Friday 27 November 2009

The Pump CD out now

Compiled from cassettes we released back in 1980, some of the recordings date back to 1978.

Blimey, we were good!

[CD Cover]

[Flyer from 1980]

Buy it here

Sunday 15 November 2009

Monday 28 September 2009

Tuesday 15 September 2009

Bring Power To Its Knees

A classic slice of electropunk karaoke for you all.
The sound is from "Songs of Love and Revolution" (1985) a track also known as "Power of Love" the images are Nocturnal Emissions live at MS Stubnitz, anchored in Rostock, 23 May 1998. Thanks to the Stubnitz crew.

Thursday 13 August 2009

Butterfly (1973)

As you can see from the shots of a black & white TV, this was made in pre-digital times. I made the movie around 1973, when I was 16 years old.
Shot on a clockwork Standard 8mm movie film camera. Standard 8 was a home movie format that preceded Super 8mm. It's like Super 8 but it has larger sprocket holes. The format used 16mm film stock, which needed to be turned over halfway through shooting to expose the other side of film. When processed the film was split down the middle then joined up again to form a continuous 8mm film. This meant it was easy to generate randomised mulitple expoures, by putting the film through the camera several times. So all the edits and superimpositions you see were done in the camera.
The soundtrack is a new addition, a remix of some prog rock from that era.

Thursday 30 July 2009

Banksy versus Bristol Museum

Nigel Ayers describes his visit to see the 'expanded-media cartoons' of Banksy in Bristol

As we arrived outside the Bristol Museum on Sunday morning, the queue stretched round the block. This wasn’t an ordinary art show, it was a must-see popular event. And with 100,000 visitors in the first three weeks of opening, this was no “underground” artist either.

Banksy crossed from subculture to mainstream a few years back, following his move from Bristol to the art capitals of the world, a bestselling coffee-table art book, and his work getting regular exposure on TV and in the international press. Not to mention the phenomenally high prices being paid for his paintings at auction. So this is the local boy giving something back to the hometown that still bears the marks of his early stencil-work. The flyer says “PG Contains scenes of a childish nature some adults may find disappointing”.

The queue turned out to be for one and a half hours. I usually avoid events you have to queue for, but it was a nice sunny day and we were treated to the occasional sight of middle aged women joggers dressed in pink bras puffing and panting their way up the hill in support of a breast cancer charity. Also I found the queue added to the theatre of the occasion, and as you got closer to the entrance of the museum, the excitement seemed to build with the first whiffs of aerosol paint.

And it also added to the irony of the occasion, as you’re shepherded into a really old-fashioned museum by security guards employed by an artist who has built his reputation on dodging security guards. And this is to see art that has an image that is supposed to be way too rebellious to be sanctioned by fusty old institutions such as this.

The artist has chosen to hire this museum and cover all the expenses for what must be his first major show in this country. And admission is free. And there’s no Banksy merchandising at the museum, apart from the book “Wall and Piece” (which you find all over Bristol anyway) though the Oxfam shop across the road is doing a nice line in Banksy stickers and postcards.

So, we found ourselves being corralled into this old stuffy museum and being greeted by friendly museum staff and - thank goodness - they don’t have art explainers showing you round.

At the entrance, there’s a Stonehenge made out of heavily-graffitied portaloos (right), a stuffed crow is perched on top, and in its beak is a bloody tampon. “Welcome to the museum now wash your hands” reads the sign.

As you shuffle down the corridor, there’s a candlelit shrine in homage to the recently deceased pop star, Michael Jackson (below). It’s an oil painting in Victorian genre style of a fairytale cottage in dark woods, with The King of Pop as the wicked witch Jacko leaning out of the doorway offering candy sticks to tempt two lost children inside.

Once you’ve got through all this entrance malarkey, you’re free to wander round the displays, and the museum is large and not so crowded once you get inside. And you’re allowed to take photographs.

The first room is exclusively Art of Banksy, with a militant looking false ceiling of army-surplus camouflage net. And behind a screen of chicken wire you can see a full-scale mock-up of the artist’s studio, hung with loads of cardboard stencils, newspaper headlines about Banksy’s graffiti, filing cabinets are labelled “good ideas” “bad ideas” “other people’s ideas” and “porn”, a knitted cardigan that reads THUG FOR LIFE hangs off the artist’s chair. There’s the sound of a London radio phone-in on some Banksy controversy or other. On the easel is an oil painting of pixellated-faced portrait of a hoody in a baseball cap, the same self-portrait used in the Wall and Piece book.

The walls of the rest of this gallery are covered in “original” Banksys (as far as “original” work is concerned, just about every image in the show is a remix or update of existing cultural product), paintings on canvas, modified reproductions of paintings, small drawings.

In this gallery setting, it is possible to admire the quality of the brushstrokes and to examine closely the various techniques used to remix and remodel. On a craft side, it’s obvious that the guy works with a range from hands-on traditional craft skills to computerised techniques. He can draw, he’s pretty good at painting and can cut a mean stencil. And he’ll tend to abandon technical virtuosity or anything “deep” in favour of quick visual impact.

Rather than calling it the culturally-loaded term “art”, Banksy-work may be more precisely described as expanded media-cartooning which plays with the signifiers of modern urban experience. Each piece within the show works as an easily-readable visual joke. The humour is often cheesy and has gently satirical edge, the context and framing of the work is vital to its meaning. A lot of the jokes are mild, usually visual puns or updates of familiar old paintings. Both the strength and weakness of his output lies in the fact that rather than serious message, serious technique, or serious “cool”, Banksy tends to err on the side of cheeky humour.

In the next room are the pieces that I’ve really come to see, the animatronic petshop. There are surveillance cameras acting like roosting birds, fish fingers swimming round a goldfish bowl and lots of little cages with pet sausages wiggling about in them.

The animatronic effects are of Hollywood quality and fascinating to view. They don’t share the handmade qualities of his other work, so I will presume that this is expensive stuff that he has hired professional fabricators to make.

Throughout the rest of the museum, there a mixture of the museum’s collection and additions by Banksy. There’s a burned out icecream van converted into an information booth, modified faux marble statues and joke oil paintings inserted into the museum’s existing collection of old masters. You find yourself on a treasure hunt of Banksy interventions, and sometimes you’re not quite sure what if you’re looking at is part of the museum’s regular display, or a Banksy addition. An ornate gypsy caravan has been issued with an eviction notice. A stuffed fox in a British wildlife display holds a bloodied Countryside Alliance placard. There’s a hash pipe inserted into another display. I’m not sure whether the “Dinosaur Sick” is an original part of the fossil display or a Banksy addition. In the modern art room, a Banksy-looking painting of a bombed-out farmhouse turns out to be the once-censored “A Farm near St Athans” (1940) by official war artist John Armstrong.

A common technique in Banksy’s art is to play on the edges of the surface on which he is painting. Figures wander out of holes to take a break, a waterfall spills out of the bottom of a painting, UFO's fly out of the canvases zapping ancient galleons with death rays. The grit and mess of the urban environment is integrated into the stencilled paintings, giving texture and trompe de l’oeil visual puns: painted figures engaged in the act of painting.

Everything in this show is humorous, and it’s just as often daft, trite and sloppily done as it is carefully executed. The work is both about messing with illusions and creating the illusion of Banksy as pixellated superhero dodging the surveillance cameras, breaking free from Disney-matrix mind control and sticking two fingers up at Burger King. The meaning of these images is created by the way they are set up in this particularly stuffy kind of museum: the kind of museum you get dragged round on school visits, and not all cool and white-walled and trendily-converted former industrial-space like the Tate, Arnolfini, Exchange, etc etc.

I really enjoyed the show, it was far better than I expected. The dodgy quality of a lot of the work humanised it and made it seem more intimate and uncontrived. As well as there being more jokes, there is an ethical dimension to Banksy’s work which makes a refreshing change from a lot of contemporary art-bollocks.

