Wednesday, 4 November 2009

I Love Techno Rundown

This year I finally made it to I Love Techno, that annual gathering of 35 thousand or so techno and electro fans. It takes place in Ghent, Belgium, somewhere I only know about because of I Love Techno. Apparently it has its charms but the city is quite incidental to the fact that there are a series of huge sheds nearby that are perfect for hosting massive raves.

My relatively short time in the UK has afforded me two previous chances to go to ILT but laziness prevailed both times. But this year could be my last opportunity so I seized it. Plus it was a chance to combine my two geeky passions of mine: techno and high-speed rail. Yes this was going to be a shotgun Eurostar affair - last train there, first train back. This didn't daunt me, I've done it before for a New Years Eve adventure to Paris, what did worry me was making the connections with the regional trains and local trams in Belgium. As anyone who regularly goes travelling would know, things, more often than not, go wrong. I was envisioning nightmare scenarios of missed trains, stolen passports and having to bed down in some piss-stained corner of Brussels. What did happen was that Fate, the prankster that it is, had everything run smoothly.

Here was the itinerary:
19:34 Eurostar to Brussels via Lille

22:30ish arrived at Brussels and milled around looking for the right platform for the train to Ghent. Saw some fellow travellers in clubbing clothes with no baggage and followed them. Hung around platform 15 as an educated guess. A bunch of very drunk and rowdy Spaniards come running onto the platform shouting "Ghent?!?Ghent?!" and harassed the nice train man with their drunken questions. Turns out Platform 15 is the one! Muchas Gracias mis drunken amigos!

23:20 get on the train to Gint-St-Pieters. Said Spaniards dominate the train carriage with their drunken and progressively drugged out rowdiness. I occupy my time by watching a group of English guys trying to maintain their ketamine affected balance on the rocking train.

24:00 Arrive in Ghent and follow the intoxicated crowd to the tram station. Luckily there's a tram waiting and I figure it must be the right one as people are drinking and smoking joints (!) inside. It's definitely the party tram.

00:15ish, arrive at Flanders Expo Centre. I was fearing massive queues to get in but there were none, seems like everyone is inside already.

00:20 Encounter the most efficient mass coat-check system I've ever encountered (those organised Belgians!)

00:25 Inside I Love Techno proper.

The trek for techno!

I was happy and quite surprised I made it with little hassle. I've been stung by European train journeys before so this was a miracle of mundane efficiency.

The event itself consists of 5 rooms and a chill out room all arranged around a massive central area with toilets, stalls, bars etc. Despite it's name I Love Techno has more electro acts than techno acts but the event is so huge that you can surround yourself with techno and avoid the annoying electro kids. Accordingly, I made my way to the Green Room which had the most techno line-up of the night.

The first act I caught was Luke Slater and some other guy playing live. I don't remember much but it was nice middle of the road techno with a minimal bent. Next up was Adam Beyer who continued the same vibe but going a teensy bit harder and rougher but still quite safe. I thoroughly enjoyed it though as the beats were suited to a massive warehouse environment. At some point when I went to buy more drink stamps I saw that Dave Clarke was playing in the Red Room. I totally forgot about Dave so I made a beeline to catch whatever I could. Luckily the night was also the night the clocks go back and when 3am came around it magically became 2am again and I got a free hour of Dave Clarke. He was by far the highlight for me. DC played his usual banging hiphop influenced techno in his rough chop and change style. This hour was what imagined I Love Techno was all about: thousands of people going crazy to bash-your-face techno.

After Dave Clarke was done Carl Craig stepped up to play some Detroit stuff. I love Detroit techno but the change of pace from Dave Clarke made it sound so pedestrian, I was in the mood for some banging-ness. So I returned to the Green Room to wait for Chris Liebing to come on. After Deadmau5 finished their set the MC asked the crowd if they wanted it louder, harder, faster? With wide-eyed expectation I thought "Yes yes yes! Let's go! I'm ready!" Then Chris Liebing came on and played some surprisingly plodding tracks. I don't think anything went above 130bpm. In fact it was basically minimal, just a tiny bit faster. I was slightly disappointed. For a 4am set, I was expecting a bit more. Maybe it'll get harder after 5am? I dunno, I couldn't stick around to find out, I had to get back to Brussels in time for my train back to London.

After being impressed by the coat-check system again I joined the massive queue to for the tram back to the train station. Trams were coming one after the other so the queue moved quickly. Security were on hand to control the queue and keep the trams rammed at a civil level. Unfortunately no such service was provided at the station for trains back to Brussels. What a scrum! I couldn't help but laugh at the cynical desperation ravers can display after a night out. I didn't get a seat but managed to score the steps near the door allowing me to sit on the floor with some comfort.

Back at Brussels the fatigue was wearing in and I simply slouched the time away in the departure lounge. It was nice to see that there a few other sketchy characters with the same idea. When it was time to go I simply passed out in my train seat. Sitting there with no luggage and reeking of cigarettes and vodka I must have a been a sight for the Francophone Belgian who sat next to me.

9am - Back at St Pancras and it was time for breakfast before heading back home and ending the most protracted post-rave journey home.

Overall, it was a great night. I Love Techno itself was great, but not amazing. I'm not sure 7 hours of travelling is worth it for 5 hours of raving, but for me, the journey there and back was half the fun. I wanted to see if it was doable and it really is. If I'm still in UK this time next year and I have nothing better to do, I'll happily do it all over again.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Planning Permission Refusal Haiku

The Development Control system, like all bureaucratic systems, operates in an often dry and impenetrable language which serves only to highlight the self-importance of the system itself. When one receives a letter stating that planning permission is refused and the reasons are given using such overwrought and obtuse phrases like "adversely affecting adjoining residential amenity", "obtrusive visual bulk and oppressiveness" and "harmful discordance in the public realm", one is led to hopeless despair.

