Tuesday, 30 December 2014

HOMELAND/ BABYLON/ GOTHAM/ MARVEL AGENTS OF SHIELD (TV ADDICTIONS)

While I'd love for someone to read this blog and imagine I was constantly attending art gallery openings or standing at the front for thrilling, cutting-edge gigs, the truth is I pretty much stay home and watch the telly. Its getting so, if I spend too long in the kitchen, the sofa starts asking sarcastically if I know what the time is. So let's set the record straight with some recent small-screen highlights, presented here in random order...

HOMELAND


A fourth series of 'Homeland', taking place after Brody's fairly unamendable departure, did initially seem a shark-jumping moment. I was very much in two minds over whether to watch it at all. As things turned out, its been widely received as the best series since the first. Almost entirely relocating events to Islamabad and Kabul, it could even feel like a whole new series, which merely happened to have Carrie and some carry-over characters from 'Homeland' show up in it.

'Homeland' has often felt a bizarre, contorted and jarring beast, its main attraction simultaneously its main drawback. They were capable of delivering humdinger plot twists, curves you couldn't see coming but once they'd arrived made total sense, which made it all the more infuriating when they started making stuff up as they went along. Thankfully this most recent series been able to supply surprises while (mostly) staying the right side of credulity.

However, it continues to exemplify a general trend so perfectly its almost deserving of praise for doing it. It's now become commonplace to describe a drama as a stupid person's idea of what smart is. Whereas 'Homeland' often feels like a moral simpleton's idea of what morally complex is. It's well known that American conservative guru Leo Strauss was a fan of the TV Western 'Gunsmoke', feeling its simplistic certainties gave audiences the illusions necessary for society to function. Whereas today we want to be flattered at the same time as we're patronised. The message of 'Homeland' more or less reduces to “life gets complicated. You must know that, watching a smart show like this. But don't worry too much because ultimately we're always right.”

A classic moment is the scene where Haqqani holds Fara hostage. Given what he wants, he stabs her anyway. There's no rhyme or reason for him to do this, other than to make him so 'black' that however 'grey' the good guys get they won't be closing in on him.

And even though the ending was clearly intended to be not just feel-bad but compromising, in that watching it you realise you can't conceive of a better outcome, all the above still applies. Adal's machiavellian last-minute deal with Haqqani fits too easily with everything else to be truly jarring. The theme of the series is that some dirty jobs just need doing, so they're essentially unquittable even as they screw up those stuck with carrying them out. The shit sticks and then stays stuck. Adal's deal just shifts this from the operational to the strategic level. The point about dealing with devils is that eventually you have to make a deal with one. 

And Adal's deal must be seen in the context of Lockhart's parallel but opposite journey, where events knock the once-adversary down to everyone else's level. (To the point where he can sit drinking whisky at a table with Carrie and Quinn.) The angels may get compromised by association with the devils. But angels they stay.


BABYLON


A police-based version of the political satire 'The Thick of It' with added dramatic moments... not something that initially strikes you as a bright idea. Yet overall it worked surprisingly well. If the dialogue spats didn't quite throw up 'Thick Of It' sparks they could be memorable enough, without detracting from the more dramatic parts.

Certainly, the series was well timed. In recent years the police have frequently been propelled into the headlines through frictions between themselves and the political class, assailed as they are with cutbacks on the one side and privatisation on the other. Issues such as Plebgate played out against this disharmonious background.

Now you might not expect a popular TV show to ask penetrating questions about the police, and their precise role in class society. And indeed it doesn't. Why are they being cut now? Because the political class calculate their enemies have now been knocked back enough that they can start to scrimp on attack dogs. This puts the police in the same defensive position as other groups of workers, the ones who they once earned their overtime by attacking. The irony of this isn't something thats gone into. The series culminates in what's effectively a police strike. In other words a police strike is essentially dreamed up for dramatic purposes, while an actual series of strikes in the Fire Service rarely hit the headlines. At the same time, however, its interesting that a popular drama simply takes it as axiomatic that police privatisation is a bad idea.

The depiction of the riot seems similarly indicative of the contemporary groupthink. Its a protest about the police shooting of a black youth, which we see happening and know to have occurred under dodgy circumstances (as the real riots were a response to the killing of Mark Duggan). But its simultaneously an opportunistic response to the effective police strike. The ragbag array of causes attached to the riot becomes an opportunity for humour (with the sardonic comment “they haven't elected a head rioter yet” to be negotiated with), a literalisation of the widely used term 'rentamob'.

Perhaps we're better of looking at what it does. While it isn't much like 'The Wire' it performs a similar structural device of presenting the institution as seen through several levels. (Effectively high command, the Armed Response Unit and the Territorial Support Group. Even if the last group seem to become regular cops whenever the plot requires.) And it keeps these levels quite rigidly separate. While individuals might cross them from time to time, this is clearly going to be something momentary. We get more of a sense of what such an institution is, through this effective triangulation of crossfire.

Yet despite this structure and the ensuing ensemble cast, as the sole outsider fledgeling Director of Communications Liz Garvey (played by Brit Marling) becomes the protagonist by default. Which would make her the equivalent of Thick of It's' Malcolm Tucker. Which raises an important distinction. Tucker's clearly presented as the star of the show, and indeed its hard not to nurse a secret admiration for the Machiavellian bastard. Garvey's role is more ambiguous. The pilot episode (broadcast back in February) seemed built around her resolute adherence to her “flag” of openness despite all the heavy buffeting it receives. (All on her first day, even.) At times she's presented as the police's conscience, refusing to countenance slandering the name of a black lad shot by the ARU. And she's given an adversary, in the shape of the cynical, gum-chewing Finn (played by Bertie Carvel) who sees his job in terms of the more traditional burial of bad news. And, if he can manage it, hit'n'runs on rivals who've strayed onto his career path.

Yet at other points it becomes obvious her crusading zeal is really to nothing more than policing as PR, an inability to distinguish between openness and photo-ops. Rather than releasing edited footage she'd rather edit the reality before the footage is taken, and at points this fixation with Twitter streams has operationally disastrous consequences. It's at its clearest in her speech about taking down the Death Star of current practise to replace it with a “perspex Death Star, a better Death Star”. Yet not only does she seem oblivious to any of this, the series never quite gears itself up into taking her on about any of it. She's less the anti-hero of Tucker and more the hero by default seenin contemporary films such as 'The Social Network'. The underlying message seems – she may not be right, but at least she's contemporary. Which is sort of the same thing, isn't it?


GOTHAM


Like 'Babylon', 'Gotham' seems to have started from the most peculiar of scenarios – let's have the Batman universe without Batman in it. (Perhaps they're also planning 'Ma and Pa Kent – The Early Years' and 'The Rough, Tough Boyhood of Starro the Conqueror'.)

Having got rid of Batman they immediately replace him - with the young Gordon (played by Ben McKenzie), even down to the gravelly monotone voice as a signifier for the relentlessness of justice. The idea seems to be to up the stakes by giving us the supervillains (and the crooks often seem on the cusp of supervillainry), with only the very human Gordon to go against them.

To do this it has to take on a rather ludicrous conceit, that Gotham's in a kind of dark age interregnum between his parents being killed and Bruce growing up into Batman. (The credit sequence contains the quote “there's a war coming, a terrible war. There will be rivers of blood in the streets.”) Because of course the only thing that can make the world better is the well-meaning super-rich. It not only rests on the most reactionary assumption of the comics (that Batman's a kind of super-philanthropist, that if he wasn't wealthy enough to have all those Bat-gizmos crime would overrun us) with the worst 'innovation' of the films. (That the Waynes can't be killed by a common criminal leading Bruce to declare war on crime, there has to be something special about that criminal making the whole thing into one journey of personal redemption and all the rest of it.)

