Relatively recent BBC4 documentaries regarding popular music from the 1970’s to the early 1980’s have once again got me fixated on that I would call the pivotal moment in leaving a world that believed in the future into becoming one that is incredibly despondent, yet whilst being lit-up with an end-of-the-world-selfishness to paper over the melancholia and sickness that prevails. If this sounds like an over-dramatic interpretation of our current predicament, I’ll try my best to explain why I increasingly feel this way, especially in my blog I’m writing regarding the recent showing of the Joy Division documentary on BBC4. However, this blog deals with Kraftwerk, specifically the 5 landmark albums they released in a row from 1974 to 1981 (Autobahn, Radioactivity, Trans Europe Express, The Man Machine and Computer World).
One really interesting thing I find about Kraftwerk, something talked about in David Cunningham‘s essay Kraftwerk and The Image of the Modern, (featured in Kraftwerk: Music Non Stop) is that they, along with many other German musicians/artists growing up in post-war Germany (I should say, West Germany), sought out something that was their own cultural identity, not the the Anglo-Saxon rock ‘n roll scene at the time of their inception. And in doing so, looked ‘back to the future‘, bypassing the black hole of Nazism to look back to the modernism of early 20th century Germany (such as the Bauhaus movement and the early Frankfurt School). But rather than looking back in a retro-fetish sense, a tendency dominating contemporary music, Cunningham writes that “[T]hey [Kraftwerk] gain their meaning as modern from their dynamic relation to past works [my own italics], through a determinate negation of what precedes them…” and whilst their immediate past was “…the increasingly stagnant conventions of a dominantly Anglo-rock or popular music of the late 1960’s … Kraftwerk’s own articulation of  modernity, at the level of its accompanying image…is more often the than not dependent upon a certain non-synchronous reactivation of those stranded [by the horrors of Nazism?] objects made up of past visual and conceptual motifs drawn from a specifically 1920’s European Culture.” (2011)
Regardless of its quirks, I’ve never really been interested in listening to very early Kraftwerk, when they had long hair, and played guitar, because somehow it doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t conjure the futuristic, the grand modernist impulse that their 74-81 group of albums do – an aura that simultaneously remains exciting to this day to anyone still ‘accidentally’ infected with the desires of a modernism, whilst gut-wrenchingly melancholic due to the conspicuous absence of that aura in our current (non)times.
Why Does the Future Still Feel Analogue?
The first 4 of these aforementioned albums were all released in the 70’s, in an era that I’d argue was still modernist in nature (if we are to talk about the idea of it being an uneven, disjointed, yet somehow still collective grand project looking forwards). And I’d argue that all 4 of these albums, even when they deal with the dark issues looming over the post-war period (Radioactivity, etc), have a real Utopianist essence to them – certainly taking from the early 20th century spirit. But I believe the reason Kraftwerk worked is because it was still possible to be Utopianist in the mid 70’s.
If you listen to Autobahn or Trans-Europe Express on a bright midday moment, when the private-profit social-infrastructure (especially in the UK) is functioning as it is supposed to, you can almost momentarily shirk the gut feeling that the future has disappeared, stolen maybe. Whereas the machines-are-singing-back-to-us Ohm Sweet Ohm, the final moment on 1975’s Radioactivity, can almost be emotionally overwhelming in the way that it conjures the feeling of an almost magical aura, mainly due to its conspicuous absence in these (non)times. (If magical seems like an overly powerful world, I mean that beyond the fog of the aspirational hyperbole of contemporary life, the emptiness seems so engulfing that the likes of me, born halfway into what Franco Berardi called ‘the slow cancellation of the future’, become convinced that the void within contemporary life wasn’t always so hard to avoid.)
The 5th album, however, Computer World, has a crucially different feel to it. Basically it is the end of the modern: Computer World is a postmodern world. I associate the beginnings of postmodernity, with the incoming Margaret Thatcher/Ronald Reagan(1979/81) agenda of “there is no alternative (to capitalism)” (aka ‘no future’), and the increasing individuation which, if anything allowed the creeping digitisation/computerisation of life a much easier penetration of our (increasingly) personal affairs. This only really started to kick in the at the end of the 1970’s and the beginning of the 1980’s, a point when we began to see ‘the slow cancellation of the future’ to (quote both Franco Berardi and Mark Fisher). Computer world was released in 1981, within the crucible of this seismic change, but at which point The New in culture was still possible and still felt “to be infinitely available. [Whilst now] the 21st century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion” (Fisher, 2014).
