Intimate Witnesses

By Catherine Elwes

meynell-and-skinner.jpgMeynell and Skinner

Challenging personal narratives are transformed by video in the work of artists Kate Adams and Katharine Meynell

The artists Kate Adams and Katharine Meynell have both used video to tell stories about themselves but, in two major new commissions, these elaborations of identity are filtered through the tireless and unflinching scrutiny of illness and disability of those closest to them. The following notes emerge from recent conversations in which we discussed, among other things, questions of the personal and the political, the perennial struggle with language and the artist’s determined resistance to the reduction of individuals to the healthy/sick, sane/mad oppositions that underlie social and psychic organisation.

With the support of a NESTA fellowship, Kate Adams is creating a series of videos with her 19-year old son Paul who suffers from severe undiagnosed neurological impairment. His condition has had a devastating effect on his development and has tied his parents to a lifetime of intensive care-giving. Katharine Meynell’s project, funded by the Wellcome Foundation, emerges out of a collaboration with her life partner Alistair Skinner, whose illness from cancer they documented in videos, diaries, drawings and objects that will form the basis of a final installation Meynell is creating. Both Meynell and Adams negotiate the interdependent worlds of art and science, of visceral subjective experience and imaginative trajectories and the scientific imaging that supports established taxonomies of pathology.

The choice of video as their principal medium is judicious and historically consistent with the aims of feminism, for which the investigation of the personal and personal relationships supplied the empirical evidence that gave rise to political strategies. From its inception, video was dubbed the factual medium, offering a direct route to the truth although, as Timothy Garton-Ash has pointed out, it uses only two of our four senses because “cameras cannot smell or touch"[1]. For the purposes of feminist explorations of the personal in the ’70s and ’80s, and considering Meynell and Adams’ current projects, video offers the instantaneity, realistic reproduction of sound and movement, duration and ease of use that their roles as intimate witnesses demand. As Kate Adams has said, with video she can’t tamper with the evidence. Adams is well aware that with editing, she can rearrange those camera-ready truths to suit any ideological palate, but the sequences she shoots with her son are deliberately unedited although, for ethical reasons, carefully selected for public display.

Adams, Meynell and Skinner all acknowledge that truth is a slippery commodity and that the personal has been radically transformed by the advent of ‘reality TV’ – that procession of manufactured and groomed emotion returned once again to the level of individual responsibility and divorced from any social or political dimension. Where the personal led to communal action within the politics of feminism, the personal on television provides a voyeuristic opiate tethering people to their sets and inhibiting dissent or any collective initiative for social and political change. The artist Tom Sherman has argued for the importance of privacy, for a space in which “minds must continue to wander and ponder the inconceivable, and investigate the improper."[2] Adams and Meynell are working in that private space pondering the conundrum of mental dysfunction and the social and physical transformations of cancer. These women are not broadcasting their daily lives on the web, nor weeping on daytime television. Instead, they are slowly exploring the ‘inconceivable’ spaces between the private and the public, between themselves and those whose lives they are witnessing, between truth and imagination. The process is a slow and often painful one. The additive, iterative fruits of their empirical introspection will only gradually emerge.

kate-adams.jpgKate Adams

Adams, Skinner and Meynell are also all aware of the limits of language, both scientific and artistic. In different ways, they have gravitated towards abstraction, but an abstraction in the sense of an excision of extraneous detail, thereby taking a stand “...against the explicitness of life under surveillance."[3] Meynell is using material transformations to achieve these levels of abstraction, a kind of tactical avoidance of the banality that illness and death have acquired through overexposure. The slow-drip surgical appliance that liberated Alistair from lengthy administrations of chemotherapy is transformed into a bronze object, its weight now equivalent to the experience of having a plastic instrument permanently impaled in one’s chest. The clinically precise computer-generated images of the illness give way to sensual but abstracted sequences of the camera travelling across the smooth surface of his body, giving nothing away of what lies beneath and triggering the creative inventions of the imagination. For them, this becomes an attempt to “make sense of the gap between stark images of a metastasized liver and a visceral response."[4]

Kate Adams courts abstraction and a non-verbal economy because much of her experience of her son is visual, physical and durational. Paul’s verbal vocabulary is limited to six words. His gestural vocabulary is rich, precise and repetitive. He embarks on long episodes in which he jumps, or rocks or swings his arms with the mathematical precision of a dancer, never crossing the borders of the territory he has delineated for himself. It is this ‘aberrant’ behaviour that separates him from the rest of society, that marks him out as ‘other’ and absorbs his mother into his world of abstractions. It is her role to interpret his speech and negotiate his relationship with the outside world and, on a practical level, to obtain the structures of support that she and her son both need.