Looking at criticism of Banksy, I think a rather false argument arises about whether his art is “subversive”. Certainly Banksy consistently plays with the idea of subversion, in the imagery used, in the means of production, and in his pseudo-anonymity. Throughout his work there is a constant ridicule of authority figures and institutions, including contemporary art institutions. This is in common with a lot of youth- or subculture-oriented cultural product. It has a broadly leftist/anarchist/punk/environmentalist undercurrent and consistently celebrates “street” culture. Twenty or thirty years ago this kind of art might have been seen as more subversive than it does these days. Back then, along with the CND, Trades Unionists and new age travellers, artists like this might have attracted the attention of the security services, and even found themselves on Maggie Thatcher’s hit list. Nowadays a few minutes on Google will tell the shape-shifting lizards in charge of the secret state all they need to know about this artist’s real name, what he looks like, where he went to school, who his Facebook friends are, etc.

If being subversive means it undermines the way we currently relate to art, globalised capitalism, and the mythology of artist-genius, then of course Banksy’s work isn’t subversive at all. The way the world is at the moment, to work as an autonomous artist and to live out the myth of individualism by “expressing yourself” requires an amount of financial cushioning, whatever scale you work on. Banksy is best-known for his unsanctioned painterly interventions into the civic landscape. Remaining anonymous may be sensible to remain ahead of the legal repercussions associated with this kind of activity, but this is a pseudo-anonymity, as the signature BANKSY has often featured heavily. The artist with the Banksy tag has been using the celebrity-commodity system in a very pure form, creating the specific artist name, artworks related to this name and the idea of one person as a genius behind it. Speculation about the “real person” behind the name creates a media story which Banksy continues to exploit. So the artwork follows the specific rules of capitalist production, aimed to accumulate economic capital and/or symbolic capital which is the currency of all scenes and subcultures.

Nigel Ayers 25//7/09

Photos by Lesley Ayers


Saturday 18 July 2009

Ruminations on outsider art

There are flaws in the concept of an 'art world', it is a fact of postmodern life that there exist many parallel, overlapping and contra-orbital art worlds.

The distinction of art from craft, or artisanship, has only been a recent invention. Art as a category only emerged in the past 200 or so years and has been the subject of constant re-negotiation since. In a celebrity-based culture, the artist’s biographical details often create the credibility, meaning, or sincerity of the piece more so than the piece in itself.

In the inauthentic world of the late-capitalist West, authenticity becomes something of an elusive commodity in a search for credibility. The field of outsider art has until very recently been one defined by collectors and curators rather than the artists themselves. That is, a set of class-based assumptions were applied to an economic and social underclass which lumped together collections of exotic artefacts typically produced by manual workers, the impoverished and the institutionalised insane. Outsider Art in its inception, was never a movement of self-organising groups of autonomous artists. Instead it has been marked by a set of aesthetic criteria applied by collectors (Dubuffet being the prime example). Being the physical product of people usually categorised as hermits, and social misfits, and members of an underclass, it only became art when placed in the context of an art collection.

In some cases it can be argued that the creator acted without any artistic intention, creating as part of a private personal belief system, rather than social reasons. For example, during his lifetime Henry Darger worked as a lavatory cleaner in Chicago hospital. He was never known as someone who wanted to be an artist. His work was created in secret, most likely for personal fetishistic reasons, and was only found by his landlord some months after his death. In divorcing his illustrations from their private functional context and placing them within a public gallery arena, the function of these objects is changed. Something which may have had personal religious or devotional meaning becomes secularised, as an item for bourgeois cultural consumption.

On the other hand, there is more self-conscious work of preacher Howard Finster, (recognisable from Talking Heads album cover artwork) who carried out his practise as much as a successful small businessman, employing his family members to mass-produce his stencilled art works with public consumption through New York galleries ever in mind. Another very self-conscious Outsider artist would be the sick and twisted, but highly articulate, Joe Coleman, who was a well-known New York punk musician and performance artist before he became known as an outsider artist.

Outsider art was never produced by outsider artists, or by gods and demons, but by complex social processes. In this way it can be seen as a secular form of shamanism.

Whatever the contradictions within this area of discourse, many have found it a fertile seam for exploration, both visually and philosophically. And somehow, it is the intense and fragmentary kind of self–definition, the blurring of boundaries between art and craft that often comes out as crap, that I personally find far more interesting than the sort of art that attracts grant funding.

Because of its fluid nature and because of its parallel concerns to those of 20th century avant-gardes (graphics from Campbell Soup Tin were appropriated by Adolf Wolfli many years before Warhol set up shop), I would argue that the methodologies and concerns of what is called art brut, outsider art, raw creation and visionary art should be re-assessed as central to postmodern art practice.

Nigel Ayers from

Tuesday 7 July 2009

Spam Poetry book now available

The Control You Gain
The Power You Rule

Spam Poetry
Nigel Ayers

Printed: 127 pages, 6" x 9", jacket-hardcover binding, cream interior paper (50# weight), black and white interior ink, white exterior paper (100# weight), full-color exterior ink
available from:

10% off !

Just enter this coupon code at checkout:

Tuesday 30 June 2009

Anti-Navigation Device

Use the anti-navigation device to enable yourself to get lost, including at the launch pad and at several intermediate points in space. Use it to help eradicate a "feel" for which direction you are traveling as well as to unlearn which way you go out so you forget which direction you must go to return. It does little good to know which way to go which direction is which unless you have some idea of when you are lost. (Well, let's see. North is that way, South is opposite and East is that way. But which direction is the $#^%^$@* space ship?) In fact it is a good idea at the launch pad to get out your anti-navigation device and disorient the map from the terrain. Put the map so that map north is untrue and look around. Identify the direction you planned to travel and as many planets as you can, then use the anti-nav. If you don't have an anti-nav, at least do this with this anti-nav training video from the Cornwall Community Space Program and look at the stars, the stars, the stars. Be sure you forget which "direction" "you" are facing. A solid mental picture of this anti-navigation device is a good start to your trip.

Sunday 28 June 2009

Dom Allen and Florian Hecker at Urbanomic

It's hot summer Saturday night; and at the Urbanomic studio at the Old Lemonade Factory in Falmouth. Dom Allen set up his complex sonic devices, handmade oscillators and modified toys in the studio and wandered off to take the air , leaving the knob twiddling to whoever wandered into the space. His instruments are messy, grainy, analoguey, and chaotic, it's hard to tell which button or switchboard jack does what, there's the image of a pin-up model etched into an exposed circuit board, with electrical contacts inviting you to probe her body surface for erogenous zones and glitch points.

Later everyone sits in lines of chairs for an hour-long talk with the classical electronic composer Florian Hecker, followed by a performance of his 4-track sound recording Rearranged Playlist as Auditory Stream Segregation. The Urbanomic crew had put a lot of sweat and tears into installing a special sound rig for this performance, but I have to say the show itself struck me pretty much as Stockhausen with disco lights.

Much as I love Urbanomic, flashing lights and noisy noises, I have profound ideological differences with the elitist art-music tradition that Hecker is coming from, so I did a quick bit of videoing and then hit the road.

Friday 19 June 2009

Does Modern Art Give You a Headache?

Video is by Stewart Home. The soundtrack is a remix I did of one of Stewart's Punk Rock pieces (I think it's "Smash the Individual") with a computer-voiced text of his "Genetically Modified Metzger Manifesto" which goes something like this:
"The damaged nature of industrial societies leads to auto-destructive art.
The sound of amplified jet engines cruising a mile above the earth.
The bombers circle and circle and circle around acid on nylon.
Machine produced and factory assembled art works by Gustav Metzger.
Combustion, compression, concrete, corrosion.
Convulsion, subversion, defection.

Random activity and the tangential slogan no more beautiful ruins!
Smash the picturesque, smash capitalism, smash realism and smash abstraction.
Suited beings in Regent Street are monsters of self-regulation.
Everything, everything, everything else is an echo of Russian futurism
Combustion, compression, concrete, corrosion.
Convulsion, subversion, defection.

