Letter to a corpse

CIFAS, Brussels.
CIFAS, Brussels.

This is a talk  I gave during the CIFAS,  event in Brussels. It was written as a letter to my dead father who is buried in Brussels a few miles from the theater where the talk was taking place. The short introduction is in french the rest of the letter is in english.

Lettre à un cadavre.

Merci Charlotte, Antoine et tout le monde à CIFAS de m’avoir invité. C’est un plaisir de retourner à Bruxelles, car c’est la ville où j’ai vécu entre 2 et 16 ans – C’est la ville de mon enfance.

Mais mon enfance était cadrée par les façonneurs capitalistes et guerriers de cette ville,– car mon père travaillait à l’Otan et j’allais à l’école Européenne. Je faisais partie des gens qui ont transformé cette ville en QG de l’expansion du monde néolibéral…

Mais mon père est mort, il y a 33 ans, quand j’avais 15 ans et lui en avait cinquante…Il est enterré dans le cimetière de Tervuren.

C’était un homme très réservé, renfermé même, nous n’avons jamais parlé d’art, d’activisme, ou de la ville… mais ce matin j’aimerais lui lire une lettre, une lettre à un cadavre à propos du cadavre qu’est cette civilisation.

Malheureusement je vais la lire en Anglais car mon Français n’est pas assez affûté et de toute façon les rares moments où mon père et mois nous parlions, c’était en Anglais.

Cette lettre est plutôt une esquisse d’idée, de concept et de questions, – demain au VTI je parlerai plus de ma pratique et d’action.

Le rôle de l’éclaireur, qui est un terme militaire, est d’aller en avant pour rapporter des informations aux troupes derrière pour qu’elles voient plus clair… Mais peut-être qu’à la fin de cette lecture vous penserez qu’en fait je ne suis pas allé en avant du tout, mais en arrière, et que le monde semblera beaucoup plus sombre qu’avant.

Mais c’est dans le sombre que pousse les graines, c’est dans le noir qu’on voit les étoiles et souvent c’est en regardent en arrière que l’on comprend où on est.

Alors je commence :


Dear Dad

When you died you left your books.  From these books I’ve tried to reconstruct the you that I never knew. This letter is partly inspired by a book about the city you fell in love with and where you met mum before you had to move to brussels –  it’s a history of the Paris Commune of 1871…   But before we begin to talk about a city in resistance, the promises of autonomy and the dangers of art, lets talk about life.

You were my age when you discovered the cancer that was to kill you a few years later. It was the late 1970’s, an age where many feared the world would be wiped out by nuclear war.  For a week every year you would leave the family, the city and disappear, holed up in a bunker you would simulate a nuclear attack with your colleagues. You would imagine and play with the apocalypse.

Mum always said that you believed you were working for peace, I will never know what you really believed in,  but the stories I read in a youthful student diary of yours and some of the books you left, suggests that you had at least flirted with radical ideas. Ideas that maybe didn’t really fit with the life you were leading and the work you were doing at NATO.

And it makes me wonder, were you infected with the deep disease that lies at the heart of capitalism, this plague of extreme separation that affects so many of us. Had you separated what you believed in from how you acted in the world, had you allowed there to be chasm between your politics, your aesthetics, your ethics and your everyday life.

This question of rebuilding the relationship between idée’s and acts, to merge life and thoughts, to stop putting worlds into boxes and try to live a coherent existence is what has made me radically change my life over the last year. After 25 years of being an art activist in the megapolis, I deserted,I  left London, not to escape, but to start a new front, a front that merged resisting this world and creating new ones – that might survive the future.

In a way I was responding in acts to the words of the artist,: Alan Kaprow, one of the inventors of Happenings. He wrote:  “We may see the overall meaning of art change profoundly – from being an end to being a means, from holding out a promise of perfection in some other realm to demonstrating a way of living meaningfully in this one.