Which means it keeps the movies' fixation with origins, as if that's what the superhero is all about. Imagine making a film about the Apollo mission and keeping cutting back to the astronaut's training, like all the stuff about landing on the moon is just after the fact. There's less emphasis on Batman's own origin, which is (at least so far) kept incipient. They're more Gotham's and his future adversaries. The results sometimes feel like a set of Just So stories, how the Penguin got his waddling walk and so on.

But much like 'Babylon' it takes this unpromising premise and works it. Batman is after all merely the straight man of his world, there so the more colourful criminals have someone to play off against. Perhaps more than any other superhero, Batman is his rogue's gallery. And replacing one straight man with another, even as cliched a character as Gordon, doesn't really lose us much.

So if all hangs on the rogue's gallery, the good news is that this is great! The star of the show isn't the tedious Gordon, but Robin Lord Taylor's deliciously creepy Penguin, duplicitously fawning and backstabbing his way through and up the criminal underworld. The Penguin is a character often seen as inhabiting the cartoony world of the Sixties TV show, now banished by the shadow of the all-growed-up-now Dark Knight. But here he's already managed to create two cliff-hangers merely by showing up. And as befits the title Gotham itself becomes a character in the show, an (as the name might suggest) gothic temple to sin like something out of Brecht and Weill.

The main weakness is the insistence on each episode having its own storyline. While everyone's attention is on the ongoing criminal war, these feel not only inferior and derivative but often half-hearted. They don't seem likely to draw in the casual viewers they're presumably intended for. 'Gotham' is a long-haul novel-structure show, not especially adept at disguising itself as weekly TV.


MARVEL'S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.


In its first series, this often felt like an inferior warm-up for the Marvel Universe films. It's essentially a cop buddy show with science fictional bolt-ons. Which is, you know, fine. Except that scenario places a sitcom-like emphasis on the rapport between the lead actors, and I wasn't at all sure there was one. Coulson (played by Clark Gregg) worked in the 'Iron Man' and 'Avengers' films precisely because everybody expected the suit to be a straight man rather than a character (hence Stark's incredulous line “I thought his first name was Agent”), so even a little went a long way. Taking him out of that context felt as if you were to take Niles out of 'Frasier'. Lose the context and you lose the environment, and with it the character's purpose.

Chloe Bennett (playing Sky) looked a classic case of having been hired for her pretty face rather than any acting ability, while Fitz and Simmons were an American's rather annoying idea of what twee British people are like. Take away all the heroes, take away Nick Fury, and what were you left with was a daft acronym and a supporting cast hanging around without a lead?

But the new characters work better. It seems unlikely anybody would fail to guess where Lance Hunter (Nick Blood) and Bobbi Morse's (Adrianne Palicki) will-they-won't-they act would end up, but it was more about the journey than the destination. Also, the plotlines have by now gained their own traction, rather than relying on hand-me-downs from the films. It's like a Shield universe, rather than the mere reflection of a Marvel universe, has had time to coalesce. The way the alien markings led to the underground city did feel like a gradually unfolding mystery, rather than one stock secret getting lined up behind another.

There remains, alas, Marvel's proprietary habit of sticking the name Marvel in front every other Marvel word which pretty quickly gets Marvelling annoying, and mostly reminds me of that 'Simpsons' episode where Bart went around writing “property of Bart Simpson” everywhere. (The word 'Marvel' should probably be in that sentence a couple more Marvel times.)


In other news... Here in the Old World, we still know how to do a ghost story. 'Hinterland' was essentially a detective story presented as a ghost story, while 'Remember Me' was unashamedly the full phantoms-in-the-attic caboodle. They both work through evoking such a strong sense of locale, in North Wales and Yorkshire respectively. This lends proceedings a double virtue, locating the tale in our world while providing a liminal space, where the incursion of the supernatural seems only a matter of time. Like a lightning rod for the spectral.

Mostly, though, I just watch documentaries on BBC4. I suppose I could write about those. It would mostly consist of me saying things like “it was all about an ancient Andean civilsation I'd not heard of before. I learnt lots of new and interesting things. Forgotten them all now, though. But maybe they'll repeat it.”

Sunday, 21 December 2014

GOBLIN/ GODFLESH/ THE EX/ EMPTYSET AV (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

GOBLIN PERFORM 'SUSPIRIA'
St. Bartholomew's Church, Brighton, Sat Dec 6th


Disclaimer!Dario Argento's 1977 shocker 'Suspiria' may be genuinely deranged but its also literally depraved. It follows the standard slasher film conventions, which includes repeated scenes of semi-dressed women getting penetrated by knives and meeting other grisly deaths. If given this description you're not interested in being told such a film has other merits, or want to know about its soundtrack, please skip this section now.

If after Pere Ubu's 'Man With the X-Ray Eyes' I'd rushed to proclaim underscores as the way to create a film soundtrack, what should come along a couple of weeks later but a classic example of an overscore?

But then a conventional score would never have worked for a film such as 'Suspiria'. There's not so much a subtext that needs drawing out. Just like the supernatural events that take over the characters' lives, everything pretty much explodes over the surface of the film. Argento realised that the horror of horror films comes from the triumph of the irrational, and simply went with that. Mysteries stay unexplained, plot threads are dropped with impunity - your mind would break before it made any sense of this. 

Instead it lives in the mise-en-scene, the lurid colours and Art Nouveau flourishes of the Dance Academy (which must count as one of the main characters in its own right), and in the succession of dramatic set-piece events. Everything becomes suffused in the atmosphere of a lurid, surrealist dream. And it lives in the soundtrack which, rather than illustrating the film, was composed before shooting began. And music, inherently irrational in the way it runs a short-circuit to your brain, is vital in achieving this effect.


Watching sections of it performed during Goblin's solo gig earlier this year, I wrote “it just keeps going, permeating the whole film – marinading in its mood”. Yet, watching the whole thing through, rather than listening to live highlights or the soundtrack album you realise that however over-the-top it sounds its actually quite a skilled accomplishment. For an overscore, there's a whole lot of underscore to it – semi-subliminal embellishment of the events. And the grand themes have a habit of suddenly cutting straight out, leaving us hanging. The band are clearly aware how loud silence can sound.

And while its famous for being a rock score, repeating phrases and riffs until insanity takes hold, it uses quite a few classical devices. The main theme recurs again and again but in different variants, like motifs in a symphony. The psychological effect is of relentlessness, but without the ear ever getting the chance to become used to what its hearing.

Perhaps the most bizarre and effective thing about the soundtrack is that it sounds simultaneously so fitting for the film and like some alien force that is infecting it – like the sinister witch lurking at the heart of the Dance Academy orchestrating the deaths. The celebrated main theme, with those malevolently chanted vocals like a twisted lullaby, simultaneously sinister and seductive, fits superbly with Argento's directoral motifs – such as filming scenes from an elevated perspective, as if under the spying eye of evil spirits.

The 'rock' nature of the soundtrack is similarly bizarre and disruptive in the way it works. The film is at root a supernaturalised analogy for the generation gap – an ode to getting out of school and going your own way. The witch at the heart of it all, Helena Markos, is not just ancient but supposed to be dead - she has prolonged her life by supernatural means. (Whether she is sustained by the frequent blood sacrifices of the young, like Countess Dracula, is one of the many things which remain unexplained.) The heroine Suzy (played by Jessica Harper) can't trust anyone much over thirty and only seems to gain safe haven outside of the Academy - in more modern settings, such as the glass-and-steel citadel of the conference centre. The Academy often seems designed around infantalising it's young adult charges. (Argento designed the sets so, for example, door handles were raised to the height they would normally be for children.)

