Friday 23 November 2012

Ludwig II’s Venus Grotto

At the start of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, after the orgiastic dance sequence insisted upon by the Jockey Club for its first performance in Paris, we find the poet sickening of the sensual pleasures offered in Venusberg – resisting Venus’s charms he elects to return to the world of men. Far from the world of men, in the grounds of his palace at Linderhof, did King Ludwig II a subterranean pleasure dome decree – in the form of an underground cave of stalactites surmounting a small artificial lake. In fact everything about this chamber was artificial – conceived and designed between 1876 and 1877, the Venus Grotto is an immersive stage setting constructed from canvas, cement and steel – its coloured lights, some reflecting the exact shade of Capri’s famous Blue Grotto, were powered by a series of 24 dynamos. The grotto’s air temperature was kept at a manageable level by the furnaces built into the cave’s walls. Have I missed any of its wonders? Oh yeah, the golden half-shell boat and throne from which Ludwig could admire his underground realm of the senses – the ceramic garlands and the artificial waterfall – and the rugged limestone entrance that was also the work of artifice rather than nature.

The Venus Grotto is an early media device – not surprisingly its conception coincides precisely with Edison’s invention (one wants to ‘discovery’ of so fundamental a device) and also with the raising of Wagner’s Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. A cinematic experience before such a thing had coalesced around the moving image, the Venus Grotto is not a spectacle that King Ludwig was prepared to share: we note again the womb-like warmth and wetness of the grotto itself, his own refined sense of ‘spirituality’ as opposed to what he considered the grosser sensations of sensual love, and finally that highly suggestive vertical slit in the rocks through which he entered his pleasure chamber. It was perhaps an unconscious arrangement that allowed a man, whose own birth at Nymphenberg was witnessed by selected members of the Bavarian court, to ensure that the first-born really was the next king of Bavaria, to return to the womb in nobody’s company but his own.

Pictured above from top to bottom: the entrance to the Venus Grotto in the grounds of Linderhof, the main chamber; stalactites and garlands; another view of main chamber showing a little more detail of A Heckel’s mural depicting Tannhäuser in Venusberg; and a side grotto. Photographs by roving shutterbug Kitty Keen as KH was incapable at the time, having succumbed to a mild case of Stendahl Syndrome.

See also:

Monday 12 November 2012

Central St Martins Studio Sessions

Over the past few weeks I have been running a series of experimental one-day encounters with BA Graphic Design students who are particularly interested in the current relationship between communication design and interactivity. The idea was to engage with a relatively simple proposition but also to explain your response as clearly as possible: the three propositions I put to them were as follows:

Five Chairs
Arrange five identical plastic chairs in a designated space to convey an idea, proposition or concept. This can be a mathematical progression, a geometric arrangement, a social encounter, a narrative environment or an argument: you decide – but be prepared to explain the thinking behind your arrangement to rest of the group.

Talking Utopia
You are invited to take part in a live panel discussion with a difference: you can start out as a panellist, a member of the audience or a moderator, but that’s not where you’ll end up. A series of cue cards can change the composition of the panel, the direction of the discussion as it goes along and who gets to be a moderator. The subject is ‘Utopia’ – in other words your ideal world. Make it happen.

Dead Media Hunt
From telescopes and lorgnettes to VHS videocassettes and Motorola phones, ‘Dead Media’ is the term coined to describe any communication platform or device that has been rendered ‘obsolete’ by technological progress. However, no media ever truly dies (just take a look inside your pencil case if you don’t believe me). You have 60 minutes to find an interesting example of ‘dead media’, bring it to table, demonstrate it to the group and explain why you find it interesting.

The students all responded with great enthusiasm and insight. The pictures taken above offer some photographic record of each studio session – from top to bottom: two images each from ‘Five Chairs’, ‘Talking Utopias’ and ‘Dead Media Hunt’.

Thursday 8 November 2012

Ken Hollings on Twitter

I’ll keep this brief – you can now follow me on Twitter at You can also find a link in the Absolute Elsewheres part of this page. Still figuring out the local lingo but it is an interesting experience. Pictured above: an early Tweet from John Ruskin, found in the gardens surrounding his home at Coniston Water in Cumbria.

