Nick Finegan is standing in white vest and white pants that scrunch at the back, gazing at himself in a small broken mirror through orange glare sunglasses. The mirror is attached to a pillar which blocks him from the two walls he’s constructed in front and behind, each a full-length mirror. I see myself in those, infinitely reflected, reaching into unknown space. Beside him is a desk and a chair; on the desk a book of poems by Dennis Cooper, a mobile phone, a laptop, headphones plugged in, a can of cream soda. The mobile is on and I lean in to read the message: a password and a note, ‘Just don’t look me in the eye.’
Nick stares straight ahead, scissors raised, cutting at the straw blonde wig jammed beneath his baseball cap. Flakes of hair float to the ground, soft, so soft. Another snip and a clump of hair falls, thump in the silence. Or maybe that’s my fretting heart. I’m wondering if there’s an invitation here: to open up the laptop lid, type in the password, slip on the headphones, listen, watch. If there is, I don’t know if I can do it.
I no longer remember when I first heard about DC’s, whether it was in something Chris wrote or a story he told me, but – despite knowing how important Dennis Cooper and that blog/community have been in Chris’ life – I’ve studiously avoided reading it. Without quite knowing where this has come from, I have an abiding impression that it’s full of pornographic images and stories of cannibalism and serial killers, and so basically I’m scared: that it might be too graphic, too violent, too horror-movie-nightmares-brain-scarring for me. But it’s the night before rehearsals start on Weaklings, “inspired by and loosely based on” the blog, and I figure I’d better bite the bullet. The first post I open has a stream of gifs, a concatenation, image after image; I can’t take in their content, I’m so blinded by the flickering, jitter judder jitter judder, crackling down the screen. I click through post after post, overwhelmed by the volume of material, its accumulation and juxtaposition, pages from an exhibition catalogue, youtube videos, snippets of text culled from the internet, photographs, more gifs; I catch John Waters’ name and smile, start to read some text but get lost, attempt to navigate a long essay on tunnels. Tunnels. I have no idea what to do with this.
Autumn 2012. I’m in Jonny Liron’s studio home in a warehouse in Seven Sisters, a moment of acknowledging the gap between who I wish to be (reckless and brave, roughshod, carefree) and who I actually am (strait-laced, quiet, obedient and shy). I’m here for what is a rare and, as it will turn out, close to final public performance by Action one19, a five-year collaboration between Chris and Jonny that I think of as the dark side of Chris Goode & Company’s moon. The audience lean against three walls; at the fourth, Chris sits at a desk, reading page upon page of sexual fantasy. A performance space is marked out by a square of tea-lights, a boundary Jonny mostly disrupts. In the sparseness of the room they glimmer like fireflies; something burns in Jonny, too, as he flexes, dances, thinks his way through the words. At one point he jerks off, an uneasy action, his cock uncooperative, unresponsive; but Jonny forces himself onwards, until he finally comes in a few sticky spurts. Watching him, there’s a part of me that feels weirdly like I’ve transcended time and actually this is the 1960s or I’m watching the archetype of performance art, and there’s a part of me that wonders what on earth my mother would say if she knew, and there’s a part of me acutely aware of Jonny’s vulnerability, pushing through like that, in front of us. I’m conscious, too, that Jonny is frequently naked and Chris always clothed. Jonny picks up a tea-light and drips hot wax on to the delicate white flesh of Chris’ forearm as he reads. A punishment, a recognition, a rebalancing, a response. Chris winces but barely falters.
The words he recites express a violence I’ve rarely if ever encountered. I read stuff that glanced in this direction at university – The Story of O, excerpts from Sade, Nancy Friday’s collection of women’s fantasies, which gave me the enduring image of a woman sucking off a man while his excited dog paws at the door, eventually erupting into the room to fuck her simultaneously from behind – but nothing as lurid, or abject, or dangerous as this. What I retain in my memory, almost three years on, is a shadowy impression of distortion and distension, a scripture of ravaged flesh, people begging to be hurt and humiliated in ways I can’t comprehend. There is a religious quality to their desire, or perhaps it was in the framing texts; I’m aware of the presence of Jesus, and a longing for God’s heat, so much so that this work shifted something for me in how I thought about GOD/HEAD, the show Chris performed earlier that year, clarified the sexual ecstasy scratching in its veins. Chris later (and who knows, maybe at the time – I’m not as comprehensive in keeping up with how he talks about his work as maybe I ought to be) wrote that he “can’t easily separate God out from S&M”, which was the aspect of GOD/HEAD I mostly glossed.
