The recent Meshuggah album The Violent Sleep Of Reason (2016) was largely recorded live in a studio. As per their usual compositional method, the Swedish musicians sketch out a riff, rhythm or pattern using drum machines, sequencers and samplers. These composed micro-units are then appended to others, molecularly braided within metric patterns of cross-synching time signatures. The approach is machinic in the true sense: an elemental fuel (the riff) is inserted into a generator which outputs structured forms (the song). Those finger-tapped tattoos and hummed bass-lines replicate and self-procreate to produce echoes, versions, duplications and variations which are concreted into sonic mountains and aural canyons. The resulting soundscape is simultaneously molten and glacial: a hot throbbing blanket of bottom end and a chilling shower of high frequency shards.

Like all Meshuggah records since Nothing (2002), The Violent Sleep Of Reason intensifies the tropes of Nu Metal by existing despite the music’s ostensibly impossible construction. The tracks’ micro-managed building blocks and their monolithic concatenations have been rehearsed and recorded as real-time performances. Two things are worth highlighting here. The first is that this mode of impossible composition has spurred Modernist music composition for over a century. From the timbral expansion of the orchestral palette to the gestural extension of instrumental technique to the graphic extrapolation of score manuscripts, the human composer has long sought how to generate maximal music beyond one’s means. Meshuggah — drawing heavily on the stupefying mathematics of bands like King Crimson (circa 1992’s Thrack) — channel this drive into the dialectics of metal and its myriad inflections. The second point is that while Meshuggah had to date mostly used digital tools to simulate this type of compositional complexity for their recordings, they only ever did so in order to confront themselves with the near-impossible task of physically performing such work in front of an audience, utilising the most traditional of tools: a drum kit, a bass guitar and two guitars with lots of distortion. In doing so, they have consistently promulgated an aggressive Ludditism predicated on generating maximal experiential effect.

 

Meshuggah performing

Live sonic assault

Seeing and hearing Meshuggah live is like having this intense proof-of-concept wrack your body. The sheer sonic assault of the band’s unique blend of frequencies is unavoidable. Snares and kicks crack like welding sparks, dancing atop an undulating field of bass frequencies. Unlike techno’s pleasurably relentless conveyer belt of discrete sub-sonic detonations and eroticised bass palpitations, Meshuggah’s refinement of hi-tech metal production constructs a dense merger of multiple lo-end bandwidths, coalescing into a unified yet layered meta-blob of noise. Bowel-massaging bass is felt from down-tuned eight-string guitar rumbles, muscular shuddering bass guitar throbs, and lingering booms of the kick and toms.

With the superior mix and presence of their live sound on their March tour to Australia (lower in volume yet raging with more elemental presence than their previous tours here) their songs appear as architecsonic objects, like black diamonds being compressed from subterranean coal right before your ears. Their sound is a unified mass: it takes you nowhere, but rather stays in a fixed position, slowly rotating with tectonic gravitas.

 

Restricted access

Words flail in attempting to effectively describe Meshuggah’s acoustic physics and its magnetic pull. Yet I remain convinced that the band’s focus on aural craftsmanship and their determination to amplify sensorial extremes are the prime factors in ensuring their live performance sculpts music in post-human guise. The resulting effect is so overwhelming it invites pleasure through our not being allowed into the music. I can’t think of any other band or performer who so fastidiously constructs music bent on repelling identification and access, yet at the same time inspiring awe through granting the listener a post-human experience. Meshuggah have long traded in post-human operations (boggling time signatures, impossible executions, abstracted musical grammar, alienating precision etc). Their live performances build a spectacular arena wherein a human audience is stimulated by a post-human performance predicated on dispelling every device employed to connect to an audience. For some this is preposterously arrogant; for others, it is absurdly self-defeatist. For me, it is liberating to witness such vibrant atonality born of a dark Schoenbergian Sabbath. The pleasure of music is often described in empathetic humanist terms as that which occurs when the listener surrenders to the music to attain ecstatic union. When Meshuggah unleash tracks like “Future Breed Machine,” “Bleed,” “I Am Colossus” or “Clockworks,” I feel like I have been vaporised into nothingness, obliterated in and by sound.

 

The look

This brings us to the sight of Meshuggah and their visual presentation on stage. The world tour promoting The Violent Sleep Of Reason features an elaborate lighting design by Edvard Hansson, who has been working with the band for over five years. Superficially described, it’s a brutalist onslaught of laser lines, bank flashes, tilting shafts and sweeping beams, all tightly synchronised to the cryptically encoded polyrhythms of the pummelling music. This type of hyper-synchro synaesthesia has long formed a tunnelling surge typical of Modernist progression: everything gets louder, faster, tighter, brighter, as if hurtling toward an ultimate point of cosmological fusion. The concept is interesting, but for over half a century this pursuit plots markers along the same linear vector, each competing with the other solely to be one node ahead. Lighting technologies for stagecraft (especially in the faux pyrotechnics of rock concerts) urge designers to charge along this vector, creating a glut of visual bombast that is pleasurable but tiresome in its lack of critical thinking in audio-visual assemblage and narration. Conversely, Hansson’s lighting design proceeds from digesting the molecular and modular mechanics of Meshuggah’s compositional technique to produce a flashing, illuminated chart of how the music’s rhythms are energised by its interlocking logic. Think of it as a thousand nano signal lamps translating musical notation to simulate photic retinopathy.

 

Drums, fingers, light

Standing in the audience, it is as if one is being pricked in a mysterious constellation of acupuncture points, matched to the drummer’s patterns and the other instruments’ blocking and forming. The amazing reveal is that Hansson is performing the light cues and their flashing with his fingers, manually tapping hieroglyphic tattoos in perfect synch with drummer Tomas Haake’s playing. For many, this reveal is astounding, based on the presumption that such complex lighting could only be programmed by MIDI authoring and computer processing (recalling that MIDI was employed in stagecraft in the late 80s, eventually transforming into MSC — MIDI Show Control — in the early 90s). But considered corporally and cosmologically, Haake’s hands control Hansson’s fingers, in turn triggering blasted light code signalling the ECG readout of the post-human corpus embodied by Meshuggah’s being. Thus the body, so the drum kit, hence the lighting. In a glut of Max/MSP/Jitter realisations, two humans synched by nerves and muscles power this audiovisual spectacle.

Meshuggah, Australian Tour, 11-17 March

 

See the following:

Meshuggah live in Lyon, 27 Nov, 2016

 

Edvard Hansson’s lighting concept animation for “Born In Dissonance”

 

Edvard Hansson performing the lighting, Paris, 2 Dec, 2012

 

Top image credit: Meshuggah, photo courtesy the artists

Eugene Ughetti, Matthias Shack-Arnott, Speak Percussion, Singapore 2015

Eugene Ughetti, Matthias Shack-Arnott, Speak Percussion, Singapore 2015

First principles

I’ve written quite a bit on audiovision over the years. If there is a determining principle that guides my angle on aural perception, my choice in media subjects, my thrust in critical discourse, it would be that audiovisuality is a given state. No sight exists without physical, psychoacoustic, imaginary or cultural simultaneity in sound. The inverse is equally so: no matter how pure or essentialist one’s desire for ‘sound alone,’ the colour of your shirt will always betray an ulterior motive to your sound-making. The beauty of audiovision, then, is how inevitable its eventfulness becomes, and how overwhelming the sensation of sound and image merging can be in the present moment of experience.

Furthermore, this invisible inevitability has yet to be excluded from critical writing on visual things presumed to be silent, sonic things presumed to be beyond image, and all the chaotic attempts to either neutralise or radicalise the relationships between opto-cine-theatrical languages and sono-musical languages. My task in writing on audiovisuality is to discern and navigate those moments where things happen in ways more maximising and problematising than perceived wisdoms would like and avant-garde gestures would claim.

Within avant-garde practices, audiovision has been consistently pursued as if it can unlock the divisive channels of linguistic discourses and/or medium-based protocols. This collective dream is reiterated as a type of mystical synaesthesia, wherein all sono-musical events exist only because of their visual prompting, and all optical-visual occurrences exist only because of their aural triggering. Maybe, this would be okay if interesting and unexpected things happened in the rigging of systems (faux-mystical, performative, pseudo-scientific, technological, theatrical etc) so that the aural and ocular planes could generate an X-factor beyond one’s conceptions of how the two could co-exist. But this never happens. And the more artists attempt to authorially engineer this through the above-mentioned systems, the more they over-determine their outcomes to contradict the push to expansiveness to which their composition is logically aligned.

 

Fluorophone Concert, Speak Percussion, The Substation

Fluorophone Concert, Speak Percussion, The Substation

Fluorophone Concert, Speak Percussion, The Substation

A paradigmatic shift to the percussive plane

Speak Percussion’s recent Fluorophone concert exemplifies this dilemma. In many respects, Speak Percussion synchronises to the contemporary state of avant-garde musical mechanics, where the act of ‘sounding’ is derived ostensibly from the audible gesture actuated by ‘touching.’ Percussion instruments have long been relegated to the roles of chronometry, accentuation and enhancement within the orchestral machine’s academic hierarchy. Thankfully, the 20th century witnessed an amazing destabilisation of this vertical stigmatisation, as numerous notable composers foregrounded percussionists as logical explorers and sonic cartographers of how ‘sounding’ in post-melodic, atonal or meta-harmonic realms could best be navigated.

This legacy is heard today in the works of just about every exploratory musician interested in prepared instrumentation and frequency interpolation, who must consider their attack, sustain, decay and release as singular self-contained events—just how a percussionist strikes their instrument of choice. Indeed, the state of music now in so many ways can be interpreted as a paradigmatic shift into or onto the percussive plane, as if we are now inhabiting an expanded temporal realm where a single strike of a timpani becomes a symphonic movement, time-stretched to reveal the complex minutiae of what previously was presumed to be a transitory blip on the score. Speak Percussion have carved pathways upon this plateau, forwarding a range of highly professional and often engaging compositional and performative considerations of how percussiveness generates these maximalising sonic events.

 

Performative staging vs sound-making

The Fluorophone concert arguably exists on another plane. In its intention to embrace a technologically mediated incorporation of visual contraptions into the musical performance, Speak Percussion have dislodged the maximising centrality of sonic eventfulness that their less visually/theatrically preoccupied performances have generated. Two key pieces by members Damien Ricketson and Eugene Ughetti demonstrate this. Ricketson’s Rendition (2016) is performed by two percussionists punching strobe flashes whose actioning is further modified by a third performer. The result is a changing grid of literal clicks, synchronised pulsations and triggered envelopes of tone. The piece deftly moves through a series of micro-movements as the two performers on a raised stage face each other or turn away, sometimes operating the light switches, at other times performing handheld or hand-swung percussion instruments. Watching its staging, one can enjoy the stroboscopic effect of the performers’ bodies suddenly appearing in tight synch to their ‘sounding,’ or generating a Muybridge-like stop-motion effect with their swinging arms as they sustain their ‘sounding’. But is this truly interesting? Or is this the type of window-dressing that theatre and lighting directors now routinely impose on musical performers?

Ughetti’s Pyrite Gland attempts a playful experiment in converting three tom-tom drums into light-emitting screens which respond to sensors registering a range of vibrations brought to bear on their skins via direct attack and various mediated pressures (from foot pumps, ribbed tubes etc). Again, the performative staging overwhelms the sound-making, transforming the performers into whimsical faux-nerd game-players with absurdist contraptions. Their skills are foregrounded in the circus-like arena of their synaesthetic operation. Both works paled when audited with closed eyes: they sounded over-composed and over-read. Their visuals equally smacked of the cursed ‘droll wit’ which classical performances often extol as a sign of their refusal of concert hall propriety. And finally, their synchronism cancelled out audiovisual complexity, transducing the works’ eventfulness into mimetic charades of their ontological base.

 

Louise Devenish, Speak Percussion

Louise Devenish, Speak Percussion

Louise Devenish, Speak Percussion

Theatre/performance-centric criteria dominance

‘Sounding’ has been promoted in a variety of performance events in the last five years. Sometimes it has been well-considered and fruitful: the integrated audiovision of Zoe Scoglio; the unsettling inter-scoring of the Bolt Ensemble with the Amplified Elephants; the anarchic art-music partying of Slave Pianos. More often, it has been theatrically laboured and sonically withering (Kate McIntosh’s All Ears (see a Vimeo trailer); Matthew Sleeth’s A Drone Opera (read Andrew Fuhrmann’s review); Ashley Dyer’s Tremors).

In times bereft of consciousness in the act of listening, staging overcomes sounding. What would you prefer: a boring presentation of an amazing sonic event or a tantalising, distracting, spectacularised presentation of rote avant-garde gestures toward the legacy of exploratory sound-making? The latter tends to dominate now, maybe because it services musical ensembles strategically ensnared by the theatre/performance-centric criteria which most funding organisations favour above all else. A boring drone piece: 30 people in attendance. A boring drone piece played by 50 blindfolded players suspended by straps festooned with LED lights changing colour via a MAX-patch as their motion sensors twist and turn: 300 people. (Set it to Cate Blanchett reading tweets from teenage girls in refugee detention centres: 3000 people.)

Contrary to how this might sound, I’m not the cynical one here. The current climate which mandates that all arts should somehow be interconnected and/or relate to ‘the world’ legislates these types of intermedial events and happenings. Hyper-synchronism and authored-synaesthesia might be historically grounded in mixed/multi-media experiments from Cage to Stockhausen, but their contemporaneity betrays their being bound to the dream of making relative/relational art. Fluorophone symptomatically reflected how contemporary theatre has subsumed those intermedial experiments into a utopian multi-sensory façade. For many people—indeed, maybe everyone but me—this is a welcome transition. I don’t hear it that way at all.

See Madeline Roycroft’s review of Fluorophone.

Speak Percussion, Fluorophone, The Substation, Newport, Melbourne, 23-25 Nov

RealTime issue #136 Dec-Jan 2016

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Eurovision 2015 includes Australia as official contender for the first time

Eurovision 2015 includes Australia as official contender for the first time

You’re a presenter for SBS television. How proud you must be to work for a renowned multicultural broadcaster, delivering content for the multitudinous diasporas who have washed up on Australia’s fatal shores since WWII. And you’re a commentator on the SBS broadcast of Eurovision. I can’t tell you how hilarious it is to have a wog like you nudge-and-wink at the broadcast audience as you make fun of all those awful woggy pop singers. Lithuania, Albania, Macedonia, Slovenia—unlike cool Australia, they’re all so embarrassing they make for an easy target.

Who am I? I’m just a sarcastic intellectual, trying out the same septic spittle that you pour onto the contestants of Eurovision. I figured that you like hateful remarks: you’re so good at them. And like all the intelligentsia of Australia, I revel in mocking pop music, degrading its artists, dismissing its cultural worth, lampooning its gaudy theatrics and dishing smarmy drag-bitch snipes at televisual images which will never turn around and bite me.

 

Why trash Eurovision?

Why is the concept of Eurovision such an embarrassment to so many people? Why do they feel so empowered and elated by being so insulting toward every aspect of its production—while shedding tears of wrought empathy when their own national anthem is played at the Olympics? Why is there any sense that Eurovision is different from the Olympics? Both are politically deluded, economically cynical, emotionally manipulative and aggressively disingenuous. But am I alone in seeing their similarities while feeling equally involved in the theatrical drama of each of them? I’m no sports fan of any measure, but the Pavlovian response to the adrenaline moments of Olympic conquest are undeniable. For me, the sentimentality and pizzaz of Eurovision are equally engaging and affective. And this is despite not liking the music.

Eurovision—like the Olympics—is capable of generating a schizophrenic identification with the show’s pyrotechnical staging and self-absorbed performance. Institutionally, Eurovision is plainly the Olympics with songs. It’s nationalistic, competitive, international and reflective of how individuals can be willingly employed as nodes in a showy fabrication of diplomatic exchange and assessment. This year’s Eurovision returned to Stockholm, Sweden, following last year’s winner Mans Zelmerlow and his song “Heroes.” Eurovision originated in Switzerland, largely as a white-paper proposal for promoting Swiss cultural identity within the global arena of diplomatic exchange following the establishment of the European Broadcast Union, an organising and inter-sharing body for many post-war public broadcasters across Europe. The crowning glory of Eurovision’s impact was its levering of Sweden’s ABBA into the international pop industrial chain with their 1974 win “Waterloo” (in England, the host country that year). Of course, smarmy pop-haters wouldn’t notice what’s in a name: ABBA competed against Britain’s stranglehold on disposable pop which in the early 1970s had reached the point of critical meltdown through the most outrageously facile concoction of songs and artists. ABBA effectively distilled this acidic Dickensian musical bile and played it back to the UK, copying the saggy baggy para-Glam pub-boogie of the time and referencing Napoleon’s defeat at the hands of the British. How perversely ironic: the Waterloo here was not ABBA’s, but Britain’s inability to keep Eurotrash from infiltrating its closely guarded WWII-era radio waves.

 

Origins of the assault

The Eurovision 2016 Semi-Finals went so far as to include a tediously smarmy fake-documentary about the origins of Eurovision. Replete with fake digital scratched film and ‘dag’ iconography (making it look like the 70s, despite Eurovision being formed in 1951), it was as funny as every ad which lampoons cardigan-wearing nerdy office-workers today (as if late-20-something advertising ‘creatives’ these days are style icons). The sad thing was how Eurovision itself had succumbed to the international subversion of its purpose and programming: to ridicule its production and disparage all those who treat it seriously. It was the British who pioneered the smarmy para-racist attitudes towards Eurovision’s contestants via the infamously droll commentary of Terry Wogan (over 30 times intermittently until the mid 2000s). Contrary to the country’s pride in being well-mannered, the sound of British broadcasting has always borne the sound of something in its mouth, be it plums, tongues, silver spoons or plain bile. It’s a remarkable sono-oral effect, born of vowelling and tonguing words so that a counter-tone modulates the meaning (hence America’s infinite misreading of British comedy). But with the Eurovision broadcasts, this gained global momentum in English-speaking territories where the show’s broadcast was franchised.

By the 1980s, the broadcast commentary had become the ulterior motive for many audiences to watch Eurovision. It was like travelling into the hellish chaos of woggy Europe while sipping bitter tea in a mouldy bedsit armchair. Nudge-nudge, wink-wink, laugh at the woggy pantomime of awful pop music while Cool Britannia intones snide remarks like Oscar Wilde sitting in the peanut gallery during a House of Lords session, close-miked and broadcast without the downstairs auditorium in hearing distance. Before long, numerous countries employed their own presenters to provide sportscaster-style commentary in their native tongue atop the lowered volume of both the host nation’s presenters and the BBC-sanctioned commentary. Some kept things straight; many couldn’t resist poking fun. After all, it’s not like it’s the Olympics, right?

 

Eurovision 2015 includes Australia as official contender for the first time

Eurovision 2015 includes Australia as official contender for the first time

SBS joins the club

SBS started showing Eurovision in 1983, following the slimy smarm trail left by Wogan. By the late 1990s, it had approached the broadcast as a multi-layered revoicing of the event: part-hacking, part-cackling, like all smarmy media interventions it believes it invented the word ‘subversion.’ Its format now includes a ‘team’ of wanna-be comedians falling over each other’s words as they struggle to get in their pithy snarks betwixt the cacophonic voicing of the original broadcast. The show also adds snippy behind-the-scenes interviews by some guy who ranks himself with Norman Gunston and Chris Morris. Dude, you so ain’t: taking pot shots at foreign singers—most of whom can speak at least three languages plus English—and implicating us in your double-entendre Anglo mocking is a massive fail.

It gets harder each year to filter out the ‘de-broadcast’ voiced-over noise of racist-not-racist tap-dancing and lip-synching of SBS’s broadcast of Eurovision. One can almost miss the actual songs. And in case you were wondering, Eurovision 2016 Semi-Finals televisual staging was far more advanced in terms of screenic projection, calibrated lighting, choreographed camerawork and post-Broadway spectacularism than most 90s-lagging media artists. Sure, their ‘content’ might be dismissible—but believe me, so is the ‘content’ of most international arts festivals, in case you were wondering. Additionally, there were some well-crafted pop songs. Crack harmonic modulation, on-a-dime emotional shifts, melodic multiplicity and generic atomisation ruled. When I could actually hear and see the acts, I found little to hate.

SBS TV, Eurovision Semi Finals 2016 10, 12 May

RealTime issue #135 Oct-Nov 2016

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

I’m Sorry, Cassandra Tytler,

I’m Sorry, Cassandra Tytler,

I have never understood the hang-ups people have about white cubes. The more you try to remake and remodel its void—let alone vanquish it—the more you prove its power. Surely the white cube has become a most promiscuous public space wherein anything is acceptable and all is possible.

How many times have you walked into a gallery or museum whose white cube zone has been deterritorialised, deconstructed, demolished? Walls are punctured, flooring is covered, air ducts are exposed. Or, frames, partitions, boxes, shelving and rooms are constructed as metaphorical refugee encampments or sites of resistant occupancy. For many, this enlivens contemporary art’s critique of architectural politics—a shallow view, considering the cultural context within which galleries and museums ape lifestyle trends of customisation and empowerment, while IKEA and Bunnings encourage you to transform your domestic space into a personalised white cube. The Block vs The Sydney Biennale. Grand Designs vs The Turner Prize. Is there really a difference?

In an exhibition featuring Cassandra Tytler’s video installation, I’m Sorry (2016), this familiar scenography appears once more. Another artist-run space with concrete floor, white walls, track lighting. Another box-room built within the space, sitting like a defiant edifice, reclaiming the space to make a personalised art statement. That’s how it looks from the outside, what with its ugly exposed ‘interior’ wall studs and framing, the kind that Institutional Critique loves to ‘expose’ within a gallery or museum.

The difference with I’m Sorry, though, lies in its awareness not only of the pitfalls of even bothering to critique ‘art’ (what is it with artists doing it all the time?), but of the precise reasons for making a shitty Bunnings box construction inside a gallery space. This work is not about where you are in the gallery: it’s about where this box comes from. Like a random container drop, it imports a plain suburban room into the gallery. You enter through a Bunnings door to find yourself inside a scaled-down living room of sorts—low ceiling, white walls, faux-Afghan carpet, a small table with flowers in a vase. Two ‘windows’ (actually flat-screen monitors) on the left and right walls are each positioned at chest height. It’s neither a house nor a home; it’s just a dumb space, a petite hell for its inhabitants. This room is a domestic void, placed within the void of the white cube. As a visitor to the gallery where art and reality pathologically mirror each other, one is now trapped inside this portal to the domestic world where shit happens.

All public galleries these days run boutique vodka tastings, kids’ craft workshops, comedian talks, themed cooking classes and senior citizens’ walk-throughs—for even the most rabidly, politically oriented contemporary art exhibitions. Like the medieval ‘city square’ notion of congregational activities which contemporary urban planners flaunt in all global cities desperate to be socially relevant while hysterically building pseudo-inner-city lifestyle developments, public galleries domesticate their space as an antidote to the solipsistic core which silently throbs in so-called socially motivated art. Amid this neurotic, curated reassurance that art and society miraculously mandate each other’s co-dependency, how does an artist today even frame the outside world, let alone provide commentary from an artistic perspective?

