Blows and Bombs: Stephen Barber on Antonin Artaud

Stephen Barber
BY C. Lupton

STEPHEN BARBER was born in Yorkshire, England in 1961 and has a PhD from the University of London. He began writing in 1990, and is the author of Abandoned Images: Film and Film’s End (Reaktion Books, 2010), Artaud: Terminal Curses (Solar, 2008), and Antonin Artaud: Blows and Bombs (Faber/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993), among many others.

Barber’s books have been translated into several languages, most recently into Spanish and Turkish. He has also written articles and essays for newspapers, magazines and art catalogues. He has given readings from his books at prominent international venues such as the Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris), Setagaya Public Theatre (Tokyo), California Institute of the Arts (Los Angeles), New School for Social Research (New York), and Tate Modern (London).

Currently a Fellow of the Henkel Foundation in Berlin, he has previously held posts at the University of Tokyo, the California Institute of the Arts, and the Berlin University of the Arts. Read more at Kingston University.

This interview was first published in a longer version in Complete with Missing Parts: Interviews with the Avant-garde (VOX Press, 2008), in a limited edition of seventy-five copies.

To live is always through
the death of someone else.

— Antonin Artaud

How did you first become interested in the works of Artaud?

In the late 1970s I worked as a musician and, in that context, became aware of Artaud’s sound recordings, which he made in the last period of his life, in 1946-48, long after the time when he was associated with the Surrealists in the 1920s and formulated his Theatre of Cruelty ideas in the 1930s. In particular, Artaud made a recording for radio titled To have done with the judgment of god — a project of percussion, screams and incanted texts — which was banned outright by the French national radio station, shortly before Artaud’s death. I then started reading Artaud, and spent the second half of the 1980s living in Paris, where I met Artaud’s surviving friends and associates, and other figures who had been important to him.

You’ve studied the drawings of Artaud as well as his literary works. His drawings seem even more morbid than his writing at times. How do you account for his apparent obsession for putting everyone including himself in a coffin?

Blows and Bombs

Blows and Bombs
BY Stephen Barber
(Creation Books, 2003)

It’s particularly in a drawing entitled The Theatre of Cruelty, undertaken while Artaud was at the asylum of Rodez in 1946, that he places a number of imaginary figures in coffins — the young women whom he imagined as his “daughters of the heart to be born,” a group of allies who would travel to Rodez to release him from the asylum, and deliver to him “a ton of heroin” — but Artaud himself isn’t in the coffin. In fact, Artaud was a great refuser of death, and was adamant in the last period of his life — when he was gravely ill with cancer and from the after-effects of the violent treatment in the asylums — that he would not die, and that death itself was a kind of malign emanation of society’s power, to be combatted by a project of anatomical transformation which would involve the autopsying of the current human body and its reinvention without organs (the idea that inspired the French theorists Deleuze and Guattari), but with the skeleton, the lungs and the face left intact. Death is always a source of fury to Artaud.

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