Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Art Of Yesterday's Crash, Pt 3.

"O, that this too too solid flesh would melt...
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! O fie! 'Tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed..."
--Hamlet, I.II

"Thee mirror receives our staring gaze and we melt quite cleanly away leaving a smoky, cloudy effect like bleach spreading in water."
--Genesis P-Orridge.
Zurich, 1916. A new cabaret club opened up in the midst of the artistic milieu of the city. It was run by a gaggle of expatriates – the proprietor, a young Swiss poet called Hugo Ball; his girlfriend and chanteuse, Emmy Hennings; a Romanian-French poet working under the pseudonym Tristan Tzara; the Romanian painter Marcel Janco; Hans (Jean) Arp, an Alsatian-French poet-painter; and the glowering Berliner, Richard Huelsenbeck. They had all come to neutral Switzerland to escape the war and the sickening nationalistic vortexes that had swallowed their home countries. Once there, as Arp wrote, they "gave ourselves to the fine arts. While the cannon rumbled in the distance, we pasted, recited, versified, we sang with all our soul." The cabaret – named the Voltaire after their favourite philosopher – had "(Music, dances, theories, poems, paintings, costumes, masks)" every night. They took the ideas of the artistic avant-garde they most admired – the Symbolists, especially Rimbaud, Lautremont, the Futurists – and played with them as if it didn’t matter in the slightest. They read out simultaneous poems, had chanteuses sing popular hits of the day in as warped a way as possible, had drumming sessions in which there was audience participation, read out manifestoes and harangued the audience, read out poetry that broke with the conventions of language, playing with pure sound-units (Hugo Ball once infamously reading such a poem whilst wearing a cone). For Ball this was all just entertainment to keep the bourgeois children of Zurich in the Cabaret and running up tabs; but there was still the sense that their absurd acts and playfulness were really breaking rules. Tzara and Huelsenbeck were serious artists (if only in the sarcastic that the Voltairistes could be). It seems no coincidence that in Tzara’s Zurich Chronicle the entry marking the big artistic explosion of the Voltaire is headlined "HUELSENBECK ARRIVES" and is written in Tzara’s trademark fevered spiel.

It was by this point – February 1916 – that they had found a name for their art: Dada. Picked at random from a French dictionary, it was meant not to have any significance, to be a hook from which the art of the Voltairistes could be hung; it was originally just picked as a stage surname for the Cabaret’s new chanteuse. In the decades of wrangling that have followed, no-one has ever decided what ‘Dada’ really means.

As far as the small sliver of the public really interested in Dada were concerned, Tzara came closest to a straight answer when he wrote, "Dada, ne signifie rien."

At the time of the Cabaret Voltaire, the clockwork slaughter of the Western Front was playing itself out less than 200 miles away; the casualties were already in their millions; in June of that year, 250,000 men would be killed in the first day of the Somme. The spiritual exhaustion of the great imperial countries of the West in the fin de siecle had carried on and swelled; the collective unconscious of the West was filled with apocalypse, self-loathing, the arrogance of the impotent, the death-drive that comes from spending too long in the mire, the wish to end it all when there’s not much left to end. The storm of extermination of the First World War can be seen as the first collective suicide attempt by Western society (something repeated in the Second World War, the period 1969-1976, the period of the Thatcher-Reagan MAD-toting axis); this, the "signifying nothing" of Macbeth, was reflected terribly in the work of the Dadaists, no matter how they may have denied it: in the suicide of the dilettante-poet Jacques Vaché; the extermination of beauty in Picabia’s Portrait of Cézanne, a stuffed monkey crucified on a board reading NATURES MORTES; in the systematic destruction of all the hallowed concepts of Western society (love, poetry, beauty, philosophy, reason, faith, authority, duty, goodness); in the terrifying spleen that Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes poured on the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois patriots who started the war -

Before going down among you to pull out your decaying teeth, your running ears, your tongues full of sores,
Before breaking your putrid bones,
Before opening your cholera-infested belly and taking out for use as fertiliser your too-fatted liver, your ignoble spleen and your diabetic kidneys,
Before tearing out your ugly sexual organ, incontinent and slimy,
Before extinguishing your appetite for beauty, ecstasy, sugar, philosophy, mathematical and poetic metaphysical pepper and cucumbers,
Before disinfecting you with vitriol, cleansing you and shellacking you with passion,
Before all that,
We shall take a big antiseptic bath,
And we warn you:
We are murderers.

