It’s Harder to Break a Circle Than a Line: Anwen Crawford on Art and Acts of Resistance
“But what if the problem, I said, is capitalism?”
Georges Franju’s documentary Le Sang des Bêtes begins with the slaughter of a white horse.
Or so I had remembered.
A man leads a horse by its bridle through the gates of an abattoir. The horse and the man stand together in the courtyard of the abattoir.
The pressure applied by the man as he places a captive bolt gun to the head of the horse appears gentle, as the touch of one’s lips upon the face of a person to whom you are saying goodbye, and perhaps for a long time.
I was young for a long time. Nobody died. Perhaps I wanted to die, or thought that I did, but that is not the same.
As the man drives the bolt through the brain of the white horse its legs buckle instantaneously. It seems to bounce from the pavement into the air before crashing onto its flank.
To be stunned.
The word comes from thunder.
What I really mean is that no death had overturned me.
During the second semester of my first year at art school you bring a sequence of black-and-white photographs to class.
Our first year at art school. Some years after your death I find a notebook in which you have written MY WORK—in blunt pencil, as you always wrote—and then crossed out the MY for OUR. Our work.
I think of the way in which the horse turns its head in order to face the man who holds the captive bolt gun.
Or the texture of the back of your hands and the ways in which you moved them.
The photographs you bring into class show you kneeling at night on a pavement, digging through the concrete till it cracks, and then planting a sapling in the new wound.
Sous les pavés, la plage!
That’s when I know we have to be friends.
Your white skin tanned; your brown paneled nylon zip-up jacket; the rat’s tail of red hair that ran below your shoulders, till you cut it off; your hands
Or does the man who holds the gun pull upon the horse’s bridle?
On my laptop I watch a contemporary drama set in London, featuring two women who are asylum seekers from Syria. Only, it transpires that the women are not Syrian, they are Iraqi, and this makes them economic migrants, not asylum seekers, and so they are taken into detention. At the detention center, a guard observes to a cop: It’s a lot like a slaughterhouse. You need to calm the animals.
The first thing we make is a fence / on Wangal country, unrolling the wire mesh across the width of the gallery.
For an instant, with its forelegs drawn into the air, the stunned horse recalls a statuary horse on a carousel.
The borders of present-day Iraq have existed only since 1920, when the Treaty of Sèvres allowed the victorious Allied Powers of the First World War to partition the Ottoman Empire. The Treaty of Sèvres was signed at the Sèvres national porcelain manufactory, in the suburbs of Paris.
Aux porte de Paris, reads the opening caption of Le Sang des Bêtes: At the gates of Paris.
At each end we staple-gun the mesh to the walls.A hospital psychologist advised me to distinguish my own moods from the state of the world.
August Macke, the German painter, was killed by French artillery fire on 26 September 1914, during the second month of the First World War. He was twenty-seven. His compatriot and fellow artist, Franz Marc, who had also been drafted, did not learn of August’s death for nearly a month. Oh dearest, Marc wrote to his wife Maria, on 23 October, the naked fact will not enter my head.
I think the horse isn’t dead when it hits the ground; it is concussed, catastrophically.
When its throat is cut its blood makes vapor as it spills from the warm interior of the body, to meet colder ground.
The year before we met I spent a week in the psychiatric ward, on suicide watch. In the interview room, when I lifted my jumper, the admitting doctor winced at the crosshatch along my torso.
You remove your shirt as we work—stupidly bare-handed!—to top the fence with barbed wire, and I watch you, surprised by your visible strength, and for a moment consider you in desire, but the moment passes and I never return to it.
Through the windows of the ward’s lounge I saw a billboard edging a nearby four-lane road; it read ESCAPE
You will die a decade later in the same hospital.
The development of the abattoir as a site beyond the boundaries of the city was motivated by a desire on the part of public health inspectors, among others, to remove unregulated private butcheries and slaughterhouses from heavily populated urban areas. It was believed that the visibility of animal slaughter had a morally corrupting effect upon the citizenry, young men in particular.
It felt like we were going crazy then: everyone around me, everyone young. I was eighteen. It was the first year of the new century.
It occurs to me you learnt the same year that you had cystic fibrosis, which should have been diagnosed when you were a baby. At nineteen you were adjusting to a truncated sense of your lifespan.
My housemate had a psychotic break. Friends phoned late, on the landline, self-harming and hazily suicidal. A hospital psychologist advised me to distinguish my own moods from the state of the world.
But what if the problem, I said, is capitalism?
The fact that we are shaken together.
I check the word torso in the dictionary and it says: An unfinished or mutilated thing.
In the spring, after the hospital, I went to Melbourne to protest a meeting of the World Economic Forum / on Wurundjeri country. 20,000 people showed up, though the cops said half that number.
If our natural curiosity hadn’t been carefully repressed, we should quite naturally be very interested in what happens in slaughterhouses, and go and have a look, and not need films like Le Sang des Bêtes
A temporary fence had been raised around the whole perimeter of Crown Casino, where the World Economic Forum was scheduled to hold its meeting over three days.
On the first day, a comrade from Chile showed us a tactic they’d used during the years of the junta. Form a circle: it takes less people that way to block a space than it would to block the same with a straight line.
The carousel, or merry-go-round, has its origin in training games practiced by Arabic horsemen during the time of the Crusades, from which the idea of circular jousting enters Europe.
It was the era of summit protests, as they were called. In 1999, major demonstrations had taken place in Seattle, outside a meeting of the World Trade Organization. In 2001, 200,000 people would confront the G8, in Genoa.
Above my desk I keep a postcard reproduction of a photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe, Two Men Dancing: a gelatin silver print from a medium-format negative. The two men—still so young, almost boys—are shirtless, perhaps naked (the image is cropped at their waists), and each wears a plastic crown.
Franju and his twin brother Jacques did military service for the occupying French in Algeria.
The summit protests were given binary nicknames after the month and date on which they began. Seattle was N30. Melbourne was S11.
It was twenty-seven years to the day since the coup against Salvador Allende.
In front of the fence, when we have finished building it, we place two signs that we have stolen: REFUGE ISLAND and COMMONWEALTH PROPERTY, DO NOT TRESPASS.
La barricade ferme la rue mais ouvre la voie
We name ourselves The Welcoming Committee.
On 23 May 1871, during the Bloody Week that marked the suppression of the Paris Commune, the Tuileries Palace at the Place du Carrousel was burnt down by the Communards.
Our Chilean comrade said, as we circled in the rain: We must be a blancmange, encircling the state.
The second day, the cops waited until past dark to break the picket lines. The media and their cameras had departed. We were rows deep facing off and watching them pull on their leather gloves and I was frightened, but we held, arm to arm along the picket. I could smell the leather jacket of the comrade standing next to me.
As the police chief says to Buñuel’s Archibaldo de la Cruz: If we arrested everyone who’d ever committed a crime in his imagination, there’d be more people in prison than out.
immobilized, anesthetized, suspended and bled;
On the third day we danced to be rid of the night before—the pickets cleared by horses, blinkered and foaming, and cops climbing the fence from the inside and walloping people on the head.
Before we met, the year before, I dreamt of police horses: how a group of us were trapped inside a narrow house as the cops rode through, and how they beat us with long-handled instruments.
My first cup of tea in the mourning, you wrote to me once, of the things you liked best.
People were laid out in the road.
There was nowhere to go.
For months afterward we flinched at the sound of helicopters.
If his film had been in color, said Franju, it would have been unbearable.
Excerpted from No Document by Anwen Crawford, available from Transit Books. Copyright © 2022.