Fire


A performance with colours, video and sampled sound about Grenfell Tower, resentment and cruelty.

Originally given as a performance at ICA London and CCA Derry-Londonderry as part of The Bad Vibes Club's 'Feeling Bad' events in summer 2017 where Hamish McPherson, Sophie Mallett and Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau ran workshops and presented performances that looked at the power of negative emotions in political discourse and our everyday lives.

I use ideas and words from Jean Franco's book Cruel Modernity, Achille Mbembe's essay Necropolitics and Marina Warner's essay Back from the Underworld: The Liveliness of the Dead.

An audio version of the performance an be downloaded from The Bad Vibes Club podcast feed.

Force Feeding and Taste - Part Five

See the other force feeding posts here, here, here and here.

This post explores the relationship between force feeding and breathing and was originally given as a lecture as part of the Curatorial Knowledge programme at Goldsmiths in October 2017. I was invited to speak by Irit Rogoff. The theme for the year was breathing and particularly the metaphorical phrase, 'I can't breathe'.


In force feeding, a tube is pushed through the nose or mouth, down the throat and into the stomach. Some hunger strikers have died as a result of being force fed - sometimes from a violent struggle, and sometimes from the tube being forced down the windpipe and making its way into the lung rather than the stomach - if food is passed into the lungs the force fed person literally drowns. Many, if not all those who have been forced fed experience pain and discomfort including gagging, choking, vomiting, and bleeding from the nose or throat.

Today I'm going to look at some descriptions of force feeding and think about the bodily experiences of the force fed in relation to breathing.

The Suffragettes


The force feeding of the Suffragettes is well documented, not least by the Suffragettes themselves. Here is Sylvia Pankhurst's description of the experience,

'I felt a man's hands trying to force my mouth open. I set my teeth and tightened my lips over them with all my strength. My breath was coming so quickly that I felt as if I should suffocate. I felt his fingers trying to press my lips apart,—getting inside,—and I felt them and a steel gag running around my gums and feeling for gaps in my teeth. 

Then I felt a steel instrument pressing against my gums, cutting into the flesh, forcing its way in. Then it gradually prised my jaws apart as they turned a screw. It felt like having my teeth drawn; but I resisted. I held my poor bleeding gums down on the steel with all my strength. Soon they were trying to force the india-rubber tube down my throat. 

I was struggling wildly, trying to tighten the muscles and to keep my throat closed up. They got the tube down, I suppose, though I was unconscious of anything but a mad revolt of struggling, for at last I heard them say, "That's all"; and I vomited as the tube came up.'



Lilian Lenton wrote,

'They wriggled a rubber tube up your nose and poured liquid through a funnel into your stomach. I always shut my eyes during these things. But I started coughing and coughing to bring up the liquid they poured in. I suddenly experienced intolerable and intense pain. I was later told that I had pleurisy. I wrote home: “Doing well. Pleurisy. But doing well!”'

Pleurisy is an inflammation of the lining of the lung. It's likely that the tube went down the trachea and damaged the lung, though the doctors can't have put food into the lung as this would have resulted in Lenton's death.

Constance Lytton wrote,

'I shut my mouth and clenched my teeth. The doctor offered me the choice of a wooden or steel gag; he explained that the steel gag would hurt and the wooden one would not. But I did not speak nor open my mouth, so after playing about for a moment or two with the wooden one he finally had recourse to the steel. The pain of it was intense; he got the gag between my teeth, when he proceeded to turn it much more than necessary until my jaws were fastened wide apart, far more than they could go naturally. Then he put down my throat a tube, which seemed to me much too wide and was something like four feet long. The irritation of the tube was excessive. I choked the moment it touched my throat until it had gone down. Then the food was poured in quickly; it made me sick a few seconds after it was down and the action of the sickness made my body and legs double up, but the wardresses instantly pressed back my head and the doctor leant on my knees. The horror of it was more than I can describe. I had been sick over my hair, all over the wall near my bed, and my clothes seemed saturated with vomit.'

These three descriptions of force feeding all involve moments of not breathing: suffocation, vomiting, pleurisy, gagging and choking.
  For today, lets put aside the terrible violence of these real moments of not breathing. I'd like to stay on the surface of the text of those descriptions, and understand them through the metaphor invoked by the theme of this programme: 'I can't breathe'.
  I'd like to examine the relationship between that metaphor, and the metaphor of force feeding.

First off let's examine each metaphor.

