Tuesday, July 30, 2019

OPM (Other People's Memories), or, The "lucky bag" principle of aleatory record buying applied to photography

aka Why Do Some People Develop the Lost Camera Films of Total Strangers?

Amelia Tait at the Observer, er, observes this strange subculture of hobbyists who purchase rolls of undeveloped film and then develop them - sometimes getting a bunch of blank grey images, sometimes nondescript snapshots, but occasionally something weird or poignant:

"Those who sell mystery film often don’t set out to trade in the stuff, instead it’s usually picked up by chance at house clearances, inside old cameras or in charity shops. There are many tragic reasons why these rolls could have been forgotten about – divorce, death, dementia – and many mundane ones: film processing is expensive and it’s easy to set aside a half-used roll to be finished later and simply forget about it. Used film can sell from £1 to £100 on eBay, and more and more people are gathering online to celebrate their hobby....

"For Levi Bettwieser, a 33-year-old video producer from Idaho, an interest in forgotten film can be both expensive and risky. Bettwieser estimates he has spent “upwards of $10,000” on rolls of film over the past five years, and says he “can get 10 rolls in a row that come out blank” due to the film being degraded. “A couple of years ago, I was winning and buying every single roll of used film on eBay,” Bettwieser says. “There’s always a feeling of overall excitement that you might get something amazing, something historically viable. Or you might get more cat photos.” Bettwieser now runs a non-profit scheme, the Rescued Film Project, where he encourages people to give him their old rolls which he then develops. “Part of the reason I’m doing it is because I like the idea of being the first person to ever see these images; even the photographer has never seen them.”

It's a bit intrusive.... a bit peeping-tom-ish, if you think about it.

It's also archive fever finding a new zone to flex itself in - again the idea that everything deserves to be preserved....

“I love so many images for so many reasons,” says Bettwieser, when asked about his favourite photo he’s recovered. “I try and look at every image I rescue as if I’m looking at it in 50 years – everything I rescue is history. People hold on to rolls of film for years and years in the back of a drawer, because we all know that pictures are history, whether it’s just a birthday party or not. Pictures are our only defence against time, our only evidence, sometimes, that we ever even existed.”

Postscript August 1st - 
interesting thoughts on this subject from Xenogothic, who is a collector of such images and is drawn to them for their "alterity"

"The main thrill comes from seeing something radically out of context. The anxiety of the unanswerable question that haunted Roland Barthes instead becomes a perverse thrill — indeed, as it was for Barthes though he seemed reluctant to admit it.


Like an object found on the beach in a ghost story, the energy trapped in a photograph like a fly in amber is a special thing that is highly susceptible to romantic flights of the nostalgic subject and, as such, to find such things in the world of the vernacular image is far past the pale of cliche...."

Xenogothic also says that another place to find such images is record covers

Saturday, June 1, 2019

dead pop stars and their profitable afterlife

Interesting piece on the pop hologram phenomenon by Owen Myers at The Guardian, featuring some quotes from me, specifically on the exploitation of dead stars .

Here's the full responses I sent to Owen a week or two ago:

My gut insta-reaction is that it’s a new way for the old to tyrannize the young – because you can’t get any older than being dead. So the next step beyond the reunion tours, and all the legacy acts that dominate festival line-ups, is the hologram tour: no longer alive artists extending their brand power beyond the grave.

The syndrome raises all kinds of ethical and philosophical questions. To what extent are these performances in any real sense, given that a performance (whether showbiz entertainment or performance art) is by definition live, involving the unmediated presence of living performers, whereas the hologram tours  are  “unlive” and involve  non-presence? 

On an ethical and economic level, I would liken it to a form of “ghost slavery”. That applies certainly when done without the consent of the star, by the artist’s estate in collusion with the record company or tour promoter. 

But even if an artist might consent while still alive and legally grant the posthumous rights to  their image, voice, etc, for exploitation, that doesn’t make it right or proper. Nor does the fact that there might be a consumer demand for this make it a wholesome development. 

It’s a form of unfair competition: established stars continuing their market domination after their death and stifling the opportunities for new artists.

It’s reminiscent of Marx on  capital as the spectral vampire of dead labour, which when living and working had surplus value sucked out of it and then turned into yet more finance capital, thereby continuing the dominion over and exploitation of  living labour for generations to come.  But it’s Das Kapital crossed with Freud’s writings about the uncanny.

Hologram tours are very much an extension of the syndromes discussed in Retromania. I don’t think they existed as more than a rumour when I was writing the book - there might be a brief mention of them in there. But I do discuss the idea of movie stars being reanimated and how that was happening then already with figures like Audrey Hepburn being used in commercials using digital trickery. 

It does seem  like another facet to this that will soon be possible is that the technology will emerge such that the vocal timbre and mannerisms, the facial expressions and bodily gestures, conversational speech patterns, etc etc, of performers can be captured digitally - through assimilating and analysing the sum total of all their existing recordings, performances, videos, films, etc etc -  and that you will get a sort of digi-simulacrum of the artist singing new songs, guesting as vocalist or rapper on other people’s records, appear in videos or movies etc. That seems totally conceivable to me. The simulacrum would probably not be able to do convincing spontaneous stage banter or appear on chat shows, but who knows?  In those circumstances, they could be remotely ventriloquized by someone offstage, so that that person’s voice – or even written text – would be spoken by the simulacrum’s real-seeming voice.  In the recording studio, you’d just need the software which would generate the voice, or the instrumental performance.

