men without woman: the futurist manifesto

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Born of upper class, intelligentsian stock, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti spent his youth in Alexandria, Egypt, before obtaining a baccalauréat at the Sorbonne, and training as a lawyer in his motherland of Italy. A passionate reader since childhood, he established a controversial literary review at seventeen, and eventually committed himself to a life of writing, experimenting widely with form and style. What we now know as his ‘Futurist Manifesto‘ was first published as ‘Il Futurismo’ in Bologna’s Gazzetta dell’Emilia on 5 February 1909, gracing the cover of significant French paper Le Figaro as ‘Le Futurisme’ two short weeks later, and provoking consternation across Western Europe. Widely regarded as the first artistic manifesto (historically a primarily political tool), it was a fundamental document in the development of modernist thought, not just capturing the automotive spirit of the era, but crystallising its fusion of criticism and creation, announcing the medium that would come to be regarded as prototypically Modern. Composed after a relatively serious car accident, from which Marinetti emerged physically unscathed but spiritually reborn, it calls for a corresponding cultural conversion, an awakening to the modern age; encouraging the glorification of masculinity and an enthusiastic embrace of the new century’s new technologies — of, in turn, the untold chaos and devastation they might bring.

We have been up all night, my friends and I, beneath mosque lamps whose brass cupolas are bright as our souls, because like them they were illuminated by the internal glow of electric hearts.

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 Marinetti’s wrecked car in a ditch, June 1908 (from Yale Library’s collected papers)

From this amazing opening line there is already an intrinsic blurring of the biological and the mechanical; an empathy drawn between the modern body and the technology that surrounds it. The Futurist figure rejects all of society’s “natural” cycles, fighting the night’s darkness with man-made electric light and forgoing sleep, instead ‘discussing right up to the limits of logic and scrawling the paper with demented writing’. Called forth by the sounds of the wakening world, symbolised not by the traditional daybreak or birdsong but by ‘the rumbling of huge double decker trams that went leaping by … the hungry automobiles roar[ing] beneath our windows’, the group rushes to join the melee, taking to the streets in their own cars. The automobile is the key Futurist symbol of mechanical modernisation, figured by Marinetti, in the phrase of Marshall McLuhan, as ‘an extension of man that turns the rider into a superman’. Racing through the streets, Marinetti’s protagonist casts aspersion upon the simple human body with its easily threatened skin and painfully dilating ‘mathematical eyes’, celebrating the driver’s ability to harness chaos through technology, to become one with the power and force of his ‘mechanical bride’. ‘We drove on, crushing beneath our burning wheels, like shirt-collars under the iron, the watch dogs on the steps of the houses.’ The external world is metaphorically destroyed by the Futurist being’s ultimate gaze; his take on reality all that matters. Indeed, the Futurist glorification of technology isn’t centred around creation, the pride of innovation for innovation’s sake, but the potential such advancements offer for destruction. This embrace of brute force approximates the Futurist version of carpe diem, as the narrator urges his friends out into the streets, out into this new unknown terrain: ‘We must break down the gates of life to test the bolts and the padlocks!’

Marinetti goes on to set out eleven Futurist conditions — ‘our first will and testament to all the living men on earth’ — the central tenets of his prospective movement. ‘We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness,’ says the first. ‘The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt,’ the second. ‘We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed,’ he extols in the fourth, and in the eighth: ‘We are on the extreme promontory of the centuries! What is the use of looking behind at the moment when we must open the mysterious shutters of the impossible?’ So far, so exhilarating. But as we reach Marinetti’s ninth point we begin to taste a curdle in the milk; to perceive the real, more sinister driving forces at the heart of his impassioned argument.

9. We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.
10. We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.

Ah. We are of course unsurprised — in 1909 — always — to hear the misogynistic shoe drop. Drawn in the singular as ‘woman’, it’s not simply literal womankind but the symbolic ideal of the eternal feminine that is here figured as Futurism’s ideological opposite; yet another passive terrain to be commandeered by man. Though Marinetti’s ire is directed at abstract notions of essential femininity, the inherent misogyny of Futurist ideology is evident in the manifesto’s pointed lack of female presence. In keeping with his “leaving behind” of the mythologies of old, Marinetti rejects the traditional mythic homosocial motif in which a “band of brothers” bonds through battling for the favour (and/or in defence) of a wanted woman. As the men beetle through the streets in their cars en masse, they are blissfully uninterrupted, untempted, unfettered: ‘no ideal Mistress stretching her form up to the clouds, nor yet a cruel Queen to whom to offer our corpses twisted into the shape of Byzantine rings! No reason to die unless it is the desire to be rid of the too great weight of our courage!’ In Marinetti’s vision of male camaraderie there is no competition — in fact there is very nearly no ‘I’. The group of friends acts in almost thorough unison from the very first line, ‘hunt[ing], like young lions’. Even the manifesto’s eleven conditions are expressed in persistent terms of the ‘we’. But despite the lack of woman, this bonding is definitively homosocial as opposed to homoerotic. The men are sexually engaged with the Other, but for Marinetti the automobile — the technological item as opposed to any human being — is the ultimate sexualised object.

We went up to the three snorting machines to caress their breasts. I lay along mine like a corpse on its bier, but I suddenly revived again beneath the steering wheel — a guillotine knife — which threatened my stomach. A great sweep of madness brought us sharply back to ourselves and drove us through the streets, steep and deep, like dried up torrents.

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    Ford Motors Model T advertisement, 1908

By now this comparison seems intuitive, but it wouldn’t be until advertising’s “golden age” of the 1960s and 70s that luxury cars would become synonymous with the commercialisation of sexual fantasy and knowing sexist winks. The first automobiles proper had been produced in 1888 by Karl Benz in Germany, with mass production in place in France and the US by 1900. The ensuing flurry of technological experimentation in the field was dizzying, and this was reflected in contemporary car culture. Advertisements from the era trade in safety, reliability, beauty, and affordability, but in the days before driving tests, traffic management systems, or explicit anti-inebriation laws, driving was something of an extreme sport, with motor-vehicle deaths in the United States doubling from 1908 to 1910. ‘Death, tamed, went in front of me at each corner offering me his hand nicely,’ writes Marinetti, ‘and sometimes lay on the ground with a noise of creaking jaws giving me velvet glances from the bottom of puddles.’ This drive with death of course recalls the psychosexual notion of the death drive, le petit mort, the essential purgative quality of male sexuality. The ‘great sweep of madness’ that spurs the group to hypermasculine action also evokes the abandonment of the mind to the impulse of the body, the loss of rational processing, the doing-without-thinking of sexual craving. Indeed, the exhausting persistence of human desire — what Laura Riding calls ‘sex surviving the satisfaction of the appetite’ — is embodied in the easy restarting of the automobile. ‘We thought it was dead, my good shark, but I woke it with a single caress of its powerful back, and it was revived running as fast as it could on its fins.’ Remembering its essential role as an extension of the self, the driver’s glorification of the automobile is an already an acute expression of narcissism. But further, the revival of the phallic car by a ‘single caress’ is reminiscent of masturbation (Riding’s ‘throwing the damned thing out’), reiterated in the absurd fervour of the narrator as his road race reaches its climax.

‘I stopped short, and in disgust hurled myself — vlan! — head over heels in a ditch. Oh, maternal ditch, half full of muddy water! A factory gutter! I savored a mouthful of strengthening muck which recalled the black teat of my Sudanese nurse!’

In Marinetti’s landscape, while technology offers sexual stimulation, nature — the motherland — provides the vital maternal nourishment. In a Futurist sketch of the coming century, all womankind is negated: there is simply no place, nor need, for the literal, embodied female. This steer toward the pleasures of posthuman sexuality and hedonistic masturbation, away from the biological impulse to procreate, reiterates the Futurists’ ideological favouring of destruction over creation/preservation/commemoration in wider culture. In closing his manifesto, Marinetti calls for the death of cultural and academic institutions that glorify the past: the museums, libraries, and academies that serve as Italy’s ‘innumerable cemeteries’.’To admire an old picture is to pour our sensibility into a funeral urn instead of casting it forward with violent spurts of creation and action. Do you want to waste the best part of your strength in a useless admiration of the past, from which you will emerge exhausted, diminished, trampled on?’ Not satisfied then with wreaking havoc upon the present and disrupting the procreative order (thus fundamentally threatening the future), Marinetti longs to violently sever all ties with the past.

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Barocci Federico, Aeneas’ Flight from Troy (1598). Oil on canvas, Galleria Borghese.

To understand how truly radical this is in the context of Italian cultural history — what a profound act of destruction Marinetti is inciting — we must cast a long glance back to the first century BC and the earliest days of the Roman Empire, where deft, respected agricultural poet Publius Vergilius Maro was commissioned by the administration of inaugural Emperor Augustus to pen the founding myth of Roman Italy. Capitalising on the populist clout of an exceptional military career through the Gallic wars, Augustus’s adoptive father (and predecessor intended) Julius Caesar was instated in 44BC as the first and last dictator perpetuo, breaking from the constitutive tradition of year-long, curtailed-power consulships — an accolade that swiftly led to his bloody murder one short month later, a whole new spate of ensuing civil wars through 30BC, and the decisive disintegration of Rome’s five-hundred-year-old Republic. Wresting back power, emerging from this particularly tempestuous time in the nation’s generally turbulent history, Augustus worked to reinstate stability, prosperity, and (his unique interpretation of) traditional Roman values, ruling for forty-one fruitful years and credited with establishing Pax Romana: two centuries of (very much relative) peace and limited military expansion. Consolidating this cultural revolution, Vergil’s Aeneid traces an adamant lineage from the very settling of Rome in the wake of the Trojan War (13th century BC) down through mythic founders Romulus and Remus (8th century BC) to the Augustan period. Published shortly after the poet’s death c.19BC, it follows the events at Troy from the perspective of a minor character in Homer’s Iliad (c.850BC) — the apparently-charmed son of King Priam’s cousin and love goddess Venus-Aphrodite. Fleshing out Aeneas’s story from little more than a handful of Greek references, Vergil imbues his protagonist’s ideals and actions with Augustan ideology, and legitimates the authority of the Julio-Claudian dynasty by “foretelling” the Augustan emperorship. Beyond duty to the gods and submission to his fate, Aeneas pays due deference to the institution of the pater familias: the authoritative supremacy of a Roman household’s patriarch. As pater patriae — father of the fatherland — Augustus was morally responsible for the well-being of his citizens as well as the felicity of his nation, and knew only too well that the success of Rome as an international power depended upon its ability to produce fighting fit and zealous sons. As such, he introduced extensive marriage legislation, promoting a culture of familial stability and protected legacy. In his departure from Troy, Aeneas leads his young son Ascanius by the hand and carries upon his back his elderly father Anchises, who in turn carries the ash vessel of his ancestors, leaving wife Creusa to run along behind (and ultimately, spoiler, perish). ‘To waste the best part of your strength in a useless admiration of the past.’ In his escape to a brighter future, a brave new homeland in Latium, the hero’s symbolic priority is to ensure that both heir and sire survive; to preserve his lineage, his history.

