Monday 16 June 2014

Cats, Death and Creativity

Last month, I was asked to take part in a symposium Art after Death, organised on behalf of the Royal Academy by artist and pal John Lawrence. Held in Highgate Cemetery and Lauderdale house, the days events discussed all matters of art and death, from the Danse Macabre to how to dispose of bodies and I've attached the notes with some images of my contribution...

1989 , Nottingham nine years after the completion and full use of the MRI scanner, Pushkin a black and white short haired domestic cat passed away. On asking where we were taking the body of my first childhood pet, my father (a neurosurgeon and researcher on the MRI team) replied, "to the hospital so we could look at his brain”.

The thought that my first feline friends brain was helping further the knowledge of 3d imaging, did help soften the blow of his death, and apparently his brain is still in the re-refrigerated archives of the Queens Medical Centre to this day.

In retrospect this moment makes sense, as being a starting point of an interest with cats and horror, which was then perfectly encapsulated in Stephen King's 'Pet Cemetery', released later that year. In the film, the family cat Winston Churchill is reanimated after having been buried in an ancient Native American Cairn, which leads the protagonist to delve deeper into ideas of the living dead.
Holding great spiritual significance to the Egyptians, historically the cat represented sacred union with the cat headed goddesses Sekhemet and Bast, the war faring mothers of Egypt whose breath formed the desert and to whom cats where mummified at death. They remained sacred to both the Greeks and Romans protected by Diana the goddess of the hunt, Hecate of the underworld and later the magical cults of Isis. The Romans adopted the cat as a sign of liberty, although legend has it that the Roman- Egyptian feud began when a Roman soldier, accidentally killed a cat, and was lynched in the street by an enraged mob, sparking the wars.

It would seem however that most of cat folklore, comes about from them being divine representations of both the Sun and the Moon, both male and female. This led to a mass of beliefs that cats could walk between this world and the next, knowing the secrets of the underworld, resulting in the superstitions of their mind bending sixth sense and as them being both bearers of good and bad luck. Their abilities extraordinary, and were relied upon on ships to predict the weather, they could heal those bitten by asps, could fly on broomsticks, and will never sit on your lap when you want them to.

In 2010 in Dorset one cat persistently boarded a bus daily clocking up around 20 000 miles over a four year period, and in the studio ghibli animation My Neighbour Totoro, a cat is a bus, complete with windows, seats and a huge grin.

Cosmically, aside from the insane amount of photoshopped cats in space wallpapers that can be found online, the cat has also help advance discovery of the unknown. On October 18, 1963, the French space programme CERMA launched FĂ©licette the cat aboard Veronique rocket No. 47. FĂ©licette was recovered alive after a 15 minute flight and a decent by parachute in good health, luckily as originally another cat Felix thad been chosen to undertake the mission, but escaped before the launch.
Highgate Cemetery resident Douglas Adams' also puts a cat in the cosmos in A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, as a companion to The Ruler Of The Universe, who names the cat 'The Lord' and constantly contemplates the cats existence.

Pretty much sacred until the middle ages, cats soon became synonymous with witchcraft and the devil undermining the foundations of the church. Alongside the witch hunts of the 15th and 16th centuries, cats were burned as familiars and evil spirits resulting in an overall decline in the feline population. During the same time period, there are also numerous accounts of cats and other animals being put to trial by either governmental or religious systems, as written by Edward Payson Evans in his book “The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals” published 1906. In his book, Parson recounts a richly researched history of animals put to the bench, notably charges lodged against a cow by the Parliament of Paris in 1546 and a 20th-century conviction of a Swiss dog for murder, reported in the New York Herald the same year the book came out. In the book an image from 1554, depicts a cat dressed as a priest and hung by protestants at Cheapside for the wrongs of the catholic church.

Usually however, the cats use as rat deterrents was not to be undervalued and they were ubiquitous throughout London, at least as early as the 13th century, with Cateaton street being named in their honour. Now Gresham St running from Moorgate to St Martins le Grand, Cateaton St was testament to the cities love of the animal and by the end of the 19th century there were estimated to be some three quarters of a million cats in London. Dickens even commentated that the cats took on the characteristics of the people among whom they lived quoting “they leave their young families to stagger about the gutters, unassisted, while they frouzily quarrel and swear and scratch and spit at street corners.”

