Peter Whitehead and Terrorism

In April 2007, novelist and filmmaker Peter Whitehead was invited to the ICA to talk about some of the pop promo films he’d made in the sixties. His frenetically edited clips of Eric Burdon and World War II dive-bombers played on a kaleidoscopic programme of similarly themed film and video work by the likes of Gerard Malanga and Nam June Paik. Interviewed on stage after the screening, Whitehead patiently fielded the usual questions about his work with the Stones and Hendrix in a further display of the seemingly endless public appetite for nostalgic sixties anecdote. Towards the end of the session however, he was asked about his thoughts on contemporary film. As a director primarily associated with the sixties, perhaps the pivotal decade of the twentieth century, who in his opinion did he feel was making interesting work in the twenty-first? Whitehead paused momentarily before announcing that the greatest film of the twenty-first century had in fact already been made. It had been made in New York on September 11, 2001 and it had been made by Osama Bin Laden. Heads shook and there were no more questions.

Whitehead was here recapitulating comments he had made a year earlier in ‘In the Beginning was the Image, Before the Beginning was the Avant-Garde’. This was an essay on the current status of avant-garde art written as the introduction for La Cinéma Critique (2010), a book on experimental film published by the Sorbonne. In it he argued that in the current cultural context, the terrorist has rendered the artist redundant having ‘learnt the tricks and gambits of Art’s Artifice’. Working from the basis that ‘the true purpose of the avant-garde’ is to ‘nurture (if not enact) acts of war […] a calculated violation of frigid sterile form’, Whitehead presents Bin Laden’s ‘cleverly contrived film of ‘Several Missile Planes’’ as a supreme example. The events of 9/11 and the widely disseminated matrix of footage are seen to be monumentally effective in creating a work that is ‘directly and belligerently dangerous’. Whitehead goes onto suggest that Bin Laden’s ‘legacy- his ‘film’’ should be called Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts’, a phrase that would have significant resonance for his own subsequent work.[i] He took it as the title for his 2007 novel which he then adapted into a full length film that recently premiered at the Viennale.

Terrorism as art. What to make of this? The icy response of the ICA audience indicates that the connection obviously doesn’t work as a joke. Is this uncomfortable juxtaposition intended as provocation or an expression of misanthropic delight? Whitehead is certainly no stranger to the former. As a filmmaker he’s best known for a series of documentaries, the most incendiary of which are Benefit of the Doubt (1967) an account of the Royal Shakespeare Company performing US, and The Fall (1969), an examination of the decline of the American protest movement. Benefit contains a sequence in which Glenda Jackson delivers a monologue begging for the horrors of the Vietnam War to be brought into polite English gardens. Similarly, The Fall presents the viewer with riots, police beatings and equally brutal performance art to suggest that violence is the inevitable outcome of initially peaceful protest.

Much of the critique in these films was directed towards the paralysis Whitehead saw as characterizing mainstream responses to Vietnam; the public inability or unwillingness to adequately make sense of a seemingly distant conflict. His comments on Terrorism could be taken in the same spirit, a cultural wake-up call designed to trouble western complacency. The problem with this comparison is that 9/11 essentially fulfils the mid-sixties wish of Peter Brook and the Royal Shakespeare Company; one of the entanglements of American foreign policy is devastatingly realized in the domestic sphere. As such, a crucial difference emerges. The performance documented in Benefit shows the use of an art form – dramatic theatre – to galvanize political commitment. The elevation of the twin tower attacks to the level of art could be seen to offer the reverse of this stance. The act of aesthetising a physically traumatic event potentially erases its material implications and political hardwiring. This is difficult in the case of 9/11 as whilst the attack carried clear symbolic resonance as regards the conflict between two ideologies, the spectacular magnitude of the occurrence made it difficult to deny the ground-level consequences, most prominently the human cost. As musician Mark Manning observed in Collateral Damage (2002), when he first saw images of the burning towers, his initial experience of ‘an unholy, gleeful sense of karmic schadenfreude’ was quickly sobered by the ‘reality’ underpinning this shift of the ‘cosmic equilibrium’: ‘the firemen, the secretaries, the innocent families’.[ii]

