2013/12/17

Fleapit Article

Film journal One+One have just published their latest issue, the second volume of their special edition focusing on trash, exploitation and cult cinema.  I've written an article for volume two, 'White Walls and Empty Rooms: A Short History of the Fleapit'. This looks at the culture of underground film exhibition and also provides a brief account of the 'Fleapit' screening group I ran between 2003 and 2009.



Fleapit is the topic of Road Movies and this article works as something of a primer for that project.   

2013/12/08

Critical Fields


The following text was based on my contribution to Film,Geomancy and the Alchemical Landscape, a film screening and symposium featuring Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England (2013). The event was held at the University of Cambridge on 28th November. Many thanks to Evie Salmon  for organizing the event and inviting me to speak.



For a film so concerned with space, it’s very hard to place Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England (2013). It’s geographically indistinct and historically ambiguous. The attempt to define a critical position is similarly fraught, mainly because the film offers a very strange combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar. Horizontally in terms of generic specificity it’s hard to tell where the film might sit. Is it a historical drama? A horror movie? A comedy? Director Wheatley and writer Amy Jump certainly work with each of these registers to construct the film but it carries no dominant generic markers. However, if we look vertically, in terms of a historical and cinematic continuity, A Field in England does seem to fit into a discernible lineage of ‘trip’ cinema. More specifically it seems part of a psychotropic mode that includes films about altered states and / or attempt to induce to altered audience perception. This group includes film like Corman’s The Trip (1967), Kubrick’s 2001 (1968), Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970) and Bass’ Phase IV (1974). We could also insert the film into the retroactive sub-genre of ‘folk-horror’ alongside the likes of Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970) Witchfinder General (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973)But again, the connection to these genres, certainly the latter is one of mood or ambiance rather than direct reference, permutation or citation. 

In the light of this difficulty, we could use the intersection of these axes as a mode of categorization and offer the film as an example of ‘uncanny cinema’, insofar as it stands as a film that is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. However, unless we’re prepared to use ‘uncanny’ as a generic signifier rather than an aesthetic marker (which is what it is), we need to be a bit more specific.

Indications as regards the film’s own field, can I think be found in its publicity and promotional material. Here’s the poster  - designed by artists Luke Insect and Kenn Goodall, who work under the moniker The Twins of Evil. As their name (taken from a 1971 Hammer Horror film) suggests, their style is influenced by the hysterical morbidity and residual psychedelia of the late 1960s and early 1970s genre cinema. Insect’s work in particular – largely on account of his involvement in the rave scene – has been called neo-psychedelic. It maintains the day-glo intensity of Nigel Waymouth but is characterized by a certain level of negativity that is at odds with the transcendental optimism of Hapshash and the Coloured Coat

The poster for Field exemplifies this approach. It uses the same silkscreen techniques that we might expect of Waymouth and incorporates a comparable luminosity into its brooding image of the sun / moon. However as this is a black hole or dark eclipse we're not provided with the the orgasmic harmony and elevation that we might associate with the posters for UFO or Middle Earth. It's quite obviously an appropriate symbolic extraction that can be used to encapsulate the bad trip that is the film.

Although these features link Field to neo-psychedelia, another way of viewing the film is suggested by the alternative trailer designed by the artist Julian House.  Here we have a similarly high contrast palette indicative of stereotypical psychedelic imagery. The trailer is shot through with the kind of mescalinized intensity described by Aldous Huxley in Heaven and Hell (1956). However, House adds a number of additional details. Unlike the smooth, HD black and white that embellishes the film, what’s emphasised in the trailer is the grain of decaying film-stock. House emphasises the degraded materiality of celluloid which seems to enhance the paranormality of the of the events in the filed as depicted in the film. The impression is created of spectral emanations momentarily captured on film with distorting results.

This combination of analogue technology, countryside nostalgia and an underlying sense of occult unease is a hallmark of Ghost Box, House’s record label. Whilst Ghost Box owes much to the matter and colour scheme of psychedelia it has been placed under a very different aegis, that of hauntology.   

Hauntology is, (in)famously, a term that appears in Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx (1993) as a cultural extension of his work on the trace. As has been extensively glossed elsewhere the word is a play on ‘ontology’ that exploits its homophonic overlap in French with hanter (haunt). Derrida uses it to critique ‘metaphysical’ notions that associate ‘being’ to self-presence. ‘Being’, insofar as it can be defined – when not erased or cancelled as an unthinkable aporia – is a state of spectrality: there is no ‘archive’ or starting point but a proliferation of echoes and shades. As Brian Baker has described over at (SF) 365, in around 2006 writers like Simon Reynolds used the idea to describe the sensibility of Ghost Box and similar artists who collectively appeared to express a “nostalgia for the future”: a nostalgia for the future as conceived by post-war community projects and the optimism of public information films. Such a future is seen as subject to nostalgia because it represents a forward trajectory posited in the post-1945 period that was ultimately “foreclosed by late capitalism”. 

Although this use of the term is not without problems, I’m inclined to adjectivally apply it to A Field in England and offer the film as an example of hauntological cinema rather than neo-psychedelic cinema. This is because the latter term threatens to obfuscate the specificity of the film’s events. Despite the obvious resonance of the mushrooms and the temptation to compare the film with Roger Corman’s The Trip – an acknowledged influence on Wheatley – to term it neo-psychedelic veers towards pastiche. That’s to say, it’s easy but unproductive to shorthand the film as a recapitulation of classic drug movies that adds nothing to the form. Similarly, a persistent strain of English psychedelia (early Pink Floyd, Tolkien revivalism, John Michell) valorised the rural as a space of alterity away from the kind of brutalist projects so lamented by John Barr in Derelict Britain (1969).


It’s precisely the decline and virtual disappearance of these projects: new towns, garden cities, comprehensives and polytechnics that’s investigated and valorised in the hauntology of Ghost Box et al. Coupled with a fascination with the mediating productivity of redundant recording technology the idea is that such spaces, equipment and architecture exude a powerful psychogeographic resonance. 

