Trying To Swim Upstream
However, today I feel more content that usual. Monday is my Friday and my weekend is Tuesday and Wednesday, and today is Monday today. I feel more content with who I am today. I am not feeling compelled to scrutinise myself when I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the gallery windows. Somehow I am seeing myself as ‘another human’ rather than a ‘ranked’ being in a hierarchical world, where I have to be constantly proving myself. Therefore, I am less frustrated than usual. Maybe this is because I am feeling less strain in trying to swim upstream today? Or maybe I have always been carried by the tide of society, and today it doesn’t bother me too much?
I have to live in denial of certain things just to keep myself ticking over. In fact quite a lot of my breakdown periods are part-caused when my morale isn’t strong enough to pardon me from the aspects of my life I am in denial about. The denial is there because deep down I am aware that my need to be active and productive is far more resource-consuming and counter productive than if I was to sit in a chair and not move, but to write and draw. Nevertheless I scurry up and down trains on the Hallam line (Sheffield to Leeds, via Barnsley train line), buying coffee’s, bottled drinks (if I forget my own bottle, it appears that only safe water can be found by buying a another bottle of water), newspapers to keep me ‘informed’, just to put a couple of hours in on my drawing-work which, in theory, I could do at home. Countless times I have been sat on a train seat coming home thinking to myself “what have I done? All I’ve done is scurried up and down and I’ve hardly done anything”
However, my deep seated doubts about whether my efforts are counter-productive aren’t just there in the physical world (which is largely in terms of my carbon footprint) they are also there in the virtual environment. I have great doubts that my work, and everything else I post on the internet (no matter how anti-consumerist the message is) only adds to the consumer mindscape; adding power to its language rather than attacking it. After all, having your own profile on social networking site’s, no matter if it’s pictures of me with a new hair cut, pulling my prettiest face, or it’s a online gallery of my finest artworks, is just an advertisement of one’s self to the rest of the world before it is anything else.
Although I cannot complain about the mass migration to social networking sites over the past decade whilst I use them also, they are not how I’d wish to communicate, nor would I be advertising my work as such, if society allowed an artist the freedom of not having to fight it out in a sea of people all wishing to be seen/heard – which is, more or less, what the internet is now. I always upload more images of my artwork onto networking pages when I feel less secure about what it is I do, and when I feel under the threat of being slightly devalued as a ‘talented person’; this happens especially at points when I am low on money; these times are when the voice of capitalism speaks louder than one’s own voice. I become part of the mess, part of the ‘Alpha forest’; sticking my hand up into air, desperate to be the one who gets noticed, the one who has something to say; when, in reality, I have possibly discarded my voice by consenting to the global hegemony of rampant individualism.Perhaps I am not as counter-productive as I used to be; I no longer make t-shirts, art and music under The John Ledger package, but I still am essentially a brand. Maybe more reluctantly so than most, but reluctance is a foil for one’s disagreeable inner motives; if some part of me wasn’t stimulated by the chance of receiving a positive comment on Facebook, I wouldn’t even need to be writing this now!
The most inspired works I make, containing explicitly anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian messages, still carry the logo (hidden from view) of one’s self. The leech of stardom/heroism is always present, gripping on to one’s mind, hurrying them on with their urges to make work and “get out it out there (on the internet)”. We cannot bear to make, say or document anything which isn’t intended to be put up before our expanding internet community; and the very nature of using the internet is one of copying and editing our virtual selves in a branding manner with which we have been shown to do from years of viewing the advertising of consumer brands. In light of this is it at all possible for my artworks’, or anybody else’s, messages to be beneficial to their intended causes amongst the virtual crowd?
I managed to quit Facebook in September 2008 after well over 2 years of being largely sceptical about whether there was any benefits – both in terms of being an artist and a creature dependent on social interactions – from using social networking sites. What followed was a period in which I tried to battle what I saw as ‘irrational thinking’. I attempted this by taking my time more, in all walks of life. This included persevering with focussing my attention on things more greatly, instead of flitting around trying to do everything at once, which internet usage encourages especially. I began to read more, and reading it so that I understood it, rather than merely accumulating it in order to stamp my ‘been there; read that’ sticker on it. I could not do this with information on the internet; I find it impossible to focus on anything on the internet.
