Sarah Cochrane and Joe Kelly – Fit For Nothing

Esther McManus – Elsewhere

“Because I work I am nothing” – Kathy Acker, Blood and Guts in High School

“No food in my stomach and my pockets fucked up Plus my mother still work, so why should I give a fuck?” – Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire, ‘The Last Huzzah (Remix)

Two different ways of transforming the experience of poverty into art, though anyone who longs for dark times because they want a new punk boom is not to be trusted.  We don’t know what art would have been created without a decade plus of government hostility towards those who aren’t optimally useful to capital… you know, people with disabilities, people who’ve had kids when some weirdo thinks they shouldn’t, people who had the audacity to get sick, or have a bad month, or fall behind their monthly quota… but we can be fairly sure that talented people would have done good work regardless.  The death and pain caused by these political realities is undeniable, however, and while we shouldn’t measure a government by how many albums we bought along the way, we might want to ask whether art made in such a hostile environment has enough to offer us.

Which is to say that if we’re going to accept an invite to a party in the year of our lord 2021, we might want to be sure that we’re not going to end up with someone who’s going to start banging on about how people should just keep calm and whip up some lobster ravioli using the leftovers they found in their spare sowing rooms…

Fit For Nothing isn’t exactly shy about its politics.  Billed as “the story of a dead man’s search for work”, it takes the hateful illogic of fit-for-work assessments to their endpoint and assumes that there’s no reason why the demands to work should stop once someone has drawn their last breath. It gets there via a playfully daffy skit featuring a glib job centre employee’s holiday to Egypt, but even this jokey introduction makes the direction of Cochrane and Kelly’s anger impossible to ignore…

The body of the comic develops this attack on administrative indifference to the fullest, following one zombie’s attempts to re-enter the workforce and his bewildered daughter’s attempt to follow the consequence. Fit For Nothing‘s aesthetics are zine aesthetics, built for jokes and immediacy of expression rather than sustained attention.  This doesn’t mean that the visual element lacks for expressive qualities, of course.  Cochrane and Kelly find a visual grammar that matches the horror of their story three pages into the narrative proper, with an image of a graveyard that is quietly humbling in its scale:

Cochrane and Kelly achieve this effect over and over again without any hint of repetition, which suggests a developing visual theme rather than a series of happy accidents.  As our undead hero makes his way around town, the structures that should provide him with shelter take on a distant, abstracted form.  Office spaces become are reduced to a line of desks stretching off into the horizon, an imperfect stairway to nowhere.  Homes jut from the ground like fractured dentures.  Traditional shop-fronts crowd our protagonist like so many caption boxes while the bastions of new capital prompt unexpected feats of illustrative clarity.

All of this could be a bit one note and heavy handed were it not presented in a rhythmic relationship with the jokes, which are alternatively scathingly absurd and and absurdly scathing:

The humour doesn’t blunt the polemical edge here, it sharpens it.  It stands as a reminder of real human cost and culpability in all of this, and as such the only shame here is that those most in need of taking this point would be on the sharp edge of it anytime soon.  A work of empathy and righteous judgement, you could be sure that if Fit For Work invited you out to a party then everyone there would be a good laugh… regardless of whether they were still, technically, among the living.

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Esther McManus’ Elsewhere is also a product of zine culture but it sits at a different table from Fit For Work - figuratively if not necessarily literally, what with the world of arty books, comics and zines being an elbow-to-elbow sort of world.

A lush experiment in risograph, McManus’ pamphlet “forms a part of the Institute of Historical Research’s Stray Voices project, documenting a public walk along the ‘Great North Road’ between Stevenage and Hitchin.”  What this means is that Elsewhere doesn’t just look lush, it feels lush.  What’s more, it uses that lushness to dictate the pace of your reading – slow, contemplative, like someone walking with purpose but without haste.

The abundance of what might be called “content” separates Elsewhere from a lot of similarly well produced zines, though we would do well to consider subject matter as an aesthetic element, here and elsewhere.  Zines that have been produced in this format can sometimes feel like efforts to rediscover certain experiences of form, process and colour in a world more interested in how these things can be translated into money.   This is a noble enough pursuit if a somewhat solitary one – such work is easy to admire, hard to discuss if you’re not clued into the technicalities of their production, conducive to periods of slightly spacey meditation.

Under McManus’ oversight, these same aesthetic values become signifiers of attention, of a commitment that has been made in time, motion and intellect.  In other words, when you encounter these effects in Elsewhere, you find yourself wanting to luxuriate in them and to get away from them at the same time.  The stated aim of the work is to examine “how homelessness has been discussed in the UK over several centuries, highlighting how current social debates and policies have their roots in the past“, but it surpasses this ambition.  It’s that rare, beautiful thing that ends up making you feel like you need to leave your own house and talk to someone, to agitate, or at the very least to take a walk around and see what’s going on.

This has something to with the way that Elsewhere folds several different journeys into the one - impressionistic accounts of ‘The Great North Road’ blur into reproductions of old documents and photographs, with a thoughtful discourse on James Greenwood’s On Tramp (1883) interpolated throughout.   It also has something to do with the way the format prompts steady contemplation, but the result is more than the sum of its parts, more than thought plus production value.

In folding these routes down into this lush pamphlet McManus offers both motive to stray from our own path and the means to do so, impulse and destination:

The politics here are no less direct than those in Fit For Nothing, and no less timely, but it’s exactly this element of time that determines the contrasting aesthetics of these books.  Where Kelly and Cochrane make quick, jagged jokes about the long grasp of the gallows – jokes to be understood and shown to a sympathetic friend or colleague - Elsewhere takes longer to metabolise because it asks us to question why pathways so far from those walked in our times should feel so familiar, and maybe also implicitly why we might be too quick to sneer at this sort of insight instead of exploring it more fully.

In both cases, what we have is something of a reversal of alienation: in Cochrane and Kelly’s zine, a bit of work that feels instantly useful, and in McManus’ book a path around the barriers between self and world.

You might pass Elsewhere on to someone but you wouldn’t expect an immediate response.  You’d want to let the ink seep in through the fingers until it aggravated the brain.

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