Monday, July 16, 2012

Stonehenge in flames

Awesome beyond words: the Fire Garden at Stonehenge, which was staged by Compagnie Carabosse ( on three successive nights (10th-12th July 2012), as part of the Cultural Olympiad of the London 2012 Festival.  Music provided by O.R.L. (, stones provided by our Neolithic ancestors circa 2500 BC, and currently stewarded by English Heritage. Visited on 12th July. With an entry charged of just £3.00, the attendance was said to be around 5000.

Dithering on the road to the fire: We were staying at the Antrobus in Amesbury, just two miles from the Henge, and when I bought the tickets, I thought we should walk that short distance. But we arrived late from London, and my travelling companions (a poet and a driver for the purposes of this exercise) were not so keen on the 45-minute walk on the busy A303. The barman at the Antrobus said there was free parking in a field near the stones. This was not my recollection from what I had read on the web site, but the majority view in our party was that local knowledge trumps anything I might have read on the internet, so we set off in the car, only to find nowhere to park, and so our driver dropped us off and went to find a verge to park on, but our way on foot was immediately blocked by officaldom, so we walked back to find our driver . But he had had to take the car back to Amesbury, so after a mile we couldn't find him and yomped back along the verge of the A303 toward the entrance to the event. Our dithering and meandering to and fro before entering the Henge seemed symbolic: it was like the limited vision we often use in mundane life in contrast with the cosmic vision of the stones.

View from afar: The magisterial stones commanded the plain and wore the ring of fire in resplendance like a woman adorned with a diamond necklace. Huge shimmering spheres of mysterious fire marked out the cardinal directions around the Henge. Only when we got up close did we find each sphere comprised a metal frame holding a matrix of terracotta flower-pots, each holding a flame rather than a flower. Whenever I see Stonehenge from a distance, I am immediately struck by its enormous, resonant power. This was no exception, but now the flames lay around it in bright, pagan-like tribute.

Scissors and sizzlers: We tried to set off up the A344 on the northeastern flank of the Henge but an official dressed in black insisted that we must clamber down the steep embankment into the muddy field, which quite frankly looked like a death trap in the darkness that was made impenetrable to human vision by the glare from the Henge fires. We were told this was because of the 'scissor lift' (which the poet in our party misheard as 'Sizzler', conjuring notions of some pyrotechnic Jabberwocky lying in ambush on the verge of the A344). By the time we had finished faffing around and trying to find our driver who had shot off back to Amesbury, the man in black was gone and we decided to brave the lair of the scissor lifts and Sizzlers.  In due course the beast loomed up on the horizon: harmless enough when handled properly but capable of dismembering anyone silly enough to try to climb it to get a view of the burning Henge.

Entering the circle: I was sure that after our dithering, we had missed our 9 pm slot and would be barred entry. After all, modern life is hemmed in with petty bureaucratic restrictions. (Some time ago I was barred from New York's Ground Zero Memorial as I was one minute over my ticketed timeslot ...) I saw an open gate and we walked through. Nobody was checking tickets. Then someone called out from behind, "Excuse me, do you have tickets?", and I answered that I did and reached into the pocket to get them, but he waved us on, "That's all right, then." We were in. In fact, the officiating volunteers and staff were all supremely nice and polite. Occasionally, enthusiastic visitors would clamber onto the recumbant stones and immediately someone in a hi-vis jacket would call out, "Excuse me, would you mind awfully not stand on the stones, please!" We could walk among the stones, and hug them, but we had to show reverence by keeping our dirty boots on the ground. The fact that we could enter the inner circle and pass in and out of the trilithons was in itself amazing. This core part of the Henge has been roped off since 1978. (I first visited it in 1975, and have fond teenage memories of touching the incomprehensible megaliths.) Just to walk among the stones would in itself be worth making a nocturnal visit and paying three quid, but ... we had the astonishing Carabosse firepark all around us too! So, we crossed over the outer ditch, which was dotted with single firepots, and into the energetic 'turbine hall' of the ancient powerhouse.

Fire installations: There were several types of fire installation, all hand-made by the ten men and women who make up the Carabosse collective, based in St Christophe-sur-Roc, a remote village in France. The biggest and most visible were the balls of fire. These comprised rigid steel hoops adorned with chained slots into which terracotta pots were placed. (I call them flowerpots as that is their appearance, but in fact they are purpose-built by Carabosse as firepots.) Each pot contained what seemed to be a large rag wick immersed in some kind of combustible oil. They made a biomorphic slurping sound as they burned.

Next were the fire toadstools. Each one consisted of a plate of what appeared to be slowly burning coals, on a stand raising the burning mass up from the ground. They gave off a lot of heat, which visitors gathered around to keep warm, especially as the cold night wore on.

Looking down into the fire toadstool:

In the breeze, sparks flew into the air, tracing the flowing air currents:
What's next? The fire trees (not fir trees, nor are they etymologically related): metal columns with a fre in the root chakra. Strange symbols and writing appear on the phallic stem of the fire trees.

The most complex of the fire installations was the fire harvester: a big wheel manually harvests fire from its belly spurts it out from its chimney.

Outside the sacred circles is the fire gardener:

In front of the trilithons were the mechanical cyclists: a completely surreal and dreamlike idea: metal stick-people perpetually cycling and going nowhere but casting rhythmic shadows on the stones:

Some of the installations may, such as the cyclists, may seem very silly and not in keeping with the grandeur of Stonehenge. And yet ... one senses an implicit undertone of deadly seriousness.  I am not saying there is anything sinsiter about the metal cyclists, but there is a darkness in the starkness. This ain't no funfair. It is almost as if the cyclists and the writing on the fire trees are all a sham to keep ignorant eyes and minds away from what is really going on. -- which, if I may hazard a guess, is a recharging of the stones with fire. Like ancient fertility rites such as the maypole dance, there is a deep, dark, sexual current of energy that is inevitably conjured up by setting up fire-breathing phalluses around a megalithic temple.

Soundscape: Permeating the whole evening was the extraordinarily spacey and trancilicious music and voice of O.R.L., otherwise known as Aurélien Rotureau (France, b. 1979).  He had studied electroacoustic composition at the Conservatory of Bordeaux graduating with first class in 2001, lived in Montreal and Brussels and released a disc under the name Amodio, on the label Metak ( In 2005 he founded with other artists, the collective "Matekemata" ( And, in 2007, he went to Barcelona and started composing music for the fire installations of Carabosse. At the Stonehenge gig, he sat in a quadrilateral metal pergola and delivered a hauntingly atmospheric soundscape and filled the whole space. Why nobody was dancing, I can't explain, as much of it was eminently danceable. I suppose everyone was as cold as we were. To listen to his music, go here:

Thsi was an extraordiary event. Although its nominal role was entertainment for the Cultural Olympiade, I am sure it was also breathing a spiritual life back into the Henge and the attendant key-lines.

Carabosse will do one more event in the UK on this tour, 20th-22nd July in Milton Keynes.


Special thanks to Mary Lynne Evans and Eric Evans, my guests from Seattle, who were staying with me through AirBnB, and kindly drove us to Stonehenge:


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Delicate Power: Anne-Francoise Couloumy at Cynthia Corbett's vernissage

In this secular age, it may seem anachronistic and pretentious to speak of spirituality in paintings that are not explicitly themed on religious or spiritual practices. And yet ... 
The author studies L'atelier de La Rue Du Cherche Midi 4, 2010/2011, oil on canvas,
And yet ... we find in some artists' work a numinous quality that transcends the use of art for aesthetics, or for making statements. It is a force that seems to emerge out of the merely human construction of oil paints and canvas (or paper,or board), and confront us with something strange and moving.

