TALK: THE DEMOCRACY OF SELF
(Edited transcript of 'The Democracy of Self and the Democracy of Death', a talk given at the Casco Gallery in Utrecht on the 11th of February 2001.)
A small warning before I begin. My work is existentially oriented, that is to say, it is entirely about 'self' and 'death'. Both of these terms, 'self' and 'death' interest me a great deal, as an artist I feel I can approach them, work with them, even say something about them. On the other hand I don't know much about political science or where I should start on a subject such as democracy. I've read what Lisette (Smits, ed.) has to say on the theme of this series of talks, 'Democratic Design', and I think I understand what she means when she uses the term democracy -- but then again, I'm not entirely sure.
So, given what I've just said, here's my quick take on the subject: I don't have a problem with the behavior of the market or multinationals but I do have a problem with democracy in general! I feel we are living in an entirely over-democratised world and, if I'm right, I think that this situation creates a lot problems for today's artists.
Before coming here I prepared a statement to try and explain what I mean by this. With your permission I'd like to read it to you now. I'm afraid it's a bit formal, but later I'll show you a recent work of mine entitled 'A Thousand Deaths: Sortie 1' and try to discuss this work in relation to the theme. Hopefully this will make my position a bit clearer.
'The Democracy of Self and the Democracy of Death' (1)
Here follows some stills and the complete intertitles from 'A Thousand Deaths: Sortie 1' 2000 (video, 9 min.)
A little background to the film you've just watched... one morning last summer I awoke with a question in my head: "In an experience economy, what would be the value of a Near Death Experience?" This was somewhat strange for at the time I knew absolutely nothing about such experiences -- excepting the reports that people's lives afterwards tend to change radically. But I started to look into the subject. Six months of research followed, culminating in the work you've just seen.
Injecting yourself with a drug like ketamine... I have to admit it's a pretty bizarre thing to do. One collapses. Since the experience I've been thinking of other times and places that I've collapsed. And this has led to a lot of thought about two fundamental orientations of the body: standing upright and lying down, and two movements between these two positions: getting up and falling down. Upright and prone. I suppose these orientations and movements to be essential to issues of identity, self, existence and non-existence.
I find the word democracy very problematic for the artist, especially for the artist concerned with the self. What is the self other than a reified concept, a series of words and images, thoughts passing through our head? As I mentioned, I'm of the opinion that these concepts, these thoughts and images, come from outside ourselves. I believe the self is a construct which comes from absolutely everywhere but ourselves, from the 'other', from others, from our society, from the language and culture we inherit.
In thinking about democracy, which according to my simple understanding is the right of the majority over the minority, I wonder which concept of self should be used, which orientation should be adopted, the vertical, upright, timeless image, or the horizontal, train of thought? It seems to me that the democratic process, as a form of government presumes a lot. It's a lot to presume a consistent identity, let alone an identity within a constituency.
I wonder if this is a bit clear to you. I've made a page online of notes and links which supplement the statement which I made earlier. Actually I can't imagine the statement standing alone without these notes. The URL is here (shows page and URL).
Q & A
Q: In your next films, how are you going to deal with your desire to report back what is happening?
A: It's an interesting problem. Next time I hope to be more relaxed.
With the first attempt we didn't know what to expect and were all very nervous. We'd made a plan, but from the outset things went wrong. I tried to inject the drug intramuscularly but seemed to have accidentally hit a blood vessel. This means that where we expected three to five minutes for the drug to take effect, it came on almost instantaneously. Literally with the needle half way down. I was a surprised... managed to get the needle out and mutter a quick "Jesus Christ," and then fell back on to the floor and lost consciousness.
I came to in a vast and strange space. I was confused and really wondered what I was doing there. Slowly I began to piece together that I was there for a purpose, namely to make this film. Towards the end of the experience I was talking with everyone although I could not see them. It is very difficult to find words to describe this. The best metaphor I can come up with is I felt I was on the moon communicating with mission control on earth. I have done a wide variety of drugs and must say this was like nothing that I had done before. There is no comparison.