In response to a question about whether watching a hologram performance was really any different from watching, say, an old Marilyn Monroe movie on TV.... .

No, I think there’s a greater dimension of wish-fulfillment and suspension of disbelief. The spectators are allowing themselves to half-believe that they are in the presence of the star. That’s why it’s like a ghost – a ghost could be defined as a “present absence”, neither here nor there, neither now nor then, but in some ontologically queasy interzone between being and nonbeing.

It’s eerie, it’s fascinating, it’s troubling. 

Thursday, May 23, 2019

superzero

“This embracing of what were unambiguously children's characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence... It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite 'universes' presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times" - Alan Moore

I guess there is a retro element to the endless torrent of Marvel / DC / et al superhero vehicles

A regressive or stagnant element in terms of character typology, motivation, fantasy, morality, narrative etc

Coupled - paradoxically - with absolutely ultra-modern state of the art powers being flexed in terms of the technical execution of these "children's entertainments" - the CGI and motion-capture, the 3-D camerawork,  the sound design, the grading, the editing etc etc etc.

A parallel to my avant-lumpen theory about the most progressive or futuroid musical forms being coupled with politically regressive values and attitudes.

Technosonically in the future;  emotionally-libidinally in the.... Middle Ages, really.

Codes of honor, warrior-masculinity, potlatch etc etc

Return of the saga, the legend, the epic, the allegorical etc etc

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

On the subject of heroics and heroism, I think also of this book


Friday, May 17, 2019

Hauntology Parish Newsletter spring 2019 - Moon Wiring Club, Baron Mordant, The Caretaker

In the new edition of The Wire, I have an extended essay-review about the career-closing releases from The Caretaker and Mordant Music: the sixth and final installment of James Kirby's gargantuan Everywhere at the end of Time project, which started three years ago, and Baron Mordant's last blast, Mark of the Mould. The latter is an unmissable emission - like eMMplekz if the Baron handled the backing tracks as well as the verbals... the latter proving once again that Ian Hicks is simultaneously the Robert Macfarlane of built-up Britain and the Chris Morris of BoomkatKultur.






Also ruffling the parish this month - and making this newsletter a tale of two Ians - is the announcement of an unexpected, non-wintertime release from Moon Wiring Club aka Ian Hodgson.



Ghastly Garden Centres is a timely swerve from the ambient-amorphous direction of recent MWC releases and a jaunty step into brisk concision. In fact, the guiding concept here is that every track is a single - making the assemblage perhaps a Now! style compilation of hits, or a chart countdown. It's MWC - so it's still creepy and manky - but it's also catchy and bouncy.

As for the ghostly-ghastly gardening theme - well, apparently this is a real thing, a subject of internet obsession: abandoned, overgrown plant nurseries and derelict garden centres.




Further raising the pulse of parishioners is the parallel release of Catmask, a collection - styled as issue no. 1 of a glossy magazine - that pulls together Ian Hodgson's artwork: some already released, on the records or at the Blank Workshop website, but much unfamiliar and never seen. There are images from Ian's abandoned children's book project, for instance, which if I recall correctly, was the acorn from which grew the mighty oak of Clinkskell and the 21 - or 23,  depending on how you count - releases to date, including collaborations and side projects.


                                                   


Catmask is a gorgeous slinky looking and feeling object to peruse and fondle. It completes the sense of Moon Wiring Club as a project of.... I won't say, world-building, as that's a cliche now... but place-making, maybe.


                                                    










UK customers can buy Ghastly Garden Centres and Catmask here 

European customers can buy Ghastly Garden Centres and Catmask here 

Rest of world customers can buy Ghastly Garden Centres and Catmask here 








Thursday, May 9, 2019

meat(loaf) substitute

Tim Somner notices that

"Meat Loaf has, essentially, given his name and brand good-will to another artist, who is, essentially, touring as Meat Loaf . Personally, I think this is the wave of the future"

Yes, this is one step further towards rock developing the equivalent of  classical music repertory

But it's not just the score / songs that has to be reconstituted - it's the voice and the performance moves, the presence of the performer, as ersatz

Rock being as much about the vocal personality and the look / vibe of the artist, as it is about notes and textures and tempos.

The facsimile artist must replicate as closely as possible the grain of the singer's voice, the phrasing, the staging and gestures - all of those elements are "the score"

There was a Genesis tribute band who did a whole tour based on the  The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway Tour and got hold of the original slide projections and other staging elements (costumes, i should imagine) from Genesis. The whole thing was done with their blessing and perhaps with some of the revenue going to the original band, who knows.

You could imagine a really big band that is too old or frail to tour anymore actually franchising out concert-playing versions of themselves in different territories - South America, Asia,  Eastern Europe / Russia.

Of course the other route for retro-rock nostalgia would be the hologram tour, when it's a ghostly simulacrum of the artist as was that is wheeled out to "tread the boards"

But it's not too hard to imagine that digital technology could soon be capable of turning an artist's whole being - the sound, the look, the mannerisms, even creative reflexes - into an immortal brand that carries on long after the artist's death, perhaps even creating and performing new songs. Generating a revenue stream for the estate on top of the publishing, recording, etc monies. T

You could imagine that being done fairly easily with an actor, or a singer...  motion-capturing all the facial expressions and vocal / conversational tics - and then perhaps pasting that stuff on top of a body double in the filming situation, or simply generating it artificially for recordings.