I think it’s very much this kind of territory that Wheatley’s film fits into. Despite its atavism, it offers a perspective on the occultural landscape that’s different to that which we might expect to find in broadly comparable 1960s texts. In the film the filed itself is narratologically foregrounded. It is not, as in Witchfinder General, a backdrop across which acts of violence take place or a screen which, as in the cityscapes of The Trip is seen differently under synthetic stimulation. Instead the field is presented as a deeply affective space. It is an instrument and a cultivated technology of mediation that exerts a powerful influence over its receivers; an influence which, if we are to go along with the trilogy reading of Wheatley’s work, is still active in Kill List (2011) and Sightseers (2012).

  
In this sense, I’d place A Field in England not with Blood on Satan’s Claw but with more directly hauntological texts such as the work of Nigel Kneale, particularly Quatermass and the Pit (1967) and The Stone Tape (1972). In each case the results are the same, it’s just the technology that’s different.  In offering this categorization, I’m using ‘hauntological; as a critical term because in this expanded sense (and such an expansion needs to be kept in mind in order that its specificity for Derrida can be maintained) as is suggested by Reynolds, the flickering status of the spectre represents a riposte to the zombification implicit in the ‘retro’ work. By extension this operates against the underlying essentialism and lamentation active in postmodernism. It points not to the return of that which has been seen before and that which says it again, but to that which seeks to ‘make it new’ via the return of something we never knew existed. 

2013/11/12

Film, Geomancy and the Alchemical Landscape

On 28th November, the Cambridge University Counterculture Research Group will be presenting Film, Geomancy and the Alchemical Landscape, a special event and symposium at the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge connected to Ben Wheatley's A Field in England (2013). I'll be speaking on the night along with Henry K. Miller, Brendan Gillott and Yvonne Salmon. 

I've previously written about the film for Monolith and since then I've been thinking about its visual links to neo-psychedelia, particularly the work of Luke Insect who designed the poster with Kenn Goodall under the Twins of Evil moniker. Julian House of Ghost Box fame was also involved in the production of an alternative trailer for the film. In my talk on the evening I'll be trying to put my finger on the various strands of aesthetic thinking that tie these artists together. Note: the word 'hauntology' might be used...

2013/11/07

Visions of Enchantment


In March 2014 I'll be speaking at Visions of Enchantment: Occultism, Spirituality and Visual Culture, a conference at the University of Cambridge. 

The two day event is "a collaboration between the Department of History of Art, University of Cambridge and the Arts University Bournemouth and is organised in association with the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism." It "seeks to investigate the formative role that occultism and spirituality have played in the creation of both Western and non-Western visual and material cultures."

It should be a great conference: a lot of work has gone into the organizing and the committee have booked a particularly strong line-up of keynote speakers.  




I'll be giving a paper linked to The Bad Trip project that will look at Kenneth Anger, Donald Cammell and Performance. Abstract below.  



Pandemonium ‘69: Magick, Performance and the ‘End of the Sixties’


In 1970, Warner Bros. released Performance, a film co-directed by Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg The film featured Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones and exhibited thematic and structural parallels with the the work of magician and film-maker Kenneth Anger. The film had originally been completed in 1968 but was delayed due to a number of censorship issues regarding its representation of sex and violence. As such, its completion and release bookended another infamous cultural happening featuring The Rolling Stones: their disastrous concert at the Altamont Speedway on December 6th, 1969. This event involved the death of an audience member, Meredith Hunter, at the hands of the concert’s ‘security’, the Oakland Hells Angels and was also captured on film by the Mayseles Brothers as part of their documentary Gimme Shelter (1970). 

Speaking about Performance at the time of its eventual release, Cammell implicitly read this proximity as an instance of synchronicity, if not active conjuration. Whilst the film was completed “before Altamont”, he stated, the concert “actualized it.”

This oscillating matrix of influence and absorption, event and representation underpins a narrative arc that has come to characterize the cultural representation of the late 1960s. An agglutination of contemporaneous popular culture (film, literature, music, and visual art), conspiratorial thinking and retrospective re-imagining has cast the decade as one that plotted a catastrophic trajectory from youthful optimism to violence, death and “bad craziness”. The ‘End of the Sixties’ has thus come to signify not the conclusion of one period within a wider historical continuum, but the destructive eclipse of a unique and utopian culture.

With reference to the microcosm surrounding the production of Performance and associated examples of contemporary visual culture, my paper will investigate the role of magickal imagery and occult discourses in the creation of this apocalyptic mirco-narrative. From Aquarian revelations to Anger’s Luciferianism, the discussion will focus on the visual representation of the occult in this subculture and the manner in which such strategies were instrumental in establishing the ‘End of the Sixties’ as a trope that has extended far beyond the end of the 1960s.



Keywords: Occulture, Counter-culture, 1960s cinema, apocalypticism, magic, visual culture, popular culture, Kenneth Anger, Donald Cammell, Aleister Crowley

2013/10/22

Whitehead Digital

See the side bar for information on and a link to the website of Adam Matthew Digital. I recently put together a collection for their digital resource, Rock n Roll, Counterculture, Peace and Protest. This material, 'Selections from the Nohzone Archive: 1965-1969' presents rare production documents detailing the material composition of Whitehead's films, including Wholly Communion, Benefit of the Doubt, Tonite Let's All Make Love in London, Charlie is my Darling and The Fall. There is also a sequence of unseen photographs and an essay that introduces and details the collection. It is a useful research tool that supplements the material compiled for Framework 52.

2013/10/21

Invisible Horizons

Information below regarding a film screening and lecture I did this summer at Nottingham Contemporary. Click on the hyperlinks for clips and more information. 

Invisible Horizons and Uncharted Waters

Nottingham Contemporary

13th – 20th August 2013.

As part of their Aquatopia exhibition, Nottingham Contemporary will be running a parallel film season: Aquaphobia.

