Sunday, February 23, 2020

let yourself be rescued

These found and altered drawings are a small selection from a body of work I made in 2019, for an exhibition, Day of Access, which toured Scotland in the Travelling Gallery. 

I'd never made such personal work before, but it was a time when I felt the need to represent the truth of the ill part my life and write for – and from – friends who have experienced illness. In particular, I'd gathered together a loose network of supportive artists and poets who have a variety of chronic illnesses. Although we are all disabled we'd not necessarily defined ourselves as disabled artists. 

If this work is a turn towards identity typical of its time, I have found that in our correspondence and conversation we don't tend to cordon off our experiences in terms of types of disease, abilities, or gender. For all of us there seems to be an understanding that pain and limit represent a commonality that unites us.

The illustrations that I use come from books on mountain rescue, in particular Mountain Rescue Techniques, by Wastle Mariner, a 1950s Austrian Alpine guide that was translated into English in 1963. 

The date accounts for the wandervogel appearance of some of the figures. Those aren't baseball caps they are wearing. I'd spent some time writing about the heroic thrills they were experiencing when I worked on gathering, a place-aware survey of the Cairngorms, collaborating with the experienced mountain guide, Sue Harper. I found unexpected parallels between the exposure people met with on the peaks and the lives of my friends with chronic pain.

you must accept
the promise of danger

on a mountain

you must save energy
for that final pitch

on a mountain

to become one
with a mountain

you must die
on a mountain

I spent some months writing short poems and then painted hundreds of these as poem-drawings on book pages. As I worked my way through multiple copies of my favourite mountain rescue books the illustrations became more-and-more familiar and, separated from their instructive purpose, the imagery shaped itself into an account of human vulnerability.

The sense of risk was familiar to me from my reading in mountaineering literature and conversations with Sue Harper.

you cannot hide

any part of yourself
on a mountain

you cannot escape
who you are

on a mountain

you are no longer “you”
roped to a team
on a mountain

As soon as an accident occurs the way down become more important than the way up, and who you have chosen as a companion acquires a new significance.

The simplicity of the snowscapes assumed on the appearance and feeling of blankets, folds, rumples, and creases in snowy sheets; an Epic landscape translated into a domestic bedscape.

pain comes before a fall

The figures began to assume the identity of patients, ill people, carers, or activists

The injured climbers were wrapped, bandaged, harnessed, and tucked into cocoons, as if in some mythic account of pain, where it is a preparation for a wonderful transformation. 

One of the harshest myths of illness is that it can be "good" for us. Changes in life-view do occur – this project is dedicated to sharing examples – but such magical and illuminating inner journeys don't always guarantee recovery. Not every rescue succeeds.

Those who have befallen an accident are supported, physically and morally, by a cast of fantasy rescuers, representing a common dream of those in chronic pain. Let yourself be rescued. I found this especially touching in terms of a few friends who were housebound or bedbound, who often live in isolation.

In these altitudinous dramas, the athletic will of the mountaineer was translated into the human endurance of pain, collapse, or suffering in ways that seemed to touch people. I found that, through their confident poses and the impression of solidarity that was represented in each rescue, I could suggest experiences of chronic pain, fatigue, bed-rest, anguish, fear, reverie, recovery, and remediation.

I read widely in accounts of pain, in particular, Elaine Scarry's classic study, The Body in Pain, which the poet Susan Tichy introduced me to. This collides together accounts of chronic pain and the dehumanising effects of torture.

pain is private
until it is believed in

In terms of the experience of pain Scarry understands that the ability to be believed is fundamental. She teaches that imaginative empathy exists to release us from our singular snow caves.

To have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt. (The doubt of other persons . . . amplifies the suffering of those already in pain.)

Over the course of a year I painted my way through three copies of Scarry's book, along with other classics, such as Simone Weil's troubling writings on affliction, Derek Jarman's Diaries, and Daudet's recollections of pain.

My drawings overlay the outdoor craze of mountaineering and the indoor collapse of illness – the worlds of the fit and the ill. 

The poses made by the figures suggest humane kindness. Their reciprocal acts of kindness and endurance say: we can be other together.

Half-close your eyes and the snowfields could be a sheepskin rug on which someone curls, hoping to be found and comforted, or rescued, or the lines and folds could be a den of covers and hilly pillows, in which someone in pain or fear has made a refuge. 

The bandages, bindings, and other accoutrements – snake-like umbilical ropes, straps and buckles from rucksacks, and stretchers improvised from skis and poles – are a costume of care belonging to an order dedicated to ameliorating pain.

Perhaps the thrill-seeking climber is secretly drawn towards their own fall and rescue? 

It is a rule of The Mountain that everyone is due the same duty of care, no matter how foolish or unlucky they may have been in their exploits. Mountain rescue accident reports offered another parallel narrative for the event of illness:

conditions were very difficult
with very high winds, snow and thunder
and lightening which restricted the support
the MCA helicopters could provide
despite some excellent flying

this is the third avalanche in No 5 Gully
since Saturday

on Saturday evening aa group of four climbers
were avalanched while climbing in the gully

one person was swept down the gully
but luckily was not buried or suffered injury
and they made their way to the CIC Hut

the other 3 climbers were crag fast
and team members carried on to rescue
the rest of the party

a member of the SMC who was in the hut climbed up
and assisted the climbers down
allowing the team to stand down

the same day there was a hill walker
on Ben Hiant, Ardnamurchan
who suffered what was a suspected broken arm
and was airlifted by a SARH helicopter

Crag-fast or bed-bound. I'd found a landscape that offers an alternative to the performed emotions of social media. In this high wild realm exposure is measured in degrees of frost and rescue depends on authentic physical comfort, supported by the Spartan technology of ropes, radios, and sled-beds.

