Saturday, 22 November 2014

Welcome to the Freak Zone - Enter the Freak Zone

I have recently been talking to Radio 6’s Stuart Maconie about how music is used in science-fiction movies and playing some of my personal favourites, including the OSTs for ‘Forbidden Planet’, ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ and ‘Akira’. The recording of our conversation is being broadcast as part of Stuart’s ‘Freak Zone’ show on the evening of Sunday November 23 between 20.00 and 22.00 hrs. 

My sequence should come on on around 20.45. 

‘Freak Zone’ is a BBC music programme dedicated to the weird, the wonderful and the unexpected in modern music, and this special edition is dedicated to music, outer space and the future. The show can be accessed through the Radio 6 website and will also be available for listening after the initial broadcast.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Situation Normal: Breathing the Same Air

As my health is now starting to improve following the departure of the chemo gods in the autumn, it seems like the right time to start mentioning some of the other things going on in my life.

For example, I have a new essay, ‘Breathing the Same Air: Cold War Sci-Fi’, in the latest BFI compendium Days of Fear and Wonder, which has just been published to coincide with the British Film Institute’s extensive festival of Science Fiction movies taking place between late October and December this year. The essay was specially commissioned by the compendium’s editor, James Bell, and appears alongside pieces by Mark Fisher, Roger Luckhurst, Helen Lewis, Adam Roberts, Kim Newman and Marketa Uhlirova. It was written during the height of summer when the chemical activity inside my body was reaching some kind of critical peak, which might explain the essay’s fascination with toxic environments and incompatible life forms as metaphors for the ideological and cultural fissures that were opened up during the Cold War. As with the film festival itself, Days of Fear and Wonder offers a comprehensive overview of what has quite often been overlooked as a vital film genre and covers a wide range of its facets, including politics, science and technology, evolution and mutation, costume design, architecture, kitsch and alien cultures. It is consequently well worth the attention of anyone who visits or reads this blog.

PUBLICATION DETAILS: Days of Fear and Wonder, edited by James Bell, ISBN 978-1-844457-861-0, British Film Institute, £16.99.

More information and ordering details can be found here.

Pictured above Days of Fear and Wonder cover art.

Monday, 28 July 2014

While I Was Sleeping…

Just recently my old friend Aleksandra Mir gently reprimanded me for not updating this blog since I posted the first details of my illness back in February. She is, of course, absolutely right; and I must apologise sincerely to anyone outside of my usual Twitter and email circle for not keeping them informed of what has been going on. I knew that I would return to a different network when I left hospital, but I had no idea it would be one from which I would absent myself for such a long period of time. There are a number of reasons for this, and I will list some of them here by way of an explanation and an update.

While the surgery was successful in cleanly removing the tumour that was growing inside me, it took a long time to adjust to life outside the hospital again. The six or so days I spent in there had a deeper impact on me than I had realized at the time. To me if felt as though I were inhabiting a huge space station: an impression that was only strengthened at night when you heard the entire building humming and respiring and regulating itself. The photographs included with this post – taken as always by the Daily Planet’s roving shutterbug Kitty Keen – are from the day before I was released from hospital and also document the first time I had taken any steps outside the ward since my surgery. They say more about my state of mind when going back into the world than anything else I could write here. One friend characterized the pictures instantly with the comment: ‘At last – the missing outtakes from Tarkovsy’s Solaris.’

The period of recovery from the surgery was the only thing I could actually describe as progress, but as this involved going for long daily walks, catching up on email correspondence and getting back to work on my writing and other activities, it left little time for posting further details online. I kept the Twitter account updated, but I got too interested in what everyone else was doing to mention much about my own condition.  I will be posting links and details of some of things I have been up to over the recuperation period during what remains of the summer in an effort to update this blog as thoroughly as possible.

