Helen Cammock’s show opened at Wysing Arts Centre on 2 March and was intended to run until 9 May until Covid 19 intervened.
As my own trip to Wysing had been scheduled for the week I voluntarily entered lockdown – while the government was still insisting on its subsequently criticised herd immunity approach – I decided to respond remotely. Viewing Cammock’s video and installed billboards from home with memories of trips to, and stays at, Wysing now mingling with my reception to the work in the absence of a ‘live’ visit, I am reminded that this review is one of few now percolating through the art ecosystem that will be responding to a previously physically-accessible show. With exhibitions cancelled everywhere, many artists are now faced with the termination of a fragile/precarious patchwork of gigs holding their livelihoods together. The sense of being stopped mid-sentence wherever you happen to be, with no time to gather self or belongings, gives partial answer to the questions written on the billboards installed on Wysing’s front lawn:
Can you remember when you last did nothing? When you last did nothing, can you remember how it felt?
While this prescient dialogue was obviously not the artist’s intention, I found it hard to respond to the video without seeing it through the lens of an irrevocably changed present. Now, Cammock’s static camera, placed originally to linger on interior details of Wysing’s studio spaces, accommodation and grounds, all places of artistic activity now dormant, seems to anticipate our arrested motion. Hers is the one area of action left behind. Layers of spray-paint patterned in circles and squares onto a table top, bottles of paint, objects wrapped in polystyrene, document evidence of past artistic labour, her archive of traces evoking Wysing’s own: an expansive archive— a repository of congealed time documented through slides, photographs and film of past residents’ and studio holders’—to which Cammock responds, using it as starting point for a muted video-text around the ‘struggle to justify actively doing nothing’.
They Call It Idlewild opens with a close-up shot of an architectural model of Wysing: a diagram drawn onto what was once the present with the future in mind. Suspended in time, it projects a future assumed to be better, if only by signaling the renewal and viability of the institution. It hints at the way all institutions are bound up in the quest for productivity through renewal, regeneration and endless activity—and beyond that, to the flows of capital and funding that drive redevelopment.
Idleness, presented here as a key to possibility and a generative state of inactivity against the injunction to be productive, weaves through the voiceover, accompanied by the video’s focus on the details of everyday life: shadows cast by blinds fluttering sunset-yellowed stripes on a wall, a cigarette butt among the pebbles, a cobweb caught on a window framing grey sky. Fragments easily overlooked in the rush and bustle of life invite the viewer to slow down and pay attention, linger or daydream.
Reading from Audre Lorde’s essay ‘Poetry is not a Luxury’, which posits the daydream as an inactive, yet not idle, holding space in which ideas can germinate, we are reminded that the space held by dreams, poetry and reverie are ‘not idle fantasy, but the true meaning of it feels right to me’. For Lorde, attuning to the whispers of intuition and honestly exploring fluctuations of feeling against the blaring noise of white Western rational thought, creates a sanctuary for the growth of meaningful action, figuring dream-space as both inactive and crucial for making things happen in the world. Echoing Lorde’s embrace of embodied, intuitive experience, Cammock ‘sways as she works’, observing the bodily sensations of wet toes on grass, the passing breath of wind on her neck, the skin, which ‘feels everything the air has to offer’. The senses become organs of thinking through experience, bodily responses to her environment which are too frequently by-passed in the rush to complete, fix and master.
Another allusion to the potential of reverie comes with the artist’s claim that bewilderment—a temporary loss of conscious thought, a gap of astonishment—is an essential process of artistic discovery, positioned against studied learning and the rigid structures of knowledge production it implies. Etymologically linked to being lead astray or lured into the wilds, bewilderment evokes Jack Halberstam and Tavia Nyong’o’s call for a ‘Theory in the Wild’, parsing the different valences of ‘the wild’ and its potential for decolonial thought. While fully acknowledging historical notions of the wild as both a dumping ground for the undomesticated, expired and politically unruly and a space of ruthless extraction and expropriation in the imaginary of white settler colonialism, they propose refiguring it as a fruitful arena for the potential of the feral and disorderly, ‘where communication bows to intensity, where worlds collide, cultures clash, and things fall apart’. Embracing mess in an order-obsessed world, they suggest the possibility of wildness speaking back to ‘so-called civilized thought on behalf of those who live and dream otherwise’.
Pairing the words idle and wild in the title, resting her camera on the manicured lawns, potted plants and lines of trees of tamed nature, as well wandering into the more unruly forested space bordering Wysing’s grounds, Cammock’s video intuits connections between inactivity and becoming wild. As she says in an artist video about the work, ‘there’s something quite wild and crazy about doing nothing’; perhaps bewilderment beckons as much in the woods as in simply apprehending the quotidian without attempting to extract value from it or fill empty time. Idlewild, however is not a word the artist has coined, but as she explains, has made her own through the process of making the video. In Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic novel Anne of Green Gables, which has been in print continuously since being first published in 1908, Idlewild is the name of Anne’s playhouse, a haven to escape to where creativity and imagination could thrive. It is also the name of what was known as the ‘Black Eden of Michigan’, which from 1912 until discrimination was outlawed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was one of the only resorts in the US that African-Americans were permitted to both holiday and buy property in. Bringing together these references, the artist alludes to the importance of carving out a space to dream, rest and play in, while underscoring the way that racist doctrines barred people of colour access to places where these fundamental human needs could flourish.