But the rock soundtrack, which would have sounded so modern to a contemporary audience at a time when they were only starting to move from classical instrumentation, isn't the stereotypical sound of youth or freedom. It very much belongs with the Dance Academy, like an aural iteration of the witch's spells. While, in a break with one of the more fundamental rules of soundtracks, Suzy isn't given her own theme. If anything it is playing with the notion more commonly held by older generations, that rock is the “devil's music”.

I also wrote after last time “the best way to experience their music is still through watching those Argento films”. And I was right. Cutting out the proggier solo-band stuff, and showing their music against the film it was always meant to accompany, this was Goblin in their element. And the grandeur of St. Barts church made for the perfect venue. “I hope God forgives us”, front-man Claudio Simonetti commented at the end. I reckon he will.

From their earlier performance in Islington:



GODFLESH
The Haunt, Brighton, Tues 9th Dec


After an eight-year break, it would almost be tempting to talk about Godflesh being resurrected. I loved the legendary Eighties noise band enough to name one of my old comic strips after them. (Though if anyone else remembers that I'll be astonished.) And now they're not just back but back the way they were – the classic two-man line-up of guitarist Justin Broadrick and bassist GC Green.

Though just looking at the musicians on stage perhaps overlooks the key ingredient to their distinctive sound. By then many bands employed a drum machine, but tended to use it as a click track. After all, if the drums are important then you invest in a real drummer, right? Whereas Godflesh took the drum machine and utilised it. At times it became the dominant instrument, providing an onslaught of inhumanly pounding beats, relentless as rows of space invaders, with guitar and bass throwing up dissonances.

It was a sound which gave the band the best of both worlds – the frenzied energy of punk combined with the pulverising force of metal. Plus, in an echo of something I once said about Wolf Eyes, the way you couldn't understand a word of those screamed or guttural vocals just added to the sense they were speaking to you. They seemed to tap into some feeling beyond words, something purely existential – the glossolalia of angst. (I manage to make out precisely three words all night long - “towers of emptiness.”)

As ever its more evocative to let the music do the talking, stirring moods and conjuring up images in your mind. Wikipedia tags the band with the terms 'industrial metal', 'experimental metal' and post-metal'. And taking that first suggestion it's music which could be taken to follow the industrial template – a response to the urban environment, to tower blocks, traffic jams and tasting smog for air. As Dom Lawson said in the Guardian of their sound: “monochrome riffs and dehumanised drums collide, conjuring a disorientating fog of urban desperation and fury… a cracked prism of post-Thatcher social alienation.”

But it also morphs readily into visions of some science fiction apocalypse. Early albums tended to credit the drums to the 'Terminator'-like tag “machines”. Bu they're less man vs. machine wars and more the cyborg-as-inner-conflict of 'Tetsuo' - man becoming machine even as he fights it, and vice versa. But the real appeal is the way one slips so easily into the other, as if the dystopian future is already here and just getting warmed up. (Think of that last 'Terminator' film taking place almost entirely inside some future apocalypse. What made it more epic also made it more removed, less involving. What's powerful is the sense of an elision between the two.)

In some ways they're the Black Flag of metal, and not just through being influential. There's the same sense of stripping down beyond the point a sane mind would stop, reducing music to a brutal and brutalising force. But there's the equal yet contradictory sense that it's all a brilliant art project, devised by some very smart people indeed. The slide show that accompanies the gig includes raging flames and venomous snakes, but also such arty fayre as Church carvings and details from Bosch paintings.

There's that wish fulfilment conceit common in comics, where the nerdy kid gains super powers and no-one can pick on him any more. With Godflesh there's the sense that their outsiderness is their superpower, the quality that enables them to unleash such sonic blasts, that everything that's pushing down on them is made into their weapon back against it. Ultimately, for all it's savagery, there's something not nihilistic but liberating about their music. It's like facing off the world and winning.

They only play for about an hour, which might seem on the short side. But the experience is of such an intensity you're not really sure if you could have taken much more. As it ends someone sticks on a Christmas jingle single, so we exit to the echoes of blistering beats and service-encounter session singers wishing us a merry festive season.

They really are just as good now as they were back in the day.

Their classic 'Streetcleaner' from Maryland...


THE EX
Sticky Mike's Frog Bar, Brighton, Wed 10th Dec


“I have satellite maps of near destinations
So why take a risk when you can take a vacation?”

Much like Swans, I've already written about Dutch post-punkers the Ex not once but twice (actually sort of three times) so will only add stuff here which I haven't said before.

One cool thing about this gig, a warm-up for a two-night residency in London's Cafe Oto, was that it featured such a wealth of support acts it almost became a mini-festival. These included (and I may well have missed something)...

  • A Dutch singer-songwriter who gave us precisely one song in English
  • Afework Nigussie, a traditional Ethiopian musician playing what appeared to be a bedpost with a single string attached (and later joined the band for a few numbers)
  • Terrie from the Ex playing freeform impro guitar (which alas only really got good towards the end)
  • Trash Kit, a Slits-style girl group playing offbeat in about every available sense of the word. When I say girl group they looked like their collective ages might have got them served at the bar. The singer dedicates one song to her mum, who turns out to be in the audience.

As befits a band not knowing for resting on their laurels, the Ex provide several new tracks which would bode well for the future. Katherina's skittering drumming provided a fine contrasts to Godflesh's machine beats a few nights before, in that it couldn't sound any more human. While the guitars are taunt and sharp, she provides rolling polyrhthms which, as I've said before rarely march in the lockstep of punk orthodoxy.”

Gigs, even good gigs, fall too easily into a formula. While this was a night which felt full of of possibility. The main set ended with a version of ‘That’s Not A Virus’ which reached such an intensity, de Boers spitting doggerel number codes like they were the most important information ever imparted, that I expected cracks to start appearing in the walls and ceiling and Sticky Mike's Frog Bar to be no more. After which the band were clapped back on for no less than three encores.

The Ex are neither stuck in some fundamentalist punk furrow, struggling to retain the way everything sounded in 1979, nor have they bought into music biz shenanigans. They simply play the music it occurs to them to play. They're stuck to their roots, but they've also grown from them. If they didn't exist we'd probably have to make them up.

'Four Billion Tulip Bulbs',a subject close to every Dutch person's heart, from Copenhagen...


EMPTYSET A/V
Dome Studio Theatre, Brighton, Sat 13th Dec


Emptyset, it says here, “examine the physical properties of sound through electromagnetism, architecture and process-based image-making in a live event that encompasses performance, installation work and audio-visuals.”
People often perceive electronica as a remote, austere and and cerebral affair. But Emptyset are a long way from Morton Subotnik's 'music of the spheres', their spectral sounds are actually quite rooted in the earth. I once commented how psychedelia “worked best when stuffed inside actual songs. It's the way it then fights to get out, makes the song strange, misshapen and unpredictable. Like one of those giant bubbles which stop being perfectly round but undulate weirdly and throw up loads of odd reflections.”
And Emptyset do a similar thing with the rhythms of dance music. As the visuals play with geometric shapes and with distortions, so their music plays with the even-ness of beats. And strange, distorted beats are still beats, dance music from Mars is still dance music. There were sections the audience could easily have danced to, were we not so chinstrokey. And in fact I read later they “have backgrounds within Bristol's club music scene.”