Once I was deemed fit enough to withstand it I was put on a six-month course of fairly brutal chemotherapy, which I will also describe in more detail in a later post. At this stage it is enough to note that living with anti-cancer drugs is like living with Vodou spirits inhabiting your body on a daily basis – they come and go as they please, and you tend to do what they tell you to. You are also prone to long periods of fatigue and spiritual lassitude (no god rides a human for free – this much I know is true) and you have to learn to work around them. Again writing and immediate daily concerns took precedent over posting online details about what was happening. The other problem with chemotherapy is that there is no sense of the ‘progress’ I had blithely assumed I would be able to describe once I emerged from hospital. Chemotherapy is basically a banquet of poisons – it never makes you feel ‘better’ in the way that one assumes normal medicine might do. On the contrary, you deal with side effects and physiological uprisings, sudden flare-ups and moments of pure stoned abandonment – they are still drugs, after all, whichever way you look at them. And how do you describe that in terms of ‘progress’? I am asking this question while about to start my seventh cycle of treatment out of eight and looking forward to an end to this particular feast.

The last – and probably most important – reason for taking so long in posting something was that I was completely unprepared for all of the messages of support, offers to visit and the emails containing good wishes and good thoughts for the future. Aside from the time and effort it took to reply to them, they also produced within me a certain reticence. I now realize that, for all the talk of ‘pathological oversharing’ taking place within social networks, I still perceive the network itself as being essentially formal in its manner of operation – it relies upon protocols and agreements and codes in order to function effectively. Part of me still has a fond attachment to the early days of the otaku when it was about trading information among formal strangers more than anything else. I perceive this severe sense of formality as functioning like a hypersensitive nervous system – it retracts and shrinks away from certain forms of attention, however welcome they might actually be to the recipient.

In other words, I am profoundly grateful to the vast majority of those who took the trouble to contact me since my February 3 blog post; it meant so much to me that it nearly dislodged me from my own network. But then I did say that things might change, didn’t I?

Monday, 3 February 2014

How to Wreck the Internet: I Have Cancer

I have not been posting much on this blog recently because frankly I have not had the energy – I had been suffering in the latter part of 2013 from a creeping anemia which was not really responding to conventional treatment. Turns out I have been hemorrhaging internally from a non-benign tumor in my colon – in other words I have been diagnosed with bowel cancer. As a result I have been spending a lot of time in hospital having CT scans, blood tests and talking to specialists – I now feel like an earth-based astronaut exploring medical space through passages and corridors that lead from scanners to operating theatres to drip feeds and epidurals.  Fortunately my condition has been caught at a relatively early stage when it is still contained and can be safely removed via keyhole surgery. I am going into theatre tomorrow – and yes it does feel like a piece of performance art.

I have informed most of the people with whom I have immediate contact over the past ten days or so, but I have not really been sure how well news like this locates itself on the internet – the physiological reality of my condition does not seem to be something that could possibly withstand the process of being communicated via the network. There remains, however, the obligation to communicate what is happening to me to those outside my immediate circle – I am not ashamed or afraid of my condition but am slightly unnerved at letting the people who still look in on my blog or follow me on Twitter know about it. Either my cancer will fail to communicate itself via the Internet or it will wreck my personal network by its presence. Will every statement I make from this point on be seen only in the light of this diagnosis? Do you retweet it? If so, to whom? Can you favourite it? Or would you even want to? Can any statement I make after this mean anything other than a slight rewording of the simple declaration that I have cancer? In the end I guess that is up to those who follow me (or choose not to for completely understandable reasons) to decide. Either way, they deserve at least that declaration.

For those who know my work and concerns, I should point out that I am not dead yet and that plans for Strange Attractor Press to go ahead with the publication of my newest book The Bright Labyrinth are already in place – my thanks to the excellent design and editorial team who are helping to move things forward. Similarly, work on my spoken-word audiocassette release for Tapeworm, announced on The Wire website recently, is also continuing. Please watch out for further announcements on these in the coming weeks. I am going to be hospitalized for about a week and then will be convalescing for most – if not all – of February. I will, however, be back – giving updates on my condition, offering my thoughts on what is happening around me and generally staying in touch with the world. I am not going away – but I may come back to a slightly different network from the one I left. In the meantime I wish whoever is reading this good health, peace and happiness – never have they seemed more important to me than right now.

