Tuesday, 9 December 2014

William S. Burroughs, Morphine, Cancer and Me

I managed to celebrate the centenary of American writer William S. Burroughs hooked up to a morphine drip and reading the last few chapters of Cervantes’ Don Quixote in the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. I guess some things are just meant to be: on reflection I cannot think of a better way to commemorate the life of God’s Own Junkie than by becoming one yourself if only for the briefest of moments. To be honest, morphine proved to be the most indifferent of pleasures – the nurses and doctors had to keep reminding me to take it during the early stages of recovery from my surgery. Even so I had the grey bruised flesh and collapsed veins to go with the experience – although morphine can only be blamed for a small amount of the damage my body sustained while being plugged into the medical space station I inhabited during this time. On sleepless nights I would often listen to some of the Burroughs extended tape experiments contained on Real English Tea Made Here as if they were a radio serial – so the connections between morphine, cancer and cut-ups made real sense to me at the time.

Soon after my discharge from hospital, I was handed a copy of the William Burroughs Special issue put out by Beat Scene to mark the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth. Included among the special features, essays and profiles, was the reprint of a short review I wrote of the William Burroughs ESP Disk release Call Me Burroughs, given an entire page of its own. Apart from these experiences, I though that the centenary year would pass me by – however, I have been invited to speak at a special event devoted to William Burroughs in Manchester on Sunday December 14. Part two of a two-day festival, ‘everything is permitted’ offers a symposium on how we read and register Burroughs’s influence. Others taking part include Professor Oliver Harris, Michael Horovitz and Dik Jarmen. I will be reading relevant extracts from The Bright Labyrinth and talking about the film collaborations between Burroughs and Anthony Balch. There will also be a panel discussion about Burroughs. I am sure we will all think of something to say. I am of course delighted to have the opportunity to acknowledge in public the early influence Burroughs’ work had upon my own writing and thought.

‘everything is permitted’
12.00 – 18.00 hrs
The International Anthony Burgess Foundation
Engine House,
Chorlton Mill,
 3 Cambridge Street
 M1 5BY

For more information and to order tickets, click here

See also: Dead Fingers Talk - William Burroughs (I thought about this cover a lot while I was in hospital)

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Bright Labyrinth Launch at Central St Martins December 3

After almost a year waiting patiently for me to regain some strength following my recent treatment for cancer, Strange Attractor Press and Central Saint Martins School of Arts and Design are happy to announce that there will be a launch event to celebrate the publication of my latest book The Bright Labyrinth on December 3.

The event will be in two parts:

Between 4.30 and 6.00 I will be giving a lecture, ‘Extraterrestrial Being’ on the relationship between design and writing as exemplified in the new book. Then from 6.30 until 9.00 there will be a party, a book signing and a short reading from The Bright Labyrinth. The location of these two separate parts can be found on the invite reproduced above.

The whole celebration will be taking place at Central St Martins. If you wish to attend all or part of this, you must RSVP beforehand for security reasons. Please follow this link and either select either ‘Extra Terrestrial Being’ if you wish to attend both the lecture and the party, or ‘Fleshy Human’ if you can only make it along to the party. Or you can use the tiny url featured on the invite to make the same choice.

It has been a long hard road trip to get here, so I hope you will be able to come along and celebrate with me. 

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Welcome to the Freak Zone - Enter the Freak Zone

I have recently been talking to Radio 6’s Stuart Maconie about how music is used in science-fiction movies and playing some of my personal favourites, including the OSTs for ‘Forbidden Planet’, ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ and ‘Akira’. The recording of our conversation is being broadcast as part of Stuart’s ‘Freak Zone’ show on the evening of Sunday November 23 between 20.00 and 22.00 hrs. 

My sequence should come on on around 20.45. 

