Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol.1: Snap, Crackle And Pop

Transmissions from nowhere. Digests from the digital netherscape. They are trauma memories preserved in silicon and chrome. They are Chuck Person’s Eccojams.

Introductions done, now the exposition: Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1 is a cassette originally released in 2010, in a run of just 100 copies, by Daniel Lopatin, usually known as Oneohtrix Point Never. Now available via YouTube and whichever file sharing program you happen to indulge in, it contains a series of loops taken from pop songs released between 1967 (The Byrds – Everybody’s Been Burned) and 2006 (JoJo – Too Little Too Late), slowed down and dragged with delay and pitch-shifting, with further sound-bending effects added on top. I don’t think those dates were picked with any design in mind, but their integration into the aesthetic of the album is quite revealing. 1967 was the explosion year for popular music – Radio 1, the Monterey Pop Festival, Sgt. Pepper’s, the first Rolling Stone magazine – while September 2006 was the month in which Facebook became available to non-student users, and less than six months later Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone;

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Steve Jobs introduces the iPhone. (c) Barry Patterson / Wikimedia Commons

arguably the two most important events in our current technological landscape. So what does it matter? Lopatin picks from pop songs during a forty year epoch before the Internet became truly social and mobile, when music was represented by physical media which had to be loaded onto a device to be played, rather than bits of data downloaded, and latterly streamed, across different platforms. The convenience of it all makes it tempting to think it has always been so for those that cannot remember a state of affairs before it, but it is still all incredibly recent. The UK Singles chart did not include downloads until 2005, and the first song to top it from downloads alone, Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’, did not come until a year later.

As any vinyl bore will tell you, records have a memory bound up with their physical product – a Spotify playlist can’t be rediscovered in an attic. Hence the cassette release of Eccojams; with no track listing provided, it is self-consciously in the tradition of the mixtape: a portable selection of hand-picked songs, designed to be passed on to an intimate audience. 2006 is the year in which, arguably, pop culture stopped being an institution controlled from the top down, and where a consumer-led model of curation and creation began to dominate. Let us not forget in 2006 Time Magazine nominated its person of the year as ‘You’. For music, instead of buying those CDs (and at that time it was for all intents and purposes just CDs) and consuming those products as they had been engineered, the new paradigm was to download songs from iTunes, or listen to them slyly through YouTube, from all time periods. The vaults of history were wide open to scroll through and consume, instead of being held back for reprints and reissues issued at a label’s whim. Eccojams is in some ways a response to the phenomenon of engaging with pop, with its sense of a permanent present, as something archaic, almost geologically old.

Eccojams is the best vaporwave release (a label that doesn’t really fit, as that movement coalesced after the release of this album) I know of to convincingly balance corporate anonymity with a softer, lyrical side. Distorted by technology they may be, but these decontextualized pop pieces gleam with feeling in Lopatin’s judicious selection of material. The intimacy that a cassette engenders is further suggested by the themes of love, loss, and missed communication which emerge from the mix. Two of the songs sampled talk about letters – like cassettes, another medium which has been technologically superseded, but in so doing has stripped away technological necessity, and revealed the emotional core inherent to it. To craft a hand-written letter now is inherently a thoughtful act because it will take longer to compose than the electronic messages we send the rest of the time.

The pop songs ebb in and out of a distorted span of time: these gleaming, once futuristic-sounding mixes are saturated with delay and slowed down, giving them a more legged, static quality which represents how obsolescence inevitably catches up with them. Eccojams feels more like a discovered artifact than it does an album. It begins with a fairly straightforward treatment of Toto’s ‘Africa’, concentrating on a spiral keyboard pattern which gives the impression of a curtain being revealed to the main entertainment, which starts with the next track; the one whose structure most resembles a three part pop song. This is the same song which featured on Sunset Corp’s ‘Angel’ video, its name taken from the Fleetwood Mac song which provides the sample. It begins with some extreme cut and pasting of the sample, creating a syncopated dance rhythm through the speed of the edits as different sections of the loop overlap with each other. The second part of the track possesses that same quality of ‘forcing’ different music from the loop, this time by creating a new melody by pitch shifting individual notes. The song fades into nothingness, before it is leapt upon by a snatch of JoJo, which in turn gives way to one of the more underrated jams, a loop of Ian Van Dahl’s ‘Castles In The Sky’. The original song is a quite brainless Euro house anthem. The jam sounds simple but each repetition contains nuanced developments in the delay. Chugging away underneath it all is a synthesiser pattern which sounds like it is constantly ascending, utilising the quality of a loop of an unresolved theme to bring forward a quality of incompletion and tension. The ‘castles in the sky’ are like purpled retrofuturist takes on a forgotten utopia. 

The next track takes just one word from Michael Jackson’s ‘Morphine’, but a pretty crucial one given the circumstances of his death: Demerol. This is another jam originally released via the Sunsetcorp channel, less than a month after Michael Jackson died. Some peace is granted by the next loop, the oldest on the tape, from ‘Everybody’s Been Burned’, where the sustain of Roger McGuinn’s guitar complements the reduced speed and delay which Lopatin uses all over Eccojams. As the Jackson and McGuinn examples show in particular, the expression ‘cratedigging’ is not appropriate to describe the acquisition of samples on this album: there is a sensitive artistic mind at work behind it, one which can hear beyond what sounds good or unusual, and one which is in tune with its predecessors. By magnifying lines like ‘I know that door/That shuts just before’ which wouldn’t be considered especially deep on a standard play through, and repeating them multiple times, they obtain a raw emotional potency.

