised workers, as in Russia in 1917. But there are still ways to fight climate change, to accommodate migrants and to one day depose the right wing populists who govern us.

In 1976 MacGannell published The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. In doing so he instituted an entire field of academic research, tourism studies. This too is a book about revolution. In a response to Cuyás, its author quotes a passage in which he imagines a totalizing revolution in which every habit of mind is rethought, every book rewritten, every city rebuilt. The end of capitalism is only half of this unthinkable scenario.

“And yet,” writes MacGannell, “our laws have undergone total change and our cities have been rebuilt block by block. Our masterpieces are remade in each new genre.” So might I also add, our paleolithic  art has been thoroughly replicated, and  reinterpreted. In this light my history of the caves and their mediation could be a history of revolutions.

And while we may bemoan our lost access to the caves, our passive alienation under capitalism, and our confinement within hyperreal simulacra, MacGannell argues it was ever thus: “No human group, not even the most primitive, has ever lived in anything resembling objective reality.” So if prehistoric art marks the very emergence of the symbolic order, access for its original audience was in a sense as indirect as ours.

Perhaps MacGannell believes it naïve to want authenticity. He writes: “Without the symbolic, society does not exist”. It underpins science as well as art. It gives us language, law, face to face interaction with other subjective beings. And ironically, one presumes, without it we would be too primitive to ascribe any value to authenticity.

The author of the tourist even refers to cave painting in his prescription for art: “When it is framed as a vital organ of the symbolic, from the first outline of an animal on the wall of a cave, down to the present day, for better and for worse, all art must engage its audience and continuously demand that its audience complete it.”

Whether or not it be ‘art’, I intend to demonstrate that 20thand 21stcentury audiences have completed the works found in Franco-Cantabrian caves in a number of ways.