As anyone with even the mildest relationship with self-harm knows, there is a transcendence that can be achieved in the rending of skin, a click in the brain, a brief flood of purifying joy. Jouissance. But for me, this has never had any relationship with sex; when I do relate pain and sex, it’s always within rape narratives, whether media-reported or fictional or those I imagine, myself at the centre, being dragged from the street to be broken and splayed by another man’s will. The Infancy Gospel is inhabited by people for whom pain, sex and rapture are interwoven, interdependent, and at some level, their desires repulse me. But they also make me question: what does that mean? How are notions of disgust constructed, who delineates the impermissible, who is responsible for this other, socially acceptable violence, that polices desire and condemns transgression? At some level, their desires re-pulse me, make my heart blip nervously as I accommodate their extremities. They inspire the oddest feeling: it’s not compassion, nor is it solicitude; I don’t think it quite reaches respect. Perhaps it’s one of trust: trust in their ability to know and care for each other and themselves.
Maybe it’s not the words that do this, but Jonny, semi-naked before us; hearing his breath, tracing the outline of muscles in the shifting light, watching him dress and undress, and dance – oh the dancing – apparently it was a routine from Michael Clark but I didn’t know that either, I just knew the tremors, the frustration, the reaching of that dance, the freedom and constraint. Maybe it’s his charisma: the same charisma that holds me as he starts a fire in the centre of the room, taking sheets of paper from Chris’ desk and holding them to the tea-lights until they flare, bringing a pile of clothes (whether his own or performance costume, I honestly couldn’t tell) and adding them to the flames, until the whole thing catches so effectively that it proves difficult to control. For someone who has never lit a lighter because the proximity of flame to finger is more than I can countenance, it’s a scene of throat-constricting volatility. Sparks whorl and Jonny beats the flames and for a few terrifying minutes it seems everything he owns might be consumed. On the wall behind me, in thick black letters, the words “capitalism ends here”. Here, in this unquenched fire, in these recalcitrant flames.
Sitting in the antiseptic white rehearsal room with the Weaklings group, I discover that the sexual fantasy texts have a name, “slave posts”, and make regular appearance on DC’s. Or perhaps it’s a rediscovery; perhaps I knew it at the time, and that’s why I’ve so strenuously avoided DC’s.
Chris Brett Bailey sidles up to me with a diffidence that is faintly perplexing and says: “You, uh, dodged a couple of bullets there.” The day before he had read aloud extracts from the work of Peter Sotos, a writer neither of us had encountered before this room, possibly because his subject tends to be the sexual abuse of children, rendered in livid detail. Nick Finnegan describes it as “cerebral self-harm”; all of them are still reeling somewhat. Chris BB, it’s worth noting, is no stranger to literary violence: the description in his show This Is How We Die (which by this point I’ve seen four times and counting) of the accidental decapitation of a priest, in sight of a tiny model Jesus jacking off with vigorous excitement, is no less queasy for being so outlandish. But Sotos, it’s clear, is of another order of magnitude. Karen Christopher describes his work as “a trauma we have to think our way through”: it’s Chris G’s “capacity for fondness”, she suggests, the care for each person’s welfare he builds into the structures of the working day and the room, that creates the possibility of intellectual stimulation in the shared encounter, relieving the sense of burden. But she also wonders how different the Sotos writing is, in thematic terms at least, from such pop-cultural staples as crime and detective dramas, especially those dealing with child pornography. They share, she suggests, the same sense of violence; where they diverge is in the sense of the victim.
Her comment reminds me how insular I am. I don’t watch crime dramas. I don’t watch horror. I don’t watch porn. I don’t look at images of dead children washed up on a beach when they are circulated for a day on social media; nor do I read columns or blog posts by people opining on why it’s wrong or why it’s necessary to circulate these images. I’ve stopped buying newspapers and avoid listening to the news. The world around me is saturated with, suffocated by violence; I keep as much of it out of my life as possible. Nothing else is tolerable.
I click back on DC’s blog. As ever, what opens first is a permissions page: to read on I first need to click the box that says I understand and I wish to continue. But am I a consenting adult? Do I understand? Do I wish to continue?