However, Paul’s relationship to abstraction also embraces the elements, and those senses that video cannot reproduce, only evoke. Through Paul, Adams constantly renews her experience of nature, those moments that Levine endows with ‘qualia’, the phenomenological experience of the world, of rain, wind and sky that in Paul’s physical vocabulary are elevated to almost biblical dimensions, to the level of the ecstatic. The video sequences of Paul’s physical expressions are interspersed with more abstract sequences of the natural phenomena that she experiences with him, that at times comfort her when she concludes that theirs is a very small episode in the vast and unfathomable schemes of the universe.

Where Adams ponders the nature of consciousness, of life in the abstract and on the ground, Meynell and Skinner were forced to consider the mystifying process of disease and death. Illness, the pathology of the body, is represented in our culture as an enemy within that must be fought with military zeal. Skinner did not consider his illness to be separate from what constituted him as individual. As Meynell says, wanting to rid yourself of the cancer would be “ trying to fight off your hair colour.” But Skinner was able to positively externalise the changes that were taking place in his body. He asked the performance artist Gary Stephens to write a monologue for mutating cells. Skinner also transformed his illness into sounds and again invited another ‘sound’ body, the artist Harvey Brough, to create acoustic representations of his condition. The positive aspects of the experience of illness are constantly emphasised by Meynell, and their ability to normalise an extreme situation takes much of the pathos out of disease: “we just kept doing all the things we normally did.”

Both Meynell and Adams face ethical issues of exploitation, of re-presenting the otherness of disability and illness whether for the voyeuristic pleasure of the normal and healthy or for the pernicious habit that society has of only recognising value on one side of the normal divide. Alistair Skinner clearly agreed to the recording of sometimes harrowing representations of his illness. Kate Adams’ son Paul is not in a position to decide either way. As Adams says, Paul appears to be unaware of the implications of a camera pointing at him, of the objectifying gaze, although he knows that the machine is there and frequently pushes it out of the way to re-establish eye contact with his mother. Paul is also incapable of acting, of falsifying his identity as is so easily achieved on television. But the work these women are currently engaged in is as much a self-portrait, a story about who they are, as it is a witnessing of the lives they know so intimately. It is perhaps a truism to say that women define themselves as much by their relationships as by what they do, but the boundaries between Kate Meynell and Alistair Skinner were and still are a shifting and unstable territory. And in Adams’ case, the separation between mother and son will never be achieved. As Adams says, she is almost an extension of Paul’s consciousness. In this sense, these artists who-are-not-one are bearing witness to their own stories.

At a political level, Adams’ ambitions are modest. She hopes that her work will reduce the fear and anxiety people experience when confronted with Paul and others like him, adding “this may ultimately help people like Paul to be better tolerated and absorbed into society… who knows.” Meynell for her part is examining the territory beyond ‘reality TV’, when reality itself no longer makes sense, when life that can be examined comes to an end. Her work combines the scrutiny of processes that are obscure and largely invisible, that “cannot be deciphered” and the experience of “being slapped round the face with the hard reality, the logistics of living with something like cancer."

Both women express the totality of living with these conditions, the immersion in the problems of existence that mean they had “no options in terms of subject matter.” They were offered no make-over reality to take this reality away. It is this sense of inescapability that returns their work to the social dimension, to that which is lost in the fabrications of the confessional culture of television. No amount of positive thinking and learning to love themselves is going to remove the problem. As Kate Adams will tell you, there is no other place for her than with her son and with the current funding of social services, this may be the case for the rest of Paul’s life. In the work of Meynell and Adams, the political is reintroduced into the personal, suffused with the specificities of individual devotion, pain and loss and the intimate joys of mutual recognition through art.

"… Self-definition is not spinning webs or building dams, but telling stories, and more particularly connecting and controlling the story we tell others – and ourselves – about who we are." – Daniel Dennett


[1]. Timothy Garton Ash, “Truth is Another Country", The Guardian, 16.11.02
[2]. Tom Sherman, “Always Nice to Be Recognized", Fuse magazine, Canada, forthcoming issue.
[3]. Tom Sherman, ibid
[4]. All quotes by Katharine Meynell and Kate Adams are drawn from conversations or unpublished correspondence with the author.

Catherine Elwes is currently writing a history of video art for publishers I.B. Tauris.