The greatest art of the sixties was dumped nightly on the streets of Soho.
The greatest art of today is the spam filling your email inbox.
Far better than those poetry sites where people cut and paste words and phrases,
Is junk email which uses exactly the same technique to avoid spam filters.
Combustion, compression, concrete, corrosion.
Convulsion, subversion, defection."

Wednesday 3 June 2009

Nocturnal Emissions in Xanthi

it happens right here

the Magnetiphono girls from Athens

and Nocturnal Emissions

with two blonde assistants

and some flower-powered electropunk karoke

sweet dreams are made of this.

Monday 18 May 2009

Nocturnal Emissions in Xanthi

Boycott Consensus Reality!

some of the most unexpected news slowly started circulating at some point last month amongst the music loving masses in greece. apparently the tireless people in Xanthi (in the north-east part of greece) were busy setting up a one-time performance by electronic/underground music legend Nocturnal Emissions (aka Nigel Ayers). by some, the news was met with disbelief at first, but those who had more faith in the transcendence of the ordinary knew better.

the (music & video) performance will take place @ spiti politismou fex, in the old city of xanthi on saturday may 30
show starts at 21:00, entrance is 5 euro

Nocturnal Emissions will be joined by an emerging electronica artist from athens, Magnitophono. there will also be an after-show dj party

time for a small trip

cut & pasted from:

Sunday 3 May 2009

Stewart Home on neoism, plagiarism and altermodernism

Stewart Home is a counter-cultural icon who, as a writer, artist and thinker has been involved with cultural and counter-cultural activities for more than 30 years.

First of all could you tell us a bit about your background, and what propelled you into working in a public arena?

I didn't have any background to propel me into doing stuff in public, most of the kids I went to school with either went on to work in factories or joined the army. My school did produce a few really famous male rock musicians and one famous female nude model! I didn't like the music made by the rock stars who’d been to my school and there weren't the same opportunities to make a career from nude modelling for boys at that time. I even turned down the odd offer to appear in gay porn movies, where I'd get a hundred quid and they didn't even need to show my face, just my arse.

I was very into music, and started writing reviews in the late seventies to get free records and get into gigs for free. I also started playing in bands, but mainly they weren't very good. The first band I was in that played proper gigs, as opposed to parties, was a ska band called The Molotovs and we murdered tunes like "Johnny Too Bad" and "54-46 Was My Number". The next band I was in used to murder tunes like "Louie Louie" and "Real Cool Time", but did a rather good version of "Gloria" - and we were more inclined to play original material and keep covers for encores, so that people would have already decided they liked us before we gave them the opportunity to judge what we were doing against an earlier version of a song.

So, we're talking about the late 70s / early 80s . A time before the Internet, satellite TV, mobile phones, cheap air flights, cheap heroin etc. I think what was distinctive about that era, which perhaps isn't so true now, is the way complex social networks grew around such artefacts as vinyl records, and xeroxed 'zines, which seemed a possible way out of the mundaneity of everyday life. And there was perhaps an occasional sense of community in opposition to Thatcher and the destruction of the welfare state.

I get the impression that from a very early age you had a high degree of motivation, and that motivation was towards activities that many would find difficult and materially unrewarding, even futile. For example, back in 1980, it wasn't considered hip to be an artist and few people would visit galleries. Likewise the novel wasn't exactly a "weapon of choice" back then. Forming a band would also have been an effort of self-organization, since musical instruments were relatively more difficult and expensive to get hold of.

Yes, back at the end of the 70's I was very aware of the communities formed around bands and fanzines. However, after a while I found that scene a bit unsatisfying. I liked music a lot but things got very narrowed down into genres, and this was a particular problem on the punk scene which seemed to view itself as much more progressive than other youth cultures but in practice tended to be more bigoted.

I liked some punk bands, although in retrospect a lot of what I liked wasn’t really punk but power pop or pub rock dressed up to look like punk. I also liked soul and funk. Most of those on the punk scene really looked down on you if you also liked Afro-American music, and there was a sometimes unconscious and sometimes not so unconscious racism in this. Kids into disco, northern soul and funk, tended to be more open minded about the different types of music someone like me might have been into. And this punk bigotry became even more of a drag when the punk scene split into Anarcho, Gothic, Oi! etc. Also when I was writing in or producing my own zines I didn’t just want to cover music and this often got a bad reaction. I just wanted do be involved in something more interesting than these increasingly narrow punk scenes.

I used to also spent a lot of time at cinemas around London and in particular The Scala, first on Tottenham Street and then after it moved to Kings X (above left) in the early eighties. And I was reading a lot of the modernist classics, from Robbe-Grillet to Burroughs – as well as seeing them on film, Burroughs in Towers Open Fire and The Cut-Ups and as narrator of Witchcraft Through The Ages (below right); Robbe-Grillet as a screenwriter on Last Year At Marienbad and as writer/director on Trans-Europe Express etc.

Mike Heart who was on the fiction desk at Compendium from about 1979 on told me years later he could tell I was one of the more interesting kids coming in to buy books. He said he divided the teenagers like me who were buying books from then into two groups, the ones worth encouraging with their reading and the ones who weren’t. So if you went in and bought Kerouac then Mike would just take your money, but if like me you bought Burroughs he’d suggest other stuff you might be into and try and get it cheaply for you too. But I met a lot of people who’d turn me onto stuff I didn’t know, not just Mike Heart.

So it wasn’t like today when you could just get this amazing range of information from the internet, you’d have to seek it out.

But there were older people around who’d turn me onto a lot. It required a certain amount of motivations, but it wasn’t all unaided effort. These sort of interests weren’t encouraged at school, since we didn’t even do schlock like Shakespeare, the English teacher told my class we were too thick for the Bard which was why we did the only examining board in English literature where you could do all modern texts. And we were like the elite of a very crap school, seven streamed classes in the year and only in the top two were you allowed to do O-levels as it was then. The three beneath you could do CSE, which in the old system was seen as not nearly as good as an O-level, then beneath that were the non-exam classes for those considered not good enough to do CSE, the bottom classes were mainly made up of kids from the children’s home and kids from Muslim families. The school was completely institutionally racist, it must have been about 25 percent Muslim kids and yet there was only one Muslim girl in the O-level classes, the rest were in the CSE and non-exam classes! But that was the norm back then in the seventies, when I left school I went and worked in a factory for a while and I quickly got a cushy job in the finishing department coz I was literate and numerate so I could count and sign everything out. A lot of the white guys in there were illiterate, and those that weren’t got the easy jobs, and if they were older than me got to be the foremen. There were Muslims who had the literacy and numeracy to take these posts but they just weren’t given them. So I didn’t grow up with anyone who knew anything about the art world or knew writers or anything. Music seemed a bit closer coz my school had produced some well known rock musicians. But I just found the world interesting, so I wasn’t gonna let the teachers telling me and all the other kids in the school we were thick hold me back.

Can you tell me something about 'Smile' magazine, and the context it arose in? At the time, it looked like it might have been difficult and expensive to produce. You wouldn't have been using computers back then, and there wouldn't have been digital printing. How did you distribute it?

'Smile' started because I was doing these funny little poems, mainly as a reaction to the stuff I was hearing read at clubs back then. In the very early eighties I used to go to places like Evening Falls/Suns of Dada in the basement of Slightly Oliver’s Wine Bar in Holborn, London. They’d have people like Anne Clark doing this supposed street poetry, but I really hated the mix of socialist realism and gothic elements in a lot of what was being done then. It was really really bad aesthetically and I saw it as the sub-literary equivalent of the very worst music that came out of the punk/new wave scene: bands that really suck like Siouxsie and the Banshees or The Cure. So I’d write these really banal and short still life type poems about fruit and vegetables and get up and do those as a way of taking the piss out of what was poetically dominant on that scene...So the first couple of issues of Smile were just a way of collecting some of this spoken word material together. I put the first one together at the end of 1983 and it was published in January 1984, then I did the second issue within two months of that…

I suggested in the first issues of Smile that other people should do magazines with the same name, a kind of neo-dadaist joke although I was quite serious about getting other people to use the name. Then I ran into the Neoists, and discovered Dave Zack’s Monty Cantsin project, where lots of people would use the same performing name, which was very much along the same lines.