'I can't breathe'

A bodily metaphor stemming from the somatic experience of shortness of breath, a stifling atmosphere and the need to leave a space to 'get some air'. A pressured situation in which others are too close to you, monitoring you, breathing your air. A lack of freedom, an inability to move freely, or to move at all. It could be related to anticipation, to 'holding your breath'. It implies unbreathable air: air that is hot and stuffy, stale, toxic, dangerous and even deadly. If you can't breathe you eventually die, and on the specific level of the body, you can't maintain normal functioning of the vital organs. If the brain is deprived of oxygen it can be permanently damaged. To not be able to breathe is to not be able to do anything because you are not being given the air you require.

Being 'force fed'

A bodily metaphor coming from the act of food being forced down a person's throat against their will. The metaphor could be used both passively and actively - 'I'm being force fed all this information' or 'I feel like I'm force feeding them'. Either one seems most likely to come up in a training or educational context in which a lot of information is given over without much discussion or feedback from the group receiving it. There is a quantitive element to the metaphor: there is a lot of information (and perhaps this relates more to gavage, the force feeding procedure used to fatten geese's livers for foie gras, than it does to breaking a hunger strike). There is also a qualitative element to the metaphor: the information is ideologically tinged, or propaganda, or just not that well explained, but there's no opportunity for discussion and the process is absolutely one way. The process is violent - 'rammed down my throat' -  and it is performed against your will (even in the active metaphor, it is as though there is no other way to do things). There is no chance to 'digest' what you have been 'force fed', the information is likely to be homogenous and have little textural detail. Essentially, in this metaphor, if you were offered the 'food' you would not 'eat it', the organisation - the company, the university, the institution, the school - knows that the information is somehow 'unpalatable', or even just 'flavourless', and therefore delivers it via the act of force feeding rather than risk its refusal.

It seems to me that these metaphors are related in many ways. They both bring the body into situations traditionally accounted for through sociological or psychological ways of thinking. They both imply an atmosphere in which individual freedom is restricted, and there is no possibility for open discussion. They both imply a knowing authority that is aware that it is imposing itself, applying pressure. They both convey problems that can only be remedied by complete refusal: by leaving the space in which you can't breathe or are being force fed. But they also imply that there is no real solution to the problem - only temporary respite.

In the Suffragettes' descriptions of their experiences, not-breathing is a horrible result of force feeding. As I mentioned in my last blog, the painful effects of force feeding can either be understood as a side effect of force feeding as a medical intervention, or the main aim of force feeding as a punishment or act of torture. Either way, the not-breathing (the gagging, choking, vomiting, etc.) stems from the body's reflexive response to a brutal, invasive procedure.
  What about our metaphorical parallels? Is not-breathing always an effect of force feeding? Or does force feeding always lead to not-breathing? Once you recognise that you are being force fed, will you necessarily enter a state of not-breathing or can you make a change that gets you some air and allows you the chance to breathe?

Criticality and qualitative experiencing

My interest in force feeding is to do with the particularities of force feeding experiences: what materials are involved, what technologies make it possible, what legal and political infrastructures have to be navigated for force feeding to be sanctioned, and what happens to individual human bodies when they are force fed. I think force feeding is wrong, but as an artist I'm interested in an expanded aesthetics of force feeding, rather than making a judgement on it and walking away.

As metaphors, both 'I can't breathe' and 'I'm being force fed' do a lot of work, but I think they are best thought of as the beginning of an investigation into the particular qualities of a situation.
  If we find ourselves thinking 'I can't breathe' or 'I'm being force fed', then at once we think about shutting down, refusing, leaving the room, the job or the institution. But as I mentioned this only brings temporary respite: either because you have to go back to the toxic atmosphere and continue your work, or because even if you leave one job, in our current system, in the next one you are likely to experience a similar situation.
  What is required in these situations is an attempt to notice, describe and understand the particular qualities of the experience. If the thought 'I can't breathe' or 'I'm being force fed' is the end of the experience then we are in trouble, but if it is the beginning of the experience then we might have somewhere to go and some textural detail to add to what could otherwise be simply a painful experience.
  I'm going to Irit Rogoff. This from an essay called 'Exhausted Geographies and I think it's a good way to end my talk about force feeding and maybe begin a discussion about how to investigate the situations in which we feel like we can't breathe or we are being force fed.

'In this state we move beyond criticism; of regimes and players and intentions and from critique; of the underlying political and ideological structures that have captured and seized the conflict and continue to hold it ransom to their logics, and towards criticality - a condition in which we both see through the conditions of our lives while continuing to live out their difficulties.
  Criticality is at once an ability to see through the structures that we are living in and to analyse them in a theoretically informed way, while at the same time to recognise that for all of one’s critical apparatus, one is nevertheless living out those very conditions. [...] It is a conscious duality of both living out something while being able to see through it, and it requires another mode of articulation, one that cannot smugly stand outside the problems'