Having highlighted these problematic factors however, it is important to reiterate Whitehead’s concern with the concept of the ‘avant-garde’. In his argument, this familiar term of artistic creativity and experimentation (which carries its own semantic echoes of attrition and warfare), signifies a mode of creative action that is at odds with the control mechanisms of late capitalism. He notes that currently, nothing can be called ‘art, avant-garde or otherwise, unless it appears on a seductive Technicolor screen or processed by seductive video machines’.[iii] Here Whitehead is outlining the cycle of recuperation that the Situationists observed in the operation of the spectacle: the dominance of commerce and the associated ability of the mass media to neutralize oppositional forms of expression by incorporating and imitating their imagery and technique. In response, a form of outflanking is advocated that involves the creation of ‘authentic art equal to the challenge, as powerful in its methodology as the brain-washing techniques exploited by the Media’. This for Whitehead constitutes Terrorism, a process of subterfuge that works to ‘expose the rules of the game being exploited by the beholders of the Institutionalized Barbaric’.[iv]


Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts directly enacts this strategy. The film draws upon the plot of the novel and the other two texts that make up Whitehead’s ‘Nohzone Trilogy’: Nature’s Child and Girl on the Train. MI6 agent Michael Schlieman is ‘assigned to Paris to infiltrate a cell of Eco-Terrorists planning a high level political assassination’.[v] The group’s leader, Maria Lenoir, is said to have been responsible for the death of two French agents and the only clues to her whereabouts lie in a series of seemingly cryptic e-mails. Realizing that the messages all refer to literature, film and philosophy, Schlieman is able to decode the allusions and determine that the group is active in Vienna. He relocates his operation to the city and begins to drift around the two circles of the Ringstrasse tram, haunting Maria and the other members of the cell.

On the basis of this synopsis, it would seem that Whitehead is working within the conventions of the detective and / or espionage thriller. The film certainly draws upon the language of these genres as it is structured around a narrative of investigation; makes use of a central voice over; contains numerous femme fatales and takes place within a foreboding urban environment. However, having established these signposts, Whitehead quickly moves away from their expected usage. The film as a whole is radically non-linear. Rather than depicting the terrorist actions that the voice over alludes to, the film’s imagery and on-screen quotations are arranged on the basis of their dissonant potential. Whitehead’s aim is not to move from uncertainty to certainty – as would be expected of the investigative narrative – but to produce meaning across the film’s 3 chapters as a consequence of the interference that occurs between his unexpected combinations of visual, audio and textual information.

This structure carries significance for Whitehead’s project at the level of both form and content. It can initially be seen as instrumental in communicating to the viewer the particularity of Schlieman’s subject position. Much of the film is conveyed from his point of view, a perspective which the references to Thomas DeQuincey suggest is characterized by an opium intensity. Specifically, the intention is for the character to mirror the figure of Tiriesias as he appears in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). Tierisias is the perpetual spectator, detached from the events he observes but his presence is also that which unites and motivates the poem. Similarly, the substance of the film is what Schlieman sees, and as in Eliot’s text, all the women he is in dialogue with are essentially one woman: they are different facets of the eternally absent Maria that Schlieman projects onto those around him.[vi] The multiple associative links that the film establishes act as a record of this hallucinatory psychogeographical movement. As Schlieman’s idiosyncratic camera I/eye traverses the multiple circles of Vienna - the city of dreams, the Freudian unconscious and The Third Man – it creates unexpected synaptic connections across different artistic, philosophical and historical zones.

On a wider formal level, the application of this framework enables Whitehead to make reference to the operation of film as a medium insofar as it draws attention to the operation of montage, cinema’s hidden hand. The tension that Whitehead establishes between the film’s diegetic levels is instrumental in highlighting the extent to which cinematic verisimilitude depends upon their largely unnoticed synchronicity. It is as if he uses the film to explode a recognizable genre as a means to expose the devices that maintain a normative view of ‘reality’.

