Utopian Acts 2018: Ayesha Tan Jones

Indigo Zoom: The Awakening

Film Screening at Utopian Acts 2018

Set in a future with no safe oxygen left to breathe, the big business corporation Yonivel.co has commodified air and is selling it to the masses. We follow a wayward hydrogen hacker on their quest to #breathefree
Written, directed, edited, produced by
Ayesha Tan Jones

Indigo Zoom : The Awakening (full movie) from ayesha tan-jones on Vimeo.

Out of this World: Last Day / Gift Shop

One of the things that the British Library does fairly well is providing a decent range of things to buy in conjunction with a given major exhibit.  Thanks to Out of this World: Science Fiction but not as You Know It, for the last several months, the British Library has been selling a good range of science fiction novels and criticism; “Destruction of Earth” magnets; War of the Worlds tote bags and posters; and lots of posters of mostly out-of-copyright science fiction illustrations and book covers.

There’s Mike Ashley’s book which accompanies the show, but the same name, and, from the BL venture The Spoken Word, CDs of interviews with modern science fiction authors and H.G. Wells.

There was also, to my surprise, a postcard of the cover art for an early Rondò Veneziano album, an album not otherwise represented anywhere in the show as far as I noticed. Rondò Veneziano was a group I discovered by wandering into a shop in the late ’80s, being struck by the baroque-electronica-rock music playing, and asking what it was.  For years afterward, I would buy their cassettes whenever I ran across them. I ended up with 12-15 albums, but only realized this week, after running across that postcard, that they’d gone on to do around 70 (!) albums in total so far.

The ’80s cover art of Venezia 2000 shows a pair of humanoid robots, dressed up in baroque finery, playing their stringed instruments in a gondola while an entirely unfamiliar, presumably futuristic Venice, overshadows them across the waves. It was absolutely in keeping with the range of old predictive prints and books on display in the exhibit. If you like old future predictions and don’t already know it, you should be reading the blog Paleofuture.

Today is the very last day to catch Out of this World: Science Fiction but not as You Know It at the British Library.  It’s open until 17:00.

Out of this World: Two Days Left / A Signal from Mars

Inamongst all the books in display cases in Out of this World: Science Fiction but Not As You Know It at the British Library were things which which were not books: K-9, a space ship crashing into the wall, works of science fictional art work blown up to a large scale, snippets from movies and documents, and a fairly large number of headphones.

Listening to pieces of music or interviews takes several minutes at a time. It’s a commitment which the majority of visitors to the exhibit didn’t make. And so they missed out how things like a recording of the original Dr. Who theme song; an excerpt from an experimental music/voice album called Return to the Centre of the Earth (1999); and a 1910 recording of John Lacalle’s band playing Raymond Taylor’s tune, “A Signal from Mars”, set next to its sheet music.

If you have the time today or tomorrow to see the exhibit before it closes, you can listen to these yourself. If not, here’s the John Lacalle band playing “A Signal from Mars”; and a modern piano cover of it.

It’s fascinating to think of this as founding science-fictional in its time, and how much our conception of science fictional music has changed since then.

Reading List: Dead Channel Surfing

Another article, unfortunately, that makes heavier weather of its argument than is really necessary. Karen Collins sets out to convince us of, as her subtitle has it, “the commonalities between cyberpunk literature and industrial music.” Except, straight away —

Although cyberpunk began as a literary movement, it is often referred to as more than that — it is, rather, a concept reflected in many disciplines sharing a similarity of approaches and attitudes.

— and the argument she goes on to construct depends rather heavily on the inclusion of films, from the obvious (Blade Runner, The Matrix) to the slightly less so (The Terminator). Which is fine in principle, obviously; it’s just not what the title promises. There are other carelessnesses. In an initial list of characteristics associated with cyberpunk, Collins eyebrow-raisingly includes “technophilia”; but later in the article comes round to the more sensible “Cyberpunk, therefore, has an arguably ambiguous relationship to technology”. Mondo 2000 is described as “the original cyberpunk fanzine”, and Cheap Truth isn’t mentioned. Etc etc.