Mark Fisher puts arguments forward at the beginning of his book Ghosts of My Life as to why theorist Fredric Jameson‘s argument that “the postmodern ‘waning of historicity’ is synonymous with “the cultural logic of late capitalism” is a truth. For me it is already a given. And although I’m leaving this as a given with in this blog, I’m saying so as much as I feel that Computer World documents their synonymous relationship, which is why the album sounds more like contemporary life every day, whilst the previous 4 albums both sound like the before and after of this ‘eternal present’ of a computerised quagmire.
Is Computer World the first postmodern album? Maybe not exactly. Many people would say mid-70’s punk, even the Velvet Underground in the late 60’s, were postmodern in their deconstruction of pop music. But for me, Kraftwerk, with these 5 albums really showed that they had their radars fully tuned to the seismic cultural shifts, and, whilst they showed that modernism was still very much a living thing in 70’s, I’d argue that Computer World was the first album to document the postmodern world we’d all come to recognise – more than anything due to the way that we still see the previous 4 Kraftwerk albums as futuristic.
“Business, money, numbers, people”
The words on the tracks Computer World and Numbers are spoken in a very punctuated manner that evokes the pressing of buttons. It all sounds so eerily familiar when we feel lost, powerless, lonely, and insignificant in a post-millennial broadband world, where the information overload fills us with disbelief and a desensitisation to the world, whilst addicting us to the pursuit of contact with others. The loneliness is crucial here; one song on the album evokes the human being sinking further into a cyberspacial abyss, but desperate to be pulled back out of it ...by someone.
“I don’t know what to do, I need a rendezvous”
The track Computer Love is a tragic track in our sad times where it rings so true. It isn’t a song you’d instantly think of when thinking of tear-jerking tracks, but it really does depict our escalating epidemic of loneliness, so movingly written about in 2014 in an article by George Monbiot. A friend once argued that Computer Love was an upbeat track, but for me, hearing it at the back end of 2008, it is a ode to the fate that would fall befall our species. Computer Love not only sounds more relevant today, it seems to depict a potential descent that knows no end. The omnipresence of computerisation enables corporate state interference and profit-motive social media platforms to make us increasingly slave-like to behavioural patterns the increase physical isolation.
Computer Love is far sadder than even Nick Drake’s (for example) odes to the pain of loneliness, because music such as Nick Drake’s evokes a idyll that cyberspacial communications may as well have obliterated due to the way to it disconnects us from each other whilst purporting to do the opposite (who could anymore imagine the world described by Drake existing, without the constant interruptions from cyberspace or our itching desires to be reconnected to it?). Despite people I know finding true companionship via Online Dating, for me it is a symptom of ‘Our Age of Loneliness‘ (Monbiot) and is, like all social media platforms, saturated with the imperatives of a marketised form of individualism, with the obnoxiously elitist dating sites being at the extreme end of this. Online Dating seems to me to now be a ‘When in Rome’ situation: although people do find love/happiness etc, the reason people go onto it is because we’ve become so lonely as a species that meeting people in any other way can seem impossible.
Kraftwerk – After the Future
After The Future is the title of a Franco Berardi book that examines how this slow cancellation of the future from the late 70’s onwards occurred. With Autobahn (1974), Radioactivity (1975), Trans Europe Exrpess (1977), The Man Machine (1978), Kraftwerk entice us with visions of ‘tomorrow’s world’. However, once they had produced Computer World (1981), which “might well be Kraftwerk’s greatest achievement…” with “…its turn to the increasingly abstract spaces of the global rather than the European…” (Cunningham), was there a future left for Kraftwerk to articulate? David Cunningham seems to suggest that the group lost their way after this album, with in a air of inevitability due to the wider context, with “the return of vague invocations of a European avante garde coffee-shop culture on Electric Cafe (1986), seeming unconvincing and unfocused.”