The creative part - and the side that can do interviews or on-stage spontaneous banter, or collaborate with other musicians, jamming onstage with them or writing songs  - that might be a little harder. But given how fast technology has advanced, it's fairly likely that within our lifetime we'll see technology that can capture the soul-signature of an artist's identity and turn it into generative software.

A new way that the dead can tyrannise the living, the old dominate the young.


Friday, May 3, 2019

ArchivFieber, slight return - "The Remarkable Story of a Woman Who Preserved Over 30 Years of TV History"

via Atlas Obscura

"About 71,000 VHS and BETAMAX cassettes are sitting in boxes, stacked 50-to-a-pallet in the Internet Archive’s physical storage facility in Richmond, California, waiting to be digitized. The tapes are not in chronological order, or really any order at all. They got a little jumbled as they were transferred. First recorded in Marion Stokes’s home in the Barclay Condominiums in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, the tapes had been distributed among nine additional apartments she purchased solely for storage purposes during her life. Later, they passed on to her children, into storage, and finally to the California-based archive. Although no one knew it at the time, the recordings Stokes made from 1975 until her death in 2012 are the only comprehensive collection preserving this period in television media history.

"In 1975, Stokes got a Betamax magnetic videotape recorder and began recording bits of sitcoms, science documentaries, and political news coverage. From the outset of the Iran Hostage Crisis on November 4, 1979, “she hit record and she never stopped,” said her son Michael Metelits in Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, a newly released documentary about his mother and the archival project that became her life’s work."

"Stokes was no stranger to television and its role in molding public opinion. An activist archivist, she had been a librarian with the Free Library of Philadelphia for nearly 20 years before being fired in the early 1960s, likely for her work as a Communist party organizer...."

"Roger Macdonald, director of the television archives at the Internet Archive....   recalls asking [Michael] Metelits, “How could you physically manage taping all this stuff? And he said, ‘Well, we’d be out at dinner and we’d have to rush home to swap tapes’ … that was one of the cycles of their lives, tape swapping.”

"In addition to her son Michael and her husband, Stokes’s nurse, secretary, driver, and step-children were enlisted to assist in her around-the-clock task of capturing every moment on television....

"Now, Stokes’s work will be made publicly available on the Internet Archives, bit by bit, offering everyone the opportunity to examine history..."

Calling Borges, or do I mean Benjamin....

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

the horror, the horror

A piece at Loud and Quiet looking back on The Horrors's second album Primary Colours, ten years after the fact. 

Writes Fergal Kinney:  

"Of course, British bands have been referencing the electronic utopia of Krautrock since the late ’70s, but the internet afforded those records an ease of access which had always been absent – former collectors items are now just a click and an aux cable away. Simon Reynolds’ post-punk study Rip It Up and Start Again was read within the band too. “Just reading that book gives you ideas for ten different bands,” says Faris [Badwan]. “That book was really influential for me.”"

Well, I'm flattered, naturally - but talk about getting the wrong end of the stick! 


The point you should come away with, from reading Rip It Up, is obviously (or so I thought) "do something new!". That might mean "do something that's a warped and strange-making take on the new ideas bubbling out of your contemporaneous musical surroundings" (generally black music, so at that time, second half of the 2000s, grime, nu-R&B, dubstep). Or it might mean "do something that involves the latest technology" e.g. Auto-Tune, etc etc). 


The "instruction" to come away from reading that book would be "apply the methods and outlook and mentality and procedures that created the legendary music". Expressly not "reactivate the actual substance of the legendary music; repeat the exact same hybridizing formulas that led to it, or recreate the outcomes of those musical equations." 

Still, it's a good inadvertent illustration of the connection between Retromania and Rip It Up (and indeed between both those books and Energy Flash - the three forming an unintended triology, as my Faber editor Lee Brackstone once put it). It explains how doing Rip It Up led directly to Retromania (indeed Rip's afterword contains a section on the "rift of retro" that occurred in alternative / independent rock circa 1983-84, effectively ending the postpunk era.) 

Further, it demonstrates how the person who wrote Rip It Up, who had lived through and felt in their fibres the meaning of that era the first time around and then relived it as an immersed historian, could only respond to the 2000s (the first decade of the 21st bleedin' century) with the perspective that underpins Retromania


And the post-punk revival - although far from alone as evidence for prosecution - was exactly the kind of contradiction-in-terms that spurred the book into being.  




Thursday, April 11, 2019

nostalgia for the future / militant modernism

                                        

Here's something I really enjoyed researching and writing - a feature for RBMA on Luigi Nono, the great "militant modernist" of post-WW2 avant-garde music. This article focuses on his electronic and tape works of the 1960s, his exploration of vocal extremes, his support for liberation movements around the world, and the surrounding context of Italian Communism in the post-war era.

The twin pegs for this piece are the fiftieth-anniversary vinyl reissue of Musica-Manifesto N. 1 by Die Schachtel and the publication of Nostalgia for the Future: Luigi Nono's Selected Writings and Interviews by the University of California Press.











     Nono at work with his prime collaborator, the sound engineer 
  Marino Zuccheri, at the Studio di Fonologia in Milan



Monday, April 8, 2019

ArchivFieber (extended mix)

Archive Fever
uncut version of column published in Der Tagesspiegel, March 2019 

by Simon Reynolds


Almost a quarter-century ago, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida published a slim, dense book titled Mal d’Archive. I would be lying if I said I understood every bit of his typically abstruse argument, but what struck me immediately and has stayed with me is the brilliance and beauty of Derrida’s title phrase as rendered in English: archive fever.   It sounds and looks even better in German, I should imagine, because of the way you guys smush words together: Archivfieber.  