Janet Jackson samples follow, ones which emphasise the ability Lopatin has to preserve a surprisingly sincere emotional core – the only audible words for this one are ‘lonely’, ‘feelings’, and ‘hold on’. The next sample, from Aphrodite’s Child’s ’The Four Horsemen’ is the closest thing to a misstep on the cassette, though it functions beautifully in the album’s overall structure by bridging the heavily distorted Janet Jackson samples to the closer of the tape’s first side, a virtuosic breakdown of a loop from the end of Marvin Gaye’s ‘My Love Is Waiting’. Gaye sings ‘baby, baby, when I make you mine/I’ll be fine’, but the confident resolution to this 80s pop number is left to keep on waiting by Lopatin, making the singer lose himself in a wall of echo, and synthesised orchestral flourishes

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The man himself. (c) user: transmediale / Flickr

ring in almost sarcastically. Lopatin keeps distorting and chopping it, in the one instance of the tape where it actually sounds like a mangled cassette rather than effects put through computer software. Somehow, within the space of a seconds long sample, Lopatin manages to turn a sexually confident R&B track into a paranoid descent into madness, while also using the technology he uses to accomplish this to undermine the nature of recording in the first instance. If physical media are the bulwarks of culture, then Lopatin is positing what happens when those media decay and corrupt; whether or not their artistic centre and ‘message’ can be preserved when the physical shell disintegrates. The first side closes with a descent into white noise, where transmissions threaten to pop in and out. The bookending of the tape sides with these walls of static is a useful tactic in conceptualising the pop loops as found objects, like something that has been dredged from the bottom of the sea.

The second side opens calmly with a slick John Martyn sample, the glistening keyboards of which are fed back on themselves until they resemble a free jazz workout. Martyn sings about the ‘letters that you just don’t write’; more references to missed communication, compounded by technological fault. Segueing from that is one of the least manipulated samples on the album, and one which is the yang to the previous track’s yin. Samples are treated in two ways on this album: either degraded to artful destruction, or slowed down with minimal intervention, so that a single snippet of a pop song becomes a mantra whose profundity keeps hitting you like blows to the head. Kate Bush imploring ‘Don’t give up, you know it’s never been easy’ is an example of the latter, punctuated as it is with the capital letter of a cool keyboard at the beginning of each iteration. Another burst of screwed noise follows, before Fleetwood Mac make their second appearance in the form of ‘Gypsy’, where Lopatin cleverly shifts the emphasis to build to the phrase ‘lightning strikes’ rather than the word ‘gypsy’. This track is given some of the classic treatment accorded to ‘chopped and screwed’ tunes, as pioneered by DJ Screw in the 1990s: an immensely slowed down beat, and rapid crossfading between the record and one played one beat behind, to give the impression of a track skipping forward at the same tempo. The difference is whereas Screw’s technique accentuated the beats in hip-hop songs by slowing them down so they were palpably different, Lopatin’s technique affords this snatch of a soft rock song an impossible grandeur; growing from jaunty folk-rock to something which, in its references to ‘night’ and ‘lightning’, portends something about the destiny of civilization itself.

One of the more immediately recognisable jams comes next, with a sample from ‘Baker Street’ by Gerry Rafferty, which lacks the punch of the rest of the album, though it does keep the momentum chugging along. The loop has a ‘sneezing’ quality, where the rhythm and completion of the loop is frustrated, without the benefits of danceable syncopation. The words – ‘just one more year and then we’ll be happy’ work well with some of the other dispossessed fragments on the cassette, but the whole package falls a bit flat. The momentum is picked back up straight away though for a glorious run to the end of the album. First Lopatin painstakingly re-assembles a sample one note a time, creating an otherwise nonexistent driving rhythm and pitch shifting up and down the frequencies, diving down before catapulting upwards into…Phil Collins. In a duet with Marilyn Martin no less, from the 1985 single ‘Separate Lives’. If you want to take it personally, there are hints of a heartbreak story hidden in this album, interrupted by these decaying transmissions, which is one of the reasons why it succeeds when a lot of anti-corporate vaporwave fails, as the artists don’t have the vision or ability to match personal and political threads.

The next jam is the most well-known, and could have a blog entry all on its own. It dates back to at least 2009, when Lopatin’s YouTube alter ego Sunset Corp uploaded a video titled ‘nobody here’, which features a continuous scrolling of a rainbow road type highway through an urban sky, all dimmed by a layer of video noise. The music is taken from Chris De Burgh’s ‘Lady In Red’; the snippet of a chorus line ‘There’s nobody here…’ is extracted. Without the ‘…just you and me’ from the original song to bring it back to earth, the loop keeps on yearning and returning without resolve. Thanks to the waves of delay, the guitar possesses an anxious quality and the synthesiser sounds expansive and choral; the two in tandem paint the emptiness which DeBurgh sings about.

Following that drama, a chopped and screwed treatment of Tupac’s ‘Me Against The World’ feels a bit out of place, but demonstrates Lopatin’s sense of humour, if nothing else, to hear all the G-Funk tropes – sexualised female singer, swaggering synthesiser – have all their macho braggadocio sucked out the backside. Something Eccojams left as an influence on the nascent vaporwave scene was a penchant for treating samples with pitch shifting so that they sound much more androgynous. Talented producers like Macintosh Plus have developed this further.

What becomes apparent on the next jam, a rework of Heart’s ‘These Dreams’, is that using delay is not an artistic open goal, and sometimes the abundance of a particular sound creates phantom aural effects. Like the best artists, Lopatin uses this to his advantage, as the sibilance of ‘the sweetest song that I’ve heard is silence’ creates the sound image of rushing grass, with wind running through it; an astonishingly organic quality for something treated so abrasively through editing. ‘Silence’ is important – more indicators of missed communication. That’s a theme which is picked up in the final jam, a concise three part suite which opens with Jeff Lynne singing ‘Letter from…’ over and over, not saying ‘Letter from Spain’ as he does in the original ELO song of the same name. The letter’s sender is unknown, rubbed from history. Womack & Womack give us a jaunty bridge to the final sounds of the album, which come from ‘Woman In Chains’ by Tears For Fears. The last word on this album is one of the most plaintive on the whole cassette, and means that everything before it is qualified with that focus; hence my emphasis on the hidden love story suggested by many of these pieces.

