in Features | 05 MAY 04
Featured in
Issue 83

The mind's eye

Luke Fowler

in Features | 05 MAY 04

What do you mean, limits? Confucius once remarked, 'The way out is via the door. Why is it that no one will use this method?' William S. Burroughs was in agreement: 'The way out', he said, 'is the way through.' But what's on the other side? What form of theological revelation or cosmic enlightenment awaits us? What if there is no other side or way out? When, for that matter, does the exit point reveal itself? Perhaps all that exists is what goes on between you and me. Maybe there's just the way through. What you see is where you're at.

Sign and symbol alone is sane
Luke Fowler makes films, among other things. Loosely, you could describe them as documentaries, although their approach to the forms and conventions of the genre are as densely layered and ambiguous as the subjects they excavate. For some years he's also been running Shadazz, a record label producing compilations of recordings by various bands from his home town of Glasgow. Fowler's work has embraced social experimentation too: small laboratorial exercises for local communities that feed from and redeploy methodologies hailing from the more radical fringes of 20th-century social theory and design. He is enthralled by secret pasts, by the clandestine or undocumented. Content and classification, dissemination and reinterpretation - he deals with the slippage and elasticity of history (I suspect he is a historian at heart). The work is both its own information repository and its own archiving system; his films reawaken the past in a cavalcade of ambiguous re-imaginings. Tools milled by idealists and once thought obsolete are dusted down and brought back into commission.

The problem is, what's in the box? Data, information, language?
Fowler has made two films to date: What You See is Where You're At (2001) and The Way Out (2003). Both have a diaristic quality, a Super 8, 16mm, digital, snapshot, hand-drawn riot of archival footage that pounds across jump-cuts, glissando dissolves and ocular non-sequiturs. Their syntax mines a similar cinematic seam to that explored by documentary filmmakers such as Jean-Pierre Gorin, Jean Rouche or the Dziga Vertov Group (with whom Jean-Luc Godard was associated). They are infused with a lyricism redolent of, say, Glitterbug (1994), Derek Jarman's elegiac serenade to friends loved and lost. Fowler's films speak in the same register as their subjects, as sensitive to their delicacy as they are ebullient in spirit.

Temperance looks at the camera
What You See is Where You're At, made almost entirely from period footage, examines the work of maverick Glaswegian psychoanalyst R.D. Laing and the radical Kingsley Hall experiment. Laing was a prominent public figure who campaigned with an evangelical zeal for a more humane and sympathetic attitude to the mentally ill. His book The Divided Self (1960) challenged established attitudes to psychiatric disorders, highlighting society's own role in exacerbating the problems of the mentally fragile.

Established in a ramshackle building in London's East End in 1965 by the Philadelphia Association (a network of people - including Laing - devoted to developing alternative methods of helping individuals suffering from psychiatric illness, particularly schizophrenia), the Kingsley Hall community sought to provide asylum in the proper sense of the word: a place of refuge, a safe haven for those at the end of their tether, whose struggles with themselves were causing bewilderment or torment, or who were experiencing, as one Kingsley Hall resident gently put it, 'a different coherence'. They sought to challenge institutional methods of psychiatric treatment - straitjackets, padded cells, electro-shock therapy and tranquillizers - replacing them with an environment where residents would be given the freedom to live through and talk about their breakdowns.

The Philadelphia Association was at that time as much of a force within counter-cultural circles as it was in the world of psychiatry, where its unorthodox practices violently divided medical opinion. It staged the famous Dialectics of Liberation Congress at London's Roundhouse in 1967, and creative people were as much a part of the Kingsley Hall community as professional psychoanalysts and therapists.

At first glance the warren-like interiors, cheesecloth fabrics, preponderance of facial hair and commune-like atmosphere evoked in What You See look much like any other late 1960s squat. It's only when the physical behaviour and confused monologues of the hall's inhabitants are revealed that it becomes apparent this is no hippie love-in. For all its claims to inclusivity, the counter-culture was perhaps just as trammelled by body fetishism, fear of illness, difference or ugliness as the moral majority it sought to confront. What You See documents those fractures and fissures that were always going to undermine the Aquarian dream. Kingsley Hall was perpetually cracking and permanently out of sync, yet brave, radical and benign.