Some bullet points about the internet’s impact on the kind of self we possess…
The multiple self: we present clearly defined versions of ourself in different digital arenas – Eleni can be the woman who works for the ad agency, the girlfriend, the secret girlfriend of someone else, the kickboxer, the Arsenal fan, the Elf in Elder Scrolls Online. Each time she spins the dial round, to select one of these selves, the others don’t just rotate – they reconfigure around the selected self, like electrons in a model of an atom.
The leaky self: When we’re online: “it becomes almost like a fluid, leaking out around us all the time and joining each of us into a vast ocean, or web, of relationships with other leaky selves.” (Margaret Wertheim: The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace). Eleni retweets someone’s epithet, shares her friend’s wedding photographs on Facebook, subscribes to a playlist her boyfriend posted on Spotify: the precondition for all of the above is that other people are prepared to contribute parts of their online life to hers, so she must too.
The scattered essential self: Though each of the selves is constructed there will be one self (sometimes more) selected for the processes of reflection that are available online. People will pour out personal shit on Facebook or Twitter messaging services, or via the closed services like What’sApp and Snapchat. This self will be scattered across analog and digital spaces and consists of all the unguarded and frank expressions they’ve ever uttered.
The branded self: Below the age 35 most people are now maintaining a carefully constructed version of the self, aimed at the two most essential things in life: getting a partner and getting a job. They consciously construct this self – though they may not fully believe in it. To find it look at Facebook profiles, people’s Tumblrs, their profile pics. Eleni’s two iPhones could be one provided by work and another she runs herself: or they could contain two separate lives. A lot of people do the latter.
The Cartesian dualist selves: Wertheim asks, pertinently: “where am I when I am in an immersive online world?” My body is sitting at my computer but my mind is fighting a dragon with 200 other disembodied selves. Though gaming is the condition mostly associated with this, it could be asked of anybody immersed in their tablet or their smartphone. They are newly capable of being in one place and acting in another. The key here is interaction: there are a lot of people on the train “lost” in books and e-books: this is the same as it would have been in 1924. But those who are interacting in realtime with other people can develop a different kind of online consciousness that comes close to the old Cartesian dualism, of the mind and body being separate.
Paul Mason: Wtf Is Eleni Haifa?, Verso blog, 20 December 2014
Nick Finegan is sitting in a chair, positioned opposite the pillar so he still isn’t picked up by the mirrors, listening to garish pop on another phone. I stand between the mirrors, multiple selves reflecting on both sides. Infinite variations and this is the me I settled on. Fuck. I look at the mobile, the laptop, the headphones. I look at Nick’s right eye, just visible behind the glasses. His gaze flickers to avoid mine. He looks unnerved. I want him to tell me it’s OK: it’s OK to open the laptop, it’s OK to encounter what’s there. But he can’t. And I can’t.
Instead of reading DC’s, or Dennis Cooper, or Peter Sotos, I go back to William Blake. There’s a line from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that haunts me, “Enough! Or too much”, but I don’t remember what it’s doing. The Marriage is a prose-poem radiant with wisdom, the queer (in the old-fashioned meaning of peculiar and eccentric) common-sense of someone who sees that society as conventionally organised is basically fucked and obscene and damaging and humans would be so much the better for turning conventional organisation on its head. It is, essentially, the bible I’d gladly subscribe to, an ethos by which I could sculpt my existence, transforming myself into another, better me.
Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Energy is Eternal Delight.
The words are faulty. A slip of the tongue, a catch in the throat, a betrayal of broken thought-processes and I’m gone. I’m snagged on a moment, the memory like a gif, jitter judder jitter judder, flickering across my retina. Someone mentions Uncle Ken, a character in Dennis Cooper’s novel Try, and my head flashes with a story from Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die, of her aged 12 hiding under the bed in the spare room of her family home, listening as her weird and barely tolerated Uncle John sits at the dressing table and cries himself to sleep, repeating over and over the words I’m such a piece of shit, I’m such a piece of shit, I’m such a piece of shit. At home my head spins with a poem by Thomas Moore, a writer who found his voice on DC’s:
I tell you I’m fucked
And I know you don’t get it
I won’t speak again
My mind is roiling and it sounds like this. My brain is fractured and all the loathing that seethes barely contained beneath the surface rises in waves through the cracks. The bruises are back and the album keeps playing and all I want is to burrow into darkness like I used to when I was 20 years old.