That Eccojams remains difficult to classify exactly is a testament to its power and originality. I have even read opinion pieces which describe them as the peak of sampling as an artform. My view is that they present pop music, the forever dominant idiom, in photo negative: a style which relies upon sounding new, technologically innovative, and emotionally distinct, whittled down into a set of gnomic mantras of emotional ambiguity, all accompanied by a contextual point, arising after 2006, of how permeable and permanent pop music, transmitted as digital media, truly is.

Underappreciated Albums #4: Bob Dylan – Shot Of Love (1981)

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2.83 on Rate Your Music (Artist average = 3.56)

Allmusic: ⅖

Entertainment Weekly: B-

1. Shot Of Love (4:18)
2. Heart Of Mine (4:29)
3. Property Of Jesus (4:33)
4. Lenny Bruce (4:32)
5. Watered-Down Love (4:10)
6. The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar (4:03)
7. Dead Man, Dead Man (3:58)
8. In The Summertime (3:34)
9. Trouble (4:32)
10. Every Grain Of Sand (6:12)

Is there a more uncool chapter of an artist’s discography than Bob Dylan’s born-again Christianity era? Even Radiohead’s ‘Pop Is Dead’ aberration and David Bowie’s wilderness years with Tin Machine have achieved a measure of naff charm by now, but the conventional trio (or should that be trinity?) of albums that mark Dylan’s fascination with evangelism – Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot Of Love – are rarely listened to, or even recognised any more. We’d rather leave them in the cupboard and forget about them entirely. For the first two of those albums, that’s not an unfair evaluation – they are embarrassing given the great man’s high standards.

Shot Of Love at least has a rootsy rock and roll sound, rather than the affectatious gospel of Slow Train Coming and Saved. In those albums the backing vocalists, led by his second wife Carolyn Dennis, sound completely out of place as Dylan does his worst imitations of Baptist singing. For Shot Of Love there is a change of studio – from Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama to Clover in Los Angeles – and, counterintuitively, the move returns Dylan to something approaching the rawness of Blood On The Tracks or Desire; in contrast to the staid, middling sound recorded on the first two born-again albums.

That change is most obvious in the title track, which bristles with an astonishingly live sound. Speaking from a European perspective, extended religious metaphors and pop music for me are by and large incompatible. In a recent chat between Ed O’Brien and Dave Okumu recorded for the Ninjatune podcast, O’Brien recalled a conversation he’d had with Kanye West where the rapper was astonished to find out that, in O’Brien’s estimation, 95% of British musicians would dismiss belief in God out of hand. That said, ‘Shot Of Love’ is one song which, with a powerful gutsy sound working hand in hand with an innovative lyric  – comparing a divine shot of love to shots of heroin, codeine, whisky and coffee. It’s no wonder PJ Harvey covered it.

Whether you view the album as religious conduit or a more secular enjoyment, the songs undeniably have more impact in their structure and their mixing: ‘Heart Of Stone’ has a wonderfully focused chorus, with sweeping chords and changes of pace, and while ‘Trouble’ is a relatively lukewarm 80s protest against signs o’ the times, the guitar and drums have a delicious backstreet vibe to them, as if played by street performers.

Still, though the opening track is strong because Dylan releases a genuine sounding plea from an existential swamp, too many of the songs on here raise him to a pulpit which grates very quickly. The songs are, on average, better than what he churned out for the previous two, but ‘Watered-Down Love’ can’t be redeemed with its plodding exposition of how sorely Dylan’s audience need to be saved. While Shot Of Love’s lyrics can’t compete with the dazzling heights of his mid-60s peak, there is at least an interesting sense of perspective at work on much of the album, as they represent more of an internal monologue for a man who needs belief in the absence of anything else, particularly any sense of self-worth. This allows some of Dylan’s typically enigmatic metaphors to co-exist with Biblical language which, by this point, he is more comfortable with. ‘I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man/Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand’ is a standout from the closing track, with ‘Every Grain Of Sand’ showing a more interesting approach to Biblical materials compared to the more mindless clutches of Bible foisted upon you on Slow Train Coming, which has song titles like ‘Man Gives Names To All The Animals’ and ‘Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)’.

The addition of one track in particular to this album grants it an artistic depth which ensures I keep coming back to it, beyond any prettiness to Dylan’s words or thrillingly engineered sound; track number 4, ‘Lenny Bruce’. Composed in 1980, 14 years after Bruce died, its very inclusion raises a whole host of questions, none of which have an easy answer. Does that make Lenny Bruce like Jesus Christ? Was the writing of the song influenced by the murder of John Lennon during the album’s composition? Why did Dylan write about someone who, as the song has it, he only shared a taxi ride with? Why did he write about another Jewish cultural figure who turned his back on his institutional religion? Paul Nelson’s original review for Rolling Stone helps crystallise an alternative suggestion: that Dylan presents himself as a sacrificial Christ-like figure on the album, and his oddly bathetic overtures to Bruce are part of that portrayal.

Dylan is at his best when he presents, across a song or an album, a series of mysterious signs and lines, like a tarot card deck, which offer an array of interpretations. By the same rule, he is weak when he communicates through evangelised religion, which offers the same answer to every sign. ‘Lenny Bruce’, and Shot Of Love as a whole, are the closest Dylan comes to recapturing such form within his Christian period and, as such, deserve to be re-appraised.

 

Luc Tuymans – Intolerance, exhibition at ALRIWAQ, Doha

Qatar is a country which rarely looks back, preferring to enjoy the prospect of its future. A combination of a traditionally peripatetic Bedouin population and restarts of infrastructure mean that little of the past is actually visible in its capital Doha. The Sheraton hotel, one of the first towers built in the city, looks like an alien ziggurat from another epoch but was only built in 1979. It seems an odd venue then, to host Luc Tuymans, a Belgian artist whose preoccupation is history and its remembrance.