For example, we find in Vermeer's paintings a peculiar potency that is at the same time both transcendent and immanent.  For it is rooted in the familiar scenes of mundane life, but it  reaches far beyond the merely visual and semantic spaces othe picture, or the quotidian nature of the subject. It is a power to transport the mind into what can only be described as a 'spiritual' space. Without being in any way religious or making explicit allusions to conventional forms of spiritual observances, Vermeer's paintings can nonetheless lead us into an engagement that is other than merely aesthetic or representational - it is an engagement of a mental faculty that would more explicitly be addressed in sacred works, but is nonetheless so strongly exercised by Vermeer's paintings that it feels natural (well, to ne, anyway) to call them spiritual.
Réception , 2010/2011, oil on canvas

Anne-Françoise Couloumy's paintings have a more than formal resemblance to Vermeer, for they invoke the same dimension of transcendence. Hammershoi and Hopper are two other artists to whom she has been compared, and they do share the same formalistic interest in surfaces and spaces, and also in the human life that is implied by the depicted spaces.  But neither Hopper nor Hammershoi reach out of the planar dimensions of the painted surface and into the dimension of the spiritual.

The modern artist who most famously uses a secular painting to engage with a spiritual faculty of the mind is, of course, Mark Rothko.  But Couloumy, like Vermeer, manages to fuse the spiritual dimension with closely observed naturalistic scenes rather than Rothko's abstraction.
The author talks with Anne-Françoise Couloumy

Couloumy (b. 1961) lives and works in France.  When I spoke with her at the opening of Cynthia Corbett's huge show of her work at Gallery 27 in Cork Street (, she patiently listened as I stumbled to express the above thoughts, between her basic functional English and my non-existent French, but unfortunately I was frustrated in my attempts to discuss these ideas with her. Damn it, I should have paid more attention to my French lessons at school.
Anne-Françoise Couloumy surrounded by vernissageurs

How can these paintings carry such a freight of transcendent significance? When all's said and done, we look but upon painted canvas! There is somehow a specialness in the intention and a genius in the moulding of paint around that intention. The reductionist instinct in me wants to analyse and dissect it, but my thoughts so far bounce off the ineffability of what Couloumy puts into her paintings. I think the magic comes in part from the composition: the depictioin of stillness in places where people have left behind traces of their activities (such as the the emptied glasses of the reception). But also from the quality of the paint itself, a particular layering of colours that triggers the mind into reverie, the paints laid down accoriding to some intuition or sixth sense that I can only marvel at. (And this of course is where she is most like Rothko.)

When she last exhibited in London, in 2008, her oeuvre was about large, empty interior spaces of buildings - homes, hotels, restaurants.They had an Apollonian clarity and precision. In her new works, there is an explosion of new subjects, but her works still achieve a sense of transcendence immanent in the physical painting and even deepen it, while the new works also bring into play a new force of poignant human emotion. Couloumy has a series of paintings of unmade beds that are piquant in their intimacy.
Lit a Rugnes 1, 2008/2009, oil on canvas

The gentle folds of soft blankets, the crumpled sheets, the casually left reading glasses and bookmarked book ("Lecture") all create a poignant emptiness. It is not, I think, a sense of loneliness or desolation as some people seem to see, but a heartfelt depiction of presence by showing an intimate absence. As if, moments before, the real subject of the painting was lying there in a nightdress, and has momentarily left - the immediacy of the departure, the ghost of the almost tangible presence - they really point to a loving embrace of the unseen subject, rather than to sadness or longing. These paintings hover on the edge between poignancy and sadness: you sense that the human subject of the painting has not gone far and will be back soon.
La Couverture, 2008/2009, Oil on canvas
In this show, the most poweful for me was "Le Lit Blanc 2", a corner of a white bed -- a formally simply study of light and dark, but one whose depiction of fathomless fields of colour into which one could vertiginously fall creates a feeling I only ever had before with Rothko. The bedroom paintings are for me the high point of Cynthia Corbett's new exhibition of Couloumy's solo show, which opened last night. See especially "Lit a Rugnes 1" & ".. 2".
The author disputes the merits of Le Lit Blanc 2 with contemporary artist Frances Treanor
 Also very impressive are the sky paintings, sober but joyful studies of cloud formations.
(clockwise) Nuages 4, Nuages 7, Nuages 6, all 2008/2009; oil on board
And I loved her gentle paintings if her paints and paintbrushes. These seem more personal than the other works that I admire here, less concerned with transcendence and more with the emotionally familiar and friendly tools of her profession.
Pinceau x et Tubes 1, 2010/2011, Oil on canvas
Of course there were also several of the big interior spaces for which she is famous (eg "Réception", see above). The show very well demonstrates Couloumy's range of genres in which she is master.  Like Rothko's field-of-colour paintings, reproductions of Couloumy's oils hardly catch any of the spiritual charge - you have to see the works in the flesh. Go to Gallery 27 and behold them. (The show runs from June 25th to July 7th.).
Celia Kinchington chatting with guests
At the vernissage

All paintings by Anne-Françoise Couloumy; all photographs taken by Jenny Chung, at the opening at Gallery 27, on 26th June 2012, and used with the kind and generous permission of Cynthia Corbett.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Real illusions: Alban at the French Art Studio Grand Opening

All art is equally illusory, but some is more wittily and self-reflectively illusory than others.  The French sculptor-painter Alban (b.1967) has a genius for creating a visual and tactual sense of something that is not really there. His painstakingly sculpted and painted segments of aircraft fuselages, cut by acetyline torch from the hulls of decommissioned aeroplanes, have all the weight, the lustre, the jagged edges, the scrapes and scratches of working life ... but they are made of wood. The illusion is uncanny. At first, you cannot believe the work is not metal. Viewers at the gallery peer closely at the edges, trying to find a visible clue, a proof that it really is just painted wood. Even when you have convinced yourself, as soon as you step back, the illusion kicks in again.

They are sometimes life-sized fragments of huge metal hulks, usually aircraft, but Alban also paints segments of ships and trains. Some are miniaturised, such as the aircraft wing seen here ("Highway to Fly", 2012). The other Alban work that was on show in the French Art Studio at its Grand Opening last night was more like life-size ("Legs", 2012). But you are so taken up in the illusion, and basking in the warm glow of distressed, vintage metal sheeting, the aura of lived-in and worked-on physicality, that the question of size does not enter your mind.
The pieces are all quite thin, and suitable to be hung on a wall, as we see in this snapshot where the vintage paint schemes of Alban's sculptures compliment the derriere of the elegant Caroline Le Luel, proprietor of the French Art Studio.

The elegant historicity of Alban's aircraft was nicely accompanied by a string trio led by violinist Agnes Daniel, Vivaldi's smooth movements melding with the aerodynamic shape of the wing.