The fact that The BBC broadcast the Kraftwerk, Joy Division, and Synth Britannia documentaries all within the space of a month inevitability touched upon something. They had an air of difference from music documentaries focusing on the 60’s or post-89 music documentaries. But what made them different, and why show them all now? Although all documentaries were intelligible and sensitive to the changes to how we live, and lived in the 70’s/80’s, they were finally frustrating in how they failed to recognise why (I believe) they were even being shown now; not just the high demand for nostalgia for (a time that believed in) the future, but melancholia that constitutes the hipster-less moments of wanting a future again. The Joy Division documentary (for example) articulated the creeping social, political and existential misery that the band channeled with uncanny brilliance, but then completely failed to pick up on/or even acknowledge that the reason such documentaries are being made now is due to the undead presence of these feelings, oozing from the cracks between the hyperbolic lies of the late capitalist pleasure sphere; I am convinced that the reason Joy Division T-shirts are being worn by people born after 1990’s ‘Britpop’ isn’t down to the fashionable nature of ‘dark things’, but is actually because they speak a truth, denied mainstream articulation, that an increasing majority of us connect with.
The Kraftwerk documentary used the Utopianist track Neon Lights to soundtrack a sped-up drive through central London, with no sense of irony. Yes, on a superficial level Postmodern London gels with the essence of Neon Lights, but having spent hours on end aimlessly strolling the totalised-urban-space of the centre, I am left feeling tomorrow’s world was hijacked, gutted, and yet left as a undead body in which to inhabit. I experience elements of Kraftwerk’s post-millennium tours, upon which this documentary rested, and focussed on as its foreground, like I would a much-liked device that has now been unplugged from the mains that initially supplied it with so much inventiveness. With the accompanying blocky computerised imagery inaccessable as anything but 80’s-computer-pastiche to anyone living now, I experience the comeback tours as Kraftwerk being subsumed into commodity fetish. Yet the documentary seems as oblivious to this as the Joy Division documentary seemed oblivious to the ridged-persistence of the pain the band evoked.
To me, their post-millennial comeback tours seem as tragic as the initially-intuitive documentaries uncritical response the usage of the Computer Love melody by post-millennial consumer-emotions-band Coldplay. Now, as far as sugary enjoyment goes, there’s a couple of tracks from the early Coldplay albums I do like; but an uncritical response to a band like Coldplay borrowing a melody from something-much-more-than-a-band that helped us imagine another type of world seems mildly criminal to the likes of someone who, no matter what, can never come to terms with the narrowed idea of life and civilisation that we’re sold every day. This is an entrenched feeling, borne out of daily reactions to life today, and I won’t suddenly envisage a better future by someone telling me “there’s decent contemporary [musical] artists out there...if only you’d try to look for them.”
After just being shown a ‘top tip’ in a gossip magazine for plastic grass (a despair-in-humanity inducing page, even by gossip mag standards) ironically labeled as a ‘Brainwave’ it has been made clear that, although it is one of the worst examples I have seen, it is just an element of a trend which cannot be simply labelled as ‘for stupid people’: it’s an element of a trend in humanity to flee further from the reality they are facing by bolstering up their denials.
The ‘top tip’ was to have plastic grass in your garden instead of real grass because you don’t have to cut it (unfortunately, however, I do not have access to the original article. This is because all gossip magazine titles, no matter how colourful they are, translate into just one word in my head: shit). To anyone who doesn’t immerse themselves in gossip magazines to the extent where they take this tip on board, this is an utter absurdity which one would only expect to be used by residents of streets where the Christmas lights can be seen 5 miles away, who will all soon be homeless because they can’t pay the electricity bills. But these banal and destructive suggestions have a reason for being: they highlight a human tendency to bolster up their denials of looming problems of environmental destruction by living in a more plasticised and nature-less world. The more plasticised their lives become, the less the natural world interferes, the more real the illusion of unlimited resources – that things can go on for ever like this – becomes.
