The Commissioners of Lunacy

INT. The artists’ studio, East London. The walls in the background are white and bare except for a fading, battered poster of Morph.[i] She responds to a question from the interviewer behind the camera.

CHARLOTTE YOUNG

I am not mad. Others may disagree.

CREDITS: The Commissioners of Lunacy[ii].

CUT TO:

CREDITS: Presented by Louis Theroux[iii]

CUT TO:

TEXT:

We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’

‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.

‘You must be’, said the cat, ‘or you wouldn’t be here.[iv]

FADE IN (AUDIO): Drive – The Cars[v]

(CONT.)

I was discharged from the Institution last year. During my first few weeks, I brought my bed sheets into the 3rd floor studios, tied them together and hung them out of the window. I ran outside and photographed them from the street below, so that it looked as though I was attempting to escape. By the time I had got back inside and up the stairs, the sheets had gone. They had been pulled down from someone passing by and they had run off with them. I went to convey my distress at this to one of the Commissioners. He laughed, took a photo of my angst-ridden countenance and walked away.

FADE IN: Arriving at the shore on jet ski dressed as a frog, the artist lectures the audience on evolution and human legacy via the London Marathon, Kevin Costner and electrical kitchen appliances.[vi]

(V.O. LOUIS THEROUX) The institution of the Art School has many functional parallels with those of the Insane Asylum. I’m here today at one of these schools to investigate.

CUT TO:

INT. Art school studios. LOUIS THEROUX is walking around looking interested and saying ‘Hullo! I’m Louis.’ to the students therein. He stops at one young man, STEVE, who is part way through fabricating a sculpture from a pile of old shoes.

(V.O. CONT.) In this particular institution there are 4 key stages: Assessment, Internment, Asylum and Discharge, all overseen by the Commissioners.

LOUIS

[extending his hand] Hullo! I’m Louis.

STEVE

[shaking hands] Steve.

LOUIS

Hullo Steve. Pleased to meet you. What are you making here, Steve?

STEVE

A scale model of the Virgin Pendolino High Speed Train.

LOUIS

Wow! The Pendolino… Do you mind if I ask you about your time here?

STEVE

Yeah, whatever.

LOUIS

How do you know if you should be admitted for observation and treatment to this particular centre?

STEVE

Well, the Commissioners do an evaluation of your cerebral processes, referred to as ‘Interview with Portfolio’ and decide whether individuals would benefit from internment here.

LOUIS

And once you’re accepted here, you’re each given your own room or space?

STEVE

Everyone’s allocated a space for creative expression, yeah.

CUT TO:

INT. More of LOUIS wandering through the studios. The camera scans rooms and corridors for various semi-finished paintings, drawings etc. on the walls. Students stop what they are doing and stare wide-eyed and expressionless down the lens as it passes.

(V.O. LOUIS THEROUX) The comparison here is uncanny. The indifferent, white walls are primed for the endless onslaught of scrawls, badly drilled holes, smears of unidentifiable substances and haunting lumps of No More Nails; corridors echo with the chilling screams of slanging matches and hissy fits. The staff and students here endure endless hours of Radio 5 Live because no one will bring in a decent hi-fi in case it gets stolen. Most disturbing, though, is the swift normalisation of irrational conversation.

CUT TO:

INT. The Institution, late afternoon. A COMMISSIONER is leading a group session. It is WANDA’s turn to contribute.

WANDA

These are my tights.

COMMISSIONER

And you’ve painted onto them with?

WANDA

Toothpaste.

(pause)

COMMISSIONER

Why tights?

WANDA

Erm…I’m interested in fetish. I think…

COMMISSIONER

Okay. Could you explain that a bit further?

WANDA

Erm…the tights. It’s to do with Feminism. And, erm…

COMMISSIONER

But why tights? What about trying other materials?

(pause)

WANDA

I like tights.