The use of the city as a canvas was a common theme of several of the artists that Caroline had selected for the opening. Jef Aerosol (b.1957) and Yz (b.1975) create large graffiti on urban streets.  Usually more painterly than Banksy's hard stencilled graphics, they have slower and more arty effect on the mind. While Banksy's graffiti gives you sharp slap in the face, the works of Jef Aerosol and Yz will dance with your aesthetics in a more ambivalent semantic space. Graffiti artist Sun7 (b.1977), pronounced in the French manner as "sunset", incorporates lexical elements into the stenciled artwork, which gives it a redolence of Arabic art, in which the writing itself is integral to the visual experience.  His work "Mao" was being shown that evening, but I personally would have preferred his other pieces such as his untitled skulls..  

More witty, but less accessible to the popular imagination, is the work of l'Atlas (b.1978), who paints enigmatic labyrinths on the ground and on the walls of the city.  These geoglyphs and muraglyphs seem to speak the very language of the city's subconscious mind, mirroring the abstract road signs that shepherd the denizens of the city, or the corporate logos that mark out territorial space in the cityscape.

Obviously unable to bring the city into the gallery, Caroline has hung smaller simulacra of the works of Jef Aerosol, Yz, and l'Atlas.  Fernando Costa (b. 1970), on the other hand, does bring the city into the gallery! He has sliced and diced metal street signs, railway signs, any kind of urban signage, for wayfindng and for other purposes, and rearranged the segments of signs into a patchwork quilt of metal shards. Living and working in Sarlat in the south of France, he repurposes the informatic tentacles of the city that penetrate the countryside in the form of road signs. Paradoxically, Costa is the diametric opposite of Alban: while Alban sculpts and paints with wood and resin to create the illusion of cut metal, l'Atlas uses cut metal as his medium. The contrast is fascinating to mull over. Perhaps in some future re-hang, Caroline could hang the metallic and faux-metallic works of Costa and Alban side-by-side.

I've spotted Caroline Le Luel's stalls in various art shows in the London in recent years, and she now has a permanent gallery space, French Art Studio, at 58 Gloucester Road, London. Should be fun.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Stopping suicides at the October Gallery

Talk by Dr Ben Sessa, "MDMA: Could it have been designed in with psychotherapy in Mind?", in the series Ecology, Cosmos and Consciousness lecture series, organised by Dr David Luke in association with the Scientific and Medical Network. 6:30 - 8:30 pm at the October Gallery, Old Gloucester Road, London.

The British Government should hang its head in shame for failing to do its utmost to resolve Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) in the men and women who volunteer to fight for their country. Irrespective of whether one agrees or disagrees with this or that military intervention, the Government has a clear and urgent duty of care towards those individuals who put their lives in danger to carry out the nation's military objectives. That the authorities refuse even to evaluate the therapeutic value of MDMA on the grounds that it is a drug that some people take recreationally is of a failing such vicious asininity as to shame the whole country.

Of course, it is not just servicemen and women who suffer PTSD, but they undergo more violent stress and more extreme violence than most other people. A wide range of horrors in our fast and violent world creates this psychological disorder in people. One source quotes a range of incidence from 13% in suburban police officers to 50% in abused children.

Like other pioneers of psychedelic medicine, Dr Ben Sessa has been pushing for years to be allowed to study the clinical use of psychedelics. In 2009 he became the first person in forty years to be given, in a legal clinical study, an illegal drug -- when he was injected intravenously with psilocybin by Professor David Nutt.

In this talk, Sessa gave us an overview of MDMA, and the small but highly promising set of clinical data on its use for treating PSTD. He hopes to carry out the first clinical trial of MDMA for PSTD in the UK.

MDMA is unusual among psychedelics in almost always producing a positive affect: it is very much a 'happy drug'. It is also non-addictive and has very low toxicity, making it very and manageable and safe to use in robust clinical settings. The gutter press (referred to collectively as the "Daily Mail" by Dr Sessa) makes a lot of fuss about the deaths of people who have taken Ecstasy, a recreational pill that formerly contained MDMA on a predictable basis but apparently is now heavily adulterated. In fact, he said, in almost all cases, people who had taken Ecstasy before dying also had in their bodies potentially fatal doses of other stuff such as alcohol and heroin. In only six cases was MDMA the only plausible cause of death. Given the millions of people who use Ecstasy on weekly basis, often while stressing their bodies by dancing for long hours without necessarily drinking enough water, this makes Ecstasy, and hence MDMA, a comparatively safe substance in relation to other recreational products such as tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, and sugar.

Sessa emphasised several times that MDMA was not "safe" simpliciter, as no pharmaceutical product is absolutely safe, not even apsirin or adhesive plasters. But in the general scheme of things taking MDMA is less dangerous than most things you might want to do during course of a normal day.

There is one point where I would urge a little caution, which is the story that is in circulation that in war veterans, suicide triggered by PTSD takes far more lives than the actual fighting. Any statistics about death should bear in mind a number of basic considerations. (a) Sadly a lot of people kill themselves anyway, even without experience of war: the suicide rate among US males is generally quote as around 1.1%. (b) A period of active combat is comparatively short in relation to the years that follow, and any suicide in that period adds to the statistic. (c) Modern warfare is much safer for rich countries such as the UK and USA, which now have the technology to bomb a country to shit with comparatively little exposure of its own troops to death and injury. This is rather different from Vietnam or the Korean War, or the World Wars.

When I first heard the story that suicide kills more soldiers than fighting does, I filed it in the back of my mind as "doubtful, but possibly true". My usual first response on hearing of any thing that looks like a dodgy story is to look it up on, that great graveyard of urban myths. It was only after Ben Sessa's talk that I was prompted to look up the suicides story. The story first emerged in respect of veterans of the Vietnam war, and has been repeated for subsequent military conflicts. Sessa cites it specifically for Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan (and suggested it might apply to any future war in Iran). Snopes led me to Michael Kelley's thorough study of post-'Nam suicides: "The Three Walls Behind the Wall: The Myth of Vietname Veteran Suicide". His conclusion was pretty much in line with what one would have expected: the suicide rate in combatants who saw action is higher than for those of us who stay safely at home in Civvy Street, but it is nowhere near the death rate from the actual fighting. (As Kelley points out, most troops who went in-country in 'Nam did no fighting. The intensification of PTSD and consequent increase in suicide is specific to those who fought the Vietcong.) 54,000 Americans were sent to their deaths in Vietnam, but probably no more than 4000 took their own lives afterwards.

The death rate in Iraq and Afghanistan during low-intensity periods (i.e. not during the times of intense fighting such as the invasion of Iraq), is vastly lower. And in some particular years, the death rate from suicide happens to be higher than that due to fighting. According to an article in, "More troops Lost to Suicide", in 2009 the suicide rate was slightly higher: "Overall, the services reported 434 suicides by personnel on active duty, significantly more than the 381 suicides by active-duty personnel reported in 2009. The 2010 total is below the 462 deaths in combat, excluding accidents and illness. In 2009, active-duty suicides exceeded deaths in battle." In 2008 and previous years, however, the ratio was reversed: during the intense violence that is normally associated with the word "war", the casualties from fighting were higher.

It is, I fear, disingenuous for Sessa to make the unqualified and out-of-context claim that suicide kills more soldiers than combat does. That suicides exceeded combat deaths in one comparatively quiet year is not the message one would read from his slide. Undoubtedly PSTD is a large and serious problem, but I suspect that Sessa's case will be hindered rather than helped by making misleading claims about its prevalence.