In 2009 Tuymans toured with an exhibition entitled Against The Day, a name shared with a novel by Thomas Pynchon published three years earlier. That doff-capping is a hint to the deeper thematic considerations they share with evaluating the past, though Tuymans’ brushstrokes are often banal and indistinct, in contrast to the searing maximalism of Pynchon’s prose. Consider their diverging responses to 9/11. In 2014 Pynchon released Bleeding Edge, resplendent with typically colourful allusions to conspiracy theories, paranoia and allusions to the deadwood of early millennium popular culture, cf. the ‘Rachel’ haircut. Tuymans got into trouble for his responses to 9/11, a time of gratuitous soul-searching and hand-wringing across the arts, as he made conceptual meta-responses to the event. Firstly there was an enormous, banal still life he exhibited at the Documenta in 2002. Tuymans’ painting called into question the very capabilities of the art form, particularly when accessing the event in emotionally raw short-term memory.  And then a year later he painted one of his masterpieces, Mayhem, which features in this exhibition. Mayhem almost looks like a still life, with barrels and tyre piles dotted across the canvas, but the ramps towards the left of the picture seem reminiscent of the skeleton of a plane: its fuselage, and wings outspread. The turning point of this century is not presented with gravitas, but via a dance of suggestion. Its panoramic perspective also puts me in mind of a famous painting by a Low Countries cousin of Tuymans’; Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Whereas that triptych is read as a narrative with a code to decipher, Tuymans suspends a moment in time and leaves these fundamental outlines – an aeroplane, a cross, a prone man with a gun – ready to be ‘coloured in’ by those who choose how history is remembered.

Indeed, Tuymans’ technique shares qualities between the act of applying paint to canvas and the act of remembering. His paintings have a washed out, watercolour-like quality and favour dull sheen rather than particular detail. He presents images from the worst of (in)humanity, Nazism and Belgian imperialism, but with a deadpan functionality which raises the question of whether those acts anything remarkable to them at all – whether what we might call ‘evil’ is in fact a species norm. He experimented with film-making for a period in the 1980s, and the skills he picked up from that are obvious: he is one of the best painters at cropping, of framing the subject (particularly faces) in a confrontational close-up. Commissioned especially for this exhibition, The Arena I-VI tries to integrate the inherent advantage cinema possesses over painting: the ability to view the same scene from multiple angles. The details of what are painted in that cycle are indistinct, but there is a feeling of aggression and ritual, perhaps a similar depiction of mood from the uprisings and displacement this decade in the Middle East and Africa as he initially did with 9/11 in Mayhem. Tuymans’ art is amoral, it shows humanity for what it is. If we murder and mutilate each other, then that is what we are. Art does not dig us out of the killing fields but shows us how deep the holes go.

One of the delights in his recent output is a series shown off in the exhibition Corporate in 2010, some of which are displayed here. These are thoughtful and hilarious pieces, which alternate between ribbing at the omnipresent tedium of corporate culture a la The Stanley Parable, and aggressively lit, overexposed pieces which recall Francis Bacon’s infernal popes. There have been many attempts to critique such a concept not just in art, but in all fields, and yet few of them make such an impression as these. Given that many of Tuymans’ paintings are of the seemingly innocuous bureaucrats who facilitated the worst convulsions of the 20th century, this is unsurprising.

Not even domestic four walls hold safety in Tuymans’ hands. His interiors have a quiet Hopperesque terror to them which arises from perspectives askew, where walls appear more suddenly than you realise and Tuymans’ cropping places objects in such a way that you feel things are being concealed from your view. The artist has described how ‘most of my imagery has the quality of the silence before the storm’, and his interiors are the best example of that. That washed out, filtered quality means that his paintings are different from most works in that they are a reconstruction, rather than a construction. The paintings have committed themselves to a memorial interpretation before the viewer has the privilege to do so. Some paintings ripple off the canvas, because of a vibrant use of colour or because of dynamic impasto. But Tuymans’ appear to recede even further into the wall, as if concealed behind a layer of atmospheric dust.

For all that is worth praising in the significant collection Qatar has acquired for this exhibition, it is a failure. Doha has imported the materials necessary for a great show but despite the curatorial assistance of Lynne Cooke it is disappointing because there is no organisation to it at all – rooms seem to be arranged with random times and styles. For an artist as wide-ranging as Tuymans, this isn’t good enough. Moreover, while it is my personal preference to have text accompanying each painting in the gallery rather than a handful in a leaflet, the exhibition has very little information on the artist, his upbringing, his education, his collaborations, his nationality – quite something given how much a role knowledge of the past has in his work, given how much a simple prod can reveal a painting depicting something bland to be dripping in historical connotations – a prod I fear unenlightened spectators don’t receive. At the back of the gallery there is an impressive collection of preliminary sketches, but there is no elaboration on how these are worked up into the final pieces, or how the artist’s compositional process can be understood. While in Doha I also visited the wonderful Museum of Islamic Art, a delicately arranged selection of artifacts which presents Islamic art in all its differing styles, from Moorish Spain to Persia. That museum, without patronisation, holds your hand through surprises within what we might think familiar, and is a real asset to the growing city in promoting its native culture. ALRIWAQ on the other hand, seems happy to pay for the work and then sit on its walls. One of the few tidbits the leaflet does provide is to describe Tuymans as one of the most important figures in the revival of figurative painting, but that has no bearing on what is actually displayed. The architecture and design of the gallery is fine, and is impressively decorated on the outside according to who is exhibited within. Unfortunately, the staff seem entirely distant from the artwork.

The show is billed as a ‘retrospective’, but gives no account of Tuymans’ development. If anything, this exhibition is proof of how much a coherent narrative and careful hand is needed in curating, rather than just letting the paintings sit there. There are so many possibilities with Tuymans – for using contextual materials, for making you question your perception of media images, but the experience just felt lacking, either due to a lack of knowledge or interest from the people behind it. I’m hoping that this experience was just a one-off, and having done some research Sheikh Hassan has been an absolute pioneer at the Mathaf Museum of Modern Art in promoting works which have lacked a traditional audience in the Middle East. Admittedly while in the past Tuymans has said ‘for a show in a gallery, there must be a mental vacuum space where the show is conceptualized’, suggesting that he prefers a minimal approach, this show is simply too big, too haphazard, and too confusing for any viewer to conceptualize on their own.