Aquatic cinema is an ocean as vast as the Atlantic. Within this expanse, the language of horror works as a primary tool of navigation: Earth’s liquid territories are an inner space to be feared. From sea monsters to swamp things, from cephalopods to giant crocodilians, cinema teaches us that the surface of the water covers an entire world of danger and hostility. Although we humans might have come from the sea, it’s never safe to go back in…


I've been asked to program two slots as part of this four week season. I've suggested two events: a screening of Warlords of Atlantis as well as double bill of Creature from the Black Lagoon and It Came From Beneath the SeaThe Warlords event will involve a talk on film, occulture and Atlantean myth and I'll also be providing a set of film notes to accompany each of the screenings. In addition, I've also put together a You Tube channel to work as a supplement to the talk and to the Aquaphobia season. 

Click on the title links below for clips and more information relating to times, venues and booking details.

13th August

Talk and Film Screening


Taking its cue from Vincent Gaddis’ classic work of Forteana, Invisible Horizons: True Mysteries of the Sea (1965), this illustrated talk looks at American aquatic horror and science fiction films of the 50s, 60s and 70s. It will consider the influence of esoteric and ‘occultural’ thinking on the development of the sub-genre.

At the start of Invisible Horizons, Gaddis describes himself as a writer "who specializes in exploring the borderlands where fact emerges from myth and legend". This talk is interested in the inverse territory: it seeks to explore the transformative borderland where fact becomes myth and legend. Speaking about the work of Ken Hollings, Erik Davis described his area of interest as "the Zone", the "fluid and unmapped" area of post-1945 history in which technology, popular culture and fringe science blurred in an associational symbolic network. The myth of Atlantis, particularly in its post-60s incarnation, formed a similar 'Zone' or, more specifically, a Triangle: a nodal point at which film, ufology and speculative archaeology converged to create a strange cultural mirage.

Judging by films like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), City Under the Sea (1965) and Warlords of Atlantis (1978), Hollywood seems to have dealt with more than ‘just’ the military industrial complex during this period. In contrast to the more familiar narratives of aliens, space and body snatchers, these films deal with older ideas: the amniotic past, the murk of the unconscious and archetypal history.

Followed by

Warlords of Atlantis (Kevin Connor, 1978)

Originally titled Seven Cities to Atlantis, Warlords was the fourth collaboration between director Kevin Connor and star Doug McClure. This psychotronic Scorsese and De Niro had previously made The Land That Time Forgot (1975), At the Earth’s Core (1976) and The People that Time Forgot (1977), three films based on the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Warlords carries the spirit of these films but not the source material. It was written by Brian Hayles who is best known for his work on Dr. Who, particularly the 1967 serial The Ice Warriors.

In 'The Thinking Behind Atlantis', his preface to Paul Victor's novelization of the film, Hayles describes how the myth of the lost city has been used to posit the notion that humankind developed from a singular and tremendously advanced civilization. He explains how this trope has been extensively discussed and appropriated by writers promoting a dizzying array of paradigms. From the trance predictions of Edgar Cayce to the cosmology of Carl Sagan, from the 'ancient spaceman' hypothesis of Erich von Daniken to the ufology of Charles Berlitz, the essential invisibility and obscurity of Atlantis has allowed the myth to persist via a constant process of modification.

Although Warlords clearly does its job as a creature feature and works, in the words of Hayles, 'simply as a science fiction adventure', it's also not afraid to draw upon these pseudo-scientific ideas in its presentation of the extra-terrestrial Atlanteans. In contrast to the positioning of the city in the ancient past in George Pal's Atlantis: The Lost Continent (1961), Hayles offers the 'lost' city as a submerged but parallel force that secretly controls mankind's evolution. It's this mix of high-adventure and fringe-thinking that makes Warlords the unacknowledged gem of the Connor / McClure quartet. 

20th August



“Out of the murk and mystery of a hundred million years ago, up from the depths of unknown waters comes a creature to confound science!”


Creature from the Black Lagoon is one of the all-time great Universal creature-features. A scientific expedition to the Amazon discovers evidence of a highly evolved amphibious humanoid whose existence is tied to a legendary tributary on the river. Originally filmed in 3-D, Creature was much imitated following its release (The Monster of Piedras Blancas [1959], Attack of the Giant Leeches [1959]) and although it features some stereotypical trappings of the period, the film is distinguished by its use of excellent underwater photography courtesy of Bruce Mozert. In particular, the sequences in which the creature stalks Julia Adams as she swims rival Jaws in their suggestion of a subaquatic sense of menace.

The real star of the show, however, is the creature itself. The iconic design was developed and sculpted by Milicent Patrick, Bud Westmore, Jack Kavan and Chris Mueller. As a figure of horror, The Gil-Man is still effective 58 years later. Both recognizable and utterly alien, it perfectly encapsulates the mixture of fascination and fear that is associated with the concept ‘underwater’.

Creature spawned two sequels, Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956). Although less effective, arguably due to the loss of the 'Black Lagoon' location itself, these films plot an interesting line of continuation in which the creature is briefly assimilated into the terran world. The final shot of Among Us showing the creature returning to water brings things full circle: the pull of the aquatic domain is inexorable. Dangerous but also life giving, a space of origin and of final refuge, water is the substance that connects the human to earlier and hitherto unknown stages of evolution.

It Came From Beneath the Sea (Robert Gordon, 1955)

Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013) is best known for his stop-motion animation work on Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981). Prior to these spectacular takes on ancient myths, Harryhausen worked with producer Charles H. Schneer on a series of ground-breaking science-fiction and monster movies designed specifically as special-effects showcases. It Came from Beneath the Sea was the first of these collaborations and features a giant octopus attacking San Francisco.

At least it was meant to be an octopus. Look carefully: you’ll only ever see 6 arms on screen because the budget didn't stretch to the full 8. Other budget restraints resulted in an interesting level of realism in the film. Director Robert Gordon shot hand-held scenes in submarines at the San Francisco Naval Shipyard and coaxed a number of navy officers into serving as extras.