The A/V in their name and in their performance suggests the appeal of synaesthesia. See a live band and you may enjoy the interplay between, say, the bassist and the drummer. But when that jumps across media barriers it becomes environmental. It was reminiscent less of other gigs that I've been to than Lis Rhodes' Tate installation 'Light Music'. At times the bass notes rumbled so low they made the floor vibrate and tickle my feet.

Both electronica and dance music become more immersive the longer they continue, and the same was true here. Not because things developed. Though they performed one long piece, it was pretty much neatly divided into sections. But because its immersive. You settle into it like a bath.

From Paris:


Coming soon! Short of Led Zeppelin staging a surprise reunion on the seafront on Xmas Day, no more gig-going adventures for a little while. Still, it's been a good year for it...

Sunday, 14 December 2014

WIRE/ EDVARD GRAHAM LEWIS/ BRITISH SEA POWER/ SEA BASTARD + STILL MORE (DRILL FESTIVAL PART THE FIRST)

Pretty much everywhere in Brighton, Thurs 4th-Sun 7th Dec


This was apparently the third Drill festival, and the first to take place here in Brighton. Though curators Wiredidn't headline but played the opening night, then reappeared as a finale for the closing. Let's take 'em in turn...

When John Peel famously said “they are always different, they are always the same”, he was of course referring to the Fall. But he could, had he been around to see it, been thinking of this very set. Simon Reynolds characterised the legendary post-punk band by “their minimalism, their reductionist disdain for extraneous decoration”. (Which is itself a polysyllabic way of putting it. He should probably have just said “concision”.) And yet that short, spiky heritage is one of the few stretches of musical ground they don't cover.

For tonight tracks can stretch to infinity and beyond. Though there's often a strong Krautrock influence, instead of Neu's elegant glide things drive with a relentless intensity. In his stand-up set beforehand, Graham Duff referred to Peel's infamous habit of playing records at the wrong speed. And many numbers here would have tried him indeed. Though there's two guitars and bass, melody is often relegated to the keyboards.

Perhaps the night's best summed up by the closing number. Every Wire fan knows the story of how they found their sound when their first guitarist got invalided out. Continuing to rehearse without him they found less to be more, carried on not just by eliminating his parts but throwing all else out they considered extraneous. 'Pink Flag' the title track of their 1977 debut, was one of the few numbers from then to cross the three-minute barrier.

Here they perform an extended version of the track with an 'orchestra' of more than twenty guitars. As they didn't have so many spares in the back of the van, an array of other band members, friends and acquaintances crowd themselves on stage all sporting their own six-strings. The array was so motley and engaging it looked like a DIY version of the Beatles' 'Hey Jude' video. Whereas it sounded like a post-punk version of Terry Riley's 'In C', everyone left to do pretty much their own thing if it added to the party.

Swans closed the festival with their usual blistering set. Having now written about their sonic onslaught not once but twice, I won't linger on them this time but fast-forward to the encore. It's become a festival fixture for Wire to ally with another band to perform their track 'Drill', and this time it was Swans' turn.

If the Pink Flag orchestra is the band's 'In C','Drill' is their 'Sister Ray'. Its one of those pure-music tracks where you fear to talk about it will diminish its power. It's not a track that's about something, it doesn't refer to anything outside of its own existence. It's an ur-track, something to which everything else ultimately reduces. It exists to sweep you up in it.

It evokes that childhood fantasy of becoming a machine, of being perfectly dedicated to a function. Only instead of a train or a car its a sharp-tipped power tool. If the pleasure of the guitar orchestra was like a hippy happening, where everyone gets to do their own thing but within some overall accordance, the thrill of 'Drill' is in hearing so many musicians go at it as one. The pun on military drilling is surely a part-source of its name. It's one of those riffs that never really stops; it burrows in your brain and you find it still revolving round your head hours later.

This, the third time I've seen Wire, was quite possibly best. Rather than slipping into some quasi-reverential obscurity, like elder statesmen you obligingly doff your cap to, the band may even be getting better and better.

An earlier rendition of 'Drill' at the Seattle-based festival (I went to less nights of that one) with Earth...


The band's Edvard Graham Lewis staged what was effectively a mini-festival of impro and electronica within the Festival, at the Basement on Saturday afternoon. It was cool that such wayward stuff was incorporated rather than sticking to more crowd-pleasing fare. (Though there was perhaps some secret door behind which the alternative alternative festival was going on.) It did however follow the usual uneven trajectory of imrpo music. Notably, stage numbers accumulated as the afternoon wore on, ending with everybody on stage for 'Smoke On the Water'. (Actually, I may have mis-remembered the last part.) And quality went up with the numbers, with each performer having more to spark off against.

However, Lewis' own solo performance was more memorable than most, perhaps because he gave it a loose structure. These sometimes work best of all as they become enticing, your brain spotting their dotted lines and assuming there is a greater whole which is as yet not quite perceived.


Despite their being a longstanding Brighton-based band and despite their being rated by people I know to listen to, I have always previously failed to catch up with British Sea Power.

So, apart from the salubrious setting of All Saints Church, the unique selling point of this gig may well have been lost on me. For they come augmented by the brass section of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Were these already sumptuous melodies enhanced by the extended instrumentation, honey poured on sugar? I'm not someone who could tell you. But it all seemed to be working well from where I was sitting.

The songs have a delicacy at the same time as gusto. The Sea Power boys had the good sense to incorporate the brass relatively sparingly, only taking it to full blast for brief sections. I came to think of them as Sussex's answer to Love, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra substituted for those mariarchi horns, Shoreham harbour for Sunset Strip. All of which works surprisingly well. And the ornate, spacious church became the perfect setting for their sound.

I did, however, emerge wondering if I could now take to them without the horns. Would a regular gig now be like someone who had sampled vintage port, suddenly thrown back on supermarket wine? I suppose the only way to know is to try...

Not from Drill either...



And what better way to while away a sunny Sunday afternoon than cram yourself inside a sweaty room to take in some doom metal? In its way, its a genre which works a little like hardcore punk. Its not only music that its too easy to copy, the problem is that sort of thing even gets supported by scene stalwarts for “keeping it real” (or whatever). It leads to self-imposed ghettoisation, to conservatism, to stasis. You can end up thinking all the good in that music must have already been used up, that anything left now is just a dried husk too stupid to lie down like its supposed to.

Then along come a band like Sea Bastard who epitomise everything you loved about it back in the day. Like a thing undead, they spring from the ashes of Jovian. (Who I think were going a while but alas I only saw the once.) Their crashing chords exude intensity and power without ever becoming samey, even when tracks stretch out a while. (Which they do.) It gives them that all-important sense of tapping into something primal and vital. While at the same time there's no sense of them subsisting on the margins of music. Listening to them is like living off a very rich diet indeed. Purists will doubtless be aghast, but there's even something quite melodic about them.

Not from Brighton but – the effective home of this sort of music – Birmingham...


The mission statement of three-piece Zu would seem to be to find a breeding ground between noise rock and free jazz. And regular readers, despite their non-existence, will be unsurprised to hear that this induced a mixed reaction in me. Those saxophone squalls just seemed to indulge in free jazz cliches (an ironic term if ever there was one), and my favourite sections were when the churning bass and drums had the stage to themselves. At points the bass would stick to a sludgy riff while the drums did the moving around. But overall, put bluntly, not the cutting-edge outfit they seemed to think they were.

Coming soon: More from the Drill festival...