In Britain on the whole, cats were seen as good luck with many believing they could protect a home or building from malevolent forces or in Dick Whittington's case make you rich. Whittington's cat who is immortalised on the Highgate milestone, was allegedly mummified and formerly displayed in the Church of St Michael Royal, on college hill. Although the church was originally founded by the four time Mayor, it had been rebuilt in 1687, before being bombed in the second world war. During its repair a mummified cat was found in a sealed passage under the roof, and immediately declared Whittington's, placed in a glass case near the church door, and was subsequently stolen, it's whereabouts now unknown. The legend has it, the curious cat and sound of London bells led Whittington to turn back to a London paved with gold, however his auspicious cat companion was more likely to be Whittington’s ship, which was full of coal with which he could trade and make his fortune.

Since 2007 Oscar, a therapy cat in a end stage dementia centre in Rhode Island has predicted over 50 deaths, 25 consecutively giving him (at that point a 100% accuracy.) Oscar came to public attention when the resident geriatrician wrote an article for the New England Medical Journal. Oscar was one of six adopted kittens in the animal friendly centre, where using his sixth sense he would do his rounds and curl up with certain patients who would inevitably pass away within hours of his arrival. His accuracy has led to a new protocol within the unit, where if he is discovered sleeping with a patient the staff will notify the family of the patients imminent death.

 So with their nine lives and sixth sense it would seem apt that cats could predict death, but recent studies have also drawn lights on cats ability to spread disease, most recently, the first cat to human transaction of tubercolosis as well as the documented threat of toxoplasmosis carried in cats faeces.I n recent studies at the University of Leeds, Scientists have discovered how the toxoplasmosis parasite may trigger the development of schizophrenia and other bipolar disorders. They have shown that the parasite may play a role in the development of these disorders by affecting the production of dopamine - the chemical that relays messages in the brain controlling aspects of movement, cognition, behavior. Dopamine is also the pleasure inducing chemical, which is specifically produced when humans act apon the most cat like of behaviors, curiosity.

So unlike the saying, curiosity may not have killed the cat, and in Stephen Kings's words
Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back”.

In the human brain curiosity is treated much like other pleasurable activities like eating. When we actively pursue the curious, we are rewarded with a flood of the pleasure-inducing dopamine and are therefore rewarded for doing so. Increased dopamine levels have also been linked to increased creativity, pattern seeking (apophenia), and intriguingly visions and paranormal experiences.
Perhaps the more curious you are the more likely you are to find.

Curiouser and curiouser” said Alice, when she had gone down the down the looking glass, “as this time it vanished beginning with the end of it's tail and ending with its grin” of her meeting with the Cheshire Cat.

Foucault links, curiosity and creativity as a fundamental “concern” about ones surroundings, evoking
the care one takes for what exists and could exist; a readiness to find strange and singular what surrounds us; a certain relentlessness to break up our familiarities and to regard otherwise the same things; a fervour to grasp what is happening and what passes; a casualness in regard to the traditional hierarchies of the important and the essential.”

He states in The Masked Philosopher, I dream of a new age of curiosity. We have the technical means for it; the desire is there; the things to be known are infinite”

Highgate Cemetery and it's surrounding areas have been the subject of many a curious expedition as well as the inspiration for much of North London's dopamine high countercultural activity. The pioneering British producer and writer of the hit Tornadoes single Telstar Joe Meek, had his studio on nearby Holloway Road, and an obsession with the supernatural, often hauling cumbersome tape decks into the graveyard to try to record voices from the hereafter. Although selling over 5 million singles worldwide, Telstar's success was not enough to combat a string of bad decisions, Meek's hidden sexuality and a volatile temper, and a increasing delusional Meek shot both himself and his landlady in 1967.

British industrial new wave duo Cosey and Chris of Throbbing Gristle fame, used the cemetery as a backdrop to their 1982 album Trance, and of course there was the infamous incidents that made the news of grave digging in the 1970's. 

But the area and graveyard was also home to many forward thinkers and artists. Louis Wain the famous British cat painter lived in Hampstead. A well loved illustrator, Wain, anthropomorphised the feline species into cards players, beach waders and tea party goers, before suffering from mental illness, to which some posit a toxoplasmosis induced schizophrenia. His later work carried out whilst in the Bethlam hospital, is some of the most beautiful examples of “outsider” or psychedelic artwork, depicting wide eyed abstractions of cats in kaleidoscopic colour ways. It is worth a mention that whilst on nursing training at the hospital my Grandma had the pleasure of meeting Louis Wain, whom she cared for on several occasions.

