Light Up If You Feel Like it

“Attempt to do it differently one time. Just give it a try. Learn. Pay attention. Consider what you’re doing and consider what alternatives are available to you.”
- Gregor Hens, Nicotine (tr. Jen Calleja)


It is possible to have more control in shaping our own worlds than I had previously been led to believe. We are not always at the mercy of insoluble emotions and feelings that have been passed down biologically through the ages. We are shaped by, and are also responsible for creating, the cultures we exist in.

Having the ability to think differently about how we feel and our surroundings can construct a new reality for oneself and others. To reframe your world, needs language, whichever one is at your disposal, in order to solidify and share this worldview with others. Emotion is made, not inherited, and to re-evaluate the constructs of emotion that we know requires a different way of thinking. Art and literature can grasp at unknowns to make these concepts and make them in languages both familiar and unfamiliar. They can conjure something out of thin air that can spark into something unifying.

Neuroscience, the study of our brains and how they work, is the science of questioning ourselves along with the tool with which we perceive the world. It could be argued that this science is the act of us painting a self-portrait, the form of capturing our own reflection, aiming for a ‘true’ representation, but inevitably one filtered through our own perception. Minds are not singular, they create effects in others and they are affected by other minds, and by using the tool of your study there will be interference. If you think of the artist in their studio looking at a mirror to capture an image of themselves, every time they turn to the canvas, they have moved. Is it possible, when filtered through our individual perception of what and who we are, to trust what we discover? Ignore our flaws? Exaggerate them?

How Emotions are Made, written by neuroscientist Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, tries to explain what emotions are, why they exist and acknowledges this dilemma of studying the self. For a long time the overriding popular belief socially and scientifically has been that emotions are universal and when we are born we contain specific emotions that can be understood across the world, bridging languages, cultures and even species. When we feel these emotions our bodies react, for example, smiling and feeling good when happy or frowning and feeling bad when sad. We perceive these emotions in ourselves and we believe we can perceive them in others. However, this explanation begins to create absolutes of what ‘normal’ emotions and emotional reactions are, and by definition this view of normality comes from the scientists ‘painting the self-portrait’. Their self, their ego, their language, culture and species, and therefore their understanding of the world, is embodied within the science. This is also true of the perception of emotion in others; projecting your understanding of an emotional concept onto a person and influencing their response, or your perception of their response, to a situation.

“Culture is not some gauzy, amorphous vapour that surrounds you. It helped wire your brain, and you behave in certain ways that wire the brains of the next generation.”
- Dr. Feldman Barrett, How Emotions Are Made

Feldman Barrett convincingly argues that this ‘classical model’ of emotion is redundant and that neuroscience, when stripped of the self, doesn’t have enough evidence to be able to say it is true. The Classical Model of Emotion, of singular projected concepts, does not address its own lack of complexity and diversity over the neurological spectrum which, in turn, excludes people from the way we understand what emotion is.

An argument is made in the book for the ‘Constructed Model of Emotion’. That through culture and language we construct and create different models of emotion which are assigned to different situations, both physical and mental. This helps us understand and process all the information that the world presents us with, like touch, sound, visual information, smell and taste. There is a lot of information to take in and our minds and bodies need ways to filter it so we’re not overwhelmed. One of the ways we do this is through these concepts of emotion – it helps us to form predictions about what is going to happen and to know how to react to different situations as they are presented through this information. We are also able to change and re-wire the way our minds process information through our use of cultural references and language; we are able to create, as Barrett puts it, our own “Social Reality”.

“Two or more people agreeing that something purely mental is real, is a foundation of human culture and civilization.”
- Dr. Feldman Barrett, How Emotions Are Made

This model of what emotions are takes into account our surroundings – that the environment we exist in contributes greatly to how we process information and create emotional responses to it – however, it does not allow us to be free from the responsibility of owning our emotions.