A wetness on the lips acts as a reminder of ‘how it feels to kiss’. Cammock’s solitary exploration of domestic space and the recollection of past intimacy again reverberates against the enforced isolation, in very different ways and to varying degrees of comfort, we are experiencing now. With the activity of ‘normal’ life migrating into endless video calls which provide both emotional connections and perpetuate a ‘business as usual’ framework often with added workloads and frustrations, we must provide windows into previously private space, revealing discrepancies in living arrangements through equally defined rectangles.
The words ‘futile acts in futile times’, spoken as Cammock spins a potter’s wheel cleaned of any trace of clay, connects the potter’s labour to a clock-hand’s, clockwise motion, perhaps also referencing the futility of making art at all, at a time when many artists are struggling to find meaning in their work in an uncertain world and art world. Inadvertently, the scene also speaks of the daily barrage of statistics around death and infection, and of the increasingly desperate measures taken by NHS staff to protect themselves and others.
Clocks ticking in the background recur, a sonic marker of time’s segmentation echoed in the camera’s cutting at regular intervals, each shot with the same pre-defined duration. Despite the camera’s stillness, these clock-time allusions gesture towards the management of temporality in an era of just-in-time-production, evoking what Elizabeth Freeman calls ‘chrononormativity’, whereby ‘naked flesh is bound into socially meaningful embodiment through temporal regulation’. Organising human bodies toward maximum productivity through the use of timepieces, calendars, schedules and time zones, this process naturalises institutional forces—like the necessity to turn up to work on time, for an allotted period of time—into somatic facts that make it hard to envisage any other way of constituting time. The static but repetitively-interrupted camera seems to suggest that in the rush of non-stop life, even, or especially, idleness is permitted only within strictly-managed windows of downtime, in rest breaks geared towards further efficiency.
Who gets to be inactive, who gets called lazy and ‘what is at stake in embracing silence’ within a racist, patriarchal capitalist system are cries echoing throughout Idlewild. The artist sings a rendition of Johnny Mercer’s ‘Lazy Bones’, the lyrics of which sketch a caricature of an idling black worker shirking from his tasks in the field and house, while the melody and rhythm reflect the appropriation of black music by white singer-songwriters like Mercer and his collaborator, Hoagy Carmichael. Quoting from Chris Davis’ theory of idleness, which argues that contra Darwin, it is the most idle, those who need the least work, who survive, Cammock draws a direct lineage from the ‘plantation owner, land owner, person owner’ to the ‘knighted, landed peer and Tory MP with business interests’ of today. As her voiceover makes clear, this group conceals their a parasitic dependence on the labours, rents and impoverishment of others, by projecting laziness onto the people who sustain this existence of entitlement: ‘the slave, the indentured labourer, the child in the congo, the disabled parent, the projects, the council estate, immigrants’. She underscores that while the space for the ‘lazy, irresponsible black person never fades’, it is the recipient of unearned, inherited privilege, and those profiting from the scape-goating and exploitation of a racialised ‘other’ who are the ‘real Lazy Bones’. By referring to ‘dawn-breaking cleaning jobs’, Cammock evokes the back-breaking reality of this often overlooked and underpaid work, most of which is carried out by people of colour and immigrants. In this moment, when the work of cleaners, porters, as well as carers, delivery people and others who must continue to work through the crisis, is being acknowledged as essential to sustaining life, Cammock’s question of who can claim a space of inactivity acts as another reminder that working from home, and the isolation narrative playing out over Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, remains a luxury for many.
A fly, not quite dead, but inert; Mary Oliver’s suggestion that the extraordinary happens in places of solitude, away from the crowds. James Joyce’s observation that rest is necessary to all art. A creased pillow on a couch. These passages recall a descent into a deep well of depletion, a time when I felt unable to produce or even think against the bombardment of deadlines and obligations. Dread, amplified by the perpetual hum of awareness that as a freelance artist, whose livelihood depends solely on the ability to keep making, stay visible and perform, stopping—doing nothing—is not an option. A dead-end when work loses its vitality and curiosity, replaced by a meaningless drag of emails, blurbs and proposals conjured out of thin air. Ben Anderson describes burnout as ‘symptomatic of the desire, the compulsion and the demand to be active’, that characterises our precarious time, contrasting it with boredom, a state, he argues, has waned with the increased normalisation of zero-hours contracts, unstable living conditions and endless feeds to scroll through in states of distraction. As ‘lines between activity and passivity begin to blur’ into an avalanche of clicks, scrolls and likes, for the distracted subject of burnout, empty time no longer seems to exist. Cammock’s ‘search for nothingness’ holds out a possibility that emptiness could yet be located within this unremitting buzz, and perhaps that the search for this in itself, is crucial to the artistic process.