It is in Italy that we are issuing this manifesto of ruinous and incendiary violence, by which we today are founding Futurism, because we want to deliver Italy from its gangrene of professors, archaeologists, tourist guides and antiquaries. Italy has been too long the great second-hand market.

With the fall of the Roman Empire in 476AD, Italy was divided and conquered by a rolling series of foreign powers, only officially unified as a kingdom in 1861 — less than fifty years before Marinetti’s manifesto. Nonetheless, the beginnings of a cohesive Italian culture came with the Renaissance of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, when advances in publishing meant easier access to (and revived interest in) the key texts of classical civilisation, and the beginnings of linguistic standardisation thanks to the peninsula-wide popularity of Tuscan Dante Alighieri’s poetry. In the Divine Comedy (c.1308-21), Dante has Vergil act as mentor, protector, and tour guide through hell and into purgatory; honours him as a literary and spiritual father figure. Again, the emphasis is on carrying forward the past, respecting one’s roots and forebears. That the entire concept of literature is predicated on love-lettering the tales of yore is fair argument, but when Marinetti argues that art can progress only in severance from what has come before — when he doesn’t laud Dante’s Inferno but demands that one be made of Italy’s libraries, of Italy’s galleries, of Italy’s thriving cultural heritage — it is a call to violence far more symbolically devastating than if wielded in the majority of other countries. Greece and Italy, after all, are the twin roots of western civilisation as we know it.

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Marinetti in 1933 before a portrait of himself with his family (Gerardo Dottori)

Despite Marinetti’s outcry against indulging in Italy’s past glories, he would later attach himself to the country’s rising Fascist movement of the 1920s (though he would continue to dispute the party on this point). In a fitting echo of Augustan realpolitik, NFP founder Benito Mussolini harked back to ‘the Roman tradition’ just as long as it served his purpose — setting a prototype for the good citizen and legitimating Italy’s moral right to head a great international empire — while taking the liberty of synthesising his very own totalitarian brand of national leadership. In another, Italy’s leader was once again highly invested in his country’s birthrate, and in 1925 Il Duce launched the ‘Battle for Births‘: tightening abortion laws, banning contraceptives, and introducing a tax upon unmarried men. As we have seen, this celebration of heteronormative union and procreation is also quite at odds with the Futurist polemic, but the two schools did share a model of masculinity in which power, aggression, courage, and virility were fetishised, and where bodies were symbolised as machines, ‘illuminated by the internal glow of electric hearts’ that beat to the clockwork march of patriotism. In the same year Marinetti crashed his own real car, Mussolini predicted a new breed of man [sic], ‘strengthened by war, a spirit equipped with a kind of sublime perversity’ — a description that certainly evokes the ‘vlan!’ mentality of ‘Il Futurismo”s fictionalised driver. Italian women under Fascism were dissuaded from education and employment, and were figured less as fully-fledged citizens than as a key asset to man and state, but they still did have their place in the movement’s private and public spheres — a significant step up from their complete eradication in the Futurist realm. Aeneas and his men sailing out from Troy in their ships, ‘hoisting their sails to fate’, is certainly reminiscent of Marinetti’s drive with death, but women are allowed aboard the Aenean fleet, and again Vergil gives the non-soldiering sex their place in the narrative — if only as vengeful goddesses, pep-talking ghosts, and connivers hell-bent on waylaying destiny.

It’s worth noting that the Trojan War narratives are key examples of the aforementioned “band of brothers” motif: fuelled by the “theft” of Greek beauty Helen, and the gathering of her once-suitors to help husband Menelaus, King of Sparta, fight for her return. This is perhaps what Marinetti had in mind when deriding those ‘ideal Mistresses’ and ‘cruel Queens’ — the women who would only serve to distract his friends from their havoc-for-havoc’s-sake ideals — but of course even Futurism in the end had its female players. In 1923 Marinetti would marry Benedetta Cappa, herself a bold and successful artist-writer, and the two collaborated on a series of mixed-media works branded Tactilism, before the man who once rallied ‘contempt for woman’ and deliverance from his country’s ‘gangrene of professors’ became in 1929 a full member of the Italian Academy. Hypocritical perhaps, but the manifesto is after all a slippery medium. Resting somewhere between a call to action and speculative fiction, its rhetoric is never quite intended as a moral promise, but as a fully realised alternate perspective — an advertisement, illustrating a happier alternative reality, if only. With 1909’s ‘Il Futurismo’, Marinetti sold his contemporaries a very modern utopia, substituting increasingly unruly ‘woman’ for the ego-propelling ‘mechanical bride’. In doing so he set the anarchistic tone for a dawning century that would come to be defined by technological anxiety, politicised artistic movements, and the creative manifesto concept.

and if you go chasing rabbits

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour aired in CBS’s coveted Sunday night primetime slot for three seasons between 1967 and 1969 before its controversial cancellation with one episode still in the can. Pulling in around 12 million viewers per week — approximately one fifth of the total number of homes that owned a television in late 60s America — it more than held its own against NBC’s western hour-long Bonanza, whose fourteen-year-long popularity makes a lot more sense when you learn it was one of the first regular colour telecasts in a sea of grainy black and white (and even more once you’ve seen a young Michael Landon — aka Pa Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie — holding court as Little Joe). The charm of Tom and Dick’s shtick lay somewhere between Ant & Dec and Craig Ferguson: cheeky and affable, dapper without quite being handsome in their matching side-parts and blazers; spry and absurd, their subversive intent plated in glinting smiles and feigned naivety. As the show continued, with the help of a provocative young writing team including Bob Einstein and Steve Martin, the pair increasingly allied themselves with Haight Ashbury philosophy and the anti-Vietnam movement, pushing the boundaries of political satire both overtly and subtextually, and the show became so well-thought-of in countercultural celebrity circles that The Beatles chose it to premiere their 1968 proto-music videos for ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Revolution’ in the United States (a full month after they were shown on The David Frost Show in the UK). Earlier in the show’s run, on 7th May 1967, Jefferson Airplane burst onto the mainstream with this performance of new single ‘White Rabbit’ — the first time the band had been televised in colour, with psychedelic special effects worthy of a 90s school disco and Grace Slick’s preternaturally steady gaze boring down the camera. Introducing the band, Richard Smothers encourages the audience at home (to the delight of those in the studio) ‘to… eat a banana while you’re watching this — or smoke a banana as my brother said, but actually he’s pretty far out, even for me.’

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It’s hard now to imagine an entire month’s wait between the transatlantic premieres of a new recording by the biggest band in the world, and just as hard to imagine what it must have felt like to watch this hallucinogenic spectacle as a contemporary adolescent (or as one of their permanently-disconcerted parents). Although the cultural sea change was well under way, ’67 was the year pop music outgrew the rainy day women and magic dragons of its gateway drug to embrace the mind-bending lures of LSD and psychedelic rock in the heady lead-up to the Monterey Pop Festival and San Francisco’s Summer of Love. The Beatles had already made their quantum leap from the woozy folk-rock of 1965’s Rubber Soul (featuring a brief sitar experiment from Harrison on ‘Norwegian Wood’) to Revolver and the trippy tamboura and tape-loops of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ in August 1966, but Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with its more deliberate ode ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, would not appear for another month, and it was especially shocking to see an attractive and self-assured young woman — not a bedraggled bearded burn-out — espousing the sublime joys of drug experimentation. (Contemporaries such as Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez may well have walked the walk, but didn’t so explicitly talk the talk. Though of course this presumes that the audience at home understood what the lyrics were truly getting at when in fact they — and the majority of censors at the time — didn’t quite.) Indeed, the acid anthem wasn’t just sung by Slick, brought to life by her trademark primal howl and shamanistic intensity, but was one of two tracks she had brought with her from disbanded project The Great Society, the other being Jefferson Airplane’s 1966 single ‘Somebody to Love’, which achieved a similar level of success and renown. In an unlikely meeting of influences, ‘White Rabbit’ is inspired musically by Maurice Ravel’s ‘Boléro’ (1928) and Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain (1960), and lyrically by her childhood love of Lewis Carroll’s Alice volumes, as Slick guides us steadily to an orgiastic crescendo with her winding, cameo-heavy retelling of the tale.

The story of Alice in Wonderland is very much how I experienced things. She grew up in rigid Victorian England, but she arrives in Wonderland, and suddenly it’s nuts, it’s political, and she’s all by herself ­– no Prince Charming comes and saves her. Same thing with going from the 50s into the 60s, so you had to have faith in yourself, because nobody’s going to save you: if you expect that, you’re in trouble. Little girls read Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and in all of them the heroine is saved by some guy — they don’t do anything for themselves! Snow White worked a little bit,­ she made breakfast for a bunch of guys. I’m sorry, I never cooked anything for the band. You play the guitar, I sing, you don’t make breakfast for me, I don’t make breakfast for you. We buy breakfast. –GRACE SLICK, INTERVIEW MAGAZINE, 2007