Prior to working with Schneer, Harryhausen made The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) with director Eugene Lourie. Based on 'The Fog Horn' (1951), a short-story by Ray Bradbury, Beast concerns a pre-historic Rhedosaurus that is released from hibernation due to a nuclear explosion. Its subsequent rampage around New York set the standard for giant monster movies, a formula developed and perfected by the Godzilla series. What all these films have in common is the idea of a revived monster, something from the deep past that is brought into the 'now' due to the crisis of the present: radiation, atomic energy, experimental weapons testing. The appearance of these 'Old Ones' is a manifestation of humankind's self-destruction and in It Came from Beneath the Sea, the 'octopus' seems to be more of a terrible conjuration than an atomic mutation. The climactic scene in which it attacks the Golden Gate Bridge is positively Lovecraftian in its visualization of a tentacled apocalypse.

2013/09/26

Area 51

Here's a picture of Ray Goudey, "the dashing, daring, Lockheed test pilot" who "flew the U-2 spy plane's legendary 'Ship One' at Area 51, starting in 1955". In the photo he's preparing for a flight whilst reading More Adventures in Time and Space (1955), a science fiction anthology edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas. The book is the 'sequel' to Adventures in Time and Space, (1946) a massive 900+ page book of "non-fiction stories of the future world of atomic power, rockets etc". The first volume contained stories by Robert A. Heinlein, Alfred Bester and Issac Asimov whilst in the second, Goudey would have encountered all these and more. 

I came across this image when researching a short article for Monolith on the recent declassification of information relating to Area 51. It appears in the documentary Area 51: I Was There which has links to Annie Jacobsen's book Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base (2011). Goudey plays a key role in both and the image as well as the above description appears on Jacobson's website.  

This photograph pretty much crystallizes the nature of my interest in ufology, conspiracy theory and the grey room that is the history and culture of the post-1945 period. I'm not a UFO investigator, Ufologist or for that matter a UFO debunker. Instead, I'm interested in ufology as a cultural discourse that assumes a particular form at a particular time. More specifically, I'm interested in the way in which ufology intersects and establishes a generative feedback loop with such parallel spheres as popular culture, cinema and science fiction. In this respect, whilst I work with texts by Morris K. Jessup, Charles Berlitz and John Keel, I find the methodologies and analysis of Philip K. Dick, Craig Baldwin and Ken Hollings to be a more productive approach to the topic. 

This is the interstitial and intertextual territory I was trying to map in the Invisible Horizons talk at Nottingham. Using the title of Vincent Gaddis’ 1965 book Invisible Horizons: Strange Mysteries of the Sea I was interested in how he described himself as a “freelance writer who specializes in exploring the borderlands where fact emerges from myth and legend”. Arguing that Atlantis represents a "triangle formed out of the extreme edges of folklore, oceanography and archaeology" I suggested that it occupies an inverse borderland to that which Gaddis posits, a borderland where fact becomes myth and legend. 


Goudey’s photograph is one such borderland. It neatly presents the sedimentary overlap that forms the imaginative economy of the UFO phenomenon: aviation, science fiction paperbacks and recontextualized photography. It also works as a signpost marking out the complex of narratives and interlocking reference points that constellate around the idea of Area 51.

Case in point is Jacobsen’s book. It was initially praised for the detail of its research but a wave of negative criticism greeted a number of its later ‘revelations’. The source of the most vociferous criticism was the claim of an unnamed informant that Area 51 played host to the remains of the 1947 Roswell crash. This is not in and of itself extraordinary. What is odd is the twist Jacobsen reports as part of the ‘real’ stories that make up the book.  Here’s how Earl Swift of Popular Mechanics tells it:

"The bottom line of the traditional Roswell story is that the purported extraterrestrial UFO wreckage was taken to Area 51 and subsequently became the object of a massive government coverup. Relying on the testimony of a single unnamed source, Jacobsen's book repeats the claim that some sort of UFO crashed at Roswell. But in her telling, the craft wasn't of alien origin. Instead, it was a saucer built by the Soviets using technology they'd obtained from German engineers at the end of World War II. And there's more. According to her unnamed source, the craft was manned by human teenagers who had been medically altered to look like aliens, with giant heads and eyes like wraparound Oakleys. 

Who would do such a thing to children? Why, notorious Nazi death camp doctor Josef Mengele, Jacobsen writes, quoting her source quoting another source or sources, also unnamed. Seems that Mengele was working for Soviet boss Josef Stalin, who needed the mutants for a special project: scaring the daylights out of America with a fake alien visitation. Yes, it was all a hoax; the most lavish prank in history."

Swift goes onto interrogate this story by trying to locate Jacobsen's source. What's more interesting to me is the peripheral criticisms he offers. He argues that this well-worn vision of small grey aliens is an anachronistic appropriation of imagery from Close Encounters, somewhat at odds with the popular Wellsian vision of extra-terrestrials that would have been in circulation in 1947 (thanks in no small part to to Orson Welles' 1938 War of the Worlds) Similarly, he also raises the example of James Blish's short story 'Tomb Tapper', from the July 1956 edition of Astounding Science Fiction In Blish's story a flying saucer crash lands and is suspected to be of Soviet origin. When the craft is opened it is found to have been piloted by a female child. 

These references do more than merely debunk Jacobsen's text. Whatever the level of truth value she attaches to her source, the criticisms point to the intermingling of cultural artifacts and historical accounts. More precisely Area 51 reiterates how the the archetype of the UFO is a hybrid of imaginary, symbolic and 'objective' evidence that has the effect of producing a retro-chronal phantasy. Contemporaneous references to and representations of the UFO phenomenon underscore the foundation of the myth by being re-projected as points of origin. This is not a revisionist perspective so much as an attempt to delineate the synchronous loop that has revolved at each stage of UFO history. Astounding Science Fiction, we might remind ourselves, was the main source for the material that made up More Adventures in Time and Space.   