Of course, let’s not forget that the gossip magazines, perhaps more than any other kind of magazine, are hardwired into the system of consumerism. Although many who read them take them with a pinch of salt, I would say that they appeal to a collective who are almost entirely submerged in consumer culture. But blindly conforming to the tide of society in this way isn’t as clear cut as to say that these people don’t even know about the huge environmental and political problems facing us in this century. It is impossible not to know!, it is impossible not to sense that there is something seriously wrong with the way we live under this system. I just believe that those who are completely submerged in consumer culture are in hyper-denial: where their denial fills in for reality, so that one can carry on building a life and future for themselves in a type of world which is coming to an end.
I am notoriously poor at ‘blotting out’ the bigger picture than others (I am constantly told that this is detrimental to my well-being by people who don’t think about it most of the time, and I’ll be honest in saying that at times I would like to blot it out almost entirely also as, from an outside view, it does look to make life a lot easier to get through. But I am not like that, and all I can attempt to do is to turn it into a strength) But blotting out looming threats is a usual human tendency. A diet of the gossip mags, The X Factor, Vampire trilogies, retail shopping outlets and new cars (oh come one! I don’t think I’m generalising!) blots out the ’empty spaces’ where you’d probably have chance to gasp and think “oh fuck, we are totally screwed!”
This means that as the opportunities to prevent climatic catastrophes from happening fade and fade (and they are fading fast, I am talking about a few years not decades before the affects are irreversible) the need to build the illusion that it isn’t happening expands (although the ability to do this will be more costly, which seems plausible enough as those few with any money at all in the future will likely have it all, as the power of the corporation swells in the global ghetto). Thus, the idea of having plastic grass in ones garden instead of real grass (with real living creatures) becomes a plausible idea in society.
Of course if we all didn’t initially feel so powerless to so something about environmental destruction this farcical scenario would not need to exist. A society founded on togetherness, community and equality would be fit to challenge this problem. Likewise, green movements have to be left-leaning; you can’t bargain with capitalism on sustainability. Not only has capitalism directly caused the collapse of the natural environment it also creates a mental environment of self-centralism which exacerbates a problem at just a mention of the troubles it would bring, as it profiteers on peoples need to escape the truth, either by selling ‘green goods’ which create the illusion that the world can be saved simply by adopting a less toxic consumerism, or by simply by profiteering on a complete denial of our fragile 21st century existence.
The advertisement of Plastic grass to replace your garden’s real grass isn’t just just an indicator of how terrible gossip magazines are, it is an indicator of how terrible the times are.
Capitalism would be a fascinating spectacle to watch from afar, if I wasn’t living in it. This is why the criticism put upon the system I read in books seems so less harsh than when I re-iterate the same words whilst walkingdown a town centre street: reading it in a book is like reading about a far off world, especially when you’re sat snug in your chosen space for relaxing contemplation. However, as soon as I take a step into the real world I realise that I am partaking in interpassivity: the words I am reading are performing my anti-capitalism for me; so I need not feel shame whilst I sit a chain cafe (so generic that a branch in one city plays the exact same compilation CD, with the pretence of random songs, as a branch in another city 30 miles away) partaking in one of the newer consumer phenomena’s, of drinking in continental-themed cafes. I walk outside. I’ve soaked up my anti-capitalism from the book like the kid who soaks up his thick milkshake in the, now unfashionable, downtown eatery McDonald’s, and now I will calmly put in my earphones and listen to some ‘guilt-free’ non heavy-going 1990’s indie music and wait another day until my discontent grows back like a 5 o’clock shadow from at which point I am ready to do everything the same way again tomorrow.
I couldn’t help thinking about the idea of interpassivity after reading a section about the functional purpose of the Walt Disney Film Wall-E in Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. The term Interpassivity, named so by Robert Pfaller – who I’ll make no pretence about knowing anything about – has stuck with me more so because it seems to have named the raging-doubts I sometimes have about my morals in relation to my artwork. I have often been really annoyed with myself about why I am so inept in actually tackling concerns, internal and external, whilst continuously reeling out works which confront these concerns, and now it seems likely that I let my creative juices perform my protests, demands, beliefs for me, seen as I do really feel really less troubled by my actions within the real world, after exorcising my major concerns on a piece of paper. Of course, I believe in the necessity of art and in the necessity for me to be making it, but this concern doesn’t cease because the problems around (too large to singularly do anything about, or ones that do appear to be in my grasp) don’t cease either. And it all boils down to a questioning of what is a good person and what is a bad person.