Other than than glitch, Dr Sessa's talk was very well made. Despite the sweltering heat produced by cramming a large crowed into the lecture hall at the October Gallery (according to the Facebook site, 140 people said they would come), he gripped the audience's attention with clarity and compassion. I hope he is allowed to run his trial of MDMA.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Female genital mutilation at the October Gallery

Film "The Cutting Tradition" directed by Nancy Durrell McKenna, narrated by Meryl Streep. Shown at the October Gallery on 22nd February, with introduction and post-screening Q&A with Nancy McKenna of the campaigning and educational organisation, Safe Hands for Mothers.

The sheer magnitude of this horror take one's breath away. How can one begin to hold in one's mind this vast tranche of gratuitous and crippling cruelty? In the world at the moment there are 140 million women whose genitals have been deliberately mutilated as a traditional practice, and each year in Africa another 3 million girls are damaged in this way. (Statistics from the Orchid Project.) So, on average, every hour of every day almost 350 African girls have their clitoris slashed off on the authority of their parents.

Wikipedia coldly classifies the mutilations as follows: "Type I, removal of the clitoral hood, almost invariably accompanied by removal of the clitoris itself; Type II, removal of the clitoris and inner labia; and Type III (infibulation), removal of all or part of the inner and outer labia, and usually the clitoris, and the fusion of the wound, leaving a small hole for the passage of urine and menstrual blood — the fused wound is cut open again for intercourse and childbirth. Around 85 percent of women who undergo FGM experience Types I and II, and 15 percent Type III, though Type III is the most common procedure in several countries, including Sudan, Somalia, and Djibouti."

Given the imponderable horror that she has filmed, and which she describing to us at the October Gallery, Ms McKenna is remarkably down-to-earth and sensible about it and undaunted by the sheer scale of combating this social evil. Many people might become embittered and hardened by running up against cruelty so deeply ingrained in these societies. But, with calm composure, the charming and beautiful Ms McKenna relates the ugliest of child abuse, and the stupidest and most mean-spirited of male impositions on womankind.

As I said to Chili Hawes on the way in to the auditorium, such things are often classified as "women's issues". In fact, they are "men's issues" because men are the cause. Although female genital mutilation is pepetrated and perpetuated by women -- by mothers who take their daughters to be be slashed -- the driving force comes from men who will marry only women whose sexual organs have been destroyed. In a society where most women are economically dependent on a husband, there is a pervasive belief that a woman needs to undergo genital mutilation as their passport to economic survival.

The film helps to guide us into the thoughts and feelings of the folks who are directly involved in the appalling scandal of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation): the women who have been cut; the mothers who had their daughters cut; the practitioners who do the butchery; the men who want their women unsexed; and their rare opposites - mothers who refused to let their daughters be mutilated; and men who desire women to be complete, as Allah created them. Remarkably candid interviews with these individuals reveal the rationalisations for a practice that is done simply because it is a tradition of male power. The primary rationalisation is that a married woman will commit adultery if she is capable of enjoying sex. So, the mutilation is a method of social imprisonment: a way for men to possess and control women, just as they possess and control livestock. McKenna's film does not address the wider issue of women's right to autonomy. It is an intense, narrow-focus examinatin of the specific barbarity of genital mutilation. This is undoubtedly the right strategy: a range of people of 'traditional' views are willing to lend support to the ending of FGM but would baulk at any prospect of equality between the sexes.

Ms McKenna has shot some astounding footage. She followed one young girl through the process: her mother leads her, whimpering, to the home of an elderly practitioner. The girl is held down by the womenfolk and her legs parted. The butcheress takes a fresh razor from the pack. There is no anaesthetic. One woman puts her hand over the girl's mouth to stifle the screams. There is no ceremony: they go down to business as if going about a regular domestic chore. The young girl yelps and twists as the old woman cuts out her clitoris. Afterwards, the cutting-woman holds up the razor in her blood-soaked hand. They tie the sobbing girl's legs with rope, and she hobbles home. It is a hard scene to watch, and the gasps from the audience echoed the shared despair of everyone in the room. But, in her film, Ms McKenna spares us the most horrific scenes. Another ancient practitioner demonstrates the method of infibulation -- but does so by performing the operation on a blanket, not on a little girl. This involves cutting out the clitoris, and then slicing off the inner and outer labia, and sewing up the vagina. She demonstrates on her blanket how she uses thorns to pierce the remaining skin and bind the wound up. Ms McKenna leaves to our own powers of imagination what it is like to witness this operation, which is the commonest form in the Sudan. God knows how she can stand and watch them them do this, without screaming at them to stop. But Ms McKenna knows that if she is going to change anything in Africa, she has to work with the grain of the culture, not against it.

The other procedure that is shown in the film is the reverse: the opening up of an infibulated vagina. A married woman is unable to have sexual intercourse because the tiny hole that is all that is left of her vulva is barely enough for urine and menstrual blood to escape, and certainly cannot allow the entry of a penis. We watch as the surgeon cuts along the scar of the sewn-up vulva until the hole is big enough to allow two fingers to penetrate. Then he sews back the flaps of cut flesh to keep the enlarged hole open. That's it. Now she can be penetrated by her husband, which is all that matters within the traditional thinking.

Meryl Streep is a good choice of narrator for the film. Hers is a kind, compassionate voice, but with a steely backbone. This is not a melodramatic or sensationalistic film. Its carefully measure tone is one of deep care and compassion for the victims of this widespread child abuse, tempered by the understanding that making any positive changes will involve a staggering programme of education and gentle persuasion. But at least there is some notional support from the authorities: FGM is illegal in civil law, and McKenna interviews islamic scholars who make it clear that FGM has no basis in the Quran. But the sheer weight of tradition that can be traced back for generations, coupled with the complicity of women, and the crippling effect of political and economic disenfranchisement of women -- all these things together make up a formidable obstacle to any positive moves by the civil or religious powers .

There was surprisingly little mention of cultural imperialism. One aged villager objected that Western women could use expensive perfumes to hide body odours, but this was not available to poor rural Africans. The extraordinary notion that girls had to have their genitals mutilated in order to stop them smelling was mentioned a few items, along with the more ludicrous notion that it was intrinsically wrong for a woman to have elongated clitoris or labia. But these rationalisations did not seem to be taken seriously by anyone. The conversation would always wend back to the rhetorical question: what man would ever marry an uncut woman? The fact that about three billion men on the planet are perfectly happy to marry and have sexual intercourse with uncut women did not seem to occur to them to be an obvious counter-argument.

The central objection to genital mutilation -- namely, that it denies a woman her fundamental right of sexual enjoyment -- does not get us very far, because the immediate purpose of the mutilation is precisely to prevent women from enjoying sex. And the reason for that is to prevent women 'straying'. Needless to say, the converse operation for men has never been practised or even seriously proposed. No society has a tradition of slicing off the glans of every young boy's penis to prevent him from enjoying sexual intercourse; or more radically trimming his entire penis down to mere hole for urine to exit. And yet it is a universally known condition of humanity that men have a greater genetically imposed drive to have multiple sexual partners than women have. (Generally speaking, obviously.) Any attempt to rationalise FGM in terms of preventing adultery, if taken seriously, very quickly runs into this conundrum: glansectomy of men would be a more efficient way of taking the pleasure out of sex than cliteridectomy of women. The fact that it is always the girls who are savaged, not the boys, surely leads us to the realisation that, in reality, this has nothing to do with the prevention of adultery, feminine smells, or unaesthetic elongated labia. It is about one thing only: male hegemony. Which in turn leads to a snag when combatting female genital mutilation in an effective manner: how can you tackle this problem without also tackling head-on the problem of male power and the abuse of that power?

