Warm with borrowed beer on the hard concrete floor, I just arrived back to London having watched the car crash of the Conservative second term —austerity cuts upon austerity cuts —from mainland Europe. On Facebook and in Peckham, feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut “WANTED: George Osbourne, For Destroying Women’s Services” posters. On the walls of Cubitt, sewn banners —“Disabled People Against The Cuts” —part of A Public Resource, a programme curated by Morgan Quaintance as a support and space for correspondence between art and activism.
In this context the ‘And No Animal Is Without An Enemy’ reading at the end of March was about survival. Writer Megan Nolan conceived tonight’s series of reading-performances with reference to psychiatrist R. D. Laing, author of The Divided Self, from which the title is drawn. “Considered biologically, the very fact of being visible exposes an animal to the risk of attack from its enemies”, writes Laing. This evening each reader makes themselves visible, stands up before friends, or enemies, or strangers, or all three, and their texts act as both an unveiling and a camouflage.
Nolan has set the night’s premise as an “unravelling of assumed positions; to question what the self can mean to a disembodied subject …what it means to refuse the belief that you are alive.” Writing and finding the self in the city, finding sex in the city, following sex through different cities, finding oneself in friendships, misunderstanding ourselves in friendships, misunderstanding or abandoning oneself. Hiding oneself from oneself, or baring one’s teeth to oneself, one’s soul.
Nolan reads first and her claim of the first person is incisive, as in cutting, and traumatic, as in digging-up-the-real. She sits cross-legged on the floor, wiping her hands therapeutically with a wet cloth, turning A4 sheets on which are excerpts of her novel-in-process. It is the first basic mistake to assume that the ‘I’ is the author or the performer, because anyway, every ‘I’ is constructed; every ‘I’ a protection of insides or a gathering together of selves. Still, here the ‘I’ feels close.
There is much to dislike about the term “confessional writing”, it turns quickly onto shame, unless, as Juliet Jacques advocates, you treat it as “a form of performance art”. But Megan grew up in Ireland, and begins tonight with Jesus. I think of the scene in The Devil Probably by Robert Bresson where the foppish protagonist injects heroin in the chapel and empties the bronze of the donation box onto the floor. Chinking metal on cold stone. There are scratches, scars, blue bruises, running blood, running away over Hampstead Heath, in Nolan’s text; there is sex and self-disgust. Having always read her pieces curled in private, it is hard to hear them spoken into the air, however adamantly. But the text is her survival, and like a good sermon there are jokes.
It is a relief to laugh! Penny Goring has a ditty on people and body parts, disses of perineums and rectums sung in beautiful cockney glottal stops. ‘Temporary Passport’ is a bohemian mythology of being on the road in Europe in the 70s or 80s: brawls in Brussels, begging on the beach in Nice, sheets of cardboard and methadone wings. There’s the leftover scent of a pink vibrator last brandished above his shining head (now in a drawer with a collection of colonoscopy bags). There are fears —of illness, age, and herself, her addictions.
Rachel Benson’s poems are also really funny, such that I won’t recreate them here; the stuff of self-deprecating stand-up in free verse, body image and moments with BFFs. A tiny cactus given as a gift, but better, says the narrator, would be a gift that could be eaten and digested, “to defecate the bad feelings between us.” (I’m paraphrasing.)
Self-deprecation is often affected in Eoghan Ryan’s performances, which play on the presence, or exposure, of the artist and their body in a “don’t mind me while you’re looking at me” kind of way. Tonight he represents the divided ‘self’ in relation to close ‘others’ via fragments of narrative, pre-written and improvised; his image, mediated through his favoured interface of the Skype camera; and his body, hunched before the projector. At first it sounds as though he’s constructing an average male passage from adolescence to adulthood, beginning with a clip from an Arsenal game, going back to photographs from his also Irish youth, which he talks us through flatly …the T-shirt he’s wearing, the hairstyle he had …with interludes of Johnny Cash’s band’s ‘Here We Are Again’ as comedic accompaniment.
But soon the plot becomes darker, stranger, and possibly no less true. We hear about an old friend, on SSRIs, anti-depressants; we see CCTV footage of this friend, sort of friend, buying knives; then we hear how one day the guy turns up at his ex-girlfriend’s house and stabs her, nine times, along with her then partner, who dies. No animal is without an enemy, no story is without fabrication, no Eoghan Ryan performance is complete without an awkward exposure of flesh. The body always intervenes, even if it he doesn’t want it to, now undressed and redressed. He changes his pants, flashes his ass, and trips as he exits over the seated spectators, muttering “sorry, so sorry”.
In Linda Stupart’s finale, we are taken beyond the animal self to rocks, crystals and viruses. They read from their recent book Virus (Arcadia Missa) —the parts on Ana Mendieta’s murder by her husband and no. 1 enemy, Carl Andre. Images of the late artist’s work in blood and water appear rhythmically, along with Stupart’s gutsy collages and graphic mineral shapes. They end with a video recording of a spell cast from Virus, “To Bind Male Artists From Killing You”, re-incanting the words while covered in projected patterns of squiggly virus strains. We are looped back to Laing’s words: “We all employ some form of [magical] camouflage.”**
The ‘And No Animal is Without Enemy’ group event was on at at London’s Cubitt Gallery on March 31, 2016.
Header image: Eoghan Ryan @ ‘And No Animal is Without Enemy’ (2016). Courtesy the artist.