Is a good person someone who is, whilst being loving and caring and generous towards friends and family and all in his/her vision, working for a business that is indirectly contributing to the suffering of many people in far off countries? And this is a crude example as we all have blood on our hands if one takes into account the omni-potent presence the mega corporations have in all our lives. Is what makes him/her bad simply that they are partaking in a life which is causing bones and logs to pile in other parts of the world and know that they are, feel bad about it, but refuse to do anything different and carry on?
If someone has no knowledge of the effects their lifestyle might be contributing to, they see no evil, feel no wrong, surely then they cannot be judged as being a bad person? But when one grows up, sees all the evil, but carries on soaking up the consumer-laden lifestyle they were building and expecting whilst younger and doing nothing to change once they see the destructiveness’ linked to this lifestyle, are they a bad person? Or is it because, despite what anybody might see/be aware of, the brightest lights flashing before our eyes, the loudest voices all seemingly shouting in unison, assure then convince us that living this way is OK “don’t worry about it” ?
Of course, those issuing these ‘re-assuring’ words don’t actually think all is OK. However, we all just keep bolstering the mainstream even if we doubt it severely underneath due to conventional manners in which we communicate with each other (and when someone does “tell it like it is” one is liable to leave their company for the more cosy-speak from others), and we can all partake in interpassivity like I do (At least Fear that I do).
Whether we experience the effects of peak oil, climate extremes or the boot of an increasingly more authoritarian government (which is likely anyway if either of the first 2 occur) the life we are living, the democracies that working peoples have battle hard to win (no matter how mock-democratic they are at present), will be forced to change/contract massively. If we carry on accepting that Capitalism is the only way, and that all we are able to do is to try our best for ourselves and family within its confines, then the majority of us (in the west also) are going to find life very bleak, in comparison with today (even if today is blighted by apathy and anxiety for tomorrow’s world), perhaps as bleak as it was for our great grandparents and their parents, grandparents.
Just listening to stories about my own grandparents’ struggles in pre-welfare Britain cannot help but make me massively concerned, and half expectant of struggles of an equal measure for own generation’s children’s’ future’s, especially as massive slashes to public spending, and the ideological extremity of capitalist thinking appear to have won over as the choice of method to get the machine running again to deliver the world out of this current global recession.
Yet, as much as I know that a new way of living is needed, and needed fast (a new way which can probably only start from grass-roots upwards), I do very little to get involved, in trying to begin this about. I feel meekly unnerved when I see protests from pressure groups in the street, not because I don’t agree with them, but that them being there simply confirms the reality of my concern, and my instinct is to flee the vicinity. As much as my domestication’s, habits etc, cause me profound discontent and worry, a mixture of sources have installed so much fear into me that I feel – what Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism called – reflexive impotence, and all thought becomes negative from which the only outlet for it is more art, or the kind of rant I am making here; more drawings and writings which few will see, and fewer still will be seriously moved by.
Yet the last thing I would want to do here is spread apathy. I wish, eventually, to be partaking in some form in a movement which can show people that capitalism isn’t the only way, and that a change doesn’t have to be a change to something worse.
The Tide of Society is an exhibition of works central to the battle to retain a sense of true self amidst the mental bombardment from mass persuasion and systematically imposed duties. Trying to swim upstream is the only option for one who is subjected to this, if they wish to retain a true sense of self.
Although I created some ideas and imagery based around a tide of society whilst I was still a student, the majority of these ideas have been prompted by an unavoidable (due to position) 9-5 working life undertaken afterwards. The looming domestications, brought on by these duties and expectations of one, team up with the (already present) pressures of living in a consumer society. Indeed, for the first time I am beginning to understand my subjection to both ends of Capitalism: pushed into a job to become a wage slave, and pushed into the shopping aisles to become a participative consumer (“amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work” – The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception). Work and leisure time, alike, are confronted with the fact that “it’s much easier if you don’t think about these things too much” and so comes the lure to consent and conform to all that seems to be being suggested to you.
