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Dialogues for a Neglected Illness – celebrating the culmination of years of work.

Dialogues for a neglected illness or Dialogues for ME/CFS is the end result of years of hard work undertaken by my partner Natalie Boulton and funded by an award from the Wellcome Public Engagement Fund. The project, begun in 2018, has been led by Natalie and draws on a wide range of medical professionals, patient activists and patients. As the work progressed it has had adapt to the new conditions caused by the COVID pandemic. All the medical and scientific input included has been checked with the professionals interviewed before being made public. Advice and feedback has also been provided by patients and carers at all stages, as an integral part of the project. 

The collection of eight videos covers a variety of topics related to ME/CFS, giving a multi-faceted understanding of the disease from the perspectives of medical professionals, exercise scientists, and research professionals specialising in the disease. Importantly it also features the experiences of patients and carers – with about a dozen patients interviewed. The project is intended as a resource and the videos are being hosted or linked to by UK charities (ME Research UK and ME Association) and included in medical education resources both in the UK and the US. As such patients can use it both to  increase their own understanding and those of their families, friends and carers, as well as to help doctors, medical students, physios, OTs, social workers, carers, educators and research professionals, to understand more about this disease and the issues involved.

Quiet Conversations: Ken Kiff / James Hillman

Ken Kiff / James Hillman

Ken Kiff / James Hillman

Ken Kiff RA (1935-2001). A painter, printmaker and art college teacher, Ken Kiff is perhaps best known for The Sequence, a symphonic series of almost 200 images that constitues a single work. Seen by many as an ‘outlier’ for much of his life, he is arguably one of the most significant English painters of the second half of the twentieth century. Number 193 of The Sequence, Quiet Meeting (unfinished), suggested the overall title for this work and the two larger figures in this image are borrowed directly from it.  

James Hillman (1926-2011). An analytical psychologist, writer and public speaker, James Hillman was a principle instigator of archetypal psychology, a polytheistic ‘southern’ psychological approach that contests ‘northern’ orthodoxies, both cultural and psychological, as too literal, materialistic, and reductive. His primary concern was to return psyche to its rightful place in psychology and culture through attention to imagination, metaphor, art, and myth. 

Note

At the end of the last century I worked closely with Ken Kiff to create the first publication on his work: Ken Kiff’s Sequence(1999). Prior to and during the pandemic I have been working with Anna Kiff (the artist’s daughter and Trustee of his estate) and the painter Dr James Fisher on a major exhibition of Kiff’s paintings and prints for the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol.  

I was introduced to James Hillman’s writing in my late teens via a short piece on the painter Cecil Collins, given to me by the poet Kathleen Raine. I have read his writing assiduously ever since. I once had coffee with him after a day seminar he had given in Bristol and was deeply impressed by his friendliness. In particular I remember him reassuring me that, while my teaching commitments might preclude developing my image-making as I might wish, like Hans Hoffman I might yet make my best work towards the end of my life. 

Introduction to ‘Quiet Conversations: a celebration’.

Elusive, mercurial, the unconscious is not a place, not a state, but a dark ironic brother, an echoing sister, reminding.

James Hillman On Paranoia

During the pandemic I have been working on a project called “Quiet Conversations: a celebration’. The conversations it imagines are, with some important exceptions, between people who have never met and take place in the particular whispering-gallery that makes up the cultural underpinning of any individual. However just as we are physiologically co-constituted with and by other beings, for example the bacteria, archaea and eukarya of our gut ecology which link us to innumerable external ecologies, so we are co-constituted by internalising and digesting the thoughts and feelings of innumerable others. This process of mutual exchange between the traces of multiple lives informs, colours, and nourishes the emotional and mental life that helps constitute us as particular feeling and thinking beings. 

This work, which I’ll add to until all seventeen images are up, celebrates something of the process by which we each build a degree of psychosocial connectivity and sustainability. 

Some of the conversations imagined in these images relate to personal friends, some to people I have been fortunate enough to meet, others to those whose work is been important to me. Taken together they map a network of influence and value that, while personal at one level, is illustrative of a common process at another. Each image is accompanied by a text that identifies the conversants and, where appropriate, by a note that allows the viewer/ reader to glimpse the connecting currents that make up an interweaving of relationships as a whole.  

Preface: in the Terrestrial zone

‘In the end, what counts is not knowing whether you are for or against globalisation, for or against the local; all that counts is understanding whether you are managing to register, to maintain, to cherish a maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world.’

