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

 

Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom [David Toop]

IMG_5363Musician, writer and improvisor, David Toop has written this most insightful book on the history of improvised music. The book, as one might expect, subverts any ready discourse on this area of sound and music culture. It is not authoritative, avoids chronology and skips from the author’s recollections – as a key figure of the experimental music scene since the 1970s – to cut up assemblages and portraits from other texts. At first it is a slow read and the initial pronouncements make it clear to the reader that this is not to be caught up in theory or ‘dogmas of improvisation’. The heart of the book is Toop’s admission that ‘I found myself increasingly fascinated by its (improvised music’s) ellusive origins and the way in which fundamental questions about the limits of freedom, control and self-organisation have been addressed by musicians and non-musicians of sharply contrasting backgrounds and philosophies.’

I met David Toop in late 2016 at Plymouth College of Art and Design, as he was about to give a talk to a gathering of students, staff and others. Toop spent an hour riffing and rambling around his wide interests, by his own admission with little preparation. A self-effacing man who like others of his generation (Peter Cusack, Steve Beresford) is softly spoken; has a quite intense energy and a complete dedication to his subject. We talked about the work of Paul Burwell and his impact on the experimental art scene and my own conviction that much of the UK’s experimental culture has been uncelebrated or indeed written about (Burwell in particular).

Toop’s book does to some large measure fill in and expand on experimental art in the UK since the 1960s. It makes important comments on the various tributaries that have contributed to live, experimental and sound art. He widens out and traverses across free jazz, electronic music, noise and computer generated sound genres. Familiar names fill the book and its interjections – Lester Young, Jimmy Giuffre, John Cage, Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. The book and author also flag up some common issues – where are the women in these movements? Why do these men gather silently and then begin to commune through the oddities of improvised sound? How can such activities be sustained without university tenure or poverty?

As a lesson in who did what and when, Into the Maelstrom expands on important but lesser known ‘groups’ and projects of the late sixties such as Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV) and AMM (it does stand for something but that is a secret). Toop gets into his stride by ‘chapter’ 8 fleshing out the problematic discourses and hierarchies between improvisors, composers, emerging technologies such as the Moog synthesiser and non-musical interlocutors. The author connects up the now familiar film scores of Ennio Morricone with the likes of Cornelius Cardew, Richard Teitlebaum and Aldo Clementi. All in all, this leads to the sweet spot in the sixties where everything led to everything else – pop, rock and experimental art giving way to other mutant forms, for example John Cale and the Velvet Underground, the recently departed Tony Conrad and the lesser know Alvin Curran. Toop’s point is that the textures of the 1960s took us from Ligeti’s Atmosphères all the way through to Jimi Hendrix.

The book also impresses upon us the political and viral aspect of music and its makers; with American experimental traditions coming from people like Cage, who in turn were influenced by European artists such as Marcel Duchamp. It also dips into what we now call ‘soft power’ – as cultural impact and political transformation began to use the leading edge of artistic experimentation in the 50s and 60s. Although not the focus of this book, Into the Maelstrom invites more consideration of artists as cultural agents and internationalists working across borders in the post Second World War and early Cold War period.

Toop approaches the distinction between visual art and its relationship to the individual artist, essential art object and the gallery. By contrast, as he asserts, music and sound movements shaped themselves around the collective and collectivisim, albeit that many were internecine or despotic by turn. From the many descriptions I have heard of the London Musicians Collective (formed 1975 and anachronous to this book) it seems to have been stocked with singular musicians who by their own admission were held together by some ‘strange force’ that if questioned would result in destruction. Going further, Toop points out that this collectivism in the 1960s was in fact a necessity and part of a DIY approach forced upon those who made work and wanted it to be distributed. Of course, we might argue that this was foundational in the punk movement in its early years as a consequence. I would go further and point out that these tightly synthesised actions in places like London, Berlin and New York were part of a wider distributed creative network that has made these places longer term sites of creative endeavour.