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

MARIANNE FAITHFULL/ GOMEZ (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

MARIANNE FAITHFULL
Royal Festival Hall, London, Sat 29th Nov


Now on her fiftieth anniversary tour, the Sixties survivor par excellence takes to the stage with a steadying cane (still recovering from a broken hip) and a rapturous round of applause only rivalled by Patti Smith. (She also seems to share Smith's deep wells of formidableness, slapping down a heckler who tries her patience.)

You tend to think of Faithfull as someone who came to inherit the chanteuse and diseuse tradition. But musically speaking only a couple of tracks take up Weill or Eisler's minor-key angularity. The music itself is much more straightforward and melodic. When it works is when the sandpaper of Faithfull's husky voice scrapes up against the softness of it.

And work it mostly does. Some of the time it strays too far into the non-stickness of soft rock for me. (Though mostly during solos, over which I guess I'm generally impatient.) And Faithfull has lately been doing some more living in that lived-in voice of hers. This was mostly evident in the older songs, some of which sounded like garments she couldn't really fit in any more. Singers do need to ruthlessly drop songs, however classic, once they stop reaching the notes.

However, even though the Sixties seem almost another world compared to her later music, there were some of the old songs which still cut it. These included a mesmerising version of 'Sister Morphine' (a song she co-wrote, though she had to go to court to prove it), perhaps given a greater poignancy by her tales of her recent drugged-up hospitalisation.

However she need to rely on her Sixties or even Seventies heritage, for a good few of the brand new songs are really very good indeed. They included a declamatory number in which she takes on the persona of Mother Wolf to give her verdict on humanity and how its been faring. (Summary version – must try harder.)

If the format of her music can tend to be sandpaper against fine cloth, then the tone and subject matter of her songs tend to be bittersweet. In fact, spending an evening listening to Faithfull, you come to realise how straightforward and certain most songs are. The singer is quite definitely in love, has quite definitely fallen out of love or is absolutely sure of something in both verse and chorus. Standard songs are standardised. Faithfull tends to let a little of the ambiguities and contradictions of the real world in. (It might seem the attitude of an older and wider person, though it even goes back to her first ever single, 'As Tears Go By'.)

In some of her best songs she sings not emotively but wearily, as if the song represents not a moment of clarity but an ever-pressing burden. She covers for example the Everley Brothers 'The Price of Love'. But in perhaps the best demonstration, she opens the night with 'Give My Love to London', taking home a song about the city which took her from swinging Sixties icon to Seventies homeless junkie. As she reveals, she cannot help but have mixed feelings about the place.

This, however, is from Vienna...


GOMEZ
Concorde 2, Brighton, Thurs 21st Nov


”I wear the same shoes as anyone,
I share the same blues as anyone”

While there's that adage about not judging a book by its cover, there's no corresponding saying to stop you judging a band by its look. The Velvets, the Magic Band, Joy Division... the shots of them, the record sleeves seem inseperable from their music. So strong is the link that even when bands don't have a look, that simply becomes their look.

It was more than a decade ago when I last saw Gomez, here in this very venue. I remember being struck by the discrepancy between how they looked and how they sounded. They looked avergae, blokey, like fresher students. But shut your eyes and they sounded lived-in and weathered, making a music so soulful and rootsy it surely must have been marinading through years of experience. In particular, the rich baritone voice of Ben Otewell must surely have been shipped in from elsewhere. And yet they made those Americana-inspired albumns from a garage in Southport and a studio in Portslade. (For non-native readers, Brighton's equivalent of New Jersey.) Sometimes it really all is just a matter of being in the blood.

A decade down the road, and while they inevitably look a little more lived-in, their sheer unspecialness still appeals. (Check the photo above, they look like they came third in an ordinariness competition.) Dali famously said the only difference between him and a madman was that he wasn't mad. While the only difference between Gomez and us regular folk is that they can make the music we all like to listen to. It somehow seems to deepen the rapport, with audience singalongs induced easily despite the infamous English reserve.

However, my memory does seem to have skippied over the Sixties pop element of their sound. Sprightlier, uptempo numbers contain memorable melodies and sharp, witty lyrics. Tijuana Ladies seem able to coexist with day-trips to Manchester, in some unlikely but virtuous combination.

Everybody, including at times me, does the lazy journo trick of finding a mirror to the Beatles and Stones in two modern bands. But perhaps Gomez are the Beatles and Stones at once – rootsy and urbane. As the gig continues, I even start to picture them as some successor to the Beatles. If Ottewell is Lennon, bouncier and poppier Tom Gray would be McCartney - leaving Ian Ball as George Harrison. Like Harrison, Ball seems quieter of temperament and has a thinner voice, but one with a pleasing ability to meld to the music. And like the Beatles their various vocal and songwriting styles combine into something greater than its parts.

Quite late in the gig, Gray cheerily confides that this is their first gig for over two years. And yet it sounded they'd played every single night for that amount of time. Here's hoping it won't be another decade before I get to see them again.

'Here Comes The Breeze', one of Otewell's songs. Not a lot to see for long stretches beyond the back of heads, but the sound quality's decent...


Coming soon! More gig-going adventures...

Saturday, 6 December 2014

PERE UBU + 'MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES'/ JUNO REACTOR + 'COLOUR OF POMEGRANATES' (LIVE SOUNDTRACKS)


'X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES' WITH PERE UBU UNDERSCORE
Duke of Yorks, Brighton, Sun 23rd Nov


”I've come to tell you what I see!”

As the record shows, Lucid Frenzy is a fan of David Thomas whether to be found performing with his parent 'avant-garage' cult outfit Pere Ubu or  branching out to provide live soundtracks. And here he was doing both at the same time!

The success of his approach may all be there in that word 'underscore'. The most successful film soundtracks are often the ones that work upon you the most subliminally, and there seems no reason to change all that just because the musicians are live and present. As I said of previous soundtrack to 'Carnival of Souls', “it worked almost as the film’s unconscious, worrying away beneath the surface”. For this reason Thomas may be deliberately working his way down the food chain, from respected movies such as 'Carnival Of Souls' and the Ray Bradbury-derived 'It Came From outer Space' to this 1963 Roger Corman shocker.

Thomas himself has commented “the amateurish enthusiasm and naive intention, as well as lack of budget, of the B-movie encourages a kind of communal abstraction that approaches folk culture, and the frequent lack of a coherent agenda leaves lots of wiggle room for whatever personalised context or agenda an audience or band chooses to overlay.”

And certainly the film makes not a whole lot of sense, either narratively or thematically. By playing up the arrogance and impatience of the central character, inevitably called Professor Xavier, the film seems to be be following the standard theme of hubris. He droppers his own eyes with the magic potion like Napoleon brashly crowning himself, and claims to be “closing in on the Gods”. (A plural form that probably wasn't there in the first draft.) But, like a tabloid kiss-and-tell, of course that pat morality is merely salacious. The film was probably pitched either in order to have that big 'X' on the poster, to allow some suggested nudity or - more likely - both.

But there is a suggestion, waiting to be carried by an underscore, that his (in an almost literal sense) insight is pitched as both revelation and curse. As well as looking through ladies' clothes, there's a sense he can see (in Eliot's phrase) the skull beneath the skin, a drug-induced vision of the petty parochialism of Fifties society. (And 1963 was still pretty deep in the Fifties.)