But where is this tide dragging society towards anyway? The ultimate compulsion within my work is to link every issue tackled to an ultimate concern: that of our predicament upon this planet in the 21st century. This fear has always engulfed and incorporated all other fears. We are pressured to increasingly consume more on a planet of drying-up resources; pressured into seeing that continuous growth is “the only way” on a planet which cannot afford our species much more growth; and then we are pressured to live our lives through digital devices, prompting ever-more isolation, hence more need to satiate ourselves via consumer outlets, whilst also becoming more separated from the ‘terra firma’ on which we depend.
The list of ways in which the tide of society is flowing to a place from which the earth can longer give us what we require goes on and on. This exhibition is mesh of global, social, and personal concerns, as we leave the first decade of the 21st century behind us: a fear of a possible ‘shared downfall’ of my own life, humanity and nature.
The isolated human figures with television boxes over their heads are named TV talks. They document moments when I have reiterated society’s directions/persuasions as pure reaction (my own TV Talk moments). I’ve used them to depict lonely, entrapped figures, eternally subjected to an indifferent larger power’s directions and diversions, rendering them into walking televisions sets: the self has been compromised for the rhetoric pushed along by the tide of society. They utter the social anxieties of a people reared to be self-obsessed and ‘bleakly’ individual; indifferent, and too self-concerned to pay attention to the collapsing world around them.
The Sprawl is incorporated around the shape of half of my bedroom, colonising all workable surfaces in the manner of the ever-expanding city. It is an expression of a how the city has become one giant super organism (although separate and hazardous towards the Earth’s working life systems). To realise that we (humans) have become like termites – economic slaves, acting for the benefit of this super organism, which is a completely unnatural way for humans to exist – is a necessity when one is finding modern life stressful and pointless, yet cannot figure out why.
The Sprawl is closely related to my obsession with maps. I have always been transfixed by the urban environment, perhaps down to an unwanted feeling of detachment from the rest of the human race. I am also transfixed by dates, the importance of dates which have shaped my perception of what is going on around me, and also the melancholy musing over what we are always losing as time passes. It seems highly probable that we will all become embedded in sprawling mega-cities, and amidst the life it dictates, as urban areas continue to expand.
THE HEALING PROCESS
These mounds have an unwanted and heavy presence, and even slightly obscure my drawings. The sculptures are piles of man-made rubbish, the guilt of an artist in a consumer climate that is piling up to obscure the things he feels most proud of (his framed drawings). The fossil-like traces of man-made objects are like the traces of a species now extinct. I realised the mounds took on an almost pyramid shape and they started to look like monuments to a species that had died out. They have both a positive and a negative suggestion: the positive being the individual appeasement I find from using at least some of the junk material made by the society I am bound up in, and the negative being the extinction of our species and natures resilience in regaining a ‘firm-footing’, leaving only traces of our species, which no other species can even acknowledge.
A FINAL ACCEPTANCE
The implications of living in such a commercially driven society are that one’s personality is chopped, diced, and edited, until it is able to fit in to the slots created by a society that has become more and more homogeneous as commerce prospers in a global community, where the means to distribute information are owned by so few: the pressures to conform to a whole manner of conventions are immense. My capacity for developing, re-learning and growing is massively constricted as the domestication into a system-friendly, ‘able and flexible’ adult, takes up more of the free mental spaces which allow my development as a human. The intensity caused by trying to resist a barrage of pressures causes a mental debilitation, which ‘hammers one down’ weakening them into submission. A final acceptance, in order to stem mental debilitation, seems like the safest option.
(8x4FT, Mixed media on board)
A Final Acceptance: mixed media (2010)
TV Talk: biro and cable (2010)
The Tide of Society: book (2010)
Central Bombardment: biro on paper (2009)
The Sprawl: biro on paper (2008)
The Healing Process: mixed media (2008)
This Hole Cannot Be Filled in a Car-Park overspill: biro on paper (2008)
Tomorrow I will do the same as I did today: biro on paper (2008)
The hole in my stomach is making the hole in the sky: mixed media (2008)
exhibition details as follows:
August 23 at 10:00am – September 19 at 4:00pm
|Four Thirty Three|
Thanks to anyone who has been down to the show, or is planning on going.
The book I made which accompanied this show can be previewed here