For the past year I’ve been researching and performing ideas about terrorism, art, civil liberties, free speech and rage under the banner I Want to Blow Up the Palace of Holyroodhouse. On November 1st 2014, at the SPILL Festival of Performance, it all came to a climax: I built a large model of the palace from cardboard and glitter, and then exploded it for a live audience. Sort of. In the event, as Lyn Gardner wrote, it “went with less of a bang than a genteel pop” and needed the help of a mob of angry hands and feet to finish it off. The possible failure of the bang (and its definite futility) were part of the project from the start, after all. You can watch a short video of the speech and explosion below; this post is a write-up of the year’s work, a post-explodem of the project, with words about what will happen next.
(video: a brief speech about the explosion, and the explosion, and the destruction of the cardboard city)
I’ve told the story so many times I’ve started to stop believing it, but it is still true: I cycle past the Palace of Holyroodhouse most days, and it makes me furious. It’s a symbol of the UK’s still-living feudalism, it’s a vast private estate in the centre of the city in close proximity to poverty, and it’s a centre of authoritarian power. But my anger is completely out of proportion to its status: something that’s built over time, that’s personal, that’s absurd, and that sometimes feels impossible to deal with. I started having fantasies about destroying the building — the most recurring one involving hiring a bulldozer, driving into the walls and seeing how far I’d get — and inevitably those began to involve the iconic idea of blowing it up.
But my anger is out of proportion, and it’s not worth dying or going to prison for, and maybe it would be better just to convert the palace into social housing, and I’m an artist, so: instead of becoming a terrorist, I decided to build a model of the palace and blow that up instead, in the name of art. This turned out to be harder than I thought. My first discovery was that it’s illegal to actually talk about blowing up the palace: under counter-terrorism legislation, it is illegal in the UK to make any statements which encourage or glorify terrorism, and also to recklessly make any statements which might indirectly encourage or glorify terrorism. Worse, it is illegal to access and possess information which could be used to commit acts of terrorism, unless you can prove that you have it for purposes other than terrorism. That means that not only could I not talk about actually blowing up the palace, but that I couldn’t gather information for blowing up a model palace unless I could prove that I was using it for artistic model purposes only.
So I decided to do all my research in public places, afterwards logging every site I visited and what my conclusions were. This was simultaneously a self-protection measure (honest, guv, I’ve nothing to hide!) and a way of absurdly satirising the surveillance state, especially in the age of social media: we are all surveilling each other, and we are all constantly under the eye of authoritarian surveillance. I wanted to taunt that state, to walk as close to its lines as I could without getting in too much trouble. In this, as with the blowing up itself, I am an incurably adolescent artist: I love thumbing my nose. But this was also just a good excuse for Doing Art in public: I like having public conversations, I like putting difficult ideas in public spaces and making them accessible.
The project hit its first major hurdle when the police actually came to visit. I’ve had enough interactions with the police that I wasn’t horrible spooked, but it was unpleasant and invasive nonetheless. And while previously I had been thumbing my nose at an imagined eye in the sky, now I knew I was actually being watched, and that I had to be properly careful. I’d also, after three public-research-performances, got a little weary of the idea: having done it three times (and always unpaid), did I still have a new point to make? Didn’t I just want to get on with making a bang? So the result of the police coming to visit is that I finished the research phase of the project in private. They may still have been watching (it’s not paranoia when they tell you they’re doing it), but I was no longer writing semi-ironic posts about explosives google searches. Instead, I teamed up with a retired fireworks engineer named Nigel Marsh to figure out how to blow up a big cardboard box in a suitably dramatic way. Doing it with someone more experienced made it far more likely to succeed, and doing it in private meant that I was much less likely to have someone turn up and tell me I wasn’t allowed to do it any more.
In retrospect, I’m sad that I didn’t push the public research component even further — it would have been interestingly risky and exciting to extensively document Nigel’s and my experiments, and it would have made an even bigger point if we got stopped — but on the other hand, bringing someone else into it required different considerations, and I’m glad we were able to make some bangs. I’m especially glad, because in September, very suddenly, Nigel had passed away after his cancer returned. I was shocked and saddened — he was an extraordinary man — and deeply sorry that he wouldn’t be there to witness the final explosion. This performance is dedicated to him.
