"Have you ever KNOWN that you’re just a stranger in your life? Not known where your place is except that it’s elsewhere? Then much of the work we’re offering tonight is for you; very different accounts of what it’s like to be an outcast in your life and in the world. And to find your home elsewhere."
Around the same time, I was sitting in the Albion Beatnik bookstore half reading and half eavesdropping on the table next to me (there's always an interesting conversation going on there - it could be the spiritual home of competitive people-watching). They were talking about deserts. Great topic (so good I once held an exhibition called Into the Desert). One of them made the very interesting point that she didn't like using the word "desert" because it implied a space that was "outside" - the desert outside the city walls, the space beyond the fertile land. In other words, calling something a desert, just like calling yourself an outsider, has the effect of defining a space by its relation to the thing it is not.
That got me thinking. I'd always thought of myself as an outsider. I'd always *been* an outsider. I'd always been laughed at, shunned, ignored, excluded from "regular spaces". That made me an outsider, right? Well, sort of. It certainly gave me a name to call myself, and that matters. It's the same feeling as finally being diagnosed with depression - the feeling, "thank goodness for that, there's a reason I feel this way."
On the other hand, I got to thinking more and more that my identity was about what I did, who I was, not what I didn't do, not what I wasn't. And over the spring and summer that thougt began to mature, and found an outlet in a couple of places. I was asked to contribute to a great collection of urban writing called Urban Feel. My piece, "My Feet Are Wet I Must Be At The Beach" (about the way water and associated metaphors are used as mechanisms of control in urban spaces), contains the passage:
"The punchbag lad in the cardboard box; the smackhead’s hollow skin dropped down through the pavement floor; the free-runner jumping the skag-iron rooftops a hundred feet above the mossy park. The young don’t leave our world; they build their own"
I was aware I didn't agree with a lot of the implications of that. Most homeless people are homeless because they are running away from an alternative that's unbearable. Likewise denying the escape that drugs offer would be banal. But I couldn't help thinking the passage should stay. It made a point, however inexpertly articulated, that needed making. Society's outcasts, its outsiders, are not just the detritus from something normative. "Outsiders" are a parallel, a world of our own, with our own codes, our own structures, often our own very rigid rules of engagement and moral codes.
And equally to the point, we are as diverse as any regular office space or suburb if not more so. Maybe we *are* all outside of something, but to make that what defines us is so limiting when we are so much more, and so many different things.
That sense of being more than someone who "doesn't belong" wherever finally found its expression when I started up eight cuts gallery, in particular in this section of the manifesto:
"we are rats
we live in our own space, build our own communities, societies, foundation myths and bodies of work.
we share some of your doorways, and sometimes you will see the traces we leave behind. traces like this. often they are strange, unfamiliar, and consequently seem frightening, but they are doorways onto a whole world that exists, fully formed, in parallel with yours.
for too long we have been expected to push at these doors, and gaze around them in wonder and admiration, dreaming, cap in hand, of one day entering the world beyond them. we think maybe it’s time for us to offer an invitation the other way."Again and again I find myself being pulled back to the idea of being an outsider. I guess in a way it's romantic. Which is wholly the wrong reason - that's the kind of empty nostalgia and posturing I so dislike in the so-called mainstream. I wonder also if it's an excuse. I've not done abc because I'm not xyz. Which is probably true. But it's not helpful. It won't help me get on and do pqr!
The fact is I'm not an outsider. I'm an insider in a world that not many people inhabit. It may be a world that's unrecognized or unvalued by the paymasters, which means I can't spend all my time there - but who can spend their whole lives "at home"? But I'm not a perpetual traveller, I am not a man in diaspora, or if I am, then it's only because that's the place I always come back to - not because I'm running away from somewhere else, but because it's my haven, the source from whcih I draw my strength, the spring that nurtures my creativity. It is where I can do what really matters, and get on with life.
How do you think of yourself? Do you feel like a stranger in your own life? And if questions of outsiderdom and identity strike a chord with you, you may be interested in my novella Black Heart High, which you can download for free here.