CUT TO:

The artist builds life size replica Elk antlers, measuring 12 foot across. They wander around a small, quiet town in a foreign country with the antlers strapped to their head and attempt to order a pizza.[vii]

(V.O. LOUIS THEROUX) In the Institution, permission is granted to make and do things that, in any other sector of society would be considered at best, inappropriate and at worst, barefaced lunacy. The Commissioners offer calm and accepting reassurance to facilitate the creative output of individuals here.

CUT TO:

INT. A corner of the studios. A COMMISSIONER, who is gesturing at something above their head, is assessing one of the students, CHARLOTTE YOUNG.

COMMISSIONER

You’ve spent the best part of the academic term throwing wet toilet paper at the ceiling. And that’s okay. But have you looked at Richard Serra?

CHARLOTTE

No.

COMMISSIONER

And make sure you clean that off afterwards. Okay?

(beat)

CHARLOTTE

It’s not dry yet.

COMMISSIONER

Get it off.

CHARLOTTE nods imperceptibly and mutters something under her breath about betting Marcel Duchamp never having had this problem.

cut to:

The artist recites poems concerning their previous employment delivering pig semen to farms and of the practicalities of using a pork-scratching bag as a prophylactic.[viii]

(V.O. LOUIS THEROUX) There is a strong socio-historical link between creativity and rationality. There is almost a kind of cultural assumption that those declaring themselves ‘Artists’ will inevitably be somewhat off-kilter sanity-wise. Dali would often walk around Madrid carrying a hand-bell to ring if he felt too little attention were being paid. To his moustache.

CUT TO:

Suspended from the ceiling of the gallery by their wrists and ankles, with half a lemon tied over their nose, the artist dribbles slowly into a jam jar.[ix]

(V.O. CONT.) The Institution provides a safe, supportive unit where interns are free to express themselves as they progress towards eventual discharge. This is monitored closely by the Commissioners, who utilise group and one-to-one therapy sessions, as well as more traditional paper-based assessments, to encourage development on a case-by-case basis.

CUT TO:

INT. A group of students are sat in a semi-circle on plastic chairs. A COMMISSIONER is handing out sheets of paper.

COMMISSIONER

Now, these are self-assessment forms…

The entire group groans wearily. One student gets up and crawls under their chair, laughing inanely.

(CONT.)

…so please can you fill them out by this time next week. Otherwise we can’t process you for discharge.

The group groans once more. One can be heard muttering something about how Joseph Beuys would never have put up with this sort of thing.

CUT TO:

STILL IMAGES: Stock footage from the BBC archive of insane asylums in the 18th and 19th centuries. Men with messed up hair and mouths wide open chained to walls, that sort of thing.

(V.O. LOUIS THEROUX) Throughout Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, a proliferation of schools, prisons, houses of industry, houses of correction, workhouses and, not least, madhouses were opened to deal with the ‘menace of unreason’.[x] The ‘rationale [of institutionalisation] first and foremost expressed the notion that locking up the mad was best for everyone, essential both for the wellbeing of the lunatic and for the safety of society.’[xi]

CUT TO:

INT. The Wellcome Collection, London. LOUIS is standing in front of yet more images of madmen, hung from the walls in gilded frames, looking deep in thought.

(V.O. CONT.) The Art School functions in a similar manner. Those considered wayward, left of centre in the ‘mainstream’ of society are gathered together and kept away and out of sight, in a controlled and sympathetic environment where they receive support, treatment and stimulation. They are protected from the derision of the outside world, and the outside world is kept shielded from this so-called ‘menace of unreason.’[xii] However, interns have to be given a full psychological evaluation by the Commissioners before being discharged, in order for them to be properly reintegrated into the community.

