Death works its way into the everyday imagination of the individual in myriad dull and unprofound ways, a claim which this article for the reader might both explore and attest. When the end is alluded to in the glib sloganeering of mass culture, it rarely engages with the full weight of death: it is wholesale death, cut-price death, death-lite. Such is the case when you hear in pop songs refrains of ‘party like it’s your last night alive’. This never struck me as practical advice. On my final day on this mortal realm, would I really give a shit about catching a Jackmaster set? I fancy instead that my entire consciousness would be prey to the seemingly endless yet soon-to-end torments of regret, guilt, sadness and earth-shattering fear (which, by the way, are to a lesser degree the four horsemen of the hangover, rather than the recipe for a banging night out).
Here in Manchester outside University Place, and now in over 70 countries worldwide, people have the chance to consider life, death and enter into the process of self-examination with the ‘Before I Die…’ public participatory art project.
A quick glance over the communal bucket list reveals a plethora of hopes and wishes, ranging from ‘be a basic bitch’ all the way to ‘get schwifty’, making pit stops at ‘marry Michael Scofield’ and ‘dismantle heteropatriarchy’. Initially I considered putting together an ‘I tried doing these things and it was crazy’ Vice-type piece, but I thought it tiresome to repeat all the activities I had done on the weekend for the sake of an article.
There are also suggestions on the board which one might have read before. These phrases are written down in place of phrases which were written down days prior, and so the process repeats. Some of these phrases such as ‘live life’, ‘travel the world’ and ‘make my dreams come true’ would already have an air of platitude about them, but this is compounded by the fact that they are not just clichés, but clichés which have been written, then washed away, then re-written.
One afternoon walking northward up Oxford Road, a route I follow every day, I saw someone at work clearing away the messages to leave space for more. It was as if he was a figure of the pressures and conditions of life; the pleasure principle that wants to ‘shag a ten’ and the instinct for aggression that wants to ‘kill Trump’ are left as unfulfilled desires. What could only remain was the reality principle, intent simply on staying alive and living moderately well under the conditions of civilised life. Might not there be an alternative to getting through the days, funnelling ourselves into the restrictive framework of the reality principle? I wondered this as I watched the man wash away the phrase ‘live not just survive’, aware that it was this man’s job to clear the board. This was how he earned a living, how he survived.
The blackboard then might represent life, with all of the words on that board as the actions of every individual. Each time phrases are wiped off, a generation passes. In place of the actions of the past are actions of the present, written into life as if new, yet so similar to what has come before as almost to be tracing the faint lines of our ancestors onto a page which we pretend is blank.
Reflecting on this cycle of endless repetition set against a pressing urge to make new things happen, I carried on walking.
Perhaps the words on the board were empty, perhaps not. Perhaps they would be fulfilled, perhaps not. But whatever they said, they were said again and again, with this flow of reiteration punctuated by the recurring endpoint of being cleared away.
As I walked on, to the left came the empty carcass of a building which, having been knocked down, will be rebuilt where it once stood. The endless cycle of life and death now seemed at every turn to be inscribed into the city, an appropriate motif as a bereaved Candy Chang (the creator of ‘Before I Die…’) first developed the idea by stencilling phrases onto a crumbling house.
I then came to the Manchester Aquatics centre. This is a place which promotes health. It is anti-death. The slogans on its vast outer surface tell you ‘better: the feel good place’ four times. And, as if conspiring to imbue the rhythms of repetition into the pedestrian’s unfocused eye, the building offers the phrase ‘group cycle’, embellishing the sentiment with pictures of people on static bicycles, peddling but going nowhere.
Perhaps that is the trickery of this gym, as it proposes the idea of infinite circularity, instead of the individual’s experience of the cyclical process of life where you are not statically peddling, but peddling towards death. It is only an infinite process if you don’t look at it individually, but collectively; not as one person on the bicycle, but as part of an ongoing ‘group cycle’.
I looked across at the slogans on the windows of the Geoffrey Manton Building, which count up to seven, with the final window saying ‘our seventh in creation: the act that makes art’. All the days were there but day one. Where was the origin? Must we consider life, belated as we are in 2017, as always having been in the midst of an endless turning whose starting point is faded into obscurity? I thought back to the blackboard and could not remember seeing only one or two lines written in chalk. There seemed to be from the start a hundred messages, which in turn seemed already to be written on top of the fading similar messages of days before. This gave pause to consider whether anyone does or says anything that many before have not already said or done.
Further up the road I went, and yet my forward steps belied progress, as I came to another demolished building. I, as we all are, was caught in this cycle. This demolished university building differed from the last through the messages that surrounded it. On a banner marking off the area read the words ‘place’, ‘partnership’, ‘ambition’, ‘community’ and ‘sustainability’. This banner is not just overshadowed by the bombsite which it now demarcates, but also by a larger banner above reading ‘Connell Brothers Demolition’. The word ‘brothers’ recalls the sentiments of partnership and community, whilst the word ‘demolition’ mocks those sentiments and antagonises the concepts of ‘ambition’, ‘place’ and ‘sustainability’.
The company name is repeated four times, as if in dialogue with the Aquatics Centre which, four times, told us ‘better: a feel good place’.
The ongoing repetition of destruction and renewal, life and death, seemed to be undercut by distant red words at the far end of the wreckage which said ‘stop’. This presumably marked the point at which the demolition should halt, as it was on one of the few remaining walls left standing.
At this point, with mind and surroundings almost inextricably linked, I too stopped and turned back to retrace my steps, which I had just taken and which I had traced and retraced many times before. Returning to the blackboard, this reverse route led me away from the destroyed building and back via the seventh window, the sixth, fifth, fourth, third and second, towards a speculative original meaning. All the while, I knew that I would just arrive at the first demolished building again.
Back at the blackboard, the man had finished his job clearing the chalk away. So what remained? Just some graffiti, of course. Sure, come Saturday 25 March, when the project ends, even these markings would also be gone. All is transient. Yet they will stay there until then, in spite of, or perhaps because they are one of the few markings on the board which did not try to answer the question. And because they used spray paint.Elliott Mills