All seemed to be going to plan; I was contemplating things more, for the better, even furthering the intensity and strength of my artworks. However, then came spring and summer time of the next year, a time when I always feel an aura of social pressure to be “more productive” to show to the world that I am productive, hardworking and deserving. What calmness and composure I have in autumn/winter evaporates as fast as the summer rain. And, in July 2009, I walked back to Facebook; lying to myself, saying that it was just quick peep at what my friends had been doing in the virtual world without me. It wasn’t long before I was feeling the urge to check it every time I was in the house, and it wasn’t long before I was advertising my opinions; “look at me, look what I think about. Aren’t I clever!?”
So here I am now, glued to it again. Will I have the strength to leave again? Well, the voices of doubt in my head say “you can’t leave right now; it may be helping you to get your artwork out there, and in times as financially difficult as this, it is essential that you do that!” Then I get the voice spouting the social benefits, which I am sure everyone gets when worrying whether being on Facebook is a good thing “You’ll lose contact with friends if you quit, people won’t bother to contact you because everybody speaks on here now. Come on! It’s not that bad, you don’t use it that much!”
After I wrote the last paragraph, my train of thought was interrupted by the urge to open up internet explorer and have a quick check up on what’s happening on Facebook. That’s a reaction, not a rational decision, and it confirms that I may have unwittingly found myself caught up in this Facebooked way of thinking again. And this isn’t good, I am compromising what I do and think which is aimed at the real world, and diluting it into virtual miss-mash.
I have learnt to never give in to the pressure to conform, in the hope that it will fulfil the ambitions and desire to be respected. By doing this one loses that small token of freedom they found in that long struggle they went through with the searching they did to try to understand why it was they had these feelings of inadequacy in the first place! – you have gone away, re-found some self-worth but now feel pressured to have it valued by those who actually stole it!
I have to keep telling myself not to feel that I am a lazy artist because I don’t push myself commercially, because I don’t liaise at every art event I can get to. I have to tell myself that deep down I am as artistically equal to them, even as they exhibit in new city spaces as I exhibit in cupboards in the wrong kind of town. The entrepreneur has infected the artist and he is telling him/her that they aren’t good enough/are failed artists if they don’t chase the curators around gallery spaces with red wine in one hand talking over-enthusiastically about works of art which they have no real love for.
I have to tell myself not to feel pressured into become this, as what I am saying, in my cupboard in the wrong kind of town, speaks as confidently about our current era as any other work does. My work shows a massive disillusion with the minimalist post-modern ‘cultural’ spaces, desperate to look ‘professional’ that oil the wheels of enterprise, as if the two (art and business) were the best of buddies. Deep down I know that if my work is rejected by these places, it is a rejection by one infected cell in a hugely ill system, which is looming dangerously close to its own destruction. This is not to say that all artists who ‘make it’ in this society are phoneys, but it also needs to be remembered that those who don’t make it’ aren’t inferior to them.
The implications of living in such a commercially driven society are that one’s personality is chopped, diced, and edited, until it is able to fit in to the slots created by a society that has become more and more generic as commerce prospers in a global community, where the means to distribute information are owned by so few; the pressures to conform to a whole manner of conventions are immense.
One becomes more fearful of being without money, not for the means of survival but for the means to be an active and participative consumer. When money, the lack of it, starts to be a real worry, one finds their minds crammed into the tin can of capitalist thinking. When so much emphasis is placed on personal appearance and one becomes convinced by the illusion that he/she is surrounded by seemingly confident, beautiful, consumer kids, who appear to be better than him/her -no matter how fabricated their new-found persona image may seem – they too find themselves pitch-forked in to the shopping aisles.
High culture, as well as low culture, is advertised in a manner which aims to persuade us that we should be fearful of ‘missing out on an event/being left behind’. Cultural experiences have become a commodity. Those bookworms in Waterstones, (I include my own book hording moments) even those backpackers setting off to tour the great European Cities (and I include my own Berlin trip), are no less immune to the system’s mass persuasions than the boy racer, with his large car exhaust, blue lights and loud speaker-systems, is.