As you might expect, the film most exults in the proto-psychedelic X-ray-vision sequences. But it also follows a loose colour coding, from the reassuring clean white coats of the hospital (from where those dayglo X-ray sequences first make their outburst), to the lurid colours of the fairground, then to the more sombre tones of the bedsit as the powers become too much for him. His final claim to see “the eye that sees us all” at the centre of the universe seemingly comes from nowhere. (Though it is foreshadowed in the opening image.) But, as is typical, that kind of leaves the question open. Does he see the Sixties arriving with their cleansed doors of perception? Metafictionally spy the cinema projector Or a God that is not about judgement or intervention, but a science God who merely observes us like the universe is his petri dish? So instead of revelation or salvation you merely get stared back at? All or none of the above? We just need something to nudge us into perceiving incoherence as a kind of metaphysical mystery. Then, with nothing to hold back our sight, we can just keep looking.

Afterward the film it was hard to remember many actual musical incidents, but perhaps that should be taken as a sign of an underscore doing its job, of the thing working. If I've had more to say about the film than the music, then it was most likely the music that took me there. The mood of the music frames and filters the film, affecting you like a half-remembered dream. Music is also inherently a kind of an x-ray, you naturally hear sounds beneath others in a way you can't with sight. The music makes it feel impossible that those pristine hospital whites won't be ruptured.

There were points, however, where the underscore just didn't go under enough. Moments like a boom-tish on the symbol when an on-screen character makes a crap joke are reminiscent of the jokey captions early Channel 4 would add to trash classics. It feels like a snarky hipster commentary on the film, a distancing device to reassure everyone they're not really supposed to be taking this too seriously. Whereas the point of the exercise is surely the opposite, not being supposed to take it seriously is the very reason to try it – to X-ray-up our eyes, to take the ludicrous premise to the max just to see what's out there.



'THE COLOUR OF POMEGRANATES' WITH JUNO REACTOR SCORE
Duke of Yorks, Brighton, Thurs 27th Nov


...meanwhile Juno Reactor (aka Ben Watkins) performed their score to Sergei Parajanov's much-praised Aremenian film 'The Colour of Pomegranates' (1968).

Now, as the past history of this blog might have already given away, I am not in the least interested in fashion in music. If people are still making music in the key of the Nineties, mixing repetitive beats in with melting-pot globalism under the sway of Transglobal Underground or Dead Can Dance, it doesn't bother me in the slightest. But what wearies me is when someone attempts a piss poor imitation of that music, like they're aping last year's look. And my weariness multiplies when they stick that cheap copyism over a film such as this.

Its one redeeming feature might have been as a masterclass in how a live soundtrack should not be done. They played not just loudly but obtrusively. It was as if the film was being drowned out by a club night going on next door, but everyone was too polite to complain. It was as if you'd travelled to Armenia to sample the way of life, only to have the experience overwritten by some hippie-yuppie companion you couldn't shake, ceaselessly going on about how 'spiritual' and 'meaningful' he was finding everything. Just as New Agers treat foreign cultures as something which will look great hung up in their apartments, Juno Reactor treat this film as a backdrop for their pseudo-mystic muzak. I kept thinking it was like they were turning the film into their own rock video, only to discover later that's exactly how this project started. Satire is once more defeated by events.

Perhaps, with it's non-narrative progression of images and tableaus, the film becomes a natural victim for this sort of thing. It's more like passing through a sequence of paintings on a common theme than watching a regular movie. Though Parajanov was a compatriot of Tarkovsky the film's more like Jodorowsky's use of film as a form of ritual, if with less of his surrealist glee in sacrelige and more under the Eastern Orthodox sway of ceremony. Plus, as the film was in many ways a celebration of Armenian culture when it was under threat of Soviet homogenisation, without prior knowledge of that culture it can feel like looking at a set of symbols without a key. (Imagine an alien landing on Earth just in time to catch Easter Mass, with no context for what is going on.) Consequently it can look like a film waiting for someone to come along and complete it, like there's no existing text to overwrite. An exotic-looking placeholder, a templace for whatever's on your mind. And this 'place to find yourself' is of course the very way the Western world treats what it terms the 'undeveloped'.

But that is in fact precisely the reason why the film shouldn't be treated in this way. It's a kind of Jacobs Ladder, and needs the soundtrack of ambient sounds and indigenous folk music to act as an anchor between it's often-bewildering signifiers and the physical world. With those ties cut it literally loses integrity, it falls adrift on the sea of signs and becomes ripe for plunder. I listened to the original soundtrack (via the magic of YouTube) as I typed this up, and it sounded far more involving than Juno Reactor's shop-bought samplers.

In case I didn't make it obvious, I didn't care for this one much. You can, should you choose, hear the whole thing here. But me, I'm linking to the trailer for the film proper...

Friday, 28 November 2014

'BRITISH FOLK ART'

(Stop the presses! Still on at Compton Verney in Warwickshire until 14th Dec)


“Here in Britain... [we] are more concerned with the great country house and its contents, and the indigenous culture of the ordinary people has until lately been largely disregarded.”
- James Ayres, 'British Folk Art', (1977) as quoted in this exhibition

(Reader, can we pretend I posted this directly after the Comics Unmasked exhibition, as originally intended? Things might even make some sense that way.)

Against All Authenticity

On my blog page devoted to visual arts, I casually bundled together folk art, outsider art and comics into one group term. A bundle which perhaps needs unpicking, and this could even be a good place to start.

The connections are there, clearly enough. Folk art and comics are scarcely interchangeable. But, particularly before comics contained credits and came to be built around a fan base, there's a fair measure of overlap. Characters and motifs can leap from one to the other, such as cartoon waster Ali Sloper reappearing on a piece of embroidery here. And they align still closer when you get to the way 'proper' art treats them. Mostly they exist as fodder to be 'Lichtensteined', the act of appropriation from them becoming a sign of a great artist's individual genius.

But something happens along the way, where all those appropriations finally reach a critical mass and the source material itself finally reaches the curators' attention. It's like taking so many fish from the water that finally the river changes direction. The Tate have made a point of spinning this show as the first major gallery exhibition of folk art, like the villagers have finally broken into the great country house and left their muddy prints on the fine carpets. Which puts it several years behind their foray into comic art, something perhaps significant in itself.

Like folk music, folk art may suffer the most from its seeming friends. At it's worst it's merely part of the heritage industry. The patronising “it's so quaint” becomes the inevitable flip side of “aren't we so modern?” But let's keep the focus on how it fits into galleries. If its so often marginalised without ever quite being excluded, that may contain a logic of sorts. Folk art is taken to be the childhood or perhaps even the subconscious of art, something vibrant and unmediated, the creative hand untroubled by the brain, the doodle before it became the picture. Which of course is pretty much the way rock fans can regard folk, blues or any of its other cousins.

This can sometimes be expressed in the most celebratory of terms, how 'free' folk art is and so on. But it's like talking about how women can be so intuitive or how black people can be so emotionally expressive – its taken to be because at heart they're so irrational. Like all such apparent flatteries, what it actually does is corral – makes folk art into a mere adjunct or preparatory step towards other, more developed and sophisticated, styles of art.

Whereas it's 'freedom' is actually a matter of it playing by an altogether different set of rules. It's true that folk is too broad and amorphous to be seen as a movement in art, but that's because it's actually a meta-movement, like Romanticism or Modernism. It doesn't lack traditions or conventions, it has whole sets of them. So many that they can sometimes clash.

The exhibition opens with the words “folk art is an elusive, contradictory and contested term”, and a firm undertaking not to try and pin it down any further. This is effectively the curators throwing up their hands and saying all the works contained herein were labelled folk before we got here, so the management can't be held accountable. Which is exactly the correct approach to take. Attempting a clear-cut definition for folk art would be a classic fool's errand. Things are always going to blur around the edges, the ducks never lining up in a row.

