The product of an editorial process involving multiple personalities, free association and sometimes disorganized thought, Afterall 18 is, perhaps symptomatically, threaded with an element of madness.
The historical evolution and structuring of ‘madness’ as a Western cultural concept was charted famously by Michel Foucault in his first book, Madness and Civilization (1961), in which he proposed that the decline of leprosy in the Middle Ages cast the insane in the role of pariah, finding them expelled from their villages and literally set adrift at sea on the proverbial ‘ship of fools’. Though the existence of these ships and the validity of Foucault’s claim remain in question, there is little doubt that the experience of madness was gradually differentiated and socially unmoored. Foucault speculates that the mad among men were once thought to be closer to God, gifted with sight and capable of pointing out great truths. In Renaissance literature, for example, this was reflected in the archetype of the fool or jester, whose wisdom was disguised by his lack of power. Harmless and entertaining, the fool was free to speak critically because of his position outside the social order. Particularly in Shakespeare, he was often revealed as the voice of reason within a kingdom of chaos.
Sandwiched historically between ‘folly’ and ‘illness’, ‘madness’ is a classification that reflects a change in the social psyche and the introduction of fear of it sometime around the seventeenth century. As a construct set in dark opposition to Enlightened reason, it conjures imagined scenes of chaos and bedlam that put civilised society at risk. During this period, which Foucault termed the ‘Great Confinement’, asylums were built to isolate ‘unreasonable’ members of the population, with no real distinction made between criminals, beggars and the insane until the development of psychiatry and the conceptualization of mental illness in the nineteenth century. If Western culture once believed the mad to be gifted with sight and free to speak truths that would be otherwise unspeakable, Foucault argued that they have since been treated with an isolating and unbreachable silence; ‘The language of psychiatry,’ he writes, ‘which is a monologue of reason about madness, has been established only on the basis of such
a silence.’ 01
The similarities between museums and psychiatric hospitals have long been of interest to Javier Téllez, who, as the son of psychiatrists, speaks of an early recognition of their shared ‘hygienic spaces’ and ‘enforced silences’ that echoes Adorno’s concept of the museum as a mausoleum where objects are isolated, silenced and left to die. The introduction of Téllez and a viewing of his films – including Oedipus Marshal (2006), a Western remake of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex co-written by and starring the patients of a psychiatric facility near Aspen, Colorado – was pivotal to ensuing editorial discussions about collaboration, authorship, alterity, ritual, discourses of power and the intersection of these concerns in the work of Téllez, William Pope.L, Cameron Jamie and Sturtevant.
Artists, like madmen, have also been historically charged with the gift of vision and the ability to reveal potentially transformative truths – and as the perceived social value of these gifts and the nature of the truths they reveal has undergone profound changes, so too has the institutional and social response to them. For Pope.L – best known for donning a Superman suit and belly-crawling up New York City streets, eating the Wall Street Journal and using sausage links to chain himself to a cash point while wearing a skirt made of dollar bills – the performed role of the contemporary madman-cum-moral satirist who calls attention to our ugly presuppositions about race and class is aptly assumed. His work is notoriously, maybe even gleefully, polarising; Pope.L calls himself ‘The Friendliest Black Artist in America’ but it isn’t likely that he intends this to soften the blow. 02 The dark, abnormal fringes of the Americanpsyche are mined in a very different way by Cameron Jamie, who says, of his unusual subjects, that, ‘The creepiest things in the world are always the ones that are considered to be the most normal.’ In his documentary videos of backyard teenage sport and macabre holiday tradition, elements of mask, costume and ritual are central. They are also important to the work of Téllez and Pope.L, and present, though more deeply integrated, in Sturtevant’s lifelong practice of replicating the works of her male contemporaries in a way that might seem flatly ‘unreasonable’ in the face of long established institutional taboos regarding originality and authorship.
In her essay on Javier Téllez, Michélle Faguet describes mimicry as a way to effect the ‘unbinding of a model of subjectivity based on an antagonistic distinction between exteriority and interiority, self and other’.03 This concept echoes within the other texts in this issue, including Dieter Lesage’s essay on the difficulties of cultural integration in the Netherlands and the complexities of the process of becoming Dutch. The Dutch ‘citizenification programme’ provides the resident other with a laundry list of recognised ‘Dutch’ behaviours to be mimicked in the interest of constructing and reinforcing national identity. Taken alongside Ian White’s essay on 9 Scripts from a Nation at War (2007), a ten-channel video installation by Andrea Geyer, Sharon Hayes, Ashley Hunt, Katya Sander and David Thorne that presents a constellation of individual perspectives on the Iraq War, it speaks to a larger Western impulse to silence, perhaps even ‘cure’, the identified other. When Foucault wrote about the Great Confinement, he characterised it as a time ‘in which social outcasts were isolated (and then neglected) in order to protect the values of a mercantile economy’. 04 Though the contemporary response, manifest in the practice of psychiatry, is more proactively focused on treatment and reformation as opposed to marginalisation and neglect, the protected interests remain the same.