Some of the points made are actually more general than they need to be, to the point of banality. In describing shared influences on cyberpunk and industrial — focusing on “Dada, William S Burroughs and the punk movement” — Collins ends up pointing out that “Cyberpunk fiction similarly incorporates many references to popular culture”, and perhaps even better in terms of failing to establish a unique relationship, that both forms are “rife with neologisms”. This is despite the fact that the shared influences seem undeniable, based on the numerous specific examples from both cyberpunks and industrial artists that Collins is able to provide.

The section on “recurrent dystopian themes” is a bit more wobbly, I think, in part because Collins starts with this list of “themes fundamental to dystopia”:

Although these themes are not necessarily in every dystopia, at least one will always be present. The primary themes of a dystopia can be summarised as; the socio-economic system of the West will lead to an apocalypse. The apocalypse will lead to, or be caused by, a totalitarian elite controlling the masses through technology, which brings about a need for a resistance, usually led by an outsider-hero.

Personally, I’d have thought canonical cyberpunk texts fit this schema somewhat less well than the mainstream of dystopias — although they do fit, sure, particularly if you allow, as Collins does, that “in cyberpunk, the apocalypse is often a metaphoric one”. Collins also has less evidence on the industrial side, here, able to establish the anti-capitalist bona fides of the genre pretty easily, but not doing so well on the other points.

More interesting is the discussion of “unconventional sound-making devices” — that is, bits of discarded technology — used in industrial music, although a consideration of the use of robot voices seems like a sidetrack; it makes for an interesting contrast with the version of HipHop described in “Feenin“, but robots don’t seem to me a core concern of cyberpunk.

Lastly, and most entertainingly, Collins identifies a similar mood of “anguish, darkness and the future”, on the basis of lists of keywords, although it’s not clear whether the cyberpunk list is based on a spectrum of reader responses, or just the one guy:

Cavallaro links cyberpunk and gothic horror with a series of keyword similarities relating to the moods evoked by the narratives: decay, decomposition, disorder, helplessness, horror, irresolution, madness, paranoia, persecution, secrecy, unease and terror. [8] Similarly, my study of connotations of industrial music, using free-inductive methods of listener response tests on a selection of industrial recordings, found that the most common responses were sad, dark, anxious, futuristic, death, urban, violent, and anguish.

That footnote, incidentally: “Cyberpunk and industrial could also be argued to sometimes have an underlying humour that helps to lighten this mood.” Which, yes, that’s probably a good thing. And although Collins never quite says this explicitly, although each of these correspondences on its own is rather loose, all of them together do make the case that “these artists are branches on the same tree” fairly convincing.

Reading List: Space Oddities: Aliens, Futurism and Meaning in Popular Music

I get the feeling I should have read this one first. Academic Ken McLeod (so noted to distinguish him from Author Ken MacLeod, unless the latter has taken to Banks-style additional letter obfuscation to keep separate his literary and scholarly careers) provides a basically chronological overview of “space, alien and technofuturistic themes” — science fictionality, basically — in popular music between the start of the space age and the turn of the century. As such, it’s not hugely revelatory, but it ranges widely and lays out a framework within which some of the other articles I’ve already discussed can be understood. For example:

Music is heavily involved in both the creation and literal colonisation of space — music creates an embodied but imaginary space that mediates our internal space (feelings, desires, dreams) with external space (the physical, the experienced) […] Thus music, in general, connects listeners to fantasy, pleasure, and an ever-elusive future.

While I might take issue with that “literal”, this is clearly the sort of understanding of music that underlies approaching it as a site for posthumanism. McLeod talks usefully about what you might call sonic nation-states, affinity groups supported by a musical genre, which is relevant to black music in America; about a political understanding of raves as seeking an “idealised raceless, classless and genderless plurality” on the dance floor; and about sampling as “aural time travel”. He also draws a distinction between the use of technology in hip-hop and its use in prog-rock, with the latter allegedly emphasizing “the desire to master, to dominate and to, in effect, colonise new and uncharted realms of technology and musical experimentation”. Perhaps that one is stretching a point.

McLeod also makes the point that so frustrated me in my reading of “Mozart in Mirrorshades“, that technology can be considered as natural:

For example, the use of technology, alien and futuristic imagery in various forms of African-American music seems, on first appearance, antithetical to the commonly held view of ‘authentic’ black music as natural, funky, or soulful. However, such images can also be interpreted as merely the result of human interaction with their environment.