Jean Paulhan described a similar process of expression and critique in his book The Flowers of Tarbes (1941). Writing on the subject of ‘Terror’ in literature, Paulhan argued that it represented a tendency in literature opposed to ‘Rhetoric’. Describing Rhetoric as a rule-bound imperative that affords language communicative stability, Terror is offered as an engagement with ambiguity, a ‘continual aspiration towards originality’.[vii] From this perspective, the literary terrorist works within language with the aim of creative reinvention rather than working at the utilitarian level of ‘verbalism’. For Paulhan, one way of perpetrating this terror is by signposting Rhetoric, self consciously highlighting cliché and generic conventions as they appear in language.[viii] What we see with Whitehead is a comparable foregrounding action. In contrast to Benefit, with Terrorism Whitehead is not merely articulating what has previously gone unacknowledged but is pointing to some of the structures of repression that have conditioned the limits of what can be said.

At this point Whitehead’s formal experimentation can be connected to a wider cultural critique. The film repeatedly links its fictional terrorists to a real life event, the sinking of the Greenpeace ship ‘Rainbow Warrior’ in New Zealand 1985. The ship was attempting to disrupt nuclear testing in the area and was sunk by members of the French Secret Service, an act that resulted in the death of the Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira. For Whitehead this sabotage constitutes an act of State terrorism, institutionalized barbarism. It is indicative of the way in which violence and oppositional tactics are used on both sides of the imaginary moral divide between the establishment and the attacker. He notes that this type of correspondence is generally obscured by the State’s cultivation of the fear of Terrorism ‘as a means of extending their manipulative repressive powers over and through the Media and the Multi-national companies.’[ix]

In light of this situation, what the film outlines is a tactics of exposure that represent a creative means of negotiating such a power structure. If Terrorism is to be seen as an action that shocks, damages and affronts, then Whitehead’s pairing of it with art does not suggest an attempt at neutralisation. Instead he is encouraging the development within creative expression of an analogous capacity to disturb the ‘collective inertia’.[x] When faced with the power mechanism and blank surface of the contemporary mediascape, Whitehead sees it is necessary for art to assume the efficacy of the street, to be as explosive as a car bomb; as disturbing to the status quo as a cobblestone torn up and hurled at the police.

Peter Whitehead – www.peterwhitehead.net
Nohzone - www.nohzone.com
Originally published in the film journal One+One

[i] Peter Whitehead, ‘In the Beginning was the Image, Before the Beginning was the Avant-Garde’, in La Cinéma Critique ed. by Nicole Brenez and Bidhan Jacobs (Paris: Sorbonne, 2010), pp. 26-30 (p.28).
[ii] Mark Manning, Collateral Damage (London: Creation, 2002), p.6-7.
[iii] Whitehead, p.28.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Whitehead, ‘Synopsis: Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts’ (unpublished synopsis, Peter Whitehead Archive, 2009), p.1.
[vi] Tierisias described in T.S. Eliot, ‘Note 218’, in The Waste Land and Other Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1999).
[vii] Jean Paulhan, The Flowers of Tarbes or Terror in Literature [1941], trans. by Michael Syrotinski (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006), p.xvi.
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Whitehead, ‘Synopsis’, p.1.
[x] Whitehead, ‘In the Beginning was the Image’, p.29.


The Real Thing

A visit to the Tate Britain last night to attend Urbanomic's Late at Tate jamboree 'The Real Thing': an evening of art works and discussion linked to a currently active point of discussion in philosophy, Speculative Realism. On the basis of the discussion and the information circulated SR directs itself towards thinking about that which exists before, outside of and after Human experience. As an emergent field of inquiry and question making it seems to be a less historically specific investigation of issues broached by aspects of posthumanist thought. Iain Hamilton Grant offered the view that it was in part addressing itself towards the 'architecture of the ontology of illuminationism' whilst Mark Fisher of K-Punk emphasized SR as a discourse that thought through, encountered and responded to the reality that is finitude, cosmic catastrophe and solar death. Although somewhat nihilistic in scope, the panel discussion maintained that such a perspective opened up a productive space for the imagination, hence the implication that the work of writers such as Lovecraft deal with many of the issues raised. Indeed I came away from the talk thinking that Lovecraft's 'From Beyond' (1920) could act as something of a touchstone text for Speculative Realism (with Crawford Tillinghast becoming its figurehead....)