The impact of Zen Buddhism and its ‘masters’ also threads its way through contemporary music and art. Through Cage, it recombines two rivers (art and music) and then gives way to multiple streams. Toop promises us another book in one passage, connecting in to the experiments of AMM and their work ‘in the realm of nothing whatever’. The book thereby rescues moments from the author’s memory, to be reclaimed into the mainstream. And this is probably the main point of Into the Maelstrom, it is both well researched and serves to reconnect ideas and people for those interested in experimental art. Toop, reveals that many of AMM’s events took place against a backdrop of small audiences and in odd places, such as the London School of Economics.

Another well made point in the book is the process of immersion or submersion within musical and sound experiments. This, at a time where it is impossible to move (2017) without encountering a citation to ‘immersive art’. The train of thought leads us to the vital role of sound in sensory immersion and its relative abandonment in VR and AR projects. The book has jolted me into questioning how commercially available devices and artists working with them can work more from sound to picture (and not always the other way).

The book is at its most compelling in the portraits of guitarist Derek Bailey and the drummer John Stevens. Avoiding the sentimental, it plots the controlling nature of Stevens within Spontaneous Music Ensemble and the jobbing moments of Bailey’s extraordinary career from Opportunity Knocks to his work with Stevens as a member of SME. The book has the sub-heading ‘before 1970’, with the promised second book, so we don’t get the follow through with Bailey into Company, the ultimate improvisors co-op.

Toop alternates from these close in moments to more general observational ground. The colliding points of free music, late 1960s British zany humour, American jazz artists in Europe and the racial conflicts in the USA. Revealingly, many of the British improvisors spent time in the services – connecting discipline with indiscipline of course. Into the Maelstrom also plays an important part in tracking the social history surrounding improvised music, given that many of the protagonists have recently passed on (Coxhill, Bailey).

I enjoyed the blast at Joseph Beuys in the latter stages of the book, think ego of course, and the slightly disparaging comments when John and Yoko’s world touched into the underbelly of ‘real’ experimental art. The book ends with a recommittal and rehearsal of what will come in the next volume. I very much look forward to this, as my own personal journey was largely dictated as a teenager, watching Lol Coxhill and others perform in East Anglian fields in the late 1970s.

Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom (before 1970), David Toop.

Simon Poulter, July 2017

 

 

 

Burning Bluray on Mac

I have had some success today burning a Bluray on a Mac using a Samsung SE-506AB/TSWD BD burner. The workflow was relatively easy. The Samsung was plugged directly into the Mac (running OSX 10.7.5). No drivers were necessary at all, it just connected.

Using Final Cut Pro 7, we dropped the H.264 mov file onto the timeline and then went to SHARE. At this point you can see the Bluray option and select the device itself. You can set up some rudimentary menus, ie auto play on start up or a menu.

Then just burn the disc. If you don’t have a Bluray hardware player, you can test it in VLC on the Mac. All in all a good route with no additional software needed.

If like us you’ve abandoned FCP for Premiere, it’s still handy to have a machine kicking around that runs FCP7.

Tom Crabtree

tom-crabtree

At the end of the Nineties, I was invited by Watershed to develop some projects at Southmead Youth Centre in Bristol. I worked with the inspirational youth worker and self-acclaimed anarchist Jeremy Brent. At the time there was interest in working with young people and digital media and Watershed provided various Apple Mac computers for us to lug to Southmead. Things didn’t bode well and I was told I’d be lucky to visit the area and come away with all the wheels on my car. On my first visit to the youth centre I was mocked and torn to shreds by the boys at the centre who pointed at my Moroccan scarf and said “Look at him, the gay poofter!”

On returning home to Bridport I met Tom Crabtree socially at The Bull Hotel and he was keen to give me advice. “What you’ve got to do, Simon, is befriend the hardest kid.” He then described instances of working with difficult teenagers and how this understanding of the peer interactions among young people is imperative in directing positive outcomes. Tom’s advice was spectacularly successful and on my return to Southmead the following week I befriended the hardest kid – Ray – who demanded that I Photoshop his picture into the driver’s seat of an XR3i (Ford Escort). I did this and from then on Ray took it upon himself to look after me and direct the other boys to get involved.

Tom Crabtree was an extremely witty and insightful man, who had that typical Liverpudlian effortless comic ability to shed humour on human interactions. During the Eighties he wrote the ‘On The Couch’ column for Cosmopolitan Magazine and became a unique caring and authoratative voice to his readers.