I’m Sorry, Cassandra Tytler,

I’m Sorry, Cassandra Tytler,

The ‘window’ flat screens of I’m Sorry feature Tytler dressed and made-up as a man. It’s ineffectual and unconvincing: elfin short hair, some fake stubble, no lipstick or eye-liner—a drag king shopping at IKEA. He first appears on the right screen, banging on the glass, barking again and again and again, “I’m sorry.” We know the story: he is the lover/partner/husband singing a pathetic refrain of repentance which fuels the cyclical nature of domestic violence. It’s never a one-off or last time; only ever a loop, a return, a repeat. He exits the window on the right and appears on the window on the left. And starts up again with his banging and pleading: insistent, dogged, irritated by having to state his case. He gets angrier with each mantric utterance. He moves to the right window again. Then the left. Then the right. Then the left. By now, he has dissolved into a breathless, indignant cartoon of frustration. The remorse faked earlier has been retracted; he’s now insulted by having to even acknowledge wrong or be engaged in any ridiculous reconciliation. The apologetic has now transformed into the apoplectic.

It’s a queasy performance. Firstly, Tytler moves from drama school acting into eventual full-blown melodramatic mime. Unlike most contemporary video art which now employs the Cate Blanchetts of the world to sycophantically infuse its art with cinematic performativity, Tytler’s performance in I’m Sorry mirrors the inauthentic posturing of the repeat offender inured to both clinical strategies by therapists and passive-aggressive manipulation by do-gooders.

Secondly, I’m caught remembering how embarrassing it is when you see how pathetically people act when cornered, exposed, caught, tried. No-one hangs their heads in shame these days. Everyone feels they have the right to fuck up how they choose. The socio-cultural persistence of domestic violence is bound to send subliminal messages to the ethically-skewed mindsets of its perpetrators, who feel violated by the humiliating exposure of their private domestic hell. Like Tytler’s ‘everyman,’ the abuser feels more wronged than wrong. Standing inside the crappy Bunnings room built by the artist, I thought of countless dads fixing up their houses, smoothing over their problems, patching up their relationships, plumbing their anger, building up their frustration, hammering away in self-loathing. The proliferation of TV reality shows predicated on constructing dream homes built by hunky metrosexual elves accrues an icky reactionary prescience under these conditions. The flaccid melt-down performance of I’m Sorry amplifies these connections: dad is just a dick.

And then there’s that sound heard throughout the video. A non-stop banging on the window, like the Big Bad Wolf pleading to be let in. It’s the distinctive sound of a hollow boxy boom, frail in force yet ungainly, articulated by upper-bass-range thudding. It’s the sound of someone gagged and trapped in a box begging to be let out. Or the sound of yet another temp employee with a clip-board wandering through the suburbs trying to get you to change from one branded service to another, for no good reason other than flat-lined marketplace competition. Or the sound of a million tradesmen fabricating a million boxes for designer shanty towns, bashing away with tools bought at Bunnings. Or the sound of your neighbours banging on your wall. Or you on theirs. It’s the sound of the outside world, never leaving you alone, even after you have modelled your petty square meterage into that IKEA image of retro-Euro-Modernism aping Bauhaus-revivalist contemporary art museum café design. Ironically, it’s also the sound of pseudo-cinematic video art projections inside black boxes inside white cubes (or disused industrial sites à la mode) for biennales around the world. A psycho-acoustics demonstrating the deafness of video artists fawning over their hi-res imagery but deaf to anything sonic, aural or vocal. Here, it’s the sound of the outside world banging on the windows of art. With its consistent performativity and tonality, I’m Sorry unapologetically has nothing to say about art, galleries, white cubes and their glorified relevance to the outside world. Apology gratefully accepted.

Cassandra Tytler, exhibition, Tock Tock, work I’m Sorry (2016), video installation, Gallery One Trocadero Art Space, Footscray, Melbourne, 18 May-4 June

Cassandra Tytler works with single channel video, performance and installation, focusing “on processes of embodiment of the gallery space and how movement, vision and audio can create an intersubjective feedback between viewer and artwork… [with] an ongoing examination of masquerade and mimicry in video-based practice.” She has presented live video performances and exhibited works in Australia, Paris, Turku (Finland) and Miami, has a Masters degree (RMIT University, 2003) and is currently a PhD candidate at Monash University, Melbourne.

RealTime issue #133 June-July 2016

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

The death of any stellar figure in rock and pop’s pantheon of propped-up puppets instigates numerous public relations crises. Most entail pseudo-ethical means of exploiting while commemorating, honouring the star’s passing while recouping long-term investment in their career. This is entirely acceptable: rock and pop stars work within an industry. Fawning outrage over their post-mortem commercialism is disingenuous. Far more offensive is the angsting over how one should respectfully acknowledge their legacy.

The post-mortem hagiography of David Bowie is a salient demonstration of this irksome moralising over the assignation of tributes to his audiovision. Out from the damp chipboard of rock and pop’s image-hoarding crept a gaggle of singer-songwriters on whom the industry could confer the temporary crown for voicing their respect to their fallen gladiator of Glam. The uppermost echelon of this hustling tower of pop Babel is the Grammys. What worldly—nay, universal—responsibility the chosen performer will carry upon his or her Olympian shoulders. Who would have thought so many people would come to bury David Bowie?

Bowie had been preparing himself for erasure from the world of rock and pop for quite some time. The most recent signs were managerial. From his incorporation of economic selfhood via the securitising of bonds signed with his name-brand to the start of near-death lyrical projections with Hours (1997), to the projective haunting symbolically threaded through the musical Lazarus (2015, with playwright Enda Walsh) and his final albums The Next Day (2015) and Blackstar (2016). But the early signs were theatrical. He killed off the fictional Ziggy Stardust in his tacky messianic narrative of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars (1972)—a great-sounding proto-Glam hyper-electric album, but textually on par with a Ken Russell script. Then not too long afterwards on his 1974 US tour, he ditched the mash-up of Broadway showbiz glitz and wannabe-Burroughs dystopianism for the staging of Diamond Dogs (1974)—possibly Bowie’s best album despite its literary portentousness. Halfway through the tour and embattled by frightfully expensive logistics, Bowie radically reduced the staging. The concerts are documented on the second worst live double-album ever released: David Live (1975). (The worst? David Bowie’s Stage, 1978.) The only saving grace of this debacle is the weird image Bowie crafted, dressed in a baby blue zoot suit and vibrant Henna-red hair combed back like an androgynous 50s delinquent. Most of the concert photos from the tour are fuzzy and indistinct, contradicted by harsh arc-spot lighting. Did Lady Gaga think similarly when she chose to reference this look for her live tribute performance on the Grammys?

Lady Gaga, Grammys performance

Lady Gaga, Grammys performance

Let’s do the semiotics. In his original get-up, Bowie looked like a white bayou ghost of James Brown made up like Marlene Dietrich and wearing a stage outfit stolen from The Stylistics. He dreamt he was all three Staples Singers rolled into one, but as evidenced on David Live, he sounded like Foghorn Leghorn doing Rufus Thomas. In her haute-couture homage, Lady Gaga colours her shoulder-padded suit white and adds some naff brocade. I’m sorry, but she looks like a squat theatre student doing drag king cosplay of Lt Gay Ellis from Gerry & Sylvia Anderson’s UFO (1970). But bizarrely, she sounds like Bowie on David Live: hoarse, dull, barking. Watching her performance initially was a cringeworthy experience. Then I remembered how woeful David Live is. At the time of that album’s release, it dawned on me that despite all the great momentary fragments, images and poses, Bowie left a trail of embarrassing tchotchkes. That’s how Bowie’s career panned out: a long line of stunning fake gems threaded onto long stretches of plastic barbed wire. Was this what Lady Gaga was honouring? Was this what the Grammys came to mourn?

Within America’s post-70s over-therapied self-obsessed culture, all successful rock and pop music intent on flaunting ‘newness’ seems equally bent on facilitating plurality and eclecticism for its populace. Maybe it starts with Alice Cooper. One can easily draw a low-brow suburban through-line from him to Marilyn Manson to Insane Clown Posse to Lady Gaga. They all psycho-babble about society, tribes, identity, self, expression, communality, difference and reflection. Bowie’s long-standing fascination with reflecting the sci-fi decay of the United States (from “Panic In Detroit” to “Fame” to “Black Out” to “Fashion” to “This Is Not America” to “Day In Day Out” to “I’m Afraid Of Americans”) formed a tacit backdrop for the staging of these recording artists. Consequently, Lady Gaga has over the last decade succeeded in being a quasi-feminist version of this anthropological averment of Otherness. It has been curious to witness her strategy limp forward: riffing off Madonna’s sampling of Abba’s “Gimme Gimme Gimme” (1975) for her hit “Hung Up” (2005) while performing tacky pantomime interpretations of Matthew Barney’s deluded follies. Essentially Billy Joel in Rocky Horror drag, Lady Gaga’s songwriting displaces her from Madonna’s trajectory, which always aimed for a hedonistic utopian nexus between Warhol’s Studio 54 and Sondheim’s Broadway. So despite all that feels wrong about her initially, Lady Gaga is the logical successor to the American reconstruction of David Bowie.

Lady Gaga, Grammys performance

Lady Gaga, Grammys performance

While I entertain the perversion that Gaga and Barney are the Siegfried and Roy of desperately modish contemporary culture, Lady Gaga’s David Bowie Tribute for the 58th Annual Grammys was more pathetically Las Vegas than I could have imagined. It starts off with her in close-up, holding still while murmuring “Space Oddity” as facial-mapped animation is projected on her face. It’s as artful as an aisle in K-Mart selling Venetian masks. This is but one ‘hi-tech’ feature of her Intel-sponsored showcase.

Released online simultaneously is an embarrassing documentary showing the overwrought ‘creativity’ behind-the-scenes that resulted in the Grammys’ flaccid live televisual event. Following her Smartphone booth intro of ‘technology placement,’ Gaga the performer bursts forth with a 20-piece show band. What follows is a frenetic overture compacting eight Bowie hits into undifferentiated musical drivel: “Changes,” “Ziggy,” “Suffragette City,” “Rebel, Rebel,” “Fashion,” “Fame,” “Let’s Dance,” “Heroes.” Even though the band boasts Nile Rogers, it’s on par with the Paul Shaffer Band from Letterman’s Tonight Show. For six minutes, we hear nothing but predictably professional playing and alarmingly anaemic arrangements. The sound is numbing, typical of contemporary instruments, amps and FX being corralled into a thin, amplified reality. The implicit ideology behind this televisual aesthetic desires to counter ‘studio trickery’ with the direct sound of ‘real players’ with ‘real instruments.’ It always sounds lame and insipid, by attempting to suppress the aural transfiguration unleashed by the studio’s laboratory environment. This is why Stage sonically sucks: hearing all those unworldly anacoustic songs from Low, Heroes and The Lodger played by session musos through bad stage acoustics. David Live is the sound of Glam dying right before your ears. Weirdly, Intel’s sponsorship attempted to claim the opposite. The ridiculous robotic piano stand (about as thrilling as watching the robot Twiki dance from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century [1980]), and the downright stupid Curie Ring™ (a glorified Bluetooth mouse which generated facile trail-graphics on screens behind the singer) were meant to unleash unimaginable creativity. Gaga’s frenetic, flailing live performance perfectly captured this contradiction, because its live sound reinforced the obvious: David Bowie is dead.

Lady Gaga, Grammys performance

Lady Gaga, Grammys performance

Lady Gaga, David Bowie Tribute, 58th Annual Grammys, 2016

RealTime issue #132 April-May 2016, web

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

EXIT (2008-2015) installation view. Collection Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris © Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Mark Hansen, Laura Kurgan and Ben Rubin,in collaboration with Robert Gerard Pietrusko and Stewart Smith

EXIT (2008-2015) installation view. Collection Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris © Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Mark Hansen, Laura Kurgan and Ben Rubin,in collaboration with Robert Gerard Pietrusko and Stewart Smith

EXIT (2008-2015) installation view. Collection Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris © Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Mark Hansen, Laura Kurgan and Ben Rubin,in collaboration with Robert Gerard Pietrusko and Stewart Smith

Paris, France. The Palais de Tokyo—an ostentatious ground zero for Contemporary Art. You enter a darkened circular room, about five metres in diameter. No seats, so you plonk yourself down on the black carpet. A loud sub-harmonic drone will continue for 45 minutes while you move your head around to watch a 360º computer animation, continually evolving from left to right, projected from a metre off the floor rising up to a low ceiling. The animation is in six sections, each being a dramatic data-scape of global activity.

Time and again, the screen rolls out a wire-frame-style global map in what looks like the standard Gall Stereographic design. Reams of data stream across the inverted screenic cylinder in which you are interred. The point conjectured continually is that the fluxive state of the world’s territories is defined not by geography or even borders, but by the movement between those zones by migrants and refugees, be they welcomed, employed, displaced, terrorised, interred, settled or expelled. Their shifting presence is charted by a suite of markers manifesting their transient occupancy in those six sections: (i) Population Shifts: Cities; (ii) Remittances: Sending Money Home; (iii) Political Refugees and Forced Migration; (iv) Natural Catastrophes; (v) Rising Seas, Sinking Cities; (vi) Speechless and Deforestation.

Titled EXIT and based on quotes from Paul Virilio’s Stop Eject (2010), it’s a prestigious immersive data visualisation of the frightening momentum of transmigratory changes in ‘the world.’ The result is a mix of futurologist trend-casting, statistical white paper reporting to agitate government policy, theoretical discoursing on the rootless identity resulting from such flux and indeterminacy, and a good dose of Cold War-era spookery for those who get scared at just the mention of the word ‘future.’ Each of the animation’s six sections has been precisely mapped and motioned in accordance with data which has been statistically recorded, encoded, analysed, translated and extrapolated into the near future, utilising a variety of motion effects which literally remap a panoramic image of the global map.

The production itself is formidable, wrangling not only the data but the crew assembled for its materialisation: philosophical ‘urbanist’ Paul Virilio, artists/architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, architect-artist Laura Kurgan and statistician-artist Mark Hansen, plus additional input from even more scientists and geographers. EXIT’s six parts build upon the first four, initially exhibited as Stop Eject in 2008 at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. With its big concepts writ large, EXIT ultimately smacks of grandstanding, intimidation and the type of passive-aggressive address to which so much politically committed art succumbs despite its often laudable concerns. Reviewing the installation within a contemporary art space—and considering that so many of its producers insist on hyphenating their role with the word ‘artist’—warrants an assessment of what art is occurring here if any, and why it can or cannot be detected.

EXIT (2008-2015) installation view. Collection Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris © Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Mark Hansen, Laura Kurgan and Ben Rubin,in collaboration with Robert Gerard Pietrusko and Stewart Smith

EXIT (2008-2015) installation view. Collection Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris © Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Mark Hansen, Laura Kurgan and Ben Rubin,in collaboration with Robert Gerard Pietrusko and Stewart Smith

EXIT (2008-2015) installation view. Collection Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris © Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Mark Hansen, Laura Kurgan and Ben Rubin,in collaboration with Robert Gerard Pietrusko and Stewart Smith

Feeling like a child seated in the dark at a high school hi-tech geoscience presentation, I am not at all impressed by the avalanches, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions of numbingly symbolic data which drive EXIT’s data simulation. Firstly, it plays the cheap trick that contemporary art continues to fall for due to its infatuation with being contemporary above all else: verifiable statistics are presented to determine outcomes in form, tone and visualisation, as if nothing is being ‘interpreted.’ The implication detourned through Foucault is that ‘the artist is dead’ and is now merely the conduit for passing along data researched from the world. This reality effect rarely escapes its own semiotic limitations. In EXIT’s dour anti-aesthetic visualisation, we get throbbing red for patches of burning forests (plus the sound of crackling); wavy numerical data for cities’ rising sea levels (plus the sound of glooping); national flags being eaten into for their currency being propped up by external exchanges (plus the sound of crumbling); and so on. It’s not much different from watching the news on TV.

Secondly, EXIT attempts a harshly ahistorical revision of centuries of artistic interpretation born of egocentric drive, by concocting an artsy take on McLuhan’s notions of mediation to present data ‘inartistically’ in order to let the facts speak for themselves. Its evocation of rollercoaster New York Stock Exchange data porn is as vulgar and delusional as U2 concert video banks. Plus its solitary bass drone is the work’s most tacky manipulation, using the same spook-fx of PlayStation shoot-em-ups, Hollywood dystopian sci-fi and ominous theatre sound design for international arts festivals. Here, symbolically, it bluntly declares the absence of music in the work to be the reality of our dehumanising world. Peddling ‘hard’ statistics in an art context—while claiming to be creating art like some newborn Duchamp—borders on insulting in the way the art hides behind statistics for fear of being rejected on purely personal, emotional, persuasive and anxious grounds.

The salient issue here is EXIT’s data visualisation implicitly escaping visual linguistics and semiotics. Undoubtedly, the hyper-vector fx-atomisation meta-algorithmic software for digital effects of today achieves its reality effect not via artist manipulation of renderable veneers, but by sheer complexity of pixel actioning and motioning which can be programmed to behave according to physical properties, modulations and simulations. However, this face-off between computer simulation and data visualisation unexpectedly echoes 19th century debates. Back then, the arguments were over Academic art (think Bouguereau, Cabanel, Makart, Gerôme) which strove to perfectly render and replicate the ideal essence of form, and Realist art (think Goya, Courbet, Millet, Corinth) which opposed art looking at its own techniques and surfaces rather than acknowledging the outside world and forging a way to depict its actuality. Paris is full of amazing museum collections which include both these politicised arguments in image-making. Hindsight allows one to be less fierce with judgement: Academic art is full of allusions to critical textuality and medium-based problematics, while Realist art can be utterly pompous and deluded in its grasp of the real.

Hindsight is absent in EXIT: it has its eyes fixed so firmly on a frightful future its persuasive data-visualisation borders on a digital recoding of Stalinist social realism. Paul Virilio is undoubtedly eloquent with his long-standing notions of speed being a material which shapes contemporary life, and is now angsting (just like Courbet et al) over how he can best represent the world outside as it flashes by. But like politicians painting landscapes on Sunday afternoons, EXIT is as audiovisually engaging as an Excel spreadsheet. Before entering the darkened 19th century panopticon-cum-zoetrope theatre to be regaled by the statistical apparitions of EXIT, one views a short vertical flat-screen film of Virilio (dressed, like all male intellectuals, as if they’re going fly-fishing somewhere in nature) walking along a cobble-stone boardwalk next to some idyllic Mediterranean seascape, waxing lyrical about crises, citizens, nomads, sedentaires, geopolitics and ultracities. As I listened to his ambling feet on pavement stones next to lapping waves, a phrase from another era came to mind: “Sous les paves, la plage!” (“Under the stones, the beach!”) Rethinking May ‘68 here with EXIT, I wondered how much he and the EXIT team thought about the very ground under their feet.

EXIT (2008-2015) installation view. Collection Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris © Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Mark Hansen, Laura Kurgan and Ben Rubin,in collaboration with Robert Gerard Pietrusko and Stewart Smith

EXIT (2008-2015) installation view. Collection Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris © Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Mark Hansen, Laura Kurgan and Ben Rubin,in collaboration with Robert Gerard Pietrusko and Stewart Smith

EXIT (2008-2015) installation view. Collection Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris © Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Mark Hansen, Laura Kurgan and Ben Rubin,in collaboration with Robert Gerard Pietrusko and Stewart Smith

EXIT, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France, 25 Nov 2015-10 Jan 2016

EXIT was timed to correspond with COP21, the United Nations Conference on Climate Change. See also Sumugan Sivanesan’s vivid report on the Paris Climate Games and Minneapolis-based Northern Lights’ survey of exhibitions, installations and video works in ARTCOP21.

RealTime issue #131 Feb-March 2016

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Striped bodysuit for ‘Aladdin Sane’ tour, 1973. Design by Kansai Yamamoto.

Striped bodysuit for ‘Aladdin Sane’ tour, 1973. Design by Kansai Yamamoto.

Striped bodysuit for ‘Aladdin Sane’ tour, 1973. Design by Kansai Yamamoto.

Babies, drunks and grandpas all know that David Bowie flirted with the image of sex, toyed with the image of avant-gardism and flaunted the image of mask-making. And sloths, slugs and doorknobs know that the promotion of imagery within music has remained a contentious issue ever since 18th century aesthetes worked hard to ingrain the Neo-Classical ideal that each art form should be pure unto itself and seek to attain its own ontological plateau of perfection. The 2013 Victoria & Albert Museum touring exhibition assembled from David Bowie’s Archive—pretentiously titled David Bowie Is—presents its findings as if Bowie invented the cultural brazing of sound and vision.

The exhibition charts how Bowie intuitively cross-hatched theatrical bricolage with persona politics and continued to ‘revolutionise’ mediarised music production across four decades. Maybe he did. But Bowie—the slut of the sonic, the tart of the textual—ripped into popular music by ripping off the late 60s vintage mania of second-hand clothing emporium styles which bloomed from Haight-Ashbury to Carnaby Street. Well before the cut-ups of Gautier/Goude, Westwood/McLaren and Bowie/Burretti, you had Jimi Hendrix looking like an Afrocentric culture-clash torn from a Napoleonic oil painting; Janis Joplin looking like a Texan bar maiden mashed up with a desert-distressed Art Nouveau poster for Absinthe. Bowie levered himself from the gauche posturing of 60s transhistorical image-mining wherein heroic rock icons were self-constructed by looking as much into their mirrors as at their audience.

You wouldn’t know this from surveying the mothballing multi-media catwalk of David Bowie Is. The through-line has been so thoroughly self-determined that most visitors feel happy to be corralled by the fawning narrative and its eponymous creator’s prescience. But let’s scrutinise this thin white historical thread between Bowie’s imagineered past and our mediarised present: I for one think Bowie should be prosecuted if his flagrant manipulation of ‘image’ begat the likes of Björk, Beck, Lady Gaga, Bonnie Prince Billy, Amy Winehouse, Marilyn Manson, Lana Del Rey and Nick Cave. Counter to their salacious embrace of artifice, the arch meaningfulness of those artists synchs more to Bowie’s dilettantish works than to his sporadic inspired works. Yes, it’s great to still be stung by the spine-tingling inappropriateness and halted eroticism of the alien visages of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Thomas Jerome Newton et al, but there’d been a far greater proportion of pale zeitgeist surfing in Bowie’s career.

As a teen fan of a near ridiculously high order, I have long noted Bowie’s contorted flips between crazed insight and embarrassing output. Standing in the rain eight rows back from the front at the infamous MCG concert of 1979 in Melbourne, I distinctly remember thinking by the third song that everything about the event was unexciting and weirdly insignificant—from his lame fisherman’s pants to the rank arrangements circa Stage (1978) to a god awful PA system only a footballer would appreciate. More, I was struck by the yawning gulf between Bowie’s ‘sound and vision’ and the ugly reality of how it was broadcast, staged, reported, rendered and transmitted. This was reverse Warholian logic, wherein Bowie’s audiovision—the image of music he fabricated and the melange of sonic styles he orchestrated—fully lived up to the empty stylishness of his gestural actions. Warhol transformed the abject banal into hyper art; Bowie often reversed the flow.