2013/09/09

LA X-Ray

Roger Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) has had a strange afterlife. It’s not as popular as The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) or Corman’s Poesploitation oeuvre, but for sheer hallucinatory energy it’s certainly a lot better than his overrated LSD movie The Trip (1967). Corman says more about his other films in How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood (1998) but X has nevertheless persisted as a “cult creepie” not least because of its appropriation by contemporary film-makers particularly Amanda Beech and Craig Baldwin.

X ostensibly keys into all the comic-book phantasies promised by 25-cent x-ray specs. Ray Milland stars as James Xavier, the archetypal scientific over-reacher who, frustrated with his limited perception of the wave spectrum, self-administers the experimental Compound X. This grants him the power to see through walls and clothes as well as the ability to assess and intervene in risky surgical practices. So far, so good – nothing particularly interesting here. However, once Xavier realises that Compound X is cumulative in its effects, the film takes on an unexpected level of proto-psychedelic intensity. He’s robbed of darkness, sleep, shelter from the glare of the sun until finally, wandering in the desert on the outer limits of Las Vegas, he confronts the terminal horror of the universe fully revealed.

X belongs to Corman’s subset of nihilistic, eschatological movies, films like The Day the World Ended (1955) and The Last Woman on Earth (1960). Whereas films like It Conquered the World (1956) mirror the paranoia of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), these films are full of Cold war fear and loathing: not the anxiety that something awful might happen, but the dread and ennui that comes with having living through the actuality of such a disaster. Although X doesn’t take place on a ruined Earth, it nonetheless plots a (literally) post-apocalyptic scenario because it shows the immolating consequences that follow a moment of intense revelation.

Part of what makes X interesting is its reliance on the structure of the road movie. Xavier moves from downtown LA to the wastelands of the desert; from urban rationality to the hysteria of an evangelical tent-meeting and his final epiphany. Along the way he sees Los Angeles as an x-rayed accumulation of skeletal architecture, a “city unborn, with its skin dissolved in an acid of light […] a city of the dead”.

That Xavier is able to perceive the scaffold that underpins the svelte exterior of Los Angeles and later, Las Vegas, gives his x-ray vision a critical trajectory. At the start of the film, Xavier’s exploration of the wave spectrum is epistemological. It provides a means of discovery as regards the spaces that carry sedimentary content. Walls are seen to enclose rooms that hold private dramas and clothes cover bodies that carry organs held in place by skeletons. By the time of his urban excursions, Xavier’s insight has become ontological. He is able to see that which constitutes the material – and in the film’s closing moments the phenomenological – fabric of ‘reality’. His view of LA as the “unborn” city “rising in the sky” full of “signs without supports” announces a paradigmatic shift in the trajectory of his vision. An awareness of architectural and corporeal dissimulation gives rise to a perception of these surfaces as simulations, membranes of false plenitude that cover abysmal vacancy.

Beech draws on this aspect of X in her multi-platform work Sanity Assassin (2010). Commissioned by Spike Island in Bristol, Sanity Assassin is a three-channel video installation that incorporates a “sculptural [1] element: a spotlit mirrored plinth which displays a series of polished chainsaws situated in a custom-designed waiting area”.

The ‘showroom’ is based on the premises of the McCulloch chainsaw company in LA and the parallel video depicts a series of cityscape scenes cut to a noise soundtrack and a draconian editing rhythm.

Sanity Assassin offers Los Angeles as a geographical ossification of the neo-liberal agenda. Reality is presented a particularly violent form of hegemonic realism whereby space, policy and capital maintain dominance (despite inefficiency) through the projection of freedom and security as non-contradictory utopian ideals. Mike Davis offered a similar critique of LA’s political architecture in City of Quartz (1990) in which he analysed such late-capitalist symptoms as the city’s ‘fortress’ aesthetic and its gentrifying public transport facilities.[2] By contrast, Beech’s work draws this critical identification of postmodern irony into its analysis. Sanity Assassin works to interrogate the process of critique. Her study of LA operates as part of a wider investigative field in which the humanistic bias of critical theory is positioned as an agent in the production of the politics it seeks to question: “exposing power and making it visible simply reminds us that power exists as such”.[3] In the light of this position, Sanity Assassin takes as its representational modus operandi the contingency of power:

The work explores the various contradictions that are produced as a consequence of theorizing how to act when there is no absolute power to target and no centre from which to operate. Most particularly, the work attempted to explore the aestheticization and theorization of this infinitude as the real of the political and how it informs and shapes politics.[4]

In Sanity Assassin, the book that accompanies the installation, Beech includes a series of research images that informed the composition of the work. Amongst this montage of interiors and monoliths there’s a small still of Milland as Xavier taken from the closing moments of Corman’s film. Gazing with obsidian eyes into the agony of the revealed void, attempting to comprehend “the eye that watches us all”, Xavier exemplifies Beech’s project. As Marie-Anne McQuay suggests, the “horrific consequences” of Xavier’s “collision with the Real” signpost the trajectory of the project towards the interrogation and removal of the anthropomorphic subject in the work of critique.[5] By aligning Xavier’s vision with the Real, “the umbilical cord of the symbolic”[6], the subject of his gaze is recast not as that which is ‘beneath’ or ‘beyond’ but that which is negative; the sense of difference rather than correspondence that normative perceptions work to exclude. What the film couches in terms of sin and transgression is presented in Sanity Assassin as momentary proximity with the kind of conceptual heat that closes Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955).

The oscillation in X between the physical and the metaphysical evokes the “cult stratum” that Davis highlights in the rise of Southern California as a science state. From the mid-1920s, the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena played host to a rolling faculty of pioneering scientists who helped to establish “an emergent techno-structure” that fueled a post-war science based economy.[7] However, in the case of John ‘Jack’ Whiteside Parsons, this intellectual labour intersected with a dense matrix of seemingly dissonant interests. 