I begin this letter sitting in my new home, the late summer sun streams into our large yurt. I feel the cool breeze from a bee’s wings cross my cheek, it flies so close. I wonder if it has come from one of the hives next to the stream? The sweet taste of breakfast honey lingers in my mouth did it recognise the whiff of its own work?

From my desk I see the 7 hectares of land in which we produce our food and the food for some of the towns and villages around us.

Dad, I wish you could see the choices I made in my life. I wish you could meet some of my friends with whom I live and share my life with. I wish you could listen to your grandson playing his viola in the symphony orchestra or Dj’ing at his squat parties. I wish you could hear this letter im reading out loud to a crowd of strangers a few kilometres from your grave.

But perhaps my greatest regret is that I wish I had asked you as you lay dying of cancer –  what you had regretted about your life.  I feel that those words could have taught me so much more than the books you left me.

A recent study entitled “The five top regrets of the dying” was based on conversations a nurse had had with terminally ill patients. All of them were knowingly living the last days of their life and they spoke to her about their regrets.

The top five were:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

 3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4.  I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

And finally

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

These regrets speak of the disease of separation to me. A separation between work and friendship, between the right to life and the right to happiness.  A dislocation between our passions and our actions.

The metropolis is one of the most efficient systems of separation within the machine of capitalism, it is founded on perhaps the most violent separation of all –the separation of our biosphere from human life.

It is a milieu in which everything is done so that humans only relate to themselves, so that we create ourselves separately from other forms of existence, other forms of life. It has become the reign of the artificial over everything.

Within the metropolis a spell is cast on us all, a spell that commodifies every relationship. This magic is best summed up by the radical philosopher and farmer – Wendell Berry –  when he writes:

“Educated minds, in the modern era, are unlikely to know anything about food and drink, clothing and shelter. In merely taking these things for granted, the modern educated mind reveals itself to be as superstitious a mind as ever has existed in the world. What could be more superstitious than the idea that money can bring forth food.”

But the metropolis not only enchants us, it also seduces us.

In the worlds oldest surviving written story, the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu the wild man, is seduced into the city, into being “civilised”, by the whore of Babylon. His seamless life with the natural world, where he eats wild plants and drinks from the rivers, is broken, and he soon dies regretting that he had been lead astray to become complicit with murder of a fellow and the destruction of the forests.

The epic of Gilgamesh, was perhaps the first tale that tells the story that has remained with us ever since, that urban ‘civilised life’ is the epitome of progress and that the dirty, barbaric, chaotic, natural world’s only value is to be controlled, captured for our use.

The tablets with the story written on them were found under the great walled city of Uruk built 5000 years ago. Surrounded by cedar forest, it lived off some of the first farmed and irrigated fields in the history of humanity.

Like most civilisations it did not last much more than a couple of thousand years.

If you go there now there are just dusty ruins surrounded by desert, nothing grows, its bone dry, all life has gone.

Even before the Sumerian civilisation collapsed, the epic of Gilgamesh asked what price people pay to be civilized. Its a question many of us should perhaps be asking ourselves as we face the final confrontation between capitalism’s need for infinite growth and the finite resources of a single planet.

I can imagine you sighing, Dad –like some of the people in the audience here perhaps. “Oh my god! I can see what’s coming, he wants us to leave the cities and return to the stone age!”

Well lets talk about the stone age then.

The extraordinary thing is that no city is much more than 5000 years old. That’s about 70 life times away, 70 generations, a blip in history, just 0.002 percent of the two and a half million years since our first ancestors began to sharpen stones.

What is just as extraordinary is that our minds and bodies are no different from these ancestors of ours. If we could build a time machine and transport a child from the mouth of a cave in the upper Paleolithic to a Brussels apartment in the early 21st century and raise them as our own, they would have just the same chance as a contemporary child at getting a degree in quantum physics or becoming a famous computer programmer.

