2010 will go down as the year I celebrated life by writing about death. In 2010 I started eight cuts gallery, a place devoted to the richness of words and the beautiful complexities of art and life. And I wrote the stories and poems that make up (life:) razorblades included.
But more than that, 2010 was about the people I met, about their stories, their lives, and the deaths that intersected them.
I have only one message for 2011. It’s very short, and it forms the preface to razorblades: be spectacular and die living. That’s 2011. To understand why I say that and what I mean, let’s go back to 2010.
I met many people in 2010 who inspire me, many who will remain friends for a long long time. To name just a few, Heikki Hietala, Larry Harrison, Joan Barbara Simon, Sarah Melville, Sarah Mayhew, Jenn Topper, Stuart Estell and Remittance Girl; and I first encountered works that changed and encouraged my approach to art, such as the surreal kitsch of Zero Lubin, and the haunting art of Sarah Spencer.
But, as I had done in 2009 (when I met Penny Goring and Sabina England), I met two people whose influence on my life and work will last a lifetime. Whose own experiences of death, and the way they have woven them into their lives, inspired the introduction to razorblades and the approach to art and life I want to embody at eight cuts gallery.
Cody James is the best novelist of her generation. Her voice, by turns heartbreaking and hilarious, loud and layered, is unique, and adds a depth to her work just not there in the works of others who write about the subject matter she tackles. But that’s not the full picture. What is so extraordinary about Cody is the unrelenting honesty that she brings not just to her work but to her life.
Back at the start of the year, during a very heated debate over her confessional approach to suicide, she wrote “Maybe there is no way to leave the world a better place, and all that remains is to tell the truth.” For me, that sums up why we write, and how we write. In person Cody is funny, charming, hypnotically intense (on stage this translates to a magnetism I’ve never seen in another writer, and possibly the highlight of my artistic year was performing a dialogue with her), and, despite writing for much of artistic her life under a pseudonym, she personifies that unflinching and often uncomfortable honesty. Cody had never made a secret of the fact she had attempted suicide three times. And this summer she tried a fourth time.
I had coffee with her the first time she left the house after that attempt, and we talked about our writing, and publishing The Dead Beat. I’ll never forget it. It made me determined that writing should be, as she put it, about telling the truth – our truth, not some universal constructed conceit – WHATEVER it may be. That’s imperative. It is, sometimes, the only thing that keeps us alive. I also learned from Cody that the truth, like life, is not a one-dimensional thing, and if we portray it as such, either by sugar-coating or, as too often today, by concentrating only on the darkness, we do grievous damage to the truth. Life is complex. The most hateful people have parts of light, the most despairing times have pinpricks of humour and hope. And if we claim to write the truth, we have to reflect that.
In May, a friend of Cody’s, Katelan Foisy, was in the UK promoting her book Blood and Pudding. The book is a transcript of tapes Katelan made of conversations with her best friend Holly when they took off in Holly’s parents’ car and didn’t stop driving till they were done. It’s a beautiful, exhilarating heart bound with threads of tragedy as Katelan narrates the events that unfold after that road trip, leading to Holly’s eventual death by heroin overdose.
The first day I spent with Katelan was in Oxford for the event Lilith Burning. Based in the OVADA Gallery, Katelan dressed up as Lilith, and we spent two hours on the streets of Oxford, taking pictures of people’s reaction to this in your face feminine archetype before processing the photos, returning to the gallery and creating an artwork form them, which we displayed in the window of the Albion Beatnik Bookstore where we invited back everyone we’d met during the day to see the photos, listen to some great double bass, and hear readings that focused on the Lilith archetype.
That day illustrates just what is so inspirational about Katelan. She, like Penny Goring, personifies what Sarah Melville calls the New Wave of Libertinage, an approach to art and life I’ve determined to make programmatic for eight cuts. A model, writer, artist, photographer, endless chronicler, and reader of the tarot, Katelan keeps the lines between the arts absolutely fluid. But what left its indelible mark on me was the way she described that initial road trip, the moment she and Holly got in the car and decided to drive. The book opens “Wherever we end up, we end up.” And holding everyone thrall as she sat in the leather-backed chair in the Albion Beatnik, with the energy and rhythm of an engine rolling along Route 66 Katelan described the desperate need to “go out and live. And live. And go on living, because you never know when it’ll stop.”
Spooling back to now, on the cusp of 2011, it’s what I’ve learned, processed, and made my own form Katelan and Cody that I want to take into next year. I want to make their intense, brilliant, but most of all true vision my own. In art, I think it is pretty much summed up in the last paragraph of my piece The New Libertines:
“We need writing that serves up the whole of life, in the smallest microcosms maybe, single truths told in single voices, but told in the full – the ugly and the beautiful; the hopeful and the despairing; the angry and the aspiring; that wrings art, words, life itself until they offer up every last secret, every hidden pain, every unexpected and delightful pleasure; that gives life in the full. Free from judgement. Free from taboo. Free from pretence.”
In life, I go back to the dedication in razorblades:
“Be spectacular and die living.”
And to a maxim of authenticity that sounds ridiculously hubristic, but which we have to make our own. “It is better to try to be extraordinary and fail than to try to be ordinary and succeed.”
And yet. Art and life. If we take Cody and Katelan seriously at all, the first thing we have to do is ditch that distinction for starters. And live. And live. And going on living and never stop. Because we never know when it’ll end.