View attachment 39167 A few years ago, I was walking with a friend in some fields on the southwest coast of Rousay, one of the northern isles of Orkney. There were a fair amount of cattle about, but we weren't paying much attention to them and nor were they to us. True, one beast did look significantly bigger than the others, and I said to my friend, "Oh, d'you think that might be a bull?" at the exact moment that this rather larger kine lurched into a trot and began heading our way.
My friend – whose guiding spiritual principle derives from a koan given to him by a sadhu he found sitting cross-legged at the source of the Ganges when he was a young man – cannot bear witness to a physical challenge without immediately responding to it: if he notes that a cliff might be tricky to scale, he scales it; if he supposes that a current might be treacherous to navigate, he strips and breasts it. Anyway, as the beast – which I could now see was conspicuously horned – came barrelling towards me, I realised that my dharma buddy was already 50m away and on the far side of a triple-stranded barbed wire fence. I reiterated: "D'you think it might be a bull?" And he shouted back: "Of course it's a bull – look at its bloody great balls!"
I relate this anecdote in a spirit of unabashed nostalgia – there's really something rather marvellous about being pursued across a field by a charging bull, even if at the far side you rip the crotch of your trousers to shreds on a fence. The experience puts you on a footing with all those finely cross-hatched figures doing similarly stereotypic rural things – spooning on haystacks, caught in mantraps – that I recall from the ancient back numbers of Punch magazines I used to read in dentists' waiting rooms. Now, of course, these are gone – the magazines, and the free dentistry – and for the most part you don't see bulls in fields at all. I don't know where they keep bulls when they're not "servicing" cows, but given our current mores it's probably in a scrubbed and antiseptic barn unit, where they're shown beefcake pornography and fed energy supplements so as to excite them to the correct pitch. Meanwhile, I'm still impotently out in the fields – and, trudging across them, I'll often come across the animal's contemporary incarnation: an empty Red Bull can.
True, the first time I came across a can that had once contained the energy drink in a field, I didn't run away from it and leap a barbed-wire fence – but I felt like doing exactly that. The absurdity of the Red Bull can in the field operated at so many different levels that I got into something that used to be described in the pages of Punch (when it was subtitled The London Charivari) as "a tizzy". Obviously, I experienced a semantic destabilisation: an assault on the mimetic function of language (really "a red bull" should refer to … a red bull) that recalled to my mind the conflicts between the Vienna Circle and Ordinary Language philosophers.
View attachment 39168 What, I wondered, can we understand by the words "red bull" in this day and age? Presumably only an evilly-chemical-smelling orangey gloop that's served mixed with vodka in downmarket pubs and clubs, inducing in its drinkers the reversal of Elvis Costello's trope, so that they can't fall down for standing up. Then there was the context: the British countryside may have largely been reduced to a monocultural desert of agribusiness, but our uchronic vision of it persists: we expect to find Rosie with some sharp cider under the haystack, not a roseate energy drink. And lastly there was my own very personal discomfort: as a person who has functioned within a framework of artificially induced stimulus and sedation for my entire adult life, I took the Red Bull can as bearing a simple message: emptiness.
TIREDNESS CAN KILL read large signs placed the length and breadth of our motorway network, TAKE A BREAK. But I never do – in the very old days, I'd eat a screw of cigarette paper with some amphetamine sulphate in it when I felt on the point of falling asleep at the wheel; or I'd drop a dexy, a blue, or – if I was particularly fortunate – a black bomber (time-released dextroamphetamine, the Rolls-Royce of stimulant drugs). SPEED KILLS is another well-known motorway exhortation, but this seems to directly contradict the stuff about tiredness. That's the trouble with our society: it doesn't know whether it's coming or going, arriving in hypnopompic splendour, or departing in a dusty puff of benzodiazepines. Since the first world war, there's been a largely tolerant attitude towards stimulants. True, once their use becomes egregious they tend to be proscribed by the state, but once a war starts they're a drug on the market. The trouble is that for some people, the condition of late capitalism is itself a permanent fight for existence, and so ever since Coca-Cola was first marketed with the slightest tincture of cocaine hydrochloride, there's been a healthy appetite for watered-down uppers.