And the pain runs into the blue
If there’s ever anyone else, I’ll understand
And kill him
And I’ll overflow your every inlet
You will not cough and spit
You’ll welcome me in
A spark of mordant humour as I remember that the song is called Jism.
Everyone comes to DC’s because in some way they are a fucking terrible person.
Everyone is there because they like reading about people eating each other.
You probably don’t show up on DC’s blog if you’re a mature settled adult because you’d have grouting to do.
It’s quite jangly, this work, quite unsettling. I mean, we’re not adapting Sense and Sensibility, are we?
The poems, the mobile phone, the laptop, the headphones, the can of cream soda.
If it were a book, a diary, I think I’d be OK. I think I could touch it without fear of attack. I’d be able to open it, scan the pages, without feeling so exposed. I’d have a modicum of control. I look at the floor to avoid seeing that endless stream of multiple selves. Nick waits. Tinny pop music disrupts the air between us.
I just can’t.
Dennis Cooper is in the room, on skype. From where I’m sitting, to the side of the screen, he looks like a photo negative, a few sharp highlights slicing through blank murk, face monstrous in its absence of detail. And yet, everything he says humanises him out of my abstract fear. For instance: his favourite band is Guided by Voices. For instance: he thinks 80% of the contributions to the slave posts are fake, and funny, written in humour by people who have claimed to be 18 for at least eight years, for the love of self-dramatisation and the joy of masturbating sort of in public. For instance: he works with gifs as though each were a word or a sentence, using them to push his interests in fiction – the possibilities of form, rather than the surface construction of narrative or character – beyond the limitations of language. And this is absolutely a literary endeavour for him: he uses only found gifs, doesn’t make them because that would be, for him, the work of film-making or visual art. Everything he says reminds me of Paul Mason’s essay Wtf Is Eleni Haifa?, which I read in pulse-racing instalments only the day before, drifting from one queue at Legoland to another, thrilling at its manifesto for how fiction-writing needs to change if it’s genuinely to reflect the internet’s fragmenting impact on the individual human self.
I wonder about those multiplicity of selves. The freedoms they offer, the potential they contain, the contraband desires they welcome and answer. I think about the slave posts and I think about a text Chris wrote during research and development on an unmade dance show, Albemarle, raking over significant moments in his childhood and teen years of feeling estranged from his body, humiliated by the vastness of the gap between how a boy is supposed to behave and what Chris wanted, longed for, dreamed of. What it is to have those longings answered, in pornography, in the sexual fantasy of unknown strangers, splintered from their everyday selves.
I wonder about the selves I occupy online: the difficulty I have performing on twitter, the modulations of tone from this blog to that, the way I rip myself open on my own blog, flooding the screen with blood. I’m still getting my head round what it is to write in this space, this company space, for strangers. What am I performing right now? What self am I here?
Nick sits rigid. I step outside the mirrored space, leave the room, close the door, hold still and breath. If it had been a book on the desk, would I really have opened it? I think about my daughter. How little compunction I feel about rummaging through her room: aged eight now, she is already secretive with her writing and drawing, refusing to show anything in progress and often hiding it when finished, too. And so I go into her room when she’s away and spy. I keep expecting to find signs of hopeless crushes on other children at school, but she’s still an innocent, her fantasies rooted in the possibility of going to Hogwarts and casting spells with Hermione. She spends a day with her grandparents at the former home of William Morris and returns with another new notebook. That night as she sleeps I open it. On the first page is a single, perfect sentence, the only piece of writing it contains.
William Morris had an unusual liking for weasels.
I don’t want violence in my life but then I’m hula-hooping while reading the (brilliant) postscript to a collection of plays by Young Jean Lee and there’s this passage quoted from her play Church:
Then I found some prostitutes and did sin with them, and then I found some pipes and banged the prostitutes on the head, and it was good. And then I wandered through the gutter where there were some chickens lying around and I stuck the pipes right through them so that the blood gushed upwards like a fountain, and I stuck my mouth over the pipe and let the blood gush upwards into my mouth and lift me up into the sky. And I was raised about ten feet into the air by this gushing tower of chicken blood, and I didn’t care. I was floating and free.