Bruno Latour Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime

The Terrestrial

The Importance of Andreas Malm’s “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” (Verso 2021)

In my last blog post I found myself having to acknowledge that I believe that, while the covid-19 pandemic may mask the fact, we are now moving towards a situation of major social conflict in the UK. This is being activated by what, in 2019, the Danish and Swedish intelligences services referred to as the growing likelihood of ‘climate terrorism’, a likelihood that may well grow following the abject failure of governments to address the climate crisis. My reason for reading Malm’s book (something triggered by two recent articles in the London Review of Books), has been to give myself a better sense of the conditions that are leading to that conflict in the hope of better understanding and facing them.

Perhaps the two most striking aspects of the book are as follows. Firstly, the degree to which it confirms that the elite that determines the global status quo of ‘business-as-usual’ has continued, despite all scientific evidence, to increase investment in the very materials and processes destroying the conditions for life on this planet. That elite, aided and abetted  it must be said by major civic institutions like the universities, are clearly determined to milk every last ounce of profit from the toxic global situation regardless of the consequences.

The second aspect is the light the book throws on what I can only call the intellectual dishonesty that underlies the insistence on strict non-violence by those orchestrating movements like Climate Rebellion. (Of which Malm has a good number of apt and pertinent criticisms, particularly with regard to its official statement supporting the group who tried to stop the London Underground at Canning Town). His analysis of historical protest, whether with regard to the abolition of slavery, the Suffragette Movement in the UK, the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, the ANC’s struggle against apartheid in South Africa, or popular uprisings in the Middle East, demonstrates just how far from the historical truth any claim to the superiority of absolute non-violent protest really is. Real change in the past came through popular movements willing to use a combination of non-violent protest and targeted violence – for the most part against property and those directly involved in the repression of protest. 

For me perhaps the most telling of Malm’s arguments for the necessity of a degree of violence in certain circumstances is his account of the actions of the sixty-five year old Mohammed Rafiq, which took place in Norway in August 2019. Rafiq single-handedly disarmed a young man who had entered the mosque with two shotguns and a pistol and had started to shoot into the prayer room. By resorting to a considerable degree of physical violence, Rafiq was able to disarm the young man and prevent a massacre of the kind that took place in Christchurch, killing fifty-one people. In my view the politics of business-as-usual has been, and continues to be, responsible for the death, chronic suffering and destitution of countless more people, not to mention the genocide of whole species of more-than-human beings. Surely only the most fanatical pacifist would object to Rafiq’s actions and it is increasingly clear that, if we genuinely wish to address the mounting levels of death, destitution and environmental destruction caused by business-as-usual, we will need to pay attention to Mohammed Rafiq’s example.

That said, Malm is very clear as to the kind of reaction those prepared to adopt forms of vandalism against the property of those perpetuating the climate crisis equivalent to Rafiq’s action. He quotes Kelcy Warren, CEO of Energy Transfer, a fossil fuel billionaire and supporter of Donald Trump, as saying that those who are willing to take that step should be ‘removed from the gene pool’. A view that is, I suspect, indicative of the violence the advocates and beneficiaries of ‘business-as-usual’ will happily resort to. The Bill to outlaw disruptive protest proposed by the British Government and referred to in my previous post is, I believe, a first step to legitimising that view.

A certain proportion of Malm’s book is concerned with demonstrating, using examples ranging from letting down the tires of SUVs to blowing up oil pipelines, appropriate forms of vandalism; for example with the former aimed at drawing attention to ‘luxury’ carbon emissions and the latter at disrupting corporation and State enterprises. Importantly, he also makes very clear the distinction between vandalism against property and violence against persons, between what does and does not constitute terrorism, and why we may need, in extremis, to consider the possibility of non-terroristic vandalism to draw attention to the ‘what’ and the ‘who’ of ongoing planetary destruction. He is also very clear indeed as to the disastrous consequences of ‘climate terrorism’ for the whole environmental movement. Given the growing levels of anger and frustration in the UK population, at present largely but not entirely Covid-related, that is an all-important aspect of his position.

One of my concerns in reading this book has been to try and understand why there is such resistance among climate activists to the limited and strategic use of vandalism. Here again, Malm has useful things to say. He understands that far more people are willing to participate in non-violent resistance than will sign up for any kind of violent insurgency, while also pointing out that this is linked to individuals’ considerations around issues of property ownership, race, class and nationality. While he does touch on issues around commitment to non-violence based in the presuppositions of religious or spiritual belief, he does not dwell on this. 

