How Pam Felt Before Pam Fled

A collection of short stories and fragments concerning the characters Pam and Sam. Themes range from utopian ecopoetics, reimagining Stendhal’s ‘crystallisation’ of love as a battle with imagination, to a drunk and attachment disorderly barfly. Auto fiction of the everyday spectacular glitches into speculative fiction in a much-needed lesson in how not to love.




Published in March 2021 by Nuts and Bolts, Manchester.

Drawings by Joanne Robertson

Edited by Tessa Berring

Book Design by Susan Gladwin

Printed on recycled paper in black riso with blue and pink overlays throughout, by Foot Print, Leeds.

Copies available from nuts and bolts, Manchester and the following stockists

Good Press

Smother

a womb of one’s own

But, you may say, we asked you to speak of the dichotomy of bad/good mother – what has this got to do with a womb of one’s own? I will try to explain. Genetically or socially speaking – having a womb of one’s own isn’t possible. The womb belongs to me but its biological purpose is to be inhabited by others, at the same time or over time. When the womb is occupied we aren’t alone.

The womb is permeable; it feeds and sustains, blood is transfused and hormones infiltrate. The maternal abdomen is a resonant chamber; sound, however distorted, seeps in to the interior listener. From bass notes to base sounds.

When the womb is occupied we become preoccupied. My tacit agreement to tolerate the sickness, the pains, and the forthcoming labour renders us utterly enmeshed. I am super human, my senses are stronger. I cannot tolerate certain smells or imagery. Rosemary is revolting and I cry over cute cat pictures. I feel her life coursing through me, or at least, the hormones I need in order to sustain her life – to nourish and keep her at all costs.

In a matter of weeks, the measuring begins. I’m weighed and measured, then pulse counted, observed, compared. Sticks dipped into my pee, then and blood taken. Always have a full bladder for the ultrasound. Drinking so much water all the time. All this incites the obsession with the maternal self, our babies and each other – where did all the pregnant ladies come from and what’s with these babies all of a sudden?

Then she arrives. I’m sleepless and she is jaundiced but we are well. Driving home from the hospital after a four night stay, our world looked totally different. The neon lights were so much brighter – the effects of anemia weren’t all bad. Be a new mum, bounce back, work out, and be sexy, but don’t cut calories, you didn’t cut calories, did you? because you need them to make breastmilk. Be an older mum, do the right thing and get back out to work, or stay at home, yes, stay at home, or work from home one day a week, but still do the work of a full time employee, feel guilty either way will you. Don’t work too hard though because it will damage the child. A little mess is good for the kids. You should have a routine because the child will dictate the routine you know. Let the child dictate the routine. One child is enough. It gets easier with two. Are you going to have another one? You’ve already got two, what’s another one? You make lovely babies. Some dualities must be admitted.

Our private lives are ostensibly made public – the foundations of self, built in the glare of examination lights and our plethora of screens. Can’t she just feed her baby here? Why won’t it stop crying? I can’t believe she’s taking that baby on holiday already. We practically stopped at home for two months. From the doctors waiting room to Instagram – we are the panopticon.

Australian conceptual jeweller Tiffany Parbs’ new work brokers the current polarities of motherhood. Through her experiences she becomes the healing warrior who has suffered and transmuted the pain, presenting the intertwining of mother and child with all the spectrum of conflicting feelings which accompany it. There is joy in her work, a sign of freedom won through struggle, an artist revelling in the abject and revealing the objectified. She frets the limits of jewellery so that adornment becomes essential, collective and political. Current works in progress include attached, a velcro loop caftan for mother and velcro hook onesie for the kids – demonstrating the difficulty in prising apart the mother as omnipresent site of loving play.

The portraits of Parbs modelling the works signal a deadpan humour and tension between tragedy and farce. A badass swag I recognise as urgent and powerful. Her face conveys a weary resolve making otherwise jovial accessories such as a sweatband embroidered with fit and absent, a sleep mask emblazoned with AWOL into stoic statements. Fit is navy blue with white embroidery, alluding to military duty, as well as referencing nike’s original old school logo. With camouflage material, absent nods off to the night as a battle ground between mother and child where sleep is a no man’s land.