To prevent this, I propose that reasons for refusal be given in haiku format to inspire zen-like consideration of one's town planning transgressions, thus leading to better quality planning applications and avoiding needless self-harm.

Here's some I prepared earlier.

Modern design in

Conservation Area

Is not in keeping

Such rear projection,

Due to loss of light, will harm

Their amenity

Parking provision-

Amount is contrary to

Council policy

The scheme’s density:

It’s outside the range set out

In the London Plan

The proposed flats have

Inadequate floorspace.

Not acceptable.

Application form

Was completed in a way

That is incorrect

No space for a car

Travel options are few.

Need cycle parking

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Pop Life: Art in a Material World

I'm not much of a fan of pop art and neither, it seems, is the curator for Pop Life: Art in a Material World at the Tate Modern. With room titles like "Worst of Worhol" and "Almost Infamous" for the YBAs, there isn't much sympathy for those artists who have come to dominate popular consciousness. Not that they would care anyway. Warhol, Koons, Hirst et al weren't out to make art that would impress those operating in the narrow world of galleries and critics, they were out to make art which infiltrates the marketplace and the media hype machine which supports it, the 'real' world as they saw it.

Undoubtedly, they were successful, many artists in the exhibition have become household names that would be recognised by anyone down at Argos. Plus the exorbitant price tags that their work generally commands is a clear sign of commercial success. But why Warhol and Hirst and not other artists? Why has the 'real' world gobbled up their work so voraciously and not others? Maybe Pop Life could answer that.

Looking at the work on display it seems that successful pop art has to be either iconographic, (working with easily recognisable images) or shocking (death! sex!), or ideally both.

In this pomo world where everything is flattened to the level of image, it is art that is simple and distinctive in appearance, easily recognisable and reproducible (quite like a brand logo) that is most able to wind its way through the various media. Simple iconic images can be easily transmitted through print without any real loss to its "artistic value". Warhol's famous self portrait can be photocopied a hundred times without it losing the main thrust of its impact but would an abstract expressionist painting survive such treatment? Iconic imagery is thus most suited and resilient to dissemination through the media.

But how does one get noticed in the first place? Paint household items! Kill an animal! Show your penis! Shock tactics are required to attract the media attention so loved by our pop artists. The pointing of cameras and the baiting of readerships with stories of wacky art opens up media channels for the pop artist, who then responds by shovelling images down those channels to feed the media machine the easily digested images it craves.

Controversial and easily recognised art (e.g. Hirst's dead animals in formaldehyde) causes media buzz which then breeds awareness and fame/infamy. The artists, their work and the media icons derived from their work thus become artefacts of fame. As fame is extremely desirable for many people today, ownership or association with these artefacts is highly prized. The artefacts become glamorous (glamour being the perceived happiness of being envied). Wealthy people playing status games then purchase pop art works or commission artists to do vain projects. With money now involved, the price of the work goes up, pushing up its perceived desirability in the process. This self-propelled cycle causes a pop artist's work to reach ridiculous heights (witness Hirst's September 2008 auction). Although the recession means that these same heights might not be reached for a while, the pop art bubble will just inflate and deflate in relation with how much money is lying around.

Warhol and those in his wake have turned art into business and business into art. By engaging and infiltrating the market (and associated media machine), they have managed to use it as a medium to create work which embodies fame and fortune, with secondary importance placed on what the art object itself actually looks like. Those most adept at doing this have become brands in themselves, their names carrying exorbitant market value.

Are these successful artists self-aware? Do they comprehend the ridiculousness of this whole conceit? Perhaps, but if they were aware why would they complain? To them it may just be a big joke that brings in a load of money every time it's told.

Is that wrong? Should art be used for something else? Should art be used at all? What should art be doing? Should it do anything? Should art be moral? Is worthwhile art art which contributes to some moral or ethical project? Is reducing human suffering the highest purpose of art or even a legitimate purpose of art? Is pop art harmful? Can I ask any more questions?

I'm moving into the realms of art and morality which, as you can see causes me to use lots of question marks. Maybe I should get this book to see if it can answer any of those questions.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

High speed rail for the USA - Part 2

Following on from my previous post about the proposal to create a high-speed rail network in the US, I inevitably wondered whether it’s too little too late to really to make an impact on the American transport network. But what would it take to really change something, to alter the course of transport development? Ridiculous amounts of rail investment and a regime of petro-fascist car burning? Wouldn’t that be fun?

But looking back, where could the course of history be changed to bring about a more efficient and urban America in the present day? Here I indulge in some bad alt-history transport fiction…

…whoosh. Her dreadlocks swayed gently as the air around her shifted in response to her sudden materialisation in the halls of Congress. Time-travel was a mostly quiet affair but the sound of air displacing was impossible to avoid. The sound always put her on edge. What if someone heard? What if I materialise in a wall? These fears entered her mind when that gentle sound, much like the sound heard when flapping a bed sheet, signalled the end of a jump. Her fears dissipated as she realised the building was empty and dark. No one was around. She was safe.

It was the early hours of June 29 1956. The time traveller had arrived on date and on location. Wasting no time she expertly made her way through the warren of offices and backrooms until she came upon an impressive pile of papers. It was the Federal Aid Highway Act 1956, bound and ready to be signed by President Eisenhower and made law. Here sat the legislation that would bring into being the largest public works project in the world and define the fundamental character of regional transport in the US. Pausing only momentarily for reflection, the time traveler quickly switched the papers for another set: similar in size, similar in appearance, your average government clerk would not tell the difference. But this set of papers would forever alter the course of America’s urban history for across the top, where one would find the words Federal Aid Highway Act 1956, four crucial letters were substituted for four others. Standing there, beholding the papers, the time traveller's eyes repeatedly scanned these four letters as her mind tried to comprehend the implications that her actions would have for many years to come.