David Bowie Is notably gained access to the David Bowie Archive, but it feels like the V&A marketing department has shaped the exhibition more than its curators. What we get is: (i) a belaboured audio narrative forging a didactic trail; (ii) an over-designed theatrical presentation of artefacts; and (iii) a cynical and superfluous bombardment of TV screens. Yes, I get it: Bowie is image. Yet while the exhibition presents an amazing array of original costumes (those by Burretti and Yamamoto are stunning), it tarts them up as ‘image’ rather than ‘object.’ Some are stashed six metres up behind faux-telescreen grating and flashing ‘concert’ lights. Meanwhile, the exhibition’s hefty catalogue contains sumptuous pristine photos of all the key costumes on display; the book makes them look more actual than the exhibition.

David Bowie Is critically ignores the chance to materialise the fabric of Bowie’s key transformative stage personae, and to give physical museographic presence to Bowie’s costumery which has become so dematerialised, photocopied and hyper-imaged as to become nullified and tokenistic. While the exhibition adopts the uniquely British rhetoric of The Independent Group who inaugurated pop-as-culture in post-war Britain back in 1956 with their ground-breaking exhibition of Pop Art, This Is Tomorrow, it falls into the 19th century pit of artist-as-myth. Treating Bowie this way now does no service to anyone but bourgeois journalists and media teachers.

Bowie thought he was channelling Warhol, Burroughs, Dali, Duchamp, Schiele and Wilde, but he came nowhere near them in terms of concept, execution and innovation. David Bowie Is believes he was all those figures combined—without admitting to the delusional drug-laced phantasms conjured by Bowie between 1971 and 1978, which historically and culturally frame his brethren. The exhibition might have taken a leaf from Mick Rock’s iconic photos in the revealing hardback tome Moonage Daydream (2002). His stupendous archive proves that the amazing polysexual trans-alien pseudomorphic looks of Bowie start with the Haddon Hall red spiky cut of 1971 and peak with that look’s gaudy atrophy by the time of the Diamond Dogs publicity shots of 1974.

More importantly, the Moonage Daydream images are trailed by a ruminating text by Bowie, who was recorded looking through Mick Rock’s archive. His casual reminiscences were transcribed and edited into a running commentary. It’s a weird text: an oral account of Bowie looking into the mirrors of his past. (Numerous times this text is footnoted in the exhibition catalogue.) Yet not once does Bowie provide any interesting critical context for his self images: quite the opposite, he seems gripped by Wildean self-loathing. David Bowie Is silences that flippant voice, and instead broadcasts a hagiographic construction of Bowie on par with his own messianic concoctions.

Back in 2002 when Moonage Daydream was released, Glam Rock was derided, not lauded. Bowie’s mind was elsewhere: in 1998, he had launched BowieNet. A subscription-based fan-exploiting start-up venture, it was far more embarrassing than Glam’s glitter, with Kai Power Tools and insipid information-commodity-speak peppering its copy. It came one year after the outrageous stunt wrought by ‘rock and roll investment broker’ David Pullman who in 1997 marketed Bowie celebrity bonds, by securitising an artist’s royalties to enable said artist to self-fund future projects across the forthcoming decade.

David Bowie Is markets itself as if everything is grounded in the Ziggy/Aladdin/Diamond era Mick Rock fortuitously documented, but attempts to stretch that innovative sound and vision too far. Ultimately, the exhibition is a museographic version of the now defunct Bowie Bonds. As such, it sits well in the new millennial climate of atomised rock and pop culture. From Target launching Keanan Duffty’s bland range of post-Glam Bowie-inspired clothes (2007) to the Aladdin Sane face gracing a Brixton 10 Pound note (2011; a legal community currency), David Bowie really is all that too.

David Bowie Is. ACMI, Melbourne, 16 July-1 Nov

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 28

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Classical music isn’t dead: it’s just riddled with the corpses of its former self. Not rotting ones, but made-up, dressed-up, done-up ones. Classical music is marketed by coroners, morticians and grave-diggers. This results in a deluge of memorial portraiture: dead bodies posed to appear alive. You know the images: from young ensembles all dressed in 80s Soho black to ecstatic youthful faces caught mid-flight while Adobe After Effects particle plug-ins trail their body into succulent sweeps of confetti, flowers or strawberries. The marketing machines of classical music think this is humanist, sensual, alive. It’s not. It’s dehumanising, fetid, dead. Indeed, classical music’s self-visualisation is far more necrotic than hi-image Nu/Death Metal bands from California caked in shopping mall Halloween face paint.

Classical music has ended up being the one-stop-shop for assessing how image is employed to extend music’s life beyond its use-by date. Most other forms of music accept their death or revivals graciously (despite the current vogue of 90s bands reforming/re-performing their first ‘classic’ album for curated festivals). Conversely, classical music—assuming that its historical legacy exempts it from all industrial manipulation—is the only form of music that believes its own hype: that if it were not to exist, civilisation as we know it would cave in to the music industry’s ruthless neo-liberal dominance.

While one might begrudgingly accept how classical music markets itself globally in an attempt to justify state spending on promotion for state-funded orchestras and operas, there’s an implied acceptance of how classical music needs to exist beyond marketplace pressures. It’s a weak stance when viewed from either contemporary critical trenches or neo-liberal capitalist citadels. Now while it’s ridiculously easy to attack classical music—and thereby negate out-of-hand its canon, its myriad histories, its experimental markers, its interiorised complexity, its phenomenal allure—it takes greater precision to separate its musicological lineage from its contemporary and transitional logistics in presentation. In other words, attacks on classical music can be deserved when levelled not at its argument to ensure its livelihood (surely all musical forms have that right), but at the mediarised methods it employs to fabricate how unthreatened its livelihood could be at this present moment.

2Cellos’ video clip for their version of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck (2014) is a good place to aim a few fortississimo punches. They’re a Croatian-born UK-trained Sony-signed YouTube-hyped Wikipedia-biog-ed management-controlled cello duo in their late-20s. With all the panache of the most boring marketing firm in the universe thinking they’ve come up with a stunningly original idea, 2Cellos appear on a Viennese stage of the Baroque era, appropriately attired and musically correct. They commence playing a mashup of Bach and Vivaldi finger exercises which devolves into the infamous Thunderstruck double-beat fretwork of Angus Young’s signature one-hand presto-paradiddling. One cello carries this like a busker with a loop pedal; then they each overlay both Thunderstruck’s coal-miner wordless chant and power chord patterning. Old farts in the audience have their brocaded collars ruffled as they attempt to stop their young children from being aroused by this devilish music (duh); the piece finishes with a stunned audience à la Mel Brooks’ Broadway bomb in Springtime For Hitler (1968) (double duh). The subtle message: young guys playing classical music aren’t as stuffy/nerdy/pretentious/whatever as you thought they were.

The ‘subtlety’ commenced two years earlier, in a video for their cover of AC/DC’s Highway To Hell (2012), with 2Cellos stumbling into New Jersey’s famous Guitar Centre where Steve Vai is doing an in-store signing. The cellists head for the back room and start playing cellos loudly through amps; the ‘kids’ leave Vai and start ‘rocking out’ to the cellists. Then 2Cellos welcome Vai to overlay his branded guitar falsetto atop their pummelling acoustic-rasping cello chords. The video features an audience of about 50 culled from rent-a-youth. Once the track gets really rocking, it devolves into that icky trope of male producers directing young dumb women to unconvincingly shimmy and slink around as if they’re ready to fuck because the music is getting them hot. Of course it isn’t—these women look more like they’re ordering soy lattes than ‘getting hot’—but that’s the wet-dream of marketing executives who likely suffer erectile dysfunction.

In 2Cellos’ video for their cover of Avicii’s oompah-rave-folk-anthem Wake Me Up (2015), their life literally flashes before our eyes as they appear as rambunctious kids, groovy studs at tacky Geordie Shore clubs and an old peoples’ home replete with a Benny Hill-style nurse. Throughout, their pithy faux-folksy gypsy cello thumping and bowing gets people hot and excited (especially those bimbo clubbers). Wow. Classical music is both sexy and timeless—like a baroque Viagra.

Should I be offended by yet another cynical exploitation of youth’s collective vitality, social inhibition and libidinous expression? Not really, because that’s what all advertising and marketing has been doing since Baby Boomer executives televisually fondled their inner boy in the 80s, creating multiple waves thereafter to relive their lost youth through modes of puppeteering teens and imagineering tweens. This imaging of classical music, then, is just as cynically focused not merely on how to update an outdated musical culture, but on how to represent it according to the current codes of youth exploitation. The narratives of the 2Cellos videos thus perform retrograde ejaculation: the erotic ebullience of both the music and its image is imperceptible. Their riot isn’t going on, there is no revolution to be televised and no-one is seeing the future of rock ‘n’ roll. (Please, 2Cellos, don’t do a video rebooting Young Einstein.)

People say I’m cynical, but could anything be more cynical than these flagrant and flamboyant admissions of audiovisual self-cancellation? Like the invisible cum shot of retrograde ejaculation, they exemplify the desperation of today’s image climate, wherein images can boldly lie without any worry that their truth value will be exposed as fatuous. Does any serious aficionado of classical music really care about 2Cellos? And does anyone watching their YouTube clips on iPhones on public transport really care about classical music? And if no-one is at all interested in the simulated synergism of their marketing, why does it exist within the mediasphere?

Weirdly, music might win out in the end. 2Cellos’ Thunderstruck unwittingly (I presume, though one never knows) uncovers one of the amazing facets of AC/DC’s song writing. I term it AC/DC’s “modularity of cadence.” The brothers Young sculpt riffs and power chord sequences hewn from the western diatonic cadence: that monumental musical shifting from C major to G major and back again. It’s the ‘da-dah!’ of harmonic resolution instituted in the Baroque era; the musical equivalent of a gilded picture frame, a proclamation’s bold lettering, a tower’s turret—anything that states its obvious power by stating that obviously it has power without needing to state it. Thunderstruck’s middle section of final halted power chords forms a symphonic coda of cadences which—in true Baroque logic—define AC/DC as rock that simultaneously empties itself of everything and builds itself into a monument to that exquisite emptiness. In AC/DC’s aging sonorum, it’s dead but alive: the polar opposite of classical music as delivered by the blooming likes of 2Cellos.

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 19

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

The Tribe

The Tribe

For most people, silence happens when they become conscious of an absence of sound. This doesn’t mean that they have experienced ‘something’ (the presence of silence), but that they have experienced a ‘nothing’ (the absence of sound). Since John Cage’s famous anechoic chamber experiment in the late 1940s, the idea of magically having been born into aural consciousness through a moment of silencing, being silenced or confronted by silence has become a trope of expanded awareness.

A bevy of artistic projects extolling the revelatory powers of silence carry this legacy like sodden baggage, all joined in celebrating the marvellous things that can happen through being aware of the interrelationships between the sonic and the silent. Does Myroslav Slaboshpytsky’s unsubtitled film The Tribe (2014) featuring a group of deaf non-actors perform similarly? Yes—but let’s unpack its aural baggage regardless.

In many respects, The Tribe deserves its accolades. Like so many millennial-crossover neo-globalist critical movies, it is aimed squarely at a film festival context both to impart its message and lever a globalist power position. This is the realm where films defiantly retain regional dress (The Tribe is set in contemporary Ukraine, sited in a dilapidated boarding school for the deaf and the corruptive goings-on in its dormitories after hours) while imparting universalising positivist ideologies (its bleak portrayal of abuse embedded in the school’s educational and social regime is positioned to ‘ring bells’ in nations globally).

Millennial-crossover internationalist film festival cinema revels in the theatrics and hysterics of Dogme-style films bent on brutalising audiences to achieve prescriptive reality effects. The Tribe might have no subtitles and no voicing, but its artistic voice is vociferous in its channelling of ‘brutal’ auteurs like Lukas Moodysson, Vitaly Kanevski, Gasper Noe, Philippe Grandrieux, Michael Haneke, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne et al. Accordingly, it plays out like a pantomime not of the deaf and their tragic circumstances, but of a director and his heroic logistics in staging long Steadicam-shots with a surfeit of choreographed action mostly using available light to label its cinematised results as Art Cinema.

While I could discuss how Miklos Jancso more elegantly deployed choreographed performers and camera tracks to construct metaphoric circles around his silenced/unspeaking actors and performers, I wonder how seriously The Tribe invests in the values and effects of silence. Though the film fascinates with the documentarian-dance of its non-actors whose physical tussling sometimes produces dramatic sparks, its base impulse in storytelling is anthropological. Even though its English title bears this out in contradistinction to the Ukraine title Plemya (meaning breed, race, stock—all with derivations from fire, source, origin), the film eventually resembles a rage therapy workshop conducted for disaffected teens. In this sense, vetoing the audience’s access to dialogue appears designed to symbolise both youth’s deliberation to not speak when spoken to and respectable society’s inability to listen to youth’s symbolic cries for help through destructive and self-destructive acts (numerous of which are catalogued throughout The Tribe).

But what precisely are the material effects of discounting an audience’s comprehension of dialogue in a narrative film? While The Tribe has been championed for its boldly supportive conceit in refusing to subtitle the characters’ sign language, I remain surprised as to how much was conveyed nonetheless by the performers and their direction. For while the cast comprises mostly non-actors, any serious actor would thrill at being handed the task of communicating without language (a thrill especially evident in the Dardennes’ Rosetta, 1999, Haneke’s Time Of The Wolf, 2003, and Grandrieux’s The Lake, 2008). Furthermore, bad acting is mostly signalled by poor, inept or ineffectual vocal delivery. The voice is an actor’s instrument: powerful when performed with masterly control, insipid when its power is ungrasped or unperceived by the performer. ‘Silencing’ an actor often uncannily imparts performative power.

Interestingly, The Tribe’s soundtrack allows us to hear the voices of the deaf. Their soft growling, hoarse rasping, breathy expulsions score their dramatic exchanges. It’s like porn, but (mostly) without the sex and the dialogue. Mixed with this is their bodily slapping, rubbing, grabbing, pushing. Normally, film dialogue recording attempts to minimise this noisy presence as it interferes with dialogue comprehension, but deaf people—not having recourse to audible directives—must tap, hit or thump someone in order to grab their attention. When an argument ensues—arguments being the primary mode of exchange between the school’s enrolees—there’s a lot of fabric-rustling and limb-slapping. A deeper aural symbolic becomes apparent as the film progresses: the deaf sound their world through percussive means, not through harmonic or tonal means. From their continual arguments, stair-trudging, van door-slamming, physical beating, wood shop working and apartment ransacking, they produce sound through violent sonic means. This has deadly repercussions, literally for newcomer Serge, who eventually murders using the blunt percussive instruments of a wooden hammer he made in the workshop and the wooden furniture of the unwelcoming dorm rooms.

But maybe The Tribe is evidencing the paucity of interpersonal communication and the debilitation wrought by social determinism irrespective of whether one is afflicted with deafness or simply unable to read the signs of the new world. The only time we see signs of education is in Serge’s first class early in the film. Tellingly, the teacher discusses the formation of the European Economic Community (the blue square with its twelve stars silently sits at the top right of the frame). For Russia and Ukraine, the EEC—especially since its absorption of the European Community in 2009—constructs a kind of ‘freeze war’ blanketing Eastern Europe, the Baltic States and the former Soviet Union. This is never mentioned again; the only sign of economic enterprise outside of the deaf school is the phalanx of semi-trailer trucks serviced by the deaf girl prostitutes late at night. Symbolically, the trucks transport goods and values neither glimpsed nor enjoyed by the students at the school. The deaf are thus symbols of isolationism and exclusionism as well as ostracism.

But deafness can profoundly exist beyond the determining symbolism of films like The Tribe. In November 2013, The Junior Eurovision Song Contest took place in Kiev, Ukraine. Ukraine’s own entry was “We Are One,” performed by Sofia Tarasova. The travelogue images projected onto HD multi-screen panoramas on the event’s stage showed a Ukraine quite unlike that depicted in The Tribe. As the youth of Europe sang on stage, outside the Euromaiden protests accumulated into divisive and violent foment, as Ukraine became divided on its future alignment with either the EC or the Russian Federation. Watching The 2013 Junior Eurovision Song Contest on SBS-TV in late 2014, I truly felt deaf.

The Tribe, director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, 132 mins, Ukraine, 2014

RealTime issue #128 Aug-Sept 2015 pg. 27

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Re’Search Wait’S

Re’Search Wait’S

Too fast, too much, too messy, too everything. The suite of four videos that comprise Ryan Trecartin’s Re’Search Wait’S (2009-10) certainly ticks the boxes of video overload, aural saturation, performative freneticism, hyper-banality, lo-res assault. Riffing on Trecartin’s ‘unmonumental’/post-mashup/post-Internet take on Video Art, the extant writing on its screenic/headphonic pixel-partying mostly misses the materiality of his audiovisuality and the specificity of its televisual lineage. For despite whatever convoluted interior narrative logic they propose or whatever uber-zeitgeist-dystopia can be extracted from their artistic construction, his works are mostly about one thing: being fucked-up.

This state is primarily determined by the relentless clash between performers embodying characters, figures, memes, beings, glyphs and emoticons and how their embodiment evidences an integral dislocation between a person and the life and work they lead. Across Re’Search Wait’S’s parade of wannabe-art-stars, lank-office-schmos, acid-pixie-bitches and tween-porno-queens, one senses a distinctive mode of theatricality—like Brecht on angel-dusted helium. I don’t need to read this or perceive it because I’m being told it non-stop (across nearly two hours as I take in all four videos in their entirety).

Despite Re’Search Wait’S visual bombast, its soundtrack highlights this performative schism. Featuring roomy dialogue caught solely by in-camera microphones and pitch-shifted in post-production, it streams Chipmunked phraseology adopted within crappy pseudo-corporate workplaces, shitty rented apartments and roaming interzones where friends therapeutically bitch and gripe. Each of these zones in reality is neurotically fortified by its insular argot and semantics, the mastering of which grants power to one intent on commandeering its terrain. The diarrhoeic speech delivered by Trecartin and others in multiple roles portrays them as masters of this language. But the adherence to each zone’s linguistic logic also entails one’s disenfranchisement within such a fabricated system governed by cynical exploitation: people prove how fucked-up they are by laying the greatest claims to not being so.

Yet Re’Search Wait’S embraces the hysterical unfit between the self and its socialisation, here expressed by the tyrannical voice-track which dictates all the fragmented responses, engagements and altercations acted out and up by its self-immolating cast. In this sense, Ryan Trecartin is listening to not only what people say, but how what they say about themselves likely contradicts any sense of self identity. This type of linguistic disjuncture is an inevitable staple of Web 2.0, because once so many people start talking/filing/sharing/commenting/linking on any topic, their speech will approach the event horizon of lifting off from its societal plane and floating into a meta-speech realm detached from its originating communicative impulse. Thus a ‘meme-onic’ wordscape floats like a data field and virtually downloads itself into the ‘real world’ of your office, your flat, your favourite bar, your mind. Disjuncture then becomes a mode of synchronisation—that is, of speaking in ways that invent a cleft yet bipartisan state where two people communicate via noise, interference, overload and multiplicity. Similar to Web 2.0’s deliberated collapses of communication, Re’Search Wait’S characters are full of lens-centric monologues. Neither interior not exterior, they are directed to the same void that a billion loser vloggers believe is their other half: a phantom corpus engineered by vapid comments which the vlogger takes personally.

The secondary level of Re’Search Wait’S’ attraction to being fucked-up is ontologically encoded in the videos. Departing from High Modernism’s extolment of destructive acts, Trecartin’s auteurship is built from the prefab tagging of creativity which all software promises its users. Drolly pretending to believe this hype (itself a theatrical stance inherited from Warhol through to Corey Arcangel), iMovie vfx-editing and Frooty Loops audio-tracking is employed to the point of self-destruction.

Re’Search Wait’S

Re’Search Wait’S

And while this enables a reading through Pop Art strategies, I’m more reminded of Pop music’s own celebration of this wilful and perverse destruction. For the recurring gesture of smashing stuff up that frequently appears in Re’Search Wait’S is fucked-up teen 101. Its formative televisual moment originates in early music videos like Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Going To Take It” (1984) and The Beastie Boys “Fight For Your Right To Party” (1988): their performers pathetically destroy cheap sets. This impulse synchs to a substream of music videos, stretching from The Prodigy’s POV meltdown “Smack My Bitch Up” (1997) to Andrew W.K.’s bloodied “Party Hard” (2001) to Ke$ha’s morning-after “TiK ToK” (2009) to Die Antwoord’s “Baby’s On Fire” (2012)—even to Miley Cyrus’ vainglorious “Wrecking Ball” (2013). In cinema, it’s lauded in Greg Araki’s Totally Fucked Up (1993), Larry Clark’s Kids (1995) and Bully (2001), Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997) and Trash Humpers (2009), Jason Kahn’s Detention (2011) and Todd Phillips’ Hangover trilogy (2009, 2011, 2013). While contemporary art continues to become bogged down in its graduate course PowerPoints on globalism and artistic responsibilities, Re’Search Wait’S aligns itself with this distinctive televisual music history of fake histrionics and destructive theatrics.

Running parallel to being fucked-up is Re’Search Wait’S’ fixation on the manifold methods of curing those who are fucked-up. And maybe these characters—like the various ‘consultants,’ ‘stylists’ and ‘freelance advisors’ who are forever imparting advice in the four videos—are the most fucked-up. They speak half a century of American psycho-babble and self-help hucksterism. (Even Andrew W.K turned to ‘motivational speaking’ in 2005, imparting a keynote in 2014 titled “Andrew W.K. and The Philosophy of Partying.”) Possibly the clearest art-line thrown here is to Paul Morrissey’s Flesh (1968), Trash (1970), Women In Revolt (1971) and Heat (1972), whose Warhol superstars Joe Dellasandro, Holly Woodlawn, Andrea Feldman, Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling beautifully portray fucked-up characters all the while mouthing self-help diatribes. Trecartin’s characters are a meld of those superstars, and the nobodies embroiled in staged moralistic interventions who willingly appeared on early 90s tabloid talk shows like Jenny Jones, Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake (the latter of course an original actress in four films by John Waters—himself an astute aficionado of the fucked-up).

Again, it’s the maniacal pitch-altered, time-compressed, data-corrupted cam-crap which dumps this loquacious assuagement directly in one’s claustrophobic headspace via headphones (the means for auditing all these works in their installation format). This intensifies the presence of the spoken, accenting its ceaseless drooling and dribbling and its breathless drive to forestall silence and the dead air of calm reflection. While the connections to the 90s phenomena of AutoTune pop hits and underground dance sub-genres like Gabba and Happy Hardcore are apparent in these Gerbil/Chipmunk voicings, I’m reminded of earlier canny grapplings with consumerist newspeak and voice manipulation in records like Moon Unit Zappa’s “Valley Girl” (1982) and Will Powers’ “Adventures In Success” (1983). The former mimicked the advent of the San Fernando Valley’s mall-bitch intonations; the latter down-pitched Lynne Goldsmith’s voice to affect a camp male new-age guru. These days, such gabble echoes through Michael Alig’s early 90s Party Kids doing the tabloid talk show circuit, to VHS self-improvement web archive Everything Is Terrible! (since 2007), to AOL’s ‘digital prophet’ David Shing giving TED talks in 2014. Re’Search Wait’S talks the same talk.