Pictured above: KH exploring medical space, January 2014, photo by the Daily Planet’s roving shutterbug Kitty Keen

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Ludwig, Elvis, Michael at the Venice Biennale

The following text was written as part of my contribution to ‘Low is the New High’, part of Salon Suisse, the main Swiss contribution to this year’s Venice Biennale, which took the form of a select programme of individual evenings dedicated to discussing key aspects of aesthetics, politics and the legacy of the Enlightenment. My sincere thanks are due to my fellow panellists – Joseph Imord, Jason Pine and moderator Jörg Scheller – and to the staff of the Swiss Consulate for a stimulating and invigorating event. My apologies for not posting this sooner.

A Statement

‘You think I run after the strange because I do not know the beautiful,’ Georg Lichtenberg confides in one of his notebooks at the time of the American Revolution, ‘no, it is because you do not know the beautiful that I seek the strange.’

Almost a century later John Ruskin confesses to a similar impulse but in slightly stronger terms: ‘Once I could speak joyfully about beautiful things, thinking to be understood – now I cannot anymore; for it seems to me that no one regards them.’

The appreciation of trash has become over time an act of mistrust that breaks with the imposition of those shared values which are assumed to make trust possible. Trash consequently presents a way of thinking about beauty without falling under its spell. Say yes to one work of unique beauty, it argues, and you also open your arms to a thousand coarse and miserable reproductions as well.

Kitsch has always enjoyed a comfortable relationship with the age of mechanical reproduction – that is to say with industrialized processes, customs and attitudes – while Camp as a form of aesthetic consumption has established itself through the coolly ironic visions of Pop Art.

Part industrial by-product, part refuge from the very values that have created it, trash is the consumerist ethic torn inside out. In an age when beauty and truth, value and desire, poetry and music have all become so compromised and debased by mainstream corporate culture that we can barely stand to look directly at them anymore, we prize trash not for what it is but for what it tells us about the forces that have shaped it. Overcoming irony by ecstatically embracing irony, trash is the affirmation of beauty to the point of its destruction. 

Trash, in other words, is something ground out between progress and decadence.

‘Wagner is the modern artist par excellence, the Cagliostro of modernity,’ Nietzsche observes of his former friend. ‘All that the world most needs to-day, is combined in the most seductive manner in his art,—the three great stimulants of exhausted people: brutality, artificiality and innocence (idiocy).

Brutality, artificiality and innocence/idiocy: these are the very qualities that excite us most when we contemplate trash.

Forget the ‘failed seriousness’ of Camp. The failed solemnity of Wagner evokes trash in the grandest manner: Kundry is a true trash divinity, flinging her arms around the neck of an enchanted fool.

If a work of art betrays us, then the question of its truth or value is without relevance.
What does it matter if we consider it trash or not?

Trash expresses a wearied acceptance of surfaces and facades. It is the sign of something being eaten away inside. This inner life is only partially hidden, while the logic of its decay exerts an obscure but potent influence. It provokes a bitter form of laughter – the laughter of recognition, not of the familiar but of something distorted and deranged within us. As such, trash In a sense we will never be very far away from alchemy in our investigation of trash aesthetics. Caught somewhere between the instability of prima materia and that of the recycling plant, trash is matter whose destiny has not yet been established.

Alchemic processes of transformation, together with those ‘hysterical’ practices identified by Sigmund Freud in which discarded objects associated with a dead king take on a sacred aspect, lead us to trace the connections between Wagner’s patron, Ludwig II of Bavaria on the one hand and Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson on the other. All three of them were kings, both actual and metaphorical, vilified for their excessive behaviour and ‘bad taste’; and all three of them were the victims of self-inflicted – one might almost say sacrificial – violence in one aspect or another.

All three of them created powerfully charged personal environments for themselves. Think of Ludwig’s fairy-tale castles and palaces at Neuschwanstein, Linderhof and Herrenchiemsse; Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion and Michael Jackson’s Neverland pleasure gardens. These personal trash paradises have become closely associated with their owner’s decline and early death. Derided and found wanting according to conventional notions of taste, a study of these individual trash palaces reveals an attitude which is essentially monarchical and subversive at the same time; their preservation reminds us that trash – like all things held to be sacred – is both untouchable and immortal.

