The Structure of Feeling
Essay to accompany show All Suffering SOON TO END! At Matt’s Gallery 14.4.10-6.6.10
In the opening sequence of All Suffering SOON TO END! we find ourselves watching an unremarkable English suburban house from the far end of a shadowy garden. The camera shot floats a little as it steadies itself in classic hand-held style. Almost imperceptibly, that movement signals the presence of the maker, Jennet Thomas, and it places us immediately within a tradition of the moving image where the handmade quality of the work invites a closer relationship with the audience. Thomas’s opening shot allows us to see the world both through the eyes of the protagonist and the eyes of the filmmaker. The shot is also vital as it roots us firmly in British suburbia. Within seconds that foundation will be challenged by the sci-fi intensity of a TV test card and the appearance of a purple-skinned doorstep preacher. This tension between the suburban landscape and these surreal interventions lies at the core of the film.
Thomas has already delved into the suburban in her previous film, Return of the Black Tower (2007) in which several typical middle-class characters describe the revelation of a para-mystical presence in their lives. In All Suffering, she situates the film in a landscape that is quintessentially British, where the façade of well-kept lawns and semi-detacheds seems deliberately calculated to repress any sense of difference, irregularity or non-conformity. It evokes a persistent strand of British theatre from N.F. Simpson’s A Resounding Tinkle in 1957 (a suburban couple are delivered the wrong sized elephant) through the works of Harold Pinter to Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle in 1976 (a suburban couple and their comatose daughter receive a visit from the devil).
Equally it reflects the sensibility that permeates British TV productions such as the original Doctor Who series, Quatermass and The Stone Tape or The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin – all set in a desperate suburbia seething with unconscious and repressed desires.
The preacher and his ally – the green skinned nun – rupture the world of an elderly couple who spend their days watching an hypnotic test card on their television. It is not just a sensational religious vision that they propose, rather it is something wider, a general sense of the carnivalesque, hinted at in the visual and aural allusions that pepper the action. Two songs that are sampled at key moments in the action are ‘Born Under Punches’ by Talking Heads and ‘Changes’ by David Bowie. Both remind us of their lyrics – David Byrne, the proto-baptist preacher, summoning us to a life of perpetual redefinition:
All I want is to breathe [Thank you. Thank you.]
Won’t you breathe with me?
Find a little space…So we move in-between [I’m so thin]
And keep one step ahead of yourself. [I’m catching up with myself]
And David Bowie’s hermaphroditic alien celebrating mutation:
Just gonna have to be a different man
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time
The transformations they urge on us are embodied in rock and roll but their sense of the carnivalesque is echoed in the characters’ trip to a miniature England, the seaside gaudy of the preacher and nun’s costumes, and the nod to rave and trance music in the soundtrack. All of these references remind us that suburbia grew up around the emergence of a middle class dedicated to manners, politeness and the suppression of the riotous emotions that cleaved the country in half during the English Civil War of the 17th century. At that time, non-conformists and dissenters would frequently commune with God and the spirit world, acknowledging the irrational and a spiritual universe. Gerrard Winstanley, the Leveller and leader of the Diggers, could claim that his plan to settle on common land was guided by God:
This work to make the Earth a Common Treasury, was shewed us by Voice in Trance, and out of Trance, which words were these, Work together, Eate Bread together, Declare this all abroad. Which Voice was heard Three times…
The emerging middle class perceived this kind of ‘enthusiasm’ as a distinct danger, the kind that led kings to the chopping block and families to bloody dispute. Their remedy was the universal spread of manners, rational small talk and trimmed hedges, mown lawns and non-descript houses. The irrational, intense spirituality, sexual freedoms and the exploration of personal identity were banished to the margins of British society.
In All Suffering these exiled elements leak back into suburbia, generating a cyclical struggle between forces of utopic vitality and the entropy of conventional living. Jennet Thomas, though, does not approach this in an anarchic fashion. Instead, she plots the film’s action to a series of rules. The dialogue is based on text taken from a pamphlet by the Jehovah’s Witnesses entitled All Suffering SOON TO END!, and the action is determined by a three part structure in which the basic plot is repeated in an increasingly mutated form each time.