Many who try to find individual empowerment over the suggestions of the system can easily fall short of the mark, as even the accumulation of knowledge/current affairs can become a rat-race. We think we need to be informed about everything, but by setting off on this chase for info, trying to find shortcuts like car drivers in the 9-5 rat-race, a feeling emerges of never knowing enough to feel empowered. We perpetually hand over the reigns to a non-existant leader-like person, who we assume is the worthy possessor of the bigger decisions, and we then channel-in on our own limited choices within. And, yet again, we find ourselves accepting the ruling ideology’s fundamental suggestion that we are powerless little children who need to be told what to do all the time – if we haven’t been told that it’s what we should do, we shouldn’t do it!
These are but a few ways in which freedom of thought is suppressed by the ruling capitalist ideology. The system is against the thinker. Its advances make it increasingly more difficult to have the space to be one. Someone who tries to resist conformity (a conformity which I believe most are troubled by, at some unspoken level of consciousness) can, at times when – as the Joy Division front man Ian Curtis put it in the song Love will tear us apart – “routine bites hard and ambitions are low” feel like they are on the verge of a final acceptance. A place from which they know they will have to put their head down and accept commonly used remarks as truths, in order to save themselves from the despairs, and mental illness’s that trying to swim against the tide of society often inflicts.
The only thing that truly keeps me going, in the long term, is my spells of creative output, whether writing, drawing and painting. ‘Getting it down’ on paper is essential for my well being; in fact I actually feel more myself after doing so. This is because it has become my one method of resistance against the looming despair and final acceptance, and this is due to my years of art college being the years when I began my journey from being a shy, but sentimentally-padded, Stone Roses-loving boy, to a young man, who couldn’t forget the visions of our fragile-civilisation, whilst feeling ever-more socially isolated. This is why creative output became a necessity rather than a hobby.
For this reason, I struggle immensely, and constantly muse over the Love will tear us apart lyrics, when my day job requires all of my time, and I have no time free to do this. I find it very difficult having to follow someone else’s rules, without having the space to exercise my own thoughts. I can only follow someone else’s path if I can make my own rules up as I go along, if I cannot do this I start to lose respect for the person I am, and my eyes start to sag to the bottom of my face, collecting grey mist, and wishing to be excused from the sight of things that could cause friction.
To be able to just pack a bag, and work in a small sustainable community, far enough away from the billboards of the major cities to feel the pull of them would be the best way to avoid a final acceptance without the immense difficulties of battling amidst the thick of it. It has taken me the best part of ten years to turn my paintings and writings from mere splashes of things (of which I appreciate –when done well – by others, but just aren’t me anymore), to the politically direct pieces of work they are now, but I am still not a stage from where I could leave ‘all this’ behind. As I mentioned in my comparison with Brave New World’s society, the ruling ideology’s creation of feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability, if we were to live outside of it, coupled with consumer daydreams, of Disneyesque happy endings, and beautiful non-existent lovers, make it so hard for those of us who even want to leave to be able to do so. Even though it may deliver us more misery than content, it is very hard to think “stuff this, I don’t need it to be happy and safe”. I am finding the idea of ‘letting go’ of these illusions very difficult which is why, for now, I must carry on trying to swim upstream.
So, trying to get through, day to day, the track which I seem to have placed my life on is intense. The only outlets from this intense and over-serious path seem to be dead ends (quite literally, in the corners of a pub or in the refuge of my house, which is on a sleepy cul-de-sac). The intensity comes to a head at countless points within a year, from which the only remedy is a very very early night (12 hours sleep). This is possibly not a route to a final acceptance within itself; it is more a refuelling of me; I am no use for anything whilst I’m sat on train, internally screaming, and externally twitching, from all the noises going off on the train. A point from which everything becomes evidence of ‘the tyranny of Capitalism’ – mobile calls, I pod sounds, even conversation about domestic subjects, causing obvious friction with all around me. The rest-bite possibly helps me reground in sense.