The only evolution has been cultural, not physical.  We have the same intelligence and sensibilities. We are gatherer hunter bodies living in a very recently artificialised domesticated world, no wonder it seems so strange and wrong sometimes.

All the archeological and anthropological evidence, much from the study of contemporary gatherer hunters, backs up the ancient myths of the fall from paradise and the golden age. For the last 99.998 percent of human history we gathered our food from the wild – nuts, berries, fruit the occasional hunting and scavaging of game.  We worked less than three hours a day and the rest of the time was spent telling stories, singing, making love, sleeping, dreaming.

Anthropologist Kevin Duffy who studied the Mbuti Pygmies wrote: “try to imagine a way of life where land, shelter and food are free, and where there are no leaders, bosses, politics, organised crime, taxes, or laws. Add to this the benefits of being part of a society where everything is shared, where there are no rich people and no poor people, and where happiness does not mean the accumulation of material possessions.”

Try to imagine. That is how humans were for most of history.

Pehaps the law of the jungle was not competition and coercion, the survival of the fittest – but quite the opposite: a spirit of generosity, of sharing and of anti-authoritarianism. Everything belonged to everybody, we were deeply connected to each other and the worlds we passed through, there was no hierarchy. But that story doesn’t quite fit the myths of capitalism.

Around 10,000 years ago a radical revolution occurred, things began to change faster than anything had ever before. Some people started playing around with seeds and plants, it seemed like a good idea. Something about it was seductive and we began to farm and settle.

Farming achieved quantity at the expense of quality: more people and more food, but not necessarily better food or better lives. From eating thousands of different species of plants we were reduced to a handful of starchy roots and grasses –  and we had to work hard, very hard, digging, sowing, planting.

The Neolithic revolution was perhaps the most radical revolution in history, no other invention has had such huge consequences, except perhaps the burning of fossil fuels.. but we will come to that later.

The deal of the Neolithic was that we swapped a life of interdependence with the natural world to one of dependence to a few domesticated species.  By domesticating our food we domesticated ourselves. Without our care the plants died and without them we starve.

Around the farmed fields grew villages, surplus and then cities, and with that came divisions of labour, social heirachies; rituals, priests, kings, politicians, bosses, inequalities, poverty, ownership, the state, armies and ….war. The equilibrium between our land base and human life was thrown off kilter.

Now at the start of this, perhaps humanities final century, the metropolis is everywhere. The city as a politically autonomous zone, federated with other diverse cities,  an old European tradition, has been destroyed everywhere by the centralised state and its metropolitan mind set. The division between the urban and the rural no longer really exists. The countryside is simply an industrial food factory or a place to consume during leisure time. The culture of the metropolis has subsumed all territories, everywhere is the same, same clothes, same music, same shops, local difference has been eroded.

We are living the final consequences of the disequilibrium between our biosphere and our culture – our society is at war with the natural world and the metropolis is the command centre, a command centre than runs through every one of us. Any study of the ruins of past civilisations reveals that nature normally wins the war and that the poor suffer most.

100 million people died in the wars of the last century, another 100 million are expected to die due to climate change over the next 18 years, nearly all of them people with life styles that produce very little CO2. The Climate catastrophe is not only a war on the biosphere it is war on the poor.

Dad, unlike your generation, mine never experienced cities in ruins, and I have little memory of living under the shadow of nuclear war, but the shadow that the future throws on my generation is equally terrifying once one understands the full significance of runaway climate change, and the exhaustion of virtually all our natural resources under the pressure of consumer capitalism.

The armagedon of your war was one of ‘ifs’. ‘If’ physical conflict is declared, ‘if’ the button is pushed, ‘if’ the interbalistic missiles are launched.

My war, is not a question of ‘if’s”. It’s already happening as our eco systems fracture.  We are in the midst of the 6th greatest extinction, the first in 30 million years, it is the consequence of a war of ‘development’ whose weapons have increased exponentially since your cold war began half a century ago.