As H G Wells quoted “He has made the cat his own. He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves." Catland sometimes Pussydom was a land where cats reigned supreme, and was an avenue for Wain's unusual theories such as, a cat washed not only to clean itself, but to complete an electrical circuit, for by doing so it generates heat and therefore a pleasing sensation”.

 Another local character of curious thoughts, Alfred Richard Orage lived and is buried in Hampstead. Orage was a british intellectual at the epi centre of modernist culture who popularised  the work of early 20th century mystics George Gurdjieff and Peter Ouspensky, through his progressive journal, The New Age from 1907 to 1924. Through his spiritual teaching Gurdieff, taught that most people exist in a state of 'waking sleep' unfulfilling their human potential. It could be possible to transcend this hypnotic state and awaken ones potential through his method The Work or The Fourth way. A R Orage was instrumental in forging these ideas of self development and intellectual, creative and emotional harmony with the British avant garde and coined and defined a a global movement which was to expand future minds with a potent combination of mysticism, self-discovery, humanitarian politics, blissed out pan pipes,environmental concerns, and the embrace of technology, subjects of which all have been an inspiration and continue to be an inspiration to artists and musicians alike.

Hopefully, this has made you curious enough about the area but there is one reason, why Highgate Cemetery is significant and as we started with a death of one of my cats, we will also end on one. Enid, a pretty black and white cat was sadly killed by a dog on our estate in Kentish Town. After receiving her ashes, a neighbour offered to give her a fitting 'sending off', what we did not know was that the neighbours brother was a grave digger for Highgate Cemetery. Swiftly Enid's ashes were taken and buried somewhere very close to where we are standing equidistant from Marx and Malcolm Mclaren.

* I apologise for any mistakes, however since the talk, in a horrid twist of fate our current cat Ernie has gone missing, so I dedicate this post to him wherever he may be.

Friday 3 January 2014

Gone to Pot

One of the reasons blogging has fallen to the wayside is my current obsession with pottery and ceramics. I found out recently that Peter Whitehead, director, writer, falconer was also a potter, and took it up after a life threatening heart operation. He says in this interview that an obsession with an urn for his ashes led him to make his own ceramics, and in his own words saved his life. It's worth a read, and here a picture of him and Tonite lets all make love in London 1967.

Paul Sharits N:O:T:H:I:N:G 1968

Searching for Bohemia

We're thinking of moving to Hastings and in the endless discussions about whether or not to this was sent to me. Of course we are going to now... Happy New Year, lets hope there's more posts in 2014 than in 2013...

Sunday 21 July 2013

Revealing the Mind Bender General

A new ghost story The Sleep Room, by F.R. Tallis, has brought to light the actions of William Sargant, one of Britain's most controversial psychiatrists. Sargant was a major advocate in the use of psychosurgery, deep sleep treatment, electroconvulsive therapy and insulin shock therapy. In his Sleep Room in Waterloo Hospital patients were induced to sleep for months on end, whilst experiencing electro therapy amongst other treatments. In Sargant's words, "All sorts of treatment can be given while the patient is kept sleeping, including a variety of drugs and ECT [which] together generally induce considerable memory loss for the period under narcosis. As a rule the patient does not know how long he has been asleep, or what treatment, even including ECT, he has been given. Under sleep ... one can now give many kinds of physical treatment, necessary, but often not easily tolerated. We may be seeing here a new exciting beginning in psychiatry and the possibility of a treatment era such as followed the introduction of anaesthesia in surgery" Although held in high regard at the time (1948), deaths within The Sleep Room and controversy surrounding the outcomes of treatment have thrown Sargant in obscurity. Some patients, recalled relief and better health, but many (mainly women) spoke of permanent memory loss and the shattering effects of such extreme treatments. The loss of all documents in relation to the Sleep Room, has led to many theories that Sargant was working on behalf of the CIA's MKUltra Project, a covert research operation experimenting in the behavioural engineering of humans (mind control). Sargant's links with the British Secret Service, may have also pointed towards mind control research however there is no evidence to suggest so.

Monday 21 January 2013

Inventions for Radio

Amazing collaboration between Delia Derbyshire and Barry Bermange aired between 1964-65 for the BBC's Third Programme.
Here are two of the four one, The Dreams and the other Amor Dei - Conceptions of God.

Friday 18 January 2013

Where it all began...

A massive advocate of cat related films, a friend passed this on as the first cat film ever...