You will die and so will I. That much we know. What’s new is that there may be nobody around to pick up where we left off. Nobody to tend to our graves and tell the stories of our lives.
The steam engine was invented barely 300 years ago. If humans stopped burning coal, gas, oil today and no cow ever farted again, it would still take between 100.000 and 400.000 years for the earth’s climate to cool down to pre-industrial levels. While it may not be necessary to return to a 17th century climate, this calculation still brings home the overwhelming scope and near-geological time frame of our problems. More than half of the greenhouse gasses have been added to the planet’s atmosphere since the year 2000.
For about a decade, I have been facilitating a dialogue between artists and climate scientists working at the Swedish Polar Research Station. The question the participating artists have been asked by the natural scientists with ever-increasing urgency is how they can communicate their knowledge of the imminent catastrophe we are facing in ways that have an impact. Might there be another narrative, different from the ones we have been using—something beyond skinny polar bears, collapsing ice shelves, and the frail, blue marble—that could mobilize populations and politicians to finally act? Art, the scientists are hoping, may be able to create the necessary affect that factual information clearly doesn’t achieve.
A recent cancer treatment suddenly and unexpectedly forced me to consider death in concrete and personal terms. Along the way, I met a large number of health care professionals and fellow patients whose pragmatism and kindness under extreme conditions were incredible. Against this backdrop, much of contemporary art—no matter how well-intended—felt entirely irrelevant. In a coincvidental development, the cartoonist Marcus Weimer and I were commissioned last year by the German Association for Palliative Medicine to provide a “humor concept” for the international convention they were organizing for September 2020. They have been considering how humor could benefit palliative medicine and care; not just in the form of hospital clowns, but rather as an overall shift in attitude toward death, which is not only tragic but also grotesque, and therefore potentially funny. The convention, whose title translates as “Controversies at Life’s End,” focused primarily on the contrasting strategies of assisted suicide, on the one hand, and palliative care for the dying, on the other. It was a nuanced debate well above our cartoonists’ heads. What struck me most was how much of palliative thinking is about the value of life, the pleasure of being alive even on the last lap. There were stories of ingenious hospital staff deep-freezing liquor to put tiny bits of ice into a patient’s mouth, allowing her to taste her favorite whisky when she was no longer able to swallow, and the Mother Superior at a Catholic hospice who, against all her beliefs, hired a prostitute to spend time with a seventeen-year-old who didn’t want to die without having had sex. Palliative care is not only about mitigating suffering; it is at least as much about affirming the value of life, and specifically of the individual life that is about to end. It honors the richness of sensory experience until the very end.
At some point, it occurred to me that the Swedish climate scientists may have been posing the wrong question to us artists. Cultural narratives, art works, films, and books that try to mobilize and usher in change are aplenty. Many of them are smart, sensitive, beautiful. But they are generally based on the assumption that somehow—through education, information, reason, technology, or political action—we can solve our problems. What if this assumption about our capacity for fixing things were just another facet of our hubris, of the self-aggrandizing, western-style exceptionalism that got us into trouble in the first place? What if our ambition to control and manage not just our own lives but even the planetary climate’s equilibrium is just the latest symptom of what has been wrong all along? And, finally, could acceptance of our predicament, of the impending end of—at the very least—this type of civilization and learning how to die well be a first step toward learning how to live better? Living better, one would hope, might imply a less destructive presence. (This is, ironically, where hubris can sneak in again.)
Much contemporary art up to now (and I include my own efforts here) has derived its legitimation from some, however vaguely implied, claim to making things better. It can thus be described as curative art, or at least as art with a curative presumption. What if artists started from the opposite end, by acknowledging that things, cultures, individuals will go under, and that art cannot change this? In this light, what kind of art or culture do we want to make and experience? Art commonly projects itself into the future and derives its significance from this self-ascribed historical agency. What if we took that future out of the equation?
Between waves of the coronavirus pandemic, a group of the palliatively curious—individuals interested in reimagining the role of art and artists in relation to collapse, finality, and death rather than to an idealist framework of history and progress—gathered in Berlin for an informal symposium (I). Over the course of four days, participants tried to sketch out in a series of talks, experiments, and performances a general concept of what art after the palliative turn might look like, and which aspects of palliative care could be transferred to art. It was the first step in an open-ended cooperation, dedicated to the advancement and communication of the Palliative Turn.