The adult body as a playground is explored through structure and slope. We imagine Parbs squatting, trapped within a metal play slide which might double as a splint for spinal injury. She is trapped but needs relies on them as props – diminutive as a crouching child when within the frame. Bobbing down to the eye level of a child is a stance to reassure, discipline and communicate, but impossible to maintain for long periods.

The childhood trick of hiding under skirts would be so much more from under a crinoline. Parbs makes a kind of freestanding climbing frame structure, for the adult to stand within. The crinoline was a dreadful undergarment – then again the underwired bra is no saint – guaranteeing voluminous skirts – the price to pay being restriction and suffering. This chimera of jewelry and dress provides the maximum play keeping parental movement to a minimum. Parbs is parked, by her intention to subjugate herself for the sake of her kids entertainment. This ultra-play, the entertainment encouraged by society and satiated by parents, traps children in a cycle of boredom without external stimulus, lowering creative play.

Parbs wears a football as a mask in game, reminding me of the Mancunian comedy persona Frank Sidebottom and his papier mache head. The football only fulfills its purpose when it is kicked, so an element of masochism is found here. Mothering isn’t always such a ball. Conversely, she is both surface and turf in vacant. Her face concealed in a landscape of lurid green grass. Vacant tells of claustraphobia. Trapped within the objective of play – providing a sense of freedom for the child at the expense of the parent feeling contained. It’s interesting that in both works, only eyes are uncovered. The mother must bare witness to the fruits of her labour, this is least we can do. Maybe we don’t hear but we are attentive, we are seen to see. We think – hope, this is what being a good parent is. Good people creating good people. But what if we’re not?

vacant

Mothering gave me a delicious new sense of time and boredom that I hadn’t experienced since adolescence. The periodic relief of silence whilst feeding in the middle of the night, opened me up, my whole self friable. To find a little grace in the dark. This is a solace, this is consolation. Gloom as a recourse. The pitch isn’t entirely black, it’s fuzzy and speckled. The cubic room shades out to a cavern, angles smooshed out to the silence of something sweet to be savored, and someone I have satiated. Something so simple. We’re bound by the night; me and my little boarder mutable – made marsupial in our bed. This is the good thing. Then the baby wakes to remind us all of something more scatalogical.

Parbs’ work, purge, resembles a torture device created by a sickly comic regime – a poo bucket tipped over her head. A plasticine and plater pile of shit dripping down to jaw level. The motion stopped mid-flow and her head encased fully this time – anonymous and degraded. Parbs’ self is annulled. But the sense of humour remains. This is the good thing.

smother catalogue web version

A Bar in Space

A muse

Whose gaps between her t e e t h close over time only to wear away over time until the gaps return without

Instruction

Return

Something pressing blinks. The only real line on this page.

The gaps – only the g a p s – are tell tales, taking out bites.

Spaces between expand or contract according to the heat, according to the beat of typing of the keys. I press an absence, a bar in space five characters long. I press again. It presses me.

The pressure just enough for the touch sensitive. Then follows the hollow  s o u n d and that is the          s  o  u  n  d o  f  s  p  a  c  e          justifying the line to move vertical across the page as I push it along with a press of the cursor, nudging words off the screen and watch it  p u l s e  out so that unnecessary spaces make the  w o r d s back up against the white but then we do know that  s p a c e  is always necessary for things to  b r e a t h e though the  k i s s of l i f e is an exception to this rule.

Return

Return

To the instruction

How to Survive on Land and Sea

how to survive on land and sea
A novella with ephemera.

In my childhood home we had a small book case. The shelves contained little to no literature, only non-fiction books like a world atlas, the English countryside, myths and legends, the Oxford Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. Although I loved to read the thesaurus I also enjoyed reading my Dad’s collection of How to Survive books. My optimistically titled favorite was How to Survive a Nuclear War.

The writing in my riso artist book How to Survive on Land and Sea is a tribute to surviving ridiculous situations. Loosely based on my fieldwork as participating observer and writer in residence at the artist-led Rhubaba Studio and Gallery during a period of austerity and social change, I wrote about a group of artists roaming a dystopian landscape on the banks of the River Humber. First the artists band together as the Trajectorians – then hide and observe, creating a revolution in the process.

Follow this link to the Rhubaba Gallery for info and images and to purchase the publication!