From the rest-bit I will find sense again, but this process will build up and build again and again; (to use the treadmill again) it is like getting on treadmill at a slow jogging space and, very slowly – so slowly that the difference is tiny – upping the speed, until I find myself sprinting so fast that I fall off.
It goes without saying that I have a compulsive personality which, at points during a year will completely take over my life. Compulsive disorders are perhaps unique to people living under a giant global system, which inflicts a feeling of powerlessness onto them. My obsessive patterns really began to take control over my life, when I first started to ceaselessly worry about our (humans’) place upon the planet.
This was in the summer of 2002. I was 18, and there was a story on the news about an asteroid (NT7 2002) which was possibly on course for impact with the earth in 2018. I was on my summer break from college, and I had been a very solitary teen since August 2001; I had decided that solitude made a much more comfortable ride for my teenage self who had constantly found himself the butt of jokes in his groups of friends, because of his low self-esteem, and tendencies to leave himself ‘wide open’ for ridicule (these things happen; all young people do it; if there was somebody more lowly than me, I’m sure I’d have had no quarrels with him being the whipping boy – the friends I fell out with are now some of my best friends again; we’ve all grown). The solitude was an important factor, because you think differently as a loner than you do when you’re a social creature – you contemplate the ‘point of this’ and ‘the point of that’ far more, because you’re completely free of suggestive words from piers.
The news of the asteroid flung open a door to a new way of looking at things, a door which the New York terror attacks of September 11th had previously unlocked for my new-found solitary-self to peer through: Although both were not directly linked to environmental concerns (although I do think that our missiles should be aimed at incoming asteroids rather than at each other) the fear of humankind’s ignored fragile existence on this planet become dominant in my mind. I was possessed by a feeling of utter dread, and there was still no outlet for this fear at this point in my life – I was a massively shy and embarrassed person, with a poor vocabulary. I couldn’t have talked about them with anybody; I didn’t know anybody who thought about these things, I was still in fear (all-be-it irrationally) of the ‘High School mentality’ which would have seen someone who thought about such things as a “weirdo” “pussy” or “gay boy”.
What came were the feelings of utter powerlessness and uselessness in the face of these huge worries I had. This resulted in the ‘revving up’ of a 3-year-old relatively obsessive eating and exercising routine, and turned what had previously been merely a rigidity, which hampered certain social aspects of growing up, into a physically destructive disorder. The ultimate control I tried to inflict on my life was protection against my feelings of powerlessness; the world around me went from being a nice-sounding pop song, to being a whirlwind of chaos. What I did was what countless other people do who develop an obsessive disorder: in order to forget the mad world outside they impose maximum control on their own little world.
My eating disorder took me to a place from were I could physically go no further. I had to go back, hating the fact that my perceived triumphs in my quest to lose as much weight as possible, were all being undone again as I began to put it back on. When you are stood on a weighing scale, observing the fact that you are 8.3 stone, when the machine tells you ‘you are 3 stone under weight, and your mind is saying to you “well done: you’re winning”, you have put yourself under such a controlled mindset, that the possibilities of becoming seriously ill don’t bother you; the mind has closed itself off from the exterior fears, and any walk back into the real world is going to reopen those bad thoughts again.
When the weight was appearing back on me, the only thing to I could do, because it wasn’t possible to go down such a dark route again, was to look for things to blame for what had become of me; and what started out as small sources of irrational finger pointing, such as individual High Schools, eventually grew to associate larger sources as being to blame for my problems. It soon became apparent to me that my Eating disorders were partly caused by advertising, and that soon grew into awareness that the entire system of capitalism was causing all the social and environmental issues which were filling me up with this dread. The asteroid NT7 2002 was not a man-made threat to the planet, nor did Sept 11th have a direct link to climate change, but they had kick-started my visions of the ‘bigger picture’ and the western way of life’s fragile existence within it.
My art work follows this progression like a mirror image; what started off as pictures of unexplainable fears soon became direct pieces of opposition to the system of capitalism. My manic anger with this system, my tendency to bring it into all conversation, is a direct descendent of my control-freak manners which ‘came of age’ when I was 18. It is a voice saying “hey you fucker! You’re trying to kill me!”
