The seventh of our Waiting Times takeover series is a collaborative review of Martin O’Brien’s performance and lecture at the Horse Hospital in London. Ed Garland focusses on sonic experience while Amy Grandvoinet takes a psychogeographical perspective.
‘The Last Breath Society (Coughing Coffin)’ is a durational performance and installation by the artist Martin O’Brien. He says the work is ‘an exploration of mortality’ through a ‘pain-based practice’ (O’Brien 2023). For me, the work is also an exploration of intensity through dramatically embodied sound. O’Brien places coffins and tape recorders and various props and assistants in a room, and performs with them to create a physically risky, thematically captivating, and sonically fascinating event.
The society has made several appearances. Reviewing its 2021 incarnation at the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA), Ash Kotak heard a ‘symphony of hard but steady breathing’. Standing in central London’s Horse Hospital for the Society’s 2023 incarnation, I too was beguiled by the sound (which is credited to Suhail Merchant). But the ‘symphony’ I witnessed – with its intensely Gothic visuality and ingenious integration of analogue recording technologies – connected to seminal works of musical heaviness and sonic decay. It was both an excellent gig and a collective auscultation – the act of listening to organs, an appropriate activity for a hospital to host.
In a dark and spacious cellar, lit from above by small golden lamps, O’Brien lies on his back atop the head end of an upright coffin. He coughs towards a section of the audience stood against the walls, while a church organ plays a single low continuous chord. Other coffins – all of them black, glossy, with polished silver handles – are stacked and strewn around the tall, reverberant space. On some of these coffins’ lids, dark plastic tape machines play asynchronous recordings of cough-bursts, reminiscent of Tony Iommi’s bongsmoke hacks at the start of Black Sabbath’s ‘Sweet Leaf’. But here we do not detect the hiss and whirr of smoke expulsion. Instead, we hear a viscous gravity, the muscular scrapes of bunged-up airways, the sibilant death-edges of pneumatic mucus. We wonder how much of O’Brien’s interior air has chugged through our nostrils, into our lungs, and up to the blood in our ears.
He drums his hands against his ribs and starts to rock the upright coffin on the uneven stone floor. We’ve been stood here for fifteen minutes, and the non-stop church organ drone now sounds like the resonant cloud of our ongoing attention. He rocks the coffin again, tips it over, and we inhale the sound of his landing: the bang of the wood and the bright thump of body on stone, which also pushes into us through our feet. He behaves like a tape: he crawls in circuits around the herringbone floor, loops through our hush and glare, displays the dark stripe of his bare arse. He prepares the tape machines to record a new sound and climbs into an open coffin sandwiched perpendicularly between two others, as if lowering himself into a kayak. An assistant plugs a silver funnel into his face and pours in a mouthwash-like liquid. When the funnel is removed, we hear an urgent gurgle, and the fluid spurts out of the coffin.
Here we have a dramatic signature of ‘yet time’, which Laura Salisbury (Salisbury, 2020) argues is a state of mind in which the anxious psyche feels ‘there is yet time’ to act on its anxiety. The classic sonic emblem of this experience is the wartime air-raid siren. By contrast, O’Brien uses the gurgles to dramatise ‘yet time’ in an act of frenzied cleansing which coincidentally emphasises the 16th-century sense of ‘yet’ as ‘gush forth’. He shunts the coffin-stack until it collapses and he spills onto the floor. Then he fiddles with the tape machines until they play the recorded gurgles. By changing the sound’s material emphasis from air to liquid, all the mucus-ridden coughs now sound like refusals to drown.
Cassettes going into machines. Bodies going into coffins. Long unsettling durations. I was reminded of American composer William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops (Basinski, 2002): sonic art constructed from the timbres of material decay in the shadow of contemporary death. Basinski’s shadows formed in the light of 9/11. While making digital recordings of old tape loops, he noticed a slight textural change each time the loop recurred, as the tape’s metallic element slowly crumbled away from its plastic substrate. In an hour-long recording of a single disintegrating section, what starts as a melancholic swell of brass instruments gradually becomes a muted, porous, pixellated ambience, within which I now notice – after O’Brien’s performance – a slow respiratory rhythm. On the first morning after Basinski completed his recordings he saw, from the roof of his apartment building, the Twin Towers burn and collapse.
The real and potential deaths that shadow O’Brien’s performances are rooted in Covid-19 and his own ‘zombie time’. What we witnessed in the cellar was a difficult joy – the meticulous twisting of sonic expulsions into mind-expanding organic riffs. Afterwards, our attention turned to the death and sickness of creative institutions in the era of neoliberal arts-hate. The Horse Hospital has promoted strange brilliance for 27 years (Basinski performed here in 2004) and has been threatened with closure for nearly half of its life.
The Horse Hospital on the Colonnade in London’s Holborn hosted Martin O’Brien’s pale body in a three-hour endurance-installation in spring-time in the city, 2023, at dusk. The three-tiered building is sliced into a pentagon shape and, viewed from across the road outside the Friend at Hand pub at its intersection with Herbrand Street, its extra edge on the night of ‘The Last Breath Society (Coughing Coffin)’ bore a sign reading thus: ‘GOD SAVE THE HORSE HOSPITAL’. The red bricks of the old building were mucky and black, like the pavements adjacent and ash on the streets, then the space inside deep below where O’Brien coughed and exhumed and inhaled and beguiled us. The Horse Hospital on the Colonnade does not obey the clean demands of contemporary London-at-large. In its threatened state, it remains the haunt of an interesting underworld. Its website rightfully boasts – ‘We are alternative, celebrating irreverence, individualism, anti-conformism, sincerity and integrity. Championing the outsider, the unfashionable, the other. Rejecting professionalism, strategy, power and selling out, rejecting the market, the secondary market and the homogenisation it breeds furiously. Embracing the DIY, the independent, the difficult, the intuitive, the romantic and the life affirming’. Yes.
Down below in the dimmed basement of the Horse Hospital, descending dark ramps turning at ninety-degrees and entered through heavy drawn curtains, people stand the perimeter of the clearing where O’Brien is medial. It is both a vigil and a celebration of life and its fragility. The building they are standing in once soothed poorly Equus ferus caballus at work (Wikipedia will tell you it ‘was originally built by James Burton in 1797 as stabling for cab drivers’ sick horses’), positioned between the writhing West End and Spitalfields to the East with leafy Bloomsbury North and the Thames just South. An arts centre two hundred years on, it now soothes the Homo sapien. Iron tethering-rings to hold ponies for treatment remain today still in-tact. They echo the handles of O’Brien’s coffins as he slips in and out of the tall flat boxes, guggling blue mouth-wash brought to him by somber assistants from the fake heads of sharks in a drama of death and dignity. Through five cast iron pillars in ever more black, the eyes and breaths and bodies of attendants watch on, calmly dwelling on a tumbling O’Brien as he coughs his continuing presence. It is a complex communion. It is a cool breve.
As O’Brien coughs, so does the Horse Hospital, declaring its lasting corporality between Colonnade and Herbrand Street. In 2019, the Horse Hospital was threatened with closure due to a proposed rent increase of no less than 333%, symptomatic of a far broader rent crisis rigging the nation’s topographical make-up of course. It had not started there. In an article for the London Review of Books back in 2014, Iain Sinclair – famously considered a premium doctor of space, a psychogeographer, in his prolific written analyses of the state of the UK’s built environment and its effects on the general populace – lamented the vulnerability of the Horse Hospital as a beloved location (among many others) for the avant-garde. Although its augmented lease has now been successfully diminished a full decimal-point to the left at 33.3%, the more amicable arrangement is guaranteed only until winter 2024. The Horse Hospital’s website lists its more mainstream cultural collaborators in a noble plea to remain – ‘Prestigious organisations such as the BFI, the Hayward Gallery, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Barbican Centre, the Shishedo Gallery in Tokyo and the Brooklyn Museum of Modern Art in New York’. O’Brien’s initial performance at the ICA links the Horse Hospital with a further such institute as additional evidence to support their ongoing case.
O’Brien holds the Horse Hospital, then, as the Horse Hospital holds O’Brien. That Monday evening, the mass is busy and big. People come and go as they please. O’Brien’s loud and fluidy duration at the Horse Hospital was a sobrietous and Bacchic celebration of the interdependent survival of human-beings and their habitats. Reflecting on his performance the next day at Birkbeck Film Theatre, O’Brien imagined and dreamed of rivers and seas made wholly of the cough’s mucus. It is an event that ‘interrupts’, the ‘raspy’, ‘moist’ and ‘phlegm-filled’ reaching right into the ground (you can read more about O’Brien’s landscapes in his book The Survival of the Sickest out now). O’Brien’s ‘The Last Breath Society (Coughing Coffin)’ enacts the importance of mattering in a world that erases, where the press of profit considers mortal sacrifice par for the course. As rent prices soar insidiously and attempt to claim their multiple victims, around O’Brien at the Horse Hospital gathered a most beautiful, beating, breathing hoard. They all continue to prevail in unabating vitality.
Basinski, William. The Disintegration Loops. 2014, Bandcamp.
Hospital, Horse. “About”. Accessed July 27 2023. Available from: https://www.thehorsehospital.com/about.
O’Brien, Martin. “Current Projects.” Accessed July 27 2023. Available from: http://www.martinobrienart.co.uk/.
Salisbury, Laura. 2020. ‘Between-time stories’: waiting, war, and the temporalities of care. Medical Humanities 46, pp. 96-106.
Sinclair, Iain. 2014. “London’s Lost Cinemas.” London Review of Books 36 (21). Accessed July 27 2023. Available from: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v36/n21/iain-sinclair/diary.
About the authors
Ed Garland is the author of Earwitness (New Welsh Rarebyte, 2019). He recently completed a PhD in literary sound at Aberystwyth University. @EdGarland9
Amy Grandvoinet is a PhD student supported by the AHRC based between Aberystwyth and Cardiff Universities and is researching literary psychogeographies. @amykgrandvoinet