Monday 5 November 2012

Quatermass and the Pit-bull – Nigel Kneale in New York

Those of you reading this in New York are probably more than used to apocalyptic scenarios at the moment, but I couldn’t let this distant echo of a world ending go by without drawing it to your attention. Organized by Sukhdev Sandhu in association with Mark Pilkington of Strange Attractor, this day of remembrance dedicated to the greatness that is Nigel Kneale is taking place on November 17 at the Michelson Theater. Quite what Kneale’s creeping civil weirdness and genteel brusqueness might mean in the land of the pit-bull and men called Mitt is open to debate – but this event will undoubtedly repay your weird and wonderful support. To quote liberally from the press release for this event: 

Nigel Kneale (1922-2004) was a visionary dramatist, a pioneering screenwriter-auteur, one of the most important British science fiction writers of the 20th century. In works such as the Quatermass trilogy (watched by one third of UK television owners, Kneale forged singularly visceral and unforgettable fusions of horror, spooked thriller and Cold War-era weirdness.

A Cathode Ray Séance is a day-long celebration of this hauntological icon whose work, even though it paved the way for well-known series such as Doctor Who, is less familiar to American than to British audiences. Staged by the New York-based Colloquium for Unpopular Culture in collaboration with London’s Strange Attractor, it will include rare screenings, talks by Kneale admirers, and a special musical interpretation by Mark Pilkington, Rose Kallal and Micki Pellerano of Kneale’s legendary-but-lost 1963 drama The Road.

To mark A Cathode Ray Séance, there will be available for sale copies of a very limited-edition book designed by Rob Carmichael(John Cale, LCD Soundsystem, Animal Collective ‘Crack Box’) and featuring contributions by a wide range of musicians, artists, curators and cultural theorists including Sophia Al-Maria, Bilge Ebiri, Mark Fisher, Will Fowler, Ken Hollings, Paolo Javier, Roger Luckhurst, China Mieville, Drew Mulholland, David Pike, Mark Pilkington, Joanna Ruocco, Dave Tompkins, Michael Vazquez, and Evan Calder Williams. Initial copies will come with Restligeists, a tape of specially-recorded Knealiana by The Asterism & Xylitol, Emma Hammond, Robin The Fog, Hong Kong In The 60s, Listening Center, Mordant Music, and The Real Tuesday Weld.

Midday: Introduction (by Sukhdev Sandhu)
12:15: Screening: The Stone Tape (1972, 90 min) (introduced by Dave Tompkins)
2:00 – Screening: Murrain (1975, 60 min) (introduced by Bilge Ebiri)
3:30 – Panel Discussion including Mark Pilkington and Will Fowler
4:45 – Screening: ‘Baby’, from Beasts (1976, 60 min)
6:00 – Screening: Quatermass and The Pit (1967, 97 min) (introduced by David Pike)
8:15 – Musical Performance: The Road (1963) – reading/ live synth and percussion soundtrack by Rose Kallal, Micki Pellerano and Mark Pilkington of a long-lost Kneale TV play

WHEN: Saturday 17 November 2012, midday-9pm
WHERE: Michelson Theater, Room 648, 721 Broadway, New York
[at Broadway and Washington Place]

Remember: Hallowe'en III must be avenged!

Friday 2 November 2012

New Text On John Cage: Latest

Ken Hollings: ‘Ideas Are One Thing, And What Happens Is Another’  
In this performance lecture, the author, broadcaster and scholar of trash culture and weird science will trace the connections between each of the words in this statement by John Cage to reveal aspects of the composer’s approach to language and the body, poetry and personal narrative. 

Please note that by mutual agreement with the event organizers at The Wire, I will not be participating in ‘Cage Rattling’ #2: The Echo of Nothing at Kings Place on Monday November 5.  ‘Ideas Are One Thing, And What Happens Is Another’ will now have its first performance at some later date.