art sex music (with a bit of Hull Time Based Arts)

Cosey Fanni Tutti’s  new book art sex music has received widespread acclaim in 2017. It has coincided with Hull’s UK City of Culture title and a retrospective at the Humber Gallery in earlier in 2017. This review aims to show connections and links, in the area of English experimental art, although the book deserves some in depth consideration aside of this. Mostly, this has been done elsewhere.

The book has its title embossed as a red block banner across the author’s mouth mimicking the Dymo tape embossing processes of the late 1970s. The words art sex music are displayed lower case and the letter-spacing closed up (unlike the Dymo tapes that produced relatively poorly spaced letters in upper-case text). The effect of the cover image is to ambiguously suggest censorship and the author’s intentions with the book.

I briefly met Cosey and Chris in Hull at the Humber Street Gallery in March of this year. I was with performance artist Gillian Dyson (from Leeds and ex-Hull Time Based Arts). Cosey and Chris were carefully wrapping objects from a vitrine and Gillian purposefully introduced herself and said how much she enjoyed the work. I stood by Gillian and picked up on the quiet intensity of Cosey and Chris. In true Hull Time Based Arts fashion, the aim was to install the whole HTBA show in the same space in one day, following the COUM show. Andrew Wheatley, of Cabinet Gallery was consumed with the late arrival of the shipping van from somewhere else in the North of England and became increasingly apologetic towards us (and frank on the phone to the shippers). The Humber Street Gallery curator, we were told, had been ordered off sick by his GP, which seemed entirely in-keeping with my experiences of working in Hull. An observation made in hindsight is that Gillian and I were unwrapping our documented performance histories, as Cosey rewrapped hers. (For Gillian Dyson see Lines of Desire, 1995 and for me see UK Ltd 1994/95.) I hadn’t met Gillian since the late 1990s and we shared a few moments enjoying eachother’s company as the two shows collided.

A common problem and hallmark of performance art is the documentation and preservation of it; if indeed it aspires to that. Many of the best performances are carried around in people’s heads and recounted through word of mouth – this is certainly true of Hull Time Based Arts, although there is a book ‘Out of Time’ edited by Andrea Phillips. More recently, Rob Le Frenais has placed every issue of Performance Magazine online. Cosey’s book is therefore refreshing in describing the build up, delivery and get away for some of her and COUM’s performances. It also fills in her role as an important artist, aside of Throbbing Gristle.

art sex music exists in several dimensions – it recounts the early work of COUM Transmissions, it lines up the derivations of the ideas in the work of David Medalla and Transmedia Explorations and it digs deep into the relationship between the author and Genesis P. Orridge (Neil Megson).

Sources and derivations of ideas come from common points – William S. Burroughes, Bryon Gysin and Marcel Duchamp – the later the most influential with his alter-ego Rrose Sélavy (Eros, c’est la vie). The book tilts towards and reveals Genesis P. Orridge’s reference points without being snide. There is clearly room for another book on men in performance who like to dress up as women and the ‘trans’ scene.

In art sex music, Cosey Fanni Tutti frames her entry into the world of COUM Transmissions by recounting her family upbringing in Hull. This is a world apart from the conceptual art world, with vivid descriptions of Hull’s tribes in the late 1960s (Hell’s Angels, Skins and Hippies). The early part of the book reveals vulnerability, sexual awakening and sets the overall tone of honesty; which is integral to some of the main assertions later on.

Cosey Fanni Tutti describes ‘COUM to be far more than just a band that played ‘music’: it was a concept, a democratic collective and an all-embracing lifestyle.’ Generationally, COUM and its members spanned the 1970s and relatively effortlessly worked across media, largely following what would now be regarded as agile methods. Clear tensions existed, but were often translated into actions and on first read you are left with the impression that Cosey’s role was to hold things together back at the shared house, while Gen ‘networked’.

Bruce LaceyThe Preservation Man (1962) – is cited in the book, as a catalytic figure in the English experimental art scene. This he was, with characteristic ability to build machines, run things and motivate people. Bruce, also became a Norfolk citizen living in Wymondham, connecting into the Albion Faire scene, where he performed alongside Lol Coxhill and Ian Hinchliffe. COUM moved to London in 1973 and rapidly connected into this underground network of performance artists. Cosey points out that Hinchliffe could be ‘wild, dangerous and uncompromising’ – anyone who saw his performances would agree with this. Ian was the performance artist’s performance artist in the way that Simon Munnery is with stand up comedy. Somewhat, on his own track.

The book includes a whole section on Cosey’s experiences in the sex industry and working as a stripper. The infamous ‘Prostitution’ show at the ICA in 1976 highlights some of the ambiguities around male and female representation and this in many ways is a core concern of the writing. It is also a key contribution to performance writing.