He wrote: “Hate is a consuming passion, it takes up your whole being, uses up your energy, cuts off your potential for love, friendship and happiness.” Tom, spoke very much from his own experience and this proximity and observation gave him a sincerity and conviction that was to be admired.

Tom and his wife Mary became stalwarts of the Bridport art scene and up until Mary’s death were often to be entertaining in their small house in Folly Square. They both had a liking for champagne and engaging conversation, enjoying life to the full. Tom had a particularly mercurial connection to the ‘six o’clock’ rule – no alcohol before the sixth hour, when he would pop a cork and the party or conversation would commence. As well as a libertarian lifestyle, Tom and Mary had a wonderful creative extended family around them.

Tom wrote ‘The Search For Love a Guide to Your Relationships’ (Cosmopolitan, 1983) that can still be purchased online.

Marcel Duchamp – given the same [compte tenu de la même]

Roto Reliefs
Roto Reliefs

The Pompidou put together a fantastic show of Duchamp’s early paintings and related ephemera. The show set out to open up some new thinking on Duchamp’s impact on painting and seeing. It also invited investigation of surrounding works and references, such as the development of cinema in the early 1900s. A key theme of Duchamp’s work is the process of seeing and the erotic acts of making and viewing implicit in an age of increased mechanisation.

Marcel Duchamp. La peinture, même

24 September 2014 – 5 January 2015

Marcel Duchamp rapidly absorbed painterly styles and approaches, seemingly with the specific intention of assimilating what could be achieved and then moving on. While many artists in their formative years seek to find a visual language or form, Duchamp strategised his approach towards a mechanisation of the art process, giving birth to the idea of the ready-made and conceptual art. The Pompidou show effectively points up the eclectic and probing nature of the young Marcel Duchamp, playfully blending Alfred Jarry, transvestism and early advertising to great effect.

This process of colliding disparate ‘assets’ and ‘content’ together is rather mundane, or even standard in art production now, but Duchamp reminds us that ‘choice’ becomes the key factor in the making process. In doing so, art production moves from an aesthetic of observation of subject towards an assemblage of ideas; movements, erotic connections and self referential acts. Of course this is why Duchamp remains the artist of the mechanical and industrial age.

‘La peinture, même’ frames the new industrial age around this period of the artist’s work. Paintings by Picabia build on the preoccupation in the avant garde of the time with machines, speed and movement. The Picabia works show how relatively reductive or redundant painting would become to the machine age.

Raymond Roussel
Raymond Roussel – Impressions d’Afrique & Locus Solus

Raymond Roussel’s two novels ‘Impressions d’Afrique‘ (1910) and ‘Locus Solus‘ (1914) have always been key texts and openers towards understanding the sources of Duchamp’s thinking. Roussel’s fantastical and systematic approach to writing (using homonymic puns) – while unrecognised at the time of writing – created a rich conceptual reservoir of characters and counter-realities. From Roussel, no doubt Duchamp would have extracted the assisted ready-made as an unfinished tableuax vivant – later seen in the ‘Large Glass’ and ‘Étant Donné’ as major works that are presented as captured frames from a complex narrative. In David Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’ we see the same approach at feature length, a stretched version of the counter-reality; unfailingly demanding more vision and more seeing, along with an obfuscated narrative.

Étant donnés
Étant donnés

While Duchamp’s work can be historcised against the machine age of the early part of the 20th century, it has not been contextualised the other way towards its influence on film culture towards the end of the same century.

Étant Donnés, exhibited as a model in the show at the Pompidou, remains one of the less well known of Duchamp’s works, having only ever been assembled in its intended home at the Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art in 1969. The manual that Duchamp prepared for the work prior to his death, is laid out as a plan akin to film set designs, complete with technical suggestions on construction. Duchamp worked on this for twenty years up until 1966.

