Nests, Puke, Frames and Baby Faces

Tom McCarthy on File under Sacred Music

On the third of March this year the Metropolitan Police carried out their largest ever re-enactment. In East London’s Victoria Park, they meticulously recreated the events surrounding the murder of a young artist: movements, conversations, gestures, chance encounters – everything, that is, but the murder itself, which remained nestled in a blind spot. If they got everything else right, their reasoning went, this blind spot would slip into the frame. They even ventured that the murderer himself might turn up, lured there by the prospect of seeing his deed attended to so votively. Conversely, they reasoned that if he didn’t turn up then his non-attendance would produce a glaring inconsistency between the re-enacted park and its original, and thus condemn him in absentia. Either way, they hoped, the Real would out.

At exactly the same moment, two young artists who themselves were no strangers to re-enactment were embarking on their most ambitious one to date. In 1978 the legendary New York band The Cramps had performed a short gig for the inmates of the Napa State Mental Institute. The event had acquired an almost mythical status among music fans, its one piece of documentation, a badly-shot bootleg video filmed on a hand-held half-inch Sony Port-a-Pack black and white camera, circulating for handsome prices on eBay. Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard forked out for a copy, watched it and decided to have it remade, the new, imitative version to be called ‘File under Sacred Music’. A band was assembled, kitted out with guitars, drums, clothes and hairdos identical to those The Cramps had in the video, and made to learn not only the songs but also the inter-track banter and movements round the stage. Iain and Jane had done all this before, with their re-enactment of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’s last concert. But for their new venture, they upped the ante, decreeing that the audience for this re-enactment would be made up of mental health patients, just as the original gig’s had been.

And so it was that a confused gaggle of misfits shuffled into the ICA’s theatre at around noon that day, wondering what was meant to happen next. I’m talking about myself and the other journalists; the mental patients seemed perfectly at ease, tucking into the sandwiches and copious free alcohol the venue had laid on. Their carers had an air of assurance about them too. ‘It’ll be a hoot,’ said Paul, a founder member of Core Arts, a mental health-meets-culture organisation. Paul wasn’t wearing a white coat, and wouldn’t have called himself a carer (terminology’s a hot potato in his field). He had wild, curly hair and baggy jeans. Mark, a mutual friend from the Arts Council, introduced us. The Arts Council had helped fund the event. Mark also introduced me to a rock critic called Everett True. ‘I’ve seen the real Cramps play,’ True said. Gini, a woman I’d met before, turned up. ‘What’s your role here today?’ I asked her. ‘I’m mad,’ she replied. Was the really pretty girl in the black jacket mad too? Maybe she was a Guardian or Art Monthly photographer. She didn’t have a camera. Are you allowed to hit on mad people, or is that exploitation? I held the folder full of press notes I’d been given tightly to my chest, hoping it would ground me somewhere, somehow.

One guy really stood out from the prospective audience members, beer and sandwich hander-outers, technicians, cameramen, journalists and not-quite-sures. He was moving around in a shabby trench-coat, holding in his hand a dictaphone. He would go up to people as though to interview them, but then talk into the dictaphone himself in a loud, declamatory voice, explaining to no one in particular some project of his whose logic I couldn’t make out. ‘That’s Jimmy,’ Paul said, beaming. ‘He’s a riot.’ Jimmy looked like a degraded version of Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks. I go around with a dictaphone quite a bit; lots of writers do. When I slip it out in public to describe, say, a location that I might want to use later, I worry it will make me look like a loony. I always reassure myself by thinking: ‘It’s okay, you’re a writer and you’ve got a job to do.’ Jimmy had a job to do and wanted everyone to know he had a job to do. Just like me, he was there to document something. His dictaphone was like my folder, only issued from a source whose provenance was known only to Jimmy. I remembered an American tourist I’d once seen in South America: a wealthy, middle-aged man who was clearly a) travelling on his own leisure time and b) lonely. He had lots of cameras and, arriving in the main court of Machu Pichu, started snapping at the stones and altars furiously. ‘Let’s get this shit photographed!’ he said, in the style of a war-hardened correspondent, a Hemingway. His behaviour implied a whole scene back Stateside: editors and copy clerks waiting impatiently for his images – people you just knew, and knew he knew too in his heart of hearts, didn’t exist, or at least not for him. Yet he projected them, for comfort. The thought that someone is there to receive your dispatches is always comforting, conferring upon you a place within the system, a nest.