I’d like to point out that Eating disorders are as institutional to Capitalism as acorns are to Oak trees; they will only cease when this system of all inequalities ceases to be.
It’s taken me eight years to be able to talk about my eating disorders, in such a casual manner (well except when the jaw-bridge has been down when I’ve been drunk in my early 20’s) and this is because I now see it has just one small part (my life) of the macrocosm of effects caused by the wholly-destructive capitalist system.
The periods of solitude gave me chance to find out my own mind. However, not enough to secure me from the feelings of fear and inadequacy that the mass persuasion, dealt out by the ideology, imposes on me. It is a battle to stop them winning. I can’t go back to being the sentimental teen that I was, but I can still be beaten into submission, and every long spell of depression sends me closer to the final acceptance – as a means to stop the mental suffering of trying to battle against the tide of persuasions to retain my real self. I’d describe the final acceptance as a point where one feels that they can’t fight anymore.
I find that this moment is perfectly summed up within Radiohead’s album Ok Computer; it is combined in the mood of tracks 9 and 10 – Climbing up the walls, and No surprises. For me, Climbing up the walls depicts the build up of one hell of catastrophic breakdown, ending in what sounds like a big machine shutting down – the plugs being ripped out of the ‘paranoid android’. The shut-down, is followed by the soft but fragile and morose melody of No surprises…. “A heart that’s full up like a landfill. A job that slow kills you…………I’ll take a quiet life a handshake with carbon monoxide”. All hope has gone; all that can be asked for is a life mute to all outer-possibilities, ambitions and worries, and just hope for a slow-painless ride until death. The system has won over a possible dissenter, not by direct force, not by a threat from the secret police, but by a life-long mental bombardment, which he has finally succumbed to.
The transition from the giant breakdown in Climbing up the Walls to the final acceptance in No Surprises is, for me, one of the greatest ever musical moments, and it speaks about the difficulties of life in our modern urban/digital worlds solely. On a personal level, this moment, possibly speaks to me about my life more than any other piece of music. It describes how my own last stance as an individual would feel, before I was finally ‘nailed down’.
I suppose one possible reason for the larger and more cataclysmic crashes of my late 20’s is that I have become a much more complex and questioning thinker than I was when rushing about in my endorphin-hooked teenage years. What I have tried to do since is to run a far more complex and intricate machine at the same speed as a much less intricate, much simpler, machine. Sometimes it can cope. But if the heat is kept on far too long, it is only a matter of time before a mind trying to be deep and complex, whilst running at express train speed, will shatter into small useless pieces with no energy stored left in them. After a crash, I pick my body back up again by running, getting the blood flowing again. This encourages a ‘fresh start’ with my art, my reading and thinking. But the treadmill only ever gets faster, and another crash is as inevitable as another economic crash under Capitalism.
However, this process can’t go on for ever and the main worry (which my denial methods are usually good at forgetting about) is that a final acceptance is inevitable to stop me having the energy bursts (“No alarms and no surprises please!”) and the questionings arising to which I try to commit myself. This would be a life where I would have to be vigilantly cautious to make sure nothing but society did my thinking for me. I’ve had my 5 fruit and veg today! Well done; I’ve worked five days this week. I can enjoy a drink now! Capitalism is the only way!”
Here, I am almost beginning to repeat the words from the computerised voice of Fitter happier another Ok Computer track. But if I cannot retain my resistance and I begin a final acceptance, an android is what I’ll become; a body free of independent thoughts, who only acts to orders made by others. I naturally refer to Ok Computer by Radiohead when I ever have thoughts on my final consent to conform to what I perceive to be the norm. Strangely, I bought this album in May 1999, the same springtime when I first began to have immense feelings of social inadequacy. I adored the music of Radiohead in the spring
of 1999, but I left it alone for some time after in favour of bands which didn’t conflict with my then prevailing rose-tinted optimism for the future; a pre-millennium optimism shared by the majority. The Stone Roses, Doves, The Verve, Oasis – your typically ‘indie’ melody-makers – kept me singing “everything’s going to be Ok” and I believed it would be. Ok Computer, accompanied by the bleak 13 by Blur reminded me too much of the sour and anxious spell of spring/summer 1999, and I wanted to keep that door locked. Nevertheless, the post Sept 11th, NT7 2002 me returned to Radiohead with a stronger connection than before; I now felt aligned with the troubled-messages within their songs, rather than seeing them as a threat. After I regained my weight in 2004, I knew there was no way back; I had to try and ride the storm rather that stick my head in the sand and deny its existence.