I got a cheap print deal via someone I knew from political groups for the first couple of issues. Then the print shop where that was done closed down. The next few issues weren’t so well produced. But they were all off-set apart from issue 6 which was silk-screened. They were done in runs of somewhere between a thousand and two thousand. Then I got some better printing sorted out, done at a discount but I still had to go easy on my dole money to have the readies to pay for it. I’d eat really cheap food, scavenged vegetable, beans, bread, pasta, and save money out of my dole cheques to pay for printing and also doing stuff in galleries or mail art. Art openings were better then than today 'coz you could get free drinks and they’d often have food too! So as far as possible I’d live on other people’s dip. Verso book launches were particularly good for free food, so I’d go early to those. They bought all these Marks & Spencer's nibbles, very flash!

Then I borrowed an IBM compositor, which went around political groups I was involved with, and I’d use like spot colours on the cover, and glossy paper. I’d learnt to touch type when I was sixteen so I was quite fast with the compositor, and it wasn’t really that much more complicated than an electric typewriter, it didn’t take long to learn how to use it. Back then looking professional really helped shift stuff. In the mid-eighties most underground publications were done on typewriters, so the fact that I typeset mine myself really made it look better and got it to stand out. I also typeset stuff for a load of other people when I had the compositor.

Volatile memory and you could put in about a column and a half of text at a time in the small type sizes I favoured. You’d programme it to stop and you’d have to change the golf-ball head if you wanted to change the type or put in italic or something. But compared to a lot of what was around it looked really flash. And I was parodying British newspapers and advertising, so on one issue as a joke I put ‘Forward With Libya’ rather than the more famous ‘red top’ slogan ‘Forward With Britain’, and 'coz it looked good a rumour went round I was funded with Libyian money, although it was just my dole cheques.

I made the magazines really cheap too, like 30p, but I’d make at least costs back. It was very easy to shift 2000 copies then just through the radical bookshops around London and out to a few other outlets beyond London that requested it. Younger kids forget how different it was in that pre-Internet era. It is much harder to shift publications in those kind of numbers now than it was back then. I’d just get on my bicycle with the magazines in a rucksack on my back and take them around myself. I was in inner London but I liked cycling so I thought nothing of going all over greater London distributing stuff on my bicycle. Things that went further were mailed or I took them if I was passing through.

Punk had radicalised a lot of people at the time: partly in opposition to an increasingly right-wing government. What were the other influences and cross-currents around at the time as you recall them affecting you?

The big thing for me as a kid in terms of political influence was a bit earlier than that. The three day week then the two elections in 1974. Heath had that line about who rules the country me or the miners; and I’d be going to school through that and it was nothing but a sea of Labour posters all the way there.

Obviously Labour wasn’t radical but because of the rhetoric of the Tories as a 12 year old I felt we were really close to a working class revolution, which of course was a very exciting prospect! I was already very anti-monarchist and anti-capitalist before punk. Partly it was a great way to wind up the teachers. I’d get Capital by Marx out of the local library and carry it around school, although I didn’t read a word of Marx until after I’d left. But it was a great wind-up to the teachers. I got a copy of Willie Hamilton’s anti-monarchist book “My Queen & I” when that came out in paperback and I’d put that on my desk; it really annoyed the teachers.

So to me punk wasn’t really that important for those political attitudes they were already there. In retrospect I think punk wasn’t that useful, it kinda killed rock and roll, and also there was an incredibly bigotry among sections of the punk scene against disco and soul, which just wasn’t helpful. Looking back on it, I think punk was massively over-rated. There were interesting things around it, but often that was power pop or pub rock dress in punk rags as a way of attracting an audience. Listening to bands like the Sex Pistols and The Clash now, they sound pretty awful.

What was it that drew you to Neoism subsequently? Is it possible to describe what Neoism was?

Neoism was just a bunch of people internationally who appeared to be doing the same things I was doing. So it appealed for that reason, and because I’ve always considered collective activity on cultural and other fronts to be important. As far as the name goes, Neoism can be summed up with the explanation that it was a prefix and a suffix without any content… But actually you can see it very much in a tradition of avant-garde anti-art, more running through dada and fluxus and mail art until I came along and injected some situationist influences. But some of those involved claim it wasn’t anything to do with art and was instead occult speculation or a new way of living, while others claimed to be artists. But if those involved in Neoism were artists, they certainly weren’t money artists but ‘real’ ‘undergrounders’.

Later in the 80's you had shows at prestigious venues like Transmission Gallery in Glasgow and Chisenhale in London amongst others (pictures left and above x2). How did these come about? How did the shows relate to your other interests and concerns? Did they embody particular political or philosophical ideas for example?

I was interested in demonstrating that art was a process of bureaucratic manipulation, that art was whatever those in a position of cultural power said was art. So I set out to establish myself as an artist to prove that anyone who understood the art system could manipulate it in this way. For this reason it was important for me to do gallery shows. Getting in those legitimate spaces and getting reviews in the national press and art magazines - which was achieved with those shows you mentioned - proved that someone like myself could just set out to put themselves in the position of an artist, you didn’t need the right background or training, you just needed to understand how to manipulate the institution of art.

But those shows were also really interesting group collaborations involving not only me but also people like Stefan Szczelkun and Ed Baxter who now runs Resonance FM. The 'Art In Ruins' duo Hannah Vowles and Glyn Banks were also involved. We had huge fights and arguments about what we were doing and how this related to our opposition to the mainstream art world and culture at that time. I don’t think everyone was coming from the same position but we all wanted to smash culture as it existed at that time and remake it in a less elitist form. But then, of course, the yBa came along and things got worse.

I was messing around with stuff, edging my way into galleries. At that time people in the London art world didn’t know much about Fluxus and the Stiuationists, but I’d been doing research into them and published stuff in Smile relating to that, so people realised I knew about that and thought I’d been interesting to know and work with. Stefan Szczelkun I came across through mail art but he was in South London and invited me to the first Our Wonderful Culture show opening. I think Stefan must have pointed me out to Ed Baxter, because he came over to me and started up a conversation about some of the stuff I was writing up in Smile, then he took me across to meet Hannah Vowles and Glyn Banks. Stefan had been asked to do a show at Chisenhale and I think pretty much that night it was all agreed we’d try to do something collectively. So that was how that and the Transmission show and later ones in Malmo and Luton came about. But at the same time I was meeting other people in other ways. I was putting pieces in to the group shows at DIY Gallery that used to be in the Elephant and Castle shopping centre. So I was dealing with people there who were interesting like Chris Saunders, but it wasn’t just him there were a load of other people around him.

The Festival of Plagiarism, which you instigated and organised, in January and February 1988 was a large number of events, including art exhibitions, music perfomances, video, actions (such as National Home Taping Day) and performances to which anyone was invited to contribute. Aimed squarely at "the false individualism of consumer society", as I remember, it took its ethos from "underground" DIY modes of collective organisation. The events ran in community spaces such as Community Copy Art and small galleries rather than in "establishment" art spaces. A major achievement of the FOP was to show that it is possible to organise an ambitious cultural event without enough money to cover any more than the most minimal of expenses - the festival had no sponsor, two of the three main organisers were registered as unemployed and the third was on a minimal wage from a book distribution service at the time.

My own contribution to the festival was to organise & perform in a loud samplist/exploitation night at the London Musicians Collective as Spanner Thru Ma Beatbox, along with Mixmaster Morris' Irresistible Force and Pornosect. Who else do you remember as being important contributors to this event and what else can you say about plagiarism?

The answers to that are all really in The Festival Of Plagiarism booklet, the text of which has been on my website for a few years. There are a few pages of that starting at: and you’ll find most of the names of those involved there too. So no point in me repeating them here.

Graham Harwood is someone I haven’t mentioned who really involved himself in that.

I think the point of using the term plagiarism was that it was provocative in a way that appropriation and detournement weren’t, although what we did related to both those practices. Again we had a lot of arguments about what we were doing and why, particularly Ed Baxter and me. Hannah Vowles and Glynn Banks weren’t involved with 'The Festival of Plagiarism', but they used to like arguing too when we did the group installations.

