Friday, 10 July 2020

New Biting Tongues Album: 'Clear Your Screens' From Your Friendly Tapeworm

No one heard us coming – no one saw us leave. 

I’m pleased to announce that Tapeworm are releasing a new Biting Tongues album on limited edition CD or digital download. Clear Your Screens is a ‘series of battle re-enactments from Manchester’s least celebrated post-punk groups’ according to Tapeworm’s Bandcamp page. More precisely, it is a collection of live moments, selected by me, recorded between 2003 and 2009 in performances that brought the original Biting Tongues line-up together for the first time in about twenty years. Graham Massey took the multichannel recordings and did an amazing job mixing and producing all of the selected material. He and I spent months swapping notes and ideas with each other, especially when it came to the sequencing of the random tapes we would traditionally have running in the background throughout each performance. We’d never know what was coming or when, so it was always a surprise when playing the rough mixes back afterwards. Graham has a fantastic ear – ‘we have to find where the track lives,’ he once advised me in an email. I’m not sure I completely understood what Graham meant to begin with and I’m not even sure I can explain it to you now either, but I think I get it now. Personally I think this is the best album this version of Biting Tongues has ever released. It’s essentially the same group that recorded Live It, the album that was reissued on vinyl by Finders Keepers at the end of last year. You can find out more about it  here . They even have a few tracks in common, most notably ‘Evening State’, ‘The Reflector’ and ‘Unhook That Boy’.

I wrote some sleeve notes for Clear Your Screens that were an attempt to explore the differences and continuities between then and now – what has changed and what remains the same. Listening to Clear Your Screens today it feels like we were writing material and creating ideas for our future selves – an active form of communication across time. Quite what our former selves would make of our more recent efforts, I will leave to them to express – if they ever get around to it.

You rarely get the chance to haunt yourself – to discover that you are slowly becoming a ghost from your own past. In 2003 the original Biting Tongues line-up came together for a one-off performance at the ICA in London – it was the first time we had played together in almost twenty years. Further opportunities presented themselves in the years that followed. More out of curiosity than anything else, we stuck with past material: tracks written and performed all those years ago. I welcomed the chance to return to it after so much time, experience and hindsight. The playing felt more assured than before – almost as if our performances had grown into each of these pieces, making them what they were meant to be. The live stage had always been our true recording studio, so far as I’m concerned – it was the laboratory where the best experiments happened. We left a lot of space for chance and the unexpected to move in and take over. At every performance there would be tapes running unattended in the background: interjecting voices from late-night TV and radio, scraps of news items and cheap sci-fi movies, field recordings, overheard conversations and shortwave signals. We just kept on playing.‘They may sound like an unorganized racket to some people,’ Graham Massey once remarked about these performances, ‘but they are very formal pieces. This formality provided a framework for all the random inputs in our work to take effect, making a drama out of the unintended. It was simply a matter of accepting the results. I’m glad they have been so carefully preserved. The live recordings we made between 2003 and 2009 are a reminder that the date and venue might vary but the stage remains the same. It’s a constant presence scattered across time and location, influencing the way you think and feel.The barbed tangles of sounds, the clusters of voices and rhythms – each of them establishes a connection with the past. Graham’s outstanding technical skills as producer may have brought them firmly into the present, but their origins will always lie elsewhere – most of the tapes heard running through these performances are digital copies of fragile 1980s originals. As for the person who initially composed the cut-up and heavily processed texts I found myself channeling onstage in the early years of twenty-first century: I’m not entirely sure where and when that individual slipped away. I had simply become an older mouthpiece for a much younger version of myself: just another ghost haunting my own body.

Biting Tongues
Digital Album
Mastered by Stephan Mathieu at Schwebung Mastering
Buy it here.

Monday, 17 February 2020

Inferno, the First Volume in My Three-Part ‘Trash Project’ Launches February 18

‘Trash has always served me well—over the years it has become the outer form and material expression of my dreams: of tomorrow, of life in space, of the blissful alienation from this world that I have always craved…’

My latest book Inferno: a Genealogy of 1960s Trash is being launched at the Horse Hospital on Tuesday February 18. 

The Horse Hospital is bravely fighting back against threats of closure once again – and once again they have managed to hang onto their amazing space off Russell Square until the end of March. I doubt whether Inferno would have been the same book, or would even have existed at all, if it hadn’t been for the Horse Hospital. The Trash Project has been a long time in the planning. Over twenty years of screenings, exhibitions, discussions and debates at the Horse Hospital have had an undeniable impact on writing and thinking about Trash and Trash Aesthetics. 

There has been no other place like it. The launch of my first book, Destroy All Monsters, took place at the Horse Hospital. Strange Attractor Press also enjoys strong connections with the Horse Hospital – some of its earliest events were held there. To celebrate the launch of Inferno at the Horse Hospital has tremendous significance both for me and for my publishers. I hope you can join us. There will be movies, a reading from Inferno, plus a book signing and special guest star DJs. You can find more details of what should be a highly memorable evening by clicking here.

Inferno is the first volume in a three-part work on the subject of Trash and Trash Aesthetics. It has been very closely modelled upon the structure of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The architecture of Hell as laid out in Dante’s epic poem perfectly suits the main subject of my own Inferno, which deals predominantly with exploitation and underground films in 1960s America. You can find more details about the book, including the complete blurb, by clicking here.  

Strange Attractor have included in their press kit for Inferno a short Q&A that I was asked to respond to earlier this month. I am reproducing the resultant exchange herewith, with thanks to Esmeralda Vogele Downing for asking such great questions. I think it tells you quite a lot about the new project. 

How can one best recognise trash?

Well, that presupposes that we already have a workable definition of Trash and its appeal. Trash maintains a highly elusive presence precisely because it escapes recognition. We might claim to ‘know it when we see it’ – but how far has this assumption ever got us? Apply the same pronouncement to ‘art’ or ‘beauty’, and you’ll see what I mean. One of the reasons why I started The Trash Projectin the first place was to explore how Trash is set up within a culture and why it is so necessary to the life of that culture. We tend, for the most part, to recognise Trash ‘when we see it’ only so that we can immediately dismiss it. This is essentially what’s happening when we claim that something is ‘so bad it’s good’. I understand what is being claimed by this statement as it is commonly used but not the mechanisms or attitudes that have produced it. These need to be exposed and examined much more closely. Or to put it another way: when everything tells you that you ought to look away but you keep on watching anyway – that’s the quintessential Trash experience to me.

What in Inferno is likely to surprise first-time explorers of trash?

That Trash even exists at all, to be honest. The sixties are habitually characterised as the decade when the western world went ‘pop’ for the first time. TV shows and comic strips, product design and advertising, AM-friendly radio tunes, dance music and romances were suddenly celebrated as examples of what was already being classified by the late 1950s as ‘popular culture’. But that celebration is itself highly selective: Disney’s OK but Speed Racer isn’t. Mickey Mouse is fine but Rat Fink isn’t. Advertising spreads in glossy magazines are acceptable, but ads for X-Ray Spex and plastic model kits in comic books aren’t. Playboy and movie star magazines are fine – but men’s adventure magazines and nudie cuties aren’t. In other words, critical accounts of what constitutes popular culture during this period tend to suppress or ignore Trash or, at the very least, garble the essential details of its existence. Concepts like ‘Camp’ and the ‘New Sentimentality’ gave a certain permission to celebrate some forms of Trash – but the cops and censors, the school board and the ‘moral consensus’ were always close at hand to keep an eye on things and make sure they didn’t go too far. On the other hand, it’s also likely that readers of Inferno will be surprised that some of the films, records or books featured should be considered Trash at all. That’s fine by me. The Trash Project is intended as an exploration, after all – not a definitive statement. However, I would be curious to know when, and under what circumstances, they first encountered these disputed examples of Trash. The passage of time has a pleasing way of sanding off the rough edges. I’m trying to look more closely at what made them rough in the first place.

Rat Fink or Mickey Mouse; who’d win in a fight, and why?

If it’s in an alleyway, on the drag strip or round the back of the school cafeteria, then Rat Fink would win every time. But if it’s in the boardroom or the courtroom, then my money’s on the mouse. Ed Roth’s creation may be an awkward and scabrous misfit, but he’s got heart; you just know he’ll fight dirty if he has to. Mickey Mouse is a suburban dad by comparison, and has a suburban dad’s values, which means he’d also have the best legal representation – and that’s where I’m going to leave it.

Which three items of literature, music or film would you recommend to accompany Inferno?

Just three? OK, I’ll offer one example in each of the suggested categories. While writing InfernoI went back again and again to Mary Douglas’s classic work of cultural anthropology, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. It’s so beautifully and clearly written, and first published in 1966, so it fits exactly into the period I am describing in the book. I also listened to a lot of surf instrumentals and songs about cars from the period when working on the book – everything from ‘Surfin’ Bird’ and ‘’Wipe Out’ to ‘Little Street Machine’ and ‘Dracula’s Deuce’. Couldn’t get enough. Finally, and after much thought, the film I would suggest to accompany Inferno would have to be Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls. Itsuits the mood and terrain of Inferno right down to its frozen heart – plus it’s a beautiful example of the strange poetry that you might find showing at your local drive-in during the early 1960s. 

How does the book tie into or evolve from your other works of critical theory?

That’s a hard question for me to answer because I tend to see each of my books as existing in its own separate world: written at a specific time in a specific way in response to a specific concern. I’m also not sure that they can really be categorized as works of critical theory in the conventional sense of the word. I think of my books as tools or devices that enable the reader to explore a relatively unexamined idea or condition. To this end they often use multiple voices, perspectives and disciplines. The lines between critical and creative writing in my work are intentionally blurred. This has remained a constant throughout my books and essays. Similarly, much of my writing has a strong structural component. The form and the strict ordering of material within my books has always been a recurring concern of mine – from the 200 numbered files of Destroy All Monsters and the chronological sequencing of Welcome to Marsto the labyrinthine doubling back of themes in The Bright Labyrinthand the astrological ordering of sequences in The Space Oracle. In that respect, Inferno definitely follows the same line of development –being the first in a larger three-part Trash Project, whose structure is directly derived from Dante’s Divine Comedy. I am currently about halfway through composing Purgatory at the moment, and Paradise is already being mapped out. I’ve never done a three-part work before, so that is also a new departure for me. Structure alone can say so much.

The Trash Project: Volume One
Ken Hollings
400 pp
34 b/w images (approx.)
ISBN 9781907222795

February 18, 7.00 – 9.00 pm
The Horse Hospital
London WC1N 1JD

Cover design by Tihana Šare 
Third and Fourth Inferno images by @lahollings 

Monday, 3 February 2020

‘Live It’ by Biting Tongues – Some Notes and Afterthoughts

Finally received my author’s copies of Live It in the morning mail. This is a collection of early Biting Tongues recordings released on vinyl for the first time by Finders Keepers. The core material for this album was drawn from a cassette-only release put out in the early 1980s by Manchester punk label New Hormones, also under the title Live It – six of the ten tracks in fact. The others are outtakes from the various Live It sessions, which actually sound so interesting that I wonder why they weren’t included in the original release.

The first thing that struck me about the vinyl version of Live It was the insight displayed in the new cover design – it pointed me towards something I had not really noticed before. On the front of the regular edition you can see one of those standard band photos everybody does from time to time for promotional purposes. Biting Tongues never seemed to do that many photo sessions as a group in the early 1980s so there probably isn’t that much material to choose from – at least not from the time when these recordings were made. We were being photographed in the stairwell of some mall or arcade. I really don’t remember where it was – I was not living in Manchester at the time, although the rest of the band were. I used to commute between my home and theirs every other week or so for rehearsals, recording sessions, performances etc. 

As I said, I don’t recall the location of the tall high windows featured in the front-cover photograph – but what did strike me about them is how they neatly separated me from the other members of Biting Tongues, as if I had been set aside in a box on my own. I am similarly divided from the band on the back cover as well. Graham, Colin, Howard and Eddie had been photographed standing together in some murky alleyway – the print is high contrast and very post-punk. I appear alone in a photo insert sitting at a typewriter and a microphone, illuminated by a desk light. This time I do remember when and where this photograph was taken – it was during a performance Biting Tongues gave at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on the Mall in London. It was our first ever London gig. We would include all kinds of one-off performance elements in these early shows; and on this occasion it had been arranged that I would actually type up new portions of my text live onstage. Then I would deliver them from the desk while the rest of the band went on playing. 

Somehow the cover design for this release perfectly encapsulates my relationship with Biting Tongues during the time when I was a member. It comments on the different and separate processes at work within the band both within the studio and outside it. The rest of the band worked really hard on the music we recorded and performed. They worked collectively – on a regular basis. They also worked intuitively around very precise formal agreements. Meanwhile back in London, I worked on the texts alone and in isolation – I’d receive rehearsal tapes from the band in the post and use them to frame and shape what I was writing. I was more interested in textual collage, cut-ups, words coming from unknown or unforeseen sources – words overheard from a world you only ever glimpse from the corner of your eye. 

I would use all kinds of techniques at the time: take, for example, the texts for ‘42’ and ‘43’, which you will find on side one of Live It and which are also from the original audiocassette release. These were actually derived from one long mosaic-like text made up from laying random horizontal grids over the pages of existing books and noting down what the grids would either underline or strike through. I can’t remember all of the source material now, but listening to the full text on ‘43’ I know some of the fragments and phrases are from works by Antonin Artaud and Georges Bataille. Yeah – I know. Pretentious. The NME told me as much at the time, and so did just about everyone else. 

On side two, the track that interests me the most is ‘Read This’, the text for which was derived from a chain letter sent to me by someone who claimed that the government was trying to control their mind using microwaves. Their words were cut together with some short texts produced by my tuning through an FM radio dial late at night and transcribing the results. On the first two tracks on side two you can also hear me cutting into the words themselves, to produce abstract sounds. These proved too difficult to learn for live performances – your mind has nothing to grip on to. Instead I used to do readings from them at Richard Strange’s early Cabaret Futura nights rather than including them in any Biting Tongues performances. John Peel’s producer John Walters, recorded one of my Cabaret Futura readings and played some of it on his Radio 1 show, declaring that I was probably ‘the death of rock and roll’. 

If he was right, I don’t think I did a very good job of it. Looking back, I can see that I was always a writer working with a group of musicians – certainly not a singer or performer in any conventional sense of the word. One day I will write more about the few short years I was with Biting Tongues. It was a great time to be working with music, both live and in the studio – everything was up for grabs back then; and there was a real appetite for experimentation, however rough and raw the outcome might be. I think Graham Massey’s selection and editing of the tracks on Live It conveys all of this extremely well. It took over three decades to understand the full implications of all that, but it was worth the wait for these recordings to be available at long last in a vinyl edition. Today, looking back on them and having no choice in the matter, I now think of the texts and my delivery of them on this album as being my first published work. Sometimes the past has a way of telling you what you should already have known.

Pictured above: Biting Tongues: Live It – standard edition; Biting Tongues: Live It – limited deluxe edition; sleeve note insert from the standard edition and one of the facsimile club flyers from the deluxe edition. 

Photographed by @lahollings

Order details for Live It from Finders Keepers can be found here.

 Now buy it. 

Sunday, 5 May 2019

On Holiday With Nietzsche

My five-part series of essays on Friedrich Nietzsche starts this Monday night on BBC Radio 3 at 22.45. It’s a mix of travel writing and personal reflection that takes you from Turin to the Austrian Alps and the Norwegian fjords to the Italian Lakes. Nietzsche was a restless traveller throughout his life, never staying long in any one place, so his writings have always seemed like perfect holiday reading to me. Each of my essays sets a different book in a specific landscape, exploring the sights and sounds of that idle time in summer when you have the time to read and travel and explore.

The series will run across the entire week from May 6 to May 10 with a new reading every night, with each essay starting at 22.45. I do hope you will be able to join me.

Here is the schedule:

‘Becoming What You Are’: Monday May 6
‘Under the Mountain’: Tuesday May 7
‘For Everyone and No One’: Wednesday May 8
‘A Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’: Thursday May 9
‘The Art of Ending’: Friday May 10

For more details please click here. You can also follow ‘On Holiday With Nietzsche’ on the Radio 3 website following the initial transmission of each essay, and a podcast version will also be available from the same site.

Pictured above: Stalking Nietzsche with a Notebook and Pen – KH captured in various locations by @lahollings

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

My New Book! 'The Space Oracle'

Astronomy is another form of cinema. Time is fragmented and extended. Matter becomes light in motion. The camera remains fixed, looking outwards into the darkness, while the earth moves beneath our feet.’

I am pleased to announce that I have a new book out, published by Strange Attractor Press, and it is officially launched today. There will be an event at the Royal College of Art this evening. You can RSVP by clicking on this link - the password is SPACEORACLE@RCA. 

I will be posting further background information and illustrations from the book on this blog in the coming weeks, but in the meantime here is an overview, plus some comments on the book from higher sources.

The Space Oracle reinvents the history of astronomy as a new kind of astrological calendar. This radical retelling of our relationship with the cosmos reaches back to places and times when astronomers were treated as artists or priests, to when popes took part in astral rites and the common people feared eclipses and comets as portents of disaster. Panoramic and encyclopaedic in its scope, the book brings astronauts and spies, engineers and soldiers, goddesses and satellites into alignment with speculative insights and everyday observations. The universe, Hollings argues, is a work in progress – enjoy it.
 As astronomers have peered ever further out into the cosmos their discoveries have always refused to remain confined within observatory walls. The Space Oracleshows what happens when astronomy escapes into the wider human world, and finds purposes beyond the scientific. As Ken Hollings points out, ‘the further into space we go, the more we learn about ourselves’ – Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer, Royal Observatory Greenwich
 ‘Continuing the trajectory set in Welcome To Mars and Bright LabyrinthA Space Oracle revolts magnificently against the fault-lines of contemporary learning. Within the courtly form of a Renaissance almanac, and in a voice that echoes the recursive wanderings of a comet, Hollings gives us a vision of humanity endlessly making sense of the heavens. As he goes he shows us how the stars appear from Tycho Brahe’s Uraniborg and Wernher von Braun’s Peenemünde, from the branches of Yggdrasil and the helter-skelter at Luna Park. I loved it, but then I would say that; I’m a Plutonian’ – Richard Barnett, author of The Sick Rose 
‘Reading Ken Hollings is the intellectual equivalent of being fired from the space-module for a non-stop EVA’ – Tom McCarthy, author ofMen in Spaceand Satin Island

Publication Details:
The Space Oracle
A Guide to Your Stars
Ken Hollings

116mm x 186mm
176pp, 12 b/w Illos
ISBN: 9781907222535
Available from Strange Attractor Press

Sunday, 14 October 2018

'Ekphrasis' on Touch Radio

At the start of 2018 the artist Richard Bevan asked me to participate in an exhibition of maquette at  The Block in New Cross, South East London. I old him I would take the request seriously. 'Don't overthink it,' Richard replied. 'Maquettes', he went on, should be taken as a broad term for something that exists between a thought and a thing. I had noticed an accidental arrangement of objects on a shelf in my studio and decided to submit these in response to Richard's invitation. Around the same time the editors of Satori magazine approached me to write something for a forthcoming issue on the subject of aesthetics.The result was 'Ekphrasis', a text that describes in detail the arrangement of objects on my studio shelf - I wrote it while preparing for the 'Maquettes' show to open at The Block. The show as very lovely, and I was very happy to have been included in it. I was also very happy with the way the 'Ekphrasis' text came out, so when Block invited me to give a reading there to mark the close of the exhibition, I agreed immediately. Richard Bevan recorded the reading, and Rachel Hollings - known as @lahollings to her many Instagram followers - photographed the event.

I am indebted to Rachel and Richard for their documentation of my reading.

Later in  the year Mike Harding of Touch Radio expressed an interest in featuring the recording of 'Ekphrasis' as one of their fabulous transmissions. You can access it directly from them by clicking here.

This is the first piece of mine in a long time to exist as a show a published text, a live performance and a sound piece. Single process: multiple outcomes. I wish I could do this more often, Enjoy.

Pictured above from top to bottom: KH's arrangement of objects at the Maquettes show, photographed by Richard Bevan; Satori 03, cover by Sam Copeland; KH reading, photographed by Rachel Hollings; KH and Richard Bevan at The Block, photographed by Rachel Hollings.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Right Between the Ears: Radio 3, June 2

My latest programme for BBC Radio 3, ‘Right Between the Ears’ is going out this Saturday evening (June 2) at 9.30 pm. If you already have other arrangements, you will still be able to stream the programme after the broadcast by clicking here.

This link also gives you additional information about the programme. A podcast version will also be available.

A few years ago, readers of this blog may recall, I underwent a routine eye operation while under the influence of a local anaesthetic, which numbed all sensation in my head. I now recall that operation only as an uninterrupted succession of sounds - heavy buzzes, high-pitched crackles, sizzles and trickles resonated inside his skull. It created a series of rippling acoustic spaces around me. The most amazing music I have ever heard was playing amid the flickering lights and snatches of gentle conversation in the theatre. What is more I could no longer tell with my deadened senses, what sounds were coming from within me and which from without. I seemed to be experiencing a much deeper, more physiological state of hearing.

In an attempt to recreate this 'amazing music', 'Right Between the Ears' takes the listener deep into the acoustic territory of the skull from the eyes to the ears and then the recesses of the skull itself. This experience, this haunting auditory space, has a long history: the Quetzalcoatl Indians of Central America rubbed a notched bone against a skull during their funeral rites. The poet Rilke once wondered what kind of ‘primal sound’ would emerge if you ran a phonograph needle across the sutures of the human skull: would a new incoherent voice resonate from within it? With the aid of sound artist Aura Satz, we performed Rilke’s experiment with an actual human skull in a daylight séance conducted around a West London kitchen table. 

There are some remarkable reconstructions of auditory experiences caused by the physiology of the ear and eye and the cavities of the human head. I even lay in the dark on the springy floor of the anechoic chamber at Salford University to hear the high-pitched keening of my nerves and the low murmuring croon of my blood circulating in search of my own primal sound.  

I am profoundly grateful to all of the contributors to this programme, which sounds amazing: the binaural mix making for a mesmerising listening experience. Do try it with headphones if you get the chance. Despite the subject matter, the actual programme has a relatively low ‘ik’ factor - but then my generation was the first to become desensitised towards violence. 

Guest voices include musician and composer Martin McCarrick, sound artist Aura Satz, Trevor Cox of Salford University, Sophie Scott of UCL and Louisa Wykham of Moorfields Eye Hospital. The man with the artificial head was Studio Manager Donald McDonald and the producer was Mark Burman. 

Pictured above: our kitchen table séance, outside the amazing Maida Vale studios, cables at old BH