Whether two words or a single word, Derrida’s coinage impacts me like a miniature poem: it’s a cogent and potent distillation of how so many of us live our lives these days. Since the launch of broadband internet and the invention of social media, a mania for cataloging, collecting, list-making, documentation  and commemoration has enveloped our culture. The total recall and instant recall enabled by search engines and wi-fi means that we live in a proximity with the cultural past that our ancestors would have found inconceivable. If things like Spotify and Netflix weren’t sprawling enough,  open-access archives like YouTube, Soundcloud, Mixcloud, and Discogs tend towards entropy: an infinitely recessive profusion and confusion. Somewhere between a library and a maze, you could get lost in any one of these for a lifetime.

“Retromania” and Archivfieber are almost interchangeable as concepts. One of the symptoms of the retro-virus is coming down with archivfieber.  Personally, the malady has made me a sickly, wilted being, whose memory is shot, whose arms and fingers ache from daily races back and forth across the internet’s spatialization of history. I get temporal whiplash as I oscillate between different pockets of the past.  In any given day, I visit many eras and sample many treasures, but like a practitioner of “check list tourism” I barely retain any after-images from the musical museums and sonic monuments I’ve seen.  I’ve tried to cram too much in. I don’t want to miss out anything, so I end up just barely experiencing everything.

Archivfieber is a transitional affliction, to some extent: it’s particularly chronic among those who grew up in analogue-era of cultural scarcity and have only partially adapted to the digital abundance. Embedded deep in the bones and the nerves of our listening selves is a matrix of consumer desire shaped by growing up with never being able to get hold of enough music. So we have poorly adjusted to an inside-out world where where’s too much.  People – such as my children – who are digital natives don’t have the same compulsion to keep and collect: they might bookmark favorite things or otherwise sensibly organise their listening, but they feel no need to own the MP3s. They live in the certainty (and the confidence is not necessarily well-placed - things do disappear from the internet, get taken down) that these songs, mixes, and video-clips will always be out there should they want them.

People from my generation are still wired for a world of non-availability and inaccessibility. We grew up inside that gnawing need for more music than you could afford to buy or to copy (given that blank cassettes cost money too). We remember the sensation of boredom as emptiness and lack of choice, as opposed to the new forms of boredom that have emerged with distracted overload and surfeit of choices. So we cannot completely exit the psychology of accumulation and ownership. That’s how come an individual with my particular mix of curiosity, wide taste and sheer simple greed ends up with thousands and thousands of hours of music stockpiled in an external hard drive, vastly more than I could hope to listen to even once during the remainder of my time on earth, let alone do justice to any of it through dedicated repeat immersion.

It’s not just music, of course: they are so many forms of cultural data and digitized entertainment out there to forage and hoard.  A recent obsession of mine that got a little out of hand is experimental animation of the pre-digital era, particularly from Eastern Europe: within a matter of weeks, I harvested 1200 short films from YouTube, Vimeo and  other online resources, out of which I have to date watched perhaps forty. The drive to seek and gather displaces the desire to experience. The buzz is the momentary thrill of acquisition as the file downloads into your computer, even as you are already searching for the next obscure discovery.

People predisposed to obsessive-compulsive disorders could get just as out of hand in the analogue era, of course – trawling into their homes unmanageable quantities of vinyl recordings or books. But the digitization of culture – through its removal of the limitations of storage space and the disincentives of cost – causes the mania to balloon to grotesque degrees. The fact that it is out of sight, compressed into the minuscule cubic space of a computer, laptop, or even phone, conceals the disgrace from other’s eyes, but it does not alleviate the squalor of the soul.  But even if you keep it all in the cloud, or don’t “keep” it in any form beyond bookmarks in your browser, the internet’s sprawl has a way of invading your inner world. It clutters your mind and eats your time. Many are the days in which, as the end approaches, I look back on the hours of journeying across the internet and can barely remember where I “went”, what I read or watched or heard, nor indeed what I saved for later – a “later” that will never  come.

There is nothing necessarily unwholesome about an overdeveloped musical libido: rather than a debilitating disease, we might think of the “fieber” in Archivfieber as a fan’s enthusiasm or shared excitement (Saturday Night Fever) or even the erotic fire of Peggy Lee’s “you give me fever.”   Music-desire is a form of sensualism, it can involve a hungry curiosity about new sensations and stimulations, and in that sense belongs to the kingdom of Eros. Still, as mediated through the internet, music consumption habits can take on an automatized quality that Freud would classify under the sign of “the repetition-complex”, a regressive drive he linked to the  death instinct.  Archivfieber, in this dark light, would be a literally morbid impulse. In yet another sense, the archival drive is a denial of mortality. “We buy books because we believe we're buying the time to read them,” said Warren Zevon, adapting a maxim of Schopenhauer’s. The same applies to records and MP3s.