Ken Hollings
Salon Suisse, Venice
September 2013

Photographs are by roving shutterbug Kitty Keen, our girl in the palazzo.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

‘The Return of the Monster from the Id’ now available on BBC i-Player

‘The Return of the Monster from the Id’, my BBC Radio 3 piece for the Between the Ears slot on the story behind Bebe and Louis Barron’s extraordinary soundtrack to the 1956 M-G-M science-fiction fantasy Forbidden Planet is currently on BBC i-Player. Produced by Mark Burman, it features personal accounts from the Barrons themselves recorded on two separate occasions. Most of the comments and statements made in the show by Bebe are from an interview recorded by Mark in LA sometime in the 1990s. He had called her up on the off-chance of meeting her and recorded about two hours of material with her – this has never been broadcast before. The interview with Louis Barron, in which Bebe also participates but to far lesser extent, was recorded in the mid 1980s for a US public radio show and is extremely rare. The session took place about two or three years before Louis’s death; and from the unedited tapes, in which you can hear him fire up several cigarettes and occasionally break off to cough his lungs up, it’s not hard to figure what killed him in the end.

The Forbidden Planet OST is one of those disastrous successes that haunt art in the late twentieth century: the Barrons never got a chance to work in Hollywood again and felt cheated of an Oscar nomination for their own on the movie. M-G-M even went so far as to downgrade their music to ‘electronic tonalities’ in the credits, and the true nature of what Louis and Bebe were producing from their circuits has never been fully understood or explored. Many years ago I included the Forbidden Planet soundtrack album, with its spectacular cover painting by Renate Druks (who also appeared in Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome) in The Wire’s notorious ‘100 Records that Set the World on Fire (When No One Was Listening)’ special feature which marked their 175th issue. The richness and complexity of  the Barron’s electronic score was so far in advance of what more academic composers were producing at the time using magnetic tape that it still stands out from what else was being produced in the electronic music studios of the 1950s. Bebe and Louis had an instinctive feel for technology, which – perhaps paradoxically – makes their work sound less primitive than that of their ‘musical’ contemporaries. Go figure.

The only other voice that you hear in the show is electrical engineer Phil Taylor who built us some noise-making circuits based on what technical information he could glean from comments Bebe and Louis had made about their work, plus the few photographs that had been taken of their studio. Phil showed remarkable cheerfulness and forbearance towards Mark Burman and myself as we crashed around his studio outside Stoke on Trent asking him complicated questions, poking at thermionic valvess and getting him to make outlandish noises from the circuit boards he had constructed specially for the occasion. Tormenting and ill-treating circuits was not really in his nature – even though the Barrons had spoken often about ‘torturing them death’ – and it thanks to him that we really got to see circuits as living creatures. The experience sent us back to our copies of Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics: Communication and Control in the Animal and the Machine – even though Phil said he found the book so dry he required serious medication upon finishing it.

A lot of this experience took me back to the world of Welcome to Mars, and it was a real pleasure to become reacquainted with its themes – with my latest book, The Bright Labyrinth: Sex, Death and Design in the Digital Regime, imminent from Strange Attractor Press (watch this space), that is always something to value.

You can find ‘The Return of the Monster from the Id’ by clicking here.

The following copy is from the Radio 3 site:

In 1956 Louis and Bebe Barron birthed the world's first electronic film score with their unearthly soundtrack to M.G.M.'s Forbidden Planet. Ken Hollings considers their act of creation and wonders if the Monster from the Id can ever be re-awakened?
Forbidden Planet was M.G.M.'s lavish leap into science fiction. Fusing Shakespeare's Tempest, pop Freud and pulp SF. Fleetingly Hollywood and the electronic avant-garde embraced to make unworldly music inspired by the new science of cybernetics. The Barrons were close associates of John Cage and at the cutting edge of new technology and music. Their "electronic tonalities", as credited on screen in deference to an anxious musicians union, were groundbreaking for both experimental music film scoring. In the cramped space of their Greenwich Village apartment the Barron's poured current through homemade circuits made up of valves, oscillators and wires. Music, sound effects and character were all arrived at by wiring, art and sweat. The roaring Monster from the Id, the bubbling sounds of Planet Altair IV and the vast caverns of glowing, ancient Krell technology. Even the Krell music, anthem to a long dead race of technologically advanced beings. Audiences and filmmakers were startled by this great musical experiment. It remains one of the most perfect fusions of film and music, defining the way we thought the future would sound. In rare recordings Bebe and Louis Barron relate their adventures in sound.
Meanwhile, somewhere near Stoke, Ken Hollings challenges music boffin Phil Taylor to a hardwired search for the secrets of Krell music and the electronic heartbeat of the Monster from the Id. 