In a subsequent step, the participants became the founding members of APT, the Association for the Palliative Turn, which is now exploring a range of possible activities, including the development of a rating and certification system for Palliativity in Art (how palliative is it?); Palliative Turn Counselling for artists, cultural institutions, dealers, collectors, and others; and the cultivation of Palliative Comedy. Palliative care has some useful models to offer. The “total pain” concept, for example, looks at pain from all aspects of life: physical, psychological, social, and spiritual. Social and spiritual death often precede physical death, but are easily overlooked.
Another tool is a model that distinguishes between anticipatory grief, the grief of dying, and survivors’ grief. Anticipatory grief occurs before death (or another great loss), in contrast to conventional, or survivors’ grief is experienced jointly by the dying, their families and friends, and even the care staff. In addition to sadness about the impending death, anticipatory grief has many other aspects, including anguish over the loss of companionship, changing roles in the family, financial upheaval, and the demise of unrealized dreams. APT operates from the understanding that humanity has collectively entered this phase of anticipatory grief. As we face the end of civilization as we know it, each of us is patient and caretaker and soon-to-be bereaved at the same time.
In the case of the frustrations expressed by the Swedish climate researchers, a first and admittedly modest contribution by APT could be the application of the concepts of anticipatory grief and total pain to debates around climate change. It might allow us a collective understanding of the layers of pain and the types of death we are all experiencing. In this way, we can begin to see even climate change deniers and profiteers not as greedy cynics or as scientifically ignorant dunces, but instead as patient-caretakers, or family members who are entering that confusing, frightening period before the end. A period that, as palliative care shows, can be a time of insight, growth and deep enjoyment of everything that still is. APT proposes that we not waste this time on nail biting, name calling, and holy hatred, but rather use it for a blossoming of culture and compassion, a time of authentic bliss and laughter flanked by sincere sadness—a time that would be remembered as golden and wise, were anyone still around to remember it.
(I) The participants in AFASIOTOPIA (A Foundational and Speculative Invocation of the Palliative Turn in Art) included artists Simon Blanck, Kasia Fudakowski, Nina Katchadourian, Dafna Maimon and myself; comedian John Luke Roberts; kinesiologist Annemarie Goldschmidt; and art critic and philosopher Lars-Erik Hjertström Lappalainen. External input, both before and during the symposium, came from climate scientist Keith Larson; palliative care expert Lydia Röder; Pia Kristoffersson, a former curator of contemporary art, now a mortician; funeral director Stephan Hadraschek; and various members of the German Association for Palliative Medicine.
When I agreed to write about “Death and Comedy” for an art publication, I naïvely thought it would be easy. Instead, it turned out that everything I had been thinking about the topic is rather obvious. And I lost interest. To get out of my predicament, I decided to pretend that I misheard the assignment which was given to me over the phone. This, then, will be a text on “Breath and Comedy”. There are so many things to think about. Like, how laughter is this forceful, involuntary exhalation. Would that imply that exhalations are funny and inhalations are not? Or are they more like set-up and punchline?
Here's something that has always fascinated me: Beautiful people with bad breath. My brain can't get it together. It’s both horrifying and funny. You know the old adage: “Comedy is tragedy plus time”? With bad breath it’s tragedy plus the right physical distance. You have to be close enough to notice the smell, yet far enough away to keep your sense of humour.
I talked to a friend recently. I heard her say: "My friend, Lucinda Slepworth.” But that wasn't what she said at all. She has a New Zealand accent. What she really said was that her "friend Lucinda slept with" a guy who was extremely gorgeous. All the girls and boys were after him, even though he had terrible breath and insanely smelly feet. It was not easy to be near him. But he just looked too good to pass up. This story deeply touched me. Is it, I wondered, a hopeful story of consolation and justice? The halitosis-ridden, sweaty-footed boy was gifted perfect bone-structure and skin to make up for his misery? Or, is it a story of petty, daisy-cutting? The supernatural beauty, had to pay for his unearned, genetic privilege by reeking from both ends. It seems to me that, whichever of these readings you prefer, your choice would say a lot about your ethical compass. Pause and think. How are we doing for this essay? I think we're touching on some real issues.