– in the dissolution of language itself as a communicative tool in the nonsense and simultaneous poetry. Caught in the midst of a century’s horror, they took the only way our they could: using culture to annihilate itself.

But, nonetheless, it was still culture. The creations of the Cabaret Voltaire – Arp’s abstract paintings and woodcuts, Janco’s pseudo-Futurist paintings – were recognisable as art. Tzara went on to help found the Littérature group with André Breton and Phillipe Soupault in Paris, a group dedicated to advancing the modernist project in literature.
But this was not the limit of Dada. In the Cabaret Voltaire, without a sympathetic audience, all attention being taken by the war, they could not find a proper outlet. After the dispersal of its members, several groups formed: leaving aside the more cerebral New York group, the two groups that created what Dada is best known for emerged in Paris, under the instigation of Tzara, and Berlin, under the control of Huelsenbeck.

Huelsenbeck was a weirdo, an outsider, in the Cabaret Voltaire. He was a failed medical student, not an artist; his only real connection to the art world was that he was friends with Hugo Ball. His act was "Negro dancing", making bad monkey noises and dancing in blackface on stage; even after he was told by a merchant seaman who had come to the Cabaret that "They don’t do that sort of shit in Africa", he continued with it. He was the most vociferous of the Voltaire Dadaists, an ugly, recaltricant, less-than-artistic figure. When he founded the Berlin Dada group, he hit out at those who supposedly treated Dada as "a pretext for the ambition of a few literary men" – namely Tzara, Hugo Ball and others of the Cabaret Voltaire group (whose signatures he then used on the ‘Collective Dada Manifesto’ these remarks came from). When, in his ‘Lecture On Dada’ Tzara was claiming that "Dada covers things with an artificial gentleness, a snow of butterflies released from the head of a prestidigitator", Huelsenbeck was writing, in the first German Dada manifesto, that Dada would be a conduit for "the thousandfold problems of the day, the art that is visibly shattered by the explosions of last week, which is forever trying to collect its limbs after yesterday’s crash." The violence of German Dada – in the explosive haranguing of its manifestoes, in the crudity and power of its photomontages, the assaultive nonsense of its magazines, in the absurdity of Max Ernst’s work (a wooden dummy with an axe chained to it and a notice reading ‘Please Destroy Me’) – was indicative of its approach to the transmission between artist and audience, and the very nature of it: it wasn’t art, it was a moment of assault. German Dada, under Huelsenbeck, did not make art, it went into the street, and "found an adversary".

The German Dadaists’ performances bear comparison with the methodology of Throbbing Gristle: the determined aesthetic of violence and ugliness; the sense in which it is the moment of performance – whether it is reading a manifesto or showing an Dada-work – that is the most important part ("Emphasis was laid on the movement, the struggle"); the commitment to truth: Berlin Dada was bent on awakening the "hunger for reality", on presenting artists who "every hour snatch their tattered bodies out of the frenzied cataracts of life" – Genesis P-Orridge called TG’s music "journalistic" and said they were "objective war zone correspondents using thee aural language of everyday life to define our subject." It is only natural that there are resemblances between Dada and TG – Genesis saw COUM Transmissions and TG in the long line of avant-garde art from the Dadaists through the Surrealists.
But this isn’t the whole story.