So far, I have only discussed the anal-retentive aspects of music consumption in the age of overabundance: the residual impulse to collect, a refusal to let go.  What about, to coin a quasi-Freudian phrase,  the “anal-expulsive” – the people who are compelled to share and upload, to build and maintain discographic websites or unofficial archives like UbuWeb?  Is there not something slightly deranged about their manic sprees of generosity (an artists’s entire discography laid out on a blog for the feasting - a gift to complete strangers, from a complete stranger). Is there perhaps something suspect and even disturbing about the sheer amount of time and unstinting care that goes into these contributions to a commons of creativity (other people’s creativity -  expropriated, unrecompensed). Although I’m vastly more a taker than a giver, I too have felt this archivist-sharer impulse to digitize rare things in my unique possession – cassette recordings of pirate radio broadcasts from early Nineties London that may be, I fondly imagine, the only document of this one particular show – or to add the public listening library things that no one has yet bothered to put on YouTube, like the 12-inch B-side instrumental by a  postpunk or Eighties ‘new pop’ group.  There is a vague feeling of virtue attached to these acts. But there is also the neurosis of completism at work: you are rectifying sins of omission, filling in gaps in the historical record, for the benefit of the public or posterity.

How does the monstrous growth of music archiving affect music itself? There’s two areas: the listening experience of fans, and the mentality of musicians. Giving that time is finite and we all have other things to busy ourselves with, fans confronted with a surfeit of choice -  unlimited listening both in the present and in terms of all prior recorded music– must listen faster, or listen while doing other things. In effect, they now consume music much more like critics and deejays (back when they were the only people, apart from the very wealthy, who listened to such absurdly largely amounts of music, and to such a wide range of music -  simply because they were sent it for free). So, like critics and deejays, ordinary people make snap judgments, listening once and never returning (something you would almost certainly never do if you’d paid hard-earned money for the record). They listen while doing other things: the sort of multitasking that computers and phones not so much make possible as enforce. They listen thinly -  skimming and skating across the surface of sound at top speed. 

Jacques Attali in his famous book of 1977, Noise: A Political Economy of Music, wrote about the era of recordings and collecting as a terminal stage for music as meaningful activity:  the solipsistic stockpiling of sound in the home combined with a privatisation of the listening experience, separating it from the aspects of social ritual or spiritual function that used to surround music But Attali couldn’t have imagined a stage beyond this, where the collection became infinite, at once freed of  the exchange-economy's commodification and ownership, yet devalued even further to the point where patterned sounds literally stream into our lives like electricity or water: a mere utility.

Listeners respond to the overload by various tactics. I have seen bloggers set themselves tasks (or ordeals?) where they listen to just one album for a whole week and nothing else, or attempt to digest an entire artist’s oeuvre in a one giant bloc of listening. While many allow Spotify’s algorithms to guide them on drifting meanders through sameness, others like myself use it in more purposeful ways that vainly strive to master the flux: building enormous playlists of genres or clustered artists that would take a day or two to listen through. These playlists are almost always - in my experience, anyway – promptly forgotten about and never returned to.  Like the downloading, they are residual spasms of the collector impulse, failed adaptions to a medium where music is free (well, apart from the annoying adverts). They are last-ditch stands against streaming's numbing logic of instilling in listeners a mind-state of barely-attentive disengagement,  in which all music becomes ambient (or even Ambien). 

You can turn the internet into a sort of sedentary, stay-at-home substitute for the record shop, “browsing” its virtual racks (album-sharing blogs, YouTube) and discovering things you never knew existed. Or you can recreate the thrills of scarcity by fetishizing the impossibly obscure, pursuing either the absolutely (and deservedly) forgotten, or the exotically parochial. There are blogs dedicated to the state record company releases of folk music from various Soviet republics, to  African dance pop of the 1970s and 1980s that was only ever released on cassette and never reached the West, or – in an exoticism of time rather than space – you can push back through history to pre-WW2 gospel and blues, British music hall, and so forth. Retromania and xenomania merge as we hungry souls explore the heritage of other countries and continents. For me a whole new frontier of sickness – a way of recreating the thrills of digging through the crates in record stores – was when I realized you could strip the audio off YouTube and Vimeo clips. In animations and obscure experimental films, I found electronic and avant-garde sounds – sometimes synth scores made by unknown composers as a favour to the film-maker, sometimes electronic sound-effects and noises – that had never been released on vinyl in the first place. A new frontier for my Archivfieber to rampage across!

And how about the musicians,  stuffing their sonic stomachs with an overly rich and riskily varied audio diet? Inevitably they excrete a maximalist sort of music whose aesthetic I call “glutted and clotted”.  It reminds me of the Gang of Four song “At Home He Feels Like A Tourist” and in particular the lines “he fills himself with culture / he gives himself an ulcer.” In these conditions, it takes tremendous spiritual strength and aesthetic rigor to fend off the inundation of influences and create any kind of distinctive sound-identity.

This kind of stubborn mettle is also essential for critics and historians, not just of music but in any field.  The archival overload makes it irresistible to over-research. I am not exaggerating when I say that there have been times when I’ve embarked on a 500 word record review, having gathered together 50 pages of interviews and earlier reviews of the artist’s work. This is vastly different from when I started out in the late Eighties, when I might respond to a record critically knowing nothing about a band – perhaps a few scraps of data that lodged in my head from reading earlier pieces in music papers, but often not even that (since I barely looked at press releases then). Oblivious to the group’s actual intent or influences, I could project my own critical fancies upon the blank screen of the music, or recruit them to my own critical agenda. Reviewing became a creative act in its own wonderfully irresponsible right, as opposed to a dutiful sorting-through of factual circumstances and avowed rationales. You didn’t necessarily judge the music on its own terms; you invented the terms.  