More goods and services have been consumed by the generation alive between 1950 and now, than by all the generations in all of human history before.  The natural limits of our global ecosystems have been surpassed many times over, no amount of financial speculation or hi-tech intervention will buy the system its way out. This time the inevitable collapse of civilisation will not be local but global, the only question left is how de we navigate the future to make sure that this crisis brings out the best in humanity rather than the worse.

To get through it we are going is going to require a cultural transformation as radical and deep seated as the Neolithic revolution 10, 000 years ago. We are going to have to imagine a paradigm shift in the way we are human, in how we sense the world, in how we live and make culture, in what it means to live with all other forms of life that we share our world with.

Try to imagine.

Artists are good imagining that which seems impossible, in proposing futures that do not fit within the paradigms of the present, in daring to set sail for Utopias even when the maps have not yet been drawn.

But artists are also easily seduced by fame and fortune, like Enkidu they can be lead astray, they can loose their feral force and be manipulated into throwing a life line to a dying system rather than sinking it and beginning something new. Too many so called ‘creatives’ are masking the horrors of capitalism with their progressive art and culture, remaining dependent on the very machines that they are denouncing, reproducing the system using their creativity which in the end makes it appear cleaner, more progressive, more desirable.

It’s very fashionable to be doing politics in the art world of the early 21st century. But despite the number of Biennales and exhibitions plastering the words activism, social change, resistance and the political all over their catalogues, the majority of the work is simply representation of activism, pictures of politics, fictional insurrections, micro gestures with little strategy for how they might evolve into any meaningful social transformation. There is little effort to use creativity to build new social movements yet a lot of work capturing the energy of movements into the realm of art, as if it were a zoo for exotic species – the “real activists.”

Part of the paradigm shift will be to radically transform the role of art, to give up representation and turn to transformation, apply our creativity in the service of life, and this Dad is where your book on the Paris Commune comes in.

We will go back in time again, to a period not unlike our own, a drawn out transition between eras, a time of potentialities with multiple visions and choices of possible futures, just like now.

It’s the summer of 1871, Impressionist painter Eduard Manet writes to Berthe Morisot, “Quels terribles événements et comment allons-nous en sortir? Chacun en rejette la faute sur son voisin et, en somme nous avons tous été complices de ce qui s’est passé.”

He is disturbed by an event that sent shock waves through the end of the 19th century, the Paris Commune.

From the 18th of March to the 28th of May, 1871 the Commune radically transformed the city of Paris. It was an insurrectionary blast that cracked a fault line between the competing forces of the century, it was a fissure between capital and the people, the rulers and the ruled, between those who desired autonomy from the state and those who profited from slavery.

What began as a kind of 19th century Woodstock – a resistant festival where bodies reinvented themselves and new forms of life were acted out; ended with the stench of rotting corpses filling the streets of Paris. In the last bloody week of that brief utopian spring, 30,000 communards were shot dead by a republican government desperate to wipe radicalism from the city of light.

If the commune was one of the first insurrections of the modern era, what where the artists doin ? Most of the Impressionists – the painters of modern life –  including Manet, Morrisot, Cezanne and Monet, escaped Paris, they took refuge in sea side cottages and rural retreats, many continued painting – portraits, seascapes, silent couples sitting at tables, bunches of flowers…

One artist famously did the opposite, he remained in the insurrectionary city, and put down his paintbrushes. ART WAS NOT ENOUGH.

Convinced that the commune was a prefigurative embodiment of the ideas of his friend and founder of modern anarchist theory Proudhon, Courbet immersed himself in organising. His art became the creation and performance of new forms of life.

“I am up to my neck in Politics..” he wrote in a letter to a friend “Paris is a true paradise, no police, no nonsense, no exaction of any kind, no arguments! Everything in Paris rolls along like clock-work. If only it could stay like this forever. In short it is a beautiful dream. All government bodies are organized federally and run themselves.”