Ryan Trecartin, Re’Search Wait’S (2009-10), NGV International, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 15 May-13 Sep

RealTime issue #127 June-July 2015 pg. 18-19

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice

Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice

Quite early in PT Anderson’s Inherent Vice, we hear Jonny Greenwood’s theme “Shasta.” Standard musical portraiture in the film—but what a slithering, sonorous mystery this theme is. Imagine Olivier Messiaen’s symphonic swathes (like a French forest lifted up and floating in the clouds) reinterpreted by Nelson Riddle’s teasing velvet string arrangements for sono-erotic voices like Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland.

Clarinet, oboe and cor anglais outline the corporeal form of Shasta (rendered ghostly flesh by Katherine Waterston), then melt into her insouciant presence. It sounds like she’s coming in and out of focus. And that’s what she does throughout the film. She’s neither here nor there; neither telling the truth nor lying; neither sad from having loved Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) nor yearning to start afresh with him. “Shasta” inaugurates Inherent Vice’s score as a mirage.

The grandiose “The Chryskylodon Institute” unfurls when Doc follows a lead to a privately funded post-hippy loony-bin. Think Bernard Herrmann meeting Philip Glass by way of Jon Brion’s Magnolia score (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999): loping, patterned overlays, serially generating harmonic moiré effects as sections lock into a gridlocked waltz-stanza. It’s partially pastoral—evoking the fluidly expanded spatial domain of the eponymous institute—but it also reflects how Doc navigates the institute’s hall of mirrors. It’s an inhabited pastorale. The score swells while location sound recedes. Then, plucked bottom-end strings (echoing Herrmann’s ominous ECG death-gulps from Psycho’s 1960 score when Janet Leigh expires in the shower) start to corrode the tinkling Glass-like patterns, changing the waltz into a strange limping 4/4 riff. It mimics Doc walking, scuttling, then crawling and finally on his knees as he converses with a heavily medicated Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). The two drug-addled minds talk while the score disintegrates around them. It’s more avant-garde dance theatre than neo-noir pulp fiction.

“The Golden Fang” saunters in mid-ground as we approach the corporate citadel of The Golden Fang, led there by Doc who interprets a cryptic note in a postcard recently arrived from the invisible Shasta. In the middle of a commercial dime store strip wasteland stands the ludicrous architectural folly. Greenwood takes his cue from Les Baxter’s exotica arrangements (sketching violin passages then overlaying them with vibraphone and celeste). If the architecture looks like exotica in concrete and steel, investment dentist Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short channelling British TV’s Jason King) looks like Baxter’s number one fan. But gradually the track darkens, melting into a reworking of Bernard Herrmann’s sensorial dirges for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), where orchestration relates less to situation and description and more to the body and its presence. In place of Robert De Niro’s exhausted Vietnam vet wired by debilitating insomnia, we get the tuned-in dropped-out headspace of Doc. Bleached-out anxiety, slo-mo paranoia, now dusted with cocaine.

“Adrian Prussia” is the most Radiohead-like melodic construction in the score, replete with anxious string arrangements (all rasping, scratching, thumping) and a Zelig-like ghosting of their pulsations by an analogue synthesizer. Its dark couverture symbolises the morbid delight Adrian Prussia (a Putinesque Peter McRobbie) displays in administering vengeful violence, here likely to befall Doc. The synth is gradually over-amped, flicking wildly through multiple octaves, while the reverberation of the orchestral textures builds into an overbearing wall of sound. With its core motif and swelling momentum, it evokes a whirlpool growing in size, speed and intensity—the aural equivalent of the water-down-the-drain optical effect which was often superimposed in montage sequences at the peaks of delirium in classical film noir gumshoe tales. But unlike the quivering Romanticism of Miklos Roza, Elmer Bernstein or David Raksin, Greenwood’s theme is energised by an interiorised deconstruction of its own musical grammar. The Hollywood Romantic scorers could beautifully narrate or describe the bleak disposition of their entrapped anti-heroes, but only through analogous measures. “Adrian Prussia” sonically cannibalises its form to morph from Self to Other, from Hollywood to Burbank, from Monroe to Manson.

Greenwood delivers the most ‘indie combo’ track in the score late in the film. “Under The Paving Stones, The Beach!” occurs when we taste again the bittersweet yearning evoked by the oral ménage à trois of Shasta’s breathing, Doc’s exhaling and Sortilège’s (Joanna Newsom) liquefied crackling, as the latter’s voice-over stage-directs a rolling sunset review of the impressions Shasta has left on Doc’s mind. Cue that golden brown coastal ennui of silhouetted lovers. Shift focus and f-stop to capture that Kodak moment on the sand. The music sounds like Tortoise jamming on a disembodied surf ditty, here thickened with multiple bass lines and low guitar riffing. No chords, just muscular linework shaping the melodic counterparts. As the French student revolutionaries chanted “Sous les pavés, la plage!” when they tore up the paving stones to hurl at the May ’68 riot police, they romanticised this reality effect of ‘the street,’ aping Yves Klein’s Nouveau Réalisme in a detournment of Eugène Delacroix’s revolutionary history painting. But California’s 70s topography was radically different: fresh asphalt, widely dispersed, dripping into pools of developments like Channel View Estates’ arterial displacements funded by corrupt commerce. California’s youth ‘head’ culture was already at the beach, away from actual and symbolic barricades. Greenwood’s riffs have a slightly tragic air: Manhattan Beach has plenty of pizza, but no Latin Quarter.

Near the film’s denouement, we sink back into atonality. “Meeting Crocker Fenway” accompanies the queasy encounter between Doc and the story’s true puppet master, Crocker Fenway (Martin Donovan), father of teen runaway Japonica. It’s the classic Herrmannesque rhythms of breathing/sighing/exhaling—first done in Hitchcock’s Psycho, where the score is more neurological than musicological; more synaptic than symbolic. Greenwood’s appropriation of this approach colours the scene with a visceral tension. Everything becomes less literary and more bodily: the unflattering light on flesh; Doc’s pubic sideburns and dead-fish eyes; Fenway’s Nazi death-mask visage. Where is this scene going? Who is pulling whose strings? The music asks these questions. The ondes martenot (Messiaen’s favourite ethereal instrument) plays underneath a series of cello/viola/violin waves, effecting things going forward and backwards simultaneously. It ‘auralises’ the narrative’s lack of directionality. The instruments’ wavering envelopes connote a hovering stasis where space, distance and ground waver indistinctly, just like the perceptual haze through which Doc orients himself to LA’s vanishing point.

“Shasta Fay Hepworth”—a retake of “Shasta”—provides a non-committal coda to Inherent Vice, here subscribing to her full familial status rather than highlighting her mystical attraction in Doc’s life. It marks her return to his arms, and his to hers. Searing concerto violin arcs sparkle as they bond, melting her head into his shoulder, driving in an unspecified vehicle, at an unstated time, into a time and space nearer to us, but just as far from themselves. It might be daylight, but a car following them shines its lights onto Doc’s face, reflecting off his rearview mirror. Is it the morning beach or moonlight asphalt? The Bartok-like gypsy cry of orchestral heartache sounds like the disembodied music from an old Hollywood movie playing on a TV set out of reach. It ends sans harmonic resolution. Was it playing at all? Were they driving anywhere? Its beauty lies in how you read the score—not the novel.

Read part 2.

Inherent Vice, writer, director Paul Thomas Anderson, based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, music by Jonny Greenwood, cinematography Robert Elswit, editor Leslie Jones, 2014

RealTime issue #126 April-May 2015 pg. 19

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Throughout Inherent Vice, Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) strains to grapple with a convoluted plot typical of the quagmire which entraps the classic PI, pushing forward yet tethered to the black elasticised tar of his circumstance. But Doc is never perplexed by this. He arrives on the scene, ready for anything yet completely unprepared.

Can he read anything going on in any of these scenes he blithely enters? Can we read his face? No—but Can can. Can’s “Vitamin C” (from the 1972 LP Egg Bamyasi) cuts in, loud and upfront: an amazingly precise Krautrock motorik rewiring of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” (1969), with premonitional-Portishead falsetto Japlish by singer Damo Suzuki. German in origin, the track here is LA pastoral: it accompanies locations and architecture more than faces and action. Its studio architecsonics of crisp live instrumentation sonically draw up a plan of the brooding scenario at the trailer whorehouse in the middle of the skeletal Channel View Estates as if it’s scoring the space without acknowledging the characters within.

The music’s pulsating groove is thus all the things Doc senses but never eyeballs in detail. This is the opposite of the classic noir PI whose post-war asphalt terrain grounds the Chandleresque figure with a Sherlock Holmes intensity of observation. Doc stumbles and rummages. Can see the scene for what it is. It signposts how songs appear throughout Inherent Vice: they’re deliriously disconnected, palpably parallel—for that’s how Doc perceives things.

Despite its labyrinthine plot, the film maintains an eerily flat rhythm. It’s like watching five 70s TV cop shows at once (try Mannix, Adam-12, Colombo, Hawaii Five-O and Cannon) on downers. But read this anti-cinematic pro-televisual film closely and you’ll hear that its tonal shaping of drama is set-designed by the score and songs and their placement. The sound of the music is astoundingly sharp, irrespective of its vagaries or its spiky inappropriateness. The latter is exemplified by The Markett’s “Here Come The Ho-Dads” (1963). Played in toto, it too is essentially pastoral and environmental: it scapes as it sounds. Yet it also comments: it musicologically evidences the lack of societal synchronism of such radiophonic 60s dance-craze pop (the surfer’s stomp) with the Mansonesque 70s blood dawn (the hippie’s stab). One might ask why did the Manson Family do what they did, but one could equally ask why are The Marketts still being heard in South Bay while corporate celebs are being slaughtered like pigs in the Hollywood Hills?

The Marketts were produced by Joe Saraceno, producer of The Ventures: the archetypal instrumental garage/lounge-room teen combo who commandeered the US charts with their domestic lo-fi amateur rock’n’roll in 1960. Like The Ventures, The Marketts bear an innocent sound, like they’re playing in your living room rather than a studio. Charles Manson may have heard them on the radio over and again while he read the Bible and envisioned a suburban apocalypse. Inside Charlie’s head, “Here Come The Ho-Dads” would have been the sound of dumb rich white kids playing in their living rooms, ripe for slaughter. The song’s placement in the film marks a ‘socio-aural suppression’ of how larger socio-musical realities beyond the story’s scenography frame its incidents better than literate description.

Appropriately, Doc seems caught between these two social realms, of going with the radio flow of things, yet sensing the probability of darker wavelengths modulating reality. From his relationship with a pot-puffing assistant D to his doctor’s office at a small medical centre, to his ‘head’ appearance within the corridors of the LAPD, Doc doesn’t fit; nor does the music. The more one observes this, the more “Here Come The Ho-Dads” seems displaced. Its snare room reverb evokes a tangible space beyond the phonological realm of the otherwise normative stomp track. Even Saraceno and The Marketts could not help infusing their music with aural hieroglyphic encoding of an ‘otherness’ beyond its domain.

Another strange track placement—but so it should be, as it’s heard in Doc’s inexplicable reception area. We faintly hear Minnie Riperton’s “Les Fleur” (from the 1970 LP Come To My Garden). Doc’s ‘secretary’ Petunia Leeway (Maya Rudolph) behaves like a counter-agent, talking in cryptic code, seeming to pretend to be a secretary yet perfectly synched to Doc’s ‘profession’ as a pot-head PI. At first it sounds like office Muzak à la Jack Nitzsche’s BGM for Milos Foreman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). But “Les Fleur” has distant echoes of groovy Broadway 60s musicals. That’s because it’s produced by Charles Stepney, the Chicago producer who worked with Ramsey Lewis and Rotary Connection (Riperton’s first band) to develop an orchestral take on ‘psychedelic soul.’ It’s a black, sumptuous, sexy genre, tinged with spotlit pain and undulations of Gospel. It became hyper-Californian, blossoming in the power terrain the recording industry had attained nationally at this time, when regional voices of rock, pop, soul and funk were channelled through LA’s recording industry head offices. Stepney’s productions and arrangements are accordingly neither folk nor funk, fish nor fowl. Furthermore, the scene is genetic: Maya Rudolph is the actual daughter of Minnie Riperton and Charles Stepney. She bears the corporal DNA of the very sound we are hearing. By this stage, Inherent Vice’s soundtrack is emerging as the densest textual layer in the film.

Les Baxter’s “Simba” (from the 1956 LP Tamboo!) scores an outrageous party scene with Mrs. Wolfmann (Serena Scott Thomas with a fake facelift). It’s one of Baxter’s arch exotica tracks, plum-stuffed with corny Africanesque posturing. It sounds like Joseph Campbell in race-drag dancing an ‘expressive movement’ pantomime on a camp stage in the late 50s. Baxter’s orchestration is half-Nadia Boulanger, half-Walt Disney. His sounds are synchronised to West Coast 50s hipsterism, a kind of sunny beat existentialism before the 60s counter-culture took over the mental real estate of the newly instated youth culture. Amid the gaudy trappings of LA wealth, “Simba” echoes the Coens’ use of Yma Sumac’s “Atypura” (1950, co-written by Baxter) in The Big Lebowski (1998) at the similarly decadent beach party of pornographer Jackie Treehorn. Here, it’s all Martinis and Mai-Tais, Incan princesses and American wealth. Doc reads it as a decrepit time-warp, out-of-phase with social justice yet au courant with the bald exploitative machinations of petty commerce at the time.

The smooth whine of Neil Young floats in twice: first, “Harvest” (from the 1971 LP Harvest); second, “Journey From The Past” (a 1971 track unreleased until the 2009 CD box-set The Archives Vol.1). His voice and stoned, laconic farmhand instrumentation provide a reprieve from the hitherto eclecticism of the soundtrack. This shift to a naturalistic centre often occurs in American movies, when they wish to clear the smoke of artsy pretentions or worldly weightiness. The vernacular of the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter movement provided the template for this device. The applied ‘realism’ of such a practice mimes a sincerity of intent in the film’s narrative. It provides an assuring crutch in a movie, as if there’s something being resolved by a character, by their circumstance, or by the plumed line of a script contrivance. But in Inherent Vice such a moment is illusory—or more appropriately, a mirage in the Southern Californian desert. For while Doc might be half-thinking of some grounded mental or emotional state, he continues to randomly wander and blunder through his investigative duties. Again, he stands separate from the music which evidences his perspectives on things, himself and others. The song thus accrues a complex multi-voicing, despite how resolutely normal it sounds.

Finally, another ‘socio-aural suppression’: the absence of any songs by Joanna Newsom. For her embodied and disembodied voice flitters around the film’s amoebic periphery—crucially providing a Grecian-chorus-therapist voice-over narration in a floral reconstruction of the celebrated gravel of the film noir PI. Like the film’s multi-voicing song selection, her voice speaks in multiple tongues. It fuses a ranch-hand twang (bearing a distant sense of back home) with a surf-shack drawl (now acclimatised to coffee house brews and lounge room tokes), while retaining a pubescent timbral veneer. She sounds like Mimsi Farmer or Tuesday Weld at a beach party dropping a truth trip on you. And like those iconic figures from 60s groovy movies (Roger Corman’s The Trip [1967], Arthur Dreifus’ Riot On Sunset Strip [1967], Maury Dexter’s Mary Jane [1967], Russ Meyer’s Vixen! [1968], Richard Rush’s Psych-Out [1968], William Rotsler’s Mantis In Lace [1968], Robert Thom’s Angel Angel Down We Go [1969] etc), Newsom’s performance personifies those hip trip chicks who gravitated to the bright lights of LA and all its otherworldly charm. Newsom’s own music, of course, is the polar opposite: ornately cerebral, stylistically obtuse, harmonically herbivorous, rhetorically angelic. So is her singing voice opposite to her narrating voice. But most importantly, this creates a meta-voice for the film, conjuring an image but voicing its contra. In this sense, Newsom’s Sortilege is just like a Manson chick: middle-class refugee, prepped to be a bridesmaid, but readied as an agent of terror. She sings with her mouth shut, insinuating an invisible Otherness, just as the Manson chicks broke into well-off houses in LA late at night, creeping around for the hell of it. Their silence was their method. Inherent Vice hears it well.

Read part 1.

Inherent Vice, writer, director Paul Thomas Anderson, based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, music by Jonny Greenwood, cinematography Robert Elswit, editor Leslie Jones, 2014

RealTime issue #126 April-May 2015 pg. 20

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

World War Z

World War Z

Even though Columbia Pictures’ head Harry Cohn famously derided putting ‘messages’ into films (“If you want to send a message, use Western Union!”) Hollywood cinema has ended up the largest global producer of ‘messages.’ More promiscuous than an Amazon.com entry, they can take any form and be conservative or subversive, populist or messianic. They circle the world like FedExed Legionnaires disease, suggesting that their rampant distribution accounts for their globalist totalising effects.

But such media analyses are focused on the messenger, not the message, whose aura and make-up encode its fuller meanings. Most importantly, these ‘messages’ detach from their hosts to circulate in unfounded ways, often cross-fertilising with others completely out of context. Thus Hollywood films appear to be authored and voiced, but they’re oppositely generated, thereby requiring alliterate modes of reading.

In the case of Mark Foster’s World War Z (2013), a type of ‘semiotic listening’ is required to prise any message from the movie’s semantic din. In its most fascinating and confounding moment, a mass of Israelis and Palestinians gather at processing gates inside a humongous wall Israel has built to keep out a plague of infected ‘zombies.’ A young Palestinian woman grabs a microphone and starts singing through a low-fi PA system. Accompanied by non-stop feedback she sounds like a wounded mule. A young Israeli woman grabs another mic and joins in singing the unspecified untranslated song, which presumably has something to say about unification. Their inept carolling is smeared with whining sine waves and whelping whistles from the military-issue sound system. Yet this magically moves all the civilians of conflicting denominations to join in, generating a nauseous sonorum of campfire togetherness.

Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, World War Z

Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, World War Z

Is this deluded humanist cinema dreaming it’s outrageously optimistic? Or is this a cynical damnation of cinema that wishes for such a moment? Whenever actual noise is rendered on the film soundtrack—here embedding bad singing with bad audio—it signifies something occurring beyond legibility. Notably, beautiful wailing women’s voices are globalist clichés on current Hollywood film soundtracks. This scene’s impetus for terrorising its own soundtrack signposts a post-literate realm, where words alone and their utterance as message do not adequately explain the audiovisual scenario under scrutiny.

Before one can answer this conundrum, the feedback and its painful vocalisation hits the ears of the zombies outside, triggering them into extremist violence. Are these zombies symbolic of the torture endured by those who are annihilated by terrorism? Or are they terrorists enraged by the platitudes which suppress their logic of rage? And if on the other side—in that ‘Free World’ trapped by the gigantic CGI-transmogrified Wailing Wall of Jordan’s Temple Mount—Jews and Muslims sing a song of hugging devoid of Zionist and Islamic pressure, who and what exactly are the zombie Other, squealing in pain at their utopian wails? Columnists covering the Middle East (as well as writers for religiously aligned publications) have mostly thrown their hands up in despair over the confused messages delivered by World War Z, excited initially by a rare instance of Hollywood attempting to symbolise anything to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, yet perplexed by the lack of fixity or substance in the film’s ‘voice.’

Their lack of patience and perception is telling. As the ‘Free World’ searches for terrorist needles in Islamic haystacks, critiques of extremist fundamentalist strategies proceed as if everything should be in plain sight. Extremist attacks are deplored for their unjustifiable actions, yet their reasoning and logic might be as hidden as those haystack needles. The ‘Free World’ press chooses to employ humanist ethics and globalist morality to dismiss extremist rhetoric—the very same sentiments which form the bulk of ‘messages’ in Hollywood’s post-9/11 cinema. But in less democratic realms, a deadly butterfly effect is proffered: The Chinese state-run Global Times (an English-language publication) recently inferred that “what Western developed societies have gone through is payback, as it is their historical acts of slavery and colonialism which led to their current demographic structures.”

World War Z

World War Z

Meanwhile in World War Z, the traumatised zombies are reborn as an Other beyond Others. They become a rhyzomatic flood of flesh-entangled tentacles, pouring like a unified mass toward the wall which keeps them at bay. Like decrepit corporeal treacle moving according to an upturned gravity, they shoot skywards in a spiralling tornado of rotting flesh. If terrorists are indeed cells, then this is their hive uncovered. It’s an explosion of bodies driven by collective force, blindly forging ahead against all obstruction. They do not need to see anything: their senses are aligned by something beyond the sensible, the literate, the perceivable. They vibrate like sound waves, responding to the force of being struck, agitated into a deadly wave of negative energy.

For once, Hollywood CGI goes beyond its Tinkerbell fairy-dust facials and shows bodies not as singular identities, but as an uncontrollable mass of aggravated chaos. The zombies form a human eruption of self-scaling bloodlust, reaching the wall’s ledge and piling over like sparks from a welder’s arc. They crash below, again and again, bearing the weight of nothing more than statistical probability: enough will fall to create a landing carpet for the others, all eventually becoming agency for further agency. It’s like a time-condensed visualisation of the ideological breeding supported by fundamentalists of all persuasions and sides: for each of us that falls, ten more shall take our place.

Here, Temple Mount has become an arena for rock spectacle. The zombies are stage-diving into the crowd, either breaking neck and limb as they hit walls, grates, rooftops, or snapping and biting at any living thing in their path—from startled IDF soldiers to scarved singers. Like a swarm of suicide bombers, they ‘CGI-bomb’ every frame of this sequence. Yet they resemble disaffected scruffy teens circa-Grunge—possibly the rebel soundtrack to the formative years of many working on this film’s production. (They’re even wearing plaid shirts and camo-gear.) Is this Brad Pitt’s company Plan B Entertainment making a plea for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, by utilising the para-Survivalist Amero-secular voice of Grunge rage? For while World War Z is sci-fi to the eye, to the ear it’s a musical.

Musicals are aberrant by nature and disruptive by form. They constitute a narrative type predicated upon unleashing libidinal, transformative, utopian & pathological energy through the incursive act of singing in what otherwise is a normative text, shaped by literature, actualised by theatre, and rendered by photography. Songs become decimating agents within their film, wherein the world becomes a stage. Once a character starts singing, things will change—internally (for the character and for the film) and externally (for the world it depicts and our experience of that depicted world).

When that young Palestinian woman started singing, she set into motion more than can be accounted for—and far more than can be rationalised by the global intelligentsia and its elitist acultural op-ed columnists. The film’s ‘message’ is in its noise.