Much of the impetus towards definitions, you can't help but suspect, comes from canonisation concealed as semantics. People try to build a club house which admits their mates while keeping out the riff raff. True, a whole lot of people make a living marketing kitsch crap under the label 'folk' which might more honestly be called 'folksy'. So the righteous sternly decide to exclude from the labelanything tainted by commercial production. But then you would also exclude many fine things from this exhibition. You'd need to strike out, for example, anything Alfred Wallis painted (see 'Blue Ship' (c.1934, below) after the moment Ben Nicholson discovered him.


But there's a neater solution. Just be straight up about it. Just like the stuff you like. The folk art which appeals to me isn't the whole of folk art. But then neither is the Modernism I like the entirety of Modernism.

Not only does it resolutely refuse to build up any definition of folk art, at times the show seems keen to break down any lingering notions you might have that such a definition might exist somewhere. It would rather test the borders of the term than obsess over the 'authentic'. We're shown (with, you can't help feeling, some glee) 'An Exact Representation of the Game of Cricket', a naive-looking Eighteenth century work now known to be an early Twentieth century forgery. Its like the aim is to disgorge you at the end feeling like you now know less about folk art than when you first went in. Which is – and I expect you are ahead of me here – exactly the right approach to take.

So instead of a historical overview the show promises “a series of encounters with different sorts of object that already have a history as folk art”. Which is in itself probably very folk. The hang is refreshingly disorderly, piling works up on walls rather than arranging them in neat numbered lines. They're patched and juxtaposed according to broad themes, but from there we're pretty much left to make up our own minds about them. Rather than the usual respectfully neutral cream the walls are bedecked with deep colours – luscious greens, salmon pinks, vibrant yellows.

Placing these works on the walls of the Tate inherently involves wrenching them from their original context. There is no way around that. But this slightly haphazard arrangement allows them to feel at least a little at home, like transplanting plants but leaving some of their home soil around their roots. The result is that folk art becomes presented as something bright and simple-seeming, but inherently indeterminate, awkward, slippery and even self-contradictory. Lovers of precision, enter at your peril.

That's Art, Folks

Fools rush in, however, so let's abandon the curator's sensible caution and look at what underpins folk art. If there's no fixed and discernable style, there may be at least a set of recurrent features which can be noted...

Folk art is perhaps most associated with it's naïve qualities. Black Adder once famously jeered at Baldrick “to you the Renaissance was just something that happened to other people”. And it often feels like folk art responded the same way when its refinements rewrote the basic rules of art. Which is to say not at all. The folk sky just carried on being opposite the folk ground. We may see it this way because we still see folk art through the prism of Modernism, which saw in it a route back to the primitive. It seemed a way to escape all those Renaissance conventions, which had become so entrenched they'd stopped seeming like conventions and were now almost inimical to seeing.

Whereas in fact, something stranger is afoot. The Renaissance had happened before most of these works were made. No small number of them are from the Twentieth century. So, and perhaps unsurprisingly, perspective isn't unknown - but its rules are considered to be eyepoppingly optional, often followed and then not in the very same picture. In for example 'The Hunt' (Anon, c. 1780) the huntsmen are seemingly placed behind the house in the composition, yet are its height. It may look peculiarly haphazard, some strange hall of mirrors. But that's because we're missing something more central to folk art.



The very first two works we see are a collection of trade signs – keys, locks, shoes and hats inflated to gargantuan size, like Monopoly counters for giants (above). Of course they weren't originally designed to be shown in such close proximity, though they may well have once lined a street. However they're placed next to the Bellamy quilt (1890/1, detail also above) by Herbert Bellamy and Charlotte Alice Springnall, and the similiarities become striking. If only one is actually a mosaic, both take that form. They're accumulations of iconic objects, either placed on the surface in patterns or with a scene standing behind them - like a theatre flat.

Objects are often sized according to the relative significance rather than their physical size or place in the composition. (Notably, within themselves, figure are normally proportionate.) James Williams' Patchwork bedcover (1942/52, detail below) for example shows a human figure interacting with animals, all of which - even the giraffe – are squashed into equivalent size to him. Gravity also can be treated a little like this; some figures and objects hugging the ground, paying due reference to Isaac Newton, while others seem free to merrily float. It's all a reminder that it was those Renaissance rules that brought the trick to art, not the other way around.


Another frequent feature is the incorporation of text within the frame. As the images are so often icons and symbols anyway, there isn't the same requirement to separate them from text as there is in more 'representational' art. In for example 'Three Sober Preachers' (Anon, c.1860, below) the text doubles as parchments hung on the wall behind them, something within the scene, and as speech balloons, commonly thought of as floating spectrally above the characters' heads. The words are there to represent the Preachers as much as the objects on the table or mantlepiece. Similarly, those oversize shop signs were often literally a substitute for words, in times when not necessarily all your customers were literate. (And when not all shops could afford glass for their windows, with which to display their wares.) They're the web icons of their day.


And put these elements together and what graphic elements in today's world do they most resemble? Maps, of course. And maps, or at least works in some interchange between maps and aerial views are everywhere. There's 'A Birds Eye View of Market Street, Wynondham, Norfolk' (c. 1850), 'The Farm Called Anrolds in the Parish of Stapleforth Abbey' (c. 1790) or 'Eastwood's Crown Brewery' (FL Carter, 1898, below), though there's no need to stop counting at three. Of course these are not the dispassionate measuring devices of Google maps. They work more by a kind of sympathetic magic, owning a depiction of something and owning the thing itself came to be associated. Maps were power totems rather than handy street guides.


Another prevalent, if not ubiquitous, feature is the extemporised use of non-art materials. George Smart's 'Goosewoman' (c. 1840, below) was one of many works he made of scraps left over from his primary business as a tailor. Smart then sold the pictures as a secondary business. Waste not, want not, after all. At other times, 'boody' or broken china becomes an art material. (With a look that's almost proto-Dada.)


However, while folk art's recycling of what might otherwise be waste or scraps can often seem creatively utilitarian, in other times it seems to actively embrace the juxtapositions. We can see a giant key made from wood without much of a problem. For to function as a key, that's not a part of its purpose. It exists to be a symbol in the wider world. Yet with those same shop signs there's some wilful games played. Some shoe signs are wood, while others are essentially giant shoes, made from leather, lace and nails. While elsewhere in the exhibition we encounter other purposefully non-functional objects, papier mache meat or leather Toby jugs. There's a bone violin made by a French solider imprisoned during the Napoleonic wars (1797/1814), which seems little short of a Cubist guitar. (I preferred this image to the bone chicken used for the poster image, but alas couldn't find a shot of it on-line.) Which might lead on to the next point...

Strange Goings On

More nebulously, less consistently but perhaps more importantly there can be an uncanniness to folk art. Jesse Maycocks' straw effigy of King Alfred (below) feels almost like a totem of the old weird Britain, even if it was created in 1961. Its making is clear-cut and foregrounded, the undisguised twine holding it together, the nails for eyes and so on. Yet it looks more than a mere effigy, it has a strangely life-like quality. Its as if made to be a prop in some fantasy film, designed to come to life. It couldn't look more straightforward yet it doesn't resolve in the mind, can't be assigned a category. It's a work which reflects an animistic world-view, where crops could be personified in figures such as John Barleycorn. The King and the land are so associated as to be almost as one.