However, I have recently reread the essays in the Nobel-prize-winning poet, essayist and diplomate Octavio Paz’s In Light of India. There he makes some very important and relevant distinctions between the underlying Western political ethos inherited from Christianity and those of the Indian subcontinent. This is significant because Buddhism has been an important influence on the commitment to absolute non-violence with regard to environmental protest. Arguably, however, it might be said that the focus of Buddhist thinking is at odds with what Paz refers to as the goal of political action as understood in the West, namely that of ‘making the world habitable’. Buddhist notions of enlightenment are predicated, after all, on it being ‘a solitary experience’, on the actions of an individual. (A position that might be seen, from a Western perspective, as aligning it, in spiritual form, to the culture of possessive individualism). In raising this possibility of an underlying and unacknowledged convergence, I intend no disrespect to Buddhists or to the positive value of Buddhist influence on environmental protest. I wish only to suggest to readers that we need to be very clear about how presuppositions that may inflect our understanding may flow from a position that sees the world and the self as ultimately empty illusion, and a human being’s highest goal as absolute liberation from both world and self. Being aware of such presuppositions should at the very least remind us that there should be no monopoly by any mindset on how best to conduct our opposition to the increasing toxicity of business-as-usual.

That said, I would also want to keep in mind the example of the 67-year-old Thich Quang Duc who, on June 11, 1963, became one of many Buddhist monks and nuns who have used self-immolation over the centuries for political purposes. (This form of extreme protest is not, however, restricted to Buddhists and examples can also be found across the West and Near East). Significantly, in the Buddhist tradition self-immolation is not regarded as contrary to a commitment to non-violence. 

An account of Thich Quang Duc’s act of protest on a Vietnamese Buddhist web site makes it very clear that he did not immolate himself because he had lost hope in the prospect of change. Rather he is seen as someone very courageous, as hopeful in his aspiration for future good, through sacrificing himself for the sake of others. His aim was not to incite the death of those who oppressed Buddhism in Vietnam, but to facilitate a change of heart that would lead to the secession of intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred, and discrimination. I refer to all this only to remind myself, and readers, of two points. Firstly, that what constitutes non-violence can and should be understood differently in different contexts. Secondly, that we are all, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, always ‘both more and less than the categories that name and divide us’, as the philosopher Geraldine Finn puts it, and that we need to act accordingly.  

Likely consequences of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill passing into law.

I have often had my doubts about George Mombiot’s take on the world, while acknowledging that he has also brought many important issues to our attention. In today’s Guardian he very rightly draws attention to the fact that the current British Government (or should that more accurately be the “English” Government of Britain?) is increasingly behaving in ways we would normally associate with dictatorships. The immediate target of his criticism is Priti Patel’s insertion of eighteen extra pages of amendments into the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill after it had passed through the Commons, and after the second reading in the House of Lords.. It’s clear her aim, on behalf of the Government, is to deter protest of any kind that is “likely to result in serious disruption”. Perhaps particularly the protests against Government with regard to the Climate Emergency. Protest that it previously tried to brand as “terrorism” following Green disruption of the business of its powerful friends in the press. 

I’ve just bought a copy of Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipline. Not because I’m planning to do anything like that just now, but because it’s clear that we are at a major turning point I need to understand better.

This was brought home to me after attending the webinar ‘Climate Change and the Arts: A Post-Cop26 Roundtable Discussion’, organised by Future Earth Ireland and the Moore Institute, NUI Galway. I don’t think it is only in Ireland that the point where civil disobedience may soon shift from peaceful to violent forms of protest. The “English” Government (currently in the hands of a Conservative Party addicted to flaunting its unethical behaviour and then trying to justify it post-hoc), like the majority of Western Governments, is clearly committed to sustaining its major supporters’ investment in ‘Business as Usual’, to borrow the terminology of Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone’s Radical Hope (2012). And to do so regardless of the massive human and environmental cost. Increasingly it seems that those who grasp what that cost will actually be are starting to consider direct, and if necessary violent, action. To think, that is, beyond blocking roads to the need to do things like blow up pipelines.

If that starts to happen, I think there is every chance that our pseudo-democracy will start to fall apart in the face of cycles of reciprocal violence and that widespread social breakdown will then almost inevitably follow. But equally, unless citizens defend such democratic rights as we do currently have, including the right to protest, we face rapidly sliding into rule by an authoritarian autocracy made up of individuals who have shown themselves to be hell-bent, not on providing responsible government in a time of crisis, but on extracting every kind of short-term profit for themselves and a small elite made up of their friends and business associates, and regardless of all other considerations.         