To be historian or a writer of a non-fiction book in this day and age involves a sort of inverted version of Hercules and the Augean stables: the gathering in of shit that then has to be cleared almost entirely away.  Having amassed steaming mounds of data, the researcher must summon the will and the ruthlessness to cut through it, to consign details and incidents and characters to historical oblivion, to winnow down nearly everything that’s been laboriously accumulated and forcibly impose a shape on the material.  This self-created challenge is not a uniquely digital-era phenomenon: academics and journalists have often got “carried away” and then had to face the day of reckoning. But the limitless of the online archive incites over-research.

We see this need for narrativization in current affairs: the rise of meta-journalists like Seth Abramson, whose role is not to do original reporting on Trump, Russia, Mueller et al,   but to process and organize what is already out there in the public domain, constructing timelines and connective threads that rescue events and disclosures that have already slipped out of the public’s short-term memory.

The ultra-forensic detail and rapid-fire turnover of real-time of news coverage means that important information and discoveries get evacuated from popular consciousness within weeks or even days. This archive of the no-longer-news but still highly germane and crucial languishes in a state of chaos – anyone who can construct a through-line is doing a valuable service.  Future historians will rely on this kind of pattern-recognition to help them navigate the monstrous excess of documentation and commentary.  They used to describe journalism as “the first draft of history”, but figures like Abramson are annotating and abridging what would otherwise likely be illegible and indecipherable to future eyes and brains.  The dark side version of this will-to-order is the rise of conspiracy theories and secular demonologies, which piece together delusory links and connective lines through the data overload. Indeed paranoid schizophrenia can often express itself through a mania for the archives and grandiose system-building

Anxieties about data overload and a creeping cultural senescence related to the build-up of archives is not a new phenomenon.  Nietzsche’s 1874 polemic “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life” rails against the antiquarian mentality, warning of that “blind mania for collecting, a restless compiling together of everything that ever existed. The man envelops himself in a moldy smell…”. In Jorge Luis Borges's 1949 fable “The Aleph” one character imagines the connected man of the future: “I picture him in his study, as though in the watchtower of a great city, surrounded by telephones, telegraphs, phonographs, the latest in radio-telephone and motion-picture and magic-lantern equipment, and glossaries and calendars and timetables and bulletins.” With his obsessions with libraries and labyrinths, Borges is often seen as a prophet of the internet - but even he might have felt disoriented at the god-like powers granted by things like search engines and the Cloud.

If we’re adapting badly, it’s because for millennia the human sensorium was oriented around immediate surroundings and the present tense. There were orally transmitted myths and legends, but practically speaking, the here-and-now was all there was. Then came a much shorter period, when rulers and the very wealthy and powerful institutions like the Church or the first universities had archives or private museums, but the vast majority of the population owned no books or images (least of all images of themselves) while music could only be heard in the presence of living musicians. It’s really only been a couple of centuries in which personal libraries have become commonplace and a little more a century in which recordings (phonographic, photographic, film / video) have existed. In what feels like a vertiginous acceleration, communicational distance has been abolished, individual access to archives has become freakily enlarged even as the archives themselves have expanded astronomically, and the scope for personal self-documentation and self-broadcast has likewise grown to be almost limitless. Yet we still have the eyes and ears, the haptic and present-tense orientation bequeathed us by millions of years of evolution. Is it any wonder that our nerves are shredded, our sense of ego boundaries grows every more tenuous, that anxiety and depression and narcissistic disorders proliferate?  

As we say in English, you can have too much of a good thing.

Monday, April 1, 2019

ArchivFieber (death by data)

Here's a piece I wrote -  for the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel - tagged to the Find the File symposium   that I participated in last week in Berlin. 

I boldly, even rashly, tried (using internet translation machines in the absence of any knowledge of the language) to come up with a bunch of German-wordplay headlines myself. Among them were "Delirium von Dateien" and "Dasein und Dateien" (yes I'm afraid that is an attempt at a Heidegger joke). The newspaper came up with their own headline and I'm sure that was the correct decision. 

There is a longer version - about three times as long - of this piece which I may well post here at some point.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ 

In 1975, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida published a slim, dense book titled Mal d’Archive. It would be lying to say I understand all of his typically abstruse argument, but what struck me immediately and stayed with me is the brilliance of the title phrase as rendered in English: archive fever.   I imagine it looks and sounds even better in German: ArchivFieber.  


The word impacts me like a miniature poem, distilling the essence of how many of us live our lives nowadays. Since the launch of broadband internet, a mania for cataloging, list-making, documentation  and commemoration has enveloped our culture – particularly affecting music fandom and consumption, but not limited to that region by any means. The total recall and instant recall enabled by search engines means that we live in a proximity with the cultural past that our ancestors would have found inconceivable. Open-access archives like YouTube, Soundcloud, Mixcloud, and Discogs are somewhere between a library and a labyrinth: you could get lost in any one of these for a lifetime.

ArchivFieber and “retromania” are interchangeable concepts really: you might say that one of the main symptoms of catching the retro-virus is coming down with ArchivFieber.  And the malady has made me a sickly being, whose memory is tattered, whose arms and fingers ache from daily races back and forth across the internet. I get temporal whiplash oscillating between different pockets of the past.  Like a practitioner of “check list tourism” I can barely retain any after-images from the musical museums and sonic monuments I’ve visited.  I’ve tried to cram too much in. I don’t want to miss out on anything, so I end up just barely experiencing everything.

