The Artistry of Madness

This is now official : in January, I’ll start training as an art therapist specialising in mental health at Sainte-Anne, Paris most famous psychiatric hospital.

I first set foot in the psychiatric universe exactly two years ago, in December 2015. I documented my weekly dance sessions with the patients for about nine months (see a sample here and here). This piece of writing is very dear to me, because the Mad House characters were very dear to me. Some of the ladies are the greatest performers and poets I’ve ever met.

I’ve been viscerally missing the creativity and artistry of madness since I last passed through the doors of the psychiatric hospital last year. I’ve been feeling deprived from my main space of freedom and my main source of inspiration. 

I don’t want to become a dance therapist to “help people”. I have no sense of sacrifice and abnegation. It doesn’t interest me to be a saint. I’d rather be an artistry vampire. I want to work with the crazy to make art with them. I think that living hard and intensely is an artistic practice in itself. The tenants of the Mad House have the highest level of intensity and sensitivity I’ve ever experienced.

Also. I broke up with the first boyfriend I’ve ever had the day after I signed for my art therapy training enrolment. No causality. That story lasted for six weeks. He said things which brutally opened my eyes upon the fact that he hadn’t perceived me at all. Not one bit. He said he loved me but I tried to tell him that the girl he liked didn’t exist as she was the obedient, hetero-normed and thriveless version of me.

Of all the people I slept/fucked/made love with, wether it went deeper than the surface or not, I can’t help noticing that the common denominator is that none of them ever had the slightest interest in my creativity and vision of the world.

The lovers I had, the girls & the boys & the others all left the same question in my head. What exactly did they see in me? What did they like? Why did they want to get closer, and even closer, and finally the closest you can ever get to another human? Sometimes, I asked them. For all I know, they always got attracted for what has appeared to be wrong or false reasons. As the first thing that should put out your eyes is that I’m creative and I’m craving for you to blow on my burning embers to light my fire wilder. If you haven’t seen this, you failed me. You failed me.

I am not existing to bump up your ego by looking good around your arm. I am not existing to be a proxy for the life you don’t have the guts to live. I am not existing to mirror and solve your issues with femininity. I am not existing to take care of you and support you emotionally. I am not existing to make you a better person and educate you on equality. Above all, I am not existing to be attacked because you feel bad in your own skin. None of that is exhilarating and I want an exhilarating life.

Since I’ve been alone again, I’ve been finding my peace in books and art works. I’ve been swallowing tons of references about madness and psychiatric institutions. I’ve been reading Nellie Bly, Pierre Souchon, Michel Foucault. I am on a Raymond Depardon marathon this week. Depardon and his wife and sound engineer Claudine Nougaret started documenting psychiatric institutions in the 80s. I saw three of their documentaries in four days: Urgences, Douze Jours and San Clemente. They capture so accurately the poetry and verity of madness. I recognise some attitudes and expressions I used to witness. Their films are so genuine that they reactivated the smell of the long and gloomy corridors of the hospital in my memory.

There was a Q&A with Raymond Depardon and Claudine Nougaret after the film Urgences the other day. They said this film was their honeymoon. They had just got married and spent the next three months filming the psychiatric emergencies as she was pregnant. God, that’s so the life I want. They said they managed to render the essence and truth of mentally ill people because they have a special ability to disappear and sync with the patients, which made them comfortable enough to open up and be natural despite the camera. Their words strongly resonated with me, because I instinctively understood that I have that ability as well and that’s why I am so comfortable around psychiatric patients.

I’ve been studying my feelings through the large oscillations of the last two weeks and I am coming to the conclusion that experiencing and making art is the main source of fulfilment and happiness in my life. Way more than any human relationship. I am not saying this because I am love bitter these days. I am not. You know, I wasn’t even sad for a moment when I left the boy. Apprehending, taming and forging an intimate relationship with an art piece makes me ecstatic. Doing the same with people often left me disappointed. All the art I’ve seen is the most precious thing I own. I’ll take these images to my death bed and all the rest will be long forgotten.

Paintings: Les Cathédrales de France by Anselm Kiefer


The Death Row Companion


I started a strange journey nine months ago.

Out of the blue, I contacted an organization in order to correspond with an inmate on the US death row. I’ve always had a strong fascination for the penitentiary world. Prisons qualify as heterotopias, these “other spaces” of society theorised by French philosopher Michel Foucault. Heterotopias are enclosed public locations run by their own rules and their own relationship to time.