ALRIWAQ, Al Corniche St, Doha, Qatar.

 

2014: Tablets of plastic, tablets of stone.

2014 has been a year of portents. Portents mysterious and elusive, half-seen as they emerge through the shimmering curtain that separates reality from myth. News stories were symbols, a code laid out in stone, far removed from our trail in a technological slipstream. The technology allowing us to follow the news may be improving on a regular basis, but the news this year was old  – narratives from older cultures and religious texts. Tablets of plastic emulated tablets of stone.

Enoch was seized into heaven, but in the summer, dozens of unfortunate souls were blasted out of the sky over Ukraine, victims in a conflict that they had no part in, accountable to no one. Death visited them in a flash, as if struck by one of Zeus’ thunderbolts. This was shortly after the Bermuda Triangle decided to go for an extended vacation in the Indian Ocean and swallowed up flight MH370. The data was pored over, the metrics adjusted, the grizzled Australian oceancombers reunited for one last job. Yet the plane remains unfathomable, an anomaly within our quantified spacetime. There may be radar and sonar systems that are aware of its location, but will not divulge it due to the risk of exposing confidential military information. It may be the age of big data, but the military-industrial complex will always be the bigger brother. The plane’s absence has frustrated any construction of a narrative, with only speculative strands able to emerge, like bean plants groping for support in their germination. The deaths of 239 people needed to be accounted for, but no enemy was willing to step forward, despite nominations from China, Iran, and the pilot. It would seem apposite that in a year such as this, the most likely solution is found to be that the pilot, the one responsible for navigating his passengers through the storm, decided to kill himself and everyone else on board.

Moses descended from Mt. Sinai clutching the Ten Commandments, yet for the poor souls trapped on Sinjar Mountain in Iraq, the mountain was not a portent of salvation, but the last refuge as they were slowly wiped out by a fundamentalist wave, cutting like a scythe across the Middle East. The sacred intervention provided at the mountaintop was by air strikes, another interventionist thunderbolt thrown down from the sky. Conflict was charged with as much religious sensation as any account of Old Testament legions, though the weapons may have changed.

In 2012 we watched Felix Baumgartner meteor across the sky, synthesis of man and machine; a worldwide event, the climax of human potential plummeting towards the New Mexico desert. In 2014, Alan Eustace returned to the same spot in secret, after years of repressed negotiations that would lead to him emulating Baumgartner’s feat. It was all wrong. Baumgartner was the rugged outsider, a man built to BASE jump from manmade skyscrapers, a plummet of human freedom from towers of steel and glass. Alan Eustace was a man in a suit, someone who could convert capital into the equivalent of superior of Baumgartner’s raw daredevilry. Eustace is a vice-president of Google, and his jump seemed oddly coalescent with that corporation’s endeavour to index all information on Earth – content with archiving all information on ground level, they decided to push the vertical frontier in their relentless harvest. Thinking of 2014 as the year of portents, this was the moment that the illusion of a global celebration, peoples united by the admiration for breaking the limits of the human shell, was dustbinned by private discussions and transactions. Baumgartner’s accumulation of distant sympathies was replaced by a disappointing realisation that most events are conducted despite our ignorance, and only made available to us after the fact.

(As an aside, Alan Eustace did not exist until he made his jump. That is to say, he did not exist according to the ontology which is quickly growing to the sole arbiter – Wikipedia. Before the jump, Alan Eustace did not have a Wikipedia article. He needed the gravity one can only experience when falling from 40,000 metres to be catalogued in their database.)

The digital does not decay. It exists in binary, either on or off, 1 or zero. Analogue information disintegrates and is therefore more susceptible to time’s arrow. Perhaps living in a digital space removes from being able to observe that decay is central to nature. Combine this with years of Orientalism towards the African continent, and the anaesthesia towards death imbued by gentrification, and we are not prepared for the outbreak of a viral disease. Or at least, we are not prepared for it to cross the Mediterranean. In a way Ebola actually frustrates our catastrophic instinct – strains of bird and swine flu were given letters and numbers, labels, to show how new they were, so any widespread death could be accepted as a black swan, the unseen monster, the spike in the statistics. Ebola is not a new disease; it has been with us since the 1970s, with each previous outbreak largely contained within Africa.  And we were happy for it to stay there, thinking that the African continent itself was diseased. If 2014 has been the year of portents and stone tablets, then Ebola threatens us with a plague that we hope will not breach the walls of Constantinople. Ebola could be our enemy, the indefensible nemesis against which we launch all of our efforts as any form of religious or political ideology has been deconstructed to the extent that any and all of them can be sympathised with or criticised in equal measure. Yet we cannot even raise the effort to make this so, because it seems that, as if with many events in 2014, we are incapable of viewing ourselves as a common species.

Data might have a colour. Black lives became so dispensable in the USA in 2014 that human beings were reduced to a bundle of probabilities – the odds that the man in front of me is holding a gun, the odds that he wants to use it on me, the odds that he wants to kill me. The number of people killed on those spurious odds tallied until it became a statistic, almost fulfilling Stalin’s aphorism. The audio of the gunshots, the proximity of the props on the crime scene have all been Zaprudered to unimaginable levels, as if the exact quantification of data could make an accurate enough statement about the power dynamics between black and white, as if black and white could be demarcated by hexadecimal codes.

There was still a coda to the bleakness and obliteration of humanity in 2014, as the details of the CIA’s shocking institutional torture were finally held up to the light. The mutual animosity between radical Muslims and the moral cavalry of the West is itself like a ray of light, endlessly mirrored between the two sides until it fulgurates into a mutually destructive beam. I read the details of the report whilst stood at a platform waiting for a train and the bilious reaction I felt towards the inhuman treatment towards the prisoners pulled me self-destructively towards the train tracks from the pit of my stomach for a fleeting moment. So soon after we supposedly learned our lessons from the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, our capacity to commit violence to each other had never seemed more brazen. They were billed as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ but the ineffectiveness of torture is so well-known that the pain inflicted upon the prisoners was punitive – a medieval application of morality which wormed its way through damp towels and anal canals.