The piece exhibited included film, sound works, projections and 'curatorial interventions': the descriptive notes to the great British masters were re-written taking the form of an extended critique of the sublime and its associated aesthetics. Amanda Beech's film Sanity Assassin was a post-Manson creepy crawl through a radically spatialized LA under Adorno's intellectual shadow. The city as vacuum (another SR motif?) appeared also in Mikko Canini's The Black Sun Rise: a drift through a seemingly abandoned London. Despite the post-apocalyptic overtones which intersected with some of the discussion, this wasn't an abandoned cityscape but was a site of architecture that existed independently of human presence, as if pre-empting aspects of Hamilton's observation.

The main point of interest for me was the promise of sound work by Florian Hecker and William Bennett of Whitehouse. Hecker's Speculative Solution, an exploration of Quentin Meillassoux's After Finitude, was a was a collage of noise and frequently changing, discordant sound sources which lead to the familiar incongruity of noise events: a large group of people not really knowing how to respond. There's not enough to directly engage with but its too intrusive to be merely in the background. Disjointed conversations and the attempt to listen.

Bennet's piece, Extralinguistic Sequencing, a collaboration with Mimsy DeBlois used 'processed voice recordings and disorienting language patterns to expose an extralinguistic reality operating beneath 'meaning'. This Burroughsian exploration of the 'sub-voice' took the form of intermittent NLP-esque instructions and statements. They were like Whitehouse lyrics without the shrieking slabs of white noise. Intermittance seemed to the key concept here. Sat there in the Tate Octagon waiting for the next gnomic statement was like waiting for a wave. I suspect some of this frustration was part of the plan. Some kind of odd death tease rather than the usual high volume obliteration that goes with much of Bennett's other work.



Primer article on Speculative Realism:




Story in the Telegraph about a man recording the incessant barking of his neighbour's dog and playing it back to said neighbour at 3 in the morning:


The first thing that this raises is the spectre of sound weaponry. Monte Cazazza and Genesis P. Orridge gleefully tell stories about playing white noise and prepared recordings at maximum volume, agitating not only their audiences but also any unfortunate associates who might live in their area. The more sinister underbelly to these industrial music hikjinks is the reported use of amplifiers and high frequency static during certain riot situations. Crowd control , situation diffusion or provocation? Jack Sargeant discusses all this and more in an excellent article from the Fortean Times:


The above briefly mentions my personal favorite 'sound based artefact of ambiguous purpose', the Feraliminal Lycanthropizer. This was a strange resonance machine which generated noise and played recordings at varying frequencies and was said to be able to induce violent orgies.

Whether or not sound / infrasound weapons are widely used, the effect in this suburban vignette shows results similar to the majority of these urban myths: agitation, sleep deprivation and conflict. My question is, what did the dog think about all this? How did he react to the sound of his barking coming back to him in the middle of the night? His response should have been recorded. Forget the arguments between the neighbors, I want to know what the dog was trying to say in the first place and if something different was communicated to him from the early hours recording.

Crafty neighbour with the recording equipment: consult Burroughs' 'The Electronic Revolution' and find out what the dog has to say.


Archive Fever

In his classic 1951 essay ‘As in a Wood’, Andre Breton describes the value of cinema lying ‘in its power to disorient’. This effect is linked not to the content or ‘merits of a given film’ but in the viewing experience offered to the spectator by the spatial organization of the cinema building. The movement into the darkness of the auditorium is seen as a passage ‘through a critical point as captivating and imperceptible as that uniting waking and sleeping’. Breton states that this sense of disorientation can be intensified into a ‘magnetising’ experience through a nomadic transition between various film screenings, ‘dropping into the cinema when whatever was playing was playing, at any point in the show, and leaving at the first hint of boredom – of surfeit- to rush off to another cinema’.(A) Much has been written concerning the attempts of surrealist filmmakers to represent the dreamscape. However, given Breton’s emphasis on the moving spectator it is intriguing to imagine the nature of the fractured, hypnagogic narratives which would possibly have formed from fragments glimpsed during the course of such a restless pinball across the city.