(video: nigel and me figuring out how to make the right size of bang)
For the record, here’s the method Nigel figured out with me: a much more stable and lower explosive variation on the bin bag bomb. We filled a three foot diameter latex balloon with household propane and oxygen in a 1:3.5 ratio, and detonated it with a long black powder fuse rigged to be more dramatically slow-burning. I absolutely genuinely do not recommend in any way trying this at home. Please don’t. And don’t take my recipe as accurate. Get a professional. Nigel had been blowing things up most of his life and knew what he was doing, and also we were way out in the countryside and just scared some cows and birds. And for the record, DC C_____ and DS C_____, it is completely impossible to blow up the actual Palace of Holyroodhouse by inflating an enormous balloon with propane and oxygen and detonating it, so I won’t be publishing any calculations on how to do that. And I’m not encouraging anyone to take even a small explosive balloon inside to damage one of those lovely rooms. And, as always, I neither condone nor encourage the actual blowing up of actual public buildings, and will not be sharing my research with anyone who does in an encouraging way.
I have to say that last bit to stay on the right side of the law. This is a little frustrating, because I would like to have conversations with people about the history of propaganda by the deed, about why some political organisations blow up buildings, about how that’s what Nelson Mandela was in part imprisoned for, about why some people might think it’s a valid and useful tactic in some campaigns, but that it’s also been historically used by far-right groups, and that it scares me, and that I don’t know how to talk about it properly, and that I can’t talk about it properly because it’s against the law to talk about it in a direct and personal way. “I want to blow up buildings” is something I’ve said and I think is just on the right side of the law, but if I were to say “I think we should blow up buildings” that would definitely be illegal (so I am categorically not saying it).
I want to have these conversations, but as well as it being hard to have them, I’m not sure I have the right to have them. I grew up somewhere where there was no political violence (or rather, where all the political violence is perpetrated by the state on people who don’t look like me and who are mostly far away). “Blowing things up” means something different to me than to my friends from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, for a start; it means something different to all sorts of people from all sorts of places, and I wouldn’t be surprised if me talking so flippantly about it rubbed some of them up the wrong way. It probably ought to. My ability to do this comes from a place of privilege. I wanted to have a public conversation about rage and political violence , and for me one of the ways into that — one of the ways of making it more palatable to more people — was to dress it up in humour and cardboard and glitter.
But by the very act of making it accessible, I also risked not taking it seriously. All this was in my mind as I tried to find a home for the actual explosion. I was determined to do it at an official, funded performance festival — in part because I’m a working artist and need to get paid sometimes, but mainly because I wanted that official approval. This project was in part about art and the futility of art, and for those themes to be in depth I needed it to happen somewhere where it officially looked like art. All my fears about the police and seriousness and practicality were compounded when the project got rejection after rejection — more rejections than I’ve had for any other project, I think. I’m sure many of the festivals just didn’t like it (which is totally fine) but more than once the language of “this isn’t quite for us” indicated that it was just hard to find someone who would let me do an actual explosion (which is also reasonable). I was pretty despairing about the project, worrying that I’d spent six months barking up a ludicrous tree, when SPILL finally got back to me and said yes. I was delighted. I needed the context artistically, but sometimes a leg-up just feels good.
I couldn’t have hoped for a better producer or for better support than SPILL. They were extraordinary in general, but two things were particularly delightful: they got Ipswich Borough Council to approve my explosives plan, and they secured a decommissioned police station for me to do it in. My gas canisters were kept in a former police dog kennel, and I built my cardboard model in a former interview and search room. Thanks to this, the project gained whole new layers of meaning: it had the official art context, but it also had municipal approval, and it also got to rudely repurpose a former hive of cops. The project was naughty enough to get police attention and to seem hilarious to perform in a police station, but nice enough to get the council and festival green light: exactly the line I was trying to walk.
