1995 Rehearsal of Memory

Submitted by richard on Tue, 2006-08-22 18:59.




Rehearsal of Memory is available as a CD-ROM and installation.


The aim of this piece was to work with a group of people from Ashworth a high Security Mental Hospital to produce an interactive programme embodying the life experience of those involved. This is manifested in the form of an anonymous computer personality made up of the collective experience of the group. Ashworth Hospital is located in the north of England near Liverpool and is home and prison to people who are a danger to themselves or to people outside the hospital.

The group of patients I worked with ranged from serial killers to rapists, potential suicides and casualties of the excesses of society. The staff I am worked with included psychiatric nurses of twenty years experience and orderlies.

This artwork is about the recording of the life experiences of the client group that are a mirror to ourselves ("normal society") and our amnesia when confronted with the excesses of our society. This forgetting is a dark shadow cast by plenty, a nightmare for some that constructs misinformation and fear about insanity, violence and victims.

This mental space is occupied by the psycho, the nutter, the mad dog and Bedlam; this is the space where strong fictions lie and invisibly glue together the mirror from which we view our own sanity. This work is about people everywhere who are trying to remember the faces of the extras in the cinema of history. This artwork is a rehearsal of memories not quite forgotten. Evil, sleazy, dirty, dangerous, sick, immoral, crazy, or just plain normal.

Returning home at night I can turn, a light bulb on or off at will, or even decide when I want to go to bed. My home, one flat in 50 x 5,000 = anonymity. Freedom: I can peel a potato with a knife; I can wake up angry or sad without fear of scrutiny or being involuntarily chemically altered. This apparent safety has recently been nudged out of its complacency. I lay down, stroke my girlfriend's face, talk to my dog, the luxury of the common-place has a background music of questions. When I think of such persons as the murderer, the rapist, the mentally ill, common sense tells me that such people really are evil. But where did I get this common sense from? How did I come to know that the acts of some people are sick, while the acts of others I accept as normal? Is it that these people behave in a more dangerous or destructive fashion than other people? I used to think so...

Travelling to Ashworth Hospital by train 1st February 1995 A quiet middle aged man smoking a pipe looks up at me. He's reading a copy of Philosophy Today, and as I find out later he is lecturing at Warwick University and freelances as a management consultant to some very big companies. "What are you reading?" "Oh, it's about Memory and Amnesia" "Work or fun?" "I'm trying to get some background for a project that I'm doing at Ashworth Mental Hospital." "That's where that nutter who killed all those kids is, isn't it?" Yawn. "Yeah, that's right" "I've killed quiet a few people in the past, when I was in the army. I don't value human life in itself: individuals, but not life itself." "Didn't you worry about it?" "What" "Killing. From what I understand it's a pretty hard thing to get over?" "No, they were terrorists and I had a moral right to take their life. I'd reasoned it out, you only get hung up about it, if you don't know why you're doing it." "What do you mean reasoned it out?" "Well, they were breaking the law and anyway the British government gave me that right...

Don't get me wrong, I understood what they were doing was defending themselves from an invading army. Let me explain. If I decided to kill you I would, but only after I'd reasoned it out. I might feel bad about killing you as an individual, but not about ending your life" I'm more than a bit uncomfortable about being informed that my life is worthless and that a trained killer has just suggested extinguishing it. "Let me get this right. You don't believe life in itself has value, and if the government says to kill someone who you believe is justified in their struggle defending themselves you will still kill them?" "Yes." "Sounds like voices in the head to me."

Murderer. Nutter. Psycho. Child abuser. Bum Bandit.

Think of the kinds of people described above. Are their behaviours truly more harmful than those of people who are normal? In many cases the answer is no. Consider the lawfully wedded husband who physically and mentally assaults his wife, his battered wife; suffers as much as any victim of a convicted rapist or child abuser. Similar things might be said of the sane general whose decision to defend national honour at any price may harm society in a much worse fashion than the actions of any so-called mentally ill person.

Insanity it seems to me never exists except in relation to strong fictions of sanity. Normality is maintained by common sense, a standard by which sanity can be measured. Fictions grow from folk law, fed by the deluge of rhetoric poured out from the technology of Hollywood, the art world and the media. These electric images fill the mental spaces left by our own lack of personal knowledge about the mentally ill individual.

This misinformation sentences the mentally ill to be executed, beaten brutally, fined, shamed, incarcerated, drugged, hospitalised, or even treated to heavy doses of tender loving care. But first and foremost they are excluded from passing as normal women or men. They are branded with the image of being a sickness in society. Living specimens of what we are not, positioned within emotional and technological microscopes known as mental hospitals.

From the preceding examples we can predict that there are many forms of labelled sickness that are not more costly to society than the behaviours of people who are less likely to be labelled sick. Why are the mentally ill viewed as such? Is it because they threaten the controlling structures of those with enough power to shape the way society imagines itself? And in that imagining erect the boundary between good and bad, normal and pathological. This is the crux of the effort to understand the battle between this form of unacceptable behaviour and the social control that surrounds it. Social sickness is always the flip side of the coin used to procure the myth of a healthy society. Chemical altered states. Surveillance. Forensic Testing. Medical records. You can't argue with it. That's what the computer says. It is no accident that social control reproduces itself into technological forms.

The reduction of information to binary representation leads to a levelling process of data, whether that information be psychological profiles, battle tactics, or credit card details. Here, number crunching produces an image of anonymity through its incomprehension to humans at machine level. We take no responsibility for the way the calculator adds its numbers together and in the same way we take no responsibility for the way data-bases collate information. The binary mechanism can be seen to lead to an emotionally vacant space interpreted through cathode ray tubes and clicking buttons. In this respect computers as a primary technology can give us a safe distance from difficult decisions: whether they are deciding which patients to treat, which to leave to die, or which employees are surplus to production.

Whether we agree or not, the modern machine is currently perceived as a neutral decision making space. This image of anonymity creates a sufficient distance from events to create a situation in which we are ritually free to give up our ability to feel the consequences of our actions.

Rehearsal of Memory challenges our assumptions of normality and at the same time confronts us with a clean comfortable machine filled with filth, the forbidden and the demented, its hygienic procedures contaminated with the effluent of excluded human relations. For a long time we have assigned to machines our dirty laundry whilst maintaining the image of their enamelled white veneers.

"Now is the time for filth." - Harwood


The contents of Rehearsal of Memory were produced by the patients and staff of Ashworth Hospital in association with Harwood.


The following people deserve a kiss or a damn good kicking depending on what you thought of the programme: Adrian, Bob, Brian, Cath, Colin, Dave, Dad, Fumiko, Gurney, Ginger Graham, Gary, Jane, Karin, Matt & Mandie, Mike, Michelle, Malcolm and his family, Matsuko, Mum, Otousan, Okaasan, Paul, Richard, Rebecca, Ron, Ruth and her family, Steve the Edge, Stefan, Sue, Steve, Simon, Sonia, Tony, Uncle Frank, Willy the dog and anyone I've forgotten.


Rehearsal of Memory was supported by Moviola, The North West Arts Board Training Cash and the positive attitudes at Ashworth Hospital, and was made possible by the support of ARTEC.


Download it here