Parsons was a key influence in the establishment of the Pasadena Jet propulsion Laboratory and contributed to the development of solid rocket fuel. He was also a student of the occult and in 1942, under the guidance of Aleister Crowley, he assumed leadership of the Agape Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO). In addition, he was a member of the Los Angeles Fantasy and Science Fiction Society where he met Robert Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard. His association with Heinlein gave the latter important pointers for Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) whilst his ill-fated connection to Hubbard arguably informed the “amalgamation of black magic, psychotherapy and science fiction” that Hubbard peddled as Scientology.[8]

In Davis’ discussion, this web of connections that move across the “vast wheel of public-private research” represent “bizarre” detours in the otherwise “seamless continuum between the corporation, laboratory and classroom” that characterised the economic rise of post-war Southern California. Certainly in the case of the ascent of Dianetics and Scientology, the persistence of this distant Cal-Tech offspring exists as a “discouraging reminder of science’s fate in the local culture”.[9]  For San-Franciscan film-maker Craig Baldwinthis web is not a historical aberration but is instead representative of the actual matter of Southern California. The “local culture” is entirely constituted of these spirals of conspiracy, post-war science, espionage and ‘trash’ aesthetics.

In his film, Mock-Up on Mu (2008) Baldwin embarks upon a similar excavation of Southern California’s Mock-Up on Mu is a speculative analysis of the biographical intersections that existed between L.Ron Hubbard, Aleister Crowley, Jack Parsons, Marjorie Cameron and Lockheed Martin. In essence, this group symbolises the same triangle of culture, science and industry central to Davis’ analysis. However, Baldwin’s collage approach – the creation of a ‘documentary’ using clips from obscure b-movies and ‘found footage’ – seeks not to pull away the veils of myth in order to foreground ‘truth’ but instead exaggerates the imaginary lives of the characters as a means to analyse the construction of the myth.
future as that performed by Davis, but rather than analysing the concrete terrain of significant structures, he explores the imaginary environment of genre cinema and mythopoesis.

Within this approach, X plays a small but significant role. Corman’s film is one of the many that Baldwin absorbs into his cut-up network that structures the film. In Chapter 11, ‘Desert Crossings: A fugitive Parsons sets off a manhunt’, we see Parsons, (played by Kal Spelletich) fleeing across the desert having been shot by Lockheed Martin (Stoney Burke) as part of a wider Hubbard engineered plot to gain control of a solar energy device. Parsons’ flight is inter-cut with that of Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1959) and Milland in X. Over the top of this montage Baldwin adds a voice-over that reads from Parsons’ essay ‘Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword’ (1950): 

The inertia and acquiescence which allows the suspension of our liberties would once have been unthinkable. The present ignorance and indifference is appalling. The little that is worthwhile in our civilization and culture is made possible by the few who are capable of creative thinking and independent action, grudgingly assisted by the rest. When the majority of men surrender their freedom, barbarism is near but when the creative minority surrender it, the Dark Age has arrived. Even the word liberalism has now become a front for a new social form of Christian morality. Science, that was going to save the world back in H.G. Wells' time, is regimented, straitjacketed and scared; its universal language is diminished to one word, security.[10]

‘Freedom’ is essentially a libertarian tract that posits the concept as the product of self-ultimacy, whereby the exertion of the individual will can help cultivate the appropriate territory in which “man” can live. However, in the quote above its hard not to see some echoes of Beech’s project. Putting aside the implied desire for an Ayn Randian creative oligarchy, the connection of “liberalism” with the restrictions of “security” evokes the critique of neo-liberalism and the security state in Sanity Assassin.

Baldwin’s use of X is also similar. Ostensibly the montage seeks to equate Parsons’ near death pursuit of a Temporary Autonomous Zone with the transcendent vision of Xavier. Both appear to willfully strive for an apprehension of a space or entity that lies beyond normative limits. However, this Nietzschean individualism is subverted through the proliferation that Baldwin creates via the application of his assemblage technique. Despite the self-assertion of Parsons’ words, at the level of the image, ‘Parsons’ is a fluid persona, one the drifts from the actor Spelletich to any number of substitutes: Milland, Grant and elsewhere in the film Kris Kristopherson and Hugh Marlowe The character thus holds no stable subjectivity. Instead, there is only a strange kind of dub identity, one that constantly navigates the length of a wave spectrum from reconstructive performance to speculative association. If X represents the horror of the LA Real in Sanity Assassin, in the matrix of Mock-Up on Mu, the stroboscopic expanse that forms the narrative of Corman’s film offers a complimentary metaphor. Baldwin’s conspiratorial web gives no glimpse of an occulted ‘reality’ but offers the networks of conspiracy as the Real that informs the symbolic structure of his obsessive characters.  



[1] Marie-Anne McQuay,‘Introduction’ in Sanity Assassin (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2010), pp. 7-11 (p.7).
[2] Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (London: Verso, 1990), pp.223-263.
[3] Amanda Beech and Jaspar Joseph-Lester, ‘Reason Without Reason’, in Sanity Assassin, p.92.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Beech, p.66; McQuay, p. 8.
[6] Alan Sheridan in Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), p. 279.
[7] Davis, p. 59.
[8] Ibid, p.60.
[9] Ibid.
[10] John Whiteside Parsons, ‘Freedom Is a Two Edged Sword’ in Freedom Is a Two Edged Sword and Other Essays (USA: New Falcon, 2001).

2013/08/22

Dee's dolphin

Today a number of stories appeared about a stranded dolphin in the River Dee, Flintshire. After swimming upstream during a high spring tide the dolphin became stuck on a series of sandbanks and had to be rescued and returned to the sea by the RNLI.  

Its four-day sojourn in Saltney Ferry generated some strange and uncanny photographs, images that seemed to show this suburb of Chester slipping into a cataclysmic state of existence. See the caption below for an inevitable quote from J. G. Ballard. 























"Now they were to abandon yet another city. Despite the massive construction of the main commercial buildings, it consisted of little more than three principal lagoons, surrounded by a nexus of small lakes fifty yards in diameter and a network of narrow creeks and inlets which wound off, roughly following the original street plan of the city, into the outlying jungle"
                        --J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World (New York: Berkley Books, 1962), pp.19-20.