Archivfieber is a transitional affliction: it’s particularly chronic among those who grew up in analogue-era conditions of cultural scarcity and have only partially adapted to the digital abundance. People – such as my children – who are digital natives don’t have the same compulsion to keep and collect: they might bookmark favorite things but they feel no need to own the MP3s. People from my generation grew up inside that gnawing need for more music than you could then afford to buy or to copy (given that blank cassettes also cost money). That’s how come an individual with my particular mix of curiosity, wide taste and sheer greed ends up with thousands and thousands of hours of music stockpiled in an external hard drive, vastly more than I could hope to listen to even once during the remainder of my time on earth.

People predisposed to obsessive-compulsive disorder could get just as out of hand in the analogue era, of course – trawling into their homes unmanageable quantities of vinyl recordings, books, etc. But the digitization of culture – through its removal of the limitations of storage space and the disincentives of cost – causes the mania to balloon to grotesque degrees. The fact that it is out of sight, compressed into the miniscule cubic space of a computer, laptop, or phone, conceals the disgrace from other’s eyes, but it does not alleviate the squalor of the cluttered soul. 

For sure, rampant music-libido is a form of curiosity and pleasure-seeking, and in that sense belongs to the category of life-affirming Eros. But something about the internet’s effects on music consumption habits pushes into the morbid zone of repetitious and near-automatic behavior.  There is a neurotic aspect to archival drive: a denial of mortality. “We buy books because we believe we're buying the time to read them,” said Warren Zevon, adapting a maxim of Schopenhauer’s. The same applies to records and MP3s.

So far, I have only discussed the anal-retentive aspects of music consumption in the age of overabundance: the residual impulse to collect.  What about the “anal-expulsive” – the people who are compelled to share and upload? In some ways, this is more mystifying, the motivation for these manic sprees of generosity (an artists’s entire discography laid out on a blog for the feasting - a gift to complete strangers). Although I’m vastly more a taker than a giver, I too have felt this archivist-sharer impulse to digitize rare things– cassette recordings of pirate radio broadcasts from early Nineties London, B-side 12 inch instrumentals that no one else has yet thought to upload to YouTube.  There is a vague feeling of virtue attached to these acts of unofficial archiving. But also a neurotic completism: you are correcting sins of omission, filling in gaps in the historical record

How does the metastasis of online amateur archiving affect music itself? In two areas: the listening experience of fans, the mentality of musicians. Giving that time is finite and we all have other things to do, fans confronted with a surfeit of choice -  unlimited listening both in terms of current music and the history of recorded sound– must listen faster, or listen while doing other things. Nowadays, anybody with access to wi-fi is in the same position as only music critics and deejays - who were sent things for free – used to be. So they listen like critics and deejays: playing something once and never returning, making snap judgments after partial listens.  They give things partial attention: listening while doing the kind of multitasking that computers and phones not so much make possible as enforce.

As music streams into our lives like a mere utility such as electricity or water, people come up with tactics to “re-enchant the commodity” (which of course is no longer a commodity, but price-less and therefore increasingly value-less). Bloggers set themselves tasks where they listen to just one album for a whole week, or attempt to digest an entire artist’s oeuvre in a one giant bloc of listening. You can turn the internet into a sort of sedentary, stay-at-home substitute for the record shop, “browsing” its virtual racks and discovering things you never knew existed. You can recreate the thrills of scarcity by fetishizing the impossibly obscure, pursuing either the absolutely (and deservedly) forgotten, or the exotically remote. There are blogs dedicated to the state record company releases of folk music from various Soviet republics, to  African dance pop of the 1970s and 1980s that was only ever released on cassette and never reached the West…

As for the musicians, stuffing their sonic guts with an overly rich and various audio diet, well, inevitably they excrete a maximalist music whose aesthetic I term “glutted and clotted”.  In these overloaded circumstances, it takes tremendous spiritual strength and aesthetic rigor to fend off the inundation of influences and create any kind of distinctive sound-identity.

This stubborn mettle is also essential for critics and historians, not just of music but in any field.  The archival overload makes over-research irresistible. To be a historian or a writer of a non-fiction book today involves an inverted version of Hercules versus the Augean stables: a gathering in of masses of shit which must then be cleared away almost entirely. Researchers  have to summon the ruthless will to consign details, incidents and characters to historical oblivion, forcibly imposing a shape on the material.  We see a version of this steely will to narrativize in current affairs: the rise of meta-journalists like Seth Abramson, whose role is not to do original reporting on Trump, Russia, Mueller et al,   but to process and organize what is already out there in the public domain, constructing timelines and connective threads that rescue events and disclosures that have already slipped out of the public’s short-term memory.  They used to describe journalism as “the first draft of history”, but figures like Abramson are annotating and abridging what would otherwise likely be illegible and indecipherable to future historians.  The dark side version of this drive to create narratives amid chaos is conspiracy theory, those secular demonologies of causation. Indeed paranoid schizophrenia has often expressed itself through a mania for archives, esoteric knowledge, and grandiose system-building. 