We shot the film with me lying on a hard wooden floor and the feeling of this, the feeling of my body lying on a hard floor, was something I held on to and used to pull myself back. During future excursions I'd like to experiment with some massage techniques which are reputed to confuse and break up the body image. One of these is called the 'Christos' technique. I think if I would have been lying on something soft, that might have helped too.
Q: Did you also feel responsible for the others present?
A: Yes and no. Although one of the excuses I later had for all the talking and reporting I did was that I had to reassure the others.
Q: Are there other known cases of experimenting with this drug? And if yes, why did they do it and what were the results?
A: Yes many. My project is very much informed by the work of two men, both doctors, who have used ketamine a lot. One is John Lilly, an extraordinary figure who pioneered the research with ketamine and sensory deprivation tanks in the 1960's. He is still alive. The other is a London based psychiatrist who I visited a few weeks before my own first experiment. His name is Karl Jansen. Both have written and published extensively on the subject.
Q: Are you aware of the fact that you can only perform your experiments in so-called democratic societies? And would you then go to countries where people fight for democracy to tell them that you don't like democracy?
A: I would rather not get into that kind of discussion.
Q: I thought so.
A: Okay. I find the term democracy itself quite meanless. There was an enormous conference on democracy organised by the United Nations in the late fifties and early sixties. At this conference fifty or sixty totalitarian states -- who considered their states democracies -- argued over their own definition of democracy. So, I wonder, what definition suits you? Personally I don't find such a discussion interesting. Real freedom is not a product of any sort of democracy.
But to get back to your initial question. As it happens, the particular drug I am experimenting is far more available in countries which are not normally considered democratic societies.
Q:You introduced the political term democracy.
A: No. I used a term that Casco asked me to comment upon.
Q: Watching the film, I got the sense that I was looking at a play.
A: Yes, I think I was performing, which is rather surprising to me because it wasn't a 'self conscious' performance. There was an awareness that I was there -- somewhere -- for a particular reason, to do something. This at times dominated the experience, the fact that I needed to know where I was, what I was doing and who else was there. I was definitely struggling "to piece back my world."
I think that it is the nature of our minds to form a representation, a model. I felt really lost when I did not have that model in my head, and good when I had it again.
On the other hand I felt a lot of wonder when I let go, got lost, or perhaps more accurately, when the world was taken from me. When I was overwhelmed. It's embarrassing to admit that I invoked the words 'Jesus' and 'God' quite a lot. Embarrassing because I don't normally think in terms of either 'Jesus' or 'God.'
And again, what you have watched was edited. But appearance is a different issue. I am satisfied with the style and aesthetics of this first film. I chose the people I worked with for precisely this reason. How else can you represent such a thing but as a play within a play? It is not interesting to watch someone inject themselves with a drug and then start screaming...
Q: Would the result be different if it had not been taped?
A: Perhaps. I don't know...
Joke Robaard (present during the experiment, ed.):
I think the taping is essential to this work. In the seventies, I saw a lot of performances. I was intrigued by Ben d'Armagnac's performances and how far he would go with them. There was always a large public present. You were a spectator. In this case it is different. The Near Death Experience is of interest to Paul. I was not part of it. I realise that it has something to do with something that can't be expressed, with 'being there' or 'not being there.' I also realise that it differs from the work of the seventies, regardless of the question whether or not it is artificial or acted, in the fact that you can tape it and package it. You can make the performance more public. As a spectator, I would say it doesn't feel like the film really deals with a Near Death Experience. It does not express your expression. Although that experience is your motive to do it.
Q: Perhaps it is the music (by Speedy J., ed.) that makes it more concrete?
A: I agree with Joke the film does not do the experience justice. From the beginning I've been aware of the problem: How do you represent such an experience, such an experiment? As documentation? If you simply document it, what interest does it have for others? This thing that I am doing for myself?
Perhaps the art lies in the problem. How do you represent a Near Death Experience? How do you represent such an extremely private experience?
One idea: in thinking about death, one can quickly make a division between biological death and social death.
Death touches us all. While we live we know others die. We also understand that one day we will die. Or try to. Death is a singularity, an unimaginable event on the horizon of each one of our lives. A singularity which reintroduces the notion of public -- private, inner -- outer, in an extremely interesting way.