In Nicotine by German author Gregor Hens (in Jen Calleja’s English translation) this very fact is demonstrated. In the book, Hens has recently quit smoking and is embarking on a journey to document how his life has been intertwined with cigarettes and smoking from a very young age. The culture he grew up in placed no stigma upon smoking: from parents chain-smoking in the car with young children in, to the literature, films and social realities he occupied that glorified and celebrated the act. Hens’ reason for writing the book initially is almost a mystery to him as much as it is to the reader. His writing on the topic of smoking is eloquent, poetic and obviously comes from a great love of cigarettes. It embodies the romantic, tragic nature of smoking and as he says in the book you are encouraged to,“light up if you feel like it”.

This approach could be taken as confusing at face value as he is dealing with the battle to remain a non-smoker, but Hens explains the writing of the book over the course of a year is a way to directly confront his smoking. He wants to understand why he did smoke but also why and how he can stop.

“I don’t learn through my dealings with a thing, but rather through contemplating my behaviour during the dealings with the thing. To contemplate something means to embed oneself into the inner experience that corresponds to a sensory impression, with an image, a scent, a sound, and then from it to spin a thought, a story in which there is more than just a spark of truth”
- Gregor Hens, Nicotine (tr. Jen Calleja)

The final chapter of the book is where Hens is able to reason with himself and the reader that this book is not a self-help book; it is not designed to support others through quitting smoking. It was an act for himself, to learn about himself. To me it is the document of him altering his social reality; his act of learning there is no change without understanding how he perceives things, deconstructing them and learning a new emotional framework. The emotions he felt for and whilst smoking were real, there doesn’t have to be a re-evaluation of the core of himself, he has just re-constructed the environment in which he lives to be one where he does not smoke.

“I’ve recalled some formative experiences and looked for the causes and effects within my habits of thought and action that resulted from them. Through this I made use of the fact that the relationship between things, between different actions, events or objects becomes visible simply because they are examined together; they appear before the inner eye, stand one after the other or side by side on the inner stage of the mind.”
- Gregor Hens, Nicotine (tr. Jen Calleja)

The artist Flo Brooks’exhibition “Is Now A Good Time?” at Cubitt Gallery managed to make real for me this idea that Hens talks about; the in-between layers of thought solidified and made apparent and real for a moment, where different actions, events and objects are made visible, within Brooks’ process of examination through painting.

The paintings within the exhibition contain ordinary scenes; fixing the washing machine with his mother, fixing the plumbing with his father, dying his mother’s hair, his father doing the washing up alone. On the surface of the paintings and weaving in and around the figures and scenes are objects and abstractions of colour and shape. Cut-outs and interruptions that contain miniature worlds and objects sit atop of the scenes, like a mouldy lemon, steam from a kettle, letters, or a slug. The scenes themselves seem to defy logic, exploding from the painting with objects protruding out from the edges, some finding themselves adrift on the wall alone and apart from the action. At the same time the paintings push in on themselves, with walls, ceilings and underground levels visible and intruding into the space of the painting.

The rendering of all the figures and objects is deliberate and expertly executed, and Brooks has built up layers of colour to accentuate the other-worldliness of these everyday interactions. The blues that surround the figures don’t impose on the subjects but rather remind us the painting is a representation rather than a replication of reality.

Within the paintings an instant is created where the brain can perceive the other percentage of what surrounds it, the vast array of information that the world offers is seen all at once. Objects with meaning – recognisable but unfamiliar –  appear, and unlearned concepts take shape. The details of the complex personal experience that Brooks is documenting within the paintings is necessary for the existence of them but not necessary to see how Brooks is navigating it, how all space is occupied with thoughts laid bare - funny, serious, whimsical, present, distant, fraught, close, loving. Aspects of life that could be contradictory lie side by side brightening and distracting. There is a recognition that these experiences can’t be contained, are unable to sit within a framework that is designated by the form; life is not contained, it breaks and pushes free, exists outside of the frame. It is not neat, tidy and easily explained.