A glimpse at the model of Étant Donnés (see above) bears striking resemblance to a David Lynch ‘Twin Peaks’ set – more particularly the peep holes within Duchamp’s work lock the viewer down to a specific shot within the gallery itself. So whereas in retrospect we have become aware of the complex nature of Duchamp’s work in terms of construction, assemblage and resonance – Étant Donnés as an artwork mostly lies teasingly behind the field of view. An appreciation of Étant Donnés is thus characterised by the intentional enigma of its design. The work (like other Duchamp pieces) is then viewed as an event, a place to visit (the museum), a set of instructions and the observer’s appreciation of the work retold. In this way Duchamp’s last work can be seen as a prelude to later immersive strategies for works of art.

Am I inside a work of art or part of the work? With Étant Donnés you have the option while in the gallery to gaze at the doors and move on, or approach the peep holes and look. As you do this you submit to the gaze, your own prurient desire to view a private place and fulfill the artist’s design for the work. Étant Donnés is a work of art about peeping, wilfully erotic yet pointing towards an uncomfortable set of images. David Lynch plays with the same erotic and disturbing visions along a timeline in Twin Peaks. Within the Black Lodge is the Red Room first encountered in the character Agent Cooper’s dream.  The dwarf (in red suit) states “When you see me again, it won’t be me” (in a scrambled voice then sub-titled for the viewer). Lynch’s work also plays with death and the erotic and the reductive nature of the sets tilts towards not only the works of Duchamp but Dali and the architectural paintings of Giorgio De Chirico.

Melanconia by Giorgio de Chirico
Melanconia by Giorgio de Chirico
Still from Twin Peaks
Still from Twin Peaks

Duchamp App

Attention Deficit Could Be Good For You

Each day we attend to our lives through a series of sequential choices, patterns and behaviours. Many of these are adopted from an array of inputs that arise from family, education, economic performance, sustenance, health or interaction with others. Many of them will be quite banal or might in turn be quite fundamental to the direction our lives might take. Some of these decisions or directions might appear as ‘sliding doors’ moments, a mix of volition and indeterminacy. Technology or techne has propelled the outside or phenomenal world further into our lives. Techne, derives etymologically from Greek meaning making or doing and as such is to do with the world outside.

The world outside now competes relentlessly for our attention. This process hasn’t just come along with social media or the aberrations of Twitter of Facebook. Herbert Simon framed some influential thinking in his essay, ‘Designing Organizations for an Information Rich World’ (Carnegie Mellon University, September 1969) when he wrote:

1] What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

He further describes this as an ‘allocation problem’, now familiar to millions; whereupon the horizontal plains of tweets, likes and posts can fill up or rule our days work, rest or play. We are faced with the proposition of how to allocate our time and reduce the blizzard of information to an addressable set of actions and concerns. However, the persistence of Victorian ideas of ‘Time and Motion’ to increase ‘efficiency’ create a perverse idea of cramming more and more of this horizontal tasked behaviour into the day. Bernard Steigler, shaped this line of thinking suggesting that technical subservience in fact leads to a loss of spirit or power to change; through, for example, youth movements (of the 60s). But where does this technical subservience actually come from and why has it become a dominant behaviour?

The conventions in media, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out tend towards the ‘rear-view mirror effect’, where one medium exhibits the characteristics of a previous one. So, printed bibles appeared similar to hand scribed bibles (especially to the illiterate), computer keyboards follow from typewriters and social media takes its cue from billboards. An emotional space or situation is reduced or traduced to a series of characters and whisked off into cyberspace.

It is interesting in this context to consider just how much of the interior world has now been fully subjected to the tactics of media. We can say that in many cases it is almost an overthrow or revolution of the personal. A mobile phone records the casual saunter of a terrorist towards a wounded police officer. The rule of mainstream media is bypassed as it is uploaded and instantly becomes ‘viral’ – as the highways and byways of digital space ever evolve. We can say that it isn’t just the techne that has done this, it is our wholesome subscription to the attention culture and economy that holds us in servitude (as Herbert Simon suggests).

Vertical learning processes and responses tend towards promotion of the interior space. Idle, undigitised, ponderous and deeper. An outcome of the industrial revolution was to inculcate deep divisions in western cultures, making the men and women of techne more efficient, productive and familiar with supply and demand. Meanwhile, the men and women of letters continued with their vertical ‘book learning’. We might compare the great factories of the West Midlands in the 1850s with the new factories of mainland China in 2015. The making has been passed to the area with the most plentiful and cheap labour supply. This leaves us with a curious observation that time and motion or industry has led us to a point where one technically industrialised ‘tiger’ economy manufacturers the tools of servitude for the post industrial economy of attention. Ha, ha.