A noise in the corridor broke her concentration. Who could it be? There is supposed to be no one here at this hour. There was no time to worry. She flicked a switch attached to her wrist and moved to a clear space in the centre of the room. A very faint, very high pitched whine emanated from her wrist. She was about to jump. It was her cue to close her eyes and count backwards from three. Somewhere a door creaked open. Was she seen? It doesn’t matter…3…2…1…whoosh. She was gone, leaving no trace of her existence save for a pile of papers titled “The Federal Aid Railway Act 1956”.

How would this badly written piece of transport nerd fan fiction continue? What would have happened if the 25 billion dollars earmarked for an interstate system was spent on trains and tracks instead?

It could be argued that the interstate highway system is a key factor in encouraging America’s default settlement model of suburban sprawl. Yes encouragement came from elsewhere too, particularly biased mortgage lenders, tax incentives from local government and ingrained aspirations for “The American Dream”, but the interstate highway provided the infrastructure for single-family houses to spread quickly and easily across the countryside. It provided a lattice for mass produced suburbs to hang on. Without it, new suburbs would have had to locate closer to existing transport networks instead of latching onto newly available channels between larger cities.

So what would have happened if they built a fast efficient rail network in place of a highway system? As I said in my previous post, a rail network differs to a highway network in that its points of entry are fewer and different in nature. You have to go to a station to use it. There is also a mode change to rail meaning that you must abandon whatever mode of transport you previously used. These two factors encourage people to settle closer to stations. It saves time and reduces the need to undertake a cumbersome mode switch (car to rail or bus to rail instead of just walking). And in situations where rail outclasses the car in terms of access to employment centres (as it does in older more urban cities and as it would in our hypothetical rail-America), the attractiveness of driving a car to work falls dramatically. So what we get is a shift away from car transport as the default means of commuting. This is the case in archetypical urban centres like New York City and London, large cities which did most of their growing before the automobile age. By nipping the interstate highway in the bud and focusing on rail, it may have been possible to continue this model of urban transport.

Urban growth would follow a pattern of concentrated settlement centred on train stations and these would spread outwards from existing centres. There would be no need to push for Transit Oriented Development as it would be a common-sense notion from the start (like it is in much of continental Europe). Also urban decay which has beset the downtown of many rust belt cities would be avoided as the attractiveness of the urban centre would remain.

Our rail-America would be compact, efficient and less oil dependent. Would there be cultural implications as well? Would railways figure highly on the American consciousness? In our alternate universe General Motors is General Rail and Detroit becomes known as the Locomotive City (LocoMotown?); songs are written romanticising the open railways, Route 66 is Line 66; mediocre comedians ask “what’s the deal with train food?” to bemused audiences. I’m firmly in the realms of facetious speculation here, but it is interesting to wonder just how far reaching the implications would be if America’s transport history was substantially altered.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Shoulda put a ring on it

Kanye West's spectacle at the VMAs proved what most people already knew: he's a bit of an arse. Aside from that, his whinge about Beyonce's video for Single Ladies being more deserving of the award reminded me of how great that video actually is.

It's pure simplicity, a pared down demonstration of the defining features of music videos today. On screen it's just Beyonce and two fantastic back up dancers. Three dancers is the minimum you can have for a group dance performance. With only one back up the focus shifts away from the lead and there is an implied dynamic of partnership (and subtle lesbian undertones) and/or competition where we are led to question the lead's dominance. With three you get that nice symmetry and resultant focus on the lead. Of course one could ask why not just have Beyonce dancing on her own? Well a fundamental truth is that dancing ALWAYS looks better when synchronised among a number of people. Flamboyant moves which would look absurd when performed by a lone dancer gain a sort of legitimacy when mirrored by others, hence the ubiquitous 'dancing triangle'.

This dancing trio provides all the content for the video. It's a credit to the choreographers that it doesn't seem to drag on or become repetitive. Of course this is helped by a few simple lighting effects and some tricky camera work. Apart from maintaining visual interest, these camera tricks also serve to remind us that what we are watching is not real, it is music video. Without these effects the clip would be reduced to documentary. Music video shouldn't condescend to representing the 'real'. It should unite audio and vision in a synergistic way to excite us. The sweeping acrobatic camera angles make us aware of the camera's presence and remind us that what we are seeing is a produced image, mediated through a camera and a production team. Similarly, the simple but drastic change in lighting conditions (quick fades of the background to white and back again), washes out the studio walls and the line of perspective running across the back which indicates where the wall meets the floor. All reference points melt away and the dancers are de-localised. They are not grounded in a physical location. This further emphasises the 'produced' nature of the video and detaches the on screen action from anything 'real' or concrete.

What we are seeing are the distilled essences of the contemporary pop video. There is no simpler way of uniting audio and vision while representing the artist other than through dance. Dance is the most basic human way of portraying music visually. The other essence is the music video's detachment from a 'real'. A music video should be free of the burden of realist representation. The visual's should serve the audio without compromise, even if this means the video's content can't be located or placed in our understanding of the 'real world'. Single Ladies achieves this in a very elegant way, avoiding excess without seeming restrained.

It really is a great video and I'm happy it won many of the other awards up for grabs at the VMAs.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

High speed rail for the USA

A month or so ago Mr Obama has pledged US$13bn for high-speed rail in America and Ray LaHood, Obama’s transport secretary has been zipping around Europe on a fact finding and tendering mission trying to get some speedy trains stateside. For me, this is major shift in federal transport policy is one of more immediately interesting impacts of Obama’s presence in the White House.