The piece I’ve given the link to takes a very different line from the report Ed Baxter produced for an early issue of Variant. But we were all incredibly serious young men and women back then, but also very fond of jokes. The humour I favoured was a little more low-brow than what Ed was into at the time. However, through it all we’ve remained fast friends and have remained antagonistic towards commodified culture. So I think the message here and in the other things we did was that if there is to be a better world, we have to make it ourselves. And that was kinda the message of the Art Strike too: it’s up to us to make it new and seize control of the world, and the elitist art system only exists to hold us back, which is of course why we need to smash it.

Your book 'The Assault on Culture: Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War' was published around the same time: in 1988 (front cover left). Am I right that it included essays and ideas written during the previous 10 years and published in magazines like VAGUE?

VAGUE really caught people’s imagination in the eighties and shifted a lot of copies, and I did contribute to it. But that historical textual practice about the avant-garde was much more developed through my own publications, particularly Smile magazine. However, while the research went back over quite a few years, 'Assault On Culture' was written from scratch in about six months in 1987, the year before it was published. It didn’t incorporate earlier texts although it did incorporate information from some earlier texts, with the main source of these being issues 8 and 9 of Smile.

During the nineties you turned more towards writing novels, ostensibly as a way to earn a living, but remained involved with the art world through contacts like Matthew Higgs. You were, for example, included in Life/Live in Paris in 1996, and made work for Imprint 93 (eg pin badge left below). But I sense that your interest in art had changed. Had you lost some of that residual belief in art as a force for change perhaps?

I wrote my first two novels in the eighties, and was writing the shorter fictions that led into them from the mid-eighties onwards. After eighties I was just a little bored with the art world and didn’t particularly have plans to go back into it once I’d done the Art Strike from January 1990 to January 1993. However, Mathew Higgs was very keen for me to do stuff with him, so eventually I did and then with various other people.

Matthew was very keen to organise an alternative to the tedium of the yBa, something I definitely sympathised with. But in the nineties there was a lot of very interesting non-literary activity that was also well outside the art world in the form of things like London Psychogeographical Association, Luther Blissett Project, Association of Autonomous Astronauts. So there were many prank activities going on, I was running the Neoist Alliance - which had nothing to do with the old Neoist Network.

These non-commodified practices which attempt to overflow the canalisation of culture and politics just seemed very exciting in comparison to the art and literary worlds. So that was really where my main focus was. But also I’d be asked to go to a lot of very pleasant art world parties, and I’m not one to forgo a good time…

During the Art Strike I’d signed back on the dole but from the mid-nineties on I was supporting myself mainly from the royalties from my novels. They were being translated in Europe and because the pound wasn’t too high that was a nice little income, not as much as I’d have got from a crap factory job but enough to live on. So it is true to say my novels were at that time my main source of income.

I understand you interviewed Ralph Rumney - the only English member of the original Situationist group - for Art Monthly a few years ago. What many don't know is that not only was he an accomplished abstract painter (see picture below left), but that he actually lived in St Ives and worked with Barbara Hepworth for a while.

At various points in the last 20 years, and before, the Situationists have been invoked by artists interested in art or other cultural activities purporting to have a radical edge. What do you make of the ways in which these ideas have been used?

Nothing would surprise me about Ralph Runmey, he did so many different things and had so many different lives. I found the way he’d completely change the style of the art he made every few years fascinating. But yes I interviewed him a couple of times, once for The Assault On Culture and then a couple of years later for Art Monthly in 1989, the latter interview is online at

As far as the art world goes, I don’t think many people within it know what the situationists were really about – i.e. proletarian/communist revolution - they just invoke the name as a kind of buzzword intended to signify some kind of vague radicalism. Will Self does much the same in the literary world, but I get the impression he’s more interested in his status as a middle class literary gentleman than creating a world without money or classes and abolishing alienation. There is no point getting heated about this, I’m not precious about the situationists and given their obsession with recuperation they presumably expected as much. As anything more than a vague buzzword the situationists are only of any use if you understand them in the context of the ultra-left and can see that their weaknesses stem from them being too reliant on councilist traditions, which they’d never really attempted to synthesise with Bordigism. That said, they understood well enough the necessity of constantly reforging the passage between theory and practice, whereas their invocation in the art world is more generally idealist. I think the interesting use of elements of what they did occurs elsewhere, and in the 1990s this might be found in the London Psychogeographical Association, The Association of Autonomous Astronauts or the Luther Blissett Project. For me the Situationist International is most interesting up to 1962, before the split between the more ‘cultural’ and more ‘political’ factions, because I’m committed to overflowing all divisions between culture and politics.

You are still busy with a number of projects. For example you curated a show called Hallucination Generation at the Arnolfini (presumably with current Tate St Ives director Martin Clark) in 2006 and you've been involved with making documentaries with Jeremy Deller and the K-Foundation. Could you summarise some of your other current projects so that we can link to them?

One of the main things I’m doing at the moment is editing the Semina series of experimental novels for Book Works. In the past ten days or so I’ve done three public readings and a talk on Ray Johnson and mail art, but what I do varies all the time. Public events are listed on the home page of my website.

But a lot of stuff is more spontaneous, so it just kinda happens with the people who are around. Another thing that is coming up is a big Art Strike Biennial meeting in Alytus in Lithuania this August. And of course my blog on the back end of my website sometimes reveals where I’ve just been or what I’ve just been doing. That said, there generally isn’t any reason to blog about my readings and talks, although if something a bit different happens there might be. But the blog is a good way to keep things moving along, critique, discussion and practice too of course! The comments are to me just as important as the main part of the blog. I think you can see new ways of writing emerging with this… it is a lot looser and freer than printed texts, and a lot less fixed, I love its incompleteness…

On your blog you were critical of Altermodernism: the concept, perhaps, more than the show. But what do you make of Bourriaud’s take on global culture? A feature on suggested that its in the interest of big institutions like the Tate, like other types of corporations, to attempt to increase their influence world-wide by embracing and promoting a notion of global culture that is actually rather spurious. What do you make of this? What are the other issues highlighted by this show in your view?

I haven’t come across anyone in the London art world who takes the idea of Altermodern seriously. I don’t think Bourriaud knows what modernism and post-modernism are, and for me they are linked – as I first said in the mid-eighties, two stages in a single trajectory – they aren’t opposed to each other. Bourriaud is probably better suited to working for Primark than in galleries, he’s certainly the curational equivalent of a cheap fashion brand. You can almost imagine the meetings they had for the Tate Triennial: “So we’ve done the winter Zeitgeist, which was post-modernism, so I’ve got this great idea to make it over as the Altermodern for our Spring Collection.” Completely ridiculous!

The only people who took the Altermodern seriously were super-sad indie-kids like Nick Currie. And Currie’s blog defences of Altermodern were pretty marginal; he even admitted in one of the comments he hadn’t even seen he show, because he was in Berlin not London! No one but an indie-wanker could take Bourriaud seriously as an intellectual, and obviously the odd twerp like Currie who misidentifies Bourriaud as being an intellectual isn’t worth engaging with since he is so intellectually inert he doesn’t appear to have even the slightest inkling of how intellectuals function as a class fraction. Whether you agree with them or not, people like Peter Osbourne and those around Radical Philosophy in London are intellectuals - you know “thinkers” - but Bourriaud isn’t an intellectual he’s just pathetic fashion victim dressed in truly shitty designer knitwear. Likewise, Altermodern is just a haphazard collection of trendy art that Bourriaud claims to likes. It has no substance.

