April 01, 2007

'time for the dead to have a word with the living'


A number of threads that have come up here recently - hauntology, the collapse of the public sphere, the Lehrstucke, Lee Edelman-type Queer theory, the end of music - coalesce in Ultra-red's Public Record project, an internet 'archive of audio-actions' made by Ultra-red and their allies.

Ultra-red’s own account of the project is explicitly hauntological. ‘One could reductively interpret Public Record as an archive of death: a death of social movements, a death of coalitions, campaigns, utopias, struggles, and a death of socialism. Such an interpretation would profoundly miss the point. Not to mention that such a reading would be only possible were the archive not used. In listening, one invariably gets caught up in the record and its political effects. The record is a remainder.’ A remainder that is also a reminder, a reinvocation, the calling up of a ghost of a chance.

Witness, also, their rationale for the great AIDS Uncanny series (alternate title: 'time for the dead to have a word with the living'): 'THE AIDS UNCANNY series examines AIDS activist strategies of the past. Artists interrogate the record of those actions and practices, listening for some remainder haunting the present, to act as a kernel for a new radicality. Do we wait around for anger, or do we work within our existing affective spaces? This is the art of a broken silence.'

Silence and Death are the hauntological twins around which much of the material on Public Record is organised. Silence and Death were doubled in the old AIDS activist cry, 'Silence=Death', and various recordings of that chant reverberate throughout the AIDS Uncanny series. The equation 'Silence=Death' can only be broken if the dead, those condemned to silence, gain a voice; and if the voices of the living can become media through which the dead, the absent, can speak.

The material on Public Record circulates around a number of (interlocking) themes - AIDS, poverty, immigration, Queer politics. The treatment of these themes by 'sound artists' might invite a weary groan; you might expect a double dose of worthiness. Yet Ultra-red deliver on their promise to produce a 'Queer Electronica', where 'Queer' defiantly regains its associations of strange, uncanny, abnormal. Ultra-red are suspicious of a queer poltics which orientates itself around the imperative of normalising same-sex relations, a politics whose horizons are marked by the pursuit of the once derided goal of 'gay marriage'. Even though there is an engagement with popular forms, Ultra-red refuse populism, both aesthetically and politically.

When XLR8R asked Ultra-red's Dont Rhine last year 'What do you want people to do with this record?', he replied, 'Radical, ecstatic, critical bodily engagement. Our struggles begin on the surface of the skin. Spare us the old cliches about "intelligent dance music". A Silence Broken sees body music as a site for critical engagement'. Of course, we've all read self-serving rationales for sound installations claiming to 'engage the body' only to bore it rigid. But it is Ultra-red's relationship to dance music, specifically to House, that sets them far apart from sound art aridity. This is no vampiric 'intelligent' take on dance music (which no matter how much blood it sucks, remains bloodless), but precisely a hauntological rendition: a series of seances summoning the spirit of collective struggles and collective ecstasies. The centrepiece of last year's An Archive of Silence, part of the AIDS Uncanny series, is a spectral channeling of Mr Fingers' Acid classic 'Can you feel it?' The question - unspoken on both the original, instrumental track and on the Ultra-red version - now assumes hauntological/ political significance. Can you (still) feel it? How many who danced to this Acid classic when it came out twenty years ago have since died in the AIDS epidemic, which continues to spread in the US, where federal AIDS dollars are diverted to Christian fundamentalists preaching that the virus is God's punishment? The invocation of House - an American cultural site that was both gay and black - is especially poignant given that, according to Ultra-red, an astonishing '45% of all African American men who have sex with men are HIV positive, 70% of whom don't know their HIV status. Contributing to today's AIDS crisis is the fact that one out eight Americans live in poverty.' From the point of view of AIDS, neo-liberalism is a wonderful thing.

The Public Record is not intended to be a faithful record, a mere capturing of the empirical. Indeed, like Chris Marker, Ultra-red pose the question of what is it to document or record an event; they appear to share Marker's conviction that it is only through processes of estrangement that sound and images can attain truth or political efficacy. 'Without that infidelity between mouth and ear, a slippage invariably invoking an other, there can be no politics.' Hence there is no earnest breast-beating here, no injuction towards 'clear communication'... What is inspiring is the dissolution of established forms; Ultra-red's establishing of a continuum between House, electro-acoustic and spoken word does to music what Marker, Curtis and Keillor do to the documentary. (Especially recommended is the first volume of the AIDS Uncanny series, A Silence Broken, which actually includes a track called 'Repetition Compulsion' by Death Drive.) Cage's dictum, 'this is music anyone can make, all you have to do is listen', becomes a licence for cyberpunk production and militancy, a challenge to use recording technologies and the net's means of replication to engender new forms.

Rhine's answer to XLR8R's question 'How does electronic music convey political messages?' is a model riposte to Stekelmanism*:

'Political messages are not the point. I, personally, have little interest in communicating a political point in a piece of music. Rather, I am more interested in how music already activates us socially, sexually, intellectually, aesthetically. I see all these modes of being - structures of feeling if you will - as having political currency. It is not the case that our politics merely reproduce our modes of being. Rather, it is through these that the conditions for our politics are reproduced. If our art insists on the disavowal of politics, then we get the politics that disavowal makes possible. Today, that politics is fascism.'

*Stekelmanism (a.k.a. 'Man Who Fell Asleepism'): insistence on the separation of culture and politics; hard ideological labour for neo-liberalism; militant aesthetic complacency; middle-brow common-sense; anti-intellectualism; compulsory frivolity, esp. prevalent amongst Anglo-Media types, exemplified by responses on these two comments thread, and by these sorry cartoons.


Posted by mark at April 1, 2007 03:33 AM | TrackBack