This image from Infranet Lab shows that the proposed routes for high-speed rail will be between the major centres of America’s conurbations. Good stuff. However rail is expensive and politically dicey on the ground as new tracks and noisy trains are likely to bring out staunch NIMBYism. It could be said America is already culturally biased for the car and against trains and other collective modes of transport so ploughing new rail lines through commuter suburbs is not likely to make you many friends at the mall. A rather ridiculous and hilarious article in the LA Times (via BLDGBLOG) betrays the distrust toward rail transport that might be held by many Americans (In some European cities Muslims live near train stations so therefore rail transport = TERRORISM). So whether this scheme gets off the ground (on track?) despite the mountain of cash behind is the question. Notwithstanding my stereotyped view of American transport attitudes, implementing some sort of national rail project when the last train tracks in the America were probably laid by slaves and indentured Chinese workers is an important step towards a more sustainable transport system.

What would the implications of high-speed be for the urban form? It is likely that high-speed rail will initially be implemented along already densely developed rail-served corridors as a means of improving existing services. That great smudge of concrete in the north-east running from Boston to Washington DC (“Bo-Wash” among cool urbanists) comes to mind. The implications here won’t be that amazing. Fast efficient travel between existing urban nodes will just shift some mode-share to rail (which is good!) but these cities are already relatively rail oriented and there will just be a slight intensification use around the new stations, if any.

What would be more interesting is the sudden appearance of high-speed rail in the sun-belt regions like California and the South where cities grew up on a diet of cars and cul-de-sacs for most of their lives. If the Americans follow the successful Spanish model of brand new dedicated lines (rather than upgrading existing lines like the French) then perhaps we’ll see sleek high-speed trains cutting through the endless sprawl with surgical precision. How will the urban morphology respond to this sudden addition of a fast point-to-point transport mode in an environment of diffuse and de-centred car travel?

A new high-speed system is likely to connect existing urban cores with other important cores while serving a few regional centres along the way. New stations will instigate new higher density development, both residential and commercial, to take advantage of expanded employment and consumer markets. There will be a lot of park-and-ride facilities but the sudden concentration of people will no doubt bring more properly urban development. Existing centres will be made more resilient and perform better as places of exchange. There may even be a bunch of mini-Lilles springing up. Lille, that peculiar place you stop on your way to Paris on the Eurostar, has become a sort of virtual centre for the high number of very important people living in London, Paris and Brussels who are less than a hour’s train ride away. As a result, Lille has gained a lot more importance and success as a city than its modest size suggests.

Obviously, the impact will be on a much smaller scale and there is still the tide of continuing suburban sprawl to contend with but the insertion of a transport system which by nature shores up urban centres rather than bleed them dry is a good start in steering America’s urban development to more resilient ends.

So will we see soulless business hotels and conference centres springing up along zippy train lines across the US? Let’s hope so. It will be more sustainable and drunken conventioneers wouldn’t have to worry about being caught for DUI on the way home.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Beat addiction

Standing outside the Royal Mail collection office I ripped open the cardboard packaging to my Sennheiser ear-phones with the frenzied hands of a 7 year old on Christmas morning. Never before have I been so desperate to jam those little noise-isolating plugs into my ears.

It’s been 2 weeks since I lost my earphones in Vauxhall Park (don’t ask me how). Since I refuse to use those cup-on-a-string white buds that come free with the ipod, I’ve been living music free for the last 14 days now. I do still have my chunky home-listening headphones but due to general busy-ness outside of work hours I haven’t had much time with those either. Point is, I’ve clearly realised how addicted to music I am.

Over the last week I’ve been doing things that must be symptoms of withdrawal. Deprived from my daily gorging on electronic beats, I’ve been latching onto anything remotely rhythmic in my local environment. I hallucinate drum patterns among the traffic noise and hear synth lines hidden in car alarms. This is par for the course for a frazzled brain after a big night out but 7pm on a Tuesday evening? My ears are reaching. Other times I would beatbox to myself without realising it (often in public) only to suddenly stop out of embarrassment. To entertain myself I sometimes replay hip-hop and grime lyrics in my head but after being away from the source material for so long I lose grasp of what the tracks originally sounded like. As a result, tempos change, intonation gets twisted and verses run together. Eventually all the lyrics in my head would converge into a cross-genre uber-medley where Wu-Tang’s Gravel Pit mixes seamlessly into Dizzee’s Stand up Tall.

More worryingly, after a stressful work phone call, a big meal or a session of bedroom activity I have an instant craving to listen to grime instrumentals!

Rhythm is my nicotine.

Thankfully I’m plugged in again but the enjoyable aspect of withdrawal was being able to enjoy, out of sheer desperation for a beat, the lowest common denominator crap I usually hear in clothing stores, gay clubs and on teenage girls’ phones. It was nice to take a break from being the sneering anorak I usually am. Perhaps I should have more of these little music fasts in the future.

The meaning of Streetview

Jon Rafman, a Montreal based artist, guest posting on Art Fag City has written a wonderful essay about Google's Streetview. Apart from some fascinating insight on what Streetview means to us as an aesthetic and cultural experience there are some arresting images taken from its vast catalogue.

Well worth a look.

Friday, 31 July 2009

what what what what what what what

I caught Whistla on SubFM for the first time the other week and once again I’ve found something which I’ve completely slept on. Whistla, I gather, is the main exponent of the “future garage” movement which is some sort of 2-step revival thing. His tracks and those by other artists among of movement have reignited my love of 2-step and the joys of “vocal science”.