Ms McKenna, however, is an accomplisehd pragmatist. The film shows a clip from an educational video in which women say that fidelity to their marriages should be premised on respect and honour within their traditions of behaviour, and not achieved by brutal enforcement. This deftly sidesteps the issues of women's dependence on men in societal relations of power and economy. It is a limited and specific aim to eradicate this particularly evil manifestation of male power -- which is already a massive job -- without getting bogged down in the infinitely bigger ideal of sexual equality.

As I mentioend abovem the law is technically already on the side of reform, but the criminalisation of female genital mutilation is practically diffiicult to police, and almost impossible to punish: as one legislator said in the film, there are simply not enough prison cells to jail all the perpetrators of FGM. In the Q&A, I asked Ms McKenna whether there was any role at all for legislation. Very little, it seems, other than legitimatising the big education programme that is underway.

The complex web of societal relations that must be navigated is emhasised in a report by Frances Althaus on the Guttmacher Institute. As Althause notes, Western imperialism is often seen as the motivation behind our interventions in Third World countries, and McKenna emphasised that she never presents herself as the enlightened reformer from a more advanced civilisation, but rather operates as a facilitator who encourages and enables African women to bring about change.

This is where the moral high ground turns out to be as boggy as the moral low ground. If we adopt a univocal ethical stance and maintain that female genital mutilation is an unacceptable violation that must be eradicated as soon as possible, the resistance to enforced change will be considerable, and the attempt to push it through is likely to achieve nothing or even be counter-productive. On the other hand, adopting the ethically lax position of relativism makes us complicit in the continuation of an evil practice. McKenna is attempting to steer a middle course between ethical imperialism and ethical relativism: to enable a radical change to African society to happen while at the same time respecting the integrity and autonomy of the Afrcan communities. It's quite a job.

After the Q&A, I asked Ms McKenna privately a question that hovers even more on the grey borderline between complicity and pragmatism. Referring to the work of Deborah Sundahl (one of whose hands-on workshops I attended last year), I asked whether there was a role for women who have had their clitoris cut off to be trained in the massage of the G-spot as an alternative route to reclaiming a capacity for orgasm. Ms McKenna was doubtful that this would get very far partly because Islamic African culture does not make it easy to talk about sexuality; and partly because the damaged vagina is often so painful that any attempt at achieving pleasure is a forlorn hope. (In addition, there is a risk that this could be seen as complicit, as it seeks to ameliorate the effect of genital mutilation rather than focusing exclusively on eradication.)

The October Gallery is renowned for its advocacy of world art and for giving space to the ethnic viewpoint as opposed to the suprematist tendencies of Western cultural imperialism. It is therefore especially good to see it supporting a campaign that seeks to improve the lot of women while avoiding the mistake of telling the local folks what to do.


Saturday, February 18, 2012

Suicide bombers at the October Gallery

"The Other Side of Paradise", talk by artsist Laila Shawa about her exhibtion at the October Gallery, on Saturday 18th February, 2012.

Although I have a high regard for the October Gallery, I went along to this talk by the Palestinian artist Laila Shawra (1940-) with some hostile anticipation. The blurb said that Shawra neither condoned nor condemned the suicide bombers. "Uh-oh!", I thought, "Another attempt to gloss over carnage for the sake of politics." From my general viewpoint, killing civilians for political purposes is always wrong, irrespective of the validity of the political cause or the urgency of pursuing it. But I also believe that free speech and debate are central to our civic culture of freedom. Apologists for suicide bombing should be allowed to state their case and the reset of us should be allowed to criticise them.

In fact, my anticipation was unfounded. Shawra's position is both more humane than I had feared, and more nuanced than I expected. Her view aligns with that of Mahatma Gandhi, who in his autobiography (1929) exhorted us to "Hate the sin and not the sinner". The corresponding formula in Christianity is found in the epistles of St. Augustine (letter 211, circa 424 AD): "Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum", which translates roughly as "With love for mankind and hatred of sins." Shawra, as a Muslim, rejects both suicide and murder, and does so on religious and other grounds. In common with other Abrahamic religions, Islam bans suicide (e.g. "And do not kill yourselves, surely God is most Merciful to you", Quran 4:29) and murder (e.g. "...whosoever killeth a human being... it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind...", Quran 5:32). More to the point, she regards suicide bombing as morally wrong, counter-productive, and damaging to the Palestinian cause and public perception of it. She does not, however, damn the women who carry out suicide bombings as straightforward, cold-blooded monsters, which of course is the conventional demonisation in the Western media. The purpose of her ongoing project, which has spanned several years, is primarily to understand what motivates young women to blow themselves up in public places, and to articulate her insights in artistic forms. Her provisional conclusions are darker, more complex, and more plausible than the media mantra that these are simply individuals driven by rage against Israeli iniquities to carry out senseless slaughter of indiscriminate human targets.

Those of us who lived in London during the IRA's bombing campaign against Londoners will be disinclined to cut any slack to terrorists who kill men, women, and children at random. Shawra does not ask us to. All she asks is that we step into the suicide bomber's shoes, and take a look at the world from that perspective.

This is second time that the October Gallery has shown Shawra's work In 1994, she exhibited alongside Wijdan Ali, a female artist from Beirut. The work she showed then was more deeply connected to the Islamic tradition of using calligraphy and geometry as the primary artistic vectors, which historically comes from the Quran's prohibition of pictorial illustrations. She showed photographs of Arabic graffiti, dotted with pictograms such as machine guns, superimposed on boldly colored squares, diamonds, and other basic geometries. These were photographs she took in Gaza during the first 'Intifada' uprising. Eighteen years later, her new show at the Gallery explores the theme of female suicide bombers with bold and bright colours and an exuberance of forms and materials.

Amongst the first works that you encounter on entering the exhibition at the October Gallery are four decorated mannequins, which almost fade into the background because shop dummies are so commonplace in London. The highly charged and brightly coloured pictures hanging on the wall tend to grab the attention first. But then you do a double-take and start to take in the mannequin torsos (no limbs, no heads), which are identical in themselves but have been painted and adorned in individual styles with eclectic found objects--peacock feathers, jewelry boxes, corsets, a leather bra with tassels on one, a decommissioned Israeli grenade on another. What they all have in common is a fashionised simulation of the explosives belt hidden by suicide-bombing women under their outer garments.

My first reaction is one of revulsion at the apparent levity with which Shawa has treated the means of inflicting murder and disfiguring injury to random human targets. As more information emerges, however, from Shawa's talk and from Gerard Houghton's notes in the exhibition catalogue, I have to reconsider my reaction to the mannequins. The clue lies in the next room where the piece "Fashionista Terrorista" hangs, depicting a woman wearng a keffiyeh, the traditional Palestinian head-dress, and sporting a New York 'Big Apple' icon. The reference, as Hougton points out, is to the spectacle of the widespread use of the keffiyeh as a fashion 'statement' which has been so succesful that cheap keffiyeh's manufactured in Chinese sweatshops flood not only the markets in New York, London, and Paris but in Palestine itself, where the cheap imports are putting out of business the local businesses that make the authentic keffiyehs. Suddenly I see the mannequins in a new light, as a statements of the West's commodification of the Palestinian's daily round of struggle to deal with the illegal Israeli occupation. It's just like the French situationist Guy Debord said. The consumer-focused media machine (which mediates the West's understanding of itself and the outside world) can handle things in only way. It can treat things only as commodities to be marketed, bought, sold, and then made obsolete by the next fashion wave. So, the West can engage with suicide bombers only by slotting them into a marketing pigeon-hole. They are to be eroticised, or demonised, or glamorised--whatever, just convert them into a product for which there is a known consumer market. Shawa's message, as I read it in now in her mannequins, is that the simplistic monstering of suicide bombers that the Western media presents is a pre-formed response that is inadequate to an analysis of the complicated, obscure, and dark reality of the societal forces that generate a continuing stream of suicide bombers.