Some of what Weheliye says also approaches this conclusion, but it’s never stated quite so clearly. At the same time, Lysloff offers a useful corrective to some of McLeod’s assumptions, when the latter writes that “the use of digital sounds and samples creates a synthesised global melange in which race, class, gender and ethnicity melt away”.

In general there’s less to argue here simply because there’s less argument. I did wonder at the assertion that —

As rock became a global phenomenon of the information cyberspace-age, space and alien themes were more prevalent than ever in the 1990s and into the new millennium — particularly in the realms of alternative rock and electronica/techno dance music.

— since McLeod goes from discussing Davie Bowie, George Clinton and Pink Floyd to offering as examples “Shonen Knife, Spacehog, Gwar, Star Kicker and I Mother Earth”, who aren’t really on the same level of influence. I wondered whether this narrative of increasing prevalence (increasing science-fictionality) was really accurate, when it comes to music. I suppose the evidence in favour is that we have Muse now.

Reading List: Feenin: Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music

There’s a lot of interesting material in here, with an admirable purpose. Taking as a starting point a history of posthumanism by N Katherine Hayles, Alexander Weheliye sets out to address what he identifies as a lack of attention to racial construction and formation, by arguing that contemporary R&B is “a pivotal space for the coarticulation of black subjectivity and information technologies”. Or, as he also puts it, “to realign the hegemony of visual media in academic considerations of virtuality by shifting emphasis to the aural”. There’s nothing like a good hegemony-realignment.

As in virtually all the other articles I’ve been reading, there are some eyebrow-raising moments. For example:

Even when giving examples of paradigmatic posthumans, Hayles falls back on white masculinist constructions by citing the Six Million Dollar Man and Robocop […] It seems that one has to be always already “free from the will of others” (or think that one is) in order to mutate into the fusion of heterogeneous agents comprising the posthuman state of being.

The first part is surely a fair criticism; but suggesting that the creation of Robocop is an example of posthuman creation centered on being free from the will of others seems a bit odd. Similarly, at times Weheliye seemed to me to cross over the line from arguing that the use of information technology in contemporary R&B has a unique meaning to arguing that the use of information technology in contemporary R&B is unique. Given that much of his article explores the use of more-or-less mechanized voices, at times you start wondering how such use differs — in terms of constructing a virtual self — from, I don’t know, “Fitter Happier” (or “Karma Police”, or indeed quite a bit of Radiohead), or work by other not noticeably black American artists.

Still, there are probably less such eyebrow-raises than average, and in broad terms Weheliye is quite convincing. The first half of the article establishes that “human has had a very different meaning in black culture and politics than it has enjoyed in mainstream America”, having to do with the disqualification of blackness from the category of human for so long; and further establishes that this understanding of human is not well-integrated into posthuman theory (at least in 2002). The second half of the article has the more challenging task, in that it has to establish that “incorporating other informational media … counteracts the marginalization of race” in posthuman theory, and further that “sound technologies” are in this sense a meaningful informational media.

Whether or not you ultimately buy all this, I think, depends on whether you accept the construction of “posthuman” in the article. Weheliye is good on his contention that “black popular musical genres make their own virtuality central” by, for instance, foregrounding the role of producers, and employing the aforementioned voice-alteration effects. (He also manages to write about popular music without sounding like he’s trying too hard.) “Feenin” is brought in as a term for a sort of industrial mechanisation of desire, the implication being this is a central affect of contemporary R&B, which also seems like a solid point.

Here’s the conclusion, though:

Eshun provides a singular account of nonhumanist black popular music as it explosively interferes with sound technologies, but in doing so he fails to take in the ramifications of these discourses in genres that do not explicitly announce themselves as Afrofuturist, such as R&B. Hayles’s conclusions seem indicative of numerous studies of virtuality and/or cyberspace, where race is heard in a minor key, and computer-mediated communication is the sole melody of the song we know all too well: the virtual. I hope I have shown that any theory of posthumanism would benefit from making race central to its trajectory, not ancillary, as well as venturing beyond purely visual notions of subjectivity.

As in Colin Milburn’s article, I find myself struggling with this understanding of “posthuman” — a word whose meaning is largely taken for granted in both pieces. Specifically: in what way is it meaningful to consider the sort of audio virtuality discussed in Weheliye’s article as evidence of posthumanity?

