Guest Curator: Lisa Busby

‘We are part of an American tradition that was arcane 40 years ago: the non-virtuoso artist, the artist that should not have been, birthed of suburbs and average intelligence. Hitting the subconscious by accident, communicating out of a sweaty desperate want. Magik Markers have always been that. Basement, mouth-breathing, know-nothing nobodies itching to get at something they don’t understand.’

I recently came across this quote by Elisa Ambrogio, of Magik Markers, in The Wire (November 2013, 357, p16). When I first met Fatima Hellberg of Electra who introduced me to Her Noise, and again later when approached to be a guest curator, I felt exactly like a ‘know-nothing nobody itching to get at something I didn’t understand’. This instinctive reaction to my own set of knowledges and awareness of lack of knowledge; my own specialisms and conversely my propensity towards generalism in my magpie-ing artistic practice, sets the tone for this blog.

Image credit: Elisa Ambrogio of Magik Markers

The importance of the Her Noise Archive for me, as both music scholar and artist, is the broadness of interpretation as to what activities constitute sound art and experimental music, and its inclusive attitude as to where they might be found (in fine art contexts, contemporary art and electronic musics, and popular music). It is significant that Christoph Cox in his essay for the Her Noise Catalogue suggests female music might be characterised as ‘plurivocal, heterogeneous and polymorphous’. It is significant that Her Noise curator Lina Džuverović identifies the concerns around ownership that typify the politics of much punk and DIY music practice are the same ones that run through much avant-garde art of the 20th century. It is significant that Her Noise curator Anne Hilde Neset posits an interest in ‘messy aesthetics’ as a visceral setting for experimentation, and furthermore a tool for setting up new social relationships, exchanges, networks and communities.

I am interested in areas of practice where specialism meets the non-specialist, the prosaic; work which seeks to push boundaries and challenge existing ideas, but remain inclusive; means of expression that are not cordoned off by technical skill, training, economic factors.

The item that I have chosen from the Her Noise Archive to be the heart of my discussion is the video interview with Kembra Pfahler. Amidst her wonderfully sprawling interview, littered with stories from her childhood, descriptions of the various artistic endeavors undertaken (performance artist, video maker, softcore actress and model, shock rock musician) and references to her love of the great jazz singers, surfing and porn – she makes reference to what I would suggest are three critical concepts. Firstly she defines ‘Availablism’ (making use of the resources available to you); secondly ‘All-ism’ (utilisation of various methods and media without hierarchy); and finally the ‘Feral-ist’ (the seeking out of undiscovered territories, ideas and methods unencumbered by capitalist concerns.)

Image credit: Kembra Pfahler by iO Tillett

I believe these provide a loose conceptual framework for, or perhaps just a ‘way in’ to, understanding my own work but more importantly the work of the practitioners I’d like to highlight in this blog. I’ve chosen to look at three areas of practice as my starting points – popular music, domestic practices and artefacts, and the DJ/Turntablist. In the spirit of ‘all-ism’ that the work of these artists embodies – these are of course entirely redundant categories.

Popular Music and Transgression

My personal discovery of Kembra Pfahler in the Her Noise Archive provides me with the inspiration for the first artist I’d like to see interviewed for the archive – Cosey Fanni Tutti. Like Pfahler, she is an artist who emerged from a collision of art and punk and has similarly explored issues of the female body and conceptions of beauty through a multitude of media including music. It seems to me that she is a UK artist whose work contributed to the formation of the discourse we see continued in the work of many of the artists featured in the video archive.

My second choice of interviewee is Karin Dreijer Andersson of The Knife. The recent album Shaking the Habitual, and particularly the associated live show, has generated acclaim, criticism and bemusement in equal measure. The live show plays with layers of artifice, by presenting The Knife’s core members amidst a larger onstage collective and questioning the authenticity of ‘the live performance’ by having much musical and sung content clearly mimed by its various members, and an unusual weighting given to the importance of dance, costume, and mise-en-scene. 