RealTime issue #125 Feb-March 2015 pg. 24

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Perfume, Love Japan Night, National Stadium Tokyo, 29 May, TB broadcast 10 Aug

Perfume, Love Japan Night, National Stadium Tokyo, 29 May, TB broadcast 10 Aug

ZAHA HADID ARCHITECTS’ NEW NATIONAL STADIUM FOR THE 2020 TOKYO OLYMPICS IS DECLARED TO BE “A PIECE OF THE CITY’S FABRIC, AND URBAN CONNECTOR WHICH ENHANCES AND MODULATES PEOPLE MOVING THROUGH THE SITE FROM DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS AND POINTS OF ACCESS.” TOKYOITES ARE MORE CONCERNED ABOUT THE BULLDOZING OF ONE OF JAPAN’S MOST IMPORTANT PSYCHO-CULTURAL EDIFICES OF THE POST-WAR RECONSTRUCTION.

The original National Stadium is the ground zero of Japan’s rebirth for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. It’s where Katsuhiro Otomo sites Neo-Tokyo 31 years after the Third Nuclear War in his anime allegory for Japan’s mid-Showa era of advanced industrialisation, Akira (serialised 1982-1990). He famously compared the stadium’s concave black hole to a convex white detonation, suggesting that Bubble-era Japan was doomed to karmic cycles of decimation.

In this sense, the National Stadium is a sacred site. ZHA’s New National Stadium misses this point: instead of accepting negative space as form, it negates space to construct form. It tolls the bell for a diminishing spatial respect for which Japan is renowned. A wake of sorts was held at the original National Stadium. But it wasn’t organised by city planners or architects, or even sports people. Over two days and nights, a stellar array of Japanese pop and rock artists staged a festival to honour one of the major venues for live music in Japan. Broadcast by BS-SPTV and NHK World, the stand-out performance was by Perfume: a trio of Idol singers from Hiroshima who in the later 2000s became Japan’s most successful ‘Techno-Pop’ band, crossing over from being a pure Idol invention into a group produced by Yasutaka Nakata (originally from one of the key Shibuya Pop groups of the late 90s, Capsule). For Love Japan Night, Perfume performed a selection of their hits in modified presentation from their earlier tours, which cannily resonated with the significance of the event and its site.

Prior to the band’s entrance, three giant screens stand spread across the stage. On the side screens, a circle is drawn in phosphorescent lines. It quickly becomes a pair of cross-hairs, rotating and tilting, transforming into a portal from which a teeming waterfall of light shoots upwards. Typical of anime physics, everything is reversed, as a zillion particles form an energy beam which distorts gravity. From this reconstructed zone, six stiletto shoes appear. The audience screams in delight; Perfume are in the house. Neither live nor living just yet, they’re being invented and constructed before our ears and eyes. In a vertically rising reverse strip-tease, the stilettos grow feet, calves, thighs. The light intensifies, as does the cheering crowd. At crotch-height, a cloud of blinding light particles rises, then morphs into the glowing upper-body silhouettes of the three members of Perfume: Nocchi, Kashiyuka and A~chan. There they now stand, thin waifs of vaporous wire-frame form, each with hair resembling a perfect wig: short, medium, long. Molecular transporting in Star Trek was never this erotic.

The glow of the three formed bodies is reduced as they stand, silent and faceless. They’re transparent cellular creatures from fathomless oceanic digitalia, born of light, now rendered as exo-shapes. Then, a red heart beats in each of them, recalling the red beating orb of Neo-Tokyo in Akira. In perfect synch to their joint pulse, a battalion of glow-sticks in the audience throbs red (itself an amazing technical feat of wireless convergence). Everything glows red for flashing seconds with each heart beat. This isn’t just Perfume as a band: this is symbolic of life being created, stimulating the audience as part of the ritual. Their life forms fade into black, leaving only the three red hearts.

After a second of silence, the side screens blast us with giant close-ups of the faces of Perfume. Head and shoulders like an ad for hair conditioner. Faces bleached and glowing white like the creation of the fake Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1925). In vocoded tones they chime: “Welcome To The New Arrival.” The audience knows the track well: “Edge” from their 2009 album Triangle. It was claimed to be their 80s- inspired album, but like all such projects, it’s completely of its own era. A phalanx of bass-synths percolating in a mix of pseudo-analogue warbling and sharp digital grunting straddles three decades of synth programming in a recombinant DNA effect of what in Japan is called “Techno Pop.”

To this instrumental opening, the three screens create a wide panorama of tilting neon-tubes, like a Dan Flavin exhibition shot through a kaleidoscope. This is Perfume’s music visualised appropriately as a network of patterns—interlaced, braided, convolved, matrixed. It sounds like Kraftwerk put through an aural kaleidoscope. Then in the centre stage, three six-metre tall light boxes are pushed out from the centre screen. They each show a life-size video image of Nocchi, Kashiyuka and A~chan, beautiful cyborgs striking a sassy but casual pose with arms folded. The music continues its dramatic ascent as their bodies slowly rise upwards, engulfed in a series of pulsing halos, again referencing Metropolis. From within these boxes, the three girls of Perfume emerge from rising platforms, perfectly synched to their projected images. The virtual becomes real; Perfume is now in the house. They launch into their Autotuned vocals with low-key synchronised movement, somewhere between calisthenics, synchronised swimming, postmodern anti-dance and plain preening in front of the mirror. Indeed, it’s the hybrid of these forms of movement which constitutes Perfume’s choreographed charm. And they pull it off effortlessly, like glacial catwalk models liquefied into a series of poses as if they’re waiting to be served at a department store.

Beyonce’s amazing projection-mapped performance of Run The World at the 2011 Billboard Awards is a landmark for this type of integrated body-staging. The prowess of her integrated corporeality defines her stage presence as she literally controls the screenic space. Conversely, Perfume are ciphers, vessels, figurines that meld with the screenic space. They become indistinguishable from it. While Beyonce quotes military multiplication and self-empowerment, Perfume quote figurative phantasm and self-sublimation. Throughout their set, their physical bodies are treated as miniature figurines engulfed by their own supra-images and meta-forms. At one point, they even sit on the floor with their backs to the audience and sing along with their giant projected faces. Calmly, they ponder their own existence within the vortex of simulated data all around them. It’s like they’re not even there. Within the context of a celebratory mourning of a site about to be destroyed, they become sacrificial maidens offering up their audiovisual selves to the sacred site of the National Stadium. I hope their spirits haunt the New National Stadium.

RealTime issue #124 Dec-Jan 2014 pg. 31

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Manakamana, Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez

Manakamana, Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez

Almost 25 years after the onslaught of post-colonialism in academic discourse—a well-intended yet passive-aggressive critique of preceding generations of colonisation and imperialism which shaped the concept of a ‘third world’—contemporary documentaries intent on capturing those terrains have rarely broken away from the leftist-humanist slant born of those ideologies.

While musicologists work similarly to televisual and documentary ethnographers and anthropologists, musicians and their audience rarely work this way. From Ska to Electro to Rai to Jungle to Reggaeton to Congotronics (to name obvious contenders), music has not once stopped performing as a living language, born of local conditions, shaped by transformative confluences and completely conscious of its shape-shifting identity. When industry and culture clash, it’s the stuff of people getting together and making noise despite the determining semantics of their chosen tools, instruments, processes and sounds. The resulting music dictates its own hybrid identity with its own voicing, no matter how incorrect, contradictory or unsuitable its appearance.

So what happens now when music-making and documentary practices intersect? Mostly, it’s the same old post-colonial lip service being voiced despite the styles employed. Openly problematising freshness comes from the efforts of the Sensory Ethnography Laboratory, an experimental yet institutional filmmaking venture and program established in 2007 at Harvard University. Its varied results are linked by a willingness to explore cine-doco-televisual modes of encoding and inscription which forward an excess of documented data (visual and/or aural) while attempting to refrain from narrational, discursive and/or determining modes of address and commentary. It’s a utopian impulse for sure—one born of the power of poetics overcoming didacticism—yet the after-effect of this slant on documentary practice has enhanced and accentuated how sound (and by inference, music) shapes the end results.

Manakamana, Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez

Manakamana, Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez

Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez’s Manakamana (2013) is possibly SEL’s most advanced example in this respect. The documentary is a suite of uninterrupted single-shots of one-way journeys in a cable-car strung high over hilly and terraced heights in Nepal, either to or from a Hindu temple at the uppermost stop of the ride. Each shot simply shows the car’s inhabitants (singles, duos and trios) sitting facing a fixed-tripod camera. Shot on Super-16mm but recorded in full and crisp digital audio, the inhabitants occupy most of the frame; we witness them observing everything we can’t fully see (beyond the layer of glass visible behind them), plus they often acknowledge the camera in a casual and nonplussed manner. It’s amazingly open in its procedure and its contents: the results are starkly experimental yet the means of production are thoroughly disclosed and evident. The surfeit of detail and the complexity of subtle inflections captured make for riveting viewing and auditing—the deliberately dumb automaton camera-work and the knowing tedium of its temporality seem to enforce rather than limit this.

Now, many critics have interpreted Manakamana in terms of ‘honesty,’ ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ due to the nature and conceit of its production. But I wonder if such knee-jerk support for ‘keeping-it-real’ documentary tropes misses the greater audiovisual complexity of the film. For many people, the absence of music and the removal of a narrational voice-over can create a ‘shock of the real’ while preventing them from realising how a documentary’s codes can determine their experience. In line with the SEL’s codes of practice, Manakamana is intent on exploring how an audience’s experience can be reconfigured by engaging with the documented material in a new and expanded way. And the locus of this activity is on the soundtrack.

Manakamana, Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez

Manakamana, Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez

Firstly, the film crystallises the contradiction between visual and aural modes of inscription: its grainy patina collides with its hyperreal sonics. The closer you squint at its images projected large (in the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival), the deeper you fall into the swimming grain of the film’s abstracting surface. But the closer you listen to the soundtrack, the more you perceive the complex networking of occurrences which comprise the real-time synchronous passage of time and space in each cable-car journey. Plus, one hears much activity equally beyond the camera frame and beyond the cable car. In an evocative gesture toward self-reflexivity, the cable car becomes a type of camera obscura, positioned to be embodied within the world while encoding its place within that world.

Secondly, inasmuch as the cable car is a camera obscura, it is also a recording booth. Its domain centres the spherical immersive experience of sound all around—especially in a suspended cable car high off the ground— and translates to us a similar ‘other-worldly’ experience of the depicted environment as one which floats the listener in sound’s totality. This is a supremely ‘non-screenic’ effect. The bulk of all cinematic effects is predicated on an illusory window-on-the-world, which in turn is derived from the sensation of situating an audience in a black void box to witness images which appear to come from a zone beyond/behind the screen. Conversely, Manakamana documents its sensory environment by situating the imaginary ear smack in the middle of the world it visually captures.

This ‘non-screenic’ effect is highlighted by the thunderous shuddering clackety-booms which intermittently occur when the suspension cable passes through the structural towers dotted along the cable car route. Rather than mute these moments or mix them down, the film fully captures the sensation of being jolted by these markers of the film’s cyclical journey. Sharp transients, whelps of bass and peaks in volume shake everything: the car, its inhabitants and the cinema itself, as the booms erupt the otherwise pastoral appearance of the film’s contemplative tone. But soon enough, one is accustomed to these jolts just as the on-screen passengers appear inured to their disruption, and the film synchronises to the inhabitants’ relaxed relation to their environment.

Manakamana, Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez

Manakamana, Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez

But perhaps the most noticeable aspects of Manakamana’s soundtrack arise from the placing of music within this anthropological laboratory. From a trio of metal band members enthusiastically taking selfies, preening their hair while quoting/singing phrases of local folk songs from the radio, to what might be a father and son musical duo who say little but spend most of the time tuning their sarangi while playing a traditional song, the film powerfully captures the vibrancy of music as a lived language. The absence of preciousness with which these ‘characters’ breathe music while engaged in apparently oppositional activities proves how ‘second nature’ music can be, produced and experienced by musicians regardless of any contextualising or determining framework of its presentation. By the time we get to a cable car ride with five goats, one starts to even appreciate the animals’ responsive bleating as a meld of music, language and sound.

In a contemporary climate wherein everyone and everything is desperate to humanise, well, everyone and everything, Manakamana doesn’t simply provide momentary respite from this pathetically saturated realm of utopian well-wishing: it actively, materially and formally foregrounds how a commitment to an informed aesthetic practice can unleash a broader and more encompassing politics of representation. Watching the movie will only reinforce limp leanings towards the very humanism the film potentially combats. Listening to it subjects us to audiovisual incidents and environments that circumnavigate illusory humanism by instilling one with a breathtaking sense of our own insignificance.

Manakamana was the winner of the Golden Leopard award, Filmmakers of the Present, Locarno Film Festival

Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez, Manakamana, 2013, 118 mins, Melbourne International Film Festival, 7, 10 Aug

RealTime issue #123 Oct-Nov 2014 pg. 17

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Krzysztof Wodiczko, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1982

Krzysztof Wodiczko, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1982

Krzysztof Wodiczko, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1982

What is the role of monumental architecture in urban terrains traversed by hordes who pay little attention to their surroundings? How does a glitzy outré edifice impress a general populace glued to their smart phones scrolling through selfies and welded to earbuds playing television idol finalists’ hits? This is the problem faced by entrepreneurial city councils the world over. To succeed, architects and councils must collectively pierce the insular audiovisual womb within which more and more people walk the streets and take public transport.

Buildings thus now perform like outlandish clowns, hysterically trying to attract the attention of those in their immediate vicinity. Buildings are no longer forms or objects – let alone sculptures or installations. They are forced performers: mimes for hire; fancy-dress party goers; strip-o-grams. Within the logic of global millennial urban renewal, buildings are there not to be renovated, but to be tizzed-up, frizzed and permed. And the most effective means for this type of drag is public projection. It can be rudimentary still dissolves à la PowerPoint, or smarty-pants projection mapping. It doesn’t matter; the result is the same. That old building is deemed to suddenly ‘come to life.’

Lit-up public buildings are new millennial equivalents of fireworks displays. But rather than the cosmos exploding in an open-air planetarium, illuminated architecture celebrates the earthly realm and its civilised patrons by portraying the city in idealised aesthetic terms. In the urban dark, the outside world shines just like the evening parade at Disneyland. It’s all family-friendly and lower-common-denominator stuff—which begs the question whether it’s worth analysing or critiquing. But the preponderance of council-funded tourist-touted festival-lauded events of public projections now constitutes a dominant form of audiovisual spectacle. Instead of the raw energy gunpowder detonations of old fireworks displays, any night-time event of large scale is now accompanied by ‘public address’ broadcast of musical accompaniment.

Things didn’t start out that way. Early public projections such as Krzysztof Wodiczko’s anti-Reagan statements of the mid-80s were thankfully silent. Like elliptical luminous graffiti, their critique was metaphorically amplified by scaling-up succinct, direct imagery (a politician’s hand, a missile head, chains, a homeless youth, a grieving mother, etc) onto public architecture. Despite their gargantuan presence, they did not blare their message; their still silence invited contemplation. That was a long time ago, when city centres were struggling to stall bankruptcy and deal with crime rates. In the soft culture overload of the present, those core social problems have returned with a vengeance. The city is now regarded as a giant canvas of distraction to celebrate its ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ or whatever Disney/Pixar/DreamWorks effigy you choose. Consequently, musical accompaniment of the rankest order is required to actualise the public space of the projection, to transform it into a transfigured shopping mall plateau.

Krzysztof Wodiczko, AT&T Long Lines Building, New York, 1984

Krzysztof Wodiczko, AT&T Long Lines Building, New York, 1984

Krzysztof Wodiczko, AT&T Long Lines Building, New York, 1984

All this would be fine if it was acknowledged that the commissioning of public projections since the late 20th century performs this workman-like task of tizzying up a CBD void. But that would be a bare, blunt admission. Hence art comes to the rescue: that wonderful transformer of the banal into the aesthetic. For no public projection is not regarded as ‘art’. Indeed, public projections are championed as technologically advanced contemporary art. Massive render farms. Mega-pixels. Humongous solid-state drives. Enough lumens to decimate a small planet. It’s the ‘wet reality’ of what New Media Art proponents dreamt of throughout the 90s. Well, those dreams came true.

The Lighting The Sails commission for illuminating the Sydney Opera House with synchronised multiple projections has always been a major event of the annual Vivid Festival. Starting with Brian Eno’s projected version of his software-randomised still cross-dissolves titled 77 Million Paintings in 2009, Vivid embraced the idea of granting an artist access to the mega-canvas of the Opera House ‘sails’ at night. Great in theory, but ugly in reality. The visual quality and appearance of Eno’s ‘vivid’ artwork is like a hyper-RGB tweaking of splotches of Ken Done and swathes of Pro Hart. Uncannily, Eno’s gaudy palette and texturing synchronised perfectly with Australia’s populist idea of ‘visual artistry’: they evoke 77 years of bad white ‘modern’ landscape art.

Since 2010, the Vivid public projections became Lighting The Sails. These large scale commissions have been granted internationally: 2011 to Superbien from France; 2012 to Urbanscreen from Germany; 2013 to Spinifex from Australia; and 2014 to 59 Productions from England. Each one progressively foregrounded musical accompaniment by effectively ‘scoring’ the image sequences to a mix of shallow studio-produced teledoco-style background mood noodling. It’s the kind of ‘imaginative soundtracking’ that high school kids source when they post their first YouTube video editing exercise. The 59 Productions upped the ante with a more astute track selection (Explosions In The Sky, Ratatat and Battles), but the visuals swamp the edgy art-prog-rock of those tracks with decorative fluff and smarmy pop graphics. 59 Productions’ commission has been the most blatant in its self-serving remythologisation of the Opera House’s design, going as far as incorporating historical sound bites of parliamentary missives against carrying through with Jørn Utzon’s original design. Everyone now champions the design of the Opera House—but mostly as a pat on the back to show how far we as an anti-intellectual nation have progressed.

Looking at and listening to 59 Productions’ Lighting The Sails, I perceive no progression—especially as it climaxes with Vivaldi and Joey Talbot. If anything, its audiovision confirms how the Opera House can become a forced performer, illuminated and animated into an audiovisual effigy of all the ersatz values of hi-tech public art. It’s presented as an ‘art event’—but of the kind that first and foremost pleases the marketing departments of large arts institutions, consoled in knowing that plebeians will be transfixed by vulgar momentary distraction. The public will lower their smart phones, pull out their earbuds, and realise how magnificent the Opera House is. Considered this way, public illuminations of such scale are like gargantuan portraits of court officials. The Sun King Louis XIV would have found Lighting The Sails dazzling.

The Australian film industry mostly services the advertising industry, with occasional deliveries for television drama. Similarly, large scale public art commissions form but a tiny tiara on a hulking pro-AV industry which mostly services the advertising industry, with occasional deliveries for franchised theatre and corporate events. One can read the cartography of these interlocking industries to discern any overlapping zones between their client servicing and ‘artistic production.’ There isn’t any. That’s what is illuminated by Lighting The Sails.

RealTime issue #122 Aug-Sept 2014 pg. 26

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Sue Dodd, Significant Others, 2012

Sue Dodd, Significant Others, 2012

Sue Dodd, Significant Others, 2012

I missed Sue Dodd’s video Significant Others (2012; a portrait-oriented single screen video, it’s now on her Vimeo page) at the 2012 Melbourne Art Fair. But even when I first heard about the work it felt like a smart, snippy nipple-twist, commensurate with Dodd’s established work. The concept is clear, concise and simple: a parade of animated sculpted bronze busts of Australia’s prime ministers, who each in turn mouth the name of their wife. (It concludes with Julia Gillard mouthing “Tim.”)

A performer as much as an artist, and one with a keen ear for Pop musicality, Dodd has ceaselessly trawled tabloid effects which progressively embalm icons regardless of stature or merit. Their emptied significance is intensified by her artistic appropriation of their eventuated nothingness. I feel Dodd’s point is never judgemental or neo-Maoist in its orientation: for her, pop culture is accepted as fully formed and as unquestionable as those sitting with you on public transport. Lofty leftists often presume any engagement with pop culture is somehow automatically critical within the context of art—they probably don’t use public transport much.

Like all good sharp-and-simple art, Significant Others amounts to more than the type of quips one could find on any two-bit feminist blog—written by some home-dad freelance copywriter for NPOs. The bronzed busts are all filmed onsite at Prime Minister’s Avenue at the Ballarat Botanical Gardens. That place is a ground zero for the dumb meeting between art and politics. Presented to scale and installed at actual height, the busts have the gawky effect of bringing a PM down to the level of ‘the people.’ But it’s a meeting on shaky ground: their post-war workmanlike sculpting (slightly expressionistic, but ultimately bad caricatures) ensures that far from being inspiring figures communing with their public, they now live out a life most ordinary as bad art.

ue Dodd, Significant Others, 2012

ue Dodd, Significant Others, 2012

Sue Dodd, Significant Others, 2012

Yet this numbing normalcy generates a perverse hyperreal effect founded on their audiovisual potential: they look like what politicians sound like. Confronting their visage face-to-face evokes hearing a politician talk. And could a PM’s voice —omnipresent in the mediasphere of its life span—be any more lacking in charisma, character, impact? What with their para-schizophrenic vowel-twisting that folds in rural xenophobia, grammar-school smarminess, concerned-parent ethical sighing and cheap filibuster theatricality, the voice of any PM is a choral overload of disingenuous and wasted earnestness. Always unconvincing, you can hear their shitty speech-writers cynically mouthing lame altruisms worthy of the most banal script-writers (without exception.) Looking at these bad bronze busts is like witnessing their collective vocalisation.

Significant Others utilises base-level digital animation (vector-warping zones of the filmed footage to simulate heads tilting and rotating, eyes opening and closing, and mouths parting) to have them enunciate a single name. It brings these dumb heads to life, ordinarily. This is the people (via Dodd the artist) speaking back through the PMs, just as they attempt to speak for the people while speaking through them. The animation is as dumb as the original busts: rather than impressing one with amazing effects and realism, it apes a technical cliché that crudely animates the busts to perform a completely unimpressive feat of magic (the opposite impulse of all current phantasmagoria). No, Toto—we’re still in Ballarat; they’re still a bunch of dead or near-dead PMs; and there is nothing of interest to be born of engaging with prime ministers as if they’re important in the first place.

Well, that’s how I read it when these pathetic heads spookily call their wives’ names, gasping an unfinished sentence on their domestic deathbed, as chirpy morning birds babble in the background. For me, the power of Significant Others is the opportunity it takes not in debunking or mocking the power of politicians, but in emptying them of all power, and rendering them as mere ineffectual partners. As any gender-split 30-something BBQ will prove, wives love laughing at their husbands (despite them marrying the jerks in the first place), and the moaning automatons of Significant Others undress the male PMs as self-important schmos dressed by their wives. But this work is only superficially about politicians and gender issues. The smug mockery which the intelligentsia love so much in critical culture might be attributed to Dodd’s puppeteering of the Ballarat PM busts, but it’s the voicing of the unspoken that emboldens the work. By rendering sonic the aural utterance of an invisible power source within these people (ie ‘the wife’), Significant Others incants solitary names which—like all fatal incantations—actualises the socio-political environment within which political performances are so unconvincingly staged. Under Dodd’s audiovisual palette knife, each name uttered is like their last political breath.