Will I ever have a No-surprises-style final acceptance? I am not sure, no matter how low I get and how consenting I become in order to relieve the pain, it never seems to happen. The totality of what makes me seems to be ill-fitting to conformity under Capitalism and I hit so many brick walls when merely trying to just ‘get along’. But if don’t finally accept where do I go? I’ve also been spoon-fed the consumer drug from the first moment I set eyes on a TV commercial. The only way I can think of to be cured would be for me to be sent to rehab in some mythical socialist bloc. I constantly (much to my friends’ annoyance) re-iterate the The The lyrics “I was just another western guy with desires that can’t be satisfied”, as these lyrics highlight my constant dissatisfaction caused from having a consumer diet on drip feed from an early age.
However, the compulsive methods of defiance against capitalist conformity I find myself propelled into after spells in the doldrums are very heavy on my body, so heavy that at 26 both of my knees, my back, and my guts are getting to the point where they’ve had enough – they are worn out. There may be a day, not so long from now, when I literally cannot move. People may say that it is my own fault that my resistance comes undone so easily most days, because I don’t eat for hours on end, therefore I am low on energy, so closer to breaking point. But it is a systematically induced parasite that attacks my persona from both sides, leaving me no alternative but to go forward, in a search for a way out of the only way I’ve known, down the only route I’ve known: the contradiction is massive, which is why I fear the final acceptance so much.
A viable alternative to this life really does seem far off. Maybe it will arrive? But in what state will my resistance have left me in at that point? I really do not know. If I find myself permanently worn-out I am unsure as to how I will manage. But like humanity as a whole, which puts off the issues of climate change/peak oil, until one day it may cause our downfall, I am doing the same for my own little, insignificant life. More than anything I am dreading the possible ‘shared downfall’ of my own life, humanity and nature.
Arriving at my studio today after work, I initially felt an uneasy feeling. “What am I doing going this way, when everybody else is going the other way?” Today is a big day for the country of England: the England football team play their first match of the 2010 world cup, against, of all teams, The United States of America. The land is draped in St George, and union jack flags. Is this good? Is this bad? Well, it isn’t important to me right now.
What is important for me is the feeling of inner strength I felt whilst walking the other way; Yet again “ploughing my own furrow”. Maybe, after all’s said and done, my final acceptance will be actually be an acceptance that I will always be the one walking the opposite way – even if the consequences are long term solitude.
I used to think that all true artists are depressives, and this is what makes them kick against the conformity washing over them day after day. But actually, true artists are outsiders, and if they become depressed it is merely a symptom of this. Outside of the crowd is their place and they should be proud of it!
We are of value. If we didn’t take a walk out of the crowd, and look back at it, then who else would do but the tyrant wishing to control them all? The outsider must, if he/she is to survive, become an artist, of any sort, as although he/she may find that they are stood on the margins with a dictator, they are the crowd’s last bastion of hope against the ways of the dictator. Maybe I can never slip into the abyss of the other final acceptance without losing my life. So, as long as I am I, I will only be able to accept the more ‘positive’ final acceptance.
Now as enter my studio with, what appears to be, the entirety of England singing to the tune of football behind me, I feel strong in my studio, swimming upstream – with a free run for once! Nothing is around to try and shape, twist or wear me down: the streets and, especially, the trains and buses are empty of the scrutiny, mocking and cyber-space interactions that usually roll down the carpet for me to succumb to the resignation of me for the day. The train home will be empty. I, if only for 2 hours, have almost free reign over myself. I should cherish these times and not feel excluded from the football mania!