CUT TO:

Dressed in a moth-eaten bear costume, the artist traverses the town square, laughing relentlessly at nothing in particular.[xiii]

FADE IN (AUDIO): Leaving, On a Jet Plane – John Denver[xiv]

(V.O. LOUIS THEROUX) So, on leaving the Institution, where next? Don’t panic. Other organisations do exist. There are places you can go, people who can help, Facebook groups you can join. These post-graduate safe houses have different names, however, so keep an eye out. You might be familiar with some of them already. Some of them are known as ‘galleries’, others ‘project spaces’, ‘studios’, ‘events’. Or, rather sinisterly, and the British Psychological Society recommend using these ONLY as a last resort, ‘fairs’…

CUT TO:

A tree is felled at the most Easterly point of the U.S.A. and hits the ground. In Sweden, the artist gathers a group of people to wait and listen for the sound to reach them.[xv]

(V.O. CONT.) As you have probably deduced by the encroaching dulcet tenor of one of America’s most treasured singer-songwriters, this film is soon to come to an end. Maybe you feel as though I’ve given some extreme examples here whilst trying to illustrate my point. But I don’t find any of these activities any less sane than standing in front of a blank canvas or block of granite for weeks, months, years on end. The motivation and focus come from the same place, and ultimately, are aiming for the same thing. Like the arrows in the Strongbow advert.

CUT TO:

The artist attempts to sail from South London to Glasgow in a shopping trolley. They fail in their attempt after 17 days and 65 miles, due to “bad weather conditions and poor equipment.””[xvi]

(V.O. CONT.) Inspector Clouseau remarked that ‘The mad are the only sane people I have ever met’[xvii]. Like the mad, the artists of the world are not simply standing on street corners and shouting at passing milk floats without good cause. They are trying to tell you something, trying to point. They are not drowning, but waving. It might not be clear at first, but please, bear with them. Hopefully some good can come of it. Eventually.

SLOW FADE OUT: BLACK

(V.O. CHARLOTTE YOUNG) In 2004 I saw a TV programme in which a Turner Prize nominee of that year, Yinka Shonibare[xviii] was discussing his inclusion in the competition. He ended by saying, ‘200 years ago we all would have been locked up for this…’

FADE IN:

INT. The artists’ studio, East London. The walls in the background are white and bare except for a fading, battered poster of Morph.[xix] She responds to a question from the interviewer behind the camera.

CHARLOTTE

I am not mad. Others may disagree.

THE END

Charlotte Young, Spring 2009. Published in Sir John Cass Department of Art, Media & Design degree show catalogue.


[i] Animated Plasticine stop-motion character that appeared on several UK TV programmes with the late Tony Hart from 1977 onwards.

[ii] The Commissioners of Lunacy, inaugurated in 1845, constituted a permanent body of inspectors empowered to prosecute and to deny renewal of licenses [of ill-run madhouses]. They also took it upon themselves to improve and standardise care and treatment, Porter, R., Madness: A Brief History (O.U.P., New York, 2002)

[iii] British journalist and broadcaster.

[iv] Carroll, L., Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, (Penguin, London, 1964)

[v] Taken from the album, Heartbreak City, Elecktra Records, 1984.

[vi] Kim Noble, Considerations for an Island Race, 2008.

[vii] Beth Collar, The Great Irish Elk, 2006.

[viii] Frog Morris, Pig Semen Delivery Man & Pork Scratchings, 2005.

[ix] Angus Braithwaite, The Dribble Factory, 2006.

[x] Porter, R., A Social History of Madness: Stories of the Insane, (Phoenix Giants, London, 1984)

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Charlie Fox, The Laughing Bear, 2009.

[xiv] Taken from the album, John Denver’s Greatest Hits, RCA Records, 1973.

[xv] Elizabeth McTernan, Listen Here: A tree falls in the woods of Eastport, Maine, USA, and we will be here to hear it, 2007.

[xvi] Mark McGowan, Ocean Wave II, 2003.

[xvii] The Pink Panther, United Artists, 1963.

[xviii] MBE, contemporary British artist.

[xix] Animated Plasticine stop-motion character that appeared on several UK TV programmes with the late Tony Hart from 1977 onwards.

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