The work of San Franciscan filmmaker Craig Baldwin provides the viewer with this type of perspective. In particular, his early piece Stolen Movie (1976) could be seen as a companion to Breton’s description. Baldwin composed the film by entering cinemas armed with a Super-8 camera and quickly recording a fragment from the screen. The results of several cinematic smash and grab excursions were then combined into a flickering, distorted sequence. Stolen Movie repeats the tactics of re-appropriation used in Baldwin’s short, Flick Skin, (a pornographic montage) yet with the implicit addition of a sense of place and location. The fragmentary nature of the film is indicative of Baldwin’s movement between different screenings. The film thus works as a record of a momentary presence in a series of discreet spaces.

As several other commentators have noted, Baldwin often begins his filmography with Wild Gunman (1978), an interrogation of the cowboy icon.(B) This film lays the basis for his later work which conveys a politicised engagement with notions of history and culture. However, Baldwin’s early pieces contain at least in embryo many of his signature techniques. His primary artistic approach is centred upon a radical process of assemblage and mesmerising montage. Baldwin raids the archive of film ephemera and obscura, excavating vintage snippets of half-remembered b-movies, advertisements, public access programmes and newsreel footage. He is an archaeologist working through layers of discarded celluloid to retrieve a lost treasure or pinpoint a piece of important overlooked evidence.

Once selected, individual segments do not become part of a ‘standard compilation documentary… homologues in service to the narration’ but are fused into dizzying sequences of wild imagery and striking juxtaposition.(C) As with the link to location in Stolen Movie, a sense of geographical specificity serves as the backdrop to Baldwin’s film projects. His work is intimately connected to the creative environment of San Francisco. The city acts as the source of much raw material and subject matter, giving access to an extensive artistic network which is frequently utilised and represented in the films themselves.(D) The city acts as the source of much raw material and subject matter, giving access to an extensive artistic network

These twin preoccupations became apparent during the interview upon which this piece is based. The arrangement was to meet and talk in Baldwin’s Mission District apartment. In the event, the majority of the discussion took place on the streets. Notes were scribbled and questions shouted as Baldwin led the way through a maze of junk shops, alleyways and abandoned cinemas. The audiotape that resulted from this session appears not to have recorded an interview so much as a wider situation, filled as it is with ambient noise, frantic film talk, car horns and restaurant muzak. Throughout the course of the afternoon, Baldwin described but also actively demonstrated via the backdrop of the city his preoccupation with chance encounters and intersections. As with his collage approach to archival film, Baldwin’s zigzag movement across the streets represented the attempt to find new, interesting ways of negotiating familiar pathways.

Baldwin was born in Oakland in 1952 and studied at San Francisco State University, taking classes taught by Bruce Connor. In his essay ‘From Junk to Funk to Punk to Link’ Baldwin credits Connor, amongst others with developing ‘the rather special practice called Found Footage (FF) film’, a phrase he uses to identify his own work. However, Baldwin also notes that his development as a found footage practitioner was influenced by the artistic climate of the 1980s and what he sees as the shift from the ‘unself conscious’ scenes linked to venues such as the No Nothing Cinema to a desire to tackle ‘serious agendas: identity issues, gender positions, media theory’. Baldwin’s own RocketKitKongoKit (1986) thus worked towards ‘the subversion of genres, both fiction and documentary, in order to point back to their ideological bases’.

For Baldwin, when creating an archival montage, ‘the crucial work is at the level of the symbolic…harnessing meaning, exposing intentions and then the enfolding into metacinematic fabric’.(E) It is at this ‘meta’ level that Baldwin’s films are perhaps at their most complex and powerful. Speaking in more detail about his use of found footage, Baldwin refers to a process of ‘re-purposing’ a transformative act analogous to ‘taking a painting and turning it into a house’. Ephemeral archive films lend themselves to this procedure as for Baldwin they have ‘no target’, they are ‘open…left for the taking’.(F) However the intention is not to completely erase the original meaning of a single clip but to connect it in such a context that interesting points of significance are teased out in parallel with the display of an original code. It is a case of ‘new wine in old bottles’.
‘The crucial work is at the level of the symbolic…harnessing meaning, exposing intentions and then the enfolding into metacinematic fabric.’