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It’s apt here that Slick draws a connection between autonomy and food, independence and sustenance, because Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) is a story preoccupied with the boundaries of selfhood as they relate not just to tests of the heroine’s mettle, but to distortions of her body through ingestion. One pill makes you larger and the next pill makes you small. For Alice these are the Eat Me/Drink Me confections that affect her in a wonderdrug way; which she swallows moments after descending the rabbit hole in hopes of fitting through a tiny locked door into the beautiful garden on the other side. Of course, sizeshifting is a staple of children’s stories — a cousin to the low fantasy “while you were sleeping”-style narratives of The Borrowers, Toy Story, Grimm’s helpful elves, et al. In these examples, the protagonist/reader is allowed an awe-inspiring glimpse of a world beneath a world, operating outwith human hours but by its rules and upon its scraps, the secret often warmly shared with deserving children by an all-knowing, twinkly-eyed narrator. But sizeshifting narratives are far less to do with the invocation of the magical and more about questions of identity, personhood, and one’s place in society. Such tales often tap into the cultural anxieties of the time in which they were written. In Gulliver’s Travels (1726), the protagonist himself doesn’t shrink and stretch but he stumbles through a series of worlds in which he is rendered hugely disproportionate, first a giant among the Lilliputians then a pocket-sized doll in Brobdingnag. Through an odyssey of intercultural errors and astute satire, Jonathan Swift engages with theories of innate human nature and political philosophy, disorientating his protagonist at every turn in a reflection of the sociopolitical instability of the early eighteenth century. Poor Gulliver stays physically the same, but each time he arrives in a new society he brings the ideology of the previous one along, his sense of self-and-other knocked by each experience, a completely different man by the end of his travels. Meanwhile, Disney live action classic Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989) toys with an 80s parent’s twin anxieties: achieving work-life balance (not letting your career absorb you to the point you sweep your quarter-inch-tall children out with the trash),keyz_web and the thought of growing children fending for themselves out there in an often hostile world (giant bees). On the kids’ part, it is a tale with a moral not unlike the vast majority of family blockbusters: you are stronger than you realise but also more vulnerable; if you settle your differences and work as a team you have a better chance of survival; your parents are just idiots who are trying to do their best. Simultaneously, it rides the wave of science-gone-awry movies of this period, which responded to recent progress in take-home technologies such as personal computers and cellular phones, and in the advancing field of genetic engineering. (This would later develop into the dark brand of early 90s computer-driven narratives, featuring hacking conspiracies, virtual reality, and other assorted “cyberspace” nightmares.) The Victorian era too was a time of prodigious scientific invention and experimentation, and great medical strides were being taken with the discovery of “laughing gas” anaesthetics and surgical antiseptics. But for most the apothecary — apprenticed as opposed to qualified, ancestor to today’s homeopath — was still king, and in Carroll’s brand of sizeshifting he plays with the anxiety of medicine-taking in a time of thriving cure-all trade; the prescription of an unknown substance that is going to affect you bodily, allegedly overwhelmingly, in untold ways. It’s this daunting prospect that fundamentally links the stories Slick loved in childhood and her experiences as part of the drug revolution — this idea of being metamorphosed by a substance stronger that your will, that makes you bigger and smaller, pushes and pulls you, but that also risks drawing out whatever is already inside you to create a different self, just as true if not truer, unbridled and unselfconscious. ‘How [Alice] longed to get out of that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers,’ writes Carroll. For the acid generation, the beautiful garden was locked deep within the mind, and LSD was the key.

‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ was written in April 1966 when John Lennon visited London’s newly-opened Indica Gallery Bookshop, looking for a copy of The Portable Nietzsche, leaving instead with The Psychedelic Experience. Located in Masons Yard, St James’s (where White Cube now stands), the gallery was famous for its VIP-heavy happenings and groundbreaking support of the alternative arts scene, and is incidentally where Lennon would later meet Yoko Ono in November that same year, at an exhibition of her conceptual work with avant-garde collective Fluxus. Indica co-owner Barry Miles ran the bookshop side of the business, and its provocative range reflected his avid personal interests in experimental literature, drug culture, eastern philosophies, and ‘pataphysics (which would appear to have outlived the 60s). Timothy Leary hadn’t quite yet reached the heady heights of his eventual notoriety — President Nixon would purportedly name him ‘the most dangerous man in America’ come the early 70s — but by the time his Psychedelic Experience was published in 1964 the former clinical psychology professor had already been sacked by Harvard for his controversial drug trials, which were just beginning to embrace LSD, and which most notably involved famous beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and a group of the university’s Divinity Studies graduates, soon introducing a psychedelic culture across the wider campus. Based upon an ancient funerary text known in the west as The Tibetan Book of the Dead (c8BC), Leary’s book aims to provide a correspondent guide through a psychedelic drug trip, in the belief that both experiences involve a journey to ‘new realms of consciousness’, initiating a transcendence of the material and verbal, and ego-death. Borrowing its language and distilling its essence, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ became a veritable LSD For Dummies. Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream. It is not dying, it is not dying. In one of the most brilliant closing scenes of the ever-brilliant Mad Men, Don listens to the track for the first time at the encouragement of younger wife Megan, and the camera pans across other characters playing their part in the zeitgeist before we are jolted back to the Draper residence, where Don shuts off the music and retires wearily to the bedroom. When the screen cuts to black and the credits begin, the music picks up again from where it left off. In the dawning 60s, as the show began, Don was our blueprint for cool, for progressive. In his opening scene he talks to a black server as an actual human being, and in early seasons he fraternises with beatniks and has an emotional moment with Frank O’Hara. Despite some bumps in the road (homophobia, antisemitism, generic misogyny) he fondly encourages both Peggy and Dawn’s ladder-climbing, even making it as far as skinny ties, electric razors, and The Rolling Stones, before falling at the psychedelic hurdle. Here, the counterculture (and the show, thus the audience) happily leaves Don behind, playing on no matter how many times he would like to lift the needle. Absolutely worth whatever exorbitant licensing fee the show’s producers must have had to pay.

Bed In

Tommy Smothers, Rosemary & Timothy Leary join John & Yoko’s Bed-In, June 1969

On 25th June 1967, the first ever live satellite television event was broadcast around the world to an estimated audience of 350 million. Live on air, at the height of the Vietnam War, The Beatles cut their next single ‘All You Need Is Love’, playing over a backing track with a little help from some very special friends, in a performance that George Harrison would later describe in the Beatles Anthology as ‘a bit of subtle PR for god’. Timothy Leary too was no stranger to the power of advertising. As Mad Men has illustrated, this was an exhilarating time in the field of audiovisual media — the peak union of burgeoning globalism, forward-thinking creativity, and commercialism. Throughout his career as The Establishment’s Most Wanted, Leary assembled an arsenal of slogans to publicise what fast became not just a lifestyle choice, but a spiritual movement. In autobiography Flashbacks, he relates his 1966 lunch date with media theory titan (and king of the punchy one-liner) Marshall McLuhan, who advised Leary on the importance of ‘arousing customer interest’: ‘you are promoting a product — your product is the new and improved accelerated brain.’ With an academic background in English language and literature, McLuhan had by this time earned his reputation as a pioneering public intellectual in what would later become known as the field of cultural studies, with three popular works already in circulation and The Medium is the Massage (1967) soon on its way. ‘Prophet of the electronic communications age’, he in fact opened the Our World satellite link-up from Toronto’s CBC Studios control room, discussing the lightspeed evolution of the “global village”, and his ideas on the unique ‘all-at-onceness’ property of the televisual medium: the new worldwide tribalism he believed would result from this unified gaze upon the tv set. (In the end television would only occasionally rise to this challenge, becoming a primarily national as opposed to international tool.) Though difficult to trace the explicit source, legend has it that McLuhan gifted Leary with his most famous slogan at that very first lunch, the phrase that would come to define the acid generation and its reverberations down through the decades: turn on, tune in, drop out. Later, for a child of the 80s or 90s, Leary’s phrase might easily seem to be referring to the ills of television culture — a scathing criticism of late twentieth century westerners who would return home from work all too ready to numb their minds with another evening of “chewing gum for the eyes“. Not quite what McLuhan had in mind, but in 1968’s High Priest, Leary paints a similar picture of his life before psychedelics, describing himself as ‘A rootless city-dweller. An anonymous institutional employee who drove to work each morning in a long line of commuter cars, and drove home each night and drank martinis and looked like and thought like and acted like several million middle-class liberal intellectual robots.’ You don’t have to own a television to be alienated here, but it helps. When George Harrison visited Haight-Ashbury in August ’67 he found for himself that the reality of drug culture had long since parted ways with Leary’s evangelic teachings: ‘It wasn’t what I’d thought — spiritual awakenings and being artistic — it was like alcoholism, like any addiction.’ Even with the very best of ad campaigns, any medium can soon enough be twisted off-message.

‘Turn on’ meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. ‘Tune in’ meant interact harmoniously with the world around you — externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. ‘Drop out’ suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. ‘Drop Out’ meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily my explanations of this sequence of personal development were often misinterpreted to mean ‘Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity’. –TIMOTHY LEARY, FLASHBACKS (1983)

Hugely influential in its technical experimentation, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ stands as an evocative document of its time, but it was ‘White Rabbit’ that soon became cinematic shorthand for trippy psychedelia and a character’s first steps into a strange new hallucinogenic world. By the 90s, however, it was coming to be used to more comedic or sardonic effect. In 1998, The Simpsons used the song to soundtrack Homer’s foray into peyote-laced juice peddling, and the next year it accompanied Tony’s first begrudging hit of prozac in season one of The Sopranos. With the commercialisation of drug culture, the domestication of serotonin-affective substances, the alluring strains of ‘White Rabbit’s intro had now generally come to symbolise being drawn, snake-charmed, into anything you might not be able to control. In the quarter-century since its release the song has been covered by a vast array of bands in a vaster array of styles, from jazz guitarist George Benson in 1972, to goth punk rock Londoners The Damned in 1980, to a bassline sample in the Sugababes’ stunning debut single ‘Overload‘ in September 2000. By this time too, at a different point on the “girl group” spectrum, third wave three-piece Sleater-Kinney were including ‘White Rabbit’ in their live set-list: a fantastic recontextualisation of the track. Here, Slick’s lyrics toy with the band’s recurring themes of gender inequality, female invisibility, body image politics, and the sins of the mother, evident since their riot grrrl beginnings but especially so on recently released All Hands on the Bad One (2000). Propelled in popular culture by Washington’s underground music scene, 90s feminism was rooted in the theory and groundwork of the second wave (60s-80s) whilst rejecting its “solutions” of learnt masculinity and corporate careerism, instead embracing community ethics, diy culture, and the iconography of girlhood. In blistering album track ‘Youth Decay’, Corin Tucker sings her narrator’s feelings of existential deterioration, causing her visceral bodily pain that others believe to be psychosomatically self-inflicted, and therefore easily-endable. ‘Am I rotting out? Daddy says I’ve got my momma’s mouth,’ she howls, indicting not just the overbearing, emotionally abusive father, but also his over-accommodating wife, who says she suffered just the same pains when she was young and yet allowed herself to repeat the cycle, leaving her daughter to suffer through. And the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all. More recently, an Arabic version of Slick’s song featured in twisted crime dramedy American Hustle (2013), and it’s interesting to note that both The Beatles’ and Jefferson Airplane’s trip tracks were covered for teensploitation action flick Sucker Punch (2011), in which a young woman in the 60s is institutionalised and slips into a computer game-like fantasy world. In this setting, in a film that upends misogynistic geek/gamer culture, the song is recast as an empowerment anthem, a rejection of the patriarchal institutional strictures placed upon “wayward women”, a rebellion against playing by their rules. When the men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go. Refreshingly, Mad Men dodged the cliché for Roger’s first LSD experience — laced sugar cubes for dessert at a dinner party hosted by his wife’s psychiatrist — instead opting for a warped-out version of ‘I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times’, from easily the most solid, most elegant long-player of the decade: Pet Sounds (1966). As with so many moments in the show, hearing Brian Wilson’s sumptuous harmonies in their natural habitat packs a huge emotional punch, stripping away forty-plus years of mythologisation to illuminate the everyday human reality of life in such a tumultuous, careening period. We crowd silently round the tv set on the day of JFK’s assassination, we are rocked by Marilyn’s death, our minds can hardly comprehend the fact a man is walking on the face of the moon. And despite all the years of The Beach Boys as shorthand for harmless youthful folly and good vibrations, we finally understand Pet Sounds as an album not in celebration of its time, but itself laced with a tender melancholy, anxiety and alienation, wistful simultaneous yearnings for the past and the future, home comforts and new horizons. We imagine how it really felt to be there, in the fray, out of sync, shrinking and stretching, disorientated at every turn by the sociopolitical instability of the 60s revolution.