In May 1968, a phrase appeared dotted around the walls of Paris: WE WILL NOT STOP UNTIL THE LAST CAPITALIST IS HUNG WITH THE GUTS OF THE LAST BUREAUCRAT. It also appeared in the communiqués of the Occupation Committee of the Autonomous and Popular Sorbonne to the Soviet and Chinese Communist parties. The Occupation Committee was composed of members of the Situationist International, the Enragés, and a number of other radical groups. The universities and most of the Latin Quarter of Paris was occupied by students, successfully holding off the police with cobblestones, molotovs and improvised barricades. There was a wildcat general strike in progress across France, ten million workers downing tools and hundreds of factories occupied.
In 1922, at the first Berlin Dada exhibit, there was a dummy hanging from the ceiling: dressed in a military uniform with the head of a pig, strung from a noose, a sign around its neck reading: 'HANGED BY THE REVOLUTION.'
May ‘68 was not the sole making of the Situationists; but their critique was the inspiration for the Enragés, and perfectly captured the mood of disillusionment and discontent among the youth of France. Like the Berlin Dadaists, the rioters did not have the sense of a revolutionary vanguard, but of being part of a spreading moment of liberation. "Everyone can be a Dadaist", Huelsenbeck wrote in 1920; the creation of a moment in which every person is an artist, in which reality, real life is breached and in which, in each moment, the person constructs it for themselves, was the goal of the Situationists; when the slogan BE REASONABLE – DEMAND THE IMPOSSIBLE was being daubed on Paris walls, when the Sorbonne Occupation Committee told the Soviet and Chinese governments to "Shake in your shoes, bureaucrats", they were speaking with the same tongue as ‘What is Dadaism and what does it want in Germany?’, in which the Berlin Dadaists demanded "The introduction of progressive unemployment in through comprehensive mechanization of every field of activity… The immediate expropriation of property (socialization) and the communal feeding of all… Introduction of the simultaneist poem as a Communist state prayer", etc., etc.; when, in the 1949 Dada manifesto – some twenty-five years after Dada faded from the public consciousness – Huelsenbeck claimed he had, all his life, "fought for…the establishment of a new world of values in opposition to the old chaos and disintegration", he was pre-empting the vision of L’Internationale Lettriste by some 6 years: a method of finding a way out of the pseudo-world of the spectacle; and if ever Huelsenbeck’s idea of creating "literature with a gun in hand" was brought to life, it was in May ’68.

The SI had consciously posited themselves as inheritors of the Dadaists: they marked 1917, Year Zero of Berlin Dada, as the end of ‘art’ as something apart, the preserve of an elite, and a justification for the inequities and suffering of the world in which we live. And if any substantial thread runs between the two movements, it is noise: the SI adopted the Dadaists’ process of disruption in their ‘artistic’ works – Guy Debord’s Hurlements En Favre De Sade, which had contextless voiceovers accompanying nothing other than black and white screens; the détournement of official media, turning the presence of power (the manifestations of the spectacle) in real life against it, as in Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Hoch’s photomontages; the violence of the rhetoric in their magazine (they once had an entire page reading ‘M. GEORGES LAPAUD IS A CUNT’); the principle of turning art away from metaphysical exclusivity to real life. The disorientating clouds of noise – media cut-ups, violent intimidation, incomprehensible sound - floated also around Throbbing Gristle. Nowadays, they float around the bands who inherited from TG.


In a segment from No Fun Fest, Dominic Fernow, aka Prurient, and the head of noise label Hospital Records, performs with nothing more than an oscillator, microphone and loudspeaker. At first the speaker emits nothing but a high-pitched whine; bare-chested, his hair lank and dirty, eyes set and cold, he bends over the oscillator, forcing out a tone that seems set to burst your eardrum; he builds up feedback and oscillator tone, gouging a shape out of pure fuzz; as the noise builds, he seems to be almost devil-possessed, thrashing the mic against the amp, flailing and stomping; when he starts singing, you’re not surprised that he sounds terrifyingly inhuman. It’s not even a case of not wanting to meet him in a dark alley: you expect if you met him he’d kill you with pincers rather than shiv you. You’re watching a man tell you to get the fuck away and not to fuck with him.