Baldwin’s 1999 film Spectres of the Spectrum perhaps best exemplifies this approach. The film opens in 2007 with the media guerrillas ‘Yogi’ and ‘Boo Boo’ operating a pirate radio station disseminating information concerning the ‘New Electromagnetic Order’, a totalising communications network linked to ‘the corporate military complex’.(G) In a series of ‘live feeds’ we are shown how the development of electromagnetic technology involved the suppression of pioneering individuals and an increasing movement towards the domination of the human mind. This history is conveyed through a collection of clips ranging from obscure biopics to kinescopes of the television programme Science in Action in addition to commentary from media activists such as Erik Davis. As the film progresses, Baldwin reveals that the key to subverting the current structure of electromagnetic control lies in the ability of his characters to decode a message hidden in an episode of Science in Action.

Subsequently, the same techniques which Baldwin as filmmaker uses to construct a convincing historical framework are seen to operate within the film to distort the dominance of this paradigm. Spectres of the Spectrum folds in on itself with Baldwin’s recovered footage simultaneously functioning as archival evidence authenticating a hidden history and a demonstration of the ability of images to fabricate historical veracity. As a result, the film occupies an ambiguous categorical position becoming, in a phrase Baldwin applied to his film Tribulation 99 (1991), ‘a pseudo, pseudo documentary’.(H)

From the perspective of the viewer, Baldwin’s incorporation of a mass of imagery into a complicated, multi-layered plot gives rise to a wide range of possible readings. This proliferation is a key part of his project and is indicative of Baldwin’s importance as a filmmaker beyond his considerable artistic achievements. Baldwin has stated that he intends for his films to act as ‘networks’ creating for the viewer ‘infinite association’ and ‘chains of meaning’. Baldwin’s choice of the term ‘network’ is interesting here as it suggests that in addition to his films emerging from San Francisco’s subcultural climate of bike messengers, tribal/group identification and creative artistic exchange between communities, their structure to an extent mirrors and promotes this vibrant interaction. ‘Pre-fabricated industrial images’ are, when included in Baldwin’s work able to ‘flourish in a regional film culture that so vigorously valorises ‘the personal’ as their re-contextualisation becomes indicative of what Baldwin calls ‘a redemptive gesture of personal creative agency’.(I) It is this same agency which is expressed by the viewer when generating multiple lines of interpretation.

When asked about his technique, Baldwin once said that ‘my nervous system is in the editing’.(J) This phrase suggests the idea of his films carrying a fingerprint or signature but it also implies a process of interface. Whereas the surrealists used cinema to replicate the escapism of the dream state, Baldwin reaches towards ideas of connection and communication, his films representing the work of a dedicated practitioner and activist. This position can be cemented when considering his role as curator of San Francisco’s eclectic Other Cinema. The venue serves as an important forum for experimental film, presenting work from local and national artists. As we concluded the interview in the cinema’s basement, a documentary about Hebrew punk played to a packed house above us. Baldwin then moved back to his editing table, presumably to continue sourcing clips for his work in progress, Mock-up on Mu. This situation appeared to carry an appropriate symbolism as it seemed that Baldwin’s creative work and film archive provided a literal foundation for the continuation of San Francisco’s current film culture.

This article originally appeared in Vertigo 3.7 Autumn / Winter 2007

(A) Essay available in Paul Hammond (ed.), Shadow and its Shadow: Surrealist Writings on the Cinema (USA: City Lights, 2000), pp.72-78.
(B) See Andy Spletzer, ‘Collage Maestro, Craig Baldwin’ at www.greencine.com (23rd August, 2006).
(C) Reference to ‘standard compilation documentary’ from Baldwin’s essay ‘From Junk to Funk to Punk to Link’, p. 1.
(D) Baldwin’s film Sonic Outlaws (1995) focuses on the legal problems of Bay Area band Negativeland.
(E) Quotes in this section from Baldwin, ‘From Junk to Funk to Punk to Link’, pp. 3-4.
(F) Quote from my interview with Baldwin, San Francisco, May 2006. Unless stated otherwise, all quotations are from this session.
(G) Reference to the corporate military complex from Gregory Avery’s long review of Spectres of the Spectrum included in the Other Cinema DVD release.
(H) This film is briefly discussed in relation to the phrase in Jack Stevenson’s Land of a Thousand Balconies (Great Britain: Headpress, 2003), p. 125.
(I) Baldwin, ‘From Junk to Funk to Punk to Link’, p.1.
(J) Phrase used in Craig Baldwin: Spectres of the Spectrum, short pamphlet to accompany 2002 screenings of the film. (USA: Creative Capital, 2002), p. 1.