Re-enactment is a mode that’s found some currency in art over the last few years. Plugging into a Duchampian logic by which events become ‘ready-mades’, relocatable and repeatable, it hits several of art’s main buzzers: questions of originality and authorship, the real verses the artificial, the nature of the spectacle, the construction of history and so on. Jeremy Deller has had the miners-versus-police battle of Orgreaves re-enacted. Rod Dickinson has focussed on the cult of Jonestown and the Obedience Experiment of Stanley Milgram. Iain and Jane are the youngest of the practice’s proponents, although they’ve been doing it for the best part of a decade. They work together, live together, even look like one another: large and round, with smiley baby faces. Before the gig began Jane strolled onto the stage to thank people for coming, to remind the mental patients that they would be paid a tenner each and to explain that the event was a re-enactment but they should feel free to express themselves as the mood took them – which, of course, is what the Napa crowd had been doing. Then she stepped down and the band came on. As soon as they started playing the audience, effectively, split into two sections: the mental health patients and carers occupied the main floor, bobbing and dancing, while the ICA staff, film crew and art journalists kept further back. There wasn’t a concrete border between the two groups, but what border there was pretty much coincided with the sweep-range of the video camera, whose operator acted on instructions relayed to him through a set of headphones by the director of photography, who was counting the shots off against a carefully time-coded transcription of the original. ‘Zoom in on drums – two, three, four – and jerk back, across to stage left – one, two, three – go out of focus and then – four, five – up and in on Lux Interior’s face.’ Lux Interior, meanwhile, re-enacted Lux Interior, worked his way through the play list, panting and yelping: ‘I see you on my tv set! I hear you on my radio!’ I can confidently write, just like some awe-struck if verbally ungifted rock critic, that the words seemed to flow not from him but rather through his mouth from somewhere else.

Lux Interior, it must be said, was very good. The whole band were. This isn’t just some vacuous compliment: it made a huge difference to the event. Two different events, two different event-zones, might have been taking place simultaneously, superimposed over one another in the kind of quantum-logic way the real Cramps, fans of trashy sci-fi, would have loved – but the raw power of Zone One, the Orphic gig-zone, made it impossible to remain safely enclosed within Zone Two, the conceptual art zone. At the same time, the very process within which Zone One was framed made Orphic abandonment impossible, for me at least. I felt exhilarated and uneasy at the same time – which is more or less how I felt the first few times I went to gigs aged sixteen or seventeen. This kind of split – in a less loaded context you might call it ‘schizophrenic’ – seemed to have found its way into each moment, every gesture. Lux Interior pulled a member of the audience onto the stage to dance with him. I’d seen the Napa video, and knew that this was meant to happen at this moment. Did it make the action insincere? More insincere that Bruce Springsteen pulling a girl up from the front row each time he sang ‘Dancing in the Dark’ in the large stadium of a new city? More insincere than politicians kissing babies? ‘We heard you people were crazy, but I’m not so sure about that!’ said Lux Interior, also bang on cue. Jimmy was crazy. He’d pocketed his dictaphone and was stomping and charging around, his eyes swollen, maniacal. Hugely volatile, he’d want to fight with someone he’d bumped into, then hug them, then want to fight with them again. Glancing over at him from the steps below stage right was a small guy who shuffled awkwardly around in a dull-green anorak. He had a heavily drugged look, like McMurphy after his lobotomy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