2013/08/14

post-burger


Dr. Mark Post's 'in-vitro' meat was launched on August 5th at a strange event that was half press conference, half cookery demonstration. Richard Fleischer's Soylent Green (1973) came up in numerous responses to the story. I've written about this rare intersection of high-science, cult film and hamburgers in a piece for Monolith

Thinking about it now, I guess Post's burger project probably has more similarities with Joe Pantoliano's steak meditation in The Matrix. 

If you're hungry for more food related science fiction films, try Critters, The Stuff and, if you can handle it, the horrifying McDonald's fetish that is Mac and Me 

2013/08/06

Evie Salmon at Rosenfeld Porcini

30 May 2013, Francisco de Corcuera, The Impossible Existence of a Mathematician

25 July 2013, The Birth of Cinema … and Beyond

Recently, I was fortunate enough to see two public talks given by the academic, writer and artist Evie Salmon at the Rosenfeld Porcini gallery in London’s Fitzrovia. Each talk was a detailed, walk-through discussion of the gallery’s current exhibitions. On May 30th Evie spoke about Francisco de Corcuera’s show 'The Impossible Existence of a Mathematician' and on July 25th she discussed the gallery’s most recent exhibition, 'The Birth of Cinema...and Beyond', a group show that brings together Old Masters and contemporary artists.

Judging by the content and thinking behind these exhibitions, Rosenfeld Porcini present contemporary art as an interdisciplinary form; one that is not only open to different fields of knowledge (i.e Corcuera’s apparent interest in mathematics, architectonics and cosmic principles) but one that also manifests its energies in matter other than canvas and paint. Whilst painting is, of course, well represented in the gallery’s curatorial decisions, this focus is productively supplemented via an interest in sculpture, video and the presentation of a series of fascinating performances involving dance and sound art.

Evie Salmon is the perfect choice of commentator to engage with and communicate this remit. Her work as a writer is similarly interdisciplinary whilst as a painter she articulates a corresponding interstitial position via the creation of images that mix music, psychogeography and synaesthesia. Working in both capacities, she has the ability to make obtuse links across different bodies of work and turn these various dérives into productive lines of thought. Thankfully, another of her gifts is intellectual clarity. It’s so easy for talks of this kind to either spiral off into vague, theoretical incomprehension or to plunge into over-simplified condescension. Both of Salmon’s presentations navigated these dangers well and succeeded in striking the right balance between content, format and audience awareness. The talks had the accessibility of a good conversation, the density and detail of a great lecture and the type of engagement you get with a carefully crafted story.

The session on Corcuera’s The Impossible Existence of a Mathematician took as its starting point the various questions suggested by the artist’s own creative rationale. In the exhibition’s supporting text we are told that his work expresses an attempt to negotiate a fundamental conceptual tension:

Raised in a strong Catholic background, he has been haunted by the impossibility of living life by the rigid structures which organised western religions impose upon the believer. He has endlessly posed himself the question: can one live life by order and rules alone or will life itself inevitably get in the way? His paintings, not withstanding their formal development, have conceptually always illustrated this dynamic quandary.

At first glance, it’s difficult to equate the abstraction of the canvases with the personal and highly specific nature of this project. Corcuera’s designs appear more like idiosyncratic blueprints similar to the imagined geometries of Archigram rather than motivated heterodoxologies. As illustrations of this “quandary” it seems that the profusion of harsh angles and perpendicular lines shows, at best, the dominance of a particular kind of order (mathematical or by analogy, religious) as opposed to an oscillation between fixity and fluidity. 

Salmon’s argument navigated this problem by focusing on the idea of cartography. According to the gallery’s literature, Corcuera’s family heritage can be traced back to one Rodrigo de Corcuera, a 16th Century map-maker. Using the idea of the map as an interpretive tool and combining this with Corcuera’s emphasis on points of intersection and erasure, she did not attempt to 'decode' the images but considered their signifying potential as maps. That’s to say, rather than spuriously reading the composition of a line allegorically, as either a 'sign' of authority or its converse distortion, Salmon considered the diagrammatic potential of the abstract images: “What kind of space is Corcuera mapping?”

Wisely, Korzybski’s maxim that “the map is not the territory” was kept in mind and the answer to the posited question was that the paintings represent acts of intellectual mapping. Salmon argued that Corcuera used his paintings to represent not an idealised space that one might wish to step into, but a space of activity in which such a territory is imaginatively sought. The former concept is very much the domain of H.P. Lovecraft’s story 'The Dreams in the Witch House' (1933) in which a scholar of both mathematics and folklore thinks “too much about the vague regions which his formulae told him must lie beyond the three dimensions we know”. The story suggests that certain accumulations of extreme architectural angles in specific spaces hold the key to “transgalactic” movements: literal pathways to other worlds, other knowledge and other forms of behaviour. The mirror image of this text and one that aligns with Salmon’s analysis is J.G. Ballard’s 'Does the angle between two walls have a happy ending?' one of his iconic Ambit 'advertisements' from 1967. Rather than positing cosmological transformation, Ballard’s cryptic geometry speaks of epistemological and structural intersection as that which forms the locus of paradigm shift. The emphasis is not on the transition to a hitherto unknown 'outer space', but a re-calibration of one’s entangled surroundings, the sphere of 'inner space'. Similarly, Salmon argued that Corcuera offered a comparable invitation to speculative thought. His stated intention to “chart, to measure, to embody the very nature of thinking”, (his interest in what he terms 'sobjectivity') was read in terms of Georges Bataille’s notion of 'the impossible'. Put simply, this is a striving for that which is desired, a striving in which the deferral that underpins the desire operates as a productive motor. Corcuera’s project is impossible at a representational level, but it is precisely this impossibility that drives the work, is depicted in the work and hence constitutes its 'sobject'.

Salmon’s most recent talk on The Birth of Cinema… and Beyond proceeded using a similar methodology of gentle but incisive deconstruction. It began by looking at the exhibition’s main statement of intent:

A virtual idea of cinema existed many centuries prior to the actual invention of the medium. When people entered a church in Catholic Europe or a noble palace, they were confronted by paintings from the Old and New Testament, or well-known scenes from Greek mythology. Calling upon the oral or written accounts of the complete narrative in question, they could elaborate a virtual film from their own imagination. The understanding and appreciation of the artwork was therefore an active experience.