‘Electric technology, by virtue of its immediate relation to our nervous system, is itself a sort of inner trip,’ McLuhan wrote in 1974. Both he and Leary held that their belief systems fundamentally overlapped, each seeking better understanding of life through experimental mediums. While each ideology was built upon individualistic rites — defying hegemonic culture, chasing the white rabbit deep inside your own mind, experiencing the world for oneself through a screen — the paradoxic pay-off of these practices was communality, a breaking down of barriers, the profound realisation of essential human oneness. This is the kind of utopian language we’re now so used to hearing in social media discourse, from Arab Spring commentators to twenty-first century philosopher kings (‘I’m trying to make the world a more open place’), which is really just globalism taken to its furthest point. The internet is of course the ultimate act of communalism-by-individualism, and McLuhan would be posthumously celebrated for “predicting” its invention as far back as 1962, envisioning the ‘extension of consciousness’ through a post-television medium — ‘a computer as a research and communication instrument’. Leary, for his part, would wholly embrace the new digital age, proclaiming the personal computer ‘the LSD of the 90s’, and the internet as a freedom from the dominant media culture: turn on, boot up, jack in. As with Slick’s ‘White Rabbit’ and each of its later feminist incarnations, as with McLuhan’s wish upon a satellite, the driving moral of psychedelic philosophy was to question everything, to challenge the party line and transcend received wisdom. To work to see things clearly, critically, and independently: to stop following the crowd and join the stream. Remember what the dormouse said: feed your head, feed your head.

my pisces lover, abstract and wild

Zebra Katz’s underground/high fashion hit ‘Ima Read’ is one of those music videos you never forget seeing for the first time. Over a dark, driving minimalist beat, Ojay Morgan’s sinister alterego details the many lessons he wants to teach the world in a pressing monotone, dressed cosily like the proverbial schoolteacher but marking papers with giant red Fs and staring down the camera like he’s trying to will himself into your nightmares. In empty corridors and library stacks we see twin “schoolgirls” dancing messily in their ski masks and lashing beaded braids, crashing into one another like drunken toddlers one minute, pulling the Shining stance the next. The whole scene is lit like an evening in custody. And amongst it all sits Njena Reddd Foxxx, petulant in her pleated schoolgirl skirt, wool cardigan, and knee-socks; smiling coquettishly and flipping her bunches while she promises to slice, dice, and ice that bitch she just doesn’t like. The song’s lyrics extrapolate the ball scene idea of “reading” — the great queen tradition of destroying someone else’s soul through pithy, painfully accurate putdowns — and Katz and Reddd Foxxx show their own hardy commitment to realness, carrying the concept through to absurdly academic lengths. ‘Ima give that bitch some knowledge, Ima take that bitch to college,’ he says. ‘It’s gon’ be cohesive,’ she says. ‘It’s gon’ be my thesis.’

I was lucky enough to catch them live not so long after the track began to gain traction, supporting Azealia Banks on her 2012 Fantasea tour, in a mindblowing performance that began in creeping leather bondage masks and fast became a high-energy exhibition of playfully vicious rap battles and floor exercises. A particular highlight was hearing the bemused crowd around me refer to Reddd Foxxx as Katz’s “dancer girl” as she chair-vogued her way Kit Kat Clublike through the set’s opening tracks, only to lose their shit when she grabbed hold of a mic of her own. Things have been a bit quiet on the music front for Njena since 2013’s wonderfully strange take-no-prisoners EP Needful Things — and sadly also on the twitter front since early this summer. But, trained at prestigious arts institute Cooper Union, she has been involved in exciting creative projects in other spheres, including a recent co-exhibition at Washington’s Smith Center (under her given surname Jarvis), and this mesmerising video collaboration with London fashion designer Kitty Joseph and Absolut Vodka (directed by Rohan Wadham) at the tail end of last year. Soundtracked by her own track ‘Watercolor’ — an uncharacteristically mellow paean to a long-distance lover, produced by Jepordise and built upon a Tom Brock sample — Reddd Foxxx models three bespoke looks — “drop”, “flow”, and “settle” — twisting and dipping her way through a series of subtle contortions, mimicking the dispersion of ink dye through water.

Taking inspiration from traditional Swedish glass crafts, every bottle of Absolut Originality has a drop of cobalt blue infused into its glass. This colouring technique has been used for centuries in hand-made art glass, but never before has it been applied to create four million original bottles. Added just as the molten glass goes into the mould at 1100°C, the drop of cobalt blue streams down inside the glass creating a unique streak of blue. At that temperature the cobalt is invisible, but as the glass cools off, a beautiful and unique blue infusion appears. (x)

Absolut is a brand with a really interesting advertising history. Originated by Madison Avenue art director Geoff Hayes in 1980, the company’s primary print campaign is by now the longest-running in advertising history, with over a thousand incarnations following a very specific format: bottle front and centre, two-word tag, first-word absolut(e). Through this repeated motif, the iconic bottle becomes something of a fond acquaintance, recurring in a seemingly inexhaustable series of visual gags that veer from heroic “straight man” stances to the bottle rendered as a kind of conspicuous secret agent character, peering out from behind its camouflage and sneaking around the tableau in the comic vein of an Inspector Clouseau or cartoon trickster. In a precursive move that, for better or worse, propelled the enmeshment of high art and high commerce, the company has also commissioned original works from over eight hundred artists throughout the years, beginning with Andy Warhol in 1986. But creative charm aside, the Swedish brand is one of very few famously known for its refined social consciousness. You’d have to be perilously naive to think they’re in it solely for the karma points, but nonetheless Absolut has been staunchly team lgbtq* since placing back cover advertisements in gay-interest periodicals The Advocate and After Dark back in 1981, long before it was considered anything other than brand marketing suicide to do so. However, the spare simplicity of Absolut’s flagship campaign proved a perfect vehicle for queer-friendly double-coding, with a series of meticulously constructed and magnificently executed ads that acted as commercial optical illusions, open to interpretation, and the appreciation of a wide variety of potential consumers.

1990_absolut_ad_copy Absolut-Vodka-Creative-Valentines-Day-Ad mistake marilyn appeal-green images pride
warhol-2 haring-2 pierregilles originalsscanoram...-hirst-2-16cbf95 absolut-bourgeois
Top: a selection of print ads since 1980. Bottom: Andy Warhol 1986; Keith Haring 1986; Pierre et Gilles 1993; Damien Hirst 1998; Louise Bourgeois 2003.

I’ve been listening to Njena quite a bit lately, and have found myself returning again and again to the Absolut clip. It really didn’t get the attention it deserved. So many commercial collaborations are woefully misjudged, but this really seems like the perfect meeting of minds and intentions. With an evident background in the ball voguing scene, not only did Reddd Foxxx come to prominence in the queer hip hop wave, but her lyrics play with the very same strain of double-coding as those early advertisements, trading in silly bitches, fishy girls, and mad queens — understandable in very different ways to very different audiences. (‘If you catched the clues you know what I mean.’) Recontextualised in this way, constant jocular references to her metaphorical anatomy — ‘bitches on my tip like a full time waiter’, ‘fuck that bitch, no vaseline’ — can also be read in a completely new, queer light. From music to installation to performance, the many strands of her creative work attend to the body as metaphor, the metaphor of the body, and it’s incredible here to watch her gender presentation transition from scene to scene through just small alterations in her hair, garb, and mannerisms.

The original edit is beautifully pacy, accentuating the flow between music, movement, fashion, and imagery, but I really wanted to take a closer look at what Reddd Foxxx was doing with her performance. Below is a selection of gifs I painstakingly grabbed from the video clip. Watching each scene out of context, it’s interesting to note that alongside the mimicry of her fluid movements, the jump-cuts on the swirling liquid scenes echo her popped poses and the stuck-record cycling of the track, creating an even more profound sense of cohesion. Let the automatic slideshow flow for an abridged, slowed-down version of the video, or hit pause and click through one by one to see just how stunningly well-constructed the whole thing is.

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nothing like the real thing

Based in Edinburgh and supported by Creative Scotland, Arika is a non-profit organisation staging experimental arts events across the UK, including an ongoing series of festivals in Glasgow exploring the intersection of multi-disciplinary artistic discourse and radical cultural politics. I was gutted to have to miss their last event, but this time around made only slight progress by scoring a late-release ticket to the closing discussion at south-side venue Tramway. Episode 6: Make a Way Out of No Way (named from the African American folk proverb, drawn from Isaiah 43:16) dedicated its weekend to exploring race, sex, sexuality, and gender as social categories versus the reality of lived experience, through a programme of music, film, and performance. Variously tired, jet-lagged, overwhelmed, and overstimulated, the assembled panel pressed on through two hours of in-depth discussion on black identity and experience. An introductory point about the whitewashed, cis-centric narrative of the gay rights movement was perhaps most illuminating, as activist and filmmaker Reina Gossett cited the work of key trans activists of colour Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, firebrands of the Stonewall riots of 1969 now yearly commemorated internationally as Pride. Gossett is currently working on Happy Birthday, Marsha!, a documentary about the important work and friendship the two women shared, and spoke of the mistreatment they suffered as the gay power narrative gained traction; the commercialisation of the movement in their wake; how parades that once ended in public parks now make their way to public houses. This set the tone for much of the discussion ahead: pride and passion in the work being done, but frustration at the enduring widespread sociopolitical and economic hardship of people of colour; the selective solidarity displayed by certain sectors of the lgbtq* community; the minority status within the minority status. At times anecdotal, at times abstract, at times angry, the conversation was passed around the table like a pliant piece of clay, shaped and reshaped by each speaker according to their background, encompassing institutional oppression, gentrification, theology, and molecular biology. The sheer wealth, breadth, and depth of knowledge and experience in the room was dizzying.