The Italian Futurists pioneered the idea of bruitism, applying it most to the process of creating music: making noise out of industrial and ordinary items, starting up motor engines and banging pans. Huelsenbeck saw this as the best means of creating art: he said that bruitism was "a return to life", a means of actually affecting the spectator – "Wagner had shown all the hypocrisy inherent in a pathetic faculty for abstraction – the screeching of a brake, at least, could give you a toothache." The aesthetic terror of bruitism was, in a way, the same kind of approach as the other Dadaists’ approach to language – the dissolution of logic in language, of creating something completely outside what the audience understands of the medium, of creating something outside aesthetic expectations, thus, by definition, ugly and violent.

Ultimately, that same dissolution of aesthetic logic, of the concepts underlying not just art but life, is in modern noise music: the sense of disorientation, of everything disintegrating to the point where the only certainty is the moment itself, is in the performances of modern noise bands; the thread of obfuscation, of violence, of confusion in modern noise trails back Marinetti trying to channel noise from pipes, Hugo Ball babbling on stage at the Cabaret Voltaire, to Tzara’s historic manifestoes. The ritualistic elements of noise performances – whether in Prurient’s amp-manipulation, the nests of guitar pedals around Magik Markers, the gong-bashing of Wolf Eyes – carries the same charge as Throbbing Gristle and Dada.

But after all, you might not even know this. The noise scene operates in an almost segregated manner: the tiny independent labels and limited releases of the noise scene have prevented it breaking out of the ghetto of exclusivity; Wolf Eyes have been the first prominent noise band to sign to so high-profile a label as Sub Pop. The underground economy of noise - and free jazz, dubstep, free improv, avant-techno, anarcho-punk - grew out of the initial explosion of punk: the independent labels that sprang up to serve the new music - often operated by the same people who made the music - including TG's Industrial Records, were, in their own way, the equivalent of a May '68. The freedom of people to do what they want - whether in the performance spaces of noise clubs, or amidst a black economy, was what they wanted; it was the freedom for people to create their own lives, and their own history.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Art Of Yesterday's Crash, Pt 2.

Guy Debord, Ion magazine, 1952

"'Time is that which ends' culture, for better or worse, is that which does not. And thereby lies thee endless trick."
--Genesis P-Orridge, 1986

"When malaise is challenged, it shatters under the onslaught of a greater and denser malaise."
--Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution Of Everyday Life.

In an interview with Plan B, Wolf Eyes' John Olson said that "In the US there's a Nothern noise sound and an East Coast noise sound and a West Coast noise sound. ... I think the more you can isolate the characteristics of your environment, the more you can put into music." Throbbing Gristle's noise sound wasn't so much geographical: it was the distillation of the essence of industrial capitalism.

Hackney was the centre of the industrial revolution in London: the mass of mills and factories spewed and rattled throughout the day and night. By the end of the '70s, with de-industrialisation it was decimated; to this day it remains undeveloped, the shattered husk of post-industrial Britain, and recently voted the worst place to live in Britain. In the mid-70s, when Throbbing Gristle began, there was still some signs of life in the lowest and dankest end of industry; according to Genesis P-Orridge, upon leaving the Death Factory just after finishing recording The Second Annual Report, he heard the sound of a nearby metal mill: "We didn't invent any of it. We simply took it from around us."

Industrial capitalism is the will to death institutionalised and turned into a parody: the worker is offered the means to live, but only in return for brutalising himself, condemning himself to a state of un-life (commute, work, commute, meal, TV, sleep, repeat). The fact that the rate of suicide and mental illness increased so greatly in the 20th century and still further in the 21st is testament to this. That will-to-death is all too evident in Throbbing Gristle: in the music itself - the pounding, inhuman rhythms, the alien noise conjured up by Sleazy's damaged electronics, the splatter effect of distortion and media cut-ups; in the chillingly deadpan killing-a-pregnant-woman-and-eating-her-unborn-foetus scenario of 'Slug Bait' and the eery calm of the 20+ minutes of 'Cease To Exist'; the hoarse, Lovecraftian barks, on-stage self-debasement, tortured poetry and, in one instance, on-stage overdose, of Genesis P-Orridge. The Industrial Records logo - a black-and-white picture of the main ovens at Auschwitz, below 'INDUSTRIAL RECORDS' in banal bureaucratic type - and the scarily convincing Nazi flirtations of 'Subhuman' drew out the final, unacknowledged reality of Western late capitalism, and the link between mechanistication, genocide, and the mass-sleep of the West, populated by what Theodor Adorno called "the walking dead".