My view is that the Tate decided to run with Altermodern as a marketing strategy because it is desperate to cover up the patchy nature of its collection. In the US you have serious funding for the big art institutions and so they can afford to buy up the big names and have reasonably comprehensive collections. The cost of this is that it is the boards and funders who really control the institutions and the directors and curators are more like functionaries. In Europe curators like to have more control, but at the cost of not getting the same kind of financial backing. So the art in The Tate collection is like Swiss cheese, it’s full of holes. Something like Altermodern is a desperate attempt to cover this up. It’s a bad conjuring trick. The Tate gets Bourriaud to definite the current cultural moment as the Altermodern, the Tate has the Altermodern show, therefore there are no holes in the Tate Collection. Other than the odd pig-ignorant indie kid, no one is fooled by this, not even the people doing it. The Tate clearly don’t believe its own hype or else they wouldn’t be running satellite screenings of 1970s films like Westworld and Radio On as part of Altermodern. It’s utterly ridiculous, a bad comedy sketch. I think the main thing the Altermodern show highlights is the bankruptcy of the art world!

I don’t think Bourriaud has a take on global culture, he writes the global element out of modernism, so that he can re-write it into the Altermodern. But this is simply absurd. Capitalism is a totalising and modernism emerges from that, it was always and already global...

Interview for by Nigel Ayers 29/4/09

Thursday 23 April 2009

ImMApp: An Immersive Database of Sound Art

J Milo Taylor is a London-based musician, artist, academic and writer whose interests include site-responsive installation, interactive robotics, sound art, multimedia environments, improvisation and performance. His work has been shown internationally and he maintains a commitment to interpersonal, intercultural and intermedial exchange as productive of original and context-specific creative outcomes.

His PhD project "ImMApp: An Immersive Database of Sound Art" involves a critical mapping of historical and contemporary sound art.

ImMApp: Ver 0.1: Web Interface from j milo taylor on Vimeo.

ImMApp: Ver 0.2: Installation Environment from j milo taylor on Vimeo.

Sunday 12 April 2009


Exterminator is an electronic sound object made by Nigel Ayers, it contains a three step sequencer which activates a sound chip found in a Dr Who Dalek Easter Egg.

The Daleks were created by writer Terry Nation and designed by BBC designer Raymond Cusick. They were introduced in December 1963 in the second Doctor Who serial.They became an immediate hit with viewers, featuring in many subsequent serials and two 1960s motion pictures. They have become synonymous with Doctor Who, and their behaviour and catchphrases are part of British popular culture. "Hiding behind the sofa whenever the Daleks appear" has been cited as an essential element of British cultural identity, and in a 2008 survey, 9 out of 10 British children were able to identify a Dalek correctly.

The word "Dalek" has entered the Oxford English Dictionary and other major dictionaries; the Collins Dictionary defines it rather broadly as "any of a set of fictional robot-like creations that are aggressive, mobile, and produce rasping staccato speech". Terry Nation once said in an interview he got the idea for the name from the spine of an enyclopaedia, the volume covered DAL-LEK, although no such book has ever been found and Nation later admitted he had made this story up. It is also a trademark, having first been registered by the BBC in 1964 to protect its lucrative range of Dalek merchandise.

The term is sometimes used metaphorically to describe people, usually figures of authority, who act like robots unable to break from their programming. John Birt, the Director-General of the BBC from 1992 to 2000, was publicly called a "croak-voiced Dalek" by playwright Dennis Potter in the MacTaggart Lecture at the 1993 Edinburgh Television Festival.

The staccato delivery, harsh tone and rising inflection of the Dalek voice were initially developed by voice actors Peter Hawkins and David Graham, who would vary the pitch and speed of the lines according to the emotion needed. Their voices were further processed electronically by Brian Hodgson at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Although the exact sound-processing devices used have varied, the original 1963 effect used EQ to boost the mid-range of the actor's voice, then subjected it to ring modulation with a 30 Hz sine wave. The distinctive harsh grating vocal timbre this produced has remained the pattern for all Dalek voices since (with the exception of those in the 1985 serial Revelation of the Daleks, for which director Graeme Harper deliberately used less distortion).

Since 2005, the Dalek voice in the television series has been provided by Nicholas Briggs, speaking into a microphone connected to a voice modulator.In a 2006 BBC Radio interview, Briggs said that when the BBC asked him to do the voice for the new television series, they instructed him to bring his own analogue ring modulator that he had used in the audio plays. The BBC's sound department had changed to a digital platform and could not adequately create the distinctive Dalek sound with their modern equipment. Briggs went as far as to bring the voice modulator to the actor's readings of the scripts. He has used his modulator also for voicing the Cybermen in the 2006 series.

Easter eggs are specially decorated eggs given to celebrate the Easter holiday or springtime.

The egg was a symbol of the rebirth of the earth in Pagan celebrations of spring and was adopted by early Christians as a symbol of the rebirth.

The oldest tradition is to use dyed or painted chicken eggs, but a modern custom is to substitute chocolate eggs, or plastic eggs filled with confectionery such as jelly beans. These eggs are often hidden, allegedly by the Easter Bunny, for children to find on Easter morning. Otherwise, they are generally put in a basket filled with real or artificial straw to resemble a bird's nest.

The egg is widely used as a symbol of the start of new life, just as new life emerges from an egg when the chick hatches out.

The ancient Persians painted eggs for Nowrooz, their New Year celebration, which falls on the Spring equinox. The Nawrooz tradition has existed for at least 2,500 years. The decorated eggs are one of the core items to be placed on the Haft Seen, the Persian New Year display. The sculptures on the walls of Persepolis show people carrying eggs for Nowrooz to the king.

At the Jewish Passover Seder, a hard-boiled egg dipped in salt water symbolizes the festival sacrifice offered at the Temple in Jerusalem.

The pre-Christian Saxons had a spring goddess called Eostre, whose feast was held on the Vernal Equinox, around 21 March. Her animal was the spring hare. Some believe that Ēostre was associated with eggs and hares, and the rebirth of the land in spring was symbolised by the egg. Ēostre is known from the writings of Bede Venerabilis, a seventh-century Benedictine monk. Bede describes the pagan worship of Ēostre among the Anglo-Saxons as having died out before he wrote about it. Bede's De temporum ratione attributes her name to the festival, but does not mention eggs at all.

Other theories such as Jakob Grimm’s in the 18th Century believe in a pagan connection to Easter eggs via a putatively Germanic goddess called Ostara.

The English name for the festival of Easter derives from the Germanic word Eostre. It is only in Germanic languages that a derivation of Eostre marks the holiday. Most European languages use a term derived from the Hebrew pasch meaning Passover. In Spanish, for example, it is Pascua; in French, Pâques; in Dutch, Pasen; in Greek, Russian and the languages of most Eastern Orthodox countries: Pascha. In Middle English, the word was pasche, which is preserved in modern dialect words. Some languages use a term meaning Resurrection, such as Serbian Uskrs.

Pope Gregory the Great ordered his missionaries to use old religious sites and festivals, and absorb them into Christian rituals where possible. The Christian celebration of the Resurrection of Christ was ideally suited to be merged with the Pagan feast of Eostre, and many of the traditions were adopted into the Christian festivities.

A virtual Easter egg is an intentional hidden message, in-joke or feature in an object such as a movie, book, CD, DVD, computer program, web page or video game. The term draws a parallel with the custom of the Easter egg hunt observed in many Western nations, but actually is derived by the practice of the last Russian imperial family's tradition of giving elaborately jeweled egg-shaped creations by Fabergé which usually contained hidden gifts themselves.

This practice is similar in some respects to hidden signature motifs such as Diego Rivera including himself in his murals, Alfred Hitchcock's legendary cameo appearances, and various "Hidden Mickeys" that can be found throughout Disneyland. An early example of these kind of "Easter eggs" is Al Hirschfeld's "Nina".

Exterminator! is a short story collection written by William S. Burroughs and first published in 1973 (some editions such as the 1974 paperback illustrated at right label the book a novel)."The Exterminator is another collection of stories Burroughs published in 1960 in collaboration with Brion Gysin. The titles refer to a job as in insect exterminator that Burroughs himself once held. Certain aspects of this story were used in the film version of Naked Lunch, with the main character William Lee (a portrayal of Burroughs) holding the same job at the film's beginning.