A few weeks later as Marx described, “to broadly mark the new era of history it was conscious of initiating… the commune pulled down that colossal system of martial glory, the Vendome column.” Made from granite and thousands of melted Prussian cannons, with a golden statue of Napoleon in the guise of roman emperor at its summit, this monument to hierarchy and war was incompatible with the solidarity and horizontality of the commune.

Despite initial reservations, Courbet eventually signed the decree for the columns destruction and helped plan the rebellious festival that brought this hated symbol crashing down. The destruction of the Vendome column was a piece of total theatre

; invitations were printed, bands played and twenty thousand people watched as the winches pulled and the column fell engulfing the square in a huge cloud of dust.  It was the closing act of the brief utopian experiment and perhaps the first act of modern art activism.

Six days later the Republican troupes broke through the barricades and began their massacre.  Seventy two days of experimenting with new forms of life ended in a week of ruthless killing. Tens of thousands of communards were rounded up, summarily executed or arrested. Marshall law was declared and the impressionists began to return to town.

Two years later the impressionists first exhibition opens, it revolutionises painting, but in fact their shock aesthetics are just masking the horror. It was what today we might call “artwashing”.

The magical slight of hand that transforms ‘radical’ art into a tool for upholding the status quo.

The free and liberated crowd of the commune was erased with portraits of isolated individuals. Streets stained with death were washed away with still lives bursting with colour. Modern life returned, and with it the myth of the artists as disengaged, ‘neutral’ aesthetic rebel.

The possibilities of the world were reduced again, a bifurcation closed in on itself.  The new forms of social life that arose during the Commune, such as the heated direct democratic debates in the new grassroots clubs, the requisitioned empty buildings transformed into public housing, the expropriated workshops turned into worker owned cooperatives, the demand for female suffrage; everything withered away like plants brought indoors. Many of these forms would take decades to re emerge, others are still waiting.

From now on progress would be to aspire to an ordered comfortable Bourgeois life. Good furnishings, the smell of freshly cut flowers, the sacred family unit, obedience everywhere and the state as only imaginable form of social organisation.

Impressionism had restored the ‘normality’ of modern life. According to art Historian Albert Boeme, modernism was built on the desire to hide the “guilty secret” of the commune. Fearful of taking sides and of getting too close to that which they could not control, the Impressionists had put art in the service of business as usual, in their fear they had domesticated and erased the experiment in new forms of life.

These different roles of the artists during the commune is a lesson for all of us in this similar moment of crisis and transition.

Having the courage to disobey and let go of fear seems central to me, and as I finish this letter writing in Paris, looking over the rooftops of this metropolis wondering what would have happened if all the artists had remained in the insurrectionary city, I can’t help wondering whether this beautiful world of ours may well be terminated because of too many acts of obedience.

With every act of obedience we remake the world as it is and undo the world as it could be. With every nod to authority we let go a bit more of who we are.

I was never sure of who you were dad, and although your books might remain, your corpse is sure to have become the food of worms. 10 years after the Commune Charles Darwin wrote that “·Worms have played a more important part in the history of the world than most persons would at first assume”. He had observed that worms create our humus, they literally construct the soil and therefore make the earth hospitable to humans.

Without them there would be nowhere for seeds to grow, there would be no plants, no forests, no food.  And without food there would be no human history – no ritual, no art, no cities, no culture.

He also realised that worms protect history, their castings are what stop archeological artefacts from rotting, they help us learn from the past. They are as much cultural agents as natural ones.

Darwin called worms  “small agencies” whose “accumulated effects” turns out to be huge.  Like artists and activists, with their small intelligent improvisation and their political acupuncture points they are perhaps a healthy reminder that the small can transform history when it embeds itself deeply in the materiality of the world.

The commune offered the artists a choice, to stay in the city and apply creativity to rebellion and the construction of new forms of life beyond the state or to escape the city to continue to make art whose surface was radical, but which in fact returned everything back to normal and threw a life line to the sinking machine.

