Portfolio: Patricia L. Boyd
HM Prison Maze was a penal establishment in County Antrim, Ireland, known colloquially as Long Kesh or Long Meadow. Maze was a complex of buildings, configured as cellular ‘H-blocks’, in which Unionist and Republican paramilitary prisoners were interred during nearly 30 years of the Troubles. It was in these H-shaped blocks that a series of protests by IRA and INLA prisoners took place over the course of five years: in 1976 the blanket strike, in 1978 the dirty strike, and finally a hunger strike in 1981 during which ten men, aged between 23 and 30, died of starvation.
Drawing from photographic images of the prison, that in the early 1980s were hardwired into any news-follower’s consciousness, Rita Donagh’s painting, Long Meadow (1982), presents Maze from an aerial, militarized viewpoint. The avoidance of human depiction amplifies the fact that these structures were purpose-built specifically for the incarceration and control of human bodies.
In the painting the H is used as a mark of graphic authority that organizes the work, a cellular unit that is repeated. The gridded ordering of these units engages the square-shaped canvas as a holding device – both compositionally as well as in terms of its bearing on Irish history. The prison structures are considered from a plan view, as thin red outlines superimposed on top, and as a sublayer of ghastly apocalyptic isometric projections hovering in space, surrounded by thin layers of paint marks that resemble thunderous clouds. The actual buildings these forms relate to held within them not only bodies, but ideological questions and conflicts with grave historical, political and personal consequences.
Donagh’s abstractions of the prison’s architecture cannot report on what is happening inside, but through our encounter with her painting’s amalgamation of cartographic representation, abstraction, reduction and seriality, we are tasked with questioning the authority of representation itself. ‘History’ is but one form of representation.
‘Domes soar to great heights and span vast spaces – their inspiring form is reserved for society’s greatest buildings.’ So says the official visitor website for the Capitol in Washington, visitthecapitol.gov. The dome in Pope.L’s Small Cup (2007-08) is small and flimsy rather than statuesque, and is built from cardboard, peanut butter and seed. Its ‘demos’ is a squawking flock of chickens and goats, that runs frantically around and tramples on the structure, oblivious to its symbolic connotations, pecking at it until it collapses. The video, which itself is formally wild with strange and dramatic cuts between shots, presents a carnivalesque debasement of the ideological armature of the state – its superstructure – leaving a somewhat unnerving absence of order in the chaotic aftermath.
I came across this depiction of an interconnected matrix of bio-imprisonment in a recent reprint of V. Vale’s first RE/Search ’zine. It depicts a constellation of the various new signs we live under, as named by Ballard in an accompanying story: the Polaroid, the Stripper, the Psychiatrist, the Computer, the Hypodermic, the Psychopath, the Clones, the Vibrator, the Cruise Missile, the IUD, the Radar Bowl, the Astronaut. Ballard’s update on the signs of the zodiac was a late ’70s imagining of the 2000s.
Counterculture in the US may have died, strangled by dramatic increases in the cost of living and other violent blows from the neoliberal machine, but even now in the second decade of the 2000s, V. Vale – editor and self-described amateur anthropologist – continues to amass, publish, and distribute interviews and books relating to subcultures and other ‘underground’ ventures, from a rent-controlled loft in San Francisco. The very same loft where Marian Wallace, Vale’s wife and collaborator, turned her video camera on Burroughs in the 1980s, subsequently editing the footage into WS Burroughs on the Human Condition (2007).
In a museum dedicated to a chronological display of achievements made in the history of computing, this is an unlikely exhibit. As a friend of mine commented sarcastically when she saw this photo, ‘The bean bag: vital technology’. But I guess we should take seriously the fact that ‘soft’ architectures also operate as forms of control, and Silicon Valley’s innovations in office design have made a profound effect on how our leisure time and activities are co-opted as valuable assets for corporate capital.
1970s Systems Theory and the hippy counterculture’s ecology of interconnectedness (e.g. The Whole Earth Catalogue’s ‘Unanimous Declaration of Interdependence’) seem to be important backdrops for the currently thriving cottage industry in cultured and pickled foods. What pioneering medics are calling the ‘microbiome' (with its regrettable tendency towards dysbiosis) is likely at the root of a range of chronic ailments that 21st century bodies are afflicted with. The colonies of bacteria and yeast in our gut, so we are told, are responsive to what we eat and to the environmental conditions we inhabit. We ingest just by breathing and within us grow scobyscapes that reflect the world outside. Even at a microscopic level we are never outside the systems that enclose us. But the transit goes both ways. Sandor Ellix Katz, the High Priest of wild fermentation, urges us: ‘moving towards a more harmonious way of life and greater resilience […] means taking responsibility for our shit, both literally and figuratively.’
How many ways can a body be bound? Hands reach from a space ‘outside’ the edge of these frames-within-a-frame towards torsos, which are wrapped in bands of ruched fabric. Composition is a form of binding.
Christina Ramberg’s sketches seem to document different ways of testing how a body presses up against, and is enclosed by, a frame’s edge. It is unclear if the hands are pulling the fabric aside, or sliding in under it. One of the sketches, one drawn without the encasement of a rectangle, shows a hand penetrating a vertical slit opening into the middle of a torso. The slit reaches from solar plexus to navel. Are the rectangles, and their contents, windows (holes) in the sheet of paper? The enclosures around these bodies are tight, and through their repetition across the page, these small sketches more than anything rehearse the idea of a boundary as an extreme limit, and therefore as something to transgress.
Point of view or PoV is standard cinematographic jargon for a shot that is presented as representing what is seen by a character within a film, the audience ‘seeing’ through the eyes of that character. I took this photograph while I was waiting in a hospital bed in preparation for surgery, just before being anaesthetized and put to sleep.
The cross marks a target for incision; the point it describes is at once theoretical and actual. After a certain interval following the moment the photograph was taken, the compositional qualities of the cross were superseded (and complemented?) by its function as a signpost, a mark that directs the knife. This, here, is where to cut.