According to Mr Reynolds in his 1999 article Adult Hardcore, “vocal science” was coined by Bat of ukdance to refer to the vivisection of a diva’s vocals into little chunks which then would be played like a drum kit. The resulting disembodied wails and stuttering screams would not “resemble a human being so much as an out-of-control desiring-machine”. Through the use of studio techniques such as acceleration, pitchshifting, timestretching, looping, filtering etc, the human voice is made to sound inhuman. This tension, according to Reynolds, suspends some of the binary divisions persistent in rave music, in particular, human versus machine, soul versus posthuman, organic versus synthetic (I recommend reading his article if you haven’t already, it’s great!)

For me, the appeal of Whistla’s tracks is that they eschew complex bass mechanics and overwrought drum trickery in order to foreground the delicious vocal gymnastics. Of course he is not the first, Whistla continue the old tradition established by Todd Edwards et al. but I suddenly find myself excited about it all over again. My favourites include Whistla’s remix of Duncan Powell’s Care 4 Me, Take Me On, and in particular London Love Story where more vocal samples are added as the track progresses ending in a wonderful cacophony of disembodied voices.

I’ve also been listening to a lot of Juke lately which incidentally also makes liberal use of vocal samples, albeit in quite a different way. In many tracks short spoken phrases or shouts are looped endlessly over the requisite instrumentation of heavy bass and crazy 808 toms. With little fx processing these vocal samples are usually easy to understand but tireless repetition starts to affect the perception of the sound. Similar to how a word loses meaning if you say it to yourself a hundred times, the looped phrase starts to decompose into its sounds and syllables as the verbal meaning behind the words melts away. Through repetition we become more aware of the hidden texture and subtle timbres of the particular sample. The effect is heightened when multiple vocal loops are layered and we hear a rhythmic jumble of syllables freed from verbal meaning. An example of this can be heard in DJ Slugo’s I’m Higher Than a M.F. where the main vocal is split in half and both halves are layered over each other to create a sort of incomprehensible stoned mantra.

Another common technique is to rapidly play a specific syllable of a repeated phrase to highlight a particular sound. For example, the phrase “what that move you do” may have the “what that” or simply “what” played in a machine gun manner to emphasise the specific textures of those words and deemphasise the literal meaning behind the phrase as a whole.

Although their approaches are different, both 2-step and Juke use vocal editing to emphasise the sound of the human voice over the meaning of what that voice is saying. And by doing this using hardware or software, they create that tension between human and machine, organic and synthetic. However, one thing which does unite 2-step’s and Juke’s differing vocal sciences is the avoidance of heavy fx processing. The voices may chopped and looped but they are rarely vocoded, auto-tuned or “coloured” in some way. Juke and 2-step producers mine vocal samples for their inherent human timbres and textures, leaving them mostly intact but editing and rearranging them into something non- or beyond human (although pitch-shifting and timestretching are used heavily, I believe those techniques leave the recognisably human qualities of voice intact) .

A vocoded voice is still human, just strange, but a barrage of vocal snippets or crushing repetition is the sound of something non-human appropriating the human voice for its own devious ends.

- juke it juke it juke it juke it juke it juke it juke it juke it juke it juke it juke it -

You can hear Whistla’s tracks on his MySpace and he’s on SubFM every Tues 8-10pm.

For some Juke I’d recommend going to this dissensus thread for some mixes and links to artists etc.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009


Looking at these examples of relatively recent architecture, one could say that they look affected, distorted, broken, wonky. It doesn’t take much imagination to associate these building with that trend in electronic music known as wonky. In fact, it is possible to spot a number of parallels (well, wonky lines) between trends in contemporary architecture and “wonky”.

Most obviously, the buildings literally look wonky. They bend, they twist, they appear to collapse or leap, their masses shift and cantilever – put simply their forms appear “out of place, out of key and misshapen” to borrow from Alex SBA.

Second, recent architecture has been awash in bright colour due to increasing whimsy on the architects’ behalf as well as advances in synthetic cladding. This calls to mind the common synesthetic tendency to associate the multi-textured and pitch-bent synths of wonky with bright day-glo colour.

Brisbane Square - bright colours for an optimistic city.

Third, quite like the way a wonky track with its unquantised percussion interrupts the steady rhythmic flow of non-wonky tracks in a mix, there are buildings which create an intentional disharmony with the surrounding urban form.

The Nationale-Nederlanden building in Prague (below), colloquially known as “Dancing House", takes the classical European urban form and distorts it by placing the windows in an unexpected pattern off the established grid set by the adjacent buildings ("unquantised windows", if you will), thereby disrupting the conventional rhythm of articulation on the façade. Moving further along and around the corner, the building squeezes itself into an organic hour-glass shape, the glazed façade allowing us to the see the supporting beams and columns twisted and distorted in defiance of the engineer’s grid, before it returns to a less affected pattern to "mix-out" into the neighbouring classical building.

A final parallel could be seen between the overall extravagance and visual sensation of these buildings and the dramatic arpeggios of a producer like Zomby. The rapid climb of notes in Kaliko (painstakingly transcribed by RF here) is akin to the dramatic oblique ascent of windows on Gehry’s Stata Centre, the twisting beams of Calatrava’s Turning Torso or the interior of Libeskind's Denver Art Museum.

This analogy between wonky music and wonky architecture is an easy one to draw and similar ideas have been expressed about the similarities between wonky and the avant-garde processes in art of the early 20th Century (Rouge's Foam once again).

However, it can be said that there is more than just an aesthetic dimension which relates wonky with architecture - both practices have a duty to perform. For the former, it is to sustain a rhythm (for dancing or listening pleasure), for the latter, it is to provide useable indoor space. For all its wonkiness, wonky is still dance music and must sustain an identifiable rhythm. How obvious the rhythm is or isn’t is part of the appeal of this music but nevertheless, it has to be there, in some form, with at least the kick drum returning to the first beat of every bar or two. Here I would refer to Kode 9 and Kodwo Eshun’s concept of “metric drift” which describes the way elements of a track “drift” away from the metronome but return to the first beat of the bar to maintain the rhythmic pulse.

