‘How do we imagine something other than what there is?’ An interview with the vacuum cleaner

This short film is an edited version of an interview with the vacuum cleaner, an ‘art activist collective of one’, that took place in May 2015. The setting is a bedroom in a flat in Manchester – the temporary site for performances of Mental, an autobiographical piece that the vacuum cleaner originally made for performance in the bedroom of his council flat in London. During the performance, the vacuum cleaner explores his own psychiatric records and police intelligence files – all obtained by means of freedom of information requests under the regulations of the Data Protection Act (see www.thevacuumcleaner.co.uk/mental).

Drawing by Paul Gent

This interview is an extension of the ‘Gestural Notes’ section of the ‘Theatre, activism and performance’ special issue of Contemporary Theatre Review, where a series of artist-activists describe their own theatrical, imaginative and embodied responses to locally sited injustices. In the interview below, the vacuum cleaner explores the history and development of his ‘activist performances’ over more than a decade. These performances include his initial venture into the territory of art activism with a one-person attempt to ‘clean up after capitalism’, where he wore a yellow cleaning contractor vest with the words ‘cleaning up after capitalism’ on the back, and used a recycled 1950s style vacuum bought for £2 in a charity shop to clean the streets of London and New York (as described in the ‘domestic gestures’ online intervention). As well as being one of the founding members of the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, the vacuum cleaner has created numerous stand-alone performance pieces that make provocative interventions into public spaces. Two mentioned on the film include The Church of the Immaculate Consumption, where consumerism is recognised as a new religion and products in shops are worshipped, and Starbucks logo fault, where the logo of numerous Starbucks coffee cups were altered to read ‘Fuck off’.

Latterly, the vacuum cleaner has made a series of performances about experiences of mental distress and mental health services, as powerful contributions to what he calls the ‘civil rights moment for people with mental illness’. Mental was preceded by Ship of Fools (2011) ‘a self-initiated anti-section action’ where – during a period of declining mental health – he transformed his flat into an acute psychiatric ward, wrote his own mental health act, and invited artists and friends to visit and make art. His most recent piece draws on Ship of Fools – called Madlove, this touring performance transforms spaces into asylums ‘designed with mad people to go mad in a safe and creative way’.

Drawing by Paul Gent

Although he doesn’t see his work as theatre or theatrical, we wanted to invite the vacuum cleaner to take part in our project as his work is both diverse in its forms and has been surprising and inspiring for both of us. This work makes imaginative projections into time and space that confound the distinction between the real and the imagined, symbolic and material (a theme of our special issue) – inserting ‘questions into space’ that invite all those who encounter them to ‘imagine something other than what there is’. The role of artists in times of impending ecological and economic disaster, this work suggests, is to bring their aptitudes to bear on the task of imagining another way of doing things and also, to come up with desirable and compassionate plans for organising and managing the mess that is inevitably coming our way.

There are four ‘parts’ to the interview – the vacuum cleaner describes his initial ventures into activist performance with ‘Cleaning up after capitalism’ and then moves on to explore the relationship between the representative realm and pragmatic as well as impactful action in activist performance. He then moves on to briefly describe the impact of Mental, before offering some reflections on present modes of activist performance, referencing the Robin Hood Minor Asset Management Cooperative, and his own Madlove project as arts spaces that challenge and extend normative relations of social care and support by making interventions that are simultaneously imaginative and actual.

– Jenny Hughes and Simon Parry, May 2015

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Thanks to Contact and to the owner of the flat for arranging access for the interview, as well as – of course – to the vacuum cleaner himself for generously giving time in between performances. Attentive viewers of the film may hear the sound of scribble on pages – the interview was also attended by artist Paul Gent, who drew the vacuum cleaner as he was talking. Paul engages with a wide range of social issues through his drawing practice. He documented some of our initial work on activist performance gestures and has recently been working on documentation of an interdisciplinary project exploring how performance might promote better understanding of mental health. Thanks to Paul for permitting us to use his images on this page.
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