Consulting Wikipedia, I see that there is more than one definition of posthuman in use, which clears things up somewhat. The first definition given is that “the posthuman is a speculative being that represents or seeks to enact a re-writing of what is generally conceived of as human”. That’s the understanding in this essay, with the “general conception” of human being specifically identified as the Enlightenment conception from which black people were excluded: the use of virtuality in contemporary R&B challenges this conception, and therefore is posthuman. My reservation, then, is that what Weheliye is outlining is itself a virtual re-writing: it has no transformative effect on the experience of an actual human in the way that becoming Robocop does, or being uploaded into cyberspace does. Perhaps that’s not necessary for the academic/theoretical understanding of posthumanism under discussion here; but this is part of the reading list for a class on science fiction criticism, and within science fiction such an understanding of posthumanism strikes me as pretty marginal.

Reading List: Machineries of Joy

Subtitled “I Have Seen the Future and It Is Squiggly”, and available for you to read online here. This is rather fun; a self-consciously “outsider” take on “a form of music created at the end of the 20th century by Northern Europeans”, which scrupulously locates said music’s characteristics in the local environment and culture:

The geography and climate in Northern Europe (see Fig. 2) has historically necessitated the development of unusual personal mental stamina and perseverance — qualities evolved no doubt in order to survive the harsh months in the isolated villages and hamlets in that region. The long and dark winters favored a people who could look inward for months at a time and not go crazy. It would also favor intense social cooperation — rules and sets of elaborate prescribed behaviors — all designed to maintain the delicate social balance during those long difficult months. In addition, the inhabitants became accustomed to a monotonous diet and sporadic social contact. Naturally, all of this led to the evolution of a rather extreme but focused frame of mind.

Rather brilliantly, this is kept up right to the very last line of the piece, and even then all that is allowed is that it may be taken as “semiserious”, so that you’re forced to consider which bits of it you do take seriously. The actual argument of the piece is that a subgenre of electronic music labelled “blip hop” is “meant to be perceived as humorous and ironic”, and that its “imitation of machine processes and languages” are meant not to be taken at face value. To this end, three supposed characteristics of blip hop are offered: attraction to non-natural sounds, preponderance of “herky-jerky” rhythms, and an attraction to “structures and effects only possible through the use of the computer”.

Encountering this as an sf reader, it reads like nothing so much as a send-up of an introduction to the sort of territory-defining anthology so beloved in the genre: think of the Kessel/Kelly slipstream, post-cyberpunk and “secret history of sf” books, plus the two volumes of Interfictions and the VanderMeer steampunk and new weird books. So it’s somehow not a huge surprise to discover that it appeared first as the liner notes to “The Only Blip Hop Record You Will Ever Need, Vol 1“; both album and text being orchestrated by David Byrne, about whom I really know very little other than that he was in Talking Heads. Although blip hop exists in the urban dictionary, most of the google hits for the term feed back to the album in one way or another (complete with the sorts of reviews that those sorts of sf anthologies tend to receive, debating what exactly blip hop is and why it’s not what the work under review says it is), so I’m left none the wiser as to whether it’s something Byrne created out of whole cloth, or simply promoted. And I’m not actually unhappy about that.

Reading List: Train Tracks: How the Railroad Rerouted Our Ears

Well, so much for schedules. I’ve been getting through the reading OK, but writing time has been scarce. Today the catch-up begins, and first up is Michael Jarrett’s 2001 article “Train Tracks: How the Railroad Rerouted Our Ears”. He proudly notes that it’s an expansion of an article that first appeared in the Tower Records in-house magazine Pulse, and that it is thus “a hybrid form of writing — a theoretically informed feature or popularized theory”, and while it’s true that it’s fairly digestible, I’m afraid bits like this —

Rather than speak of what I already know about railroads, I plan to interrogate, in this case, the sound of railroads as a possible site of my own sonic knowledge. Or to adapt a phrase coined by music critic Kodwo Eshun, I want to listen to the levels of science that inhere in railroads (1999, p. 70). What do trains already know about me, about my biases and prejudices regarding sound? How do I hear because of trains? Or more generally, How did trains train or even create modern ears? People, get ready; here are a few speculations.