While her words ‘waiting for a flow that is already here’ strikes a tentatively hopeful note, affirming that creative inspiration continues to bubble up even when seemingly beyond grasp, for me it hints at the bleak burnout sense of doubt that the flow was ever there, or would ever return. An ebbing away of the curiosity that nourishes creative work, this brittle state brings to mind what for early Christian monks was identified as ‘acedia’, once a contender for the 8th deadly sin. Derived from the Greek akidia, meaning lack of care, it describes a state of restlessness, inability to focus on work and loss of commitment to the spiritual life. The ‘noonday demon’—today a euphemism for depression—was understood as the ‘spirit’ of acedia, visiting monks in their cells at high noon, tempting them out with promises of pleasure, memories and even the notion that they could better serve God out in the world. Over time, acedia and the closely-related effect of inertia were refigured as laziness, a moral issue, eventually replaced by ‘workplace depression’ in the form of burnout, compassion fatigue and absenteeism. Framing these states as moral concerns shifts their remedy onto the individual, rather than the overwork and precarious conditions of labour which bring them about. While Dante’s punishment in purgatory for acedia (figured as sloth) is to run on the spot for all eternity like a deranged precursor to the fitness videos endlessly playing across YouTube, the 4th century theologian Cassian proposed that engaging in purposeless tasks such as moving palm fronds from one place to another would ease acedia’s grip. Moving the camera from one place to another without looking for anything particular, They Call It Idlewild evokes this aimless labour, a labour made not in the service of a specific outcome, but arguing instead for a work of day-dreaming and reverie.
According to Teresa Brennan, the spirit of sleep was also considered one of the ‘spirits of deceit’ along with acedia, because of its proximity to idleness and inertia. As she notes, ‘we are never more inert than when we are sleeping, unless we are dead’. Briefly resting on the whirring, bleeping and blinking back of a server, the video snaps back into a familiar zone of always-on productivity where, like idleness, ‘sleep is contested ground’. Cammock’s voiceover continues by drawing on passages from Jonathan Crary’s book ‘24/7’ (2013), which argues that sleep is the last bastion of non-commodifiable space in neoliberal capitalism’s quest to extract value from every aspect of our lives, a pursuit driving attempts to banish sleep altogether. Describing experiments to create the ‘sleepless soldier’ by sequencing the genetic makeup of migratory birds, he evokes a dystopian, yet already here, vision of the world which, as Cammock says in the video, ‘radically excludes the possibility of care, protection or solace’. Even while the labour of care is industrialised and monetised through the movement of women from developing areas of the world to care for the bodies and homes of the wealthy, the attentive gaze held throughout They Call It Idlewild seems to affirm another vision, where respecting the human need for downtime- including sleep- is a vital act of care.
As material from the archive fills my screen—a geometric collage, a child’s drawing, a rough wax crayon sketch—I am reminded that the work of tending to objects, the original meaning of ‘curator’, is also one of caring, deriving from the Latin ‘cura’, to care for. A strip of empty black film showing only flashes of colour against rattling sprockets evokes the shift from a materially-limited medium to the potentially endless duration of digital capture: CCTVs, webcams and scrolling screen feeds. As the artist observes ‘we are all forgotten one day’, it also suggests the limits of perceiving any record as a guarantee of permanence. In this melancholy tone, an acceptance of human finitude evokes all those who are not archived, whose stories are not preserved. The silence of the archive echoes with the absence of voices unheard and words unwritten, a ‘search for nothingness’ that nevertheless—as this is a commissioned work, the brief supplied by Wysing and the artist contractually obliged to complete it—must result in something. Rather than a coherent narrative, the video meditates on the process of responding to the archive, bringing to light the normally hidden frustration of a lack of inspiration, the desire to do nothing instead and making space for this inactivity, as with Lorde, as a field of germination.
Erica Scourti is an artist and writer based in London and Athens. Her work explores biographical writing and bodily inscription in the performance and representation of subjectivity. Solo shows include Complaint at Almanac, London and Spill Sections at StudioRCA (both 2018); group shows include High Line, New York, Wellcome Collection, Kunsthalle Wien, Hayward Gallery and EMST Athens. She has been published in Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry (Ignota Press, 2018) and Fiction as Method (Sternberg, 2017) etc. Scourti was guest editor of the Happy Hypocrite (2019).
Helen Cammock was the joint winner of the Turner Prize 2019 and winner of the 7th Max Mara Art Prize for Women. Cammock was born in Staffordshire, UK in 1970 and lives and works in Brighton and London. Her exhibition at Wysing, They Call It Idlewild, is closed until further notice. You can however access the video work online here: http://www.wysingartscentre.org/whats_on/exhibitions/they_call_it_idlewild