And all of this leads us to 2014’s greatest phenomenon, the one which captures the spirit of the passing year: Twitch Plays Pokémon. A reservoir of 8 bit memories attuned in a cloud mind. An ultra-democratic interface that created its own mythos within a matter of days. A stage where every facet of human existence could be observed, an anthropological Petri dish. There was war, prompted by sectarianism. Even the days of the week seemed imbued with their own particular baggage (‘Bloody Sunday’) with the sense of Creation at work, where millions of users were spawned instantaneously and grappled in the dark to make sense of a directionless world, trying to work together. The image of Red being pulled in four different directions while repeatedly trying to consult the helix fossil seems like the appropriate image for the year in which the confusion of trying to narrativise the world with an overabundance of information was made plain. Perhaps the way we are going forward is actually the way back, to try and interpret events as portents, to read into them a millennial millenarianist significance that supersedes rational thought.

Postscript:  What was the soundtrack to such a bleak year? I found no better candidate than the unremitting darkness and monolithic intensity of Andy Stott’s Faith In Strangers. The album cover depicts an enigmatic head situated in front of an apartment window, interrupting any look out of it – towards escape maybe – with an Polynesian style statuette.  The album is punctuated by ghosts, either breathing all over the mix or restlessly banging on pipes. The vibrance of dub and techno is detuned into a cold grey steel which is unrepentant in the darkness it broods. Any sense of urgency has the paranoid powerlessness of a caffeine overdose, with movement a step ahead of thought. At a time where Spotify and the curatorial power of each individual music consumer is more powerful than ever, the experience of listening to work which completely crushes you and drains you is more important than ever – you are accountable to the music, rather than vice versa.

Knock2Bag comedy night @ Bar FM review

One of the pleasant surprises about moving to London has been the discovery of the abundant comedy shows where a number of up-and-coming and more established acts share a bill at a cosy venue, all for a price which seems disproportionate with the ballooning London economy. As well as the Up the Creek comedy club in Greenwich (as good excuse as any to release your inner child by pretending to drive the DLR train) there is the Knock2Bag comedy night, which alternates between being hosted at Rich Mix, just off Shoreditch High Street, and Bar FM in Shepherd’s Bush, where I received my initiation into this surprisingly economical comedy underworld.

Two hours before I was due to go the gig, an email flashed in my inbox informing me that two of the performers (Tony Law and Brian Gittins) had pulled out. It was therefore with a sense of reservation that I sat down for the opening act, Pete Johansson, not least because his resemblance to the other ruggedly bearded Canadian comedian  who was initially scheduled for that evening seemed dredged from the deepest trench of the uncanny valley. Even with the help of a compere as supple and warm as Matthew Crosby, an opening slot is never easy, and this contributed to the slow start of Johansson’s routine, but he entered his stride with a routine about terrorist bees which began as a throwaway aside but then morphed into something with real depth. Nevertheless, as much as it is an easy and effective way of building a rapport with an audience, I feel that a comedian introducing themselves to an audience as being new to London and commenting on the fact that it’s weird and crowded and nice or rude is just too familiar, in part because it leads to vapid writing exercises like the one I am doing right now. I’d be interested to get other people’s views on this – I don’t feel that a comedian has to sympathise with me in order to make me laugh; I want to be surprised, intimidated, anything that I’m not expecting. Occasionally I find that working the audience based upon shared references makes the act feel like an extension of my life outside it, rather than a separate space entirely.

Still, the beauty of stand-up comedy is that laughs can be obtained from generating all sorts of artist-audience interaction, and the beauty of Knock2Bag is that each act had a different one at work. Next up on to the stage were Twins, a duo whose natural stage presence is in contrast to their internet presence.

Twins: Neatly shambolic. Image reproduced with their kind permission.

Twins: Neatly shambolic. Image reproduced with their kind permission.

It’s not their fault, but in researching them it struck me how the hegemony of search engines makes finding acts with a common name incredibly difficult. It’s therefore probably in the interests of Jack Barry and Annie McGrath to be at least as well-known as the diabolical Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger film.

If Pete Johansson was a good example of trying to win over a room by using familiar reference points, then Twins were almost the complete opposite, not trying to communicate to the audience by demonstrating an understanding of their point of view but offering a performance with its own distinct characteristics and daring the audience to follow. It’s very brave to put on an act which relies on generating humour from an ostensibly shambolic performance – the audience of a trendy bar in West London will at least provide sympathy for an act who is perceived to be earnest, whereas an unsuccessful attempt at awkward humour can be seen as treating the audience with contempt if the hits don’t land. Luckily, this was not a problem for Twins. There is a touch of Mitch Hedberg about Jack Barry’s delivery; all nervy glances across the room, heavy breathing into the microphone and words that trail arhythmically out of his mouth. His partner Annie was a good foil, a more reserved outlet of dry humour. While a sketchier performance may be more of a risk, it generates increased reward as it means that in the absence of obvious set ups and punchlines, the very cadence and choice of words and movements in their own right become sources of laughs. Their material and method of presentation is strong, so they should be more confident within it; at some points during their gig they were too keen to apologise for their act and momentarily stepped out of character in order to be self-deprecating. Still, they are both young and I’m sure this will come naturally as they refine their act.

If the essence of comedy is surprise, then Twisted Loaf packed more than most into their set.

Twisted Loaf: Sit in the front row if you're brave. Image reproduced with kind permission of Knock2Bag.

Twisted Loaf: Sit in the front row if you’re brave. Image reproduced with kind permission of Knock2Bag.