As the imagery of pain and rescue expanded I was reminded of friends for whom the choice not to climb a hill is an act of will that takes as much discipline as scaling a crag, even if the result is not as thrilling. I also thought of those for whom the exertions of pain were not so different to scaling a crag. There are different expressions of human determination. As the Day of Access manifesto states: not every path leads to the summit.

My attempts to reflect on pain and constraint were an attempt to renew a politics of empathy and kindness. I wanted to represent a poetics of pain, and fashion a world in which the ill aren't victims, forgotten sufferers, elect martyrs, or subjects of a charity appeal. We were all worn out with the language of overcoming and lessons in striving, when there are other forms of endurance. 

The ingenuity of the various rescues also reminded me of the creative wit with which the disabled come up ways with to feel they truly belong in a landscape, even when their access is limited.

The appearance of the fallers and rescuers 
barely differ:  in this realm, anyone could befall an accident or join a rescue party. 

In my interchangeable world the ill give a lot of care to others and the well know what may someday befall them.

Without intending, I was creating a body of imagery that wouldn't represent personal wounds in a catastrophises manner, or using the experience of suffering to claim undue attention, power, or privilege.

These images speak to the old truths, that all pain has meaning and deserves our attention. As Scarry says: if there is pain in a room then that pain is in someone.

While imagination and empathy have undoubtedly been eroded by online fires, up here on the snowy mountains, where the situations are physically extreme, I was able to find, or dream, exemplary acts of kindness.

In the time I was making this work I've heard some wonderful examples of empathetic solidarity from other people. I wondered whether it was possible to renew the argument for radical gentleness by highlighting examples of solidarity.

Suffering, pain, and limit are experiences we share in common. Although the distribution of pain is uneven, most of us will experience chronic or long-term illness at some point, in some way. 

Scarry argues that poetry has a 'capacity to reduce harm', because it offers the reader: 'an invitation to empathy', as well as a 'reliance on deliberative thought, and its beauty.' In an essay on Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, she continues to say:

'By “empathy” Hunt and Pinker—rightly in my view—mean not the capacity of literature to make us feel compassion for a fictional being (though literature certainly does this), but rather the capacity of literature to exercise and reinforce our recognition that there are other points of view in the world, and to make this recognition a powerful mental habit. If this recognition occurs in a large enough population, then a law against injuring others can be passed, after which the prohibition it expresses becomes freestanding and independent of sensibility.'

This is love. To feel a recognition of the other. In such situations a directness of speech becomes available to us, sometimes. This poem was written for someone whose childhood I could understand, intimately and compassionately, through my own.

you’re so brave
   he said
      no I’m not she said

you are he said
   you think you just
      did what you had

to as a child and
   that he said is

      why you’re so brave

When she quoted it back to me, with a recognition that allowed her words to become my words, and mine hers, I understood that commonality was the shared perspective Scarry spoke of.

In the same spirit, I've written about illnesses that I've never had. Pain has a variety of intensity, but its spectrum is not so broad. It is something we all experience, even if it's just a stubbed toe or toothache. 

 'm not saying there is a right or wrong way to approach the issue of wound, but I do believe that the fad for catastrophising suffering, and privileging some forms of hurt, has, intentionally or not, eroded Scarry's principles of empathy and imagination.

Scarry argues that pain is a fundamental test for us, as individuals and a society. Inevitably, we feel our own pain as a heightened state of bodily perception, but we cannot feel the pain of another person. Nor can they feel ours.

Pain is one of the great tests of our ability to know, or, better, to believe what someone tells us and respond with kindness. Again, this is where catastrophising erodes the fragile social perception of wounds and hurts. Empathy depends on the belief that people share the experience of having a body: commonality is possible. 

We can believe in another's pain because we believe in our own.

The imagery these books contained could, I felt, be turned into a tender account of a masculine world. I could turn it topsy-turvy, into a state of vulnerability, fear, need, and, crucially, the possibility of rescue. I wished the drawings to embody acts of solidarity in a world voided of recognisable features.

The drawings, the images which I borrowed from a purpose that was quite other to my own, were also a way to express the magic of art. To use an analogy, a walk may stretch on a long way and a steady pace will use a calculable quantity of energy. But a view offers a richness, sense of diversity, or summation, which is, quite simply, wonderful. 

Where energy is limited then viewing means much more than walking

Where pain is present then empathy means much more than complaint.

I have increasingly felt that modest works of art or short poems, have the same ability: to take a relatively small quantity of available energy and, expending this, create something that intensifies value exponentially. 

There is an economic aspect to this: for the chronically ill, piece-work or the time-based fee is a model of penury. Whereas a model of rest, creative reflection, and acts of imagination, which garner value, can make an economic life viable. 

These posts are published as part of a year-long artist in residence, funded by Paths for All.

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