Amy Ridler reviews Compliances: A New Fear by Iphgenia Baal and Ben Graville for Toothgrinder Press.
If you are looking for a comfortable read, this is not the book for you. Put it down and step away. Compliances: A New Fear is about as far from conventional as you can get, which is the beauty of it. The ring-bound book combines the writing of Iphgenia Baal with the photographs of Ben Graville. Graville’s unsettling images depict the current reality of life in the UK, with which we’re all-too familiar. A double-spread apocalyptic sky scape is followed by an abstract, resembling an academic study. This sets the tone for what is to come. Skim reading is not an option: if you want to get anything from this book, you must put in the work, you must engage with it.
Baal’s unapologetic prose – part analysis, part dissection of society – asks you to make choices, without knowing where they will lead. Though there are minimal direct mentions of Covid, the experience of lockdown inevitably comes to mind: which rules to adhere to, which to break, who to trust. The multiple-choice questions force an interaction with the text, pressuring the reader to make choices with little to no guidance. When each option is worse than the former, which do you go with? This feeling of ambivalence echoes how many describe those first few months of lockdown, when duty of care went hand in hand with the threat of shame and ostracisation.
This pseudo study goes deeper than the last few years. The inescapable class war that we have been living through, long before ‘covid’ and ‘lockdown’ were common terms, are at the heart of Compliances. Baal confronts the disconnect between social media and reality, suggesting that the nature of performative solidarity is worse than none at all.
‘endlessly re-hashing hashtags for their empty solidarity memes.
#Solidarity that is yet to materialise in RL, where #nolivesmatter.’
This contemplation of society, and what it means to be united, reads as a implicit call to arms. It is incredibly difficult to read this work, to look at Graville’s photographs and remain unmoved. Are we all connected? A community? Have we ever been? Nostalgia, or faux nostalgia, is put under the microscope. Baal invites us to question which time we are looking back to. When was that golden era? When were marginalised people ever really having a good time?
‘everybody knows it was:-
a) no good then
b) like it’s no good now
c) like it’s not gonna get any better
it was the old days, after all, which lead directly to this car crash of a situation.’
Pointed yet cryptic references and in-jokes are scattered throughout the book. If you get them, they add depth (and sometimes an evil laugh), though many of these harsh observations will likely to go over a few readers’ heads. In doing this, Baal creates a secret language which weaves in and out, speaking to the ‘in crowd’ – to those in the know. Picking up each reference allows you a closer inspection of where Baal is coming from. It’s a code within a code.
Feeling like a political art piece, Compliances would work just as effectively as a performance piece, read aloud in a dark room against a backdrop of the Graville’s images, flashing from one to the next. Compliances: A New Fear is a challenging read. To describe it as merely unconventional does not do this work justice. The book pushes you to question where you stand on matters that are very close to home. You cannot close this book and come away from it neutral. It is confrontational and asks – whose side are you on? Are there even any sides left to choose?
AMY RIDLER IS A WRITER AND ENGLISH TEACHER IN EAST LONDON, WHERE SHE RUNS THE LGBT+ SOCIETY. SHE HAS WORKED WITH THE QUEER, FEMINIST, LIVE ART THEATRE COMPANY CARNESKY PRODUCTIONS AS AN ASSOCIATE ARTIST SINCE 2009 AND CONTINUES TO BE A MEMBER OF THE COMPANY’S ADVISORY BOARD. SHE IS CURRENTLY AN MA CREATIVE WRITING STUDENT AT BIRKBECK.
AMY IS THE MANAGING EDITOR OF MIR ONLINE.