“The Infernal Grove”

Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby have always made work that pushes the boundaries of convention. Whether in an early work such as 2001’s Being Fucked Up, in which the artists are seen (or appear to be seen) smoking crack, to Lesser Apes, 2011, which tells the story of the sexual relationship between a woman anthropologist and a female bonobo ape she is studying, the content of their work always challenges the viewer. Their videos are difficult, perplexing, subversive and gorgeous. As Tom Sherman writes in the aptly named book about their short films, The Beauty Is Relentless, “their work involves us in a lot of thinking about good and bad and fair and unfair and the battle between hope and despair.” There is nothing easy in such thinking, and much that is unsettling.

In their newest work, the long-form video The Infernal Grove, 2021, their subject is addiction and drug taking. The video is part of a larger, ongoing project unfolding on Instagram and in work that will be made for gallery display. This exhibition of The Infernal Grove at Halifax’s Blue Building Gallery is, they write, “the first expression of its eternal unfurling.” In a dizzying mix of interviews, time-lapse footage and meme-like vignettes, Duke and Battersby have pushed their work, and the viewer’s comfort, to new extremes. This “non-systematic structural analysis of drug-taking and addiction” mixes beauty and pity (“beauty plus pity, that is the closest we can get to a definition of art,” wrote Vladimir Nabokov, in a passage used by the artists to title their 2009 video Beauty Plus Pity), but it is not the drug takers who seek our pity. Indeed, you distinctly feel that they pity the rest of us.

Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby, The Infernal Grove, 2021, video stills. Courtesy the artists and The Blue Building Gallery, Halifax.

Each speaker, in recounting their experience of addiction and drug taking, their experience of the illegal drug economy, of incarceration and sanction, eschews shame, apology, or regret. What they do express is love (for their fellow addicts, for the freedom from shame and regret) and anger in the face of society’s “war on drugs.” As one of the vignettes states, “drug prohibition kills people who use drugs.”

Every human society imposes, or tries to impose, their own version of order on their recalcitrant outsiders, with varying levels of coercion, reward and punishment. Many prefer to evade such order, to live beyond the pale—literally, on the other side of the fence. Ordered society finds edges dangerous. “There be monsters,” to paraphrase some early cartographers—and rules are set to mitigate the dangers. Such rules are often imposed for what we consider to be benevolent reasons. We are saving people from themselves, whether they are asking to be saved or not. It is not just conservatives who want to hold the line; most of us have a stake in some accepted order, whatever our varying tolerances for disruption. Oppression and repression can serve both good causes and bad. And the more they are used as coercive tools, the more good and bad become the same. Duke and Battersby hate rules, Sherman writes, “People who make rules: watch out!”

Most of us will acknowledge that few things are always good, in every situation, for everyone. But few of us are willing to admit that bad things may have a similar range. Surely there are bad things that are always bad for everyone in every situation? But we need to be honest about our rules: prohibition protects the centre; it doesn’t help those at the margins. If we look at it honestly, we have to admit that those “monsters” beyond the pale that we fear so much can be our neighbours, our friends, our families.

Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby, The Infernal Grove, 2021, video stills.

In The Infernal Grove interviews are interspersed with scenes of plant and insect life, time-lapse video of flowers budding, blooming and decaying, or leaf fronds unfurling towards the light and falling back into rot. Slugs and snails seem to dart across the petals and stems of the flowers, leaving glistening trails. At other times the flowers are covered in gobbets of slime, pouring from off-camera, covering the plants in thick coats of viscous, artificial ooze. It sounds ugly but is in fact quite beautiful. The beauty here is indeed relentless, the colours vibrant and hyperreal, the animated pace of the growth and decay hypnotic. Beauty and ugliness are not that far apart in this infernal grove.

“Some people like fentanyl,” one interviewee says, describing how she liked it so much that she had to stop. Harm reduction is the aim of many of the people interviewed, the ability to safely use currently illegal drugs. Another, artist Mikiki, talks about putting “shame on hold or pause” while using drugs, and the role of drugs in queer men’s sexuality. The artist Paul Wong gives the longest interview, and he poses some of the most difficult questions for the rule makers of polite society. Does living a boisterous life lead to boisterous art? he asks. And if an artist lives a boring life, must they make boring art? Wong’s exaggerated shrug, a partial answer to his own question, is eloquent.

The Infernal Grove feels like a departure in the work of Duke and Battersby. There are no animations, no original songs, no narrative, however fractured or incomplete. At times it feels like a documentary, but the work never fully resolves that way; each interview is isolated within the larger whole. However, it also feels as if the artists have brought closer to the surface so much that was an undercurrent in the earlier work: the subversiveness, the transgressive energy that makes their work so compelling and so difficult.

“You cannot not unfurl,” another Duke and Battersby vignette reminds us. Perhaps oppression and suppression are rooted in repression, and we all carry our monsters within us. This is thoughtful work, and it leads the viewer into territory that many would rather leave uncharted. But if we have learned anything from human history, it is that the centre does not hold and that the edges are constantly redefined. There is always pressure from the margins, and Duke and Battersby make us wonder how we will respond. Will it be with compassion or with judgment, with assistance or oppression? What are we missing when we turn away from our own infernal groves? ❚

“The Infernal Grove” was exhibited at The Blue Building Gallery, Halifax, from September 17, 2021, to November 12, 2021.

Roy Cronin is the author of nine books on Canadian art. His book Colleen Wolstenholme: Complications was recently published in 2021. He lives in Nova Scotia.