We have a stark choice, either we feed this system; encouraging its behaviour, collaborating with its institutions, promoting its values and masking its horrors – or we do the opposite: starve it of its life blood, rob it of its glamour, weaken its status, break our dependence on it and create spaces of true collective autonomy that will take us into the future..

Our choice in this moment of crisis is perhaps a mirror image of the commune.

I think its time for the ‘creatives’ to leave the metropolis, to starve capital and capitals of creativity and to create new forms of life on the edges, in the cracks.  Outside the centres of the metropolis there is the capacity to find space and time to free our minds and bodies from the constant bombardment of capitalist forces that mould our sensibilities and refashion our needs. After all the front line of the battle against capitalism is the way it shapes our sensibilities. How can we perform postcapitalist life when we are immersed in its mania 24/7. We need acts of desertion that create cracks in which new conditions for different types of relations can occur. I no longer believe this is possible in the artificial hyper controlled space of the modern metropolis.

The atmosphere of freedom and creativity that was in the past attributed to cities needs to be brought back to the countryside, to the small villages and towns that could be part of a process of secession, part of a return to the dream of the Paris commune, a federation of communes of communes, autonomous from the state and capital.

When our energy and fuel systems inevitably break down millions will be forced to leave the cities, in search of food and fuel. The key question will be how do the communities in the countryside cope with the influx, how do we create spaces for the fugitives that nourish and share in a time of crisis rather than control and privatise.

Try to imagine.

Nine years after you died dad, the entire system that you were fighting against collapsed due to popular uprisings and economic crisis. The mega machine of the soviet empire, which seemed totally invisible, melted away within months. I doubt you would have ever imagined such a thing was possible.

Most of the science says that we have 10 years to radically reduce our carbon emissions if we want to stop runaway climate change. What the next 10 years will look like I have no idea. All I know is that I don’t want to look back and regret that I did not try to do more than simply imagine another future. I want to look back knowing that I had had the courage to performed that future in the present and shared it.

I love you dad



3 thoughts on “Letter to a corpse

  1. Really inspiring and stimulating, as ever! Some things that stand out – the recentness and anomalousness of agriculture-based “civilisation” (though gatherer-hunter societies weren’t and aren’t all egalitarian and lovely; and there must have been a reasonable perceived advantage for people to slowly make the switch to agriculture); the fantastic expression “artwashing”; the disconnection that most people have between their ethics and the consequences of their actions/way of live (myself included, though I hope to a lesser extent than the norm).

    Two caveats though – a translation of the Manet quote would be helpful, and I don’t think modern sapiens is 2.5 million years old – australopithecus etc would probably have struggled in modern culture.

    I’m still struggling with the whole representation/transformation dichotomy in my own artmaking, trying to get from one to the other… Grizedale Arts and Tania Bruguera are doing some really interesting work about Useful Art http://www.grizedale.org/blogs/blog/8710/the-criteria-of-art-util, though I’m not sure how far they actually want to dismantle capitalism…

  2. Funny enough Jane, I’m on a panel with Tania Bruguera in a weeks time in Graz as part of this years Steirischer herbst festival in Graz. The topic being USEFUL art ! As for the image of the “noble savage” yes im aware that its more complicated than that and several gatherer hunter societies do kill their elderly whilst others think that the old are the bedrock of their society… But the key is that there is lots of divesity of being human in their cultures, something brought out brilliantly in the new book by Jared Diamond: THe World Until Yesterday – but saying that there is still a real tendency towards antiauthoritarianism !!!

  3. Indeed! authoritarianism only seems to have appeared once human settlements got to a certain size – generally, larger than a gatherer-hunter culture can sustain.

    A mutual friend of ours has extracted a cracking, and probably the most salient point, on here Facebook:
    ‘With every act of obedience we remake the world as it is and undo the world as it could be. With every nod to authority we let go a bit more of who we are’.

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