Review: ‘Doing the Skylark’ Marcus Coates’s Practical Guide to Unconscious Reasoning – Sean Ashton

Doing the Skylark: Marcus Coates’s Practical Guide to Unconscious Reasoning

Sean Ashton

The artist’s book is still seen as an inherently leftfield genre, but the most interesting examples have a droll awareness of their recondite status – as evinced by such titles as Sara MacKillop’s 50 Envelope Windows (2008), or Simon Faithfull’s Lost: An Inventory of Wayward Things (2006). But there is another kind of artist’s book, one that, on the face of it, might appeal to a more middlebrow audience – albeit one reimagined along more malleable lines. Marcus Coates’s UR… A Practical Guide to Unconscious Reasoning (Book Works, 2014) is a case in point: a leftfield project couched in a middlebrow format. Presented as a self-help book, it is far from droll, transcending its anodyne genre not through satirical means but through methodical seduction, with a series of illustrated step-by-step tasks. Some are purely conceptual, but many require the construction of sculptural props from domestic materials or the mimicry of wildlife in what feels like a psychoanalytic crossbreed of the children’s TV series Why Don’t You? and Animal Magic.

The simulation of animal behaviour will be familiar to followers of Coates’s career as an artist, but here it is given a specific function: to help us discard our self-awareness. That is a prerequisite for unconscious reasoning, as we are reminded throughout this practical guide.

The point, as I understand it, is not to copy, say, a seagull, but to use its behaviour as a vehicle for locating one’s own primal instincts. I should say at the outset that I found this difficult; even the solitary man at his desk has someone looking over their shoulder – I know that now. There was one point when I thought I sensed the jagged outlines of my Dionysian core, but it was a childhood memory masquerading as a new experience.

It came to me while I was doing The Skylark. It was the author himself who suggested I start with this exercise. ‘Try The Skylark’, he wrote on the endpapers, when signing my copy. So I went directly to p.47. As you may know, the skylark sings continuously, ‘without hesitation or repetition’, high over its habitat – usually an open field. Its verbal incontinence makes it an excellent choice for one of Coates’s more straightforward activities:

Duration: 3 mins
Method: Warm up your voice for a few minutes before you start making continuous sounds. Go from low to high and back again. Repeat.
Take a deep breath and make random vocal noises with as little a gap for breath as possible.
Use the full extent of your vocal range.
Be quick, as soon as you find a sound move on.
Don’t give yourself time to think or imagine the next sound.
This is not talking or singing, this is noise-making, it needs to be ugly at times.

And that’s The Skylark. Keeping my noises ‘ugly’ wasn’t difficult, but I found it impossible to make them completely ‘random’. And yet there was a time when I excelled at The Skylark, and as my performance petered out my vocal cords began to remember that they had been here before.

When I was ten, my older brother was given a ghetto blaster for Christmas, and we spent that holiday recording our voices. Unable to think of anything to say into the mike, I improvised streams of verbal dreck instead, torrents of warbles, grunts and clicks – anything I could make my voice do. Though they lasted several minutes and developed something approaching a signature, these outbursts never quite promoted themselves into language, even of the nonsense kind, still less song. I was the very inverse of Keats’s nightingale, but full-throated in my own way, and my brother’s laughter was all the ode I needed. The more he laughed, the more I detached myself from conscious thought, and the more compelling the results when played back over the Amstrad: somewhere between Kurt Schwitters’s sound poetry and Stanley Unwin’s gobbledygook – and probably more interesting than the noises heard in my study this week.

The tactic of using humour as your muse is discouraged in the instructions for The Skylark –

You might notice what you are doing and find it humorous, but don’t let this distract you into thinking or becoming self-conscious.

 – but it was precisely my knowledge that what I was doing was funny that allowed me to become less self-conscious in that remote winter of 1982. However, the demand that Coates is making on my adult self is not that I simply ‘give in’ to unconscious reasoning, but that I control it – and if possible harness it for social good. There are many tasks here that testify to this humanist project. The centrepiece is The Trip, a sequence of ten visualisation exercises running throughout the book, with advice on how to apply them to personal problems. In Trip 1, The Hole, you picture a door, go inside, then picture a hole in the floor of the room. In Trip 2, The Drop, you fall into your hole, taking a leap of faith. In Trip 3, The Guide, you summon an animal to lead you through the subsequent steps, which are sufficiently immersive and complex that as early as Trip 5 we are already inventing allegorical narratives and shaping them into responses to life questions put to us by hypothetical clients.

The sample question worked through here is ‘Will travelling bring me the freedom I want?’. After some preliminary discussion as to what the client means by ‘freedom’, Coates descends into the Hole and envisions himself carried off by a buzzard, an image combining freedom (flight) and constraint (the bird’s talons) – the two pincers of the client’s neurosis.1 He then changes into a serpent, sloughs off his skin and escapes, controlling his descent like a paradise tree snake (whose helical aerodynamics are illustrated on a previous page). This allegory is then interpreted –

The key moment was the decision to free myself. This came as I saw myself constrained and realised the seriousness of my situation. Inspired by this urgency and creating momentum for myself (wriggling) I realised I had the capability to change my circumstances (shed skin) and unexpected freedoms that I couldn’t have predicted would follow (once I started falling I found I could fly).