Which was startling, because after 5 minutes I arrogantly thought that I knew roughly what to expect, after an extended stage entrance and a blast of Serge Gainsbourg. In equal parts comedy, burlesque, and mime, Libby Northedge (a sort of cross between Jessica Rabbit and Jennifer Saunders) and Nina Smith drew on an education in physical theatre to completely rip up the rule book that cocksure individuals like myself, used to watching one person (usually a man) talk on a stage, often at an extra step removed through the frame of a YouTube video. The invisible barrier of the stage counted for nothing in their gender-bending performance. A sudden lurch into something resembling sketch comedy came out of nowhere, which allowed Twisted Loaf to show off the skills picked up from an education in drama. As with Jack Barry before them, the minutiae of their stage movements and sounds were carefully honed to elicit the maximum laughter. Twisted Loaf’s style and their material in the sketches – which I will not mention here to attempt to preserve some of the impact of their show – is also the best riposte to the ridiculous myth that women aren’t funny. Twisted Loaf aren’t just funny, but they create laughs from rotating through a tableaux of completely vapid female stereotypes, providing belly laughs and knife-point cultural criticism at once.  They also offered fascinating comparison to Pete Johansson, as different as their acts are. Johansson’s act featured an analogy comparing bees to terrorists, and made some smart points while doing it. Twisted Loaf’s act leaves you laughing out of terror, because you have no idea what boundaries they will overstep next as the artists become more and more involved with the audience. Neither method is innately superior to the other, but the latter example shows how varied a response in stand-up comedy to a world gripped by terrorism can be.

Sam Simmons was doubly handicapped by being promoted to the headliner slot at the last minute and by following an act as mind-mashing as Twisted Loaf, but he handled it with aplomb. Looking like a hybrid of Tobias Funke and Earl Hickey,

Sam Simmons, knocking on the door of the canon of great moustaches. Image reproduced with kind permission of Knock2Bag.

Sam Simmons, knocking on the door of the canon of great moustaches. Image reproduced with kind permission of Knock2Bag.

Simmons introduced himself as the ‘Michael McIntyre of absurdism’, and made the stage feel about three feet square as he bounded across it and over it, having us eating out of his hands. A two-time nominee for the Fosters Comedy Award at Edinburgh, Simmons is a whirlwind of comic Antipodean energy, and is a testament to how originally observational comedy can be presented. Standing up and reciting a long list of funny things that happen at a supermarket might be amusing, but it has been done that way a thousand times. The way Simmons does it, backed by a thumping techno 4/4 (with immaculate synchronisation to pre-recorded bits) and interspersed with comments that are more akin to something like Paul Foot’s ‘disturbances’, you are always kept on your toes as to whether Simmons gives you something realistic or fantastical. Thinking about observational comedy as a concept, this is one of the most effective ways of doing it. In fairness, most observational humour relies upon taking up an aspect of life that is often overlooked and taking it into a flight of fancy in order to demonstrate how absurd that aspect may be. But it becomes difficult to sustain this through, say, a ten minute slot on a prime time arena comedy show, where the interaction with audience and performer is so limited – the comedy becomes part of life’s routine program. Moreover, when observations of life’s verisimilitude like sleeping positions are mixed with more surreal creations as they are in Simmons’ act, then the absurdity of life is stressed even further, because reality is shown to be just as strange as fiction.

I’m still quite confused at just how I managed to see so many top quality comics for such a low low price, but I’m not going to complain any time soon. If their December incarnation is any indication, then Knock2Bag is a stimulating diversion for a weekday evening, and deserving of your time. You’ll have to wait until 31st of January at Rich Mix for your next chance to go, but with craic-dealing songsmiths Abandoman and stalwart Simon Munnery heading the bill, it should be more than worth your while. Just don’t spend the change you get from a tenner all in one place.

The Imitation Game review: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

‘The Imitation Game’ is a marvellous phrase which this film applies to many fields – cryptography, relationships, and what is considered normal interaction for human beings. But the title is most applicable in terms of its generic occupancy. I feel like I’m at a tipping point because before I sat down to watch The Imitation Game on Sunday evening, I’d already seen it dozens of times.

All of the requisite ingredients of the character-led drama are here: a protagonist on the margins of society who rebels against the system, a love interest, a Muse who helps him discover himself, and an antagonist who eventually accepts grudging respect. The King’s Speech, A Beautiful Mind, Forrest Gump…it’s a familiar story. When the protagonist is taking on a project of sorts (inevitable if they work in a scientific field), then you can expect the appropriate ‘sudden revelation’ scene where everything fits together, and it gets an obligatory airing here. The Imitation Game gives an even more specific example of such well-worn ideas in the ‘disastrous interview scene’, which observant viewers may recognise from Good Will Hunting. This leads to an inevitable conundrum. These tropes are used by Hollywood broadly in line with its political sympathies – standing up for the disenfranchised, but it becomes more and more difficult to warm to those themes when they are repeated so much and no longer hold any individuality or originality.

It feels even more galling in this instance, because there are moments where The Imitation Game points towards the film it could have been (though it may be editing/production which stifled it). The scenes where Hut 8 discuss the ethical implications of what happens when they break the code (spoiler alert) is truly powerful and thought-provoking. Indeed, the film explores ethics in general too much through the fulcrum of the awards season vehicle character-led drama. It often feels that its exploration is limited to what it reveals about the main character. The aforementioned scene feels too much like a tribute to Turning’s stern rationalism and ability to see beyond his peers, instead of a sustained exegesis of what on earth the morally correct thing is to do – the film wraps it up quite neatly in a bundle of relativistic twine.

I’m moving into the territory of talking about the film as I would have liked to have made it, rather than critiquing the vision of the director, but I truly think there are artistic gaps in this film that were ripe for developing. The protagonist is someone upon whose shoulders the world’s fate rests, making him an unusual companion to the superhero protagonists who have dominated Hollywood cinema in recent years.  Superhero comics are one of the foremost art forms at turning the marginalised in society into the stars of the show, but the ubiquity of their film adaptations in recent years has, unfortunately, injured that somewhat. In many ways it’s an overly exclusive position to take, but the sheer volume associated with those films (in viewers, sales, and number of films produced) means that as a blockbuster phenomenon, they have drifted somewhat from their ability to communicate the position of the outsider. As much as I don’t like The Imitation Game borrowing too much from genres and films which have preceded it, its subtle interaction with the superhero film gives back some of this power by focusing on a quiet man whose private life is deemed unnatural and punishable by the state.

