If Thous Livest In Corrupe Ayre, Change It For A Better. 2020-2021
This performance piece was one of 8 commissions as part of the larger Cap and Dove project by artist Joshua Soafer, run by Greater Manchester archives in commemoration of the bicentenary of the Peterloo massacre.
Performed by Klaire Doyle and Michael Orrell
"If thou livest in corrupt ayre, Change it for a better.
Fresh air is right,
Bathed by the blithe air,
And uplifted into infinite space.
We must strive to live in good and whole- some ayre."
The cleaners chant for the performance created from extracts from Nature by Ralph Waldo Emmerson, 1836 and The Works of That Faithful Servant Dr Thom Taylor, 1653.
This performance saw a ‘street cleaner’ follow a processional cleaning ritual around the Cap and Dove vehicle. The performer enacted traditional purifying methods used in public and private spaces from the Early Modern period through to the 19th Century to cleanse and ‘change’ the air in preparation for the following proceedings.
The piece was initially sparked by the climate emergency and the issues of air pollution in Greater Manchester. I wanted to draw on historical sources to make our shared air tangible to viewers and researched how pollution was handled in the early modern era.
In this period pollution was seen in terms of miasmic theory – that smell carried disease and moral corruption and that activated pleasant or even foul smells would ward off these ill effects. The temporality and transient nature of smell is also an intriguing quality for performance, it will hover or pass quickly in space, expanding the field of the performance, and like protest, smell is fleeting, unruly, and difficult to contain.
Through my research into miasmic theory I came across the geographical and economic dividing lines of polluted space, where living up or downwind from industry fumes was part of the wealth divide. This was continued in the industrial towns of Greater Manchester. The combination of astronomy and wind direction was believed to cause certain airs to rise up. Access to clean air was and is a social issue.
Responsibility for maintaining a clean, and so miasmic free city has always been both a civic and personal concern. In 1590 Elizabeth I gave a proclamation to clean the issues and entrails from the city of London as the ‘ayre there was greatly corrupt”. Though towns hired scavengers and rakers to do some cleaning this was not a desirable or respectablejob and they could be reluctant to fulfil duties. Inhabitants were responsible for the space outside their own home. This duty is
echoed in the use of donkey stones in industrial Greater Manchester, these were scouring blocks made from pulverised stone, cement, bleach powder and water. The Lion Brand were manufactured in Tameside using Wigan stone. Used to clean the en-
trance step to a house, they drew a line as a threshold between the unclean outside and the pristine inside of the proud working family. Space is and was denoted by its smell and set against the smell of other space.
In the early modern period, as now, there were economic and moral connotations to ‘noxious vapours’, where the poor were intrinsically associated with immorality due to their smell and association to stinking industry and/or behaviour. Personal smell was a space of corruption, courtiers and the lower orders were instructed to “not sigh, cough or breath hard in the presence of your sovereign”. This even extended to the words you spoke as the idea of ‘breathings’ was linked with both physical breath and words uttered. Meaning was affected by sweet or foul breath; a prayer or joke should only be spoken with pleasant smelling breath or it would be poisoned.
Satan was thought of as the “prince of ayre and of the divells” and the church sought to clear corruption of its space through perfume. Frankincense was used as disinfectant by church wardens as the odour of sanctity. There was an ‘interchangeability of odours from real to metaphysical’.
Miasmic theory remained the main conception of disease until the 19th Century and elements of it resonated with campaigns such as the open-air school movement, the sanatorium movement, and environmentalist movements. It is also redolent in the Covid 19 crisis with fears of stagnant air and breath, and the disparity between those that have access to open air spaces and sanitary facilities and those without.
The performance objects, costume and actions were taken from the multiple symbols and associations from this historical research to create a recognisable but off kilter act of cleaning space and replacing the air with new smells. It layered ideas of physical and metaphorical change. The performers marked the territory of the newly purified space using the donkey stones and a compass.