Just as wonky must maintain a constant rhythm despite itself, wonky buildings must contain useable floors. As weird as wonderful as the building may be, the floors must still be horizontal and there must be enough of them to provide the useable real estate to justify its existence. Although it is common for the floor-to-ceiling height of each floor to vary, standardisation means that there is an identifiable “rhythm of floors” within a building , particularly apparent in commercial skyscrapers.

Wonky on the outside, the section view of Max Reinhardt Haus reveals the contrast and interplay between the rigidity of the building’s commercial duty to provide floorspace and the architect’s desire to transcend it.

Just like the music, wonky architecture is predicated on the requirement to perform a function characterised by repetition. And it is this precarious balance between performing this function and failing beautifully which is essential to the idea of “wonkification”.

The Role of Digital Design

In his book Skyscraper, Eric Howeler writes “the complexity of some recent skyscrapers reflects the increased use of the computer as a design tool. Many of the projects in this chapter would never have been built without computer-aided design and 3D-modelling software”. Although he’s talking about buildings, he might as well be talking about electronic music. Matthew Woebot Ingram points to the rise of softsynths, synthesisers that run completely on a pc or mac and which allow for total micro-control, as a key factor in wonky. By “simplifying the technicalities”, producers are afforded ample room for experimentation, just as architects are freed from the constraints of worrying if their buildings will stand up when powerful software can do that for them.


Although this analogy of architecture as wonky may be stretching it in some respects, it is easy to see some similarity in the processes and products of each practice. And with this post I hope to prove that it is indeed meaningful to dance about architecture (ha! groan) .

Saturday, 27 June 2009


Up until now Untold has escaped my attention. Over the past few years I’ve been on the sidelines of the dubstep scene, looking in occasionally to see if it’s become interesting again and for this reason I became ignorant of the latest movers and floor shakers. But in the current demilitarised zone of dubstep/grime/funky border dispute that we’re living in at the moment I’ve been exposed to hitherto unknown names.

It all started with Anaconda.

Anaconda, with its bombastic bass stab, brash yet cheeky synths and room filling handclaps, has the sparseness and full-tempo intensity of golden-era instrumental grime. Hearing Anaconda in the mix is reminiscent of when Pulse X first applied its disintegration ray on the unsuspecting skippidy-dippity 2-step which preceded it.

So when Untold did a mix recently for FACT magazine I jumped on it eager to hear if Anaconda had some nastier siblings. I wasn’t disappointed. Well, there weren’t exactly nastier siblings, but some great tracks with a clear family resemblance.

Tracks like "Never went away", "You didn't win the holiday" and "Stop what you're doing"*, with their uni-directional bass pulses, cold stand-alone synths and sparse percussion programmed in a way to give that feel of regimented syncopation, bring back those feelings of engaged alienation I had back in 2002 and 2003. But this isn’t nostalgic paleo-grime (it's aware of dubstep's legacy), it's fresh material which applies grime’s aesthetic to today’s musical landscape.

*Track names were guessed from the tracklist so there could be some error

Thursday, 18 June 2009

There was always the weekend

After a period of sweet nothingness, this week has meant going back to the daily grind and already I pine for the weekend. Luckily Friday night brings ample opportunity to engage in some buffoon empiricism. Night Slugs, probably the most exciting night for me at the moment, is doing an all nighter. Werk it.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Star Crossed Critics

Having finally read Rouge's Foam (RF) account of the Hardcore Continuum debate I was very happy to see star constellations used as an analogy to distinguish its subjective and 'objective' components. I believe this is the most accurate (or least problematic way) of understanding how Simon Reynolds and writers in his wake have engaged with the 'objective' elements of the scene as it highlights how contingent it is on point of view. I know that sounds obvious but the constellation analogy is the most satisfying so far and it has provided some Oprah style closure to the debate for me.

The other reason I was happy to see the constellation analogy is that I've toyed with a similar idea in the past as a way of conceptualising dance music genres. In no way am I staking any claim for the idea as only after reading RF's post did I bother to think about it in any meaningful way. I'm posting it here just for shits and giggles really.

RF described the HCC as a constellation with the "data or evidence involved in the nuum notion (club nights, records, people etc) to be the stars that comprise it". In my model I was only concered with the records/tracks themselves. Imagine that you were to assess dance tracks along a number of linear dimensions. These could be technical or emotive, e.g. bpm, degree of 'darkness', rhythmic complexity, foreground of bass etc. So the more of X a track had, the further along that axis that track was placed. The same would be done for a Y axis and so on for how many dimensions you wanted to have.

If the number of axes were limited to 3 it would be possible to visualise tracks as points within a 3-Dimensional space. I know this is absurdly reductive but the point is that what you would end up with are cluster of points where tracks exhibited similar degrees of certain qualities. These fuzzy clouds would be mathematical representations of 'genres'. There would be no clear boundaries, only evidence of general tendencies.

If more than 3 dimensions were used the space would be purely theoretical but the idea is the same.

Now, I didn't really think beyond this point until RF mentioned constellations in his HCC post. How would this peculiar and clunky model account for the HCC? Well, if you were to have 'time of track release' as one of the axes and you found that a number of clusters inhabited a similar space differing only in their position on this time axis then that would be the 'nuum.

