Nouvelle de Aileen Hennes.
Premier prix littéraire du George Moore pour les nouvelles en 1995, il a été publié dans « Der Universale Maschine » (Berlin) en 2001.
Texte original écrit en anglais.
English original version
More and more people are labeled criminal. Recently, I became one of them, although, in my own eyes I have done nothing wrong.
I am a graffiti artist.
It started one day I was on my way home from school, when out of the blue I felt like writing something I’d been thinking about down on a wall! I happened to have a piece of chalk in my pocket and I wrote this: « Is a bank robber a greater criminal than a bank manager? » Not that I didn’t realize that society has agreed that he is and that we need values that are written in stone to keep the fabric together. However, the idea had struck me with great force, and I wasn’t going to let it sink back into oblivion, just like that. After all, I thought, there must be others out there who will feel compelled to consider this.
Other revelatory thoughts didn’t immediately follow; I went back to scribbling comments to the text in the margins of my schoolbooks like I’d done before. The lies we’re handed down! Sometimes I’d illustrate them with pictures. That was fun! I was becoming so obsessed by this extra-curricular activity that I finally let it decide my choice of career. I would go to art school! I eventually got a place at Cheltenham College of Art & Technology. Throughout the preceding summer I visited no small amount of art galleries and warmed to the sultry idea that I would be Creating.
My teacher was a cynic. He was dismissive of virtually any artist I was able to name. He sneered at pictures in frames.
Most of the students at the college were women. He looked at our efforts with an unrelentingly sour expression and never failed to mention, on the slightest pretext, that women were born fascists. Like Thatcher whom he called our role model! Perversely he used this to ingratiate himself with his female students. It worked like this, to be in his good books you had to prove it somehow. There were those who turned over backwards to be accepted by him. I cringed on their behalf and wanted nothing so much as to expose him as a fraud. One day I found a pretext to drop in at his home. To put it simply I wanted to see the kind of art that pleased him. To my amazement there weren’t any! No paintings at all, no sketches pinned up anywhere… A relic of Victorian imperialism in the form of an insanely smiling blackamoor had a bunch of frames hanging around his neck. Apart from this statement of sorts an entire wall in the kitchen was covered in snapshots of derelict lots and buildings, some of which were crisscrossed by yellow or black felt tip pen markings. It might have been a never ending collage; a piece of work that fought back so hard he could never finish it. I had experienced artistic mortality already – when a painting not only doesn’t correspond with an idea, but fails to take on a life of its own, when finally you throw in the paint-rag with a heartfelt wtf – and I didn’t wish it on anyone, not even on this moustachioed nonentity of a teacher.
If art is, art will provide.
I had written the words boldly in the middle of a sheet of drawing paper.
“Provide what?” sneered my tormentor, suddenly peering over my shoulder.
“Provide food for thought…”
« If you’ve noticed anybody thinking lately you’re ahead of me », he said, walking away.
Shortly after that I decided to let real art and real artists teach me about art. That part went well. I went up to London and took to the galleries in a big way. Soaked up the atmosphere. Spent hours copying the old masters. Got on the wick of the staff at Zwemmers, where I spent hours reading theory and critique. Then there were the strange outbursts in words of artists themselves. Like Yves Klein claiming that Giotto worked in monochromes. What did he mean? I experimented with techniques and ideas equally. Defiantly I went back to Cheltenham, to the classroom, to the miserable teacher. He didn’t deign to comment on my absence during a whole term. In fact, he ignored me. I ignored him too. What was it Frank Zappa said? Libraries are for learning, college is just for getting laid… And he – my teacher – I would bet on it, wasn’t even getting laid.
I realised that I soon had to start peddling my arse to the establishment in order to make a living. I started filling out forms for grants, but it depressed me so I got a job as a waitress. But waitressing too was problematic as it was all a matter of shoveling dead animal parts into the bellies of zombies. After a while I knew what I had to do. I turned to the streets again, back to where I’d started, bent on reinvesting our lives with the company of other animals.
I tried my way at first with the odd cow spray-painted onto the landscape of the city where one might imagine the cows would be in a street in India. I painted colourful cattle-grids in front of entrances to department stores and other places where the animals might find themselves in difficulties. I left huge round bales of hay and straw at strategic places. I painted bathtubs full of water at the basement level of houses. Cowpats. Some concessions to beauty were made: a stone fountain where the cows could bathe in the middle of a road junction. Still the idea of the religious cow did not ring true.
Next I depicted a herd of cattle being driven down the high street – like in the Wild West. Now, that was exhilarating! Enormous amounts of planning were required – for example: police computers needed to be infiltrated with a convincing message to the effect that all night traffic would have to be redirected from the city’s main thoroughfare. When I turned up in the evening, and stood at the corner of the street with my plastic bag of spray can paints, I watched incredulously as I saw my plan work. Indeed roadblocks were being mounted and traffic police re-directed the traffic.
That night I painted my heart out. I painted supple, strong creatures sweating and striking the asphalt with their hooves as they thronged against the walls on either side. Like them, I was driven! I painted great clouds of dust rising from the scene. As I walked past the steakhouses and burger shops I gave way to the whim, more human than bovine I admit – of painting hooves kicking out at the windows. After surveying my work I ran back down the street and broke these same windows. The stampede was a fact. My graffiti became headline news.
I had entered the nation’s swelling ranks of – not artists, but criminals.
I wasn’t bothered, what concerned me was whether my representation of the cows had done them justice. The herd of cattle brought in from the prairies of the Wild West, or the sacred Hindu kine… I still couldn’t get rid of a nagging voice that told me that I’d failed to represent The Cow. The cow as we know her looks as if she were designed from a butcher’s chart. She’s not a supple body capable of smooth forceful movement, but rather a creature locomoted by purely functional machinery. Bred solely for the production of milk or meat. Fed on a diet of soya grown where the rainforest used to be, or on offal from its own kind to produce more milk, or meat. Drugged on growth-hormones to provide for human greed – not hunger.