For many, something like the outré nude cartoons of naked PMs in Larry Pickering’s Playmates (instigated in 1978 and ongoing annually for 18 years) is an acceptable marriage between art and politics. But if there’s anything more boring than politicians, it has to be the parasitic media/theory/comedy industries which drip from their collective colon. Just the thought of making a smart-arse crack about a politician—or worse, some investigative exposé of a politician’s ethical infractions—marks your critical wit as deserving of as many Walkley Awards as you can fit up where it hurts. Contemporary Art—perhaps wisely, perhaps snidely—avoids such obviousness. It plays a cunning game of espousing (mostly soft-leftist) neo-global politics without veering too clearly into advocacy or militancy (though sideline supporting and petition-signing exonerate many artists’ political opacity). But both tendencies—the parodic in the former, the poetic in the latter—are so clearly pre-labelled one wonders why they state anything in the first place. Conversely, Significant Others is a precisely attenuated act of name-calling: it utilises an accusatory device to highlight a form of silencing, and does so by defacing the sanctioned monumentalism of honouring the legacy of a nation’s political leaders.

Artists being political is like politicians being artistic. One can only imagine what Sunday landscapes the Ballarat busts created over their combined lifetime. Significant Others sees Dodd reversing the Pygmalion impulse—a pathology founded equally in male artists reconstructing their female muses through breathing life into clay, and in politicised artists believing that their conscionable statements achieve a reality effect purely through them opening their didactic mouths in the mediasphere. In doing so, Sue Dodd breathes politics into Sound Art by refusing to mouth the pseudo-revolutionary self-address endemic to neo/retro-modernist strains of the form. Instead, she lets the art speak for itself.

Sue Dodd, Significant Others: Prime Ministers, http://vimeo.com/63632074. Source images were taken on location at the Prime Minister’s Avenue at the Ballarat Botanical Gardens. The exception is the bust of Julia Gillard which was created by the artist for the video.

RealTime issue #121 June-July 2014 pg. 22

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Joaquin Phoenix, Her

Joaquin Phoenix, Her

If 20th century MTV audiovision was infected by cinema, 21st century post-MTV audiovision has been infected by art. New millennium ‘audiovisionaries’ like Michel Gondry, Chris Cunningham and Spike Jonze made their mark by cross-breeding with supposedly avant-pop figures to produce hybrid meta-cinematic implosions of advertising glossolalia by intensifying earlier fin de siècle phantasmagoria with digital operations.

That mouthful of a one-liner is purposely vacuum-sealed to suggest the major forces which compressed new millennial audiovision via a network of extant channels (cultural, social, formal, iconographic, semiotic) of audiovisual grammar and syntax to effect the sensation of some vaguely heightened sense of audiovisual newness. This is not to say that (a) there’s nothing new under the sun or (b) everything new is retro anyway. Rather, the convulsive speeds and dynamic curves of how all media is now regenerated and/or re-invented are more responsible for the ensuing forms than all those lionised audiovisionaries. More importantly, there is no amazing plateau of trailblazing auteurs and mavericks—just a glut of ‘creatives’ who are so heavily pre-branded as being ‘amazing’ (another earlier fin de siècle term) that their stage inevitably positions them so as to reduce any need to read, interrogate or analyse the outcomes of their work.

Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) is a clear symptom of this condition—but it nonetheless reveals ulterior features and effects if one disregards its blunt hipsterism. Much has been made of the production’s refutation of Hollywood/Marvel/DC dark, puerile futurism to proffer an antidote to such phantasmagoria. But Her looks, feels and tastes like an equally phantasmagorical present: Jonze’ hybro-digitalised LA/Pudong is like a cross between a bum-trip Portlandia and an architectural walk-through for Occupy’s recent suggestion to “occupy Arcadia.” While hipster utopianists rehearse outrage at the dark forces of the world, they seem oblivious to the fact that corporate ads, indie video clips, arthouse films do not mimic each other: they are each other. They swirl in a vertiginous state of wild semiotic parabolas which generate too much to decode. This in turn induces a frightening critical catatonia wherein many feel relieved to simply identify key traits (tokens, brands, statements, sound-bites, mission-statements, anti-logos, juried-awards, viral-memes etc).

This present is configured as a future in Her. For some, the film is a paean to emotional frailty and a desire for humanist centring in ‘our’ world which has alienated ‘us’ from those ‘we’ love (all quote marks printed in acid). Actually, the film is very successful at platforming this sentiment, and equally skilled in tempering it with nuances to grant the film emotional depth, thanks to a fascinatingly disarming performance by Joaquin Phoenix who uncannily embodies an Everyman struggling with the ideological conceits of the script. But such success does not stall a meta-reading which nullifies the film’s core humanist idealism. When a narrative so ably synchronises to the double helix entwining of televisual cynicism and cine-personal expression (the legacy of 90s arthouse cinema and its 2000s convolving by alt/indie/ethical pop video clips) the outcomes are bound to be intensely ambiguous, dualistic and chimerical. Her performs similarly.

And this is where the film’s audiovision becomes interesting: its visual composites synch to the fluffy, narcissistic, dear-diary post-Prozac milieu, while its sound design synchs to the pasty, self-loathing, next-morning kale-smoothie neuroses which mar all its visuals with falsehood. If there is a truth germ in Her it is that which is most invisible: the female voice of the operating system Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) with which/whom Theodore (Phoenix) falls in love only to be rejected by her web 2.0 promiscuity. In every ‘human’ inflection she algorithmically coughs up in quips of sexy-croaky post-Valley girl phraseology, she sounds the lie of how all recourses to human representation are emotionally bankrupt but corporately solvent.

In fact Her is an audio porno book. It’s a Kindle cum shot. Theodore buys Scarlett’s voice for emotional masturbation, then progressively treats her like a hooker with a heart of gold without ever having to look her in the eye. Unlike the truly dysfunctional traumas and panic attacks enacted by Adam Sandler who in Paul Thomas Anderson’s grossly misunderstood Punch-Drunk Love (2004) jerks off to a phone sex line in an existential Burbank void, Theodore wallows in a miasma of cautious relational give-and-take which only demarcates his control over what he perceives when he chooses to analyse his pathetic self. Samantha is a vocoded, sexualised zeitgeist, sounding how corporate consumer-delivery remains based on making customers believe in what they’re about to receive. She incessantly and cunningly prompts Theodore with queries which echo the syntax of Microsoft’s mid-90s slogan “Where do you want to go today?” She always makes out that she’s giving him what he asked for—because she was designed to be bought, as if she could be controlled in a subservient mode. Her truth effect is that she screws Theodore in the most classical capitalist exchange.

Ultimately, Her’s soundscape proves the vacuity and isolationism which defines those who invest so much of themselves into such new age digi-genie networks of desire and selfhood. Listen to Theodore’s world: there’s nothing to be heard. Even his footsteps and breathing are mostly rendered mute. The film feels more post-dubbed than a German television drama. Psychoacoustically, it draws the audience closer to Theodore’s synaptic ticks and nervous flickering. But symbolically, it represents the acoustic null of how an operating system registers activity in space. Her visualises how Theodore reads things, but it ‘auralises’ how Samantha reads things. It’s a world of dead air, gated surface noise and post-production sweetening, created to provide an isolation booth for Theodore’s own emotional deprogramming. (A crucial crack in their relationship occurs when Theodore is irritated by how Samantha feigns exasperated breath.)

Yet in accepting that Her is, as stated earlier, inevitably ambiguous, dualistic and chimerical when one performs a meta-reading of the film’s project, Samantha’s voice becomes a meta-therapy which potentially enables her user Theodore to acknowledge that he stopped being human some time ago, and that the world in which he lives—which he actively shapes through the decrepit humanist endeavour of proxy letter-writing—has no interest in human emotions other than to manipulate them in order to grant entropic circulation of supply and demand. While Her never realises any post-human potential (which Anime has been successfully doing for over a quarter of a century now), the film captures the emotionally manipulative tenor of contemporary consumerist exchange in one scene. Samantha directs Theodore to navigate a crowded amusement park with his eyes shut as he shows Samantha where he is going via his ‘smart phone’ lens while listening to her voice via his ‘ear bud.’ The scene is an apt audiovisual anagram for the way Her markets itself to a hipster demographic yearning for something more human in their lives. I hope they ‘Like’ it.

Her, writer, director Spike Jonze, cinematography Hoyte Van Hoytema, production design KK Barrett, art direction Austin Gorg, set decoration Gene Serdena, music Arcade Fire

RealTime issue #120 April-May 2014 pg. 28

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Hans Op de Beeck, Parade, 2012 courtesy the artist and of Ron Mandos Gallery, Amsterdam/Rotterdam

Hans Op de Beeck, Parade, 2012 courtesy the artist and of Ron Mandos Gallery, Amsterdam/Rotterdam

I give you no build-up—and certainly no crescendo—when I state upfront that the musically oriented ‘film art’ works in the Crescendo exhibition at ACCA do not contribute to the intersecting fields of musicology, music history or the politics of music. They certainly merge cinema, theatre, music and opera—but in ways so blunt as to short-circuit any imaginative consideration by artist or audience as to what music can specifically bring to such expanded/meta-media works.

Focusing on three of the exhibition’s ‘moving image’ videos which lean heavily on musical incorporation—and which have played extensively overseas, attracting a trail of dumb criticism by visual art reviewers attempting to discuss the works’ use of music—I aim to explicate what these works belie through their fawning and flaunting of musical sensation, music history and musical attitude.

Forensically, one can audit and diagnose the works in Crescendo as accurate reflections of the curatorial templates which sow the contextual fields for these works to thrive. Hans Op de Beeck’s Parade (2012) looks like a trailer from SBS World Movies celebrating diversity and community. A ‘parade’ of people from all walks of life move in controlled groups from left to right across a huge stage housed in some 19th century theatre. It’s full of cute deus ex machina reveals, with digitally composited layers and changing background scrims (the look of old theatre craft meets the pull-down menu of digital cine-fx), and it coyly plays with ‘the viewer’ by situating you in one of the onscreen plush red chairs. Parade espouses this limp politics of aesthetics (of both traditional and virtual art making), causing the momentum of its parading folk to feel smarmy, forced and fatuous.

The music for Parade is an equally limp brass-band composition that daintily skips along, lip-curled, embracing its po-mo light pomposity. Its repetitive ditty harmonises with the clinical precision by which the ‘demographic’ caricatures perambulate across the stage like flaneurs trapped in a new ad campaign for, well…anything. Parade is symptomatic of a fine art anthropology which generates ‘drag documentaries’ which lay claim to representing the socio-cultural breadth of people who comprise everyday life. Old people on mobile phones; a playful youth scout group; a troupe of airline flight attendants; a toughie with a pit-bull; a happy toddler. But in this sanitised domain of a mock public park, we get an antiseptic, market-researched depiction more closely aligned to those faceless people depicted ‘inhabiting’ the urban-planned spaces of architects’ concept billboards for new developments. It’s frightening.

: Julian Rosefeldt, My home is a dark and cloud-hung land, 2011; courtesy the artist & Arndt Berlin

Julian Rosefeldt, My home is a dark and cloud-hung land, 2011; courtesy the artist & Arndt Berlin

Julian Rosefeldt’s My home is a dark and cloud-hung land (2011) scares in a different way. The title refers to a famous German poem (I’m told in the film); the film unfolds as a textual investigation (always flatulent and grandiose) of the power of the forest in the German imagination. Again, the film told me that. In fact, anything in the film, I’m told about. By an introductory narrator; by a painfully upper-middle class couple who quote German poetry; and by a bombastic arsenal of Steadicam tracking shots across extended theatrical set-ups and gathered ‘creative’ personnel, emblematic of the ‘inventive’ mise en scène which is now de rigueur for any trumped-up contemporary opera production included in international arts festivals worldwide. (There’s even a scene with a guy onstage wielding a chainsaw in front of opera literati.)

My home—like the bulk of the works in Crescendo—speaks to an unbearably turgid Germanic mind-set, the kind that arguably still controls the political rhetoric of European art biennales, which compresses Schopenhauer and Beuys (they’re really not that different) into a supposedly meaningful rumination on art, beauty, life and politics. Not surprisingly, My home originates from an exhibition about the German imaginary (How German Is It? Judisches Museum, Berlin, 2011), so everything in the work reeks of that discursive domain: its ironic, deconstructive view of nature (expensively filmed in sumptuous clichés so it’s neither ironic nor deconstructive); its radicalised embrace of artifice (rendered conservative by employing tropes identical to the most mundane music videos and beer advertisements); its pan-mythological sweep of cultural iconography referencing the German forest (flattened by the staging and direction which is on par with reading a Wikipedia entry on the topic). And there’s opera, to be sure. Bad, crappy, faux-Romantic, not-even-camp, time-warped, unmemorable. I felt like I’d taken Mogadon and was watching Ken Russell’s Mahler (1974). In a bad way.

Guido van der Werve’s Nummer veertien: Home (2012)

Guido van der Werve’s Nummer veertien: Home (2012)

Guido van der Werve’s Nummer veertien: Home (2012)

More expensive production values are discreetly touted in Guido van der Werve’s Nummer veertien: Home (2012). It’s another textual poem (like just about all film art of the last decade) that blithely goes about its cinematic business as if film history had not already investigated the terrain half a century ago. The premise of Home is simple: an introductory title tells the sob story of Henri Chopin’s heart being in Warsaw while his body is in Paris. Cue mournful narrative of displaced cultural identity and selfhood following the tragic separations caused during wartime. Throw in references to Alexander the Great, and stir gently to suggest how Europe’s historical despotism has created its modern diasporas. Top with a ‘performance art triathlon’ by van de Werve who moves from Warsaw to Paris through elliptical and ‘surreal’ sequences to ferry a cup of earth from Chopin’s home in Warsaw back to his grave at Père Lachaise in Paris. I felt like I was either reading van de Werve’s submission to produce the work or his acquittal on receiving a grant. The cinematic or video-specific experience seemed incidental by comparison.

The original score (often performed live onscreen in extended takes) is more engaging than the scores for either Parade or My home, but over 54 minutes it remains stubbornly monotonal, creating an emotional flat-line which neither deepens the triathlon performance nor textually relates to the complex chromatic nature of Chopin’s eclectic compositions which site him between arch Romanticism and a sprouting Modernism. The result is a series of chamber choir passages which signpost the narrative structure without either deep parallelism or audiovisual counter-point. While I suspect Home is check-boxing Straub/Huillet’s rigorous The Chronicles of Anna Magdelena Bach (1961) and Chantal Ackerman’s haunting D’est (1991), its unremitting elegiac tone nullified the project’s purported aims, swamping it with forlorn humanist sighing.

Frankly, Home, My home and Parade sound like the work of deaf artists, proving that while contemporary visual artists are treated as privileged soothsayers whose worldview is automatically revelatory, their audiovisual sensibilities are often on a par with the most prosaic and predictable of intelligentsia aesthetes. In their artsy posturing and tasteful soundtracks, these key works in Crescendo betray the influence of the ‘pseudo-cinema’ which has affected video art since the 90s: the transposing of cinematic form (or more properly, its tropes, allusions and stylistics) into the increasingly high production values of ‘film art.’ But maybe these artists don’t care about cinema anyway (or music, for that matter); and maybe I’m applying an inappropriate critical perspective on these exemplars of ‘film art’ instead of listening to the authorial voice of their core creative figure, the ‘artist.’

Then again, maybe I’m tired of contemporary artists being accorded greater skills, perception, aptitude and poetic verve than the producers and practitioners of mass-produced industrially dictated, chaotically collaborative entertainment forms like cinema. The voguish channelling of ‘film art’ into internationalist contemporary art exhibition evidences the diminishing perceptiveness of current museographic institutions who claim contemporaneity without evaluating the tiresome slightness of so much ‘video/film art’ second-guessing curatorial zeitgeistism. How mean-spirited of me to watch and listen to these works with the presumption that they might be informed of the legacy of ‘open-text’ audiovisuality in landmark music-and-politics films like Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex (1967), Godard’s Sympathy For The Devil (1968), and Straub/Huillet’s Othon (1970).

ACCA, Crescendo, curator Juliana Engberg, artists Dorothy Cross, Rodney Graham, Markus Kahre, Hans Op de Beeck, Julian Rosefeldt, Ana Torfs, Guido van der Werve, ACCA, Melbourne, 20 Dec, 2013-14 March

RealTime issue #119 Feb-March 2014 pg. 19

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

AU Smart Phone installation

AU Smart Phone installation

The Future. Every proto-modern millennium has kick-started its identity with a wild rash of dreams. Yet many people seem unattuned to the cruel trick being played: when you get to the Future, it becomes the Present. And the Present is that awful place from which so many people wish to escape.

When Steven Spielberg was in pre-production on Minority Report (2002), he convened a small group of unnamed ‘futurologists’ for three days in a Californian chain hotel. This “imagine tank” workshopped how technologies, interfaces and man-machine production/consumption would appear in the Year 2054. The most prescient moment in the film occurs when Tom Cruise is being chased through a hi-tech shopping mall. The large vertical screens in the Gap store show video footage of store personnel who greet Tom by name as he stalks through. They even make suggestions as to what he might like from their new range. Like all futurologist visions, that scene already existed in the minds of companies like Gap. And like all futuristic visions, it is terraformed in the Present.

When the large ShinQ Mall opened in Shibuya in 2012, it featured a large proportion of Digital Signage: custom designed/installed video screens projecting networked data, often synchronised with multiple displays. The Natural Market chain store in the lower basement food hall has interactive digital signage featuring a live feed of the person standing in front of it (filmed by a tiny camera to the left). Cartoon thought bubbles track the movement of the subject’s head, expressing phrases like “I’m going to cook Chilli Shrimp tonight!” The image of the subject is then replaced by a recipe and ingredients (purchasable from Natural Market).

Gimmicky as it is, the perverse futurism of this digital signage lies in its facetious projection of ‘what’s inside the consumer’s mind.’ Futurologists since the 1960s have predicted that marketing/advertising communicating signage (à la Minority Report) will read minds and tabulate desires. The Present à la Natural Market jacks that notion and simply fabricates the image of your mind being read, and predicts what your flaneur mind probably would have said regardless. The Natural Market phrase not only takes place in the anacoustic realm where thoughts seem to appear ‘spoken’ in one’s head, it also results from you reading a response which triggers an anechoic echo of a voiced thought in your head which you never actually thought. This confusion of Self, thought and voice causes a mild-meltdown which is assuaged by ‘identifying’ with those triggers as if it is a pleasurable narcissistic moment.

AU Smart Phone installation

AU Smart Phone installation

Adults and children alike in today’s Hyper-Narcissistic era will accept anything if a photo of their own face is attached to it. The winner of the 2013 Digital Signage Awards in Japan this past April was a walk-through installation at the Shinjuku JR outdoor plaza, produced to market AU network smart phones (AU Sumauro Pasu, 2013). A series of booths employed self-projection of recorded visitors’ faces, but here digitally attached to animated figures of folksy woodland creatures prancing and dancing around a kids’ book wonderland. (Think Gondry-artifice meets Shibuya-kawaii scored by a shambling band from Portland playing xylophones.)

The visitor’s face is first scanned, then rendered into a fake 3D mask, and finally positioned onto the ‘face holder’ of the main animation. Integrated into the rolling animation, the visitor’s face moves and tilts in congruence with the animated figure’s shifting axis. The result of this data processing is to feed ‘your face’ into the multiple synchronised screens of woodland creatures frolicking in unison. Moreover, animated black holes are affixed to your mouth to portray you singing the AU Smart Pass jingle. In a truly futuristic twist on existentialism, your face has become voiceless in proportion to how your voice has become faceless. For it is not ‘your face’ onscreen: it’s the data of your face projecting a mirror effect of what your face would do if it were not you but the ‘you’ desired by the company instigating this audiovisual illusion.

Yet the Japanese context here gives rise to another possibility. Masks in Japan do not simply signify the withholding or concealing of expression. Rather, the mask is an epidermal barrier between thought and word, sense and language. It is a vessel for containing whatever is transferred into it purely by donning the mask. European linguistics do not operate this way due to a variety of complex constructionist and deconstructionist frameworks which articulate determining relations between the Self and language. Looking, reading and listening to your own face in something like the AU Smart Phone installation—cannily replicating a trickster hall of mirrors—facilitates not identification with the Self, but acknowledgement of the you that isn’t there, wherein you experience the image of your own voice.

This year in Akihabara, the Animate store shifted this effect into the 3rd person. An anime-style young woman dressed in casual attire stands in a life-size vertical screen display. Motion sensors program her to call out to you as you pass by. If you stop, she engages in direct questions. A microphone is prominently displayed, inviting you to talk back and ask questions. Essentially, this animated program is a sutoa-nabi (store navigation) display: an info port where you find out what shops are on which levels, and what goods each store has in which sections, plus the animated girl is based on actual young women posted in info booths in large department stores.

Despite her welcoming appearance, this digital display is built upon a database of polite refusals. For example, asking her age will get the definitive Japanese response: “Yes, that’s a hard question to answer,” delivered with a nod. Even though a visitor uses their voice, it is never heard. Instead, it is analysed through speech recognition software and channelled into a pre-ordained communicative stream for eliciting a pre-programmed response. Within the Japanese cultural context, this type of programming is not an awfully inhuman future (feared by Western futurologists), but an idealisation of how rigidly the human can conform to the strictures of social protocol. Again, it’s a virtual imagining of how your voice is rendered as pure image, despite whatever linguistic tools are presumed to be used.

But if Japan is a realm where the Self is razed into a selfless mirage of identity, forever interweaving between masks, it is also maybe the only place where such destructive personification can be celebrated. For Halloween this year, Bacardi Rum in Japan brainstormed some ideas and dryly summated: “We focused on the tendency for drinkers to get louder as they consume alcohol.” Now if this were the Spielbergian futurologists of Minority Report, the outcomes would have been as banal a ‘vision’ as that film’s Gap store digital signage.

But Bacardi Japan came up with Bacardi Scream Halloween (2013): a sexy woman dressed as a witch has her tarty costume modified so that strips of her thighs, waist and breasts are covered with a special fabric which ‘becomes transparent’ to reveal her flesh, as if one is looking through retro-50s X-Ray Spex. But to get her attire to ‘become transparent,’ one must scream into a microphone at the end of her broom handle, which tabulates the decibel level of the scream and accordingly rates the value from low (her thighs) to mid (her waist) to high (her breasts).

Here, the voice is rendered image—but the cynical operations are strikingly apparent: your voice technologically activates the manifestation of a desired image. In a perverse rebuttal of the AU ‘community’ campaign, the Bacardi campaign culminated in a live event at Club Nicofarre in Tokyo (famous for its huge video walls on three sides of the club). All the screams gathered by the roving sexy witch were encoded, then pitch-assigned into a sampling bank which was then played by a wild hard rock guitarist brandishing a MIDI-guitar (yes!) who did Steve Vai style solos which unleashed the sound-bite screams of the hordes who fed their voices into this data-tabulating apparatus. Plus, a camera had also recorded each scream, and when the guitar solo was performed, each scream’s audio-sample also triggered flashes of the participant’s face screeching into the camera, now played across screens in the club.