‘Freak Zone’ is a BBC music programme dedicated to the weird, the wonderful and the unexpected in modern music, and this special edition is dedicated to music, outer space and the future. The show can be accessed through the Radio 6 website and will also be available for listening after the initial broadcast.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Situation Normal: Breathing the Same Air

As my health is now starting to improve following the departure of the chemo gods in the autumn, it seems like the right time to start mentioning some of the other things going on in my life.

For example, I have a new essay, ‘Breathing the Same Air: Cold War Sci-Fi’, in the latest BFI compendium Days of Fear and Wonder, which has just been published to coincide with the British Film Institute’s extensive festival of Science Fiction movies taking place between late October and December this year. The essay was specially commissioned by the compendium’s editor, James Bell, and appears alongside pieces by Mark Fisher, Roger Luckhurst, Helen Lewis, Adam Roberts, Kim Newman and Marketa Uhlirova. It was written during the height of summer when the chemical activity inside my body was reaching some kind of critical peak, which might explain the essay’s fascination with toxic environments and incompatible life forms as metaphors for the ideological and cultural fissures that were opened up during the Cold War. As with the film festival itself, Days of Fear and Wonder offers a comprehensive overview of what has quite often been overlooked as a vital film genre and covers a wide range of its facets, including politics, science and technology, evolution and mutation, costume design, architecture, kitsch and alien cultures. It is consequently well worth the attention of anyone who visits or reads this blog.

PUBLICATION DETAILS: Days of Fear and Wonder, edited by James Bell, ISBN 978-1-844457-861-0, British Film Institute, £16.99.

More information and ordering details can be found here.

Pictured above Days of Fear and Wonder cover art.

Monday, 28 July 2014

While I Was Sleeping…

Just recently my old friend Aleksandra Mir gently reprimanded me for not updating this blog since I posted the first details of my illness back in February. She is, of course, absolutely right; and I must apologise sincerely to anyone outside of my usual Twitter and email circle for not keeping them informed of what has been going on. I knew that I would return to a different network when I left hospital, but I had no idea it would be one from which I would absent myself for such a long period of time. There are a number of reasons for this, and I will list some of them here by way of an explanation and an update.

While the surgery was successful in cleanly removing the tumour that was growing inside me, it took a long time to adjust to life outside the hospital again. The six or so days I spent in there had a deeper impact on me than I had realized at the time. To me if felt as though I were inhabiting a huge space station: an impression that was only strengthened at night when you heard the entire building humming and respiring and regulating itself. The photographs included with this post – taken as always by the Daily Planet’s roving shutterbug Kitty Keen – are from the day before I was released from hospital and also document the first time I had taken any steps outside the ward since my surgery. They say more about my state of mind when going back into the world than anything else I could write here. One friend characterized the pictures instantly with the comment: ‘At last – the missing outtakes from Tarkovsy’s Solaris.’

The period of recovery from the surgery was the only thing I could actually describe as progress, but as this involved going for long daily walks, catching up on email correspondence and getting back to work on my writing and other activities, it left little time for posting further details online. I kept the Twitter account updated, but I got too interested in what everyone else was doing to mention much about my own condition.  I will be posting links and details of some of things I have been up to over the recuperation period during what remains of the summer in an effort to update this blog as thoroughly as possible.

Once I was deemed fit enough to withstand it I was put on a six-month course of fairly brutal chemotherapy, which I will also describe in more detail in a later post. At this stage it is enough to note that living with anti-cancer drugs is like living with Vodou spirits inhabiting your body on a daily basis – they come and go as they please, and you tend to do what they tell you to. You are also prone to long periods of fatigue and spiritual lassitude (no god rides a human for free – this much I know is true) and you have to learn to work around them. Again writing and immediate daily concerns took precedent over posting online details about what was happening. The other problem with chemotherapy is that there is no sense of the ‘progress’ I had blithely assumed I would be able to describe once I emerged from hospital. Chemotherapy is basically a banquet of poisons – it never makes you feel ‘better’ in the way that one assumes normal medicine might do. On the contrary, you deal with side effects and physiological uprisings, sudden flare-ups and moments of pure stoned abandonment – they are still drugs, after all, whichever way you look at them. And how do you describe that in terms of ‘progress’? I am asking this question while about to start my seventh cycle of treatment out of eight and looking forward to an end to this particular feast.

The last – and probably most important – reason for taking so long in posting something was that I was completely unprepared for all of the messages of support, offers to visit and the emails containing good wishes and good thoughts for the future. Aside from the time and effort it took to reply to them, they also produced within me a certain reticence. I now realize that, for all the talk of ‘pathological oversharing’ taking place within social networks, I still perceive the network itself as being essentially formal in its manner of operation – it relies upon protocols and agreements and codes in order to function effectively. Part of me still has a fond attachment to the early days of the otaku when it was about trading information among formal strangers more than anything else. I perceive this severe sense of formality as functioning like a hypersensitive nervous system – it retracts and shrinks away from certain forms of attention, however welcome they might actually be to the recipient.

In other words, I am profoundly grateful to the vast majority of those who took the trouble to contact me since my February 3 blog post; it meant so much to me that it nearly dislodged me from my own network. But then I did say that things might change, didn’t I?

Monday, 3 February 2014

How to Wreck the Internet: I Have Cancer

I have not been posting much on this blog recently because frankly I have not had the energy – I had been suffering in the latter part of 2013 from a creeping anemia which was not really responding to conventional treatment. Turns out I have been hemorrhaging internally from a non-benign tumor in my colon – in other words I have been diagnosed with bowel cancer. As a result I have been spending a lot of time in hospital having CT scans, blood tests and talking to specialists – I now feel like an earth-based astronaut exploring medical space through passages and corridors that lead from scanners to operating theatres to drip feeds and epidurals.  Fortunately my condition has been caught at a relatively early stage when it is still contained and can be safely removed via keyhole surgery. I am going into theatre tomorrow – and yes it does feel like a piece of performance art.

I have informed most of the people with whom I have immediate contact over the past ten days or so, but I have not really been sure how well news like this locates itself on the internet – the physiological reality of my condition does not seem to be something that could possibly withstand the process of being communicated via the network. There remains, however, the obligation to communicate what is happening to me to those outside my immediate circle – I am not ashamed or afraid of my condition but am slightly unnerved at letting the people who still look in on my blog or follow me on Twitter know about it. Either my cancer will fail to communicate itself via the Internet or it will wreck my personal network by its presence. Will every statement I make from this point on be seen only in the light of this diagnosis? Do you retweet it? If so, to whom? Can you favourite it? Or would you even want to? Can any statement I make after this mean anything other than a slight rewording of the simple declaration that I have cancer? In the end I guess that is up to those who follow me (or choose not to for completely understandable reasons) to decide. Either way, they deserve at least that declaration.

For those who know my work and concerns, I should point out that I am not dead yet and that plans for Strange Attractor Press to go ahead with the publication of my newest book The Bright Labyrinth are already in place – my thanks to the excellent design and editorial team who are helping to move things forward. Similarly, work on my spoken-word audiocassette release for Tapeworm, announced on The Wire website recently, is also continuing. Please watch out for further announcements on these in the coming weeks. I am going to be hospitalized for about a week and then will be convalescing for most – if not all – of February. I will, however, be back – giving updates on my condition, offering my thoughts on what is happening around me and generally staying in touch with the world. I am not going away – but I may come back to a slightly different network from the one I left. In the meantime I wish whoever is reading this good health, peace and happiness – never have they seemed more important to me than right now.

Pictured above: KH exploring medical space, January 2014, photo by the Daily Planet’s roving shutterbug Kitty Keen

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Ludwig, Elvis, Michael at the Venice Biennale

The following text was written as part of my contribution to ‘Low is the New High’, part of Salon Suisse, the main Swiss contribution to this year’s Venice Biennale, which took the form of a select programme of individual evenings dedicated to discussing key aspects of aesthetics, politics and the legacy of the Enlightenment. My sincere thanks are due to my fellow panellists – Joseph Imord, Jason Pine and moderator Jörg Scheller – and to the staff of the Swiss Consulate for a stimulating and invigorating event. My apologies for not posting this sooner.