Derrick Jensen wrote “Every morning when I awake I ask myself whether I should write or blow up a dam. I tell myself I should keep writing, though I’m not sure that’s right”, and that’s been a guiding quotation for this project. Why do I make art about blowing things up rather than actually blowing things up? (Of course, “I don’t condone or encourage actually blowing things up.”) More broadly: Why do I make political art more often than I engage in political action? More personally: Why can’t I find the motivation to do direct action as much as I used to, and am I always going to feel guilty about doing art instead? More abstractly: Why does art feel like such a cheap substitute for politics sometimes, and such a brilliant form of politics at other times? All of this is compounded by doing officially-sanctioned political art: I want to make risky performance, but if it’s approved by a Borough Council, can it truly be that risky? Does the fact of doing something which can get public funding mean that it’s not actually worth doing, politically? Is I Want to Blow Up the Palace of Holyroodhouse actually a form of radical politics, or is it just the image of radical politics projected onto a cardboard model? I’m happy to have been able to ask these questions, and asking them makes me feel less worried about them. (Which may in itself be a problem.)
As well as building my palace at SPILL, I spent three days inviting people to make cardboard models of buildings that made them angry — models that were also scheduled for demolition in the climactic event. I encouraged everyone to cover the things they hate in glitter, and asked them pointed questions about what it all meant. “Why are you angry at this building?” and “How will it feel to destroy it?” were good starters, but the best question was always “So, do you actually want to blow up the building this building, or just the symbol of it?” The question caught most people off guard, as if they hadn’t realised that blowing up actual buildings was an option. And they had to think about this question more than any of the others. Again the question of accessibility-vs-seriousness arose: I created a space where we got to have fun and have difficult conversations, but it was very hard to balance both. I think I erred too far on the side of fun throughout, and should have pushed people for more conversation as we played with crepe paper and glue. Finding ways to structure those conversations is important for me to figure out.
And then there was the bang, or the pop. I spent an hour setting up the building, the cardboard city around it, and rigging the explosion. People started to gather. It was a completely new sort of performance for me, and I hadn’t realised I was going to do it: normally I’m a host, a talker, an extroverted performer, but here was an audience primed to watch people do strange thing in silence, and I was rigging a pink balloon explosion in a glitter city. I had ear protectors round my neck and goggles on my forehead; it was great fun. I gave a speech, setting the context, and I lit the fuse.
I don’t know exactly what went wrong. It was supposed to go more bang than it did, and I repeated the method I’d practiced with. I suspect that at one stage too much propane leaked out of the balloon, or that otherwise the propane:oxygen ratio went out of whack. The walls of the palace shook, but remained standing. As planned, to finish the job, the audience rushed in to tear everything to pieces instead. I can’t say I’m not a little disappointed. To see my beautiful horrible palace ripped to shreds by an explosion would have been extraordinarily cathartic. But that it took our hands to destroy it is still hugely in keeping with the ideas of the project: I refuse to call it a failure or apologise for it, or rather, the kind of failure we performed was itself a riotous success. Because the actual Palace of Holyroodhouse is still standing, and it hasn’t been converted into social housing, and one symbolic performance can’t change that. Unless, somehow, it can. Thinking about this, but talking about another project, I wrote this to a friend:
I’m not interested in all types of political failure, and I don’t want to fetishise failure in a world of suffering. But I do want to talk about our failures, our losses, and how we keep going in the face of them, and I think that’s vital and important.Because I do want revolution, but I don’t want apocalypse. By which I mean, I don’t want a lifting of the veil: I don’t believe that there will be a revolution and that after that all oppression will be gone and everything will be fine. I believe that there will always be oppression, and that we will always need revolution to fight it, and that revolution will always be ongoing, BUT ALSO that things can get a hell of a lot better. So I don’t think there’s a “there” to get to that we’re failing to get to, but I do think there is a journey. I’m worried that if I did enough reading I’d stop believing in any time’s arrow of history, but I do for now.