Meet: the Freaks

Earlier this month, a group of 26-ers joined Neil Baker for an experimental workshop at Diane Arbus’ exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. But what exactly did they get up to? Alex Mawson-Harris reveals all.

Don’t just look at them. Meet with them. Give them your full, undivided attention.

This is the message 26 board member and Dark Angels tutor Neil Baker starts his experimental writing workshop with, inspired by Diane Arbus’ approach to photography.

In a patch of sun outside her recent ‘Meet the Freaks’ exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, Neil has his own ‘freaks’ (a collection of writers of various levels, and one person’s poor unsuspecting friends) take a picture of each other. It’s okay. A bit awkward. But fine.

We try again, with another ‘freak’, this time really meeting with them first: making good eye contact, smiling, really seeing them. The difference is amazing—faces light up, eyes beam, the connection’s captured in the photograph.

We take this connection inside Arbus’ exhibition, meeting with the subject matter of her work, invited to respond creatively with words. To inspire us, Neil gives us a worksheet of things to keep in mind, questions to consider and points for reflection. He encourages us to meet with five of Arbus’ ‘freaks’, asking:

  1. Who is here?
  2. Who is not here?
  3. What brings them joy?
  4. What is their dream?
  5. What makes them sad?
  6. What is their regret?
  7. What do they want to say to you?
  8. What do you want to say to them?
  9. What could they give you?
  10. What could you give to them?

Wandering amongst the other gallery-goers, we graze on what’s on offer, resting where a character catches our attention, or challenging ourselves to meet with someone new. Someone we wouldn’t ordinarily spend time with. Someone we think is a ‘freak’.

I start with The Three Little Pigs:

Dead pigs hanging
NYC 1960
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Promised Gift of Doon Arbus and Amy Arbus, 2007

Having been told off by a gallery staff member for photographing the picture of the pigs, I put my camera phone away and have to make do with my sketching talents. See how I beautifully capture them…

I call them Tail, Body and Hoof, imagining the centre pig’s snout sniffing about. I follow the shape of its cheek, noticing how it leads to its ear, reminded of bacon.

I see the men on either side of the photograph. Really see them. But it takes a while for me to notice the man behind Body.

‘The man behind the pig
is the most interesting.
He’s become the pig,
lives and breathes, understands
Tail and Hoof are leftovers,
Shoulder and Baby Back Ribs
 an afterthought.’

(I figure, since the men are all body parts too, they should reflect the meat the pigs are, and so call them ‘Arms’, ‘Shoulder’ and ‘Baby Back Ribs’). Contemplating who Arms, second name Sleeves-Rolled, may be, what his working life entails, and what his relationship with the pigs is, I write,

‘You’re broken
but whole.
Alone in our togetherness
for real:
a soldier.’

Considering what may cause both Arms and Body to experience joy, I write,

‘Your joy is beer, craft if possible.
Your joy was meat; me too.
You want to be eaten? Yes, I believe
you do’.

As well as musings such as these, Neil encourages us to write a ‘wordograph’ (similar to the original summary of information,

Dead pigs hanging
NYC 1960
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Promised Gift of Doon Arbus and Amy Arbus, 2007

but coloured by our experience),

‘Slaughterhouse Six
Three Little Piggies
And three handsome men
The man behind the pig: a lover.’

Next, the puddle

Puddle on the sidewalk
NYC 1957
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Promised Gift of Doon Arbus and Amy Arbus, 2007

‘A world and its under/ The world above

                                    as below’.

I wonder,

‘Why are you a freak?

You were never one of us anyway.
[Always one step ahead,
our ancestors.]

[You’re a drop of the ocean
sprayed on concrete jungle.]

You’re dirty, washing yourself.
I can feel the cigarettes hot,
hear the pigeons
chasing you.
You’re not fair.]

You’re not a princess
you’re cheap crystal
trash,
endless tragedy.

I don’t even care what you want to say to me
until I’m five
wearing red wellies.’

As I’m really taking my time, I only manage to meet with three of Arbus’ freaks, the third being:

The children

Child teasing another
NYC 1960
Gelatin silver print
Private collection, San Francisco

‘You are both beautiful.
“That’s cute”.
You’re holding your/the
love in your heart, right
to your chest;
meeting into it,
whole body
artistic dancer.

You’re a giggle held
in the body, all shoulders.

Dirty trucks, dangerous
ice creams.

Being free is your joy: to play
in your rooms, alone, doors
locked, your joy hides with
you. Ready to play hide
and seek.

I could give you roses, or ashes,
fall-about-games
merry:go:round.

You could give me endless joy:
just knowing yours.’

‘Two sweethearts
encapsulated in
sheer joy.’

Looking in the mirror

After a debrief in the café, sharing how we all found the process, Neil asks us to dig deep, to ask ourselves, what if we were the freak? What would we see? What would we write?

Woman-come-girl
Falmouth: London: Nottingham
2019

‘You’re eager, hungry
but restricted—forming
discipline.

You’re open, wise and
loving: loving the world,
finding yours.

You’re not a bricklayer,
yet

you’re not covered in tattoos,
yet

you’re not a loud, whiny bitch,
yet.

Your joy is chocolate rose
sunny side up steak
the wind that used to be by the sea,
replaced by speed and strength.

Your dream is a coloured rainbow of
more than you can taste
touch : to build another layer.
You make yourself sad, if
you try, or if you don’t try making yourself
happy.

Sleep eat love, work hard:
a job well done:
your best:
giving your all.

A
Woman-come-girl
giving her all
Falmouth: London: Nottingham
2019

Taking it home

We gather once again, in the patch of sun outside the Hayward Gallery, taking it in turns to share a few lines of what we saw in the mirror, of what we’ve learned about what it means to meet somebody, rather than to just look at them.

We reflect upon our reflections and give thanks for a fresh understanding, a new way of looking at the world, the people we meet, and those we consider ‘freaks’.

Sketch by writer, consultant and founder of The Table, Rob Self-Pierson

 – Alex Mawson-Harris

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