Ok, so what? Well, the application of this model is dependent on what and how many axes were used. For example if your particular tastes in music were concerned with rhythmic complexity, bpm and 'sense of intensity' then you would end up with a particular scatter cloud formation. However if you were to add an axis gauging the use of the mentasm sound existing clouds may elongate or come apart in response. Tracks that once stuck together may now be far apart now that you have prioritised the mentasm sound in your model. The result would be a visual multidimensional representation of how prevalent the mentasm stab is in electronic dance music.

The other important thing to realise is that by simply shifting the observer's vantage point within the space different clusters or continua can be seen. To borrow from RF once again, if we were somewhere else in the galaxy, the constellations we would see would be entirely different. So when we see relationships between tracks it's all just a matter of theoretical tromp l'oeil.

The HCC is an example of this. While I'm not saying the HCC isn't/wasn't a 'real' phenomenon, it is highly contingent on what musical values and point of view one has. The HCC has gained considerable currency since the sonic signifiers valued by those concerned with the HCC are taken as self-evident. But shift the track-space, add/subtract/subsitute its axes or shift your point of view and I'm sure any number of continua can be spotted.

The glaring hole in this model is the complete lack of consideration for social aspects of music scenes such as the demographics of its audience/artists or the continuation of personnel throughout various genres which RF includes in his/her more appropriate use of the constellation analogy. Increasingly, I believe these social aspects are what really drive the formation of scenes, genres and the names given to both so consider my "theoretical multidimensional track-space model" an exercise in caffeine induced whimsy.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

A consolidation of pieces on the Hardcore Continuum

From around the end of 2007 through 2008 the idea of a "Hardcore Continuum" (HCC) cropped up in a number of articles charting the rise of emergent genres/trends of funky, wonky and bassline. This idea of a HCC was brought in to help locate these new musical phenomena within the overall London/British tradition of dance music. The idea of a HCC was originally put forward by Simon Reynolds back in 1999 but over the last year or so it has become, to quote Mugatu of Zoolander, "so hot right now".

For those who want to catch up on the debate and see where all this business started I've provided links to most pertinent articles in rough chronological order.

15 December 2007 - K-Punk talks about bassline in reference to his now unavailable piece for FACT magazine

18 December 2007 - Simon Reynolds spots 'nuum talk about the web

10 January 2008 - Bok Bok responds to K-Punk

11 January 2008 - Both Word the Cat and John Eden argue against

15 January 2008 - further detractors sally forth: Jace Clayton presents the Ice Cream Cone Continuum

18 January 2008 - Homoludo provides a survey of the HCC bitchfight which then lies dormant as not much happens for a year...

28 January 2009 - Simon Reynolds writes the first of seven articles in the Wire specifically about the HCC.

09 February 2009 - K-Punk defends the HCC

11 February 2009 - The debate makes a dramatic leap from the blogosphere into the Real World when Simon Reynolds gives a lecture in Liverpool with input from K-Punk. The video can be seen here and a text version read here

13 February 2009 - Things get heated on Black Friday as Dan Hancox takes a swipe at the 'nuum gatekeepers, Alex Splintering Bone Ashes weighs in with K-Punk managing to respond before bedtime.

18-20 February 2009 - Alex SBA gets deeper with a 3 part treatise on Wonky within the HCC framework

18 February 2009 - K-Punk responds to Alex SBA

20 February 2009 - Simon Reynolds goes wonky

20 February 2009 - Alex SBA continues to provide quality insight

21 February 2009 - Uncarved gives coverage of the 'nuum warz so far as Laurent Fintoni joins the melee

05 March 2009 - Simon Reynolds ruffles some feathers by marrying wonky with ketamine.

17 March 2009 - Alex SBA points out Mr Reynolds' narcomaterialist fallacies.

27 April 2009 - Simon Reynolds launches a pre-emptive strike before the HCC debates makes another appearance in the Real World.

28 April 2009 - K-Punk wonders if music writing is obsolete the day before...

29 April 2009 - HCC discussion at the University of East London with all the big hitters of the HCC debate emerging from behind their screens to talk with their mouths about that which is So Hot Right Now.

That afternoon Martin Clark reflects on the day and posts his contribution.

30 April 2009 - Alex SBA provides a transcript of his contribution on the day. IMHO the most insightful of the lot.

05 May 2009 - Simon Reynolds' initial reflections on the UEL conference. Dan Hancox thinks about it too.

07 May 2009 - Laurent Fintoni gives a great run-down of the conference.

08 May 2009 - New entrant Rouge's Foam comes in with a decent survey of the debate and he/she is all about balance

12 May 2009 - Melissa Bradshaw thinks this whole thing is waste

21 May 2009 - Dan Hancox, sniping at K-Punk, provides a buffoon empiricist manifesto

10-22 May 2009 - Post-UEL Simon Reynolds expands his fortress with 4 (soon to be 5) articles further articulating his position. #1, #2, #3, #4

01 June 2009 - Rouge's Foam writes not one but two highly detailed pieces. I haven't read them yet but they look super. This blog is one to watch.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

As the crow flies

I've been to the Barbican a number of times but on every occasion I'm always impressed by the grandeur of this arch-modernist concrete clash of apartments and capital 'C' culture. With birds singing and fountains flowing in the geometric ponds it does feel like a utopian paradise (if you can afford it mind you).

With utopia on my mind I was appropriately primed for an exhibition on probably the most high profile utopian architect of them all, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret! Or Le Corbusier to most people (which translates to 'The Crow-like One', hmmm....). The exhibition was biographical, covering his early influences and his key works throughout his life. All the big ones were there like Plan Voisin, Unite d'Habitation, The Radiant City etc etc

Plan Voisin aka 'How to Butcher Paris in One Easy Step'

Unite d'Habitation in Marseille - this one actually worked, people LIKE living there

The Radiant City - a model of social alienation and destructive car dependency

Le Corbusier would be familiar to anyone who has come within a scale ruler's length of an architecture or urban planning class but it was nice to have them all in the one spot. In this way it's much easier to appreciate his life-long mission to create a perfect form, be it a building, city, chair, whatever.