And I realise, or remember, I’m kidding myself. This violence is everywhere. Not just in the news I avoid and the TV I never switch on, not just in the inescapable billboards and the cinema I don’t buy tickets for and the books I refuse to read. It’s ingrained in the art I love, too, integral to its texture; it’s innate in my children; it was a part of me long before I first caught myself wishing that someone I knew would just die already. My son sits on the bed prodding at his willy instead of putting on his pants, his bones so fragile they could be snapped in one movement, his genitals small enough to fit into an adult’s mouth, and later he tells me about a game he’s been playing with his sister that involves killing an imaginary teacher because he doesn’t like her and burning down the school because it’s boring, pouring hot lava over it, destroying it with bombs. I am gentle and light in my response but my heart, my heart is obsidian.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.
Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.
Enough! or Too much.
When in shards, I bake. These might turn out to be my preferred Weaklings cake: fairy cakes made with a whole jar of marmalade. Not that orange jelly that passes for marmalade, with barely visible threads of peel; the kind of stuff that’s made by a granny or great-aunt whose gnarling fingers and diminishing patience mean the peel gets hacked into huge, rough chunks. These cakes are soft and sweet when you’re eating them but have a complicated after-taste, a lingering bitterness from the peel that makes your mouth question whether you actually enjoyed them. Which seems about right.
125g caster sugar
a jar of marmalade
250g s-f flour (or 250g plain and 3 tsp baking powder)
100g dark choc chips (72% cocoa)
Beat the butter and caster sugar together until creamy, then beat in the marmalade – you can use a mixer (I did) but don’t use blades or it will chop up the peel pieces and ruin the effect. Beat the eggs in one by one, then stir in the flour and the choc chips. Bake at 170/gas 3 for 25 minutes or so – the lower temperature stops the marmalade getting even more bitter. These quantities made 24 fairy cakes; a cake would need a good hour to bake.
It’s Thursday again, a week after the mirrored room with Nick. I bump into him at Ovalhouse, where Greg Wohead and Rachel Mars are performing a work-in-progress of a duet they’re calling Story #1. It starts with a screening of almost an entire episode of Come Dine With Me, after 15 minutes of which I’m thinking furiously that next time I see Rachel Mars I’m going to fucking strangle her, after 20 minutes of which I’m feeling like a mug for paying £10 for this, after 30 minutes of which I’m convinced that this is the most violent thing anyone has ever done to me. The privilege of that thought is itself toxic.
But then, moments before the programme ends, the screen freezes. Greg and Rachel amble on stage and begin to tell stories, new stories, about each of the contestants involved in the programme. There is a death and a threesome sticky with projectile jism and an account of a serial killing that involves a man being roasted in a pig trough full of hay, his feet hacked off with a cleaver so he fits, his molten eyeball beaten to a froth with a whisk. There is a screening of You’ve Been Framed-style moments from home pornography movies, one repeated over and over until it’s distilled to what might be a gif. It’s everything I’ve been avoiding in DC’s, everything I’ve been intimidated by, everything I’ve been scared to encounter, all packaged up into two hours of entertainment. And I know it’s funny, because people are laughing; I know there’s an exquisitely tuned savage humour at play here. But laughter is clotting my throat and my stomach is folding in on itself and I chew on my hands to quell the nausea.
Outside, the night air is blessedly cool. I run and walk home and think about Pandora’s Box. I have to look the story up because, apart from the central fact of it, I’ve forgotten most of the details. That Pandora – the Greek myth equivalent of Eve – was created to be the wife of Epimetheus, brother of Prometheus, who gave men the gift of fire. That Zeus gave the couple the box as a wedding present. That Pandora didn’t just unleash all the evils in the world when she opened the box; there was something else, buried deep within it, which she lets out, too. And the something else is what we call hope.
I run and I walk and I think again about DC’s and how now, maybe, I’m ready for anything it might want to throw at me.
It’s the first day in the rehearsal room. Karen Christopher asks, in the nicest possible way, what are you doing here? What’s your role? After four years and counting with Chris Goode & Company, I ought to have the answer to that one down pat, but increasingly it makes me fumble. I’m here, I say, to tell stories about the room. And increasingly I’m trying to tell those stories in or through the voice of the room. And I am. But that voice has a long way to travel through the disordered clutter of my brain.
And how am I today? Thanks for asking. Today, for now, I’m more like this: