Tuesday 26 April 2011

‘Living In Space’ Talk at the ICA

To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of NASA’s Freedom 7 mission, which saw Alan Shepard become the ‘First Man in the Free World’ to take a ride on the end of a rocket, I will be presenting the lecture ‘Living in Space’ at the ICA in London on May 5. Taking place fifty years to the day when Shepard made his short – if heroic – ascent, my talk will be concerned with biological time, architecture and technology. Consider it a counterpart to ‘Radiant Static’, my recent talk on Yuri Gagarin at Club Integral. This time my words will also be accompanied by the sublime radiophonic tones of The Asterism on dials, wires and bleeps. It should be quite an event.

No rocket ever survives its entry into space. It becomes consumed instead, dismantling itself in carefully timed stages, disintegrating and dispersing in an excess of energy, waste and debris: a brief moment of industrialized ecstasy. Then it falls away into uselessness.The desire to build a rocket positions you in both time and space. A trawl through NASA planning documents dating from the Moon landing onwards reveals the forced pace of progress: a manned landing Mars by 1982, a functioning Lunar base by 1995. Meanwhile gravity holds you in place.

Space exploration reads too much like a history lesson these days: we’re already haunted by it, forgetting specific details, glossing over events. ‘Isn’t it better to talk about the relative merits of washing machines than the relative strengths of rockets?’ Richard Nixon asked Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev during their televised ‘kitchen debate’ back in 1959, without a single housewife in sight. Call it progress if you will.

A featured part of the Strange Attractor Salon currently in residence at the ICA, the talk will start at 7.00 pm and will be followed by a screening of Larry Cohen’s The Stuff. Tickets for the talk and the film can be bought separately at £5.00 apiece, or you can pay £8.00 and see both my talk and Cohen’s barf-tastic masterpiece in one package – although I do not recommend trying to take in both at the same time.

‘Living in Space’
7.00 pm, May 5, The ICA, The Mall, London
Admission £5.00

Pictured above: Alan Shepard – doing it for the Free World.

Tuesday 19 April 2011

‘Radiant Static’: a talk on Yuri Gagarin for Easter Sunday

Anyone remaining in London over the spring festivities may like to know that I am giving a short talk about Yuri Gagarin on the eve of Easter Sunday as part of ‘I Don’t See Any God Up Here’, an event organized by Club Integral at the Grosvenor in SW9. Other participants include Space Heads, Gagarin and Oscillatorial Binnage vs. Sound of the Sun. All the relevant details are included on the flyer reproduced above or can be accessed by clicking here.

It seems entirely appropriate to stage a memorial to the great achievement of Yuri Gagarin as part of the mystery of Easter rather than another instalment in the series of hearty celebrations officially held on Cosmonaut’s Day. The truth is that we don’t want our cosmonauts and astronauts back in our lives – they are too painful a reminder of technological as well as spiritual failure, just one more indication that we are trapped down here on this cop-ridden planet, beset by the sins of materiality and so terribly afraid that there will be no resurrection. Gagarin’s claim not to have seen God while orbiting the Earth is not, therefore, the cheery expression of faith in progressive humanism but an echo of the dark despair of a redeemer, abandoned in Hell, giving up all hope of a new dawn. Have a Happy Easter.

Thursday 14 April 2011

Strange Attractor Journal Four

The fourth incarnation of Strange Attractor Journal has already started walking among you; and that, as always, is something that requires ceremony and celebration. Edited by Mark Pilkington with his usual deftness, the latest volume contains my essay ‘From Atlantis to Mars: The Dream of Venus’, offering another foretaste of The Bright Labyrinth, plus amazing contributions from such luminaries as Erik Davis, Alan Moore, Mike Jay, Andy Sharp and Richard Barnett – together with cover art by Julian House and Joel Biroco. As with the previous three editions, Strange Attractor Journal Four has the weight, heft and depth of a literary anthology: the only thing coming close to it in the past millennium being BLAST, the Vorticist journal put out by Wyndham Lewis and his pals –and that only ran for two issues. Meanwhile Strange Attractor has already announced plans for Journal Five and is now poised to take over London’s trendy Institute of Contemporary Arts  tomorrow evening with a music night to celebrate the launch of Journal Four. Come along if you can – here’s the dope:

Please join us for a night of transcendence, otherness and bliss at the ICA on Friday 15 April for our Strange Attractor music night, Weirding Modules, from 7pm.
This is effectively the launch party for SAJ4, though this time it’s £5 to get in and the drinks aren’t free. But we’ll have SAJ4 available at £10 so that’s not so bad. And you do get some incredible live music:

Alex Tucker and band need no introduction, though tonight Strange Attractor’s own Frances Morgan joins them on violin

The full Amal Gamal Ensemble line up, this heavy kosmische supergroup being the nearest you’ll get to seeing Tangerine Dream circa 1969 anywhere without a functioning time machine.

And Raagnagrok, who were in fine fettle last weekend in Canterbury and will be joined once again by Andy Letcher of Telling the Bees on breton pipes and, for the first time anywhere, the brilliant Paul May on drums and exhibiting artist Nathaniel Mellors on bass.

Frances Morgan doubles up on the decks, joined by the mighty Matt ‘Woebot’ Ingram, for obscure gems from the akashic jukebox.

Looking forward to seeing you there! Booking details for the event can be found in cyberspace by putting your cursor here and briskly clicking a couple of times.

A PDF of the contents pages for Strange Attractor Journal Four can be found by doing the same thing here; and full ordering information for the volume can be found by opening a portal here.

Pictured above: Strange Attractor Four front cover, ‘Peacock Angels’ by Julian House - tenebrae fiunt.

Monday 11 April 2011

‘How to Archive Yourself’ on Radio 4

You will see that I have been keeping strange company of late: first giving a brief talk on the connections between Ludwig II, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson at ‘Pretty – Ugly’ as part of my continuing research into the psychoanalysis of trash and then appearing in the latest edition of BBC Radio 4’s ‘File on Four’ series. Presented by photographer, filmmaker and broadcaster Toby Amies, ‘How to Archive Yourself’ is a leisurely stroll through people’s attempts to document experience and what happens to such memories after they migrate online – other contributors to this fascinating show include Microsoft’s Gordon Bell, ‘the Frank Lloyd Wright of computers’, and (no, really – say it isn’t so) Robert Fripp of King Crimson.

The relationship between trash and storage – and how this becomes an expression of that between utility and aesthetics – has been a recurring theme on this blog and a particular episode of ‘Hollingsville’. My conversation with Toby took place roughly about ten minutes after I had finished talking about Paul Baran in another studio at Broadcasting House; and was recorded in a side office with BBC staff strolling past on the other side of the glass wall. It turned out to be a lot of fun – when I admitted that I would usually try to bring along a digital camera along to sessions like this but was getting tired of photographing the inside of BBC studios, Toby gave me a startled look of straight-faced disappointment. ‘It’s because we’re ugly, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘Go on – admit it.’ Honestly, Toby, I wasn’t going to say anything, but now that you’ve dragged it out of me…

The conversation – I really would hate to call anything that relaxed an ‘interview’ – ended up being a freewheeling and extremely stimulating affair, right down to me complaining about the amount of digital documentation that regularly takes place at conferences, panels and festivals but then never turns up online – except maybe months afterwards, wrongly tagged or accompanied by incorrect or misleading information. I wasn’t sure what Toby and producer Sara Jane Hall were going to make of the whole thing – but the resulting show turns out to have considerable informality and charm. ‘How to Archive Yourself’ will be available on i-Player for the rest of this week and can be accessed by clicking here.

Pictured above: KH discourses on the Psychoanalysis of Trash at ‘Pretty – Ugly’, photos courtesy of roving shutterbug Kitty Keen.

Saturday 9 April 2011

Spirit Horns: Part Two

The story so far: EVP researcher and recording artist Michael Esposito and I are on a visit to the studio of composer Aleksander Kolkowski , which is packed with the most remarkable collection of antique sound production equipment. Now that I have recorded a text onto one of Aleksander’s vintage Edison phonographs, the room is now ready for Michael to conduct an EVP session.

Michael had brought a small MP3 recorder with him, and there followed a deep discussion between him and Aleksander over what software platforms to use in order to process the EVP files he was about to make. As I still regard ProTools with a respect verging on religious awe, having witnessed it clean up and shape too many recorded interviews in the past to think of it in any other way, I refrained from taking part in this part of the proceedings. After a break for tea and a chance for Michael to smoke a quick cigarette out on the balcony above the studio, we went back inside to find the mood in the room had changed appreciably. Michael had used the MP3 recorder only a couple of days before at the home of Mike Harding, cofounder of the ParaPsychic Acoustic Research Cooperative (PARC), as part of an EVP session, and the device had started running wild: the signal kept switching back and forth across the left and right channels during the recording. Michael played it back to us, and the air seemed to vibrate and pulse around the little handheld machine. This was going to be interesting, I thought. For the first part of the session Michael asked Aleksander to switch on two of his Edison phonograms, one set to record and the other to play back, and leave the cylinders spinning for the duration, not playing or recording anything but just set in motion. The result was an eerie seething sound, made all the more churning and oppressive by the fact that the three of us conducted the entire session standing in silence. Edison never intended these machines to record silence – the last words and final breath of the dying perhaps, but never silence. The phonographs’ smooth grinding continued as Michael would ask an occasional question of the room. ‘Who are you?’ Pause. ‘Is there anything you want?’ Pause. ‘Is there anything you recognize?’ He shifted the recorder around from machine to machine – ‘Use the spirit horns if you have something to say,’ he politely suggested, indicating some of the equipment assembled about us.

I remain completely open-minded on the subject of EVP; although an aunt, of whom I was very fond, had been a practising clairaudient for much of her life. Even so, looking around Aleksander’s studio, I really wanted these machines to offer up their voices. We played the five-minute recording back, Michael listening intently, picking out phrases, boosting the signal and playing them that. He made a note of the statement ‘I’m Jacob’ and suggested we focus on that for the second part of the session. I could not always make out the phrases and statements Michael stopped at and replayed and was prepared to say so – the experience was enough, however, to see that the best recording artists are the ones who, however instinctively, treat their equipment as if it were a living organism rather than a mere assemblage of parts. ‘Wow. Did you hear that?’ Michael suddenly asked, bringing us back to the present. No – play it again. ‘That time?’ No sorry – again. And then, on the third replay I heard it – a dry phantom voice emerging from the background hiss of the room, stating very slowly and deliberately: ‘I want…the machine…to work.’

After that we really needed to take another short break, just to get out of the room and clear our heads and breathe some air that was a little less charged. ‘If you ran sessions in this place on a regular basis, ‘Michael pointed out as we sat together in the kitchen ‘this whole space would get much hotter. You’d get more and better messages the more often you recorded here.’ It’s clear that this has become a regular discipline for him – a kind of training of the sensibilities that connects him to spaces and machines in a very subtle way, sometimes even taking over his personality. He spoke a little about getting ‘jumped’ when a session can suddenly take you over, altering your behaviour and even your appearance. He said it had happened one or two times over the past eight years or so. The experience did not sound pleasant.

Back in Aleksander’s studio, the second session took place in silence with all the devices switched off. Aleks and I tried taking a few photographs of Michael in action, working with the room, placing the machine inside the phonograph horns suspended from the ceiling, but we soon stopped. The stillness of a room in which three relative strangers are standing together in silence is already a very moving thing. It seems to grow around you. Michael asked some questions of Jacob – to see what kind of response he might get. The apparently one-sided exchange with the room in which answers only emerge afterwards – in ‘machine time’, as it were – was solemn and disturbing all at the same time. ‘Did you die in this room?’ Michael asked at one point, making me feel happy for the first time that it wasn’t my room he was recording in. But then we rarely know about the rooms that strangers have died in – any building in existence can have witnessed the deaths of many people before you ever come to it.

This was a shorter and far more intense session – I was amazed however when I checked my watch to discover that several hours had already passed. By then Michael and Aleksander were already hunched over a Mac, running the two recordings through different software to clean up and clarify the recordings. Voices were slowly emerging from the amplified hiss and background hum of the room. ‘They hide in the cracks,’ Michael commented as Aleksander highlighted and amplified a wave form, stretching it out. ‘They hide right down inside the sound itself.’ That humans and machines interact with each other to produce some form of alien – or other – consciousness remains an intriguing proposition. To me, it opens up the possibility that a new kind of audiovisual poetry might emerge – or at the very least be better understood. I watched and listened at a respectful distance as Aleks and Michael worked together – the results were fascinating, but it was soon time for me to go. I said my goodbyes during one of Michael’s cigarette breaks. By then it was nightfall and growing quite cold. Aleksander and I joined Michael out of the balcony one last time, watching the landing lights of passenger planes cut through the dark clouds on their way to Heathrow.

Michael and Aleksander are currently still at work on the recordings – Aleks having in the meantime run then through his Edison phonographs. The process is still continuing, so look out for further posts on the session in due course.

Pictured above: Michael Esposito and Aleksander Kolkowski prepare the room for the EVP session; Michael playing back the first recording; Michael and Aleksander listening in; Michael with one of the phonograph horns during the second recording (photo by Aleksander). For more pictures of Aleksander’s wonderful studio on the Found 0bjects blog, please click here.

Wednesday 6 April 2011

Rough Notes Towards The Psychoanalysis of Trash

On Thursday April 7 I am giving a short talk at The Gopher Hole on Old Street in London as part of Pretty – Ugly, a fundraising event being organized by postgraduate communication design students from Central St Martins. They describe the aim of their project as follows:
The title Pretty―Ugly is a casual phrase imbued with a range of subtexts: aesthetics and anti-aesthetics, desire and repulsion, interest and disinterest, surface and essence, polish and sincerity. In a sentence: we are interested in exploring a ‘naïve’ aesthetic as it is created by very aware, professional designers.
Through our workshops, exhibition, series of talks and our auction, we hope to raise a critical discussion on the subject of contemporary ‘undesign’.
The talks are scheduled to take place within 6.00 pm and 7.00 pm – there is also an exhibition, and a publication will be available on the night. My presentation will take the form of a brief return to, and reflection upon, ‘The Psychoanalysis of Trash’, one of the lectures I gave as part of Neville Brody’s Anti-Design Festival last year. Some of the notes for the talk are reproduced in the Pretty – Ugly publication.

In the meantime, a video of my Anti-Design Festival lecture on trash has been posted on Vimeo by Ignite Creative TV – overall, the footage looks pretty good, although the opening title identifying me as Jennifer Walshe probably doesn’t speak too highly for the company’s post-production skills.

Sunday 3 April 2011

A Tribute to Paul Baran on BBC Radio 4

In what turned out to be an appropriate conclusion to Requiem for the Network, my series of talks for Radio 3 last week, I had an opportunity to pay tribute to the design genius of Paul Baran. Talking with Paul about his experiences at the RAND Corporation during the 1960s for my R3 feature All Your Tomorrows Today provided not only one of the highpoints of that particular show but also one of my fondest memories of working in radio to date. I am pleased to say that you can hear extracts from that original conversation intercut with my own commentary on Paul’s remarkable career in a sequence from the April 1 edition of Radio 4’s regular broadcast obituary The Last Word.

The piece sticks pretty closely to the story of Baran’s development of the distributed network, the basic conceptual architecture of the internet, but also gives some sense of the man and his relationship to the Cold War world of strategic thinking. My favourite moment in the original interview was when he revealed that his papers on distributed communication were translated into Russian so that the Soviets could have easy access to them: ‘We wanted them to have that information,’ he explained. ‘Their communication systems were even worse than ours.’ His tremendous work at the Institute for the Future, the think tank which he cofounded in 1968 with Jacques Vallée and Olaf Helmer is yet to be fully assessed – but then it’s still a going concern, as my friend David Pescovitz told me in a recent conversation which we recorded together for broadcast on Resonance 104.4 FM sometime later this year. Paul Baran will be greatly missed. The future may well go on without him – but it won’t be same.

The edition of The Last Word featuring Paul Baran is currently available on i-Player and can be accessed by clicking here. It also comes as a podcast and can be found here. This feature should stay up online for about a month - but you can never tell theses days.

See also:
In Memoriam: Paul Baran, 1926-2011
‘Requiem for the Network’ on BBC Radio 3

Pictured above: the Institute for the Future logo – where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.

Saturday 2 April 2011

Spirit Horns: Part One

I recently had the pleasure of spending an intriguing afternoon with EVP researcher and recording artist Michael Esposito at the amazing studio of the composer Aleksander Kolkowski. Regular readers of this blog may recall that Michael was responsible with Carl Michael von Hausswolff for issuing The Ghosts of Effingham: a set of EVP recordings inscribed onto an Edison wax cylinder which also glowed in the dark. An enthused researcher of the machine's ability to reproduce sound, Aleksander’s creations include Mechanical Landscape with Bird – an extraordinary work for canaries, ‘serinette’, cylinder players and string quartet playing Stroh violins, Stroh viola and Stroh ‘Japanese Fiddle’. His work has also been featured in The Wire.

On a visit to London from his home in Chicago, Michael had already made an arrangement with Aleks to run an EVP recording session at the studio, which is an Aladdin’s cave of working cylinder players, amplifying horns for gramophones and radios, antique musical instruments, sheet music, pictures and shelves full of books and old recordings. You can get some idea of the fabulous clutter in the photographs above – although I will be posting some more detailed glimpses of the studio contents on the Found 0bjects blog in the next day or so.

The reason for my presence was a standing invitation from Aleks to make a wax cylinder of a reading from Welcome to Mars as part of his continuing archive of such recordings. This seemed like the perfect opportunity, especially since Michael and I had been in contact at the end of last year while I was writing my piece of Edison and ghosts for the January 2011 issue of The Wire. Michael was particularly intrigued by  the presence of so many gramophone horns in the room, especially some of the larger, more elaborate ones hanging from the ceiling. ‘They remind me of the spirit horns that mediums would use at séances in the early part of the twentieth century,’ he observed. Once we had regained some of our composure after first entering this modernist wunderkammer, Michael and I tried to work out with Aleks what was the best way to proceed. I offered to step aside so they could get on with making EVP recordings. ‘Actually it would be better if you went first,’ Michael replied. ‘Your reading will warm the room up a bit and make it more responsive.’

But first the Edison machine itself had to be warmed up: I practised my short reading while Aleks switched on a lamp over the cylinder, set it spinning and waited for the wax to soften before a recording could take place. It had never occurred to me that the voice was inscribed into a soft substance – I always had an idea of it being carved out of something brittle and hard. My second misconception was over how to approach a horn rather than a microphone. Working with mikes, you want to keep your face back from it in order to avoid popping and paper rustling – and after two days of recording my recent Essay series for Radio 3, I was more aware of that than ever. Instead Aleks was constantly instructing to get my face as far into the horn as possible while still being able to read from the copy of Welcome to Mars I had brought with me – images of Jean Cocteau leaning forward reciting poetry into the elaborate horn megaphone in production stills for Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel filled my head as I struggled to keep the page in focus out of the corner of my right eye and read out loud at the same time.

Aleksander had also stipulated that I would have to speak very slowly and very clearly and enunciate every last syllable. The device, it turns out, really does have formality built into it: you find yourself addressing it, rather than some unseen audience. We recorded a two-minute cylinder, waited for it to cool down and then played it back on a separate machine mounted with a massive horn. I have never heard my voice sounding like that before – normally I cannot bear to hear it, but the grain that a cylinder recording brings introduces to your words makes them sound completely different – ‘other’. It does not copy, simulate or even echo you; it is a separate entity – something that comes from the machine and only from the machine. The clicks and pops formed an unexpected accompaniment to my delivery – I was enthralled by the whole thing.

Michael had been taking photographs all the way through my reading and added the occasional encouraging smile and thumbs-up sign as it unfolded. Aleksander was also pleased with the way the reading came out – and at some point it’s going to form part of an online archive of recordings featuring many different composers, writers and musicians. There will, of course, be more on this project posted here as and when information becomes available. Right now, however, it was time for Michael to prepare the room for his extraordinary EVP session. What happened next, however, really deserves a post of its own – and I shall be only too happy to supply you with it … soon.

Pictured above: KH recording an extract from ‘1947: Rebuilding Lemuria’, the first chapter of Welcome to Mars, pp 4-5, with Aleksander Kolkowski busy at the Edison phonograph: all photos taken by Michael Esposito.