Here the exhibition pitches itself as an intervention in the debate on cinematic pre-history. Conventionally, this is a narrative that constellates around the parallel developments of Edison, Muybridge, the Skladanowsky Brothers and the Lumière Brothers, amongst several others. The development of film as a medium and art form at this point is seen to amplify the potentiality of the moving image whilst cinema takes the nomadic exhibition of this material into specially designed halls of consumption. However, this fin de siècle ground zero is built upon a long history of the image that is connected to media other than celluloid and nitrate film. The development of devices such as the kinemetoscope, and the zoetrope date back to the mid-19th Century whilst the magic lantern dominated public shows and private séances throughout the 18th Century. Richard Stanley tells us that Athanasius Kircher described the basic principles of projection in his Ars Magna Lucis et umbrae (1646) while the use of the procedure to ‘conjure’ demons goes back even further. In Stanley's account, sometime in 1540 the goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini had an encounter with shadow, light and smoke magic in the ruins of the Colosseum. In his papers he describes it as a carefully organised spectacle using images of various sizes, (no doubt amplified due to the acoustics and architecture of the space).  

This lineage takes us to the period of the earliest paintings included in the Rosenfeld Porcini show, particularly those by Giovanni Lanfranco ('Aeneas fleeing with his family from Troy in flames') Ferrau Fenzoni ('Christ nailed to the cross') and Andrea Michieli ('David and Goliath'). The problem with hypothesizing their inclusion in the history of cinema is that the latter form pursues a line of development via various types of moving image projection. Cinema is born out of and plots a historical line that is proximate but nevertheless parallel to that of painting.

In her talk, Salmon engaged with this issue with an efficient focus on the notion of painting as a representational mode that is able to approximate if not manifest a virtual moving image. She made a very interesting parallel between the lines of focalization used in static compositions and the manner in which these guide the viewer in a 'narrative' around the paintings. Coupled with the point in the exhibition literature regarding the elaboration of recognised mythic scenes, this arc of the discussion put forward a convincing argument for an aesthetic understanding of the persistence of vision. Persistence of vision describes the mechanism of the moving image whereby its smooth kineticism is made possible due to the perception of an afterimage on the surface of the retina. Salmon’s argument was that this physiological persistence, essential to film, finds parallel in the cultural persistence of resonant icons, thereby permitting the narrativization of certain paintings at the point of (ap) perception.

This fascinating opening salvo continued into a second strand that looked at the engagement with cinema and film on the part of contemporary artists such as Gideon Kiefer and Fatma Bucak. In a discussion of Kiefer’s surgical imagery in 'The Solemn Moment' (2013), Salmon offered cinema’s solemn moment as the cut, the edit; the point of invisibility that sutures the frame and thereby generates significance. These points lead to some of the most interesting comments of the talk. Offering the gallery itself as a kind of cinema, Salmon presented a brilliant reading of the mounting of the canvases as the site of a productive system of juxtapositions in excess of any direct cinematic content in the frames themselves.

The talk concluded in the final room of the gallery in which Antonio Joli’s 'Campo vaccino' faces Bucak’s video installation 'Blessed are you who come'.  Here Salmon expertly drew together the various strands of the discussion. The layout of the room brilliantly exemplified the proceeding point about parallel developments but also foregrounded the imagery of the ruin that had been to a lesser and greater degree present in most of the other works of the exhibition. This motif was discussed in relation to Walter Benjamin’s famous passage from 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' (1936):

By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring common place milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action. Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling. With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended.

This is one of Benjamin’s most utopian pronouncements and it’s often used (rightly) to make a convincing case for the formal specificity of film, particularly within an evaluative critical context. Salmon acknowledged this but also drew upon the painterly influences that structure Bucak’s composition. At this point is would be easy to conclude on a note of formal relativism: everything is cinema and everything is painting. However, Salmon instead chose to invoke video as a cardinal concept.  Meaning 'I see', 'video' pleasingly brings together the ideas of the visual and the epistemological as to 'see' means, of course, to perceive and also to know. The point made, then, was that the historical parallelism between painting and film need not be antagonistic or evaluative but needs to be understood in terms of dual specificity. The exhibition highlighted the extent to which the representational mediation of the visual sphere marshalled a range of techniques that shape the consciousness of the consumer in the act of vision.



2013/07/31

Exploring the Extraordinary



I'll be speaking at the fifth 'Exploring the Extraordinary' conference in York this September.

'Exploring the Extraordinary' is:


"an interdisciplinary  network  for those  engaged/interested in research into the 'extraordinary' - topics often regarded as paranormal, supernatural, religious, transcendent, ecstatic, exceptional, mystical, anomalous, magical, or spiritual."

The organizersDr Hannah Gilbert and Dr Madeleine Castro have put together an excellent network of researchers, artists and practitioners interested in their stated remit. Check out their website for more information. 

You can also see the conference programme and the list of abstracts

I'll be giving a paper on William Burroughs and tape recording. Abstract below: 

Playback Hex: William Burroughs and the Magical Objectivity of the Tape Recorder

This paper considers the status of the tape recorder as a magical object in the creative praxis of William Burroughs. Taking as a starting point the infamous instance of his attempt to 'curse' the London Moka bar in 1972, this discussion will look at the manner in which Burroughs simultaneously used the instrument as a practical device, a compositional tool and literary motif. In essence, my paper seeks to think through, and to a degree, synthesise the overlapping layers of biography, imaginative investment and textual practice 
that surround Burroughs's work. Academic criticism of his writing often seeks to separate these levels. My point will be that an understanding of the particular significance Burroughs invests into the tape recorder provides a means to conceptualise the creative and strategic matrix he establishes between specific material objects and a wider imaginative project.

Note: For more on the Moka Bar see here and here