On Hope – an acknowledgement that I got it wrong

In May, 2019, I took part in a public event with Cathy Fitzgerald: Terrestrial Matters, at NUI, Galway, part of a Climate Cultures workshop organised by Prof. Nessa Cronin. One of the questions I was asked afterwards was about hope. As I remember that day, I rather glibly dismissed the idea of hope, along with that of faith. (As I see it now, a serious error of judgement in the Irish Republic where, however secular individuals may declare themselves to be, the underlying cultural mentality is still very much coloured by certain deep-seated assumptions embedded in Catholicism). I did so on the basis that hope is all too often linked to some kind of wishful thinking, either as ‘hope-that-someone-else-will-do-something-so that-I-don’t-have-to’ or, more simply, ‘hope-that-things-will-turn-out-to- be-other-than-they are’. Neither of those two attitudes seem to me, now as then, to be very helpful. But of course what I had forgotten, having fallen back on the analytic habit of mind naturalised in me by years of earning a living in academia, is that hope is not an idea; rather it’s something that is, at best, profoundly felt.

Cathy Fitzgerald had often referred to Joanna Macy in our exchanges and no doubt did so again that day in May. But, despite that, I had not taken the trouble to read Macy’s work. It was only when anther friend recommended her and Chris Johnstone’s Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy to me recently that I finally got around to getting hold of a copy and reading it. I can only say I really wish I’d done so sooner.

So why the apology now? Because in my answer then and my failure to follow up on Cathy’s recommendation, I recognise something that Jem Bendell identifies in a recent blog post about what’s needed for a genuine Green Revolution to take place. Among other things that need to change, he points to a profoundly problematic culture among professional people, one grounded in “an unacknowledged narcissism, where the motivation to feel ethical, smart, and contemporary” trumps every other consideration. It’s an attitude of mind I’ve become increasingly aware of in myself in recent years – and have been making strenuous efforts to let go of – and also among many (but of course by no means all) of the professional artists and academics I still tend to have dealings with. So this apology is simply to mark that realisation, in the hope that I, and others who share my professional background, can change. And, in changing, can contribute to what Macy refers to as The Great Turning . Such a change is, as I understand it, necessary to process of finding, or perhaps more accurately refining, the radical hope of which Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone write so movingly.

 

An initial update on work in the studio.

Every so often I post an update here on my work in the studio , since it’s an important, indeed central,  part of my overall way of engaging with the world. (It’s easy to forget that the word ‘studio’ shares a root with the word ‘study’ in an age when, all too often, it’s primarily seen as a place where first and foremost an art product is produced). The last time I posted such an update was on the 20th of June, 2020, so it seems time to do that again. 

What I wrote then was that I’d contacted my friend Erin Kavanagh to ask her about the childhood of the mythic figure of Queen Maebh, as part of an attempt to follow up on an engagement with Irish poetry prompted by conversations with the Irish painter Eamon Colman. (As it happens I have subsequently discovered that, genealogically-speaking, I have connections with Ireland I had no idea of). To cut a long story short, the result was two pieces of work shown at the last RWA Annual Open Exhibition. These two pieces (see below) are titled Another Story – Maebh’s Youth and Another Story – Singing the Source. I now understand them to be both the end of a sequence – namely of a particular kind of constructed work – and as the initiation of the work I’ve been making during the lockdown necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Another Story – Maebh’s Youth 

Another Story – Singing the Source

The images included here are not of the best quality, but at least give some sense of the two works. I have no particularly good images of the sixteen new works on card I have produced since the pandemic started, a series with the generic title Quiet Conversations. However, it seems important to indicate where the two Maebh images have led me. The image below is a studio shot of a work provisionally called Quiet Conversations: Paula Meehan / Karl Kerenyi (the Artktoi). Like the series as a whole, it takes it’s starting-point from a desire to celebrate the people and work that have sustained me during this difficult time – particularly difficult for my family because my daughter is both seriously disabled and immune compromised.

This image took as it’s starting-point one of Paula Meehan’s wonderful three essays published in her book Imaginary Bonnets With Real Bees In Them, in which she refers to the relationship between bears and the Goddess Artemis. A relationship I know something about through reading Karl Kerenyi’s essay on the subject, which is dedicated to his young daughter. It’s not yet clear to me in what form I will present this series when it’s finished. Since I’d quite like to associate a short text with each image, I had initially though of making an artist’s book. Whether or not that will still seem a practical possibility when the series is finished, I can’t tell as yet.