But Throbbing Gristle were only able to do and say what they did because of the time in which they existed. The Second Annual Report and its attendant singles were released in the midst of 1977, the very height of punk in terms of visibility. Throbbing Gristle, at first sight, would have had little to do with punk: they were descended from the fringes of the post-hippie underground, who, though they prized instinct as a tool of subversion, made the intellectual decision to do so. It's no coincidence that Gristle are so open to interpretation to "intellectual half-wits" (Mark E. Smith) like me - they made music rooted in an intellectual critique of Western society. Where punk was fast and exciting, the Gristle's music was slow, incoherent and painful, like a drawn-out murder scene.

But both punk and Throbbing Gristle were breaking boundaries at a time when this was suddenly possible. In Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Greil Marcus spoke about "the bands who leapt into the space the Sex Pistols had cleared": bands like The Adverts, The Mekons, The Clash, basically the entirety of the punk vanguard. The negation of values the Sex Pistols engendered - goodbye to government, history, work, God, family, life, future, love, money, health, beauty, consumerism, entertainment value - allowed bands who wanted to speak to do so. In a world where, suddenly, the old requirements - the ability to play, a 'commercial' message - had disappeared, the disenfranchised were given a voice. That very same negation - that critique - became the subject of the art that emerged, the energy that infused the air, the time, the bands and artists who came out at that time. And that included Throbbing Gristle. It's no coincidence that Prostitution, the art show consisting of Cosey's work for top shelf magazines, and, infamously, a tampon in a teacup, was held in the summer of '76 and was visited by the entirety of the punk vanguard; it's no coincidence that the show and the group were denounced and reviled publicly in much the same way as the Sex Pistols - one Tory MP famously calling them "wreckers of civilisation"; how right he was...; it's no coincidence that the independent label network that would carry much of the punk that sprang up in the wake of the Sex Pistols took its lead from Industrial Records; and it's no coincidence to note that both John Lydon and Genesis P-Orridge, were, consciously or unconsciously, 'shamanistic' performers, 'channeling' something unspecified.

I hate to simply repeat or resurrect other writers, but there's a further connection between the two strains, industrial and punk: the heretical tradition first investigated by Marcus in Lipstick Traces.


The Situationist International existed between 1957 and 1972. It was a group dedicated to creating revolution by means of "a critique of the idea of happiness in the West". Over the course of its lifetime, the SI published 12 issues of the journal Internationale Situationiste, two major books by the leader of the group, Guy Debord, and his 'second-in-command' Raoul Vaneigem, and a host of 'communiques' to revolutionary groups and the general public concerning issues of the day.

Punk, as a movement, was an enactment of this critique in the dark arena of 'everyday life': the SI attacked the commodification of life itself, the reification of human desire and its resale back to people, distorted, through the medium of the 'spectacle'. The conglomeration of images and impulses - the signals of media, "a separate pseudo-world" - forms a "social relation between people mediated by images." People measure the self against the images created by capital, which requires that people by more goods: their desire is redirected towards an imagined happiness present in goods, which will supposedly complete them, but always fall short. They allow themselves to be lead into a daily cycle of life that perpetuates the unhappiness driving capitalism - commute, work, commute, meal, TV, sleep. But where the SI delivered a purely formal critique, punk took it and ran: the values of late-capitalist Britain, reduced to a receptacle for American cultural product and values, a mess of rubble and slimy, sleeping people, so hypnotised by love, by money, crumbling by now into dust and the only thing keeping a veneer of civilisation, were inverted and annihilated. It rejected the constraints of society with such vehemence, demanded freedom so uncompromisingly, that it couldn't be ignored; it swept people along. The energy that filled the room - kids thrashing and pogoing, their rejection written in mutilations, clothing, dyed hair and adopted names, making themselves into living signs - in punk shows was precisely what Raoul Vaneigem called 'mass poetry'.