Genesis P. Orridge is gradually dismantled and his behaviours are shown to be self-absorbed, guided by money and largely mercenary. The communitarian aspirations of the early COUM years are revealed to be contradictory and posturing. The author is at pains to demonstrate the collective’s evident patience in dealing with someone who only comes online when it suits them. The performances of the band, Throbbing Gristle, are the high points, where everything comes together. Gristle innovated with music technology, the limits of sound and created a whole new genre of industrial noise art. There are some honest insights on the roles of Chris Curtis and Peter Christopherson (‘Sleazy’), building bespoke pieces of music kit and designing the ‘merch’.

Cosey Fanni Tutti’s estrangement from her mother and father projects across the book and acts as marker of her working class roots. The death of her mother is only conveyed to her after the funeral.

The final chapters chart the reforming of Throbbing Gristle in the early 2000s and the angst ridden dealings between the band and Genesis P. Orridge. Again, he his shown to be inadequate, self-absorbed and driven by the need for cash. Readers might wonder why anyone would put themselves through another round of such indignity and sure enough things do fall apart.

art sex music is an excellent insight into the workings of a seminal art collective and band; written with dead pan honesty and structured to show how the author and her contemporaries have lived through fundamental shifts in English culture, which in turn they have shaped and impacted upon.

art sex music, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Faber and Faber, 2017

Simon Poulter, December 2017

 

Spanking – Matmos at QEH, London – August 2012

Matmos have played twice in London in the last year or so. Firstly, a show at a make-shift space on the Old Kent Road (now a large quantity of flats) and most recently at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, as part of the Meltdown Festival. They are savvy, self-mocking and cool enough to make incisive commentaries on where their work appears – ultimate space perhaps an underground club in Berlin. So, to see the show at the QEH is of course funny because this is a proper, grown up space for ‘real’ music (whereas the London show last year was literally in an empty car servicing unit).

For Meltdown they pull together a band with drums and electric guitar and, although not filling the venue, manage to deliver an entertaining show. The self-referential and deliberately ‘stagey’ approach works well, as we the audience comfortably seated await each piece. The stand out piece is a tribute to Alan Turing that evokes Nazi era video, decoding and textual reveals, layered with Matmos sound. Watching men, and it is usually blokes not women, huddled over laptop sets with Ableton plinking away can be deathly boring – but Drew Daniel manages to avoid all of these cliches as he anchors the groove and fires in beats and off beats. The elegant guitar playing of Owen Gardner provides subtle twang and scratchiness when required, as MC Schmidt anti-comperes us through the set. At one point a piercing electronic howl emits from a mixing desk and Schmidt easily works this into the routine. At their best Matmos, play across the live and pre-recorded spaces, so that the works are always fresh but somehow grounded in a core idea. In fact many of the works clearly start out from a conceptual basis and in this instance the humour grins through the set.

We are treated to a final piece involving live spanking, glitch video and of course coin-tossing to determine who gets a seeing to. In this manner, we cross into the hybrid space that spans John Cage, industrial music, S&M cabaret and performance art. Not far away, at Stratford, the London 2012 Olympics breeze on with endless loops of the Chariots of Fire theme tune, while we sit and watch Schmidt’s right bum cheek get redder and redder.

Thank you, Matmos.

December 2017 – Addendum: I spoke to Matmos at this gig and invited them to come to the UK for a residency at Metal. This was warmly welcomed but somehow spiralled off into the ‘unlikely’ column of the programme. However, at the behest of Martin, an email came back out of the blue and Matmos arrived at Chalkwell Park in July 2015. Their tracks can be listened to here, including a jam with the Chalkwell Park peacocks.

Simon Poulter, August 2012 and December 2017

Improvisation Rites: From John Cage’s Songbooks to the Scratch Orchestra’s Nature Study Notes

stefan szczelkun

Stefan Szczelkun has published this new book under the Routine Art imprint, due in early 2018. Having read David Toop’s ‘Into the Maelstrom’ in mid 2017, Improvisation Rites offers some thoughts and personal memories of the late 1960s improvising scene, but is largely given over to a comparison of John Cage and Cornelius Cardew’s two works – Song Books and Nature Study Notes. It does not however take an historical approach but mainly describes how, over a period of time, a fresh line up of people devised both works in different spaces (since 2011).

While Toop’s book is often dense and penetrating into the tributaries of music and sound improvisation, Stefan Szczelkun’s book homes in on the reconstruction of the methods of the Scratch Orchestra, of which he was a member in the late sixties. As with much of Szczelkun’s writing, it is underpinned by reflections on communal culture and the conundrum’s of working class people engaging in ‘elite’ art (modernism).

As a way into thinking about this, in the late 1990s I found myself entering Jah Wobble’s house in Bethnal Green with my friend Jean-Pierre Rasle (a fine pipes player and member of Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart at the time). On entering we were given good old fashioned East End hospitality which comprised of bottles of beer, watching the largest TV set I had ever encountered and some extreme insults towards Jean-Pierre (“John Pierre, you fucking French cunt”). Wobble’s approach with the Invaders of the Heart was to surround himself with very good musicians, including Clive Bell, Harry Beckett and Jean-Pierre Rasle (along with many more). Upstairs, I was treated to an insider view of multiple takes being expertly cut by Mark Ferda and sampled together in Logic on a Mac for the forthcoming album. The earlier studio jams were layered up and intricately dropped in, creating a dense mix with the signature dub bass cruising and anchoring at the same time. Wobble’s approach was to drive ideas and assemblages through force of will, until something sublime emerged.