Record Collection

MC5: The Big Bang
The Pixies: Death to the Pixies
Marilyn Manson: Smells like Children
The Cramps: Off the Bone
The Cramps: Look Mom, No Head!
Ceramic Hobs: Free Tim Telsa
Ceramic Hobs: Astonishing Wheat Productions
Happy Mondays: The Platinum Collection
Dreadzone: Second Light
The Streets: Original Pirate Material
Butthole Surfers: Electriclarryland
Drumatic: Reactions
13th Floor Elevators: All Time Highs

Collection of records given to a local Oxfam shop.
They each carried security stickers bearing the legend:
‘NHS Security Seal, Ashworth High Secure Hospital’.


Introduction: the multi-storey car park

In Crash! (1971) a short film by Harley Cokliss, J.G. Ballard drives around London's motorway hinterlands outlining his psychogeographical take on contemporary architecture. He had recently completed The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) and was about to embark on his classic 'concrete and steel' trilogy, Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974) and High Rise (1975). Ballard's basic idea is that the development of the 20th century has precipitated a reversal in the categories of fiction and reality, a movement that is manifested in the reflection of the psyche in the architecture of the urban landscape.

In the film Ballard discusses these ideas as he spirals up the multiple levels of a blank, evacuated car park, calling it 'one of the most mysterious buildings ever built'. The voice over continues:

'is it a model for some strange psychological state: somekind of vision glimpsed within its bizarre geometry? What effect does using these buildings have on us?


More exactly, I think that new emotions and new feelings are being created, that modern technology is beginning to reach into our dreams and change our whole way of looking at things and perceiving reality, that more and more it is drawing us away from contemplating ourselves to contemplating its world'.

Residual noise is not a blog about architecture, but about the process of recording. Although the two spheres may not appear to synchronize (proponents of the Stone Tape thesis may disagree; see future post), where I to choose a manifesto to cover these posts, it would be Ballard's statement. I'm interested in the desire, the propulsion to record: to externalize, to materialize and to duplicate. I'm interested in the range of tools that have been developed to facilitate this and their various applications: actual, potential and speculative. I don't accept the notion that recording is somehow tied to objectivity. If a tape recorder was placed in the centre of a room and operated without interference, I wouldn't regard the result as a 'mere' record of ambient noise.

Recording is always a process of recoding in which information moves from one sign system to another. This transition has an effect upon the information conveyed as well as upon the individual user. We may reach for a recording device to capture an element of 'reality' but this perception of reality is actively shaped by recording technology.

To take another Ballardian example, in High Rise its easy to see the outbreak of violence and disorder in the building as acts of aggression towards the structure and by extension, the urban world. However, from the outset, of the novel this trajectory is essentially reversed. Laing is 'exhilarated' by the high rise. The structure has a palpable, psychological and physical effect upon him and the chaos that subsequently unfolds can be seen as a significantly more complex form of this influence. Ballard suggests that the events are indicative of the building's correct operational procedure. The violence is not a reaction to the design structure but constitutes a range of behavior that the building has been designed to promote.

On a less cataclysmic scale, this is the perspective I'd like this blog to explore. Beyond issues of fidelity, storage capacity and tape speed, I'm interested in getting some sense of the hidden function linked to recording and recording technology. Its utility as regards audio-visual information is obvious. We can make copies, archive images and music, preserve voices. We can playback, erase and search but looking further than these practical implications, technical innovations and commercial adaptability, the questions can still be asked: what does recording technology do and what is it for?

The answers have less to do with the contents of instruction books than with ideas of prostheses, format specificity, noise, mediation and street level applications. When a given platform is used, a particular interface is established.

This blog is trying to investigate some of the territories that emerge at such a point.