Temperance in reading when there's guests in the house
David Bell was a resident of Kingsley Hall who suffered from a history of psychotic disorders. Described as a highly intelligent, sensitive man, he was well versed in communication theory. His texts and slogans, which he attached or wrote directly on to the walls of the residence, become the focus for the final part of What You See. As if echoing something yet to happen, they form a chorus, burnishing and silvering Fowler's evocation of Kingsley Hall: 'Archetype herself has herald', 'Black velvet in symbol', 'Evil eye is source', 'Faithful yet with beast', 'Temperance looks at the camera'. They also punctuate the words you read here - subheadings which shape my responses. Making a different sense of Fowler's asyntactic visual language they work in parallel as an associative form of reading, one which provides an alternative lucidity to more conventionally descriptive words.

Human reporter as clay
Fowler's documentaries leap excitedly from point to point, across a web of links, rather than following a linear train of thought. Digression is used as a mechanism to convey complex criss-crossings of people and places. The form of these films is their own argument. Types of film stock (grainy 1970s Super 8 or the pixellated precision of digital video) signpost points in time. Quiet electronic burblings subtly underscore them and direct the viewer towards conversational passages. Where much 'documentary art' confuses mere reference with content, believing it's sufficient simply to annex something interesting in the world and claim it for itself, Fowler goes further. The films speak from the very core of the subject, shunning the dispassionate perspective of 'objective' reportage. They are formed as if built around an armature in the shape of the subject, rather than by constructing a separate observation post adjacent to it. In this sense they are exercises in historiography - the practice of history itself.

Black velvet in symbol
The Way Out is a portrait of another charismatic individual: iconoclast and underground legend Xentos Jones, the man behind such musical endeavours as Die Trip Computer Die and The Homosexuals. In contrast to the careful manner in which the sensitive matter of mental illness is treated in What You See, the tone of The Way Out is one of psychedelic exuberance, a deranged volley of bonkers wit triggering associations virtually frame by frame. Home movie footage is spliced up against interviews by turns comic and serious, which themselves spark off what look like scenes from deliberately bad art films or lost gems of experimental cinema. At times the film seems to be a fictional conceit, some kind of Pythonesque jibe at over-earnest rockumentaries or obscurist record geeks. At other points the sheer disorientating language in which it speaks reminds the viewer again that this film communicates in unison with its subject - deliberately obtuse, bolshy, never giving ground to anything or anyone it doesn't respect or believe in, those the film describes accuses of being 'all youth and trousers'. A highly aestheticized exercise, The Way Out is pure baroque bloody-mindedness. 'Tiny Revolutions' - the title of the final piece of music on the film's sound-track - says it all. As in What You See, this is about the importance of making an effort in the world, no matter how small the gesture.

Be dear crazy loud
The singer imitated the tape.
What do you mean?'
A salvo of recorded glitches and misfiring noises filled the room.
'What do you meeeaaaannn?'
The singer's voice mocked the pre-recorded voices.
'Limits? What limits?'
The singer took the roles of both participants on both sides of the conversation. The threatening wall of sound continued, rumbling and building like a distant storm which never arrived.
'What do you mean, limits?'

Fowler, musician P6 and artist Sue Tompkins' recent performance Be Dear Crazy Loud (2003), at Glasgow's Flourish Studios, took a found tape of a violent argument between a domineering mother and her schizophrenic daughter (who was undergoing Laingian psychotherapy) as the starting point for an intense and confrontational audio work. In separate soliloquies Tompkins and P6 extracted and built on the argument, swapping and confusing the roles of mother and daughter, while Fowler sampled and processed background noise or slivers of words here and there. The performance functioned more like an explanation or commentary on the tape than an artistic transformation of raw material. Like the films, it sought to sing in key, in polyphonic harmony alongside its subject as opposed to building over or smothering it.

Your dreams, they melt in the sun
According to the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, in order to understand something we must understand the system to which it belongs. He described this as being an 'ecology of mind'. Fowler's work is an attempt to form a picture of the unobserved ecologies that interest him. His films recognize, allow and support contradiction. They do not know the way out, but they embrace the way through as the only way, what Laing would call 'knots' - the bewildering twists, turns and convolutions inherent in all our stories and relationships.