This is the age of the alternative therapy. Healing crystal lamps, colloidal silver, various brain pills sold by various pop cultural figures, the wholesale Goop-ification of reality is essentially complete in Europe and North America. The historic colonial states are looking for a means of treating the ambient sense of ill-ease—urgency and desperation is creating opportunities for easy, sleazy money. Not all remedies, however, emerge from a place of cynicism. Homeopathy, for example, is older than colonialism. The data on its efficacy as a method for healing is at best inconclusive (the NHS does not recommend using homeopathy for treatments. In fact it puts ‘treatments’ in inverted commas when referring to homeopathy), but it retains an appeal that is timeless, a desire to believe that the things of nature combined with forms of knowledge can heal. The idea is true on its own terms, but discovering what can heal whom is a much more difficult matter, it is a sense of practice rather than a simple programme of facts.
Experience is critical, and experience is at the centre of the practice of the Honey-Suckle Company, a multi-media collective that began in the mid-1990s in Berlin. The flower of the group’s name derives from a herbal remedy promoted by Dr. Bach, a flower used to heal ‘ailments of the body and mind’. At the moment of a number of interlocking personal and professional crises, I found myself at the ICA in London at Omnibus, a retrospective of the works of the collective. Would the work live up to its billing? Was I about to board the magic Omnibus?
If only it were so simple. It was a profoundly disorienting experience entering the installation on the ground floor of the ICA. Part sandbox, part Kreuzberg bar, the downstairs exhibition is divided into what might be thought of as a suite. The first is a beachscape dotted with mannequins bearing instruments. An electric signal occasionally stirs the band to life and the result is something as if Antony Gormley’s endless clone army on Crosby Beach in Merseyside suddenly developed the rudiments of personalities. Fun, yes, and fun is perhaps the beginning of liberation, but there is a key passage in the exhibition’s introductory text that proved to be an important subplot in the meaning of the Honey-Suckle project in the 21st century: ‘The collective emerged from the post-reunification and pre-Internet (sic) cultural and social context of Berlin.’ Pre-Internet with a capital I. It’s factually inaccurate to describe 1994 as ‘pre-internet’, but it is definitely a pre-internet culture from which Honey-Suckle Company’s aesthetic and mission derives. Indeed, the appearance of analogue instruments on the beached mannequins places the work in a Berlin of an almost ancient vintage.
The company have spoken in Frieze about an action during the 1996 Love Parade in which they attempted to bring punk and techno together in performance. Perhaps one had to be there, but looking at Berlin from the distance of 23 years, I would say techno has decisively replaced punk as both the main form of cultural resistance and the official soundtrack of Berlin. This sense of looking into history may not be an issue in the case of many retrospectives, but with a group with a visionary mission like the Honey-Suckle Company, who are still actively creating, it can feel like something of a tragedy.
Another major event of the last twenty years also feels heavily present in its absence: the terror attack of 11 September 2001. The ensuing state of permanent warfare and national security repression on a global scale feels in a sense beside the point to the company’s project, but it so infuses today’s reality that there were times watching works like ‘Odessau’ (2001), I almost felt like images of the WTC towers collapsing were interspersed with the film’s edits. They were not, of course, and the video looks backwards to the utopian project of Bauhaus more than it does to the contemporary equivalent of a totalised anthropogenic cultural imaginary, i.e. Facebook, but the cultural fault line on which the Honey-Suckle Company’s most productive phase was located has sundered and subducted their vision of a particular form of alternative social organisation into the magma beneath the tectonic plates of history.
Perhaps it sounds like I’m saying the Honey-Suckle Company’s works are quaint relics of a bygone age. Perhaps they are, but this is not their whole story. I went in wanting to believe. I can’t say I quite managed this, but there were many notable works. ‘Odessau’ has enough mystery and resistance in its visual structure to make it a fascinating watch. Some of the photographic works have an iconicity that reaches across the decades, particularly the image that adorns the collective’s book spiritus which features them huddling together in a mass of hair and robes, faces hidden to create an idealised vision of collective identity.
The time I came closest to feeling the work found an expression adequate to the company’s ideals, was in ‘Ohn End/ Non Est Hic’ (2005), an agglomeration of fabric and metal legs with a stranded staircase floating in the interstices between swatches of textile. Standing beneath it one feels a certain sense of permanent risk: it is precarious, but also feels oddly at ease with its fragility, in its own way representing a reification of the dynamics of collectivism. When one encounters what is worthwhile, one must nurture and preserve, even as the vagaries of life and history take their tolls. The Honey-Suckle Company may not have solved my problems (it was, after all, a lot to ask of total strangers), but perhaps they provide a certain map for finding one’s way and enduring, and that in itself is a healing thought.
William Kherbek is the writer of the novels Ecology of Secrets and Ultralife and the poetry collections 26 Ideologies for Aspiring Ideologists, retrodiction and Everyday Luxuries.