A Statement

‘You think I run after the strange because I do not know the beautiful,’ Georg Lichtenberg confides in one of his notebooks at the time of the American Revolution, ‘no, it is because you do not know the beautiful that I seek the strange.’

Almost a century later John Ruskin confesses to a similar impulse but in slightly stronger terms: ‘Once I could speak joyfully about beautiful things, thinking to be understood – now I cannot anymore; for it seems to me that no one regards them.’

The appreciation of trash has become over time an act of mistrust that breaks with the imposition of those shared values which are assumed to make trust possible. Trash consequently presents a way of thinking about beauty without falling under its spell. Say yes to one work of unique beauty, it argues, and you also open your arms to a thousand coarse and miserable reproductions as well.

Kitsch has always enjoyed a comfortable relationship with the age of mechanical reproduction – that is to say with industrialized processes, customs and attitudes – while Camp as a form of aesthetic consumption has established itself through the coolly ironic visions of Pop Art.

Part industrial by-product, part refuge from the very values that have created it, trash is the consumerist ethic torn inside out. In an age when beauty and truth, value and desire, poetry and music have all become so compromised and debased by mainstream corporate culture that we can barely stand to look directly at them anymore, we prize trash not for what it is but for what it tells us about the forces that have shaped it. Overcoming irony by ecstatically embracing irony, trash is the affirmation of beauty to the point of its destruction. 

Trash, in other words, is something ground out between progress and decadence.

‘Wagner is the modern artist par excellence, the Cagliostro of modernity,’ Nietzsche observes of his former friend. ‘All that the world most needs to-day, is combined in the most seductive manner in his art,—the three great stimulants of exhausted people: brutality, artificiality and innocence (idiocy).

Brutality, artificiality and innocence/idiocy: these are the very qualities that excite us most when we contemplate trash.

Forget the ‘failed seriousness’ of Camp. The failed solemnity of Wagner evokes trash in the grandest manner: Kundry is a true trash divinity, flinging her arms around the neck of an enchanted fool.

If a work of art betrays us, then the question of its truth or value is without relevance.
What does it matter if we consider it trash or not?

Trash expresses a wearied acceptance of surfaces and facades. It is the sign of something being eaten away inside. This inner life is only partially hidden, while the logic of its decay exerts an obscure but potent influence. It provokes a bitter form of laughter – the laughter of recognition, not of the familiar but of something distorted and deranged within us. As such, trash In a sense we will never be very far away from alchemy in our investigation of trash aesthetics. Caught somewhere between the instability of prima materia and that of the recycling plant, trash is matter whose destiny has not yet been established.

Alchemic processes of transformation, together with those ‘hysterical’ practices identified by Sigmund Freud in which discarded objects associated with a dead king take on a sacred aspect, lead us to trace the connections between Wagner’s patron, Ludwig II of Bavaria on the one hand and Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson on the other. All three of them were kings, both actual and metaphorical, vilified for their excessive behaviour and ‘bad taste’; and all three of them were the victims of self-inflicted – one might almost say sacrificial – violence in one aspect or another.

All three of them created powerfully charged personal environments for themselves. Think of Ludwig’s fairy-tale castles and palaces at Neuschwanstein, Linderhof and Herrenchiemsse; Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion and Michael Jackson’s Neverland pleasure gardens. These personal trash paradises have become closely associated with their owner’s decline and early death. Derided and found wanting according to conventional notions of taste, a study of these individual trash palaces reveals an attitude which is essentially monarchical and subversive at the same time; their preservation reminds us that trash – like all things held to be sacred – is both untouchable and immortal.

Ken Hollings
Salon Suisse, Venice
September 2013

Photographs are by roving shutterbug Kitty Keen, our girl in the palazzo.