In the summer 2009 Exterminator will be played live as part of BZZZOING! Future Sounds & Music By Mail by the BAU Artkestra in a public performance in Viareggio, Italy and documented in the magazine Arte Postale! 100. Vittore Baroni writes: "2009 marks 100 years from the first Manifesto of Futurism. In 2009 will be published the 100th issue of Arte Postale!, a mail art magazine that I started thirty years ago, in October 1979. What puts in relation the two events is sound: Futurist Luigi Russolo’s Manifesto The Art of Noise is a milestone in the history of the experimental and weird sounds that I have been promoting since the early Seventies in my journalistic work for a long string of publications (Rockerilla, Velvet, Vinile, Urlo, Sonora, Underground, Rumore, etc.). Music was also the theme of the first three issues of Arte Postale!, so I return to the subject in this open invite to the hundredth issue."

Nocturnal Emissions live show in Greece

Here's the poster for the Nocturnal Emissions live show coming up on 30th May.

AGENT MO - djset - GR
Saturday, 30/05/2009, 21:00
House of Culture FEX, old town of Xanthi
After concert party at bar Kokori
Ticket: 5 euros
Organized by FEX & PAKETHRA

Thursday 2 April 2009

Under My Breath a CD from PBK

I've just received this groovy CD from PBK which is playing on my sound system at this very moment.
The card cover has holes cut through to show the plain mirrored surface of the CD and inside the credits are written in mirror writing, which you can read on the CD surface.
This is what it looks like folded out:

It's a lovely bit of packaging. It took me two goes to get the CD the right way up in my machine, but when I did it was well worth it.

Here's what it says on PBK's web site:

"Very pleased to announce the long awaited release of "Under My Breath". "Under My Breath" is an abstract contemplation on post 9/11 paranoia in the U.S. Most of the album was created in 2004, during the height of the Bush administration's crackdown on human rights via the Patriot Act. The resulting album reveals a new vernacular for dark ambient isolationist music and is an important key to understanding PBK's ambitions in the world of sound. Seeking expression through the use of drones, natural or man-made acoustic sounds, digital glitching and turntable noise, the effect is one of surrealist juxtaposition, not jarring, but totally organic sounding, that can be listened to and savored in an intellectual way.

This CD has collaborations with legendary ambient/industrial artist, Nigel Ayers (Nocturnal Emissions); the great U.S. noise group, Wolf Eyes; Japanoise ninja master, Aube; HBO sound composer, John Wiggins; French electroacoustic composer, Christian Renou (Brume); avant garde composer, Slavek Kwi (Artificial Memory Trace); field recorder extraordinaire, Dale Lloyd; ambient composer, C. Reider; and sound collagist from the Canary Islands, Tore H. Boe. Waystyx Records have created a perfect packaging design to exemplify the concept of "Under My Breath". Last, but certainly not least, many thanks to the amazing poet, Ms. Anne Waldman, for her permission in granting the use of her poetry to develop the titles and text for this project."

(I love it when people call me legendary!)

Tuesday 24 February 2009

The Animal Gaze

The Animal Gaze

Various venues, Plymouth and Exeter January to May 2009

The Animal Gaze is a London Metropolitan University event organised and curated by Rosemarie McGoldrick. It is an exhibition of work by over 40 international artists at several venues in Plymouth and in Devon between January and May 2009. The exhibition is part of celebrations of the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. This is of special relevance to Plymouth, as it was from Devonport, Plymouth where Darwin set sail on his voyage aboard the HMS Beagle on 27 December 1831.

Darwin's concept of the evolution of species through natural selection revolutionised our collective understanding of the world and our place within it. It offered a more convincing, and more verifiable, model of how our world works and our place within it than earlier-proposed creation myths, such as those involving intelligent design by gods and goddesses. In a catalogue essay Mary Loveday Edwards suggests that Darwin “removed the idea of an essential human identity. Humanity is a costructed position, an identity in process: we construct both human and animal by elevating one and demeaning the other”.

How art, as production and manipulation of symbols (meaningful within human perceptual systems), relates to the other species with which we share this planet, strikes me as a valuable and important theme for an exhibition. Especially in the light of the intellectual impact of Charles Darwin.


Plymouth Arts Centre is a quiet location, in an older part of town, which lends itself particularly well to fairly small scale, contemplative work such as this. A large proportion of the exhibition here is made up of DVD-based pieces, which are sensitively set up using a variety of projection and flat screen formats which seem to suit the concept of the animal gaze appropriately.

In the lower gallery, a taxidermically-preserved blackbird perched on a small antique table looks up at a DVD playing on a black framed flat monitor screen mounted on the wall. Standing on on small plinth under the monitor a DVD player is running. The DVD shows the lifeless body of a blackbird similar to the one perched on the table: it is laid on a white piece of textile fabric and is being handled by a pair of human hands. The hands probe the dead blackbirds, exposing pink skin beneath the black feathers. Then I am distracted by another video playing in the same room...

Second Nature by New Zealand artist Hayden Fowler, runs on a knee-level monitor. It's a way longer film than I've got time to watch, but the section I see is a slow-moving, sharply defined white 60s-futurist-type white walled set with a nude woman cradling a baby. Nothing much seems to be happening. It strikes me a bit like those glossy films that Sam Taylor-Wood and Matthew Barney make, minimalistic, carefully proportioned glamour, like the white walled antique bedroom sequence at the end of “2001 – A Space Odyssey” . Stanley Kubrick has a lot to answer for.

The blackbird DVD finishes its loop and the stuffed bird on the table bursts into recorded bird song, moving its head and opening its beak to sing. The tableaux is fascinating, but like a fool I read the exhibition handouts and realise the gulf between my preconceptions and the artist's intentions. I read:

In Blackbird Menagerie, 2007, an animatronic blackbird perches on a mahogany table, and comes to life when it witnesses a film of its own breast being cut open. Here Roe brings together the strange reality of the taxidermic process and its beautiful resolution in a wondrous creation: a live blackbird distressed by the evisceration of its own corpse.”

There is undoubtedly a high level of technical virtuosity in this piece. The tableaux has a lot to do with ideas of order, neatness, precision, virtuosity: qualities favoured by some art collectors. But a creature forced by an artist to witness its own evisceration is also a profoundly cruel concept.

As soon as I saw the bird, I could tell it was not a living one. To me, a live blackbird is a beautiful creature evoking wonder, and a dead blackbird evokes emotions of sadness. I would imagine that a live blackbird would move about, looking one way then another, to establish spatial relationships between itself and what it was watching. But this one stares rigidly at the screen. This blackbird moves to the recorded sound, but it doesn't “come to life”.

In this and the other lower gallery there are framed photographs and photomontages, including a large colour photograph of an owl, with circles snipped from the roundels of the eyes on the photograph. Suky Best's Wildlife Documentary 7, screened on a wall monitor is a DVD of a flipbook she's made of a seagull in flight.

In the darkened rear gallery, a video projection (Condition M by Clara Rueprich-right) fills the entire wall. A straight piece of documentary realism, shot from a fixed camera at dog's eye level, parallel to concrete kennels, a long line of meat is arranged parallel to the cameras' lens. A pack of hunting hounds is released from the kennels. The dogs weave about, awaiting orders from their human handlers. When the order is given they eagerly devour the meat. The flanks of the dogs are branded with an M.

Darwin emerged from a Victorian climate of scientific collection, specimen preservation, cataloguing and categorising information from the natural world. Matilda Downs' wall-mounted prints parody scientific research methodologies and classifications of knowledge, producing fascinatingly absurd diagrams, following their own logic that seem to make both sense and nonsense.

The Golden Ratio and the Animal Kingdom (below) is drawn as a grid made up of small square each containing a diagram of the proportions of an animal's head. Each head is divided by dotted lines and marked with letters: e: eye; n: nose/beak; j: jaw; in the manner of instructional manuals for artists. Alongside there are maps and atlases formed by interpretations of markings from herds of Friesian cows, scrambled pataphysical diagrams; clusters of of streets with animal names and the like.