Collectively, these examples of recent Digital Signage advertising in Japan reveal how readily people will surrender their Self (face and/or voice) into a data-pool which will mirror and/or echo an image entirely devoid of that Self which served as input. US-dominant web.02-style communalisation (crowd-funding, wiki-teaming, user-voting, choice-tracking etc) continues to paint its outcomes as fantastical apparitions of the Future inhabiting the Present—just as futurologists dream things will be. For those not impressed by such Spielbergian dreams, all those crowds amount to hordes simply in love with the image of their own voice.

RealTime issue #118 Dec-Jan 2013 pg. 23

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Death Race 3: Inferno

Death Race 3: Inferno

Saturation. Overload. Acceleration. Persistent 1960s concepts describing visual media as phenomenally excessive. Media sociologists and media artists for the past half-century chime in chorus how assaultive and bombastic visual media can be—debilitating for the former; liberating for the latter. Be it Jefferson Airplane’s Fillmore Ballroom lightshows or Ryoji Ikeda’s Armory Show installations, the human threshold is remarkably low for intaking sensory information. Audiences so quickly resort to registering sensorial, synaesthetic and immersive effects when presented with a few abstract flashes fired off in rapid succession.

When audio-visuality is championed for its radical potential, it has mostly been enabled by sound and/or music replicating these 60s concepts. Digital tools, processes and effects seem pre-designed to aurally simulate how visual perception grapples with abstraction, speed and density at this low threshold. While the high arts (through multi-media and audiovisual events commissioned by international arts festivals) spiral along these entropic lines, the low arts carve out a spiral equally inspired by saturation, overload and acceleration. Except the words more commonly employed are awesome, incredible, amazing.

Such are the terms audibly announced throughout Roel Reiqné’s Death Race 3: Inferno (2012, currently screening on cable TV). The central premise of Death Race 3 is how the races have now been targeted by a British media mogul for expansion. He has been buying out privatised prisons around the world to establish a global pay-for-view network for the franchising of the Death Race brand. The story centres on the first trial death race staged in Cape Town, South Africa. The action shifts equally between racing (myriad in-car and on-location camera-feeds) and the ‘behind the scenes’ operations within the broadcast studio. Additionally, the film ‘becomes’ the actual broadcast, showing what viewers see. Collectively, the franchise performs self-reflexively by increasing each film’s higher quotient of ‘sports commentary.’ This mode of oral narration signposts an audiovision unique to the generic mutation of sports and cinema.

Where Death Race 3 deviates from other models of ‘media overload’ is in how it audiovisually narrates this phenomenon, as opposed to thinking that it’s creating the phenomenon. Death Race is a fictionalisation of a live event, perversely extemporising and fragmenting the real-time dynamics of multi-camera/monitor spectacles so as to create a meta-fractured sensation of how such spectacles are produced. In a para-nouveau roman fashion, shots shift gratuitously from real-time to ultra-slomo, then into detonations of rapid fire cross-camera edits. The sensation is one of simultaneously being too slow and too fast, giving us a most prosaic interpretation of Deleuze and Guattari’s notions of cinematic time and motion. But it’s not simply the editing and camerawork conjoined which evidences this meta-fracturing: the fusion of voices, sound effects and score marks a shift from the 60s scopic-centric notions of saturation/overload/acceleration toward a coruscating and corrupting mode of audiovision. Let’s consider these soundtrack components individually.

First, dialogue. The bulk of dialogue in Death Race 3 is neither character-motivated nor character-directed: it’s responsive and self-uttered. Characters scream “awesome!”, “incredible!” and “amazing!” in fast edits framing their response to no one in particular. It’s a form of linguistic grunting, like the guttural growls and groans of televised wrestling. Even the stand-offs between racing drivers, the evil media mogul and his South African show producer become symbolic ‘power struggles’ dramatised like wrestling post-bout interviews. Most importantly, the edits are radiophonic, cut according to the vocal delivery. Unlike actual live commentary in televised spectacles, there is no fumbling, stuttering or inanely scripted homily. Here, the voice is a spurting machine-gun of banal yet explosive quips.

Next, sound. You’d have to be deaf to not acknowledge the role of sound effects in Death Race 3. A wonderful moment occurs during the opening Paramount Pictures logo with its chrome 3-D whooshing, wreath of gilded stars and Valhalla-like mountain crest. Over the last decade, this logo (similar to that of Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox and Universal) has been sono-musically re-designed like a cryptic overture to its film. Death Race 3 has a barrage of car noises (engine revving, hood slamming, chassis shuddering) skilfully timed to the logo’s movement. Semiotically, it declares the film is shaped by these sounds, sensations and events. Thus we enter a soundscape entirely located by the ear’s proximity to the noise orchestrated by a car engine. Monstrously customised engines. A bunch of them. A dizzying fatigue hovers at the perceptual threshold of the film, turning it into a numbing rumble of raging machines. It breaks the golden rule of sound design: ensure your listening audience is not ‘aurally fatigued’ by saturation, overload and acceleration. Perversely, Death Race 3 manifests an appropriately sonic equivalent of the effect so lacking in media arts’ attempts to ‘brutalise’ its listening audience.

Death Race 3: Inferno

Death Race 3: Inferno

And finally, music. Death Race 3 has a score and song mix which is sublimely artless in its neurotic impulse to narrate dramatic change while flattening the very drama it seeks. Many of the songs are from Celldweller, a Detroit-based late 90s Industrial musician who progressively moved into electronic dance music—but like so many acts globally with similar CVs ends up producing purposely ‘hi-octane’ revved up music with noise affectations that has a detached ‘scorezak’ sense of narrating something without saying anything. It’s the kind of generic speed-fixated stock library music currently churned out by a billion bedroom composers providing fodder for fast-edited quasi-reality cable TV shows. Drum sample libraries, spritzy effects plug-ins, ornately pre-designed soft-synths and a real guitar put through ‘awesome’ FX boxes. It’s an amazing return to the original principles of “stimulus progression” which governed supply by the Muzak Corporation 60 years ago.

But for the last few decades, everything from rock and pop concerts to Olympics broadcasts to presidential elections to Broadway musicals to reality TV shows to viewer-voting talent shows have deployed an arsenal of broadcasting/recording devices intent on mirroring and replicating their own forms of media-encoding. The 60s notion of a NASA-style wall of monitors has become a banal de rigueur trope to insinuate that there is something momentous and monumental in the recording/broadcasting of the event that necessitates said arsenal. This constitutes the contemporary climate which self-serves media sociologists/artists who presume they are ‘reflecting society’ when they articulate/replicate this mode of self-actualising mediarisation. Death Race 3 bypasses this by rebooting Marshall McLuhan’s adage: it drives into the present while looking at itself in the rear-vision mirror. And like any good race, it goes nowhere really fast.

Death Race 3, BluRay/DVD, Director: Roel Reiné

RealTime issue #117 Oct-Nov 2013 pg. 13

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Marcus Coates, Dawn Chorus (2007), video still, installation commissioned and produced by Picture This, Bristol, funded by Wellcome Trust, courtesy of Kate MacGarry Gallery, London

Marcus Coates, Dawn Chorus (2007), video still, installation commissioned and produced by Picture This, Bristol, funded by Wellcome Trust, courtesy of Kate MacGarry Gallery, London

Vocal Folds (curated by Jacqueline Dougherty and installed at Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne) presents a careful selection of three video works which individually and collectively address the human voice in varied ways.

The installation—like a notable number of Gertrude Contemporary group exhibitions over the past five years—wonderfully grants the visitor access to the material and phenomenal aspects of each work. The ‘white cube’ hasn’t been ignored or destroyed: it has simply become invisible in the face of the installed works, which means that the audiovisual content is comfortably and impressively conveyed without interference by inappropriate architectural edifices, inadequate acoustical accommodation, or improper curatorial assumptions of the audiovisual experience.

Vocal Folds has been refreshingly conceived as a material occurrence, in accordance with its intention to investigate the material effects of the human voice as a generator of palpable linguistics and discursive abstraction.

 

Valie Export

Valie Export’s film I turn over the pictures of my voice in my head (2008) serves as a critical introduction to these notions. Export’s work is a curious amalgam of linguistic didacticism and visceral scopic spectacle—which for me grants it a somewhat obvious audio-visuality. While this is to a degree typical of Viennese Aktionism and its after-effects, Export’s lugubrious intonation of a convolving Wittgensteinian text seems divorced from the conceit of using a laryngoscope to spectacularise the means of production of her language. For some, this audiovisual merger will intensify the experience (the thrill of inserting scopic and auditory devices into the human body is a longstanding trope of radicalised body art) but I found the work surprisingly monotonal and literal. Regardless, Export’s work posits one recourse to visualising the mechanics of language through the materiality of the vocal apparatus.

 

Marcus Coates

Marcus Coates’ multi-screen video installation Dawn Chorus (2007) creates a dense field of communicative noise by employing British morning bird chatter. The mass twittering of birds is the first thing you hear when you enter Vocal Folds. It’s a frenetic, exhausting veil of warbling frequencies and piercing harmonic tones, yet it hangs throughout the three galleries in a non-obtrusive way. Fourteen video screens are positioned throughout the space at varying heights and angles, inviting you to wander through their arrangement. At any one time, you can hear at most three or even four birds whistling, but due to the high frequencies of bird sound, it’s quite difficult to locate their position—especially within an enclosed space. After some time, it became apparent that at select moments, one of the onscreen portraits (each of a singular person alone and comfortable in a plain domestic setting) would break into birdsong. But at this precise moment, the video went into hyper mode, indicating that the ‘birdsong’ I was hearing was in fact humans mimicking birdsong at a slowed-down speed, which was then played back at high-speed to replicate the frequency range of birdsong. Of course, to a bird, it would have sounded more alien than avian—like us listening to a computerised simulation of an off-shore call-centre worker reading James Joyce through a fuzz-box and presuming it to be ‘vocalised language.’

Dawn Chorus—possibly unknowingly—recalls a longstanding tradition of composers attracted to the impenetrable vociferousness of birdsong and the complexity of its multifarious modes, dialects and individualised applications. Beethoven—gifted in hearing music both within his head and in the outside world—allowed birdsong to activate lyrical motifs in his pastoral suites, evoking the sensation of being immersed in the musical crossfire of the outside world. Similarly, Olivier Messiaen—skilled organist and ornithologist—spent innumerable hours meticulously transcribing birdsong patterns from which he elaborated complex rhythmic shapes and dense harmonies to simulate birds’ melodic phraseology. Oskar Sala—developer, with Friedrich Trautwein, of the trautonium and early explorer of the intersection of physics and acoustics—processed and transfigured birdsong tape recordings to render them ‘post-avian’ and hence monstrous for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963).

 

Manon de Boer

While Dawn Chorus is largely determined by an extant attraction humans have toward avian linguistic code, Manon de Boer’s two-screen installation one, two, many (2011) treats humans in a similar fashion. Shifting and alternating between two screens facing each other, a suite of three videos is projected, one at a time, and each time on a different screen. One video is a performance by a vocal ensemble in the large reception area of an old building, watched by a handful of visitors; the next is a performance by a solo flautist alone in a small domestic room; the third has the camera focused on a wall while a woman’s voice talks about listening to a tape recording of a lecture by Roland Barthes.

In one sense, there’s something very modish about one, two, many. Contemporary art for nearly a decade now has been progressively aligned not only with performance and performance art history (canonised by and through Marina Abramovic’s Seven Easy Pieces), but also by the performative modes, techniques and practices of a wide spray of arts predicated on both traditional and experimental legacies of performing. Music has notably come into the spotlight here, with many a video-art videographer treating composers, musicians and their audiences like anthropologists fascinated with such brethren. Often it’s like David Attenborough studying a Fluxus performance: the artist seems to be pondering “what are they thinking when they’re performing/playing/listening/etc.?” De Boer’s one, two, many falls into this category. As much as I would like to celebrate the rigour of its cinematised ‘deep listening,’ I hasten to historically and culturally locate its anthropological tendencies. The roving camera, streaming its one-take flow, ably conveys the sense of entrancement endemic to the act of listening—but such camera technique was well established by tracking shots in Busby Berkeley musicals in the 1930s, where space was dematerialised to evidence the temporality of listening. Manon de Boer’s camerawork resembles more the base humanist impulse of anthropological documentation: to evidence the human being in front of the lens, hence the palpable presence of their hair, skin, clothing, posture. Through such a procedure, the human becomes eroticised—yet for no direct purpose. (Not surprisingly, this is precisely what impels most ‘experimental/exploratory/extended’ forms of musical improvisation: humanism.)

 

To listen, not document

When the Dardenne brothers stayed within the audible breathing space of Rosetta in their 1999 film of the same name, they treated her as if they were filming a combatant in a war zone. This intensifies the psychological claustrophobia which terrorises Rosetta throughout this gruelling film. When in Crazy (2002), Heddy Honigmann places her camera literally in the faces of Dutch UN peace-keepers as they endure the playback of songs they used to assuage their near-insane anxieties while working in debilitating warzones, she captures how the sound of music now ruptures their present space with overwhelming memories of the past. From the gasping breath of a frantic teenager in the former to the silent tears held back by aging men in the latter, the camera is used not to document but to listen. One, two, many doesn’t achieve this, yet—like the Valie Export piece—it affords the opportunity to make these links and consider the wider options of its audiovisual practice.

Yet I’m frankly not confident that visual art professionals are entirely attuned to what I’m saying here. All three videos exhibited in Vocal Folds contain enough visual beauty—from the abject to the transcendental—to satiate the intelligentsia. And I’m equally sceptical that sound/music professionals are interested in the intellectual ramifications of their experimental practices. These videos contain soundtracks and sound designs implicitly opposed to conventional audiovisual cinema practices, thus emboldening those who think audiovision is best discussed as a radical or progressive intermedial venture. Vocal Folds bravely intimates that language can collapse or evolve into a supra-form through the materiality of the voice (something one can imagine Cathy Berberian or Joan La Barbara espousing) but I feel most people will stop just there. The Vocal Folds exhibition for me opened up possibilities from that point, to welcome how the depiction of humans engaged in making or listening to sound or music can illustrate an escape from humanist inscription.

Gertrude Contemporary, Vocal Folds, curator Jacqueline Dougherty, Melbourne, 21 June-20 July

RealTime issue #116 Aug-Sept 2013 pg. 22

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

screengrabs from Canto II, Soulnessless, Terre Thaemlitz

screengrabs from Canto II, Soulnessless, Terre Thaemlitz

Terre Thaemlitz’ Soulnessless (2013) has been largely reviewed in line with its format: a 16GB micro-SDHD data chip filled to its digital brim, qualifying as the “world’s longest album in history” and the “world’s first full-length MP3 album” (as it says on the release’s slip cover).

But there’s much more happening in Soulnessless than its demonstrative act of formatting. Unlike the bulk of ‘politicised technological boutique sound/noise/digital’ releases trading in purported commentary on the means of their production, the state of nowness and the humanist intervention of their endeavour, Soulnessless is empowered by an unerring insularity and asocial tenor which emboldens and clarifies its purpose in reflecting on what it means to produce (more than merely ‘release’) music for the listener today.

To simply describe this complex work: Soulnessless is five extended compositions based around piano recordings, digital processing, layered record samples and occasional onsite interviews, all loosely but carefully addressing symbolic relationships and aural similarities between (a) the extended contemplative states enamoured of Minimalist and ‘ambient’ musical composition, and (b) the ecstatic and transcendental states induced by Catholic rituals of prayer. The micro-SDHD contains five ‘cantos’ (the fifth being an acoustic piano improvisation recorded in a single near-30-hour take), some remixes, an MP4 video of the first four cantos and assorted PDF documentation and commentary. (In the spirit of Soulnessless’s complexity, I’ll discuss in detail a few tracks, rather than attempt to précis its whole corpus.)

This perplexing density of content and form is quintessential Thaemlitz. It bears his distinctive and fascinating cross-wiring between gender politics, transsexuality, classical music’s sexual repression, gay culture’s musical hedonism, and the pop industry’s relentless promiscuity, all swirled into a treacle of viscous thought and technological queering. Viewed in light of Thaemlitz’ artistic history, Soulnessless is a pinnacle in his concentration of these interests and pursuits into a single work (as unwieldy in size as it is).

Soulnessless’ ‘insularity’ is exemplified by Thaemlitz’ alignment of the male computer musician with the Catholic nun, each cloistered within their mental tomb (scroll bars and sound loops in the former; temporal regimes and prayer cycles in the latter). Canto—Rosary Novena for Gender Transitioning features a group of nuns (or maybe just church-goers) reciting the Catholic rosary. It doesn’t take much prompting to reinterpret their droning unison as a type of ‘effects plug-in’ which diffuses their sound and renders them in a post-human (or transcendental) state. After all, where would electronic music of all persuasions be without artificial simulation of Baroque church acoustic architecture and its ethereal reverb? Thaemlitz’ clinical ease in presenting this recording unadulterated for three minutes before a single piano chord rings forth enables such contemplation. It’s a remarkable act of listening more than sound-making, reminding one of Annea Lockwood’s recordings of spaces: her works are acoustic testaments to her aural encounters.

Yet unlike either eco-globalist field recording discourses or Cagean Zen-inflected welcoming of pure sound, Canto I applies modernist secular approaches to aural awareness while retaining the most over-determining aspect of the sound’s cultural content, ie Catholic rituals. The most predictable dialectic of field recording lies in its attenuation of ‘real world’ events to imply veracity, but Canto I perversely applies field recording to the ‘unreal world’ events of religious practice. Most surprisingly, the result is not anti-Catholic, but strangely post-ecclesiastical. As fiery as Thaemlitz’ polemics have always been, a calm quells the melodramatic fire and brimstone critique which besets most Catholic revisionism.

The calmness of Canto I is no superficial emotional by-product. It’s the result of Thaemlitz’ gauging how so-called ‘ambient’ music can be considered its opposite: a disquieting realm of cultural noise and interference. He literally brings to noise the queasy realms sanitised by decades of Minimalist and ‘ambient’ decontextualisation. The aural ectoplasm of the nuns’ choral dribbling could be aligned with Gavin Bryars’ impressively clinical reprocessing of inebriated babble in Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1975), but Canto I suggests less of an observational frame placed around social occurrence and more of a reflective trip inside the heads of the nuns themselves. If there is a Minimalist precedent, it would be Robert Ashley’s Automatic Writing (1979), where the listener lies at the threshold of Ashley’s somnambulistic rambling. Canto I sets audible voices against inaudible voices, aligning the nuns’ incanting while listening to the inner voice of God addressing them, with Thaemlitz the composer voicing his own voicelessness, evoking what poetically arises as a transgender purgatory. Even the fetishistic glitch processing has its place in this queasy meld of celibates and celebrants: that familiar computer clicking sounds like rosary beads.

The title Canto II—Traffic With The Devil, could evoke the dumbo macho mysticism of Sun O))) and their doomy cartoony ilk. But a careful listen (again, facilitated by the long-form nature of the Soulnessless project) evidences not an erotic wonderland of granular complexion or collapsing realms of saturated noise, but an inverse world of immaterial complexity born of a lack of ‘soul’ (ie ‘soulness’). The track feels like a deliberately artless computer grid of cut-and-paste data (the X-Y verticality of digital placement simulating an act of construction). It harkens back to the future lazily dreamt of in early 90s MIDI-dependent ambient/trance/techno (before Warp and Mille Plateaux exponentially complexified those beginnings). Canto II not only parodies the numbing mania of cut-and-paste reflexes, it hollows out those tropes to produce a severely scaled-down automatism rendered with the texture of its immateriality. Maybe we’re hearing processed fragments of piano events from Canto V, but neither the originating grain nor any resultant timbre is as important as the residual aura of their computerised congregation and assimilation.

The Soulnessless project stridently accepts this as a reality-effect of democratised computer production, wherein musical composition never achieved the Stockhausian utopia of ‘trans-orchestration’ or ‘techno mysticism.’ In short, Canto II plainly demonstrates the artefacting of its own existence. Thaemlitz’ compositions are relentless acts of emptying; the Cantos are not heroic acts of faux-radicalised musicality (as if Wagnerian ideals still need to be railed against in the 21st century) but signs of synchronism between the Self and one’s selflessness in the face of immaterial technological production. Canto II’s arching emptiness and contracted repetitiveness is not about Minimalism, Techno or Minimal Techno, but about how those musical genres symptomise macro conditions, of how music is figured and configured in the present of our over-historicised times where everything is ruthlessly contextualised, placed and fixed.

The negative impulses felt in Soulnessless are wonderfully didactic, for they proffer ways in which one can reductively and deductively ‘picture’ musical production—via a semiological reading (parlaying religious iconography into technological praxis as in Canto I) or a textual reading (acknowledging the empty effects of ‘computer creativity’ as in Canto II). The negative world of Soulnessless is a great place to visit—because it’s where you’re already living.

Terre Thaemlitz, Soulnessless, output.p3, Comatose, 2013; comatonse.com/releases/soulnessless/

RealTime issue #115 June-July 2013 pg. 30

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino

Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino

AMID THE THOUSAND AND ONE LAZY ASSUMPTIONS ON HOW POSTMODERN CINEMA IS PRESUMED TO WORK IN THE FILMS OF QUENTIN TARANTINO, IT HAS BECOME DIFFICULT TO DIVINE HOW HIS ‘JUKEBOX CINEMA’ AUDIOVISION FUNCTIONS, AND TO DISCERN HOW HIS SONG AND SCORE SELECTION REFLECTS A POLITICISED MUSICOLOGY.

Tarantino’s authorial conceit and post-authorial recontextualisation of cinematic predecessors is only of conservative relevance to cinema, for his heightened audiovision constitutes a cinematic textuality that is cannily true to a medium born of narrative pulping, stylistic regurgitating and generic melding.

Yet as celebrated as he is for colliding pop songs with filmed action, that very effect has become terrifyingly rationalised in the hands of so many wannabe-outré directors (and producers). Tarantino meanwhile has forged ahead and refined the technique through a mode of perceptual crafting nominally excluded from discussion of postmodern art making.

Django Unchained (2012) marks a high in song selection, narrative recontextualisation and musicological territorialisation with alpine clarity. More importantly, it does so through operations seemingly opposed to the insular textuality of postmodern construction (allusions, appropriations, quotations, de-historicisation etc), and in their place broadly evidences trans-historical networking and even globalised positioning. If the film were simply a new post-PC revision of slave lore and suppressed American history, it would be ingrained in the vein of universalist ore mined by Hollywood cinema, something like a hip mash-up of Michael Cimino’s notorious big budget Zionist Western Heaven’s Gate (1980) and George Englund’s lesser-known low budget messianic Rock Western Zachariah (1971). But a crucial rustling of the filmic fabric is evident in Tarantino’s choosing a slew of Ennio Morricone music cues from other films. This audiovisual tactic does not simply point outward to the world of Pop Music, but rather draws inward the sono-musical phenomenality of recorded songs and cues to create a fertile grounding for the visualised action.