The overall theme of the evening was “realness”: a phrase popularised in the mainstream by Jennie Livingston’s pivotal 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, a chronicle of NYC’s drag ball scene as it ebbed towards the end of its Golden Age. Beginning with the queer masquerades of 1860s Harlem, ball culture reemerged in the 1920s and 30s with the “New Negro” movement, developing in the neighbourhood’s myriad jazz clubs and speakeasies, where black bohemians and white voyeurs flocked to see Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey sing the blues for hot poppas and bulldaggers in their tops and tails. Navigating the Prohibition-era cultural clampdown, the Puerto Rican influx of the post-war years, and the heteronormative ideologies of the 1960s Black Power movement, the scene continued to thrive behind barred doors, centring around competitions of theatrical catwalking categories showcasing the looks, moves, style, and attitude of femmes and butches in turn. In the 70s and 80s, the competitive circuit developed into a house system, with membership based upon personality traits and biographical kinship, echoing the burgeoning street gang and hip hop crew cultures. Here, nominated house-mothers and -fathers preside over family-like collectives, providing guidance, tough love, and understanding to their drag children. Ensuring shelter and safety for generations of homeless, ostracised lgbtq* youth, this community structure became particularly important through the heights of the Western AIDS epidemic, with entrance fees to underage balls waived for the sake of a visit to the HIV testing booth, and safe sex information disseminated by house-parents and respected emcees. Always preoccupied with the luxe spectacle of it all, the ball scene fell headlong into the haute hypercapitalism of the late 80s and early 90s, with houses often named for luxe labels and brand-conscious “mopping” (shoplifting) fast becoming a vital skillset for any serious competitor. Icon Ayana Christian was another member of the Arika panel. ‘Have any of you ever owned a real designer bag?’ she asked. ‘Real genuine leather, with that little card inside?’ The language of luxury goods easily lends itself to the ballroom.

We’re born naked, the rest is drag. –RuPaul

Filmed over seven years, Livingston’s film is a part tender, part ribald portrait of a maligned community on the cusp of being co-opted by the zeitgeist. Greeted with rave reviews and a cull of festival awards, its release came hot on the heels of Madonna’s smash hit ‘Vogue‘, and captured the spirit of the identity politics era, in which every college kid worth their bottle of CKOne belonged to a grassroots activist group designed to their own personal sociopolitical specifications (talk about theatrical catwalking categories). It was around the same time that the whiter, gaucher, downtown Club Kids caused quite the stir on the daytime television talk-show circuit, and it’s fair to imagine that, for most viewers, sightings of a befeathered Pepper LaBeija and displays by voguing godfather Willi Ninja all folded into the same spectacle, selling a scandalising vision of a post-Warhol, pre-Giuliani New York City populated by drug-addled gender-bending cartoon hedonists. In fact, though the two cultures were central to lgbtq* history and the development of postmodernism, and though both grew from the outcast’s fetishisation of fame, fantasy, and fortune, each was deeply rooted in a very different musical and artistic tradition — garage-house and techno-house, disco and punk, glamour and the grotesque, sequins and sci-fi. Without casting aspersions upon the cultural importance of the Club Kids, the ball scene certainly engaged more directly with sociopolitical issues, offering a safe space for the city’s economically and societally disenfranchised to congregate, celebrate, and imagine themselves living a divergent life. Beyond self-expressive role-play, ballroom drag allowed anyone bold enough to step up on that stage to be ‘anything that you’re not, and might want to be — or might want to make fun of, in some cases’. Alongside femme/butch queen and dance rounds at any given ball were categories such as ‘executive realness’ and ‘banjee realness’, with walkers competing to sell themselves to the crowd and judges, to prove they might “pass” in public, as a member of the social sub-group of their choice.

Though many of Paris is Burning‘s stars met with a tragic fate, dying young or in mysterious circumstances, the houses live on, and the ball scene continues to thrive today, albeit in a largely google-unfriendly fashion. Besides the widespread international influence of vogue, the culture has trickled down through popular culture in manifold ways. While pop artists like Beyoncé, Ciara, and Willow Smith have paid homage in their lyrics and dance routines, acts such as Lady Gaga and the Scissor Sisters have been even more overt in their shout-outs. Perhaps the most overlooked torch-bearer of the ball scene was Sex and the City, whose scarlet-headed Stylist-in-Chief Patricia Field had the dubious honour of founding ‘the first white downtown house to walk the uptown balls‘. The influence is evident in Carrie’s commitment to dressing the part (#executiverealness), but the most pointed tip of the hat is in ‘The Real Me’ (402), in which she is called upon to work the catwalk (with disastrous results) before play-strutting around her bedroom to Cheryl Lynn’s ballroom anthem ‘Got to be Real‘ in the episode’s closing scene. Though RuPaul’s background is more Party Monster than Femme Queen, his disgustingly entertaining Drag Race brings the zany humour of the Club Kids together with the unique lexicon and house-mother warmth of the ballroom, borrowing the America’s Next Top Model format to create something of a drag renaissance in recent years. This revival has been compounded by a new wave of queer black artists eager to pay their respects, from fashion darling Zebra Katz of once-ubiquitous ‘Ima Read’ fame, whose live shows feature gimp masks and Njena Reddd Foxxx’s creepily slow-mo’d voguing, to provocative lyrical spitfire Azealia Banks, who mixes voguing and ball lingo with posthuman iconography and post-CK electroclash covers. Despite being one of many subcultures riddled with homophobia, the more mainstream strands of hip hop too seem to echo with the legacy of ballroom. Rap — which grew up in the Bronx before spreading to neighbouring Harlem — is another genre quite uniquely preoccupied with the notion of “realness”: being real, keeping it real, authenticity and legitimacy. As Andrew Marantz writes in a recent article for the New Yorker, examining how this theme has developed through rap’s history, ‘realness in hip-hop has a slippery definition, related to the everyday sense of the word but not synonymous with it.’ While Maranz details the various examples of respected rappers whose backgrounds didn’t quite align with the hood narrative they were selling (Rick Ross was a prison guard?!), the article is essentially an attack piece on Iggy Azalea’s brand of glossy, ebonics-driven pop hop, and concludes that ‘realness, for her, is just another hip hop tic … nothing about Azalea feels real, in any sense of the word.’ There’s absolutely no denying that Azalea is a deeply problematic artist, but what such articles fail to consider is that, despite being a Tupac fangirl, rap for her is more a mode of artistic expression than a dyed-in-the-wool lifestyle. First things first, she’s a performer, and her public persona is infused with drag ball culture, as shown by frequent social media references to being “beat” (done up in flawless make-up), and her sheer glee at being called ‘a great drag queen‘ by RuPaul. Taken in this context, as a pretty young white Australian woman who gets up on stage every night as a flawfree swaggering rap goddess with a deep south drawl, Iggy is the realest: is practising ballroom realness on a worldwide scale. Indeed, the drag ball scene has featured plenty of cis-PYTs through the years, and bald bombshell Amber Rose found her feet there as ‘Paris Karan’ long before she was Kanye’s most infamous ex (now going by ‘Muva Rosebud’ on the internet). Considering the widespread cultural narrative that Yeezy taught her everything she knows, it’s interesting to hear such a ballroom influence in his 2011 collaboration with Jay Z, ‘N*s in Paris’. So good it defies all superlatives, the track is both a celebration of the jetsetting life of the young, black and gifted in the twenty-first century, and an ode to the city of lights as a place of freedom and frivolity for African Americans since early in the twentieth. Through homonymic and homophonic wordplay the song operates on two levels, ripe for reappropriation by the ball scene. The opening ‘Hova’ shout-out — a reference to Jay’s “god of rap” moniker — is voiced in such a way that it could be the ball scene warcry ‘ovaaah’, bestowed upon only the most fabulous of queens. A comment on the disproportionate criticism and ridicule levied his way whenever he acts or even just speaks out on America’s racism, Kanye’s ‘doctors say I’m the illest / cos I’m suffering from realness’ also serves to meld the worlds of hip hop and ballroom, extolling his authenticity, his aesthetic, and his willingness to stick his head above the parapet in one fell swoop. ‘Ball so hard’ is a given. To top it all off, Kanye wears a leather skirt in the promo. Give Jay his due but there’s a reason everybody says that Ye changed the game, Heidi Slimane.

These are some of the thoughts I took into the Arika round-table. What I brought away was an understanding that realness is a far more complex, political concept than I’d realised, tightly woven with notions of safety, survival, and catharsis, rebelling against the hegemonic strictures of the world we live in. While in the media and common culture lgbtq* people of colour are ignored and invisiblised, paradoxically in public spheres they are highly spectaclised, unable simply to walk down the street without risking the wrath of bigots and law enforcement agencies. In their ballroom walk, competitors at once take control of this hypervisibility, basking in the spotlight, while living out a fantasy of blending, passing, getting out from under the glare. Realness mediates the idealised self, the “true” self, and “reality” as defined by our culture. In living out these fantasies onstage, competitors escape the persona thrust upon them by society and socialisation, not by rejecting the narrow categories but by subverting them, proving them as fictions. Nevertheless, they do buy into these fictions, enjoying a brief taste of the attached privileges not afforded to them in real life — affluence, respect, adoration of the masses. Through realness they finally do feel real; feel recognised as valid social beings. What I brought away was leading advocate and Legendary House-Father Michael Robertson Garçon’s call for fury; filmmaker Arthur Jafa’s words on rejecting the idea of ‘difference as a basis for pressure’; poet-educator Fred Moten thinking aloud on ‘difference without separation’ and asking sound tech to restart the track, this time from the top, ‘this is Aretha‘. In a poignant moment, theologian Charlene Sinclair talked of the strangeness and difficulty of always discussing racial issues ‘under the white gaze’ at such events; Moten replied ‘I don’t care who is looking — look on, white people.’ I’ve spent the past four days reading over my notes with about twenty-five tabs open at any one time. Next year I’ll be sure to book early.

speaking in tongues

I first found the Glasgow Women’s Library by way of an intriguing sign pointing down a city centre alleyway on my way home from school every day. Finally googling circa 2009, I’ve since attended a slew of events, met some wonderful people, and assisted in a few of the library’s projects, from sorting through and cataloguing feminist magazines, to helping to establish the Hens Tae Watch Oot Fur zine of young queer women’s voices, to geeking about literary heroines while shovelling delicious homemade hummus down my throat. Now I’m involved in its new Seeing Things project, which intends to establish a safe, friendly, and engaging social network for women who might not otherwise feel comfortable attending cultural events around the city. Don’t you just love the reclaimative sense of that name? The 19th century Madwoman in the Attic idea of women “seeing things”. Infantilised hysterics confined to their beds, stimulated only by the patterns in the wallpaper.

One of the best things about the project is being privy to an enhanced, behind the scenes view of what’s happening in Glasgow, and last week we were lucky enough to be guided through the Centre for Contemporary ArtsSpeaking in Tongues exhibition by Director Francis McKee. The CCA is currently sifting through its extensive collection of promotional and administrative materials, researching its own history since 1992, and that of its predecessor the Third Eye Centre: a ‘shrine to the avant garde’ founded in 1974 by playwright Tom McGrath. This exhibition invites back three important contemporary artists — Susan Hiller, Pavel Büchler, and Sonia Boyce — each of whom worked with the TEC/CCA early in their career. Though keen to chronicle the venue’s past and evidently committed to honouring the history of the avant-garde arts in Glasgow, McKee is wary of the institution of the archive; their capacity to be ‘awful, dangerous things’ loaded with political or ideological or even just subjective bias, representing only a very specific version of the past. Indeed, many of the works in Speaking in Tongues worry the question of what is to be kept and what is to be left behind, passed over, discarded.