Quiet Conversations: Paula Meehan / Karl Kerenyi (the Artktoi)

Open Conversations

Since the beginning of the pandemic I have been groping my way towards a body of work that now has the collective title Quiet Conversations. There are currently seventeen A3-sized works in this series, either provisionally finished or still under way. As is often the case, this body of work is in part a response to my reading over the same period, in particular to my reading of work by Irish and Scottish poets. However, there is another aspect to the project that has to do with my sense of what art can attempt more generally. It’s something of this aspect of the project that I want to touch on here.

I am not sure when I first read the papers published in Shadow of Spirit: Postmodernism and Religion, an anthology edited by Philippa Berry and Andrew Wernick  published by Routledge in 1992. Probably towards the end of that decade. What I do know is that I marked seven of those papers as having made an impression on me, two of which I remember in particular. Of those two the most significant was Geraldine Finn’s ‘The politics of spirituality: the spirituality of politics’, which led me to her Why Althusser Killed His Wife. Essays on Discourse and Violence, which includes a version of ‘The politics of spirituality: the spirituality of politics’, and so to my extending the invitation to Finn to speak at a LAND2 event. That in turn resulted in her performance paper ‘One Time Alone – Improvisation Takes Place’, which LAND2 published on its web site in the winter of 2006. The second paper was Mark C. Taylor’s ‘Reframing postmodernisms’. This considers “three examples of the painter/critic relationship: Barnett Newman and Clement Greenberg, Andy Warhol and Jean Baudrillard and, finally, Anselm Kiefer and Maurice Blanchot and Jacques Derrrida” and proposes that: 

“the contrasting aesthetic positions established by these painters and critics suggest alternative theological and religious perspectives. I am convinced that recent developments in the visual arts create new possibilities for the religious imagination”.    

 It was this linking of “aesthetic positions” and “the religious imagination” that caught and held my interest. It served as a powerful reminder that art can provide the means by which we reflect on issues that touch us all and that are concerned with cultural and experiential questions at large, aspects of our lives that fall far beyond the narrow domain of professional art production and commentary. However, as fascinating and, to a degree, compelling as I continue to find Taylor’s argument (the theological niceties of which are, I must admit, pretty much beyond me) is not my concern here. Not least because I can’t finally accept what I take to be the reduction of these artists’ work to a single programatic position.

However, what Taylor’s piece so forcibly reminds me is that it is both possible and productive to “read” the reception of visual works of art in terms that have little to do with the exclusive preoccupations of the art world and it critical commentators. This reinforces a train of thought that’s been with me since reading the essays by Lynne Cooke, Darby English and Suzanne Hudson in the catalogue for Cooke’s Outliers and American Vanguard Art (2018). One that circles around my need, in relation to my own visual image making, to struggle against what Cooke describes, in her ‘Boundary Trouble: Navigating Margin and Mainstream’ as the “categorical distinctions and formalist teleological art histories” that continue to colour my sense of what is and is not proper to the activity of making visual art. 

What has prompted these thoughts is firstly my reading the catalogue essays in the Tate’s catalogue for its current Paula Rego exhibition (7th July- 24th Oct., 2021). Of these, only Laura Stamps essay ‘Transforming the Myth’ seemed to me to avoid the reductive tendency I’ve attributed to Taylor. That is to say, she does not follow the general tendency to read Rego’s work as articulating this or that feminist position. Instead she focuses on her relationship to the less ‘woke’ concerns of reworking stories and myth and, in the process, her ability to engage with what is other. Secondly, an article on John Craxton by Rosemary Hill in the London Review of Books (21sth Oct. 2021) that reminded me just how much I dislike the work of Lucian Freud, and why.

My initial thought had been that, in the spirit of Taylor, it might be possible to take three artists – Lucian Freud, Paula Rego, and Ken Kiff – and view their work as a way to triangulate three positions or tendencies in contemporary life: respectively ‘possessive individualism’ and those associated with what are collectively known as ‘feminism’ and ‘environmentalism’. In starting to think through how that might be attempted, I quickly came to realise the futility of any such attempt.

All conversation is ultimately open, unfinished, inconclusive. And perhaps all works of art worthy of that title are conversations in just that sense ….