Illustration from my publication How to Survive on Land and Sea

Marc Camille Chaimowicz at Inverleith House November – 2010

Written in 2010. Edited in 2013.

here and there

Pasted at the usual place for introductory text panels in exhibitions; just to the right of a doorway and a little below eye level; the text Here and There contains an excerpt from Samuel Beckett’s writing on Marcel Proust. Beckett writes that the artist ‘deplores his lack of will until he understands that will, being utilitarian, a servant of intelligence and habit is not a condition of the artistic experience.’ The dandied existentialism of Beckett’s sentence is beautiful.

Overlaying the iconic image of Chaimowicz’s 1978 living room, the writing is set against descriptions of rooms and spaces; undulating from whimsical prose, to critique and back again, coming up for air between surface, depth, and commas. Here and There acts as a primer or script for the exhibition, so that the viewer is two places at once, on the page and in the space. As with Camille Chaimowicz’s Celebration? Real Life, 1972 at Gallery House, London and his revisited version for Cabinet Gallery in 2000, the format at Inverleith House lies somewhere between a post-minimal scatter installation and the backdrop for an unfolding play between artist and artists, institution and viewers. It feels right that Chaimowicz should invoke Beckett’s as an opener, when his work; languid with bourgeois domesticity, seems to me to inculcate a conspiracy against will, and whose choice of forms such as a cluster of empty hard backed chairs and inaccessible books on shelves reiterate the audiences subordination to the will of artist.

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I arrived at the exhibition just after lunch on a beautiful blue skied day, so that when I stepped into the first room after reading through the text Here and There, the light was streaming through the window; falling strongly, through a windowpane that bleaches its shape onto a series of monochrome painted boards pasted with black and white domestic images. Each board leaned on and overlapping another across to cover most of the gallery wall like a giant redundant Venetian blind stripped of its function. The images capture fragments of an interior, a shop window, a door, a potted orchid. Sometimes a person appears; a sedentary partial nude, always anonymous and cast as mute with no back story; a figment in a narrative.

The sense of collaboration both literally and metaphorically comes into the fore upstairs on the first floor, where the impression is of a sparse, chichi-ly decorated and discerning house. Amplifying the domesticity of Inverleith House, the room contains Dovecot (for I.H), 2010, a tufted pastel rug commissioned by the artist and crafted at the local Dovecot studios. There are new models of one-sided collaboration aka appropriation with the incorporation of another artist’s work from another place or epoch. What does it mean to merge or curate another artists work into your own?

eduard

Through another doorway set upon a dusky pink patterned wallpaper, Edouard Vuillard presages a seemingly teenage boudoir in the adjoining room with La Chambre Rose, 1910 borrowed from the National Galleries of Scotland. The painting depicts a feminine interior with heavily wallpapered walls, the window thrown open to let in a breeze of cool air adding freshness to the ornate but slightly dank room. The girl, perhaps a burgeoning Femme Nouvelle, dwells on a chair in the corner. Rendered with impressionistic verve, patches of canvas are left bare in the bottom right corner, an anti-light or shadow, casting blanks for the viewer to fill in and well as contrast. Vuillard was a Nabis painter, a group of transdiciplinary artists whose goal was a familiar one, to reintegrate art into life. Made up of sculptors, painters, a theater director, and a musician, like Chaimowicz they made posters, textiles and furniture; they also saw paintings as decoration, as a embodying certain emotions and sensations providing spiritual retreat for world-weary aesthetes.

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A feeling of retreat is made available to the visitor throughout with its muted hues and gentle timbre. Pastel piqued dressing tables complete with mirrors place the viewer as actor or agent within the installation. As well as deferring potential action to the past the mirror refers the viewer to the immediacy of the present and to their role in the creative act; they take this shared experience into their unique future. A domestic interior holds two things together in perpetuity; the vague backdrop of an epoch, of a general sense of taste and the individual collection of detritus and fact, material we decide to surround ourselves with. A display of the self is necessarily subjective; even in the privacy of our homes some things are designed to communicate. Dandy knick-knacks on windowsills are as much for the benefit of inhabitants and visitors as they are for passers by. Is there such a thing as a flaneur of the home? Camille Chaimowicz envisages a nonchalant interior complete with the ideal disinterested and temporary inhabitants. Gustav Flaubert had a problem with transitions between sentence concepts. Which brings me neatly to the bookshelves. Not for one moment are we fooled into thinking that the complete works of Gustav Flaubert are available to read in the gallery, although it is tempting; vying for attention, begging to be picked up, each spine of the volume is decorated with cheerful paint. A clue to its teasing presence in the installation can be imbibed from the form of the bookshelf, Bibliotheque, 2009, the base of which is a set of pistachio coloured lacquered speech marks. This is not a reading room, we are unable to peruse them, we just have to be satisfied with our imagination.