Susan Hiller, Lucidity & Intuition: Homage to Gertrude Stein, image from susanhiller.org

Upon entering the exhibition space, one is immediately met by Susan Hiller’s Lucidity & Intuition: Homage to Gertrude Stein, an approximation of the writer’s desk, under which is packed an unexpectedly copious selection of books on automatic writing: the practice of writing while directing one’s attention elsewhere, whose messages have latterly been attributed to the workings of the subconscious mind, but which were once co-opted by surrealists and spiritualists as evidence of spirit and alien worlds, the writer’s hand ‘owned by something else‘. Though Stein conducted experiments into automatic writing at Radcliffe with renowned psychologist (and brother of Henry) William James, fast becoming his “most brilliant woman student”, she would later grow ashamed of — and reject — the association. In Hiller’s sculpture, the books seem almost to hold up the table, as her disowned academic life surely supported her literary experimentation, and subsequent cultural legacy. The piece is topped by a bound copy of Stein’s thesis, and surrounded by a collection of mounted light boxes (From India to the Planet Mars) in which Hiller borrows examples of automatic writing by fin de siècle medium Hélène Smith, who claimed to be in communication with Martians, as well as the reincarnation of first Marie Antoinette, then a Hindu princess. Hiller’s work is obsessed with what we suppress, what we sublimate; as a culture, as evolving selves.

Pavel Büchler, conversely, is preoccupied by what remains; by the offset of representation and reality; by the process of transforming an object’s purpose and presentation while retaining some kind of spirit of its meaning. In I am going to use this projector, the artist presents a by now antiquated cassette recorder, mounted to the wall, which plays a distracting recording of typewriter clacking, a tiny counter smoothly ticking off the seconds of tape. When Büchler originally found the object it included a recorded discussion between two artists, Mel Gooding and Terry Atkinson, which he had transcribed by a typist, recording this new sound over the old, losing forever the original conversation while commemorating it in this new incarnation, the typed transcription mounted alongside, formatted in pale ink on a lengthy scroll of paper so as to be all but unreadable. In his other assembled works we see traditional printing press typesets brought out of retirement to spell the names of the primary colours using secondary coloured paint (Honest Work); a sculpture of air mail scales and ping pong balls in which everything hangs in the balance, ‘a kind of visual gag’ (per McKee), signifying nothing (0:0); two clunky television podiums playing a synchronised looped video, switching between two small still images of Samuel Beckett, that endlessly dour master of pointless repetition, effecting him as a rampant Pythonesque nodding dog (Nodds).

Finally, in Sonia Boyce’s anteroom, floor-to-ceiling shelves display selected records and bookmarked magazines from an archive of black female music artists raised (or who made their careers) in Britain. Born of a 1999 workshop in which Boyce and her participants struggled to name anyone beyond Shirley Bassey, The Devotional Collection is an ever-evolving, tactile piece that includes a functional record player, for curious or nostalgic visitors to delve into the stacks. The opposing wall is decorated with the names of some of the 200+ women added to Boyce’s list since the day of that workshop, set out in large bold serif type and decorated with messy concentric outlines, echoing the rapt, obsessive concentration of a pop-loving teenager. Through this collection and her short video Oh Adelaide — a collaboration with sound artist Ain Bailey which can be viewed online here — Boyce interrogates the erasure of women of colour in the music industry, the cultural disposability of women’s art, and the question of who and what is archive-worthy. Who gets to decide what needs to be remembered? What is the importance of collective memory? In this internet age of real-time history-writing — when everyone with a tumblr log-in is a fledgling curator and the V&A is acquiring Katy Perry falsies and Primark jeans as part of a ‘rapid response’ collecting strategy — when does preservation begin to indulge pointless nostalgia, the blinkered arrogance of the present?

Susan Hiller, Measure by Measure // Pavel Büchler, Idle Thoughts // images from the CCA website

There were two works especially from the exhibition that have lingered with me. In Measure by Measure, Susan Hiller creates an industrial sculpture from the ashes of her own work. Annually selecting twenty pieces to be burned, she collects the rubble in long stoppered pipettes, date-stamping and displaying them in thick glass jars. In Pavel Büchler’s Idle Thoughts, the artist frames a year’s diary on twelve single sheets of paper: one month of entries per page, overwritten to create a bruised, tangled mass. As a terminal diary-keeper and life ephemera hoarder, both of these works fill me with a kind of tender horror. Though I rarely even drag my bags of old journals out from under my bed, one of my deepest regrets is still throwing away the thick blue hardback notebook that was my constant teenage companion. Despite the cathartic notion of sending them out into the public sphere in impenetrable disguise, the idea of my most intimate feelings, my profoundest thoughts, being lost in an illegible thicket of ink — a whole year of lifewriting and memory-making made irretrievable. Who on earth can foresee what we’ll consider important, what we’ll want back in our lives later on?

Of course what these pieces might be trying to tell us is that the importance of the work is putting in the work. The importance of the work is in creating something meaningful, even if that entails demolition, decreation. Archive-creation by its very definition requires a strong stomach for destruction, a ruthless eye, Ockham’s razor. If writers are always selling someone out, archivists are always cutting something loose. This deftness of touch, a palpable tautness, can be felt viscerally as one wanders through the Speaking in Tongues exhibition space. The clacking of Büchler’s typewriter, Beckett’s nauseating nod, the long dark cables stretching from television and tape recorder to their impossibly distant power sockets, not an inch to spare: all help to create an environment of austerity, a heavy sense of what is not being shared. Despite the overarching theme of being spoken through, being owned by something else, being out of control and presenting the private, between the regurgitated works, distorted language, and conscientiously bookmarked pages, it soon becomes clear that each of these artists is saying only exactly what they mean to say. Sharing only exactly what they wish to share.

Speaking in Tongues runs at the CCA until March 23rd, though be aware that exhibitions are closed on Mondays. Shouts go out to Francis McKee for an illuminating, fantastically personal tour of the collection. The GWL is currently hosting an exhibition on the LGBTQ* acronym as part of LGBT Month Scotland until February 28th — amongst other events. The Seeing Things project (#seeingthings) has lots of exciting exhibition trips lined up, including provocative sculptor Sarah Lucas at the Tramway, and Louise Bourgeois’ ‘insomnia drawings’ at the Edinburgh Fruitmarket. If you want to get involved, have any questions, or would like to suggest an event, I’m sure organiser Alice would love to hear from you.

did this in my bedroom where i separate my laundry

Already a big fan of Donald Glover as Troy on the once-perfect, now sadly flailing meta-sitcom Community, I came to his music during the dizzy heights of Adele-mania circa February 2011, through his feature on the Jamie xx remix of ‘Rolling in the Deep’. That winter had been a pretty bleak time for me. Fleeing a toxic living situation, I’d had to forfeit a ridiculous amount of money and only narrowly avoided a terminal case of Yellow Wallpaper Fever. In the early hours in my parents’ spare room, writing terrible undergrad essays and living off pre-packaged sandwiches as winter turned into spring, the Childish Gambino EP played on an infinite loop through my earbuds. I have worked all winter, I will not fail summer. I’ll always remember that stressful morning in April moving into my new sublet, paying the men with ven, closing the door, picking my way through the bags and boxes and perching on the edge of the bed, listening to Culdesac all the way through for the first time. That album got me through. When I moved into student accommodation as a member of pastoral staff that September, the fact Donald Glover was an RA in college gave my still-shaky mind some irrational reassurance that I was making the right decision. In January 2012 I parted with fifty quid on eBay and made the Megabus pilgrimage down to London for the first of his two nights at the City Arts and Music Project’s temporary space in Shoreditch. That gig was probably the closest I’ve ever come to religious fervour.

‘I wanna do the best I can, but sometimes I’m weird and insecure and awkward about stuff. Everyone’s so afraid of being misunderstood, but it’s going to happen.’

The Leona Lewis era lost me a little, but the Royalty mixtape was strong, and I’m getting quite excited about Because the Internet, due out in just a few weeks. Glover’s recent conversation with legendary, recently reinstated talk-show host Arsenio Hall is just one in a trail of amazing recent promotional interviews, where a chilled Glover talks about reconciling his ambition and his insecurity, the eternal pursuit of personal improvement, being a multi-medium artist in the digital age, and… the apparent impending threat of 3D printer guns. I really like what Glover has to say about the importance of caring what others think and feel, because I think it marks a real shift in his approach to artmaking and being a cultural contender. This is a useful compendium of reasons Glover’s work has been problematic in the past, but I’ve always maintained he has a long way to go, and is on a learning path. I loved that in Camp he started to engage critically with issues of race, but his sustained misogyny and Orientalism was disappointing. In a sadly un-refindable interview from last year, he said that his biggest regret about Camp was how he referred to women. But though Royalty was less overtly abrasive, to my knowledge he’s never voiced any self-reevaluation in his creative output. The one thing I’m really hoping for from Because the Internet then is evidence of the shift in Glover’s worldview in this regard — not because he owes it to anyone, but because it would signal something very exciting in his evolution as an artist. Not to detract from his feelings of disenfranchisement — it’s the main reason I identified so strongly with his music — but it seems that Glover is finally growing out of “hater culture”, where any criticism or lack of support is brushed off as haterism. By which is seemingly meant: some mystical concoction of small-mindedness, artlessness, bitterness, and trolling. Haters gonna hate, as the saying goes: they don’t get it, they can’t handle it, they couldn’t do it, it’s not about you, it’s about them. This strength of self-belief is an important step in the actualisation of any artist — a creative incubation period, drowning out the melee of voices in order to find your own. But to ignore critical commentary because it isn’t what you want to hear, because it challenges your idea of who you are, is not only hugely irresponsible, but completely self-stunting. I feel like Donald Glover is one of the most important and inspiring artists out there right now, because not only does he want to communicate his experiences, to ‘make the spectator see the world [his] way not [theirs]’, but as he says to Hall, he wants to keep learning, keep growing. Moving on is scary, but it doesn’t make sense to stay here.