Ten days later, I received the name and address of the man who would become my penpal. There was a short manuscript letter enclosed, with his request to be put on the waiting list for the penpal program. He had been waiting for 14 months. I was moved in an unusual manner when I saw his handwriting. I instantly sensed that I was getting myself into an extraordinary human adventure.

The organization provided me with a list of recommendations and advice. The one that stroke me the most was that I was supposed to regularly check the calendar of scheduled executions on the official death row website. Most likely the information would be online before the court and lawyers would announce it to my penpal. I was going to know before him when he was scheduled to die.

They strongly recommended not to try to find out information about the facts, but one of the first things I did was to google the man. My curiosity to discover his face and the crimes he was accused of was too strong.

His name is ΝΣ. He’s going to be 47 in August. I learned from the web that he had been involved in drug trafficking. He was convicted of first degree murder in 2000 for commending the double murder of a couple. The woman had died and the man had survived the bullet shots in his head.

I didn’t know anything about his life conditions in jail and it was super touchy to write my first letter to a stranger who had been cut off from the outside world for the last 14 years.

He replied very fast, and I remember being disappointed by his first letter. He was complaining about the prison selling iTune songs for $1.49 to the inmates. He thought it was a total rip off. I felt stupid in my spiritual expectations. I wanted deep moving conversation, remorse, metaphysical reflection on life and death, and I was facing a supposed murderer who ranted that Apple was overpriced. I had got caught in my own game of craving for depth and redemption. I replied to him that I was paying my iTunes songs £0.99, which was more or less the equivalent. “And I haven’t killed anyone” I thought. But I didn’t write it.

I toned down my expectations after that. I chose not to ‘want’ anything from the guy.

We never talk about the facts he’s charged with. I let him bring up whatever he wants about his trial, his case and his life conditions. I don’t have an opinion about what he did or not. I don’t know the truth. I am reading between the lines that he’s claiming innocent.

I chose to believe him when he says that his trial was botched up and that the American justice system is a maze. He says he had poor defence. The court didn’t look at the evidence and didn’t call his witnesses. He’s studying law books to work on his case every day. He had an appeal in May, aiming to get a new trial in a few months.

Gradually, we started having some kind of relationship.

He asked me to ship him the World Almanac. I have to learn the procedure and rules for everything I want to send his way. I got him candy and chocolate through a food order form for Christmas.

He told me a little about his background. He was born in Trinidad and Tobago. He has 6 or 7 siblings but his family almost cut him off. One of his sisters visits him once a year. My favorite part of his letters is the description of his day to day, the rules of the prison, his life conditions, the updates on his trial.

I mostly tell him about my trips so he has names to look up in the World Almanac. I always get him postcards everywhere I go. I often don’t even send any to my family and friends, but I always make sure to get one for him. After all, he’s also the only person who sends me real letters.

After a few months, I started signing my mail “Your friend, Σ”. He did the same.

I started referring to him as my ‘Death Row Companion’, or more familiarly as my ‘Death Row Babe’ – which I obviously don’t tell him.

To thank me for my gifts, he had my portrait drawn by another inmate on the death row who is his friend. He used the photo of me which I sent him at the beginning of our correspondence. I don’t know when they meet, because they have individual cells, but they have up to 6 hours of recreation per week which must be collective.

This portrait of myself is one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever received, because there’s the hell of an intense story behind it. It doesn’t look like me but it does at the same time. The movement of my hair looks incredibly real with pencil. I have put it on the top shelf, between the books by my dear Virginia Woolf and King Kong Théorie by Virginie Despentes.

He was impatient to get my feedback on the drawing. I think he was happy to have shipped me something. I asked him the name of the artist to thank him as well.

Now, he starts being more chilled with me. The other day, he asked me for tips to cut down his belly fat. I laughed and I made him funky stick man drawings of the plank position. He told me he has been doing the exercises every day. Next, I’ll send him some stick man sketches of the sun salutation.

I’ve decided to go and visit him at some point. I don’t know if I should, because this friendship is scheduled to stop and I can’t say that I wasn’t aware of it.

I’ve received an email from the organization this morning. The subject was: “Two executions scheduled for September”. I opened it in a hurry, but his name wasn’t there.

I am tough and stubborn, so I’ll end up visiting him anyway.

There are currently at least 30 people on the death row in the US who are waiting to be put in contact with a penpal. I know 2 organizations which run the penpal program: the ACAT in France, which is the Christian organization I am involved with, but you don’t have to be Christian or to be a practicing Christian to register with them. Human Writes is a British organization which also runs the death row penpal program. The only requirement is to be over 18 and to commit to write regularly, as this correspondence may be the only support received by the death row inmates.