Concerning public and private: I publish online everyday and online occasionally address rather personal issues, yet I persistently see myself as an extremely private person. We are living in a public world where privacy issues are becoming more and more poignant. How can we be public and private at the same time? I expect this question is related to the notion of self, being something private, and democracy, being something public, but I have no answers. I suppose my way of working is to try and make a meaningful representation of some of these problems.
Q: Have you ever witnessed someone dying?
Q: Has your experiment shed any light on your question concerning the value of a Near Death Experience in an experience economy?
A: Yes I think it has. As I have said, the Near Death Experience was not something I found interesting. When I began researching it, I was surprised to find so much written on the subject. I went to Amazon.com expecting to find a few books and found hundreds of titles. I was amazed: 'Why are so many people interested in this topic?' And then quickly realised: 'A lot of people want to be reassured, want to believe in life after death.' I confess the 'life after death' issue still doesn't interest me -- I do not need to believe in this. What interests me is the fact that a lot of people report that their lives have been radically transformed after a Near Death Experience. I think this is how I came to my original question. We here in the west are living in an experience economy. We have a lot of time for leisure. You could say that many of our leisure activities are really a desire for change or transformation. The more the better. People who have gone through this experience have found their lives radically transformed.
Q: During and after the Second World War, millions of people had this kind of experience of seeing their lives changed...
A: This is true. I know of several books on personal transformation written by people who have been imprisoned.
Q: Would you offer the experience to anyone else?
A: No. I wouldn't. But if your question means do I think one day such a drug may help one become enlightened? Yes. I do.
Many of the world's traditional esoteric practices -- buddhism, yoga, tantra etc. -- appear to have the same goal: finding freedom. Each of these approaches, in my opinion, can be viewed as a technology, as a way of augmenting our existential capabilities. I certainly believe that the guided use of certain drugs and pharmaceuticals can be added to this list of traditions.
Q: How culturally biased are the transformations following a Near Death Experience?
A: It is important to remember that there is no canonical, precisely defined Near Death Experience. The experience varies considerably. There is a set of twenty or thirty features which have been reported, features such as flying down tunnels, coming into light, meeting loved ones etc. but each experience seems to contain only a small subset of these features and there isn't any one feature which is common to every experience.
Some features do seem culturally determined. There is a literature covering the subject in India, Indonesia, and Africa. Reading accounts from these places it seems that some of the experiences experienced there are unknown in the west.
Q: Does this mean that the quality of enlightenment that you expect from a drug will be different in different cultures? Is there a canonical definition for enlightenment?
A: Good question! Excellent question!
This is something I'd definitely like to think about.
As far as I know, the only person who has done any theory forming on the transformative quality of the experience is John Wren, an Australian psychiatrist. I believe he's in his seventies or eighties now. He had a Near Death Experience himself while travelling in Thailand some thirty years ago. Afterwards he was surprised to find his life radically changed and started to wonder why this was so. If I understand what I've read correctly, he suggests that our instinct to survive is 'hyperactive' and that a Near Death Experience brings about the death of this hyperactive survival mechanism. Not that one becomes more careless of one's life following an NDE but rather that one become's more fearless...
Interestingly, both Buddhism and Sufism urge the practioner "to die before you die."
Which brings us back to the subject of the self. The evolutionary psychologist Susan Blackmore is another researcher who writes both about the Near Death Experience and the self. She suggests the self is a product of memes or 'thought viruses', a 'meme-machine', a complex of thoughts. According to her view, one can consider the self as an infection, a contagion.
Stephen Toulmin argues against the priority of the inward life, that inwardness comes before outwardness. He argues that as children we are first oriented outwardly, towards our culture, towards public life and that the notion of an inner life, a mental space, a self, is learned, comes later, as a sort of survival mechanism.
The world appears to be becoming more complex. We see our selves struggling in a sea of ideas. Of course we will manage to survive (we always do) -- but the question is how?
(1) Additional notes and links informing this statement can be found on this page on Paul Perry's website.
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