Despite a lot of internet hours racked up on Wikipedia and Rap Genius, I don’t pretend to be any kind of authority on hip-hop. The opening gambit of the infamous 1.6 Pitchfork review — ‘If you only buy one hip-hop album this year, I’m guessing it’ll be Camp.’ — was a solid burn. But I’m learning, and I’m learning a lot through Childish. I love the unique medium of rap, how the best artists pack about ten different themes into each track, shifting between tenses and perspectives and rhythms, tying everything together in their flow; through callbacks. In particular lately I’ve been watching a lot of live radio freestyles. I think it’s so interesting to see the evolution of a rapper’s “bag of tricks” — the tropes and topics they fall back upon when put on the spot, when their mind is grasping for good ideas. I was recently lucky enough to attend the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Vaughan Williams’ 8th Symphony, conducted by Andrew Manze at the City Halls in Glasgow. Operating similarly “off the dome”, Manze talked the audience through a brief biography of the composer and discussed his ideas about the inspiration for and construction of the symphony, inviting the orchestra to illustrate. Finally, the symphony was played in full. It was fantastic. It gave me ‘nam flashbacks to a recent job interview that didn’t go so well. I had to give a presentation, and though off-the-cuff spiels have always been one of my strongest suits in uni seminars and previous jobs, I over-prepared with a fully-drafted speech, baulked under the gaze of a roomful of strangers, and struggled to tear my eyes from the page. On the way home, I tripped and fell flat on my face in the street, badly staving my ankle. It was a huge, horrible learning experience of a day. That moment where all semblance of control is lost and latent creativity takes over scares the bejesus out of me — but I’m working on it. I watch people with ability to harness that animal, to ride that wave, with a kind of gruesome admiration. I think Childish Gambino is at his best and most exciting when freestyling, whether in an interview or ad-libbing a scene or with his music. This clip is from his recent appearance on Sway in the Morning, rapping (and chatting) over Drake and Jay Z’s amazing ‘Pound Cake’:
 

Every night I tour that, moment. But we don’t take pictures, when you’re rich you just see it again. The only thing they really worry about is me and the pen. Wrote some shit on Instagram, I’m just being honest. They tried to give your boy pills like I’m being violent. They tried to give your boy pills just to keep him silent. Keep telling people the truth, you could be iconic. Tried to give your boy pills like ‘you’re scaring us’.
 
Try to stay inside I don’t really like appearances, I try to stay inside but they still got something to say. Are you still on the show, are you dating Jhené?
 
It’s deeper than that.
 
Calico inside the handbag, I’m keeping the cat. Got some n*s in reserve like I’m deep in Iraq. And I’m deepening rap, and it’s deeper than that.
 
This is deeper than rap.

metamorphoses

A fortnight ago, in various venues across Glasgow, Scottish art-house collective Cryptic presented its second annual Sonica festival, a curation of unique, innovative, avant-garde science-art; one long weird weekend of “sonic art for the visually-minded”. Had I but world enough and guesties, I’d have been front and centre for everything. As things stood, I had to narrow it down to the unmissable: Michaela Davies’ Compositions for Involuntary Strings. In little over a decade, with an academic background in psychology and philosophy, Sydney-born Davies has already amassed an impressive catalogue of mostly musical projects that figure her as a kind of posthuman Abramović; a bodies-not-buildings version of obstruction-upon-the-natural obsessors Christo and Jeanne Claude; Charcot’s Augustine all grown up and working through her complex ptsd. For this particular fright night, against the eerie stripped-brick backdrop of the Tramway’s main space, Davies’ quartet were strung like strange sweating marionettes, wired to electronic muscle stimulation pads through which a pre-programmed “score” was transmitted, jolting and spasming the musicians’ arms to create a unique “involuntary” performance. The result was a morbidly engrossing evening.

Though aware the experience couldn’t possibly be agonising, from the trailer all I could think of was the Cruciatus Curse. As the audience entered the room, the musicians were in place and ready-wired; twitching legs, tapping feet, and giddy self-awareness giving away the anticipatory adrenaline coursing through their bodies. Building from an introduction of rough grimacing slaps on the bodies of their instruments, each musician moved through artless plucks and bow scores into complex fiddle patterns and tremolo so rapid you expected smoke. As later transpired, at least one of the performers had zero musical training; this team of cyber-musicians propelled by uncaring technology, lost in the satisfying discomfort, the terrifying catharsis of the complete loss of control. You thought of the girl in the red shoes (enchanted or cursed?) who couldn’t stop dancing. It made you queasy.

This hyper-embodied spectacle reminded me of a play I saw recently — Theatre North’s Handel’s Cross, part of this year’s Glasgay festival. Secured to a wooden saltire in a fetish dungeon, the protagonist-narrator talks his audience through a half-hypothetical biography of Baroque composer George Frideric Handel, twisting the tale with fantasy scenarios as his “jailer” enacts gestures of sublime pleasure/pain upon his naked body. A thoroughly unique theatre experience, perhaps most shocking was how quickly one acclimatised to seeing such a scenario on stage. We watch as his body is lashed then the cuts spritzed with perfume, candle wax poured down his chest, nipples clamped, testicles flogged until his body is ruddy and convulsing with pain. His senses overwhelmed by the experience, he begins to fumble his words, to cry out before the blow even strikes. Crucio with consent is the fundamental concept of BDSM, but the implications during performance are quite different. In those moments it was impossible to separate the character from the actor; to ignore the exposed human being beneath the thin surface of the art. ‘In performance art the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real.’ ‘This is a story about bodies,’ the play begins, and you think of Ovid, and forms that change.

In a single week where I finished one job, lost another, moved house only half by choice and celebrated a landmark birthday in the opposite of style, when the Sonica event rolled around it should have made more sense to stay home licking my wounds. But instead the question at the heart of the event’s promotion seemed particularly poignant: are the players playing, or being played? During a post-show Q&A every bit as weird and discordant as the piece itself, one audience member seemed fixated on the concept of voluntariness, arguing endlessly that the performance was indeed self-determined, being composed and pre-programmed and recurrently staged. It was irritating as these things are. Conceptual art rarely holds up to close reading — such rational criticism only serves to derail the creative conversation and to reassert the archaic hierarchy of masculine mind/logic/objectivism over feminine body/experience/subjectivism. Indeed, in this case the body-work of a younger woman was literally being maligned by the mind-interrogation of an older man, and in an exciting moment of spontaneous solidarity the room turned, several female audience members taking back quick control of the conversation. But in a philosophical slippery-slope sense the general point is an interesting one. If one consciously lays the foundations of the bad and painful things that will happen later, if one makes poor choices, diligently scoring one’s own downfall months and years before the spectacle is staged, can one really be said to be acted upon by higher powers, a bit-part in compositions beyond one’s ken? The artists’ bodies were acting involuntarily, out of their control, but their involvement in the project at all was voluntary. How far back can control, complicity, consent be traced? Once onstage, in media res, are the players playing or being played?

you drive like a demon from station to station

One of the things I always like to ask people when I’m playing getting-to-know-you is what’s your favourite David Bowie song? I think it says a lot about a person, which of his incarnations you’re drawn to, and my own pick is constantly shifting and changing. I guess he was always around in the background somewhere as I was growing up, though neither of my parents were ever particular fans. The first time I remember becoming conscious of him was when my amazingly eccentric/borderline secondary school Modern Languages teacher Mrs Smith, upon discovering that someone in our class had never heard of her favourite artist, cancelled the next day’s lesson to have us sit listening to Space Oddity with eyes closed and heads down on the desks. Afterwards, going around the room one by one, we were to list something we’d particularly enjoyed about the track. Anyone who hadn’t liked it was made to defend their opinion against The Ultimate Bowie Fangirl Machine, until they were inevitably beaten into submission and made to announce that 2 + 2 certainly did = a rather spectacular 5.

So maybe it’s like the musical version of Stockholm Syndrome, but I got a bit fixated on David Bowie a few years ago. I had been super into Madonna for a while and read a few interviews where she talked about how sneaking out to see one of his concerts was a formative moment in her life and career, then I took a class on psychoanalysis in pop culture and watched clips from Life on Mars and talked about performers like Bowie (and Madonna) who embodied the ideals of postmodernism, that the solid ‘self’ does not exist and we can choose to be who and whatever we want to be. Soon enough I started googling around and youtubed some of his videos and performances and interviews to get a sense of how much he played around with those kinds of concepts. There were a few of his songs that sunk their claws into me, but I would especially listen to TVC 15 on repeat for literally hours. It remains one of my favourite Bowie tracks.

I love the bizarre seediness of it, the strange calypso drums and Bowie’s odd Elvis intonations on the verse, and the kind of baggy trousers oompah oompah lairishness of it. I love the amazing sci-fi off-set of singing about state-of-the-art technology (oh, 70s) in such an old-fashioned thigh-slappin’ cabaret stylee. “The song was inspired by an episode in which Iggy Pop, during a drug-fuelled period at Bowie’s LA home, hallucinated and believed that the television set was swallowing his girlfriend.” Bowie’s relationship with Mr Pop has always fascinated me. There’s this whole rock ‘n’ roll mythology bit about how they moved into a tiny ramshackle flat in Wall-era West Berlin in the 70s to break away from their celebrity, find inspiration in the kraut rock scene, and get clean. Lou Reed joined them and the three spent the majority of their time nightclubbing, genderfucking, and writing some of the most depressing and sordid songs of their (/anyone’s) careers. I think about this, like, all the time.

Station to Station was the album preceding Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy.’ Subsisting on a diet of milk, peppers, and cocaine, obsessed with the occult, and living “in a state of psychic terror”, he performed under the guise of his last great character, the sinister Thin White Duke, “a hollow man who sang songs of romance with an agonised intensity while feeling nothing”; “ice masquerading as fire.” I love this clip of rehearsals for his 1976 tour. The wolf whistles and how feminised he becomes; the sort of new yoik sitcom theme tune jazz guitar intro and the pathetic weakness of his solo chorus. The pointy fingers at 3.17! It’s all so camp and bombastic, a parody of itself, almost mocking the (hypothetical) audience for seeming to think this is a song one should want to see performed. Wonderfully cruel.

There don’t appear to be many later renditions of the track kicking around — it’s not a song Bowie tends to play in concert anymore — but this is a great version performed on the London stage at Live Aid in 1985. The thrusting hips, the bouncing back-up girls, the frenetic oh-oh-oh-oh-ohs. No longer creepy and absurd and sparse as in the original studio recording, nor sung from very far away with a sneer of derision as by the Duke, all of a sudden TVC 15 becomes crazy meaningless happy bouncy party song! Of all his repertoire, at this point in his career, it strikes me as hilarious that Bowie would choose this song as one of only four to be broadcast before the eyes of the entire watching western world. It works completely in this context — it sounds, to all intents and purposes, like a perfect and obviously appealing candidate for performance to such a mass audience — but he had to completely renovate the track to make it such a rousing crowd-pleaser as this. And should any of the millions watching at home want to track down a copy for their personal collection, they would be introduced to quite a different Bowie in perusing Station to Station and beyond. He mightn’t be mocking himself so overtly anymore, as his alter-ego once did — in fact this performance, in all its shoulder-padded synthesized glory, is almost embarrassingly embarrassmentless. But the song’s inclusion at all perhaps suggests a certain level of discomfort in his status at this time, serving as a kind of caveat emptor, a look closer, an I’m not there.

