This is only the 2nd large scale work I’ve produced outside the Barnsley district in the 10 years I’ve been making them; the Planet’s Mental Illness (worked on intensely in a New Cross hall of residence) being the other. 6 to 7 years ago I would have felt it necessary to try explaining what this work is about. In UK2015, I don’t feel it necessary.
THE LONG NIGHT OF A NEEDLESS STORM (2015, mixed media on paper, 125x100cm)
100 years ago war finally broke out between the dominant empires and rising empires of the day. In Britain, war with Germany had been a much-expected, anxiously-anticipated reality right through the 20th century years leading up to 1914 (and these feelings were probably mutual within Germany). Then, one day, it ceased to be a looming threat, and people found themselves actually living through it.
Through the 21st century years leading up to 2014, another kind of pending catastrophe has loomed over our heads, nestling in the back of our minds. “What are we going when climate change begins?” is what you can almost see people silently thinking to themselves. Suddenly we have awoken to find ourselves living through it; climate change is now. The voices in which we place our trust in telling us ‘what’s happening out there’ – news reporters, train station tannoy announcers – are repeating the words “extreme weather” or “adverse conditions” with an increasing frequency. However, it should no longer be seen as being ‘adverse’: this is it; this is the way it is going to be now.
Of course, it has been the reality in other countries, poorer countries in the global south, for some years previous; but over here, although it was on our television screens, and we knew it was happening, we never actually believed it was happening. The belief system/the dominant ideology was still functioning without cracks in its force-field. Because we largely kept the feelings about a looming terror to ourselves, we didn’t realise that everybody else was probably having very similar thoughts; and the mainstream media would report on the environment like an innocent that knew what had just occurred, but without the ability to relate it other occurrences and thus report on why it had occurred. This is what the theorist Slavoj Žižek using the ideas of psychoanalysist Jaques Lacan, refers to as ‘the big other’. ‘The big other’ is an ideological function, where any given individual believes that the other (everybody else) is thinking the opposite. Thus, distrusting our own thoughts, what we believe (as opposed to what we know) remains in line with what we think everybody else believes – “surely catastrophic climate change can’t really happen to us?”. But Žižek reminds us that ‘the big other’ does not exist. This year, right here in Britain, climate change suddenly seems very real indeed – ‘the big other’ doesn’t exist.
Something seems wholly different about the world when we step out of our ‘private bunkers’ and onto the streets. It suddenly comes to be recognised as a submerged world. Both literally, as the flood waters show no sign of residing (“will the floods ever leave now?”), and also as an analogy for a world that is suddenly so heavy with ominous anticipation for what may happen from one second to the next. Is there any light left in a submerged world for a soundtrack to run through your head? If so then it is by the artist Burial, the music of exhaustion, let down and loss; people’s heads weighing heavy as they make their way through storm-ravaged city streets. All other music, anger or anxiety-driven, now remains in the anticipatory, but not lived-reality of yesterday’s world.
Societies will adapt when there’s no choice, that’s for sure (or the ruling class, and its state apparatus, who stand in the way of adaptation would find itself at war with the rest of country), but whether individuals within that society are able to adapt psychologically to a new reality remains to be seen. According to Alt Sheffield, in an article in the city-based Now Then magazine about the necessity of growing as much food as possible within a city’s borough: “Britain has only about 3 days’ supply of food at any given time”. But it encouragingly says that “the community-level social interaction of allotments can dramatically improve peoples lives”.
This is just one example of many potential ways in which society would have to adapt. However, I think it remains to be seen whether individuals within a society would find a new reality more fulfilling (where we would have a society with a similar level of well-being to the often-mentioned high level of well-being brought about the necessity of communities pulling together during the big wars of the past) or whether society would be a landscape of beaten people, entombed in a state of painful disappointment and loss; people who had been mentally wired-up with the mores of what Jodi Dean calls ‘communicative capitalism’, who just cannot transcend the dreamscape that’s been fed into them. This dreamscape is part of an ‘anxiety package’ of drives that keep capitalism legitimate. The package includes acute unhappiness with the way things are, but the unhappiness often becomes a perverse enjoyment from inside the window of the western belief system, and may struggle to deal with itself with the coming collapse of this belief system. This will collapse happen; but it just remains to be seen whether or not there will be a catastrophic reaction caused by this within many peoples’ lives – what Franco Berardi calls a ‘psychic timebomb’.
All this remains to be seen, and will be seen. Because what is so clear now is that we cannot go back to yesterday’s world.