Stefan Szczelkun’s methods are different but are deliberately and honestly revealed in this new book. Although his approach is more the shop floor convenor than maverick working class ‘genius’, there is however a curious similarity in the open intellectualism of Wobble and Szczelkun, both trying to grab things from the apparent contradictions of the organisation of improvised space – although Szczelkun is clearly conscious of his role as a connector and organiser. Wobble of course sits roughly ten years along the musical timeline, aligning with Public Image Limited and punk, whereas Szczelkun sits in the late hippy underground and early eco movement of the 1970s, as a starting point.

Szczelkun has been publishing in various formats since 1972 and among his most important works are the Survival Scrapbooks. I have a very battered and precious marked up proof of one of these in my personal clutter. Amid the many formats that have come and gone since the 1970s, it seems odd to make a book about an improvising process but Szczelkun understands the durability of paperbacks compared to something like soundcloud and in this respect has become an underground cultural historian. He is also a friend of the low-fi, get it down and get it out approach.

‘Improvisation Rites’ as a book, is unfussy and roughly laid out to show how Szczelkun brought together some founding members of the Scratch Orchestra and some new people to work with Cage’s ‘Song Book’ and Cornelius Cardew’s ‘Nature Study Notes’. He is careful to point out that this is not The Scratch Orchestra, it is an evocation and playful reenactment of the working methods of the original orchestra formed in 1969 by Cornelius Cardew, Michael Parsons and Howard Skempton. Stefan Szczelkun and Carole Finer read out some of the rites here https://soundcloud.com/szczels/nature-study-notes-16mins along with some excerpts from a performance at Cafe Oto in London in 2015.

At the core of the experiment and the book is some consideration of Cage’s approach, founded on indeterminacy, and that of Cardew, more given to an extension of these ideas in terms of rites, ie a group of people ‘assembling for action’. Cage was heavily influenced by the work of Henry David Thoreau and in particular his classic work ‘Walden’. Thus, Song Books includes texts from Thoreau. Perhaps the best known quote from Thoreau, which makes its way through from Cage into the new evocations described in this book is ‘That government is best which governs not at all; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.’ It is a core principle of American anarchism and to this day sits ambivalently in the libertarian ideas around the gun lobby and taxation in the US.

Stefan Szczelkun, locates Cornelius Cardew’s appropriation of indeterminacy in Nature Study Notes as more of a communitarian and communal expression, opening up the performer as agent and activist. In this way Cardew connects more to marxist thought and later abandoned avant garde ideas in his life and work. Personally, I would have delved more into this parting of the ways on indeterminacy and the cultural differences in the UK and US (around anarchism), but Szczelkun tends more towards exploring the role of music and improvised performace to bring people together and create common purpose; evidently responding to this as a precious commodity in uncertain times. I’m sure he might say that this is a form of anarcho syndicalism, or direct action – perhaps another book in the making?

Improvisation Rites includes the rough accounts for holding the event at Cafe Oto and the Chisenhale Dance Space. It also recounts the use of a Google spreadsheet to log new ‘rites’ between participants and gives the minutes of various meetings in between performances. Some readers might take this as unnecessary detail or navel gazing but the author’s aims are intentionally set on expanding on how things like this work. An example of this is the comment by Matt Scott that ‘ the rites were best meant as an invitation to make music and a way of enabling a group of people’. The impression given by the author is that Cardew’s ideas and that of the Scratch Orchestra are more feasibly aligned with social space and interaction, whereas Cage’s work always sits within his domain. Szczelkun implies that Cardew’s lesser known work has more of an enduring role in culture, whereas Cage’s work, which uses things such as a typewriter, tends towards an evocation of a hallowed masterpiece.

For me, one of the most interesting things about the book is the consideration of spaces to perform in and their relative cultural ‘profile’. Cafe Oto, seen as the desirable high bar by the author to perform in, is in many ways a limited space to work with; but its compactness creates a merging of performers and audience members and it has become the de facto London venue for experimental music. By comparison the Chisenhale Dance Space is much more suited to multiple performers and comfort for a seated audience, but as Szczelkun observes only draws in a crowd of 37 people. This permeable nature of the space between an audience and a performance is integral to both, that are enhanced when the boundaries of common purpose are blurred (as in Cafe Oto).

As a convenor of culture Szczelkun is tireless and conscious of the need to record methods of direct action. If you are interested in the role of experimental art in England as I am, then this book is worth a read and provides links to documentation of the the performances.

Improvisation Rites: : from John Cage’s ‘Song Books’ to the Scratch Orchestra’s ‘Nature Study Notes’. Collective practices 2011 – 2017

Simon Poulter, December 2017