— remind me of nothing so much as the proverbial Dad dancing at a disco. It also has nothing explicitly to do with sf, although Jarrett does frame his description of the perceptual shift introduced by trains as that most familiar sfnal operation, “literaliz[ing] the railroad-as-musical-instrument metaphor”. It’s easy enough to brainstorm a list of significant fantastic works that feature literal trains, and you might speculate as to whether the presence of the train shapes reader or character behaviour in the ways Jarrett talks about here. Mind you, whether such works have anything in common beyond that motif is another question: China Mieville’s Iron Council, Lucius Shepard’s “Over Yonder”, Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road, Geoff Ryman’s 253, Patrick Tilley’s Amtrak Wars books and One Hundred Years of Solitude, for instance, are a pretty diverse bunch.

There’s also a slight overlap with Lysloff’s article; when Jarrett notes that “The railway brought noise — the sound of machinery — into rural and wilderness environments”, and that “What counts as music is all a matter of framing”, there are echoes of Lysloff’s concern with “natural” and “artificial” sounds. And if Jarrett was only making the small claim that “The railroad’s noise — its surfeit of stimuli — demanded that traveler’s adapt new modes of perception”, there wouldn’t be much to argue with in his article; it’s a rather obvious point that new types of experience promote new types of engagement. Where he falls down a bit is in trying to extend that argument. Without trains, he asks,

Would we have rock ‘n roll? Not likely, answers Albert Murray in his novel Train Whistle Guitar. His protagonist bluesman, Luzana Cholly, played guitar like “an engineer telling tall tales on a train whistle, his left hand doing most of the talking including the laughing and signifying as well as the moaning and crying and even the whining, while his right hand thumped the wheels going somewhere” (1974, p.8).

For starters, offering a novel as an answer to a sociohistorical question in this way is a pretty dodgy move, but more importantly, it’s not even a good start to an answer: the fact that one novel compares a guitar player to a train engineer in no way indicates an essential connection between train engineers and guitar players. He goes on to cite Houston Baker writing, in 1984, that “The dominant blues syntagm in America is an instrumental imitation of train-wheels-over-track-junctures“, which is a bit more useful, but a lengthier quote from Baker in which he ruminates that “Only a trained voice can sing the blues” seems almost parodic. (Jarrett’s comment that “groove is a way to declare that, while human beings always possessed the body part, asses were built by the railroad” surely is parody, but by that point I couldn’t really tell.)

There are useful, or at least interesting, or at least entertaining, observations scattered throughout the piece, and some of them do engage in the sort of riffing I’m digging at above; but the best bits of the article are the less flighty:

A number of scholars have explored how the railway prompted or, at least, reinforced distinctly modern ways of seeing (Schivelbusch, 1977; Stilgoe, 1983; Kirby, 1997). In brief, they note that all 19th-century railroad passengers, accustomed to pre-industrial modes of transportation, seemed to agree on one matter: “travelling becomes dull in exact proportion to its rapidity” (Schivelbusch, 1977, p. 58). Put even more analytically, the velocity that atomized and automated objects — making them dart or roll past train windows — mechanized and diminished perception. […]

The visual challenge of high velocity rail travel prompted a choice, actually two possible methods of coping with the new technology. Passengers could develop modes of perception adequate to the new form of transportation, or finding prolonged window-gazing exhausting, they could direction their attention inward.

Again, however, at least to my mind, Jarrett undermines his piece by making larger claims than his evidence warrants:

Upon the ears of its passengers, trains imposed new ways of hearing analogous to panoramic perception. In place of the focused, engaged listening espoused by partisans of the symphony and institutionalized by concert halls, the railroad’s incessant refrain prompted “deconcentration” or “dispersal of attention” (Schivelbusch, 1977, p. 69). Ears conditioned by the sound of trains are neither attentive nor inattentive. […] Encased in a womb of steel, a sonorous envelope, the chronically distracted rail passenger bathes in patterned noise: adrift, blissed-out, “enraptured with the inescapable” (1941, p. 27). This is, in fact, the mood habitually summoned by electronic ambient and dance musics.

That there is a line to be drawn between immersion in a technological environment and electronic music of various kinds I have no problem with; as Jarrett notes, there is a comparison to be made between listening to music for structure or texture/timbre. That trains are, as Jarrett seems to suggest at times, at one end of this line, rather than a point on it, seems rather more tenuous. It’s hard to believe, for instance, that the mill or factory worker whose ears were conditioned by their environment were not, in a comparable way, chronically distracted, that the railroad was truly the first instantiation of “the technological sublime” shaping music.