The artist Rachael Finney, who was invited by Brooks to perform at the closing of the exhibition, incorporated these ideas and contradictions into her performance. By using edited recordings from interviews with the people in the paintings, Brooks himself, his father and his mother, Rachael made present the halting moments in-between – the liminal space, the hesitations, the points before and after thoughts, the umms, the ahhs, reaching for the point you are trying to make, reaching for the understanding to bring someone else into your space. “Let me just stop you there,” Flo interjects.

Finney played these using physical tape, some attached to wooden structures, some that were run through her playback machines and led across the space to be laid amongst us, some attached to balloons that floated above us; we watched them bob, halt, cut, flay up, be discarded. The voices of the subjects made present with no narrative, interruptions with no conclusion, drama with no resolve, just a searching.

“The exhibition describes a way of living and being whereby partitions deteriorate and things meet awkwardly, sometimes painfully, where impotence and insecurity can generate ingenuity, and where queer ways of being can endure and even thrive in surprising places.”
- Flo Brooks, Exhibition text

The complexity of feeling inherent in the paintings does not deny access, rather, they allow a spectrum of responses in relating to them. The skilful demonstration of craft creates access to them, a starting point for anyone seeing them to then encounter Brooks’ visual language and find within the pictures the basis for new emotional concepts. The every-day, the humorous, the face that doesn’t give itself away, the emotion that isn’t expressed so easily. Through Brooks’ self-analysis, much like Hens’ in Nicotine, he is able to reframe the situation and his response to it and through sharing with the viewer we able to connect, understand and affirm these concepts. Brooks’ paintings, which I believe act as a form of autobiography, use a visual language that create new realities for that body. Much like how Hens documented himself through his relationship to cigarettes, Brooks’ uses his relationship to family, community and place to document the self and the environment it occupies.

Dr. Feldman Bennett looks at how neuroscience is building a new understanding of emotions, one where they are socio-cultural constructs, which require language to understand them. Gregor Hens demonstrates a recognition that his emotions are constructs, built through the culture he has lived in. Through his understanding of this he is able to unlearn behaviours by using language, the written word, to reframe his experiences. Brooks’ paintings highlight that language can be problematic if it leads to a stagnation of emotional conception when there aren’t the words to explain a feeling. Through utilising other forms of language, for example the visual arts, it is possible to create a more complicated, nuanced individualisation of emotional communication that can be understood.

The three works also embrace contradiction too: a science of emotion that in its attempt to be truthful requires a lack of emotion; the book about cigarettes that celebrates and obsesses through the eyes of an ex-smoker determined to quit; and paintings which are fun, playful, and at the same time serious and deeply layered. Through his work, Brooks directly explores this liminality, the feeling of being comfortable in-between and embracing and being liberated by unknowns and contradictions.

“Brooks draws attention to the narratives often ascribed to trans people, and asks why we place so much value on certainty and resolve.”
- Flo Brooks, Exhibition text

If this is the basis of creating new realities, how can we trust ourselves and how can we trust the world we live in? More importantly, should we always seek out and value universal experience over privately felt experience? By creating universality and absolutes, there will always be exceptions. It may be that we should all feel more comfortable being exceptions to the universal experience and find our own ways of sharing our difference. This is not to say that exploring and constructing a new reality for yourself is an easy solution: by going against the accepted view of emotion, Dr. Feldman Bennett was derided and mocked for years, Gregor Hens spent years during and after writing his book embedded within his own vice, and Brooks spent a year immersed in the process of producing his paintings whilst also caring for his family and undergoing Hormone Replacement Treatment. This effort requires energy and dedication. For most of us, the fear that it could be a futile endeavour, along with the hold of the realities we currently live in, halt us. But the belief that there is this possibility of liberation alone is heartening. Brooks asks: “Is now a good time?,” and I think it’s as good a time as any to start.