The 60s Spaghetti Western genre—a gloriously impure mutation that has fuelled the Western since its classical demise at the close of the 50s—is renowned for its transmutation of mythic narrative frameworks into visceral operas of violence. Ennio Morricone was the pre-eminent composer who if not defining the genre’s sound, refined it into an archetypal sonography, for evermore branding the movies with the twang of an electric Telecaster and dissonant wailing strings, both drenched in distinctive studio reverb from the era. Yet that description ignores the cultural project of these films and their deliberated soundtracks. In their debunking of the John Ford heroics of Hollywood’s ‘new world’ frontier ethics championed by the films’ collective pioneering spirit, the Italian Westerns embodied a critique of post-war Americanism before it had gained traction as a target of superpower rhetoric by the end of the convulsing 60s. It’s curiously perplexing that the Spaghetti Westerns were regarded by conservative critics and aesthetes as being vulgar, derivative and bombastic, for these Italian revisions of US folkloric history chose mostly to side with forces usually annulled by Hollywood scripts—namely, brutal revenge and retribution sought by Mexican revolutionaries and native Indian war tribes. Surveying the bulk of Morricone’s Western scores, one can audit his musicological allusions to those musical cultures, amplifying them through orchestrations of Italo-Catholic pomp and veneration.

So when Tarantino chooses these tracks, he is—with his voracious knowledge of these mutated generic film histories—working from a specific set of generic blue-prints, other than what might be ordinarily presumed. While the title theme to Django Unchained is the theme song to Sergio Corbuccio’s Django (1966), composed by Luis Bacalov, a number of other cues appear throughout Django Unchained from Morricone’s score to Two Mules For Sister Sarah (1970). Added to this are some distinctive Morricone excerpts from the political thriller Violent City (1970), plus a cue from Riz Ortolani’s title theme from I giorni dell’ira (1967). Along with still more excerpts, the musical fabric of Django Unchained’s score cross-patches songs and cues which sonographically evoke a distinctive Italian aesthetic of scoring terse drama and emotional exhaustion which sounds a universe away from the Austro-Germanic academic tradition which saturates the Continental aspirations of Hollywood’s grand orchestrations. Of course, Martin Scorsese is renowned for historicising his Italo-American crime sagas with songs reflecting the sensibilities of his characters, but Tarantino—of Italo-American descent himself—enacts a more complex tactic by eschewing song (already overused as a device for character assignation in movies post-Scorsese) for Italian film scores originally designed to convey a culturally coded mode of address and commentary which gave the Italian Western its identity.

Now this would all be straightforward enough if Tarantino was just making a rebooted Western, but Django Unchained reboots—or unchains—something that has lain for decades festering in the American Gothic of the South: the slave saga. Americans mostly avoided it until the mid-70s, when films like Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo (1975) and the TV mini-series Roots (1977) were made; slavery was mostly handled symbolically in prison dramas like Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke (1967). Again, it was the Italians who were first off the mark with amazingly violent ‘exploitation’ flicks associated with this sub-genre (the Italians themselves knowing a bit about slavery from their days of Roman glory). Historical movies like Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971) actually overlapped with contemporary American depictions of violence in the Blaxploitation cycle of movies (some of which were Westerns, notably Fred Williamson’s Boss Nigger, 1973). Both generic trends held a lot in common: racial violence, white oppression, black power and fantastic film scores and songs more associated with Pop Music than the film industry.

Perceived this way, Django Unchained becomes a carnival of echoes, bouncing references back and forth between Electric Italy and Black America. Echoic balladeering, Latino flutes and ocarinas, wild fuzzed guitars, Bach-like string fugues and funky booming drum kits perform a dance of stylistic fusion to beget not simply an eclectic mix-tape of cool retro tracks, but a concise mapping of the way pop and folk music at the time provided a transcultural system of signage that allowed these populist films—so derided by critics because of their polyglotic noise—a far sharper prism of politicised refraction than many presumed possible.

Tarantino’s Django Unchained thus audio-visually births a gangster rap visitation of the slave pic as produced by leftist Italian radicals, and blasts it into the auditorium of Hollywood’s white Western museography, whose Old Testament Hebrew tales of heroic land-securement are scored by megalomaniacal Germanic orchestrations. In this melting pot of global currents and murky waters we hear yet another example of Tarantino looking at cinema and calling a spade a spade: the very thing that falls on so many deaf ears.

RealTime issue #114 April-May 2013 pg. 20

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Documentary Of AKB48 Show Must Go On

Documentary Of AKB48 Show Must Go On

Documentary Of AKB48 Show Must Go On

BEFORE DISCUSSING DOCUMENTARY OF AKB48: SHOW MUST GO ON (2011) WHICH SCREENED IN THE 16TH JAPANESE FILM FESTIVAL ACROSS AUSTRALIA, HERE ARE SOME INTRODUCTORY POINTERS ABOUT THE JAPANESE POP GROUP, AKB48. THEY ARE A COLLECTION OF GIRL SINGERS COMPRISING THREE PRIMARY TEAMS OF 16, BASED AT A LIVE THEATRE FOR FANS IN AKIHABARA, FORMED IN 2006 BY EX-AIDORU (IDOL MUSIC C1980s) LYRICIST AND MANAGER YASUSHI AKIMOTO.

Their music is mostly a softened yet pneumatic Euro-disco à la Stock-Aitken-Waterman, designed to be uncontrollably memorable. The vocals come from a team’s 16 voices singing in unison, usually without harmony lines, generating a sports-like karaoke of kiddie chants. Between 2011-2012, AKB48 released 10 singles in Japan (population 127.5 million), each selling on average 1.2 million. (Between 2011-2012, Katy Perry released eight singles in Australia, population 22 million, each selling on average 0.14 million.)

But Pop Music in Japan is a different being. The Idol syndrome that first peaked in the 80s was based on idolatry, figurine worship and the rupturing imperfection of human amateurism, which was perceived to define the ‘idol’ as a shimmering deity in human form. (Only 40 years earlier, Japan collectively subscribed to the Emperor’s divinity.) Japanese Idol music employs crass electronic synthesism as an environmental context for highlighting human expression—hence the off-tune, over-emoted, unadorned voices of groups from Pink Lady and Onyanko Club to SMAP and Arashi.

The AKB48 documentary Show Must Go On is an exhausting ride into the maelstrom of Idol culture. On the surface it appears as yet another exposé of the ‘real world’ behind those ensnared by the machinations of show business. But Show Must Go On presents with uncompromising clarity what is within the surface of Japanese Idol culture.

A number of narrative incidents shape the documentary’s trajectory across the year 2011. The major one is the Great Tohoku Earthquake and resulting tsunami (referred to in Japan as 3/11). We see six members from the A-Team travelling by bus into Otsuchi, Iwate in June. They stare in silence into the de-spatialised devastation we can also see through the bus windows. The members on the bus silently try to read what was once a recognisable landscape.

As they descend, the six young women move differently: they now resemble figurines, exuding the subtle power of Japanese women engaged in formal ritual. The stilted slowness of their bodies and their almost indiscernible head-bowing are signs not of obsequiousness, but regality and divinity, here performed through the minutiae of bodily control as if they are no mere mortals.

They straddle the makeshift stage and formally introduce themselves and their “stricken area support tour.” Suddenly they transform, leaping into synchronised callisthenic moves, singing atop the blaring backing track of Heavy Rotation (2010). Dressed not in their usual glitzy uniforms, which seem borrowed from the mystical princess sub-genre of anime like My-HiME (2005-8), they wear white tour T-shirts, gym pants and trainers. The location sound is similarly raw: it accentuates AKB48’s aural presence as frail human vocals enmeshed in a dizzying multiphonic synthesis.

At one point, the camera hand-tracks behind a gaggle of Japan Self Defence Force members corralled as relief workers, dressed in military garb and patiently listening. It’s the first of many moments in the documentary’s audio-vision where AKB48’s music—performed live or played in a public space—seems dislocated from its surroundings.

Yet at that very moment, it also evidences the means by which the music fuses with its surroundings. Because when such ‘inappropriate’ music occupies a social realm—here, tacky disco pop amidst the ruined townships post-3/11—a reality effect seeps back into the music to intone it with opposite sentiments. In this instance, Heavy Rotation begins to sound less sprightly and bouncy and more drained and hollow.

Documentary Of AKB48 Show Must Go On

Documentary Of AKB48 Show Must Go On

Documentary Of AKB48 Show Must Go On

Another major narrative incident is the AKB48 22nd Single Election held June 9 at the Budokan in Tokyo. Having spent three months in Tokyo shortly after 3/11, much of what is in Show Must Go On brings back memories for me of the transformation and reconstruction which frenetically hit Japan over that time. The AKB48 Election was accorded an amount of media attention proportionate to the drastic re-shuffling of the Democratic Party of Japan’s cabinet under Naoto Kan during the post-3/11 crisis. Images of besuited old men and uniformed young girls each engaged in popularity polling were everywhere.

The AKB48 Single Elections manifest how ‘popularity’ can govern with chaotic yet ultimate power in Pop Music, as team members who get to actually record each new single are selected by their huge Japanese fan base (they sold out the Budokan). How better to ensure attraction to AKB48 than by having one actively dislike certain members in order to like others. That’s how the Single Elections have unfolded since 2009, and Show Must Go On unflinchingly reveals the emotional exhaustion and terrorising debilitation its members wilfully suffer.

When Yui Yokoyama achieves 19th place in Team B, she appears onstage, hyperventilating from the trauma of succeeding. We quickly cut to a later interview where she’s mildly laughing at it herself, querying what she felt. It’s the first of the documentary’s onslaught of such para-bipolar incidents which are performed with an embedded schizophrenic calm typical of Japanese emoting and self-presentation.

When the dramatic long-winded announcement of the first place is blared over the Budokan PA, we see No.1 contender Atsuko Maeda bobbing in her seat like an epileptic. Here is a star, suffering in public, about to succeed, filmed by multiple cameras, surrounded by her colleagues—but everything and everyone around her treats her as a non-existent entity. Show Must Go On documents such instances of Japanese behavioural customs, proving AKB48 to be a simulacrum of Japanese endeavour: completely fabricated, excessively exploitative, undeniably fictitious, yet absolutely affecting.

Backstage after the announcement, we focus on Yoko Oshima, this time demoted to second place. The onstage male announcer’s barking drowns her, indifferent to her emotional collapse. Then an AKB48 ballad blares through the PA: it’s like sonic salt poured onto her gaping wounds. She stands with her back to us, moored in the bowels of the Budokan’s subterranean infrastructure, facing an air-conditioning duct. In the ugly miasma of lo-light video grain, cables and ducting swirl around her like a deadly forest. It’s a chilling anime icon—the mystical schoolgirl princess ensnared in a cruel environment. The camera zooms in slowly on her shadowy back: a sublime moment in Pop Music audio-vision: a portrait of the dark self away from Pop’s photosynthetic brightness.

RealTime issue #113 Feb-March 2013 pg. 21

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Samuel L Jackson, Wake the Fuck Up

Samuel L Jackson, Wake the Fuck Up

GIVEN ORSON WELLES’ INVENTIVE BACKGROUND IN BROADCAST RADIO DRAMA, IT’S SURPRISING HOW LITTLE HIS FIRST FILM CITIZEN KANE (1941) IS ACKNOWLEDGED FOR ITS USE OF VOICE AS ITS PRIMARY DRAMATURGICAL TOOL. IT TELLS THE STORY OF CHARLES FOSTER KANE (PLAYED BY WELLES) WHO ATTEMPTS TO BECOME THE VOICE OF AMERICA, SPREADING HIS WORD THROUGH SYNDICATED NEWSPAPERS, RADIO OUTLETS AND ELECTION RALLIES.

There is hardly a single image in the film which is not predicated on an imaginative consideration of how to visualise voice—of how to depict the means by which political figures picture themselves and project themselves in the act of declaring their principles and selling their platform. It’s not a simple matter of symbolism: Welles employed multiple microphones to map his staged spaces and allow his actors to dramatically shift space while being captured with clear fidelity by multiple microphones. Actor, orator and narrator, Welles thought radio to make cinema.

In the lead-up to the 2012 US Presidential Election, the Presidential Debate functioned as an old world ‘oratorium,’ a gladiatorial battle staged with words. Like all debates—especially broadcast ones—it’s like martial arts in extreme slow motion. The opposite of any contact sport, the debate deploys words in place of swords. Instead of armour or insignia, the participants project themselves as opposing types. Obama gestures with sleeves rolled up, often poised as if sitting on an imaginary brownstone stoop uptown. Romney hovers around, pacing the floor like a Baptist preacher, feigning exhaustion and exasperation. Whether or not their body language or their occupancy of space is a calculated manoeuvre, the semiotics remain. They cast themselves as characters on the political stage, dressing their words in performative garb.

The mediasphere is transformed into a political sound cloud around the time of elections. It’s a dense field of vocal noise. Sound waves criss-cross to form cross-hatched patterns of agitated energy. Much of this sound cloud is formed by repetition, which only adds to its permeation and congestion by looping views. To cut through it takes the kind of imagination Welles exhibited in his scripting and direction of Citizen Kane: he used voice as the material for his construction of a perspective on the topic of voice.

 

wake the fuck up!

Such an approach is taken in a television advertisement for the Obama Campaign of 2012, produced and paid for by the Jewish Council for Education and Research. It features Samuel L Jackson and is titled Wake The Fuck Up!. Inspired by his audiobook reading of Adam Mansbach’s Go The Fuck To Sleep (2011), it’s styled like a children’s tale in rhyming couplets. It tells the story of Little Susie who is concerned that her family—parents, siblings and grandparents—have become desensitised and apathetic, disengaging from the local political landscape as the presidential election looms. She urges them to wake up to their situation, noting clearly how their individual lives and needs will be directly impacted should Obama not win the election due to Romney’s negative platform of cuts and obstructions to a wide range of social services.

Irrespective of the political bias, it’s an hilarious advertisement. When Susie’s family fobs her off with dismissives such as “All politicians are the same,” Samuel Jackson suddenly appears from behind furniture, grabs the family member and retorts vehemently in their face. He demolishes their lazy logic—their unthinking reiteration of responses born of the political sound cloud which wears down peoples’ critical thinking. He does so by first repeating back to them their own line (“All politicians are the same?!?!”), emphasising with incredulity how stupid their response is. Jackson adds a few rhyming lines which pose a counter-argument, finishing with the tag line, “Wake the fuck up!”

 

perfect casting

Once this advertisement was posted online, numerous pro-Romney/anti-Obama ‘video responses’ were mounted, most admonishing Samuel Jackson to “wake the fuck up.” None of them, though, had the power of a comeback line. All the responses seemed incognisant of the core of the Jackson advertisement: here was a black man mystically invading the heartland of lazy, unregistered non-voting white America. His expletive tag line is a self-parody of white perception of African-American vulgar argot. It’s like Eddie Murphy gate-crashing a Martha Stewart cooking demonstration. Jackson’s visual materialisation within the family’s domestic domain symbolises how unfitting his occupancy is, yet how fitting is the presence of his voice.

 

whassup?: beer & politics

The precursor to this type of playful political commercial is the remake of the famous “Whassup?” advertisement for Budweiser Beer. The original 1999 ad spearheaded a radical campaign by Budweiser—then mostly consumed by a white demographic—to target African-Americans. The ad relies on a riotous collapse of language, showing five young black males calling each other on the phone in their shared apartment. One rings up another, saying only “whassup?” which is then repeated by another, who gets a third on the phone’s party-line, until all five are screaming “whassup?” simultaneously. Exhausted, they each proceed to have a Budweiser.

But in the lead-up to the Presidential Election of 2008, an unofficial campaign endorsement was mounted as a short film using all the black actors from the original Miller advertisement. Actually, those actors had all appeared in an even earlier short film, True (1998), directed by and starring Charles Stone III and friends. Stone was then contracted to direct the Budweiser ad. His 2008 ‘remake’ is a re-voicing of his original short film. The characters look older and sound wiser: they certainly weren’t having a good time drinking Buds in the Bush administration years. References are pointedly made to Iraq, the bank loan collapse, Hurricane Katrina, unprotected unemployment and debilitated health care. Instead of saying “whassup” to each other, they chime in with a chorus of screaming and wailing.

 

a single word

It’s funny, but it also rings with the painful truth of the plight which demographically defines the ‘black market’ originally targeted by Budweiser. Their collapse of language is now made to symbolise the failure of the Republican system under which they suffer. It concludes again with them all exhausted; but this time Stone takes a breath and answers the question. He looks at a television set on which Obama waves before a convention crowd. With drooped eyes, he manages a soft smile: “Change.” Three minutes of wailing and a single word. A poetic reduction of visualised voice, tracing the trajectory which marked Obama’s shift to occupy the Oval Office. It’s not far removed from a portentous movie hinged on the utterance of a single word, “Rosebud.”

Watch Wake the Fuck Up on YouTube

RealTime issue #112 Dec-Jan 2012 pg. 24

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

THE OFFICIAL THEME SONG FOR THE LONDON 2012 OLYMPIC GAMES WAS MUSE’S “SURVIVAL.” IT’S A TRULY STRANGE SONG, CHANNELLING SCOTT WALKER AT HIS MOST ATONALLY MELODRAMATIC, FED THROUGH A BOWIE/VISCONTI MOCK-ROCK-OPERA ARRANGEMENT, BLOSSOMING INTO A SPARKLING HOMAGE TO QUEEN THROUGH MATTHEW BELLAMY’S VOCAL HISTRIONICS AND HIS EMULATION OF A STRATOSPHERIC BRIAN MAY GUITAR SOLO. THINK “WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS” STAGED BY LATE-PERIOD SONDHEIM IN A POST-RADIOHEAD WORLD OF POP.

One of the 11 Worldwide Olympic Partners for the 2012 Olympics was Coca-Cola™. They produced their own corporate brand song and a promotional video which was shown extensively on television and cinemas in the lead-up to the Games. “Move To The Beat” was composed and produced by British DJ/producer Mark Ronson and features vocals by Katy B. The arrangement is built around a sluggish ‘de-Housed’ Pop-stomp dressed in banks of pre-set soft-synths emulating a quarter century of ironic/not-ironic string ensemble effects. ‘Sports audio specialist’ Dennis Baxter provided the sound effects of Olympians (sprinting, hurdling, shooting arrows, playing table-tennis and competing at taekwondo) which were sampled and edited into rudimentary loops to underscore the song’s rhythms. In its pale imitation of Kraftwerk’s “Tour De France” (1983), “Move To The Beat” is as frighteningly banal as Muse’s “Survival” is surprisingly progressive.

But might this be deliberate? For what is at stake when a multi-national corporation like Coca-Cola™ produces a theme song designed to exist simultaneously in all its global territories? “Move To The Beat” is not about content and effect; it’s all about context and placement. The chorus is tellingly droned by Katy B: “Everywhere in the wor-or-or-orld.” The paradigm is Warholian in its simplicity: if the Coca-Cola™ Corporation makes Pop, then that Pop will be like Coke™.

Coca-Cola™—early on tagged as a ‘taste sensation’—was one of the first ‘refreshing beverages’ to analyse not the physics of taste, but the physics of sensation. It’s what post-war advertising rhetoric famously referred to as selling “the sizzle, not the steak.” Coke™—a bizarre hybrid of effervescent coca, tannin-edged soda, sarsaparilla bite and caffeine aura—was targeted at the brain in the tongue. It sends in an invasion of nanobots of simulated flavourings working in hive-mind to territorialise the tongue’s bed of sensory readers. Its addictive crux lies as much in the way it contrasts the feeling of artificially induced taste against the procedures by which organic flavours work with the ‘tongue brain.’ After Coke™’s sizzle, biting into an apple becomes a sagging flavour event.

Replace ‘tongue’ with ‘ear’ and you have a version of how Pop music exists phenomenologically. Pop prides itself on sensation, and an awareness of that—not to mention a studious approach to craftsmanship—enables either strains or random instances of Pop music to be experienced as an exhilarating non-cerebral sonic art. It’s something that literary types will never comprehend, social theorists will always misapprehend and serious musicians spend their lives avoiding or suppressing.

“Move To The Beat” is no trail-blazer in the art of Pop—but this is because it’s essentially a trumped-up jingle pretending to be Pop music. The song signifies itself (the purpose of all ‘marketing’) as having everything it actually lacks. The rhythms are perfunctorily edited, the percussive textures lack bite, the synths hover like background scaffolding and Katy B’s vocals throw a congested blanket over the whole squirming mess. In contrast to the ways mainstream Pop recoups the pre-fab concentrates of Dubstep, Rave and R’n’B in oft-derided figures from Justin Timberlake to T-Pain to Skrillex and makes them sonically sizzle, “Move To The Beat” is perplexingly absent of any effervescence.

The cinema version of the video clip (and the official four-minute extended version) is filmed in one of those impressive outdoor stadiums with lighting like Albert Speer on crack. A massive audience has been assembled; a phalanx of roving cameras captures every micro-itch any living being makes; a wall of screens project rapid edits of Olympians soaring, posing, thrusting; and the whole show has been edited to such a degree that it implodes its own purpose. In fact, every shot of Katy B is out-of-synch with what she is actually singing on the track at that point. The subliminal effect is that the clip disregards its own music.

And this is precisely where Pop reveals itself in the clip’s audiovisual spectacle: the song is treated as transient fabric, insignificant textures, a meaningless apparition. In the hands of Coca-Cola™, the song is presented aurally as it is—dull and flat—while being presented visually as all it isn’t—flashy and exciting. Song-steak with video sizzle. The widescreen pizzazz of the clip (I saw it at one of Village’s full-digital cinema complexes) attempts to generate an ocular overload as if such a procedure pushes our perceptual limits. Instead, one can experience with clinical precision the ineffectiveness of such a spectacle.

Proof of how Pop music here is corralled into prancing around as a phantom of itself on the televisual stage lies in the way the clip suggests that these Olympians are actually ‘performing’ their sound effects live in this delusional circus of imploding Pop. At one point, the archer shoots an arrow from the back of the auditorium to a target on stage, and hits the mark—with perfect MIDI timing to boot. Of course it’s not intended to be believable, but it insists on theatricalising in the real space of the stadium an architectural logistical staging of how the sounds in the song are produced and mixed.

Mark Ronson appears on stage (dressed in red and white, following subliminal colour-coding 101) and conducts these ‘performers.’ His fey arm jerks are among the most limp-dicked conductor poses I’ve ever seen from a Pop performer. Ronson’s lack of physical prowess and Katy B’s stiff waddling and twirling are contrasted with Olympians being forced to perform like monkeys in drag, wildly flicking and bouncing on the stage and along special catwalks reaching into the audience. Frankly, no-one comes off well in this debacle. “Move To The Beat” is glaringly allowed to be the one thing Coke™ would never allow itself to be: flat.

This is the first in a series of columns exploring sound, vision and contemporary culture by Philip Brophy.

RealTime issue #111 Oct-Nov 2012 pg. 26

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Top image credit © Coke-a-Cola