I stopped taking speed in the 1980s, around the time energy drinks began appearing – and the two phenomena were not entirely unrelated. There was a little hole-in-the-wall workers' cafe near my then office that served something called Jolt Cola. This didn't have guarana, ginseng, vitamin B3, taurine, inositol or glucuronolactone in it – the active ingredients of today's boosters. Rather, it was simply billed as having "four times as much caffeine as a standard cola".
I lapped the sugary stuff up – I was doing a lot of driving at the time, about 30,000 miles a year for work, and I needed very frequent Jolts if I was to stay awake enough to read all those motorway signs. Then a couple of years later, I met a fellow who has the UK concession to flog something called Gusto, which hailed from the Amazon, and came with some blether about "ancient herbal stimulant root", or some such, on its grubby little label. I laid the stuff down by the case – the way Rothschilds presumably lay down Mouton Rothschild.
And so it went on: in lockstep with the zeitgeist, throughout the 90s and the noughties, I drank more and more energy drinks, until – like the wider world around me – I was super-saturated with the drek. Of course, I'd long since speed-read numerous consumer articles on them that told me what I intuitively knew: that the claims for all their magical ingredients were largely either bunk or unproven, and that what was really giving me wings – horrid little leathery diabolic ones in my case – were those stalwart stimulants caffeine and sugar. There seemed a nice traditional flavour to this information: the material assemblage within which western European global economic hegemony was created was, after all, spun from sugar, ground from coffee, infused by tea, and powered by slavery. Now the perpetuation of wage-slavery was being engineered by the endless repackaging of just these same ingredients. I gave up the energy drinks and increased my already nerve-jangling consumption of sweet espresso.
View attachment 39169 Tiredness can indeed kill – but then what's death if not a big Chandleresque sleep, in which wiseacre gumshoes drive to the end of the night only to discover that it's their own involvement in the case that led to the murder spree. I'll sleep when I'm dead, for all sleep is the sleep of reason – we need our wits about us. It's an accelerated world out there, demanding split-second decision-making capability to hit the right button so as to make the right multi-million-dollar trade, order the next pizza, or download the next app. We swim through an orangey brinelight: a carbonated energy field of unified, fizzing awareness. It's dreamlike this existence, most certainly, but it's a waking dream, and for that we have energy drinks to thank. Not for us the kava-induced anaesthesia of the Polynesian, or the opiated torpor of the South Asian. True, we are fond of a voddie or nine, but we know how to handle our liquor, with the emphasis being on "handle". We grip things hard, the tension of our bodies seemingly in direct contradiction to the insubstantiality of our environment – we go for the burn, while everything around us is liquefying.
Stephen Gill's beautiful images, which incorporate energy drinks as an integral part of their processing, capture this strange state of being – at once driven and aqueous, simultaneously sweet and oh so bitter. His series, called Best Before End, memorialises the freewheeling decline of the west, which, to paraphrase Alfred Jarry, the founding father of pataphysics, is best conceived of as a downhill bicycle race sponsored by a major-brand energy drink, in which all of the pursuit riders have the red head of the Minotaur. For myself, I'm way out in front of them – and pedalling HARD.
15 June 2014
A detail from Red Bull by Stephen Gill, developed using the energy drink.
Emerge. The negatives were part-processed and soaked in individual energy drinks, softening their emulsion, and causing distortions
Pure Rush. Further changes were then made with a soft brush
More... All photographs by Stephen Gill.
Column 1 Column 2 Column 3 Column 4 Survive and Revive Tiger Zion Rockstar Punched/Guava View attachment 39170 View attachment 39171 View attachment 39172 View attachment 39173
Column 1 Column 2 Column 3 Column 4 Rock Star Sugar Free Relentless Rehab Relentless Inferno Red Devil View attachment 39174 View attachment 39175 View attachment 39176 View attachment 39177
Column 1 Column 2 Column 3 Column 4 Red Bull 2 Black Rockstar Xdurance Shark Stimulation 2 View attachment 39178 View attachment 39179 View attachment 39180 View attachment 39181
Column 1 Column 2 Column 3 Column 4 Rockstar Sugar Free #2 Organic Energy Organic Energy #2 N-gine