For those looking toward a way out of the attention economy, we can only suggest that reorganising time and action according to things that are distinct, problematic or difficult is the way to go. Arguably, this requires quieter spaces, higher order relationships and a form of enquiry where one thing leads to another. Unlike.

Simon Poulter, 2015

Herbert A. Simon, Designing Organizations for an Information Rich World (Carnegie-Mellon University, 1969) http://zeus.zeit.de/2007/39/simon.pdf

 

This article was commissioned by Metal, for ‘Hoarding’ (with thanks to Mark Richards).

Dr. Feelgood

Stand and watch the towers burning at the break of day
Steadily slowing down, been on my feet since yesterday
Gotta get a move on tryin´ to find a man I know
Money in my pocket, looking for a place to go

(from ‘All Through The City’ – Wilko Johnson – Down By The Jetty [1975])

Earlier in the year I went over to Canvey Island to meet with Chris Fenwick, original Dr. Feelgood manager and holder of most of the bands estate. Sean McLoughlin, with whom I work at Metal, had urged me to come as he knew I was a fan of the band back in the Wilko Johnson era. In fact I was such a big fan when I was at school that I wanted to have my hair cut in the same style as Wilko. This however was not possible owing to my thick and unfloppy mop.

A lot has been written about Dr. Feelgood and Wilko in the last few years, what with Wilko’s illness and Julian Temple’s Oil City Confidential film. A few years ago I interviewed Wilko for a Metal piece and found him to be candid, quixotic and thoughtful. The Feelgood story was beautifully captured by the Julian Temple film and Wilko does stand out as an icon of Englishness.

So, on arrival at the Feelgood lock up on Canvey it was extraordinary to see crates full of ephemera – pictures, posters and oddities. Chris Fenwick then transported us over to the Canvey Club down the road where a glass case proudly presented the original Feelgood amp, Toby jugs and band discs. I realised that Dr. Feelgood is more than just a band in Canvey, it is a part of the social history of the area, reaching out into the Southend and Canvey communites, through the manager and ex-band members. The myth and the estate are not without contention and standing in the dark lock up I had a very direct conversation about how we might curate the show with Chris. In fairness to him he wanted to see the work pulled together and accepted that we would do it our way. A repeat visit with Metal CEO Colette Bailey and we were game on.

The defining Dr. Feelgood image was used on the front cover of the live ‘Stupidity’ album. It pictures Wilko glancing up at Lee Brilleaux, blues harp and microphone welded to his face. Brilleaux fixes his eyes directly out to the audience. This moment (in Southend) captures the electric presence of the band and the pure energy that they radiated.

The exhibition at Chalkwell Hall has been rapidly put together (September 2014). The work arrived a week ago and I spent a day wading through nearly 300 items. Fortunately, we have been able to curate a timeline using old Sounds and NME covers and stories. Combined with band images and promo shots from United Artists, this gives a sense of how Dr. Feelgood climbed from pubs and clubs to an international touring band, culminating with ‘Stupidity’ as a Number 1 UK album and then break up around the period of the ‘Sneakin’ Suspicion’ release. Johnson left the band in April 1977 and went on to form his own outfit and also worked with Ian Dury and the Blockheads. The band pressed on with new guitarist Gypie Mayo, charted in the UK, but never took off in the US. Looking at the Stupidity image painted in the hallway at Chalkwell by Jack Melville it’s really apparent that the sheer liveness and manic intensity was lost when Wilko and Lee Brilleaux parted company.

Listening back to some of the original songs while we were hanging the show, it is clear that Wilko’s song craft hinges on creating a sense of place and observations of modern life in the Seventies in Canvey. Where else can you stand and watch towers burning at the break of day but Canvey Island? In the UK I can think of Fawley and Humber.

The Feelgood Cafe at Metal, Chalkwell Hall runs from Friday 26 September – Friday 12 December 2014

With thanks to Chris Fenwick.