Besides his greatest hits, I found his rough sketches and contemplative doodles very interesting. I'm so used to seeing the finished product that it was nice to see evidence of the creative process. It somewhat humanises Le Corbusier's god-like auteur image. As a god-like auteur Corb has been analysed to bits so I won't go into that here, but this IS a blog and I have an opinion so here goes: While his ideas are noble and the execution of those ideas are flawless, his designs treat people as elements of a machine and have no regard to how humans actually behave. Culture, society, desire, 'soft' humany things, are subsumed by the juggernaut of rationality. Consequently, he designs sublime and elegant buildings which perfectly fulfill an abstract function but the assumptions behind that function are flawed and out of touch with reality. Corb is an architect's architect, not a people's architect, and that makes him a dangerous influence on our built environment.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Annette Messager at the Hayward

Through the magic of facebook I was indirectly recommended to go see the Annette Messager retrospective at the Hayward, the art component of the beautifully ugly brutalist animal that is the Southbank Centre.

Being only an armchair enthusiast and not a lecture-hall-seat devotee to art history I was unfamiliar with her work. So a quick peek at the Timeout rundown (art authority that it is) enlightened me on the fact that she is an artist concerned with gender politics who executes work with a sense of play, as in child's play. Great! I thought, I did a bit of gender studies at uni, I can tackle this! But I was also intrigued with this 'play' aspect. Could this exhibition be fun too?

Messager's work involves a wide variety of materials and media, from drawing to my favourite of contemporary art, the wacky installation. And in line with what our friends at Timeout said, there is a clear preoccupuation with gender issues. Messager uses craftsy, domestic materials like wool and plastic shopping bags to allude to gender roles but also uses stuffed toys and feminine clothing to play up 'softness'. These 'feminine' media are employed in quite morbid or violent constructions. In these works it's easy to make the connection between the experience of being a woman and the associated societal injustices and marginalisation of the women's world view. References are often made to the female body and how it is viewed as object and landscape. This is all interesting in itself and but what makes this different from feminist art I've seen is the apparent childlike whimsy and tongue-in-cheek approach.

It's too hard for me to cover most or even a significant minority of her work in great detail. That gets boring very quickly, especially when I'm writing this for 'fun'. I recommend you go down and have look for yourself. It's a great exhibition that's well curated so you're not left hanging at all.

What I will do is write about a couple of works which grabbed my attention for longer than the required 30-60 seconds of furrowed brow I usually give.

The Horrifying Adventures of Annette the Trickster

Tucked into a corner in the first room, this piece is more introverted than the giant winged Chimeras on the opposite wall. It consists of a dozen or so framed photographs of pen sketches, each sketch depicting acts of violence and torture by evil looking men against a nude bonded woman. Why is this woman being tortured? Is she being punished? Is she innocent or guilty? The scenes of torture and bondage and the word "trickster" brought about associations of the Salem witch trials where certain women, often those who lived alone or secluded lives with other women were scapegoated for their gender role deviation and blamed for the poor villagers' misfortune. Here Messager draws parallels with those atrocities and the experience of being a woman artist in 70s France.

Although the subject matter is dark, the sketches are done in pen on grid paper, a medium not uncommon inside the classroom. In fact, the informal drawing style and uncomplicated compositions of each sketch make them appear as though they were drawn at the back of some boring class on a Friday afternoon. With such a pulpy, comic book title to the work, Messager includes in that element of childhood (or adolescent) play that is present in all her work.

Story of Dresses

Here Messager places young girls' dresses in wooden boxes with glass lids. They are attached to the wall with the glass facing the viewer allowing us to see each dress. On each dress is a series of pictures of otherworldly objects or fantastical places. The combination of childhood dresses and these images conjure up memories of that special type of wonder one experiences as a child. The colourful dresses relate this wonder to childhood appearance and by extension, childhood identity. By having these dresses and pictures kept in coffin-like boxes and arranged coldly against the wall as if by an entomologist, Messager presents the death of childhood as cultural artifact, to be contemplated by the chin-stroking adults of the gallery. One can see the irony in having childhood 'critically engaged' in this way.

Fables and Tales

3 stacks of fiction books with 2 stacks of stuffed toys in between, on each stack of books is a single stuffed real animal. Here Messager equates stories with stuffed animals (tales, tails, geddit?). After contemplating how uncomfortable it would be to be stacked like that I wondered why children's stories always involve anthropomorphic animals? Would the often moralistic tales of childhood be less palatable to children's tastes if they involved everyday human people? Is it a reflection of parents' concern to teach children about rights and wrong while also sheltering them from the harsh realities which play out everyday by having these stories acted out by animals and thus maintaining some buffer from the real world? *breathes in heavily* well? maybe. The 3 stuffed (as in taxidermy stuffed) animals led me to speculate what stories with speaking animals would be like if they were real. What if a free range chicken did start shouting that the sky is falling? Presented this way would we still search for the moral of the story or just start a program of anti-psychotic drugs for this crazy chicken?


The final work in the show, A-D consists of a dozen or so soft animal toys of indeterminate species subjected to motorised pulleys, pulling and yanking their limbs in a sad spectacle of futility against hardship. Saddest, and funniest, of them all is the cow/bear looking thing, sad already with half its stuffing missing, being dragged by the neck, tracing a square on the gallery floor for eternity. According to the description on the gallery wall, this pieces was a reaction to the mad cow disease saga in the UK but really, it reveals the absurdity of life, suffering and our earnest efforts to survive.

In other news there's a new post at Empty Swimming Pool.