rug

The same frustrated sense function and utility pervades the exhibition. The rug is elevated at an angle, obtuse and definitely not to stretch out on or feel its softness beneath your toes. Coiffeuse (dressed), 2008, again with a customised rug appears to be a girls dressing table, complete with underwear peeping out of the drawer, notebooks and mobile phone ready for use and a bottle of YSL Pariseinne primed to diffuse its perfume, lingering in the air long after she has hurried out into the night. There is no actor, but the space is highly charged and performative. The things in this room belong to nobody, but like art belong to everyone at first and then if they are lucky at some point belong to someone.  The grey Nokia phone, has been decorated with hundreds of delicate nail varnish spots. The sort of necessary adornment you might get into trouble with your parents for. This personal expression of spills over onto the notebook the phone rests on, the book is one of those fancy ones with a kind of brocade pattern. The embellishment is methodically applied and spot by spot usurps the original ornate design. The notion that you have ‘ruined’ or ‘improved’ something in your possession depends on your viewpoint of course. Altering objects with materials that you have to hand is a method of communication, a visual language as much as decorating a wall with a particular pattern or someone else’s art; but this is a role-play. Flaubert cried in his 1853 notebook, ‘prose, its never finished!’ it seems that Camille Chaimowicz is never done with the past but instead picks over it, revisits and re-envisages his work. You get the feeling that things could be different, the flow and rhythm of the show can be imagined in multiple permutations. In order to keep the exhibition open, ideas have to be closed down. Talking about the singular objects in the rooms misses the point; although the work gives the impression of containing multiplicities, overall things are carefully positioned and sparse, as though a discerning family are in the process of moving in or out, maybe like Chaimowicz in childhood from Paris to Stevenage. Or maybe we could be passing through a trust-funded squat.

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The exhibition is perforated with empty time, free time and leisure; each person in the photographs is seen to be at rest, just talking or lazing around or contemplating something, staring out of a window. By walking through the spaces at Inverleith House you can share in this sense. Even the invigilators are in the flow; maybe reading Flaubert, sat on the gallery chairs, without looking up as you pass by. Its hard to tell which artworks originated in the past, here each is equal in the present. Rather than looking forward to create something new, once forgotten images, memories and works come together in the here and there. Repetitions and mistakes were unbearable for Flaubert but not for Beckett, likewise Camille Chaimowicz allows works and symbols to recur ad infinitum. The use of domestic accoutrements is not the only allusion to life in his work; like life nothing is done away with; here the past remains with us, not just as a Proustian evocation, but also as a series of material facts. History is flattened and excavated; the exhibition will stay with me as will Flaubert, Proust, Beckett and others filling up my empty time and moving with me from the present into the future. The had difficulty in my French lessons with tenses; present tense, past tense, imperfect tense, imperative tense, and past perfect tense. This deep understanding of time and its uses seems to sweep through the exhibition. But there are so many intelligent references and nuances here that it would become a futile Bouvard and Pecouchet attempt to remark on them all. I might be reading too much into things when I say that taking a Nabis stance (Nabis meaning Prophet in Hebrew) art is used in the service of interior design but more profoundly, Camille Chaimowicz succeeds in temporarily intergrating art into life.  It is a life that is possesses the freedom and time to be quietly reflective, genteel and ordered. It is a life that most, including myself might aspire to; but sadly it is not a life that the majority, particularly as I edit this in 2013, are privileged to be familiar with.

me

Collisions and Collusions

I wrote the following text for a group exhibition at Catalyst Arts, Belfast. The exhibition included artists who collaborate in both art and life: Kim Coleman and Jenny Hogarth, Tommy Grace and Kate Owens and Ortonandon. Here’s a link to Catalyst Arts fantastic website and archive featuring images from the exhibition >>> Go see…

Here is a PDF of the exhibition handout Together – Catalyst Arts

***

Collisions and collusions

There is nothing I can tell you to furnish your experience. This is not information. Our minds are already meshed, communication without speech, commonplace thoughts pooled and identities merged. But people are often suspicious of alliances, questioning their function, feeling excluded, always seeking a singular, doubting that you complete me. You are here with me now in an unwitting collaboration. Together momentarily on the page, until we go our separate ways. Then we’ll have walls and space.

