Review by Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal
Harold Plople has no problem talking. You can get hit in the mouth for what you have to say, not go to jail. He was married twice, but the annulled one doesn’t count, right? Jesus will ask me on judgment day, what were you doing with that woman in the first place? Born in Indiana. Went to art school at USC, LA City College, SF State. Ended up on Skid Row for nine years. He’s 64. It’s up to god if I live another year. I think that’s okay. Is he religious? I’m recovered not holier than thou.
Dora Garcia’s Mad Marginal Cahier #1: From Basaglia to Brazil, is something in between an artist’s book and a catalogue for her 2010 film, The Deviant Majority. It’s a lovely object, matte black and eggshell, touchable, and bound with thread. It collects interviews, commissioned essays, periodical excerpts, video stills, the artist’s own writing, as well as some miscellaneous fragments. Its disparate rhetorics, forms, and figures circulate around the legacy of Italian anti-psychiatrist Franco Basaglia. But rather than the flighty, jagged rhythm of schizoanalysis, the book whips its many strands into centripetal motion, forming concentric rings. Basaglia plays the pebble hurled into the lake.
Harold Plople self-identifies as a psychotic. It got bad more than once. I tried to hang myself in a cheap motel room. The light fixture broke and I was saved. Called information, wanted to talk to god. They told me I was nuts, and I thought, you’re right. He cares about sports. Keeps up with the Raiders. They’ve got talent, but they need direction. You could say the same thing about me. He tells me he’s learning how to say no. Say no Harold. I practice. Say no Harold. No. Say no Harold. No. Can I have a cigarette, Harold? Sure. Didn’t you learn anything, Harold?
Some of Basaglia’s ripples explored: 1970s Germany and the Socialist Patient’s Collective (SPK) rallying a “patient’s class” against capitalism. The current director of the programs Basaglia initiated in Italy struggling to divorce himself from 70s nostalgia. The emergence of materialist disability theory in the US. Brazil’s 10 year struggle for universal health care. And finally, with the most difficulty, art practices that operate on the margins, whether by choice or by force. If collective imagination links insanity to the need for confinement, what ties Mad Marginal together is a series of openings.
“What they wanted was to destroy the hospital, and this would be slowly done by opening the hospital.”
—Carmen Roll, member of the Socialist Patient’s Collective, (Mad Marginal, 156)
I met Harold Plople at the Living Museum Art Center at Harbor View House, the “largest non-profit board and care facility serving the mentally ill in California.” I was there to see his latest work: 25 portraits of American Characters. He got the idea from a book he bought for $1 at the Salvation Army.
It’s not a surprise that Artaud haunts the text, in footnotes and asides. Though he preferred to think of his works as documents rather than art, he often finds himself the ghost of marginality, madness, and artistic practice. Perhaps it’s also not a surprise that the most compelling essay comes from a theater artist, Peter Pál Pelbart’s “Schizoscenia,” which manages in deft, urgent prose to both comment expertly on the emotional vampirism of capitalism and discuss his work with the Cia Theatral Ueinzz, a São Paulo theater company of professional actors, directors, and users of mental health services.
On the walls of Living Museum Art Center are 25 American characters. They are acrylic and newsprint on canvas. Swaths of green, umber, red, de-familiarize faces, so they get names instead. Marilyn Monroe, Pocahontas, Andy Warhol, Charlie Chapman, Teddy Roosevelt. They get lines for mouths, blotches for eyes, urgently tacked squares of coupons for shoulders. They don’t get teeth ‘cause I don’t have any either. They get it.
“Real artists don’t have teeth”
—Jack Smith (Mad Marginal, 201)
Re-centering radical psychiatry around Basaglia, rather than, say, Foucault or Guattari, is part of the centripetal (and political) force of Garcia’s project. Basaglia’s critiques of psychiatry, many authors assert, were twinned with class critiques. And, simply, he practiced. He leveled his criticisms from within the field, theorizing through action. (As one interviewee remembers, Guattari visited Trieste and refused to dance with the patients—“et volia votre étique-esthétique,” “and there goes your ethical-aesthetics.”)
Pál Pelbart describes his theater company as made up of “people whose life hang by a thread.” He describes the vitality presented on stage as “life by a hair.” At its best, Mad Marginal asks us to take the birds eye view, to take in the fringes and the fray. It reminds us, like the vocal fry of Jack Smith’s “uh…”s or Harold Plople’s faltering “nos,” what fragile strands we hang a life on.
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Dora Garcia, Mad Marginal Cahier #1: From Basaglia to Brazil, (Mousse, 2010)
Images: Cover and Images from Mad Marginal Cahier #1: From Basaglia to Brazil, Dora Garcia, 2010