For the record, I love Yuppie Sell-Out Stadium-Filling Bowie. I always thought it was more about playing into yet another role, monkey-barring his way into the big money music biz, trying on a different costume and stretching himself out in a different direction, without ever losing a sense of detached observation of what was going on around him. He’s never exactly been one for claiming moral integrity or rejecting the base desires. Once it was about lust and gluttony, now it was about greed and pride. But I watched an interview with him once, talking about those years, and he said one night he looked out over the audience and he realised they all looked like they should be at a Phil Collins concert. And he would never be at a Phil Collins concert. And suddenly he wanted to retreat and get back to a time when it was a little less about fame and a little more about infamy, where he might have been popular but never mainstream. So maybe this new interpretation of TVC 15 is just that; an artistic step forward, a bid to improve upon, or modernise, an earlier recording that perhaps at the time seemed silly, but now just seemed kind of… fun.

this modern love

The first two series of Channel 4’s Misfits is amongst my favourite television of all time. Perfectly cast, cohesively plotted, with its own definite aesthetic and a meticulously crafted fictional world, it went so quickly and so drastically downhill with the Christmas Special that I simply refuse to acknowledge the existence of further episodes. Ostensibly the story of five apathetic ASBO yoofs struck down by a supernatural storm that gifts each with a superpower, with each instalment we encounter yet another case of someone affected by the storm, with superpowers ranging from the sublime… to the guy who can control milk. This entertaining premise cleverly serves to despecialise the main characters, hugely undermining their superhero status, and adds a nicely Eerie, Indiana-esque sense of ‘we’re all mad here’ weirdness. Further though, it lends a notion of narrative development while allowing the main story arc to tread water a little when necessary — acknowledged self-consciously by the protagonists burying bodies, digging them up, then reburying them at the exact same spot over the course of three early episodes.

An especially brilliant, un-explicitly-announced touch is that each character’s superpower channels the crime that landed them in community service in the first place, in turn echoing a central aspect of their personality and approach to life. With Nathan ever-adamant that he was simply caught ‘eating pick n mix’, the eventual discovery of his new-found immortality is a particularly perjink comedic pay-off, reflecting his bloated sense of entitlement and belief that the rules of society, and the very concept of consequence, do not apply to him. The story I was most eager to see unfurl however was that of Alicia, a pyt whose power is to engender a visceral amorous reaction in any man who touches her. Pulled over for drunk-driving, she had attempted to seduce a police officer by fellating her breathaliser.

She’s a bit of a Sugar type, and there’s a lot that could be said about the fact both characters are mixed-race, that Alisha even had to be female at all, and that her power only seems to affect straight men. It would have been a really nice development to see this storyline queered in some direction — in fact, sexual diversity is something this show generally lacks. Having known the gist of Alisha’s character in advance, I was sorry to find that her power wasn’t going to be something she could control, yet was still “channelling” an aspect of her personality, ie. she can deny it all she wants but in the end, unequivocally, she’s asking for it. It’s difficult not to read her flatly in these terms. That it wasn’t a simple kind of Hogwartsian love potion was a bit of a shock too. These incidents, taking place at least once per episode, are very adult, incredibly violent, and deeply unsettling to watch. The men don’t just push themselves upon Alisha physically (in many instances succeeding so far in their attack as to be left, after her escape, completely perplexed by their flustered state: open flies, exposed erection) but begin instantly to ream off everything they’d like to do to her — “to” being the operative word. Sometimes absurdly humorous (Simon the sociopathically awkward penguin’s ‘I want to rip off your clothes and piss on your tits’), sometimes pathetically literal, these utterances are never, ever sexy, even when they do in fact lead to sex on her terms. Against all odds, despite a flurry of attacks, despite her lack of agency in terms of her effect on these men, Alisha somehow retains ultimate control, always managing to evade her attacker, always escaping. In one instance even, while being pinioned by two men, she manages to shake herself loose of their rampant grip. You have to wonder at what that’s supposed to be telling us.

I do think there is a really interesting discussion going on here about the concept of consent. At a seniors’ dance at the community centre, when Alisha is partnered with an old man (who duly gropes her) and is later again attacked by a policeman, probation worker Sally intones ‘you seem to have quite an effect on men. You are a very beautiful girl.’ Alisha is adamant however: ‘it’s not my fault if they can’t keep their dicks in their trousers.’ It’s a bold statement against rape culture, but of course at first glance it would appear that this is simply not true. She is undeniably invoking their lust, albeit by supernaturally-gifted means, against her (conscious) intention. They simply, and literally, cannot help themselves. But I suppose there is a question as to why these men are touching her in the first place, a question of male physical dominance over women, the unconsented manipulation of the female body. Despite the men’s evident discombobulation after the fact, Curtis’s assertion that when he was having sex with her while bewitched he was not himself, as much as her superpower is an amplification of her own attitudes to her sexuality and potency, the sentiments expressed by these men are amplifications too of their legitimate latent desire and violence-laced fantasies.

In Muriel Spark’s novella The Driver’s Seat, young office-worker Lise sets off on holiday alone to find “the one”. As the story unfolds it becomes apparent that she is in fact trying to find the man who will eventually rape and kill her, actively seeking him out, the whole thing portrayed as a sort of twisted, inverted love story. “I knew it from the minute I saw you.” Whenever she is alone with a man we are simply waiting for her to be attacked with claustrophobic dread, willing her not to go with him, to run. Similarly, Alisha’s being raped seems an inevitable fate she is coursing toward, with every attack becoming more and more terse to watch as we wonder if this will be the man to “finish the job”. It’s a strange effect which makes us complicit in her attack, almost willing it into being — makes her a self-evident victim, a victim even before she is a victim. Spark’s title largely arises from the notion of Lise-as-woman being uncharacteristically in control of her destiny and her relations with men, but in key scenes we also see her literally behind the wheel, and it’s an interesting parallel that driving seems such a large part of Alisha’s character. Bearing her original crime in mind, she is the only character who can summon up a car when required; in fact seems to be the only one of the five protagonists who can drive. The two-man attack by Curtis and Ben, from which she escapes, takes place in the latter’s car.

In Spark’s final scenes, as Lise “forces” her “suitor” to “consummate” their relationship (again, the feeling is that this is a private desire he is publicly repressing, that she is drawing it from him, permitting it in him, as does Alisha to her would-be “suitors”) it is he who becomes the victim figure, subjected to her desire for sexual death. It is evident that Curtis is appalled by Alisha’s knowingly brandishing her power in order to bed him, believes himself to have been taken advantage of, finally naming it as rape only in the verboten Christmas special. Here we see woman as sexual aggressor, as raper of men — the show’s fantastical element offering this role reversal that, for varying physiological reasons, is largely unrealistic irl. It is when Alisha relinquishes her power only for it to be snapped up by wayward priest “Jesus” that we begin to see it in starkly sinister terms, particularly when he touches and incites her (she once again, against all odds, manages to escape). Curtis is Alisha’s victim, she did rape him, and so what does it say that he then broached and maintained a relationship with her? Why does it feel so instinctively lesser a trespass when the sex roles are reversed?

When Curtis and Alisha decide to be together, they acknowledge that their relationship can’t ever be a fully consummated one. Only much later verbalised though is the fact that, for all anyone knows, Alisha will never be able to participate in sexual contact ever again. The show goes to great lengths to prove Alisha can still be touched “by proxy”, with the barrier of clothing, glass, other man-made materials. If only there existed some barrier by which it were possible to have sex without skin-to-skin contact… Why the instant assent to mutual masturbation without so much as a nod to the concept of contraception, clothed contact, et al? This is something that also nagged at me in the late, great Pushing Daisies, where this kind of ingenuity was employed, but only to romantic (not sexual) extent. When protagonist Ned touches a dead body once he brings it back to life, but touch it twice and it will wither once more. If he doesn’t retouch it within a minute, someone else in the vicinity will die in its place. Largely abiding by these rules, well-versed in self-denial and loss, Ned allows himself two exceptions: beloved pet labrador Digby and childhood sweetheart Chuck. Each becomes a mainstay in his life, albeit touchable only by-proxy, and he and Chuck quickly develop a romantic relationship, albeit unconsummated and in many senses only tacitly recognised.

Charmingly woven with long doting looks and evident adoration/obsession as it was (did anyone ever actually use the word love?), it was an utterly lustless show, with nary a sex scene or even passionate clinch in the course of its run. Though I irritatingly can’t find any of the stuff I read at the time, there were certainly theories abound that the romance of the central characters lent itself to some radical readings in terms of sexual theory: that Ned could be read as a queer character (Chuck?), that his story was an allegory for the cultural effects of AIDS. For my part, I’d argue that the distance between Chuck and Ned is an instance of fetish, the barriers invoked and ingenuity involved in their affecting togetherness a factor in their mutual desire to be together at all. The only other vaguely sexual couple in the show, if memory serves, was that of Emerson and his schoolmarmish dog-trainer, who seemed to maintain a similarly click-happy control over her beau: again, a fetishistic element. In a strange sense then, though sexless, Pushing Daisies is a show absolutely about sex: about wanting and (not) having. About the uncrossable, insatiable, existential distance of desire. Fetishising that distance, it compels the viewer to draw emotional stimulation from those small moments in which that distance might be broached: relishing the supernatural imposition that keeps the two lovers apart because their dedication to defying it viscerally proves their devotion to one another.

Obviously I’m not trying to say that conflicted lovers are in any sense a new phenomenon, but with Alisha and Curtis, the girl called Chuck and the Piemaker, we see that tried and true sitcom standard of unrequited/impossible love turned up to eleven. To bring a couple quickly and painlessly together (no ‘you deserve better’, no ‘I need to figure out what I want for myself’, no ‘I’m afraid of how much I love you’), to have them be emotionally available and openly together and to want to be together and yet to be painfully held apart, to have physical technicality be the issue and not emotional or moral conflict — that’s different. A very special kind of self-administered pain in the guise of greater pleasure. As viewers, what is that kind of dynamic sating in us? Why, as a fan-garnering trope, is it picking up speed? It’s a situation that we know, by its very definition, can never be resolved in any lasting way (Alisha’s selling off her power notwithstanding, and I maintain this was a bit of a cop-out ex machina). Where with most star-cross’d lovers we maintain a tight oscillation between wanting them to be together and enjoying the doleur exquise of their being kept apart, by investing in Curtis and Alisha, or Ned and Chuck, we are buying in wholesale to that hopeless want; even fetishising it for ourselves as some kind of romantic ideal.

It is universally accepted that Alisha’s superpower is by no means a gift, that it cannot possibly work to her advantage, and yet it — fuckability, per Ariel Levy — is a much-lauded attribute in our contemporary culture. What does it say that sex is now most evidently symbolised as a weapon, as an onslaught? That we are fetishising the obstacles that hold lovers apart; romanticising the barriers that allow them to be together? That we are beginning to idealise relationships where sex is an impossibility, where tactility is rendered extinct? Where intimacy is enacted from afar, ‘staring at one another and wanking ourselves off’.