The centre-piece of Shawa's work on this theme stems from one particular scene from Robert Baer's documentary "The Cult of the Suicide Bomber" (2007), a three-part TV series that was commissioned by Channel 4 and later released as a DVD. I bought a copy from the ICA bookshop when it first came out, but completely missed the significance that Shawa's close reading discovers in this scene.

A woman is wearing a belt of explosives under her baggy shirts and jacket, but is stopped by Israeli border guards as she tries to make her way from Gaza to Israel to kill Jews. She is forced to strip down and reveal the weaponised belt. What Shawa noticed is that having been stopped from completing her mission by the border guards, and having realised that she cannot blag her way out without stripping down, the young woman says a prayer and pulls a cord form her pocket that was intended to detonate the explosives. The device fails. Distraught, the girl reinserts the trigger device and desperately tries to re-attach it to the exlosives via the attachment hidden in her pocket. Her reaction is one of manifest horror. Why? Why does she want to blow herself up in the middle of an empty cage where the Israelis have imprisoned her? Why is she so horrified taht she is going to survive, albeit imprisoned by Israel? This is the puzzlement that led Shawa to dig more deeply into what motivates young women to become human bombs.

Her provisional conclusion is that, at least sometimes, female suicide bombing is 'honour killing' carried out by other means.

R.D. Laing once described shizpophrenia as a sane response to an insane situation. On Shawa's analysis, carrying out a suicide mission will sometimes be the only route left open to a woman who is threatened with brutal murder by her own family to restore family 'honour'. This is why the young woman in the video so keenly needs to martyr herself even though she has been prevented from inflicting damage on the Israeli target: she needs to restore her family 'honour' by dying. And this also helps us to understand her highly visible emotional body language: damned by her family to death for bringing so-called 'dishonour'; damned by Israel for trying to murder its citizens. Damnation in a cage, recorded in timestamped video.

Shawa does not claim to have any answers. Her role, she says, is to pose questions and lead people to think afresh about the problem of suicide bombers. This she succeeds in doing with a serious and seasoned voice that is well worth listening to.

Laila Shawa's provocative exhibition "The Other Side of Paradise" is being shown at the October Gallery in Old Gloucester Road until 31st March 2012. "The Cult of the Suicide Bomber" (2 x DVDs) now seems to be available only as NTSC US imports.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"Easy Rider" in Westminster / Philosophy for All

One of the many dismaying things about getting old is that you re-watch films that you saw forty years ago, and realise that you forgot almost all of the film. When I saw Easy Rider (1969) this evening, there were only two scenes I recalled. The rest of it had lost into the oblivion of dying brain cells. My only excuse is that I was a young teenager at the time I first saw it, watching the film on TV while doing my homework.

One of the good things about getting old is that when you watch films that you haven't seen for decades, you suddenly remember where certain quotations or scenes came from, and the context in which they were made. There was one haunting scene in Easy Rider that stuck in my teenage brain and thereafter defined my concept of what a hippy community was (even though I could not recall in which film I had seen it). Bear in mind that I grew up in middle-class Cardiff and never met any hippies in real life. It was the scene where Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) arrive at a community of townies who had escaped the city and were struggling to live off land that was too sandy to cultivate, and too dry to let anything grow. They had been driven there to escape "the city". (Billy asks which city, but never gets an answer: cities are an undifferentiated horror, so it doesn't matter which city.) The community was impoverished and desperately struggling to survive. As I said, this image stayed with me and formed my concept of the alien life form of the hippy: a being driven by the highest principles that can motivate humankind -- the urge to be free, and to strive to survive causing least possible harm -- but immersed in hardness and bitterness. Socrates' musings on 'the good life' inevitably inform one's reaction to this dichotomy between a hard life of intgerity, versus an comfortable and easy ride of corruption and delinquency. Socrates maintained that the former were truly happy, although the latter felt happy. Which always seemed like a very twisted redefinition of the word "happy".

The other scene I remembered from when I watched it forty years ago was the final and tragic scene, which I won't describe in case you haven't seen the film yet. This, in my teenage brain, served to define conventional society's manner dealing with hippies: exterminate them.

The film was followed by a discussion, led by Anja Steinbauer on behalf of Philosophy for All (PFA). I threw in my tuppence-worth, which was to draw attention to the film's opening song, The Pusher, written by Hoyt Axton and performed by Steppenwolf (who also sang "Born to be Wild"). The lyrics are: "You know I've smoked a lot of grass / O' Lord, I've popped a lot of pills / But I never touched nothin' / That my spirit could kill / You know, I've seen a lot of people walkin' 'round / With tombstones in their eyes / But the pusher don't care / Ah, if you live or if you die / God damn, The Pusher ... /You know the dealer, the dealer is a man / With the love grass in his hand / Oh but the pusher is a monster / Good God, he's not a natural man / The dealer for a nickel / Lord, will sell you lots of sweet dreams / Ah, but the pusher ruin your body / Lord, he'll leave your, he'll leave your mind to scream / God damn, The Pusher ... /
Well, now if I were the president of this land /You know, I'd declare total war on The Pusher man /I'd cut him if he stands, and I'd shoot him if he'd run / Yes I'd kill him with my Bible and my razor and my gun /God damn The Pusher ..." (The third verse is omitted in the film, for obvious reasons.) This song plays while Wyatt and Billy sell a bag of cocaine to a pusher. The money they get from the deal lays the foundation for their bid for freedom: they are escaping the city, to live a life of freedom and ease with the nature, maybe retire to Florida, and doing all this on the back of unknown and unnumbered individuals' addiction to the freedom-destroying drug that they had conveyed. This paradox, I suggested, was what Wyatt meant when he said to Billy, "We blew it, man." Wyatt realised that they had become identical to their own hated enemy. They had become part of the inauthentic destructive machine that puts tombstones in people's eyes.

The PFA discussion in the Two Chairmen pub in Westminster circled around for an hour or so, lurching between the strange world of academic philosophy (Robert Nozick's experience machine and all that jazz) and the cosy world of homespun homilies ("You can't experience happiness without knowing unhappiness"). But it made me reflect anew on the film and its ironic message, which subverts hip culture as well as square culture.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Flicker Phosphenes at the Kinetica Art Fair

The eminent theoretical physicist Richard Feynman famously found followers of the arts to be "dopey". He thought that the arts were a good idea, it was just a pity that the pracititioners and scholars were so dopey. (The arts people got a better reckoning from Feynman than the philosophers did. To him, the entire philosophical enterprise was dopey in principle.) To be sure, Feynman's own notions were sometimes pretty dopey themselves -- such as his idea of particles flying backwards in time. But my intention here is not to challenge Feynman but to draw your attention to how pervasive his view was that the arts were unworthy of serious consideration. Having spent six years in a university engineering department, and six years in a science research department in another university, my firm impression is that there is a very widespread conception of art as an atheoretic field devoid of any fixed principles of valuation, where anything goes, and which is governed by gullible fools who accord inappropriate levels of attention and funding to pretentious activities that really just amount to larking around. On this view, art is just stuff that you put on display, and its only merit is to be clever and fun. The more clever and the more fun, the better.