While the national news was busy condemning my art as vandalism I took a trip to the countryside and got a job as a dogs-body on a dairy farm. For a whole year I lived off the fat of the land.
When I returned to city life I chose to go to London. As a ‘canvas’ the vastness of the place frightened me at first, but I soon found it worked to my advantage. I could easily park a cow here and there without attracting too much attention. Each time I set to work I heard the steady bovine breathing in my ears. I’d leave the cows standing at the kerb with their orange plastic eartags and their numbered rumps docilely waiting for whatever might happen next. Milking, or slaughter. At one major set of traffic lights, the crossing of Oxford and Regent street, I left a whole herd of lifesize cow-cut-outs glued to the pavements and the zebra crossings, unable to respond either to the lights, or the traffic. Impassive. Fatally so. The first car drove into the herd at 04.08am.
But is waiting at the traffic lights Art?
Parts of the art establishment were beginning to mutter positively about my work, but what was more interesting was the outcry from the public. The thought of these forlorn creatures stagnating at the traffic lights, or dying in the street, stirred the popular imagination uncomfortably. Nevertheless, outrage was the loudest voice: THIS IS NOT ART! There was a kind of agreement about it, like there is about a bank manager being less of a criminal than a bank robber.
Graffiti is a major stirrer of righteous indignation, equaled only by dogshit. Exhaust fumes, pesticides, broken bottles, plastic bags, advertising, even the use of Agent Orange or depleted uranium stir up less emotion.
Graffiti is the voice of an individual.
I listened to radio and television interviews in which the usual responses to graffiti were rattled off. Futile moral indignation signifying fuck all! At this rate my art would soon be forgotten. That’s when an anonymous film appeared of the stampede in Cheltenham. I watched incredulously at the sometimes jumping and blurred images and discovered to my amazement that my own hooded figure would appear occasionally, drawing calmly and steadfastly, or filling in, more frantically, the clouds of prairie dust. Somebody had been watching me!
This is when the art establishment embraced me. My work was handsomely photographed and made into a book. I attended the book launch at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. To be shuffling about anonymously at that event gave me a perverted thrill of megalomania. I wondered what would happen if I were to disclose my identity: would I be hailed as an artist, or arrested? Would a controversial graffiti artist get Arts Council support? I doubted it.
A few days later I had my answer. I was arrested in flagrante while in the process of painting a giant milking machine as it throbbed through a multi-storey car park. That particular artwork became my downfall, but it was also my greatest artistic achievement. I did not resort to known symbols. There was not a cow in sight. My design was of a giant empty milking hall with the rubber suckers of each milking machine drawn ambiguously like distributor heads with the leads that fit onto the spark plugs. My drawing was like a sales brochure: lines following a colour code that had dispersed with language; especially designed for the sophisticated illiterate. In order to do this, I had poured over the brochures of Alfa Laval, the most consistently clever company to have removed natural behaviour from living creatures. To tear a mother away from her calf requires a particular human capacity for detachment. It is made easier when the thing is set in system.
All human beings are fascinated by systems; some have more trouble than others in appreciating them. To me it was a bit of a challenge. In the back of my head – in amygdala – the memory of the hot breath of the cows on the farm where I had worked still murmured of life. I wanted to give them something back in exchange for what they were giving me, but in doing so I knew I had to be true to the system. I had to fight any inclination to deviate, to make ‘unnecessary’ marks for the sake of aesthetics.
The job required shitloads of paint. Expensive paints. During the months I spent planning it I denied myself anything that seemed superfluous (soap, toothpaste, sanitary towels…). But, could it be done in one night? When Michaelanglo painted the Sistine chapel he had TIME. Time is what we lack today. Everything, but EVERYTHING is exponentially faster. I was going to make a beautiful statement out of an evil thing – if that was possible. After an undisturbed eight hours, as I stepped back to appraise the work, I bumped into the security guard. Too tired to put up resistance I fell asleep against his bulletproof chest as he called the police on his mobile.
On the other side of the wall there is a summers day. I know this because the window is open and a fly has flown in. It is already getting itself entangled in a spiders web and is buzzing frantically as the spider approaches it.
This is my fourth and last year inside.
I was big news for a while. Now I have inevitably been forgotten. But my last piece of work has stood the test of time. Alfa Laval made a deal with the City of London to use my artwork as part of their advertising. They settled the fine I was made to pay to the car park, but what they gave me was exactly nothing. It sickened me to learn that I had created a work that could be used to promote what I had wanted to tear to pieces all along.
I still could not help feeling a thrill when I first saw the whole thing photographed from every possible angle in an arts magazine. As a piece of art it was excellent. An extraordinary creation adopted hungrily by the same society that had condemned as unfit that creation’s mother.
The visitor who brought me the magazine had an amused look on his face. It was my former art teacher from Cheltenham. I hadn’t thought about him for a long time, but on seeing him there on the other side of the glass I suddenly recalled the plastic bags full of spray paint I had seen in his kitchen, long time ago… Seen, yet not seen. The penny finally dropped! The ‘never ending collage’ I thought he was working on, had been a map of his work. He too was a graffiti artist! He was the one who had filmed me when I painted the stampede!
It impressed him that I had managed to turn the Alfa Laval brochures into art. Before he left, twirling his moustache, he hinted that there was a great surprise to come – and long after he was gone his most sardonic smile hovered in the air, like that of the cat.
This morning a representative from Alfa Laval showed up. He made me an offer. He suggested that I complete my project by also painting the first floor of the carpark. There was mention of an incredible sum of money…
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