As part of this hero’s responsibility, he has to become a master of a particular form of language, to understand communication better than anyone else. The irony is, of course, that as someone who is detached (whether by genius or something else) from ordinary human society, he finds it difficult to communicate with the people around him. This is addressed to some extent through the scene in which the code is finally cracked (and in the process giving an example of how ‘factionalisation’ can work in a film’s favour), as one of his colleagues reveals that the Germans slip up in their coding because they insert repeated personal messages. But the clue is not so much the message’s individuality but its predictability. If a German code operator repeats the name of his paramour enough times, does it remain love or does it become robotic? The other clues to the breaking – talking about the weather and saluting ‘Heil Hitler’ both show examples where human conversation has an ostensibly spontaneous impetus, but betrays something more systematic underneath. Alan’s domination of the film ensures that we always consider communication in terms of systems, and thus we are forced to re-evaluate some of our assumptions about it. It’s true that the film lays these clues out for us to consider, but so much of the dialogue in the film is about Alan discovering himself and being abused by the system, it isn’t really developed as an artistic whole. There is some attention paid to the social code of communication which Alan misses, but it’s a bit too cutesy, and usually diverted to Alan’s romantic life, or lack thereof. The film puts this at the centre of attention, when there is potential to make a real concerted artistic statement at the same time.

Something else is missed, another opportunity available with the central conceit: Turing was a man riddled by secrets. He could not reveal to anyone the extent of his wartime work, nor could he speak to anyone about his homosexuality. Keeping one secret was considered to be not just a legal obligation but an honourable practice, while the other was viewed with scorn. In the flashbacks for Sherborne school, for example, the note-passing is shown as a straightforward piece of character development. This is the recurrent problem with character-led drama, the overwhelming desire to sustain sympathy for the lead character and their relationships, to the extent that thought-provoking diversions, or adding an extra layer on top, are often missed. Or when Manchester’s finest are investigating him, any investigation into this binary of secrets is only done in order to provide the undercooked frame of Alan explaining his life, the things he has done beyond the comprehension of ordinary men, to a humble police officer from up ‘North. I wanted the film to explore the definition of secrecy a bit more, and the hypocrisy of being expected to preserve secrets on behalf of the very establishment that deemed his personal secret to be worthy of punishment.

One other area where I feel the film misses a trick is in making a comment about communication, and the interception thereof, in the immediate aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s monitoring program. The film is simply too ready to hold up the decoding of ENIGMA as a necessary and virtuous quest, central to the war effort, with little investigation beyond the moving scene where its statistical brutality is momentarily laid bare. The back and forth between English and German communications, constantly monitoring each other, is not mined for its potential psychological effects, it’s all really a bit of a joke. Of course, given that most of the messages are banal and mechanic as I mentioned earlier, it would be unfair to expect something akin to the vicariousness of surveillance in The Lives of Others. Nor is it my expectation that films have an obligation to make a political comment. But they do have a psychological impetus. The film is set at a pivotal moment, where widespread real-time covert engagement with human communication begins in earnest. The debate waiting to emerge from the shadows is whether a film like The Imitation Game should really try to be all of these things; whether it is too much to ask, whether it limits the enjoyment of the film, the ability to sympathise with Alan’s plight. I disagree. The film’s funnelling towards a character-driven drama, whenever it happened, left me cold. Some redemption in this regard is given by the character of Mingus, played with cruel, manipulative brilliance by Mark Strong, who steals every scene he is in. Under Strong’s influence, Mingus rises from simple antagonist (represented in the curmudgeonly establishment type by Charles Dance) to become a floating shadow, whose presence demonstrates to Turing that the house always wins. Turing by contrast is (and I hold this to be an inconsistency with the scripting rather than the acting) an unstable character, alternating between wisecracking oddball who won’t play ball, cripplingly shy wallflower, and misunderstood loner. It is as if the essences of many types of Hollywood anti-hero flow through him at once, but cancel each other out.

How do you make a subtle point about surveillance without being accused of making a cheap political shot by pretentious bloggers such as me? No doubt, it is a difficult balance to strike. But the solution I hypothesised was to conduct more of a post-mortem on exactly what Bletchley Park’s work laid the foundation of. It only had to consist of a sidelong quizzical glance, where the film momentarily cocks its head and asks ‘and how much do we think it’s necessary?’ The film’s makers put in all the steps until the final one, demonstrating how vital ENIGMA’s work was at its historical moment, but then backed away from the overhanging question, of whether a dividing line can ever be drawn between intelligence acting on the behalf of the public and the individual’s rights to privacy – given Alan’s own unique private life, it could have been very potent indeed.

But of course, most people are watching and talking about this film because it represents another step on the ladder to stardom ascended by Benedict Cumberbatch. I wasn’t as wowed by his performance as most commentators, but the role that he inhabits is a testament to how he is reshaping classical British acting. Roger Friedman’s review described him as a natural heir to Sir Laurence Olivier and this is right, but Cumberbatch has done some redesigning of the crown upon inheriting it. Olivier’s career was a sequence of stiff upper lip characters: Henry V, Hugh Dowding, Crassus – even Zeus – whereas Cumberbatch has taken the same English tradition and channelled it into portraying society’s freaks and oddballs, instilling them with a dignity that lifts them out of physical disability (Stephen Hawking), sociopathy (Sherlock) and the judgement of society as a whole (Alan Turing). Of course this reflects deeper lying changes in society, but it still needs someone to act it out. So long as he continues to be the best candidate to fulfil these roles, then he will be one of the most important actors working.