While the source text could imply that the film is simply about religion, Thomas is determined to move beyond the limits of that reading and beyond the confines of the apocalyptic language of the religious tract. When the preacher sets up a slide show to expound his theories, the various sufferings of the human race are represented by abstracted geometric forms – a red triangle for War; a yellow cube for Poverty; a blue cylinder for Injustice. This is a Platonic language of ideals and essences rather than the sectarian vocabulary of religion and it points us to the broader question of representation itself. In that context, religion could be seen as a cultural meme, albeit a toxic meme in this account. Equally, with their echoes of artists from Malevich to Sol LeWitt, the preacher’s minimal abstracted forms could posit religion as a cultural ‘artwork’ or even a kind of technology. Religion here stands for the wider human impulse to make sense of things and to create meaning.
All Suffering tracks the preacher and his mission to convert through three cycles. The gentle passages of the first presentation mutates into the aggressive, misproportioned second version and then into an abridged, stuttering third iteration. In each it is the fertility of the ideas generated and the aesthetic languages devised to convey them that is vital.
This process is as much a scientific operation as a religious one. It is just as possible to look at the generation of form and ideas in All Suffering as a kind of evolution rather than as a mystical development. In 1970 the mathematician John Conway invented what he called ‘The Game of Life’ – a grid of square cells extending infinitely in every direction on which pieces (representing cells of life) can be placed. Each cell in the grid has a neighbourhood consisting of the eight cells in every direction including diagonals. In this game there are no winners or losers, simply the pieces are placed in the starting position and then a series of rules determines which cells or pieces die and which are born or evolve.
The plot and evolution of the cycles in All Suffering can be seen to operate in a similar way. The memes of religion, suffering and redemption are put in place but, depending on the rules and the evolution of each element, the story is played out in a different way. As in Conway’s game, it is the limitations and the repetition that generates meaning and growth. The rules lead to a kind of freedom as they stimulate difference and mutation in each generation – something that can be seen in the decay and transformation of the geometric elements of the preacher’s slide show.
Likewise, the film’s soundtrack replays the original elements in a continually evolving series of edits, samples and echoes, and this itself is taken further in the installation accompanying the film in the gallery. Just visible from the screening room, there is another space circumscribed by a large purple ring of sparkling purple slit curtains. Within the arena of this circle, virtually a circus ring, grows a version of the tree of knowledge seen in the film. From one of its branches light projects onto a nearby screen – the preacher’s original slide show screen, now elevated on its own stage – and it presents a series of animated spots and circles. Like Conway’s cells, these elements vie for life.
From another branch there is the sound of a text being read quietly. It is the text of the original religious tract used as the basis for All Suffering. Now, though, it has mutated, passing through Chinese, Japanese or, perhaps, German as it follows the rules of the game and undergoes a metamorphosis. On certain days, even mutated versions of the original preacher and nun appear, scarier apparitions than the originals but mute, tamed within this setting.
As always in this work, the handmade quality of each element takes us closer to the ideas beyond the surface. The lack of any definitive industrial finish alerts us to the lack of filters governing the work, leaving it open and unpredictable. This circular space includes us in the work, as a vital generative element, the objects refusing to sit still as orthodox sculptures or remnants of a film set. Instead, they demand our attention and our imagination to create meaning – to make sense of them.
All Suffering contains some of the basic elements of fairy tale or of the epic stories that cultures repeat from one generation to another. Simple elements remain constant – the trickster, the innocents, a murder, and visions of paradise – but the configuration, and combination, of these elements changes with the needs of each generation which repeats the story. The basic archetypes that underpin the tale also undermine the banalities of the suburb so trenchantly observed in the film. Designed to promote the banalities of the everyday, the suburb in All Suffering finds itself haunted by the generative powers of human imagination and the endless mutative process of evolution.
In its desire to tell these stories, Thomas’s film is one of several contemporary works that enacts what the curator and critic Tom Morton recently described as ‘making Britain strange to itself again’. All Suffering draws on the recent history of the British suburb and acknowledges its place in popular culture while unravelling its carefully woven myths of reason. Clearly harnessing the narrative power of cinema to the more expansive, experimental tendencies of visual art, the work can be seen alongside pieces by Luke Fowler, Anja Kirschner, Otolith and Matt Stokes, for example, which all touch on elements in recent British life. Those artists also reconsider the nature of film-making and the protean nature of contemporary culture. It is always dangerous to characterise any series of works as a movement and it would be inappropriate to attempt it with such a diverse group of artists. The cultural historian, Raymond Williams, though talked of a ‘structure of feeling’, describing the way in which each generation responds to the specifics of the world they’re living in. He said that ‘Once the carriers of such a structure [of feeling] die, the nearest we can get to this vital element is in the documentary culture, from poems to buildings and dress fashions’. These structures, of course, mutate and evolve, changing with every generation rather like Conway’s Game of Life.