Nearby a wall-mounted flat screen monitor is filled by the lifesize image of a fish tank in which a jellyfish swims around. Chroma-keyed onto the foreground is a small female actor who screams "will you miss me when I'm gone" . Her voice can only be heard over the headphones. The jellyfish is clearly disinterested, getting on with its jellyfish life. In the great scheme of things, human emotions don't exactly count for a great deal.

Ladybirds by Miranda Whall is a four minute loped animation, projected onto the wall at knee height, using the soft flickery technique that used to be a staple of hand drawn animation, watercolour-like images of women in stockings and suspenders consort with brightly coloured vibrators. Out of scale, but similarly stylised animated images of birds singing perch on top of the women. The images are so slow moving and tastefully done, so that any emotional shock at the exhibitionist content is erased. It's more an impression of “is that woman doing what I think she's doing?” The vibrator cavorting becomes a mode of territorial display, like the bird song.

I took the title Ladybirds to be a reference to the work of the artist Christine Newby (better known as Cosey Fanni Tutti). Explicit images of Cosey featured heavily in the first issue of Ladybirds, a magazine owned by porn publisher David Sullivan, in August 1976. Cosey was well known as a stripper and as a model who worked in the hard core porn industry as well as a performance artist in Coum Transmissions and later as a member of the music group, Throbbing Gristle. Cosey was active in mail art and often used images clipped from porn magazines in her collages. She has said that she initially ventured into the sex industry because "it seemed my collages would be more 'complete' and honest if the images included me in the real sex situation I was pillaging for my own art". It could be said that was little theory or strategy in Cosey's work beyond the desire to the blur the boundaries between art and life by experiencing new and different challenges. But also it could be said that she established some sort of synthesis between what she was doing as autonomous art-making, and the fairly well paid, but often dangerous, way she chose to make a living as a young woman. As an autonomous research project Cosey was testing her own ideas against the harsh commercial world of the sex industry and finding successful ways of asserting her own personal power within an often hostile environment.

Miranda Whall is also using her own body in her work, but choosing more academic, theoretically-based, parameters for her practice, keeping it within more tightly controlled confines as autonomous art-making, with herself employed as a lecturer in fine art.

She is taking a clearly defined and very humorous stance, which sets up a different set of ambiguities. Within a dispassionate, uninterested animal kingdom, emotional and sexual behaviour becomes removed from a feminist genre piece and recontextualised as signalling behaviour within one of many animal species, of which “art” is a part. The pictures don't operate in the same pattern of desire creation and commodification as in porn, or the knockabout humour of a Karen Finlay performance, say. The vibrator shots are crafted as animated watercolours, becoming instead an dispassionate, observed form of animal behaviour.

Bird song is also a form of sexual display most highly developed in 'perching birds' such as wrens, robins, blackbirds, and song thrushes. Study of bird song is a comparatively new science and the current understanding is that it is a very specialised form of bird call that serves one function only: to ensure the breeding success of the singer, indicating clearly that the singer is healthy and fit and ready to breed. This is largely a male thing, designed so that other females of the same species are attracted and males of the same species are repelled. So there are many levels of genre-bending going on here.

In the rear section of the Arts Centre, Aurelia Mihai's video surveys action in a small back yard, shot from the fifth floor of an apartment block in Bucharest. The film is only 14 minutes long, I'm not sure what is happening onscreen but I get the impression it involves something horrible happening to animals so I don't linger to watch it.

The exhibition includes a piece of sound art by Duncan Speakman, which is described as “an aural telescope... drawing on the listening practice of both animal predators and prey”. You are supposed to borrow MP3 players from the gallery to listen to while you wander between the exhibition venues. Unfortunately no-one here seems to know how to get the MP3 players to work. So I wander on to the other exhibition venues, grooving to the ambience of the Plymouth City Centre soundscape instead.


The gallery beside the art college is busy with the to-ing and fro-ing of students and, compared to the Arts Centre, it has almost zero atmosphere for art appreciation.

More videos are running. There is a sign that warns that Cathryn Jiggens' DVD piece shows images of animal slaughter and meat preparation. I watch a section of a woman's hands and a dead goose, I read on the handout that the videos here "contain an unnerving eroticism" and document the artist's attempts to learn butchery and "it is Jiggen's stumbling struggle with the carcass as she pulls it apart that enables her work to take on a brutal sinister edge".

Hmm, somehow I don't think this is going to show me anything new, intelligent, or interesting about our coexistence with animals. Bestiality isn't really my bag and I've always found meat preparation brutal and sinister. Those are a couple of the reasons that my diet has been vegetarian for many years now.

But I like a bit of cheese. Talking of which, there's one piece here that really stands out here. There is a glass fronted chiller cabinet with cheese boards with the words cow, goat, sheep, buffalo and human carved into them . On top of each is a chunk of some sort of fatty substance, which I find out (to my relief) is cheese.

The artist Martin White is also a dairy hygiene inspector by trade and his work poses some curious questions about our boundaries of acceptable behaviour. We are happy to consume the milk produced by other species, yet the thought of adults consuming human breast milk (a substance that has specifically evolved to be nourishing to the infants of our species) is strangely taboo.

So this exposes me to some personal self-questioning. Is it this kind of cheese taboo to me? Habitually, I am a vegetarian who eats dairy produce and I have been this way since adolescence. I don't like the idea of animals being exploited, killed, or mistreated and I am aware that an overproduction of meat products, and overfishing of the oceans has caused damage to the natural environment and is an inefficient use of food resources. But it is vaguely possible that my distaste for dead animal products in my food is more of an aesthetic reaction than an ethical one. My personal dietary choices are complex, whether they are primarily ethically or aesthetically decided. However, I do think of my dietary choice to be part of my democratic human rights and freedom of expression. So, assuming there are no health risks involved in eating human breast milk cheese, it does seem a bit weird but I wouldn't mind giving it a try.


I pop up the road to the Plymouth Museum. There's a parallel exhibition to do with Darwin's voyage and the place is full of interesting taxidermical specimens, bird skeletons and collections of other curiosities quite apart from the gallery devoted to the Animal Gaze art.

As well as photos and sculptures, there's one or two art pieces that involve participation, on the level of answering questions on postcards, which blend right into the presentation of the museum as a whole.

I get drawn into a lovely flickery film While Darwin Sleeps by Paul Bush, with a shot of one individual insect per frame, it works nicely with the psychology of vision. The fast succession of images is difficult to process, the mind plays tricks in attempting to understand the visual information. The eye/brain is commonly tricked into believing there is motion in "motion pictures", but here the rapid succession of images is simply a rapid succession of images.

I love flickery structural films, they involve the viewer in something where the watcher's perceptual apparatus creates the art as much as anything else. And I think this tends to subvert the implied primacy and objectivity of the human visual apparatus in visual art. What is happening between the eye as an organ and the brain as it attempts to processes bits of information is thrown into doubt.

I initially assumed that the Animal Gaze exhibition was exploring the ways and animal might gaze, and see the world. But I checked the show's web site:

The Animal Gaze showed stances outside anthropocentrism, deconstructions of species taxonomy, constructions of the idea of difference and documentation of the consequences of indifference. At the same time, these works about animals and humans perhaps confirmed a trend discernible in recent art - an ascendancy of meaning or ambiguity over ineffability and surface, a move away from the gigantic, as well as more evidence of the profile afforded now to artist collaboration and cross-disciplinary research.

So it seems that the word "gaze" here is used in the sense of post-Lacanian feminist cultural theory rather than the sense of "an intent look" that a biologist like Darwin might understand it. In short, the exhibition is centred around academic, cultural theory rather than theories arising directly from natural science.

What we have here is a survey of how animals are currently being represented by a selected number contemporary artists, perhaps referring more to recent art history than it does to direct observation and interaction with the animals we share the planet with. If there is a weakness here, it is a basis in 20th century cultural theory that often seems unenlightened by more recent developments in eg cognitive research and natural science.

Be that as it may, the exhibition is challenging, thought-provoking and well worth a visit.

Animal Gaze is also on at Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World, and Peninsular Arts Gallery, Plymouth

Nigel Ayers February 2009

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