One of the things, comedy can do, is to refuse to face a problem. In this case, the problem is minor: having to deliver a text on death and comedy. But I think it works for bigger problems as well, such as climate change or actual death (someone else’s). This kind of humour is often dismissed as silliness. Its motto could be: Our problems are insurmountable, but they are not serious. Silliness can follow whatever comes to mind and run with it (preferably away from the problem), but it can just as abruptly loose interest. It proceeds like a slap-happy mole, digging its way randomly through dirt and serious matter alike.
I knew this elegant gallerist in New York. She dated a successful artist. They were a bit of a glamour-couple. They always dressed sharply too. But they both had terrible breath. Their odours seemed to belong to the same variety or region, if you know what I mean. Couples’ breath. I would describe their bouquet as a thick, well-rounded Gouda-note, with hints of egg and faeces. It had a quick onset and a strong body. I don't know if they understood why people walked backwards during conversations with them. They might have assumed it was a sign of respect. “Ta-Tadadaaa! Make way for the Queen and King of the (lower mid-level) New York art world!” Did they even notice each other's smell, with both of them carrying? Did they give it to each other, or did they get it from something they both did or ate? Maybe bad breath is the most exclusive of inside-jokes, where the one who makes it is the one who's not in on it.
For the most part, pleasant smells aren’t that funny, while foul smells have good comical potential. In “Polyester,” John Waters films a rose. At the same time, a number appears in the corner of the screen. It instructs the viewers to scratch a corresponding square on the “Odorama” scratch-n-sniff card, which they got with their movie ticket. Suddenly, the camera pans to something vile, a pair of old tennis shoes or vomit. And that’s the smell on the Odorama-card. Collective Eew! It would be a lot less funny, if the rose was accompanied by the smell of fresh strawberries. That’s because funny scents usually come from decomposition. They smell of death.
We had a woman from the health department come by our high school to talk about germs and hygiene. She uttered the following words which have since been lodged in my brain: "If you can smell it, it's inside you." Thank you, health department, and thank you, sweaty health department lady in a polyester dress on a hot day!
Apropos Comedy and Death: The surest way of dying from comedy is to be a cartoonist. Cartoonist is the second most deadly profession today, after Polar-Bear-Taunter. Draw a cartoon about a revered, religious figure and: Fat-waa! I mean: Ta-daa! You’re a gonner. If you're in Northern Europe, you may get to live out your days under police protection in an undisclosed location. Which is not an uninteresting arrangement. Before I end up sick and alone, without money for home care, I may just draw me a prophet or two. Or by that time it may be enough to draw Jeff Bezos with a deformed penis. I’ll publish it in a Danish newspaper, et voilá, there will always be a gaggle of friendly officers around to keep me company. (Beats depending on my snowflake children.)
Caricatures drag things back into the dirt from whence they came. They put the stench back into religion, ideology, business and government. They exaggerate the flab, the slime, the wrinkles, the grotesque, the spittle and the flies buzzing around. Power likes to pretend that it doesn’t smell of death; caricature begs to differ.
Generally speaking, comedy is corrosive to stable categories. The original charge against irony - as brought by Aristotle and tirelessly repeated over the past 2000+ years, is that it undermines what is true, beautiful and good. The ironist is the “dissembler, ” who undermines what others (including the Creator Himself) have built. The association of comedy with decomposition and rot follows this line of thought. Comedy is, like death, an agent of entropy, pitched against higher forms of life and civilization. But as we are beginning to understand our place in the biosphere better, we are also looking at bacteria, fungi, bugs and worms with kinder eyes than we used to. Comedy likes a take-down, but it always creates something new in the process. It constantly tests new connections and unlikely arrangements. Like root-systems or mycelium, comedy can grow in whatever direction needed in search of something funny.
And even death isn’t pure destruction. It is just as much the reshuffling of matter and energy in preparation of new life. When comedy and death are discussed, the focus is usually on social and rhetorical aspects: comedy as a coping mechanism, as a technique that allows detachment from trauma, establishes social cohesion through shared laughter and releases tension and anxiety. I think it goes beyond that. Jokes cut through meaning like a speeding car through a group of kindergardeners. Every joke is a homeopathic dose of tragedy. And it proves that destruction sets the stage for construction, that reason and nonsense need each other as much as life and death. One without the other would be monstrous.
1. When proofreading, I mis-read this as “peasant smells”. Peasant smells could be funny.
2. Possibly as an homage to John Waters.
3. In his mouth.
4. Irony: via Latin from Greek eirōneia ‘simulated ignorance’, from eirōn ‘dissembler’.