The Kinetica Art Fair in Marylebone, London, is a crowded display of very clever devices and toys, most of which are great fun. This is an engineer's vision of what 'good art' should be.

This Fair necessarily has its roots in science and engineering because scientists and engineers are, in general, the only people with sufficient grasp of the workings of the physical world to get this kit to work. In contrast to a real art fair, it is pervaded by a sense of flippancy rather than pretentiousness. These devices are not purporting to make a statement about the condition of mankind, or to make knowing self-referential allusions to impossibility of art's saying anything to the postindstrial spectacle. They are just meant to be fun. Mind you, the movies screened at the Fair's mini-cinema are clever only, not fun: in fact, all the ones I watched were soporifically boring, maybe because the film makers were trying to be artsy rather than having fun like the makers of machines were.

The only exception I found was the stall that I actually came to see: Lucia No. 3, the Lucid Light Stimulator ( This is a device made and promoted by Light Attendance Gmbh ( in Austria. It was developed by Engelbert Winkler and Dirk Proeckl, who had both come from Austria to discuss it, along with Maria Lopes, who is based in London (

In principle, it is very simple: it flashes strobe lights in your face, and you watch them with your eyes closed. This induces the well-known 'flicker phosphene' effect. How the brain responds to this varies between individuals and between occasions, but it is common to see the 'form constants' that Heinrich Klüver first reported in the 1920s. It is well known that these are induced by psychotropic substances and many people (eg the late Terrence McKenna) have suggested that they form the foundation layer on which full hallucinations are built.

At the time, I was completely convinced that the machine was shining coloured light. (Well, I had my eyes closed, so I couldn't check ...!) But later, in an email, Maria assured me that only white light is used. I am quite astonished by this as the colours I saw (with my eyes closed) were as clear and vivid as they could be. The shapes and forms were constantly changing but sometimes individual colours would persist for several seconds. And even when the colours were shifting it really seemed as if I was see bright coloured lights through my eyelids. In retrospect it is a bit spooky that those colours were hallucinatory.

I experienced some quite interesting visuals -- for example, spiralling chess-board patterns in which half the squares were bright green and the other half cut awayto reveal a jungle-like scene of tangled chaos. Most of the visuals were grid- or spiral-based. Occasionally I had momentary glimpses of some more naturalistic pictures of desks and office furniture. I sense that one has to enter to into a relaxed and receptive state of mind to get the full images. I am sure I need more than the few minutes on offer to go deeply enough. Maria is arranging sessions for people after the fair ends, so I hope to have a crack at seeing more substantive hallucinations ...

Snapshot of (left to right) Maria Lopes, Engelbert Winkler, and Dirk Proeckl standing in front of Lucia No. 3.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Beirut hostages at the Old Vic Tunnels

Can suffering be entertainment?

Brian Keenan is an Irish writer whose work includes the book An Evil Cradling, an account of the four-and-a-half years he spent as a hostage in Beirut, Lebanon from 11 April 1986 to 24 August 1990. Without Warning is a theatrical dance performance directed by Lizzie Kew-Ross, performed in the OldVic Tunnels this week.

As soon as I saw the notice for Without Warning on the internet, I knew I must see it. Like other long-haul hostages (such as his cell-mate John McCarthy), Keenan was forced into a journey through the inner chambers of despair. How one can remain sane in such testing circumstances? And not only sane but able to write in beautiful prose about it afterwards.

Without Warning takes Keenan's book as a starting point but this was not a portrayal of Keenan's experience. "There is no sense of trying to do an Evil Cradling" said Natasha Logan, the Sound Director, in an interview printed in the programme. But this problematises the reference of the piece. If it is not 'about' Keenan & McCarthy's merciless incarceration, then what is it about? The audience starts off not having an intentionality to latch on to, and has to cast about mentally to find semiotic hooks, but the structure of the piece does not offer any easy resting places for the mind.

There are no seats, no stage, no single focus or evident pattern of placement within the huge space of the Old Vic Tunnels. The action moves quickly from place to place, resting here for a few moments, resting there for a longer time. The audience mill around to catch up, gather around like a cloud of voyeurs around some accident, then melt away and condense in another part of the Tunnels. Which is all very well, but what is this use of space for? If we adopt Stanislavski's maxim that every part of a performance must do some work, we must ask what is communicated by moving the action randomly around the Tunnels? The original experience of Keenan & McCarthy was totally focused on a tiny space for more than four years, but Without Warning almost seems to celebrate freedom of movement, with performers running and jumping with gay abandon. There is so much that could have been done to express 'containment', and yet most of the evening was an experience of liberty instead.

One scene that was scarily effective in touching on the trope of capture and imprisonment was the shepherding of the audience into one corner of the Tunnels by two performers bearing barriers of neon lights. I was with a gaggle of stragglers who got left outside the crush, and I could see the looks of genuine puzzlement, and a hint of concern, and the faces of the herded mass of auidence that revealed the same thought running across several minds, "What, exactly, are they going to do to us?"

In fact, there were several scenes that individually carried an impact, but the impact seemed to get diffused by the dislocation between the pieces. In the final scene, which stays etched in the memory, we watch as a female performer drags herself pitilessly across the rough floor on her back, picked out from the darkness by an intense beam of light. From our viewpoint, she is seen upside down, her face strangely dehumanised in the intense light, as she sings hauntingly into the void, and drags her body across the Earth towards us.

The imprisonment and torture of Keenan and McCarthy was an inhuman acts. Is it a suitable subject for an evening's entertainment? (And what is it about Western civilisation that it needs to be entertained so much?) And if we say this is not 'entertainment' but 'art', are we not just holding up a verbal fig-leaf to hide our embarrassment at our voyeuristic rubber-necking at the horrors of the world? If Lizzie Kew-Ross and her group had put on the same performance with no mention of Brian Keenan and his Evil Cradling, would so many people have crowded into these empty railway tunnels on this freezing night? I suspect not. So, were we there to spectate and feel the thrill of watching suffering? Or to grasp for an insight into Keenan's horrific experience and extraordinary achievement? Or just to bear witness to humankind's struggle to find meaning in a meaningless world? Probably all of the above.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Brain Donation

Do I want to give my brain away? Not right now, I mean, but if and when I die. Do I wish to allow someone to saw my skull open, manhandle my precious brain tissue out of the nest in which it has been living for the past half a century, then slice it and dice it and post pieces of 'brain salami' around the world for researchers and students to try experiments on? Er, no, I really don't want to do that at all, and I don't even want to think about my death, thanks. But ... it seems like the right thing to do.

At an event held this evening, at the GV Art Gallery in Marylebone, three speakers presented the case in favour of brain donation. Dr David Dexter & Dr Stephen Gentleman gave excellent talks on why they want my brain and what they will do with it when they've got it. Not just my brain. Yours too, or just about anyone's.