If we’re adapting poorly to the vast and immaterial info-world we’ve built, it’s because for millennia the human sensorium was oriented around immediate surroundings and the present tense. It’s really only been a little more a century in which recordings (phonographic, photographic, cine-video, etc) have existed. In just a couple of decades, individual access to archives has become freakily enlarged even as the archives themselves have expanded astronomically, while the scope for personal self-documentation and self-broadcast has likewise swelled to be almost limitless. Yet we still have the haptic and present-tense orientation bequeathed us by evolution. Is it any wonder that our nerves are shredded, our sense of ego boundaries and memory grow blurry and tenuous, that personality disorders proliferate? 

As we say in England, you can have too much of a good thing.

Monday, March 18, 2019

talking ghosts and archive fever

I'm off on a brisk traipse across Europe -  to chat about hauntology and ArchivFieber in Barcelona and Berlin respectively. . 


BARCELONA - FRIDAY MARCH 22

Sons de la memòriaEl Born Centre de Cultura i Memòri

18.30 hrs - Conversation about hauntology with Arnau Horta

More information about Sons de la memòria events, including a live performance by Philip Jeck and Janek Schaeffer on March 23. 



BERLIN - SATURDAY MARCH 23

Find the FileHaus der Kulturen der Welt 

16:30-18:00  "Piles of Files: The Infinite Archive" - panel discussion with Elodie A. Roy,  Pelle Snickars, and Florian Sievers

More information about Find the File events



Unrelated to retro-haunty themes, if you happen to be in Lisbon you could catch me talking about music criticism


LISBON - FRIDAY MARCH 29 

MIL - Lisbon International Music Network

10.00 am to 11.30 am - Masterclass: Music Journalism

Main Hall, Palacete do Marqueses de Pombal, Rua das Janelas Verdes, 37, Lisbon

information about the class and about MIL - and a preview interview 

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

empire of retro signs






Oriental Magnetic Yellow was a parody band of Yellow Magic Orchestra, formed by VGM composers. The members were:

* Shinji Hosoe as Haruomi Hosonoe (細野江晴臣), a parody of Haruomi Hosono
* Nobuyoshi Sano as Ryuichi Sanomoto (佐野本龍一), a parody of Ryuichi Sakamoto
* Takayuki Aihara as Takayukihiro Aihara (相原隆幸宏), a parody of Yukihiro Takahashi
* Hiroto Sasaki as Hideki Sasatake (佐々武秀樹), a parody of Hideki Masutake




Wednesday, March 6, 2019

the hoax of the new

"Pablo Casals said that 'the desire for innovation leads to greater aberrations in art than would acceptance of what's already there' and I think he's definitely got a point"

- Tom Verlaine, quote appearing under the sub-heading "THE HOAX OF THE NEW", in this Kristine McKenna interview from November 1981, in the New York Rocker


Odd sentiment to cosign there from Verlaine, who with Television is a supreme example of the way in which the new can manifest through the older form (gtr/bs/drms; psychedelic rock) over-writing it from within 


a paradox Barney Hoskyns captured when he hailed Television as - 


"the original post-rock rockists







that was said in a 1982 piece celebrating-defending Echo & The Bunnymen (very influenced by Television) from the charge of being a trad guitar rock group, an accusation mounted by some at the height of new pop





in the interview, Pete De Freitas makes a good point, on the subject of synth-pop, and how the superficial new can actually cloak the persistence of the old: 


"It's also that the stuff that's supposed to be experimental has just been blanding out more than anything else. It's not experimenting at all, it's just using synthesizers to play pretty ordinary songs a lot of the time."

where it started to go wrong for the Bunnymen - when they made their guitars sound like sitars, and therefore directly evoke the Sixties




whereas this


Sunday, February 17, 2019

that bolshy lady again

yet another reuse of the Rodchenko female-revolutionary-hails-the-proletariat poster






for once, though actually an appropriate bit of recycling, not just pure graphic designer lameness


the original in the remote possibility you know not whereof i speak





bonus bits of modernist graphic genius from that man Alexander





Image result for rodchenko



Image result for rodchenko



Image result for rodchenko

Monday, February 11, 2019

superstructure > base

J.G. Ballard on the Sixties:

“Here it was an aesthetic revolution that made the changes. For 5 years the class system didn’t seem to exist--nobody ever used the word…. I remember about 1970, for the first time in something like five or six years, I heard someone who was being interviewed on the radio use the word ‘working class’. Which would have been unthinkable in say, 1967 or 1968. Unthinkable. I thought, ‘my God, that’s the death knell of change. It’s coming to an end.’ And it did, and now we’re back in the same closed, confined, class-conscious little society… I don’t think the radical change needed to transform this country can come from the political direction at all. I think it can only come from the area of the arts--some sort of seismic shift in aesthetic sensibility, of a kind that we saw in the mid-60s, when this country was improved for the better. There was no question about it--liberated, briefly….” 


quote from 1983

c.f. Mark Fisher on the importance of indirect action to expand our sense of what is possible, conceivable, desirable, doable.

"the intensification and proliferation of the capitalist technologies of reality management and libidinal engineering in the 1980s was not merely some happy coincidence for neoliberalism; neoliberalism’s success was inconceivable without these technologies. It is also the reason that direct action, while of course crucial, will never be sufficient: we also need to act indirectly, by generating new narratives, figures and conceptual frames.

"... The reordering of images thoughts, affects, desires, beliefs and languages plainly cannot be achieved by “politics” alone – it is a matter for culture, in the widest sense.

... Popular culture’s incapacity to produce innovation is a persistent ambient signal that nothing can ever change." 

quote from 2015