This text is a draft for a presentation on 3 May 2007 at the Slade School of Art, UCL, London, where I am registered for a PhD. Most of the images used to illustrate my presentation are available on arts-media.net on Flickr
I am used to form building with images, so I would like to make the same forms in writing – space, mood, texture, and narratives of the grotesque can be explored in text making and image making in similar ways, alongside formal written discourse centred on theoretical issues.
I have recently been concentrating research on anomaly and abnormality explored in Deleuze and Guattari’s book, ‘A Thousand Plateaus’.
‘abnormal refers to that which is outside the rules or goes against the rules, whereas anomalie, …, designates the unequal, the coarse, the rough, the cutting edge of deterritorialisation.’
I am still working with this text and the artists mentioned in it, including Antonin Artaud and Paul Klee. Other texts which have assisted me to mark out coordinates in the grotesque territory include:
Mary Douglas, who has written about the danger at the boundaries of territories, of the body, of the social body, of the border between the kinship units and the outside, for example.
Hal Foster has discussed ‘pulsatile desire’, in his book, ‘The Return of the Real’ defined as the oscillation of affect between desire and horror, seduction and repulsion present in contemporary artistic practice which, ‘… refuses this age-old mandate to pacify the gaze, to unite the imaginary and the symbolic against the real.’
Instead, Foster argues, the real penetrates through the gaze screen into an interior psychic core, exposing the other, through the use of violent, visceral and grotesque imagery. He argues Cindy Sherman portraits and Andy Warhol’s American Disaster screenprints achieve this fracturing of the screen/gaze.
In contrast, Philip K Dick’s work refers to a lingering atavistic sense that we are being watched, that something out there is going to get us, something is in the shadows, possibly a machine we have made to help us, lurking at the edges of the world or at the edges of what we think we know.
My research is concentrating on the sense in which there is a feral animality lingering in human nature, occasionally surfacing as being animal, or being anomalous, to use Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology.
Julia Kristeva, in discussing fragmentation, disparity, abnormality and the ‘crisis of the person’ has commented:
‘What is interesting is that this crisis of the person, which I call abjection and which is a state of dissolution, can be experienced either as suffering or as rapture.’
Dissolute rapture could be described as a moment of penetrating disturbance, when we see into the unacceptable depths of our existence, which we project outwards into others, into the world, so that others are also forced to live out the chaos that we refuse to confront in ourselves.
I am experimenting with the possibility of collapsing and contrasting these themes in my pictures. I often take collage elements from disparate sources in order to discover, or glean meaning from them. Various forms get mixed up in these pictorial machines, like alchemical processes that are equivalent to the process of changing chaos into order. Or perhaps the inverse, what order there is becomes chaos.
Marina Warner, in her book ‘Phantasmagoria’, discusses the notion of soul in contemporary practice, where artists ‘project themselves into animal changes of shape, or imagine sci-fi alien mutations, or even dramatise new visions of monsters, and thereby transvalue hitherto abhorrent and abominable phenonema.’ She discusses the mutability of consciousness, prone to splitting, offering ‘multiple potential’, and ways of understanding and exploiting the virtual universe contemporary media offer.
Antonin Artaud worked most of his life at articulating a disturbing, disarticulated turmoil. He believed that society cannot accept its ultimate centre as chaos and unreason, governed by lies and delusion. Society must suicide madness and chaos by subsuming unreason into its pathetically limited social code. Artaud denounced America and the body of war and money, he also cursed the figure of the modern priest, the psychoanalyst, ruling over the trinity of Pleasure, Death and Reality.
Disparity, contradiction, metamorphosis – the grotesque presents, and paradoxically assists, an understanding of existential terror founded on the fear there are no constants across all possible worlds, no immutable forms, except those we choose to define as such by the construction of language, institutions and social bodies. These rigid bodies are the ‘strata’ discussed by Delueze and Guattari, which regulate and control, in contrast to the ‘plane of consistency’, a condition that floats and permits movement across and between types of bodies and types of being.
At the centre stands the elemental and unruly self, given form in the grotesque, at once seductive and repulsive, external and internal. By externalising the repulsion, into others, into the world, we elect temporarily to defer realising the chaos and mute incomprehension that must constantly be guarded against, although it is always too late.
The structure of my PhD should reflect these contradictions. The limiting, arborescent model discussed by Delueze and Guattari may not be so helpful. The rhizomatic model seems equally problematic, although continuous horizontal growth with occasional shoots sideways may be a better way of setting out a range of ideas. Other forms present themselves as equally valid (chapters and an index would be a good start!)
Artaud did not distinguish between writing and making images. His dessins ecrits, drawn words, explore anomalous, disparate and contradictory forms. He wrote of his images, ‘These are gestures, a verb, a grammar, an arithmetic, an entire cabal which shits on the other, which shits at the other.’
Paul Klee also investigated relationships between the word and image, ‘the word and the picture, that is, word building and form building, are one and the same’ Paul Klee, Notebooks.
I have begun to experiment with the potential writing offers for creating a range of grotesque spaces, figures and themes using speculative, fictional forms, derived partly from themes explored in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’,
For example, discussing Paul Klee’s “gray point” Deleuze and Guattari state ’starts out as a nonlocalizable, nondimensional chaos, the force of chaos, a tangled bundle of aberrant lines.’
This statement could be a starting point for writing or painting: equivalent structures of this type often bridge a gap between forms.
Deleuze and Guattari’s themes exploring becoming animal (ferality), becoming intense, becoming molecular, the refrain and the chapter on Faciality (I have displayed a number of portraits today on the screen exploring this idea) seem to me to have two useful functions. Firstly the ideas work across and between fixed, stratified, epistemic models, and secondly, offer the visual artist a rich array of starting points, for image making with words and pictures.
I have recorded some of my fictional writing, speculating on the possibility of conjuring grotesque themes and forms with the spoken voice. Making form with sounds, with words, with images – I am experimenting with giving form to ideas in a shifting and growing set of speculative explorations.