 

Joe Stevens

Joe Stevens spent much of his creative life working in Weymouth and West Dorset. Sadly, Joe passed away in July 2014.

Joe was a talented artist and creative, able to move across media without effort. I worked with Joe on various occasions in Dorset, as we developed the PVA MediaLab project. He was excited about the digital age and the possibilities of using technology to reach audiences and be creative.

More recently Joe seemed to find his niche in sound art and field recording, with a particular fascination for water (he lived in Weymouth). Joe recorded podcasts, hunted sounds and maintained a web site at 51 Degrees North.

Joe will be missed by all who new him on the sound art scene and in Dorset.

Some of Joe’s ‘intros’ can be heard over at Framework Radio.

Lol Coxhill

On a blisteringly hot day in July an unlikely group of people emerged from the overground rail line at Manor Park. Turning left, they formed a slow and jovial walking chain heading towards the crematorium. Men in their sixties in ‘pork pie’ hats with silver ear-rings and gangly fifty-something punks with anarchy symbols emblazoned.

The topic on the steady trudge towards the funeral – how did you know Lol, then?

I first encountered Lol Coxhill at the Oakhayes Albion Fayre on the borders of Norfolk and Suffolk in the late seventies. As a young man, excited by the do it yourself aesthetics of punk, I had never heard such a sound emerge from an instrument. Lol Coxhill, standing beneath a tree and next to a lake, squirting out a mercurial and staccato set of breathy notes. I later learned that the instrument was a soprano saxophone and that this man was undoubtedly part of a chain of improvisers extending back to Lester Young and the roots of bebop. I owe Lol Coxhill a great debt, as those moments of listening to him led me off on a particular journey towards music and experimental art. Lol Coxhill was inspired by Lester Young and the free form nature of jazz – the goal ultimately to extend the medium while finding a sound. As Steve Beresford has observed, Lol’s sound could be detected within a few notes – a scramble of notes interspersed with reedy cat cries, pauses, longer silences and then occasional lower range howls. The sound was not so caught up in the potential cul-de-sac of free jazz, it was rather like listening to someone talk in a strange language, perhaps with comparison to Eric Dolphy.

Lol played around on the fringes of English culture and popped up all over the place. Always with the saxophone in case, wearing black clothing and the thin glasses seemingly welded to his head. Conjuring up this image again, he was a cool man in every respect – laconic, unegotistical and self-assured. It is interesting to reflect on this aspect of alternative English culture, unbothered by fame, out there in a field and maybe on drugs.

I next encountered Lol Coxhill near Lowestoft in Suffolk, performing as a part of a ‘band’ of somethings. The legendary – appropriate use of this word I think – Ian Hinchcliffe sang ‘God Save the Queen’ in a snarling and psychotic fashion, while the assembled musicians (Lol included) wore brown paper bags over their heads. Hinchcliffe, rounded the song off by setting fire to himself and watching the crowd as they winced. Sentimental perhaps, but Ian Hinchcliffe always set a high bar for his performances.

Lol Coxhill carried his saxophone and career across artistic borders with ease. It would have been easier to do the jazz festivals or work out as a side man on recording projects (which he did do). He formed unlikely alliances and collaborations with people such as Ian Hinchcliffe. At the King’s Head in Bungay, I sat with 7 other people as Hinchcliffe, Coxhill and Bruce Lacey performed a surreal performance largely concerned with penguin ephemera. Hinchcliffe emerged with slices of white bread, proceeded to intimidate everyone present with loud barking commands, while Lacey assembled the ongoing ritual. In the background Lol Coxhill played his saxophone while going up and down a child’s playground slide. The performance was topped off with a metal skull cap or egg cup which was placed on Lacey’s head. Hinchcliffe then placed an egg on top and burned the side of it with a flame torch. The smell was intentionally putrid.

Lol Coxshill spent time at Digswell near Welwyn Garden City, an artists’ commune and hang out. While there he recorded one of his best collaborations with Simon Emmerson and Veryan Weston – ‘Digswell Duets’. He also contributed to The Damned’s second album and had a part as a priest in Derek Jarman’s ‘Caravaggio’.

All in all, a wonderful life.