But nobody pogoed at Throbbing Gristle shows. Their transmissions were of a different kind. They formed a spectacle of their own. It's worth noting that they first formed in order to accompany COUM Transmissions performances, which were something to see in themselves: they usually involved some sort of fucking or other, usually between Genesis and Cosey; for example, he would fuck her with a lit candle, or inject his scrotum with the contents of a black egg. This theatrical element would continue into their performances as just a musical act: Genesis was interested in the idea of magickal ritual, in the mass participation of people in spells to achieve things, to cause the will of the audience to come to the fore. Will here is meant in the sense of Aleister Crowley's "Do what thou wilt shalt be the whole of the law" - Throbbing Gristle's aural and visual assault was an attempt at deconditioning through psychotropic exposure (an aspect pushed to the fore in the live shows of Genesis' post-Gristle band Psychic TV). In 'The Construction of Situations: An Introduction' from IS no. 1, 1958, we find: "What we consider to be a truly meaningful experiment lies in setting up, on the basis of desires which are already more or less clearly conscious, a temporary field of activity which is favourable to the further development of these desires." And again, in 'Report on the construction of situations': "The construction of situations can only begin to be effective as the concept of the spectacle begins to disintegrate." The disorientating nature of Throbbing Gristle's music on-stage was nothing short of a 'situation': the cutting-up of the media amidst the already terrifyingly chaotic fragments of already-overwhelming noise was about as powerful a disintegration of the spectacle as you could get. The terror of the times looked in the mirror, and was killed by it's reflection, like something out of a horror story. The shaking and barking from the stage was the "greater malaise" that assassinated, at least temporarily, Western civilisation. Within the four walls of the concert space, the world, the inescapable social facts everyone accepts as 'natural', constraint itself - pragmatism, morality, law, the prison of work, body, mind, the images that control our behaviour and thinking in a thousand subtle ways - disappears, is negated. "The situationist destruction of contemporary conditioning is simultaneously the construction of situations. It is the liberation of the boundless energy trapped under the surface of contemporary life. Contemporary town planning..." - though they may as well be talking about any aspect of the spectacle - "will... be replaced by means of defending an always precarious freedom" - the freedom to say and do exactly what you want, a freedom you can hear, parodoxically, in the oppressive strains of noise - "starting from the moment when individuals - who as such have yet to be born - will begin to construct, freely, their own lives and their own history."

Not so much cultural production as cultural explosion, it occurs to me that this is what the Situationists, and, before them, the Lettrist International, meant when they talked about finding the 'Northwest Passage' out of the world of the capitalist spectacle. But the noise bands of today are not Throbbing Gristle (unsurprisingly). There are traces of an older racket, that lives in both the Gristle and the current noise scene. Flayed corpses crawling out of the primordial ooze...


P.S. Next week's installment of this essay will be the last, don't worry.

P.P.S Cheers to Greil Marcus (even though he has no idea who I am) for letting me essentially rehash his work. Cheers for everything.
An addition to yesterday's meme-obliging: I tag any of the contributors to greengalloway, poptext, The Existence Machine, and The White Noise Revisited. That should satisfy.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Five Things...

Yes, that's right people I've been sucked into the meme, by none other than Mr William Burstow, aka Irish Will. So, here goes nothing: Five Things You Probably Didn't Know About Me.

1. I sing Smiths songs in the shower, but can never hit the falsetto notes.
2. For a number of short periods during Year 11 and 12 I suspected I was gay.
3. I've only been to five concerts in the course of my life: Jandek, the Band Bash, Fort Rox, The Fall, These Arms Are Snakes
4. I've been working on my magnum opus for 3 years now, and it's beginning to disgust me. I'm not the same person I was, and I want to get rid of it, except for all the hard work put in, and that damned close...
5. I own a leather jacket that's far too large for me, and I want to get rid of it. Damn this pain.

I have no-one to tag. Come back later.