– and finally smelted down into a solution to the client’s problem:

Answer: it is not the travelling that will find you freedom, but reimagining yourself and acting on that new perspective.

It seems to me that, while the narrative engendered by the drop into the Hole is initially gleaned from an ‘autosuggestive’ plumbing of the unconscious, the subsequent allegorical work – the plotting, the Aesopian characterisation and so forth – is painstakingly conscious. And how could it be otherwise for an allegorist? It’s clear that unconscious reasoning is here seen as a bridleway to a different kind of cognitive grounding, rather than as an alternative to the rational per se, but the introduction to the book might have made clearer overtures to the more analytical reader. Unconscious reasoning may have a palliative application, but using this oxymoronic term to name an entire technique provokes questions that are beyond the scope of the book to answer. I’d guess that the author knows something of psychoanalysis but is wary of it, and that ‘unconscious’ is simply the best antonym for ‘rational’ he can find. A more careful clarification of the term needn’t have impeded his method, and might have been the necessary spur for more sceptical readers to want to read further, but one senses an impatience to get on with the action. Unconscious reasoning, writes Coates, ‘is the recognition of what your unconscious is showing you’. This is interesting, but it begs a veritable convoy of questions: How does that recognition occur? How do we screen out irrelevant data? Why should we always see the unconscious as harbouring palliative truth?

Marcus Coates, Tools for the Spirit World: Compound Lenses, 2010. Courtesy the artist and Kate MacGarry, London

That said, unconscious reasoning is not presented as trumping rational thought here, but as countering its tendency towards premature diagnosis of the problem. In this the book is wholesomely honest, an open-cast mine of empirical speculation, with the analytical machinery brought in only when the activity has yielded enough cognitive ore – though we must remember that the various scenarios worked through here are hypothetical. Whether or not one actually uses it for self-help, it’s worth having for other reasons. Firstly, it’s an insight into the techniques employed by Coates the artist, functioning as a corrective for those who assumed his shamanistic enterprise to have an ironic basis. Secondly, some of the tasks here – the Skylark, in particular – are instructional artworks in their own right, conceptual pieces for the page. Intriguing metaphysical observations emerge as byproducts of some tasks, all the more beguiling for the casual way they slip out. At one point, having instructed us to paint over a pair of glasses with correction fluid, Coates describes the resulting myopia as ‘[providing] you with a halfway space (neither outer world nor inner world)’. It’s this ‘halfway space’ that is the domain of poetic thought. A good line in a poem is always somehow in the process of emerging, of announcing itself as a conduit between the sensed world and the universalising context of the imagination, just as a good artwork continues to happen, in spite of its material stasis. Coates’s ‘halfway space’ nails this without even trying – by mucking around with sunglasses and Tipp-Ex. Aside from its efficacy as a manual for unconscious reasoning, then, the instructional form allows the artist to articulate a world view as modestly as possible, with big thoughts disguised as small ones.

One final point about humour. I’ve already said that the author counsels against it – yet he is far from humourless. Be in no doubt that he is for real when asking you to simulate the behaviour of a seagull, moving ‘back and forth between your living room and your kitchen’, till you are confident enough to ‘go to the high street, hang around the bins and follow these steps’. Coates mastered the art of keeping a straight face long ago, or was maybe just born that way. But one of the main attractions of this book are the many comic moments that depend for their effect, not on a deadpan detachment from the strangeness of the recommended ‘treatment’, but on the belief that we will transcend that strangeness, cross the Rubicon of our embarrassment and benefit from the consequences. ‘If you do try this call’, he says of the high-pitched cry we must make in Becoming Gull, ‘really commit to it, otherwise it will be feeble and you will get dispirited.’ His underlining, not mine.

Sean Ashton is a writer who lives in London. Recent short stories include ‘Mr Heggarty Goes Down’ (Collapse, Vol. VIII, 2014), and ‘The Portrait of Cary Grant’ (Jerwood Foundation, 2014). In 2007 he published Sunsets and Dogshits (Alma Books), a collection of reviews of apocryphal artworks. He also writes regularly for ArtReview.

1. I suggest that the client’s behaviour is neurotic because why not just travel somewhere to see whether it brings greater freedom? We can infer from this and other scenarios that the book, consciously or not, is aimed at a particular type of person: the sufferer of what we might call ‘option paralysis’, who keeps their problem in play for fear of choosing the wrong solution. Self-help books have to assume a certain amount of stock haplessness in the reader, and though Coates’s book is firmly within the genre, the bracingly empirical nature of his technique challenges this human habit of holding out for the ‘right’ solution, and thus – operationally at least – bears some resemblance to psychoanalysis.