Benedict Drew describes The Anti Ecstatic Machines as a ‘song’. Like music, the assemblage is immersive, but here Drew has transformed music’s immateriality into a sculptural, three-dimensional experience. The exhibition comprises of a frameless film screen hovering in the gallery space, surrounded by paintings. A prosthetic head lies on the floor, while the walls bubble with a salvo of bass. The exhibition mounts an attack on the senses from all sides—but in this instance, it is an assault that might also be healing.
Among the neon pulses and a bass-twitched plastic head with metallic umbilical cord, I was unexpectedly reminded—after flashbacks to LSD trips—of the opening scenes of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation. Clark is standing outside Notre-Dame de Paris speaking about how he can’t describe what civilisation is, but he can recognise it when he sees it. At which point he turns to look at the famous building before the camera starts to pan over Paris. Drew’s ‘song’, rendered in digital video, painting and sound, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of such a view of civilisation. Instead, its concoction of imagery and colours, both powerfully enticing and viscerally barbaric, takes you on a psychedelically picturesque journey through the edgelands of Britain—a psychogeography led by a divining rod set to ‘bad vibes’. The journey proceeds by way of concrete horizons of motorways, estates of anonymous Barratt homes with confused Greek temple-like pediments, knotted ferry terminals and landscapes of greenhouses, all via a bar of soap that tells you to be happy—comfort from an unlikely place after all the anxiety-inducing imagery—plus Neolithic earthworks and a pill that induces an extended erection.
Familiar, contemporary ailments are easily delineated here, such as the overwhelming speed of news events and life, Millennial angst and digital disillusionment. But the elixir Drew offers is a cure made up only of its symptoms—in the manner of an inoculant that protects the body from a disease by injecting a small amount of it into the bloodstream. In the accompanying literature, the exhibition purports to hijack ecstatic feelings as a form of resistance against the modern environment, which seeks to dull and supress extreme and liberating sensations. This was taken literally by some viewers experiencing the installation, who assumed lotus positions before the altarpiece of film and paintings.
The heady mix of symptom and cure manifests as hallucinogenic escape from the world. Schizoid transitions bleed from the screen into viewers; paintings made from the momentary afterimages are burnt into watching retinas, capturing the swirling iridescent chaos and paranoid phantoms inherent in experiencing the world through the digital realm. All of which unfurls to a syncopated soundtrack of literal ‘bad vibes’ vibrating through the gallery walls. The Anti Ecstatic Machines projects microdoses of madness onto the viewer, acting like the minute traces of strychnine in a nerve tonic—creating a moment of maniacal calmness against the tumultuous madness outside.
At a later point in Civilisation Kenneth Clark proposes that one of the enemies of civilisation is a belief in the supernatural, which means people don’t question or change anything; the late antique world was full of meaningless rituals and mystery religions that eventually destroyed self-confidence and culture. It’s often said that going mad is the only way of staying sane. Drew uses this logic and presents strategies of ecstasy, barbarism and ignoring civilisation as the only way of staying civilised. Clark suggests that we hung on to civilisation by the skin of our teeth after the fall of the Roman Empire. Maybe, as Drew seems to propose, this is an ideal state, and we should step back and hang on for the wild ride once again.
Matthew Turner is writer based in London. He studied at UCL where he was awarded the History and Theory writing prize. Currently, he teaches at Chelsea College of Arts, and is assistant editor of LOBBY magazine, while also writing on art and literature for various other publications. His first novella Other Rooms will be published by Hesterglock Press in 2019.