Image credit: The Knife Shaking the Habitual

I see Shaking the Habitual as relevant to the concerns of Her Noise in the following ways:

  1. It celebrates a collaborative mentality. The show was conceived and is realised collectively, in a manner that de-centres popular music performance conventions by obscuring or removing the ‘star’ or ‘artist’, and as Kim Einarsson, moderator of the artistic process for the collective, explains ‘allows different forms of production in various disciplines to interact, collide and feed from each other” (read more).
  2. As such it abandons assumed hierarchies of media – text, illustration, dance, costume, non-musical performance are as important as the music.
  3. It de-masculinizes the business of performing electronic music, suggesting that facility in operating the machinery is not the primary concern and ‘eschewing the ‘authenticity’ of pushing buttons and triggering samples’ (Chal Ravens, The Wire, 354, Aug 2013).
  4. It has various embedded political aspects including satirical album artwork; and live the all-female crew, the choice of warm-up acts Ofa Kollektivet and Tarek Halaby, and the support for activist, feminist, queer, and anti-capitalist publications at shows. Moreover, the album content itself has an inherently political stance, lyrically and musically –specifically refusing to fit the mould of a ‘pop’ album in its structure, track durations and expansive sections without lyrical content. As argued by Maya Kalev the core ‘processes of deconstruction and reconstruction … its drive to defamiliarization are … a solution to the problems it highlights: only by unlearning what’s familiar can we shake old destructive habits, and usher in change’ (read more). 
  5. It argues the value of non-specialisation – Halla Ólafsdóttir a member of The Knife collective explains the approach to dance in the work, ‘There’s a certain notion of quality often connected to dance – such as that you would have to have certain kinds of training to execute it in a well-done way. Our interest was to use dance as a tool for empowerment, as something that generates joy – sure, we dance in unison, in ensemble, but not in order to reach perfection or talk about skill, but… for joy’ (read more).  

As The Knife collective themselves observe, the interesting thing about all of this is not the action itself, but that the choice of setting somehow restores a degree of transgression or challenge to that action.

The norms and habits that are questioned in the show – like ‘the artist as genius’, concepts of authenticity, artistic quality judgments based on white male heterosexual standards, etc – have been dealt with for a long time in feminist discourses and the contemporary art field. But to question these things in the mainstream setting of the pop music industry seems to be quite controversial (Kim Einarsson).

The Her Noise Archive shows that historically the world of popular music is a setting for challenging work, sonically and politically. What the work of The Knife perhaps highlights is that new forms of being ‘norm-critical’ continue to emerge, highlighting innate conservatism in popular music forms that like to think of themselves as progressive.

Domestic Practices and Artefacts

I met Felicity Ford whist we both undertook PhDs in the Music Department at Oxford Brookes, and found immediately a kindred spirit. We shared a love of music and sound, but also of zine-making, screen printing, stamping, knitting, spinning and dying yarns. It was the first time I’d ever met someone with whom I could talk to about all of these things and furthermore who understood why I felt somehow they could inform a coherent artistic practice.

Whilst my own embrace of domesticity tends to involve the blatant appropriation and/or transformation/hacking of everyday objects for performance installation, sound making object or record sleeve, as Ford’s website explains domestic themes pre-occupy her work in quite different, complex and unique ways. She is an expert recordist who has gained much recognition for her use of field-recordings and interviews to explore the meaning of objects and social contexts (recently featured in Cathy Lane and Angus Carlyle’s book In the Field: The Art of Field Recording, 2013).

Image credit: In the Field by Mark Stanley

I find her work exciting because it brings together those things which are perceived as highly technological with those that are not – and not with the aim of a deliberate collision but rather because the processes are understood as the same. Read her blog and you’ll find the skill and craft of working with sound is paralleled with the skill and craft of knitting a sweater or baking a loaf of bread (and indeed her work Aleatoric Fair Isle with Tom van Deijnen which devised a system for using chance musical composition techniques as a way of approaching colