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A law unto herself

The solitary odyssey of M. E. Harkness

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Terry Elkiss

This biographical chapter presents new information about Harkness’s eventful life. In spite of her active engagement with many of the leading writers, radicals, and social reformers in late nineteenth-century London, as well as her own political work and literary labour and extensive travels, relatively little is known about Margaret Elise Harkness. Four continents form part of her life narrative, which is only now beginning to reveal a more nuanced picture of her activities, associations, and accomplishments than was previously presumed. The consideration of newly uncovered materials on her is an exploration that extends beyond ‘darkest Londonʼ and suggests that there are additional relevant details that should be attached to her resume. Libraries and archives around the world possess key documents to enlighten her ideas pursuits, but there are also other unexpected settings and sources for a preliminary biographical investigation of the woman who was more than the author designated as John Law.

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Lasting ties

Margaret Harkness, the Salvation Army, and A Curate’s Promise (1921)

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Flore Janssen

Despite its distance in time and history from Harkness’s original and best-known London novels, A Curate’s Promise in many ways brings Harkness’s oeuvre full circle. Set in the East End of London during the First World War, it resumes her focus on London’s marginalised communities and the efforts of the Salvation Army to ameliorate their condition. Through a reading of this final novel, this chapter draws together some of the strands of Harkness’s thinking which other scholars in this volume have begun to unravel, and considers her lasting ties to an organisation she never intended to join, but to the faithful chronicling of whose work she devoted a significant part of her long writing career.

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‘Connie’

Melodrama and Tory socialism

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Deborah Mutch

Margaret Harkness’s serial story ‘Connie’ appeared in the socialist Labour Elector in 1893–94, but was left unfinished when the periodical folded, reaching no conclusion to the cross-class romance between actress Connie and her lover, the son of a rural landowner. This chapter explores how Harkness uses melodrama in the serial to create a specific form of socialism: one based on the Tory narratives of duty, guidance, and a harmonious relationship across social classes. By focusing on Harkness’s use of the dual lenses of melodrama and Tory socialism, this chapter demonstrates the ways that Harkness uses the former to elucidate working-class women’s precarious social position under capitalism, and the latter to indicate possibilities for the amelioration of this compromised position.

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Absent character

From Margaret Harkness to John Law

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Tabitha Sparks

This chapter looks beyond bio-critical interpretations of Harkness and her work to address the ‘subject’ Margaret Harkness, and specifically her relationship with her pseudonym, ‘John Law’. Although female authors’ use of male pseudonyms was not uncommon in the nineteenth century, the chapter argues that, for Harkness, it constitutes a rejection of personalised character analysis: ‘John Law’, it suggests, signifies ‘not Margaret Harkness’. This rejection of psychologisation applies both to Harkness’s authorial identity and to her representation of working-class life and characters, as the chapter shows by placing Harkness’s work in a tradition of individualisation and psychological portraiture of working-class characters in the nineteenth century. It argues that Harkness’s work is rendered distinct by the fact that her characters cannot use subjective means to challenge their material experience.

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Unlimited action

The performance of extremity in the 1970s

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Dominic Johnson

Unlimited action concerns the limits imposed upon art and life, and the means by which artists have exposed, refused or otherwise reshaped the horizon of aesthetics and of the practice of art, by way of performance art. It examines the ‘performance of extremity’ as practices at the limits of the histories of performance and art, in performance art’s most fertile and prescient decade, the 1970s. This book recounts and analyses game-changing performance events by six artists: Kerry Trengove, Ulay, Genesis P-Orridge, Anne Bean, the Kipper Kids and Stephen Cripps. Through close encounters with these six artists and their works, and a broader contextual milieu of artists and works, Johnson articulates a counter-history of actions in a new narrative of performance art in the 1970s, to rethink and rediscover the history of contemporary art and performance.

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Dominic Johnson

An Eight Day Passage (1977) is an exemplary example of a performance of extremity. This chapter looks at Kerry Trengove’s landmark performance of endurance, in which the artist was bricked into a breezeblock cell in a gallery and tunnelled his way out by hand over eight uninterrupted days. The performance was accompanied by a sophisticated invitation to active participation, co-co-creation and conversation by its audience. By reading this work in the aesthetic context of other practices of endurance art in the 1970s and the historical context of the miners’ strikes in Britain, as well as in dialogue with the decolonial pedagogy of Paolo Freire, this chapter discusses An Eight Day Passage in relation to duress, masculinity, limit-acts and limit-experiences, work, agency and relationality.

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Dominic Johnson

Since the late 1960s, Anne Bean’s performances, public interventions, drawings, videos and writings have been actively pursued as a ‘continuum’, and she strives to diminish the distinctiveness or iconicity of each in favour of a democracy of forms and effects. Bean’s pursuit of a continuum is discussed as a performance of extremity with regard to specific works of performance, as well as her broader assault on critical and theoretical understandings of performance and art, in terms of the potential of performance art to blur the boundaries between art and life. The argument is channelled through the theosophy of G. I. Gurdjieff – a touchstone for Bean in the 1970s – and the dubious critical methods of magic and the occult, ending up at the persistence of her refusal to be fixed or found by history.

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Dominic Johnson

Genesis P-Orridge has been a controversial figure in British art since the late 1960s. This chapter explores the national scandal of the Mail Action (1976), a performance at Highbury Corner Magistrates Court that consisted of P-Orridge’s indecency trial, after the artist was charged for sending pornographic mail art through the Royal Mail. P-Orridge’s performances with and as COUM Transmissions suggest the vital intersections between performance art, pornography, counterculture and crime in London in the 1970s. The Mail Action is placed in dialogue with P-Orridge’s subsequent exhibition (with COUM Transmissions) at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in October 1976 to document the threats posed by explorations of sex, crime, controversy and esoteric ritual, in the context of the performance of extremity.

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Dominic Johnson

In 1976, Ulay undertook an exemplary performance of extremity by stealing ‘Germany’s favourite painting’, namely Carl Spitzweg’s The Poor Poet (1839). This chapter discusses the action at length in the context of Ulay’s earlier works as well as examples of performance art that seek to make interventions into institutional spaces of art as a means of aesthetic and political critique, highlighting the way such actions shed light on the border between art/life and art/crime. The chapter argues that in Ulay’s theft, the transgressing of the perceived limits of art was not simply art crime or vandalism, but part of a sustained project of questioning and deconditioning his own gendered and national identity, here, specifically, by taking aim at his own German-ness in the post-war period.

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Conclusion

Reckless people

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Dominic Johnson

The conclusion brings together underlying themes of the preceding chapters, under the conceptual problems posed by recklessness and impossibility as cultural logics. The reckless and the impossible are framed by a final case study, namely the work of Stephen Cripps, whose dangerous and risk-prone pyrotechnic performances and interactive sculptures can be understood as significant to the development of performance art – and the incipient cultural logic of the performance of extremity – in the 1970s. The conclusion offers final thoughts on the performance of extremity, and on art’s optimistic promise to manifest or achieve the reckless, the impossible, the incorrigible or the unlimited.