Pictured above: cover for the Bantam Books paperback novelisation of the Forbidden Planet published in 1956; Phil Taylor’s circuits; Phil Taylor and Mark Burman listening for signs of the Monster from the Id; Renate Druks’ sleeve art from the original album release of the Forbidden Planet OST; deadly Krell storage

Monday, 9 September 2013

Talking Trash in Venice: Autumn Respawn

Another summer ends and the bloggers, as they must, fly south in the autumn: which also means that after a long period of playing dead I am now back in business again. It has been a busy time for me over the past three months. Most of it has been spent on preproduction for my new book from Strange Attractor Press: ‘The Bright Labyrinth: Sex, Death and Design in the Digital Regime. This is based on the lecture series I have been giving to postgraduate design students at Central St Martins over the past few years and will definitely be out in the autumn. Typography and layout design are by Minus 9’s Rathna Ramanathan with full-spread illustrations by Mr Mathew Frame; which means that, if nothing else, the book is going to be a beautiful thing indeed. I will be posting more on this in the coming weeks.

I have also been working throughout the summer on a new ‘Between the Ears’ piece for BBC Radio 3: an exploration of the amazing ‘electronic tonalities’ created by Bebe and Louis Barron for the MGM science-fiction classic Forbidden Planet. Putting this show together has meant revisiting some of the material from Welcome to Mars, talking to some really interesting people and playing around with some ingenious circuitry. Through their agency, my producer Mark Burman and I are planning to invoke the ‘Monster from the Id’ in the studio so stay tuned. The show will be going out in the next two weeks or so.

Meanwhile, anyone who finds themselves in Venice later this week may like to visit the ‘Salon Suisse’ in the Palazzo Trevisan degli Ulivi, where I will be talking trash with a select panel of researchers and theorists on the evening of Thursday September 12. ‘Low is the New High’ is a public outgrowth of the ‘High Trash’ conference I participated in and blogged about at the start of the summer. This event is actually part of the Venice Biennale and during the course of the evening I will be introducing a screening of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, proving that there really is some point to these art-market equivalents of an international Shriners convention. It also makes complete sense that I should be working on a radio programme about Forbidden Planet, one of the most expensive, high-concept attempts at a science-fiction movie, while at the same time speaking about one of the cheapest and most magnificently lowbrow efforts in the same genre. The fact that both were completed in the same year – 1956, except of course that Plan 9 was able to get a release until 1959 – only makes the comparison all the more poignant.

Also participating in ‘Low is the New High’ will be Dr Jason Pine, Dr Joseph Imorde and Dr Jörg Scheller, whose dedication to the anatomical achievements of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the stirring heavy metal anthems of Motorhead remains an inspiration to us all. The following is from the Salon Suisse catalogue copy:

In the good old days of postmodernism, “Trash” was considered as a criticism of elitist culture. In this regard, it continued the Enlightenment's “criticism from below”. Today, Trash can also be used to strengthen power structures. For instance in the policies of Silvio Berlusconi or in the art of Jeff Koons. Even Luis Vuitton has “trash bags” designed. Proceeding from various case studies, tonight's guests will explore the dialectics of Trash―from King Ludwig II of Bavaria to the Neapolitan music genre to the Berlin “beer pyramid” of contemporary artist Cyprien Gaillard. 

More information can be found by clicking here.

‘Low is the New High’
Palazzo Trevisan degli Ulivi
Campo S.Agnese-Dorsoduro 810
I-30123 Venezia
T +39 041 24 11 810

Pictured above: monsters, monsters, monsters, courtesy of the Italian Tourist Board, Plan 9 from Outer Space and Forbidden Planet