Collapse, Brexit: the poetics of activism

collapse_score_Amy copy
Score for a Collapse, by artist Amy Sharrocks

On 29th of March 2019, the day scheduled for ‘Brexit’, when the UK would leave the European Union after 46 years of an always distrustful alliance, twelve of us converged on the triangular plaza that conjoins King’s Cross Station to St Pancras station, a busy concourse of criss-crossing commuters, and on the day and time in question, framed by the lunching crowds taking a short hour out of the day to swallow a sandwich while catching up on the latest Brexit news on their smartphones: in the midst of all this our little group entered the scene and came to a standstill.

photo: Eleanor Boileau Clarke

As we stood motionless, we, or something now weaving amongst us, between us, became suddenly conspicuous, not in the sense of visible, but sensible, sensorial: we could feel that something was about to happen, and we could sense that others had felt it too. This is what Japanese dancer Yoshito Ohno calls ‘the patience of not starting’. It is a convergence of the senses and a cellular consciousness, that precedes the moment of action: the stillness that coagulates effervescent atoms in a state of total presence.

While many continued their blinkered linear traversal of the space, eyes absent-mindedly glued either to a destination, physical or mental, or that informed by a phone gripped in an efficient hand, some passers-by seemed to have become aware of an invisible force-field that was imperceptibly emerging at 13:10 on a surprisingly warm and cloudless Friday. They, those who had become aware of it, seemed to bump into it, inadvertently reversing, moving laterally around it, or being suddenly confused and slowed in their tracks.

By 13:13, the Collapse was underway.

At first it is a ‘small dance’: a solo beginning, head held high, vertical, biped, human. As you stand there, time passing, the habit of tension that has allowed you that position, that posture, comes to the fore, and with its appearance you can no longer ignore it. In the next few minutes you will look at this structure, not with eyes but through the two long muscles that stand like caryatids at the back of the neck, the flagpoles to the triangular banners of the trapezius muscle draped between them, anatomical scaffolds that stand forever out of sight. Becoming suddenly conscious of their assigned task, these load-bearers buckle under the weight of it: the average head weighs about 4.5 to 5 kilos. From ear to shoulder the angles, normally more or less equal in balance, shift: one is gaping open towards 180º, while the other has closed correspondingly. And moment by moment, the appearance in consciousness of that mass is shifting the greater mass of your entire frame, your body. The vertical is no longer a given, you have become a stacking of diagonal plates moving in spiral formations around an axis, that is itself in a state of gently pliant lability.

photo: Eleanor Boileau Clarke

It is a dance of surrender, but we do not fall, for now it has become a duet with forces beyond our control. A duet requires resistance, it is not just about giving in: you must play hard to get. You feel the shifts and you respond, you explore the crevasses and ridges of each moment, and you stay there, to observe, to take it in, as long as you can take it, and before the vertigo sets in as gravity keeps leading you towards the edge of your fear. And then the zone of no return, a border that signals the moment of criticality, when you are going down to the ground and you can no longer recover from this descent.

The footwork is simple, it has the sticky mucosity of a gastropod clinging to the ground with every millimeter of its surface area, while at the same time being light enough to lift-off ever so swiftly in fast response to the unpredictable shifts and changes: your feet move along a jagged margin, between being planted firmly on the ground and ready to improvise as your weight slides across the sagittal plane. But despite all your efforts, you are collapsing: this is a duet with gravity, the destination is assured.

By 13:40 we are supine, faces upended, eyes towards the sky, or, flattened, warm skin pressed into the coolness of the concrete slabs, vaguely aware of the threat of the echoing footsteps of the crowds, less than a metre from our heads. But we lie there quietly bathed in an audacious victory, vulnerable, exposed, awry, in a state of public horizontality.

photo: Eleanor Boileau Clarke

At 13:45 the last one rearranges himself back into respectability, restoring the five kilos back to its daily pedestal, like the rest of us have done, each in turn, individually peeling ourselves off the ground, in sporadic intervals. His gait hesitant, his walk shuddering just a little, as mine did, he falters too, a tentative break from the linearity of confidence, of knowing exactly where you stand and where you are going. There is no other result, and the piles of Evening Standard newspapers have just appeared with the tragicomic headline ‘Happy ‘no’ Brexit Day’ to remind us of the ongoing political drama of the day.

photo: Eleanor Boileau Clarke

“A Collapse of the spirit and the psyche is perhaps a call to stop resisting and to surrender to reality, that our systems are broken […] A prerequisite to activated change is to accept ourselves and any situation we encounter, to make progress, we need to come out of any denial. Before we can grow, before we can rise and expand and co-create, I think we have to become rooted in some form of truth. The alternative in my mind is more frequent episodes of undoing as a repetitive self-defeating cycle, as we see in our current ecological, socio-economic and political climate and personal lives.”

Jenny Hegarty, Collapse participant


photo: Eleanor Boileau Clarke

I propose ‘the poetics of activism’.

What might the ‘poetics of activism’ be? This question resists an intellectual answer, though definitions and etymology provide some inspiration: ‘poetics’ invokes an awareness of rhythm in the structuring of linguistic intensity, and activism is concerned with an ’ism’ of actions towards social or political change. There we are twelve bodies, attempting to tune into the contrapuntal rhythms of this shifting inchoate and incoherent territory of Brexit.

Like the tongue, attempting to learn an unfamiliar language, this exercise requires an openness, a flexibility, to let go of a known pattern and enter the territory of an unfamiliar sound, to try it, to experiment with it, to roll in it in the mouth and explore its strangeness from multiple angles. To utter it and not to be too serious, but to be utterly committed to its value as word, as a unit in the necessity of communication to the making of community.

The poetics of this activism is a form of sonic but silent language, ‘without form’ though not formless, rather unformed, that is containing all  potentiality but still eluding form. The meter of this poetry has an irregular measure that follows the pace of lived time rather than any predictable interval. And the action of collapsing is a rite of passage, a way to mark change by interrupting the regularity of daily-life, what artist and participant Amy Sharrocks describes through the musical term ‘ritardando’. The poetics of activism is ultimately one-pointed (the sanskrit term ‘ekagrata’) though instead of wanting results, being for or against, it is focused on the absolute precision of the action. This immersion invites time to flow its course, although time now becomes marked by the imprint of matter: collapsing bodies are no longer linear, they have become the material measure of time.

The poetics of activism is a catalyst that inserts the resistant body into a temporality beyond the repetitions of the days and nights, mornings and news feeds, lunches and coffee breaks and dinners and bedtimes of the quotidian, and amplifies a deeper rhythm:

standing /
letting go /
collapsing /
thinking /
forgetting /
thinking /
a knee joint /
the sudden weight of the hand /
pulling /
remembering the past /
remembering the future /
nonthinking /
quivering on the edge /
a foot dragged sideways /
trembling /
surrendering /
no return /
collapsing / collapsing / collapsing

“if power is complex, scattered and productive, so must be our resistance to it.”

(Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman, 2013)


photo: Eleanor Boileau Clarke