The gig ended. Jane strolled back on stage to announce, baby-faced and smiley, that they would be doing it again in twenty minutes: re-enacting the re-enactment. More drinks were handed out. The tables at the back of the room were moved a few feet forwards. ‘Aha!’ the really pretty girl in the black jacket said. ‘I see what you’re up to!’ Jimmy had started puking on the floor. Photographers circled around him. Noticing them snapping him, he dipped his fingers in his puke then licked them. ‘He’s just playing up for the cameras,’ said Paul. He was right: Jimmy was playing to the cameras. ‘Photograph this, you cunts!’ he snarled, smearing the vomit down his cheek. It reminded me of the moment in the Steve McQueen film Le Mans when a driver’s bereaved girlfriend holds hands stained with her lover’s blood up to the rows of journalists, screaming: ‘Is this what you want?’ I thought about Hamlet acting out the throes of madness for all the King’s spies to see – and also remembered how, for Hamlet, acting mad serves as a cover for being mad. Most of all, I began to re-appraise Andy Warhol’s art career as one long snuff movie. Exotic, self-invented people would fly moth-like towards his camera’s flickering light, or to the metallic-silver starlights of the Factory, yearning to be drawn into the flame, the frame. Almost all ended screwed up or dead. The same ruthless feedback loop between abnormality and representation was being played out across the ICA’s floor.

The re-enacted Cramps kicked off again, with the same set. This time round, waves of recognition rippled through the audience; we were already part of a fraternity. ‘We heard you people were crazy, but I’m not so sure about that!’ said Lux Interior again, again-again. The Cramps played even better than the first time, and the crowd went wild. Everett True let go and started spazzing around on the main floor. He’d found his frame, his nest. Jimmy stage-dived, fought, hugged people, fought more, drank and puked. Beer cans rained down over the band. Jane, just before the second run-through, had asked people not to take their drinks or cigarettes towards the front as it would clash with the original video, but her request was totally ignored. I’d talked to Iain and Jane before about the status of the copy both in art and in experience, and its relation to the notion of authenticity. We’d agreed that copies never reproduce originals completely. ‘The shortfall is where the real emerges,’ they had said, ‘where understanding can begin,’ demonstrating a perfect comprehension of the secret all real artists come to know: that good art always, at some level, fails.

A few hours after the gig, when beer cans and Jimmy’s puke had been mopped away by reluctant ICA staff, the public at large, the sane public, were let in for a panel discussion. I chaired it. It was a disaster. Rock-n-roll train spotters wanted to know whether Iain and Jane had used the ’81 Beta version of the Napa video or the re-released ’84 VHS; art theory people wanted them to declare conceptual positions; sociologists wanted a definition of madness. None of them could talk to one another. The McMurphy guy stood up and said that unless you’d been mad, you couldn’t understand. The audience applauded him. Why? Understand what? Paul told us that he’d worked with lots of mad people and they were great. ‘It’s like a party that goes on all hours,’ he said. Everett True reminded us that he’d seen the real Cramps play live. A French guy accused Iain and Jane of acting like Nazis, treating mad people like animals. ‘We’re not animals!’ a member of Mad Pride shouted at him, complementing this assertion by throwing a plastic beer glass whose contents splattered over the French guy’s face. I tried to hold the disintegrating scene together: ‘So, is madness a metaphor?’ I pleaded with the microphone. Who gives a fuck. The beer-fight was much more interesting. We all went to the bar to re-arm. I got talking to Gini, who turned out to be a member of Mad Pride as well. Is madness one big party, I asked her? ‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s agonising, horrible. But sometimes, just sometimes, you get this amazing freedom: walking down the street, the sunlight…’

Iain and Jane’s position is simple: they are activating an event-field, and activating with it a whole set of aesthetic, discursive, ethical, ideological and you-name-it fields as well. They make no attempt to ‘work through’ or ‘resolve’ these fields, and even less of an attempt at ‘therapy’ or ‘cure’. ‘We’re not interested in foisting on people our own, personal understanding of the questions our work raises,’ they say; ‘our work replays them as unresolved.’ Artists can do this, and should do this, even – especially – when the results are uncomfortable or shocking. Iain and Jane are good artists – very good artists, both sincere and bold. Their work exposes and blows away the limits of the liberal culture whose Prozac-like language they had had to learn to speak in order to get funding and permission to carry out the work in the first place. The Cramps Re-enactment was not an outreach exercise. Like much good, dynamic art it was concocted from a mixture of generosity and exploitation, of dark cynicism and extraordinary innocence. Iain and Jane are barely thirty. If File under Sacred Music is where baby-faced art is nesting, then its eventual monstrous birth will be quite an event.

This text originally appeared in the This Much is Certain catalogue published by Royal College of Art, London 2004