GV Art at 49 Chiltern Street ( has a current exhibition entitled 'Trauma' -- physical and mental trauma in a broad sense of the term. One of the exhibits is supposed to be a representation of a pedestrian hit by a car, which is the kind of thing that the word 'trauma' first brings to mind. But the exhibition spans pretty much everything else that can go wrong with our frail human minds and bodies -- cancer, madness, viruses, senility, nerve degeneration. The yuk factor in the exhibition is surprisingly low. One set of exhibits, Luke Jerram's glass sculptures of viruses, are exquisite in their delicate beauty. The one exhibit that ought to be disturbingly and desperately messy -- the road traffic accident or RTA -- is almost perversely sanitised. I gather that people of an older generation were fond of the motto "always wear clean underwear, in case you are knocked down by a lorry". Even when dead, it was a matter of pride to be found to be wearing clean undies. Unfortunately the first thing the body does when it dies (and often even in acute injury) is to relax the smooth mucles and let the urine and faeces out. But don't worry, David Marron's dead pedestrian has clean pants. Marron sublimates the savagery and unspeakable ugliness of a car accident into an abstract conceit resting on mythology and wordplay.

Visceral yukkiness is again sublimated to an intellectual frisson of taboo-breaking in Andrew Krasnow's scupltures made of (bloodless) human skin. GV Art is exhibiting his sculpture of a human, made of human skin. The front desk is selling a book on Krasnow's work, featuring an interview of Krasnow by Bella Land and Jonathan Hutt, which is worth reading.

Even the subject of yanking out people's brains and slicing them like loaves of bread on a lab bench is handled in a matter-of-fact way at GV Art's panel discussion. Dr David Dexter, Scientific Director of the Parkinson's UK Brain Bank, started by giving us a summary of the war against Parkinson's Disease. More people have Parkinson's than you would think. (Take a guess, then add a zero to the end.) The good news for the lower animals is that they never get Parkinson's and so they are not going to get roped into lab exeperiments to do research on the disease. Only human brains exhibit Parkinson's, and so quite obviously the scientists need shedloads of human brains to poke around with. Thank heavens we live in a society (at least, we do in England) where human vivisection is not allowed. So the only human brains that the research labs are going to be able to use are yours and mine when we've popped our clogs. Next with the mic was Steve M Gentleman, Professor of Neuropathology in the Department of Medicine at Imperial College, who calmly told us about being woken up at 2 am by distraught and bereaved relatives who nevertheless had suffcient presence of mind to call up the brain donation hotline and offer their loved one's freshly deceased brain for dissection. As he said, you get used to it. Kind of. These two speakers who work at the bleeding edge of brain research gave clear and informative talks. The panel session was rounded off by Caroline Browne, Head of Regulation at the Human Tissue Authority, who read from her notes about the legal control of the bits and pieces of body that may be taken from our carcasses when we shuffle off the mortal coil.

Then there was the Q&A session, generously lubricated by a good red wine courtesy of Robert Devcic, the proprietor of GV Art.

I am intrigued by the disconnect between our experience of human consciousness in all its glories and miseries, and the utterly prosaic lump of tissue "with the consistency of cold porridge" that occupies the space between our ears. What, I wondered, did the speakers, who deal with harvested brains in their daily routines, make of this conceptual dissonance? I opened the Q&A by throwing these sensible speakers a question about that old philosophical curveball, the human soul.

"Many people", I said, "believe in something called the soul, which dwells in the human body. And because of this soul, the body is in some sense sacred. The brain is supposed to be the seat of the soul, and hence is sometimes thought of as especially imbued with a sacred and numinous quality. Do you believe in this? If so, how does it impact your work in harvesting and mutilating brains? If not, how does that impact your dealings with prospective donors and the bereaved relatives of donors, who may have such religious beliefs?" Why do people squirm at such an obvious question? Maybe it's the great scientistic ideology that any part of a human being that you can't see under a microscope is a mythical nonsense left over from the Dark Ages.

The speakers gamely fielded the question. David Dexter made the interesting observation that in parts of Africa brain donation is non-existent because of the pervasive believe that the brain contains the soul and must be buried with the body.

What I found interesting, but as a philosopher disappointing, was that the dialogue on the soul and sacredness of human tissue was immediately segued into the dialogue on consent. The thinking seems to be: if the donor has given written consent then our legal arses are covered and the ethics committee can tick its boxes. Numinosity is not on the agenda for discussion. Consent, however, is just bare minimum to ensure that medical scientists don't trample on the sensibilites, sentimental or religious, of the prospective and actual donors. It deftly sidesteps the question of whether human remains are sacred and intrinsically deserve a kind of respect not accorded to, say, a tissue culture grown in a Petrie dish.

Stephen Gentleman was the most explicit about this. "Look", he said, "I don't know what the soul is supposed to be but whatever it is, it's not in a dead brain."

This is a pragmatic compartmentalisation of thinking and sentiment. On the one hand, we need to do research on the brain otherwise we will not make much headway on Parkinson's. On the other hand, as decent human beings we need to treat living people as having an inexplicable right to dignity. So, let's just agree not to look too closely at the awkward twilight zone of the no-man's land between life and death. We have one way of relating to living human beings, and another way of relating to dead brains. Let's just leave it at that, right?

Philosophers, however, just can't leave conceptual dissonance alone. They are drawn to it as if to a "splinter in the mind". Like a Necker cube that seems to switch between concave and convex, the problem of the brain may oscillate in our mind between diametric conceptions. On the one hand, we project the full sensorium of human experiences onto the brain -- the sound of a violin, the taste of wine, the feel of a caress, feelings of joy and rage -- all of that is thought of as residing in the brain, which makes the brain a very special lump of matter, one might even say magical. On the other hand, the neuroscientist who rips a brain apart with a scalpel, dyes and scrutinises its fine structure under a microscope, and correlates its defects with behavioural problems, reassures us that it is just 'plain vanilla' matter, albeit built within infinite intricacy.

Those two perspectives cannot both be right. Furthermore, when we factor in the moral dimension, the gulf seems unbridgeable. For if the brain were just a lump of matter, why would we ever care about it, in the way that we care dearly about human beings? For according to the scientific orthodoxy, a human is absolutely nothing but a meat machine: you and I are just physical objects moving around under the rigid control of laws of biophysics. No free will or consciousness: just an assemblage of tissue acting and reacting to stimuli. It makes no sense to think that it is wrong to do violence to an assemblage of tissues activated by electical pulses, or that we owe any duty of care to such a meat machine. The only excuse for ethics in such a worldview is the principle of enlightened self-interest: don't hurt other people as they might hurt you back. It is a joke to even label that squalid attitude as a 'morality'. The fact is that unless we ascribe a spiritual or sacred dimension to a human being, there is no basis for any framework that could meaningfully be described as moral. And yet, and yet ... when we pull a human body apart all we find is tissue.

David Dexter made a very revealing answer to a later question. The two men were asked by Robert, "Have you filled in the form to donate your own brains?" We were surprised that the answer was no. As a matter of policy, staff who work in the brain bank do not offer their own brains for donation whilst working there. The reasoning is that Dr Dexter's colleagues might find it upsetting to have lunch with him on Monday, and on Tuesday morning to be sawing open his head and scooping out his brain for slicing up. But if it's just a mass of tissue, why would that matter? If he had donated his hair or fingernail clippings, nobody would raise an eyebrow. But to have in your hands the brain of your friend and colleague ...? Yuk!


In case you're wondering ... yes, I did bring home the brown envelope, and I will be giving away my brain.