Even after the arrival of Christianity, this animism continues to lurk. With the tendency towards icons, signs and symbols its less concerned with depicting things than capturing the spirit of those things - spirits it then arranges in symbolic maps. Folk art retains something of primitive times, when artworks were magic objects more than something decorative. In some ways its therefore naïve to call folk art naive, or at least in the literal sense of the word. It a piece of folk art seems to lack, for example, perspective that's less to do with a failing than its having a different purpose.

This leads to a feeling of 'unheimlich' or strange familiarity when we look at folk art, something often taken up by British Modernists, such as Paul Nash. Rather than use art to extend our knowledge or experience, it instead pulls the rug away from under us – defamiliarises us from what we thought we already knew, our own home turf.

It's tempting to note this strangeness and file it with the unfamiliarity of outsider art. Yet while I enjoyed the British Pathe film 'The House That Jack Built' (1958) of “English eccentric” Jack Punter's building of his outsider art envrionment, particularly when the patronisingly enthusiastic voice-over pronounced it “do-it-yourself gone mad”, it seemed the one time the show made it's margins too elastic. Overlaps there may be, but there's important distinctions between folk and outsider art.

The glue that sticks folk to outsider art is of course their mutual tendency to use naïve forms. But, as argued after the 'Art from the Margins' exhibition, when we talk of outsider art as a style rather than a form of production we're often talking about the depiction of compulsivenss – obsessive detail, heavy use of repetition etc. This can appear in folk art, such as the bone chicken and violin of the French prisoner of war. (Most likely because he deliberately chose a 'long haul' project to while away his detention.) But folk art doesn't need to have this element. It's not there, for example, in those shop signs or ship figureheads.

At its epitome (or more accurately nadir), the fetish for outsider art falls for the notion of the outsider genius, who has escaped impregnation by their surrounding culture and is instead in touch with a timeless spirit. Of course that's too silly for words. Outsider art is more often about creating a micro-world the artist can control which is... well... outside of this one, while folk art is about objects which exist in the world. And while the culture around folk art may have fallen from familiarity to us, this is through the distancing effect of time. As the show itself says, “traditional crafts express communal feelings and beliefs”. It's a quite separate, perhaps even contrary, thing to the private mythologies of outsider artists. With folk art, we're the outsiders.

While several works on display here were effectively produced comunally, its a series of old photos of folk events and rituals that most bring this element home to you. (For example a Well Dressing in Tideswell, Derbyshire from 1979). Ironically, these are placed in the same room as the Jack Punter video. But my personal favourite – not just of these photos but one of my favourite items from the whole exhibition – is a 1984 photos of an old lady from Sheffield. She's in her 'Old Horse' costume, yet the photo's taken not at some folk celebration but at home. As she sits in front of her TV the box of the black-and-white set, the dull carpet, remind you of the sheer drabness of the Eighties. Part of the bizarreness of the juxtaposition is that neither element now seems familiar to us, it's one other country at odds with another.

Such photos mostly remind us that those old masks and costumes held no magic transforming powers. In a classic case of existence preceding essence they did not create the communities that used them - they grew out of them. The masks and costumes have their significance, they're indicative of place and culture. But they mostly signify that people were willing to gather and parade together in the first place. The masks and costumes sit upon a social glue. And glue, once set, becomes invisible, leaving only the objects its bonded. The very word 'folk' means 'people', but in a specific sense - of community rather than an atomised mass.

No Folk Remedies

It is of course easy to slip into romanticising folk art. Particularly when surrounded by today's art market, with bling-encrusted works created solely to reflect the good taste of their super-rich purchasers, folk art can seem its very antithesis – like a folk remedy, something which can make it all better. But romanticisations should always be suspected. Folk art is not a demonstration of how nice everything was in the good old days, because that's something it was never intended to be and besides they weren't. Mourning the mirage of a lost innocence will only leave us feeling more marooned in the age of the selfie.

It's not communist art, in fact in many ways its almost the definition of conservative. To misquote 'League of Gentlemen' at times it looks very much like British folk art for British folk. When you see works featuring the 'Blackamoor', a kind of compound savage made by mixing together stereotypical African, Turkish and American Indian features, there's a tendency to try and conceive of these as aberrations (“they didn't know better then” and so on), exceptions to an art that was in general unifying. But that merely leads to the question, how is it unifying? In naïve art people very often are what they do and that is all. Fisherman fish, farmers farm, they're not intended to have any other existence. Agency is slaughtered on the altar of custom.

And to blithely talk of folk art as “the art of the people” is to throw up a misty-eyed haze that often obscures its actual production. We shouldn't forget that craft industries are still industries, that much of this stuff was produced not out of great naïve bursts of untrammelled creativity but to client requirements in exchange for cash. (Those oversized shop signs should be big enough to batter that idea home.)

But folk art is comparatively 'free' in two ways in that it escapes two associated traps that we have – its art that isn't based around individual self-expression and it has little or no concept of intellectual property. Nowadays, people tend to assume individual self-expression is what art is. Art tends to not just be a commodity on the market, but a perfect example of a luxury product – created to reflect the good taste of the purchaser. That Rothko on the Hollywood star's wall is simply there to brag. But because this purpose has to be concealed art's very use-value also has to be concealed - art is often defined precisely as something that doesn't do anything. Art is seen as the antithesis of labour, produced not for a function but out of some inner artistic compulsion. It's the exception to the rule of commodity production. Which, of course, is another way of saying it's the exception designed to prove the rule. Brit Art is the risible cumulation of that trajectory. But its a fault-line that's there from the beginning, Modernism tried to break free from its tram lines, but found it couldn't.

Folk art doesn't necessarily have to be made anonymously. There'd be no harm done if we were to find out who made this work or that. But neither do we need to know. If a recently discovered unsigned Fauvist painting were found (in many ways stylistically similar to folk art) it would be a loose piece in the puzzle, a stuck-up nail. Experts would rush to attribute it, so that everything might settle again. The artist is the hook which allows us to slot the painting in place in the world. Consequently, art buffs come to spot different artists' styles like food and drink bores learn to discern the taste of different wines. Recognition alone becomes a signifier of taste. I do this myself all the time, often on this very blog.


Whereas any piece of folk art, as soon as created, effectively becomes common property. Anonymity, where it occurs, universalises. And attribution, where it occurs, is often incidental. It's not about what makes the artist special or different, in the way that even (perhaps especially) outsider art is. Its inherently a piece in the bigger picture. Each individual work becomes like a leaf on a branch, attached to a trunk, itself part of the wood. You need to see, to coin a phrase, the wood for the trees. This is found at its most literal in the room devoted to ships' figureheads (example above) and trade signs, which comments “all have been transformed. A feature of not just these but of much folk art is the repainting or remaking by many hands over time”. With the de-emphasis on individual expression comes the corresponding de-emphasis on the definitive work of art.

But beyond that, anonymity... well, it anonymises. And, particularly in our self-fixated culture, that can be a destabilising force. The political group Anonymous currently have some cultural traction, probably well in excess of their actual numbers, for that very reason. Similarly, when the indicia of exhibitions cease to be handholds, festooned with reassuring names, dates and contexts, expertise deserts us and we are left on our own.

And this lack of interest in individual expression, this group focus is the reason folk art can appear so bountifully creative - because its inherently a commons rather than an enclosure. Folk culture works like open source software; the fact that anyone can get their hands on it makes it stronger, more vibrant, more adaptable. Everything created is just added to the feast, able to inspire everything else. Compared to folk art the bohemian antics of Modernism can seem mere weeds, springing up sporadically and transiently. While those sweeping, snaking branches of folk art stem from the deepest roots.