Look out of the window; you notice someone else has done the same. Smile at the boy, put your hand in your pocket and take your place in the room. Point out some of my mistakes with your critical thrust.

Sitting here in the smokeless bar waiting for more people to arrive, I feel an urgency alien to me. Maybe they won’t all turn up, as disillusioned as I am discredited. Three of us would suffice, each connected by a date and a time. They knew that we had a plan, decisions had to make, pamphlets and posters to print, something to start. Time passed slowly and a third person entered the scene. Shaking her umbrella inconsiderately she soon noticed all eyes fixed on her. Stray rain droplets dispersed throughout the room, forcing us to reflect on what we had escaped by coming here. I smiled and glanced around at the others trying desperately to register their thoughts on our new arrival. For us this gathering is a refuge from the pointless bustle of the outside. We don’t meet often and when we do it is brief. The proceedings are not always smooth and there are those that seem fraught with doubt. I felt this uncertainty as he focused on me with blank eyes; he was somewhere else, lost in pointless musings about what people thought of him. He was formless and would rebuild himself perpetually. So that when he takes his seat with the rest of the gang, although happily out of the driving rain, his presence distorts the atmosphere. As I catch your eye you look away. Dipped down and deadened. Dialogue between us is a bit thin on the ground and we have begun to enact curious rituals using various static media. Yet our relationship persists.

This particular gathering of people was not united by chance; instead each relationship based on a web of connections. It was a coalition of unlikely bedfellows. It is true that we have things in common although this wasn’t the thing that brought us together. We only become something through each other. Nobody understands it and this is our strength. So the conversation ebbs and flows, but the distance between you and me always seems to close. I think I notice you listening to two conversations at once. The music is ever so slightly tinny but pulsating so that every thought that crystallised in my mind, including the very thing I want to communicate, shatters on each thin beat. Whilst collecting my thoughts you have drifted elsewhere. Vague sounds fall away to background noise; people interrupt us and we eventually get back on track. Now is not the time you say, but this is our place. Someone is crouching next to you, her ill-fitting court shoes creasing severely at the toe. Showing no signs of pain she moves ever closer, whispering something unknown into your ear. After about an hour of conversation she knew that the seed was planted. You looked so beautifully agreeable, and as I catch myself peering into a mirror-less frame; it occurs to me that I wear the same look. We quietly left the smokeless bar, careful to erase any trace of our meeting and fell out onto the smoke-filled street.

Rapidly and in unison the people decide on the following. We would meet at the roller disco. The situation set and the trajectory between us aligned. Imagine this for a moment; figures moving freely around a space, linked arms, flailing or deliberately colliding, gliding without constraint in unforced motion. A temporary railing frames the room, supporting people whilst fencing them in. Images project onto the walls over pasted billposters, splayed out from the center like a voyeuristic mirror ball capable of reflecting something other than light or images of itself. At this stage, this stage is also the orbit around which we gravitate; a centrifugal forcing us apart and holding us together. As I hold on tightly, not quite daring to let go of the railing, you skate off without so much as a backward glance to take part in the roller-ride action. A large group watches over this spectacle from the plastic seats, all of us equal in contemplation. Now we are getting somewhere, back to the vital bit just before something happens. That night we banded together in various collaborative ways, most of these relationships gathering strength with a little time: a family, some friendship and ample fidelity. A spirit of togetherness forged through intuition and fights, love and rivalry. We held out a steady hand to the collective other and reassemble ourselves. I take my time clumsily on the floor; the tempo of experience measured only by the speed of my skating. What is rendered in space is left open-ended so that all our future activities engineered in an attempt to destroy boredom, or just endure boredom or just enjoy boredom.

It is all too easy to become complacent, imagining that you are always already waiting for me, telepresent in the midst of a sheet of paper, some nodes and a screen. The solitary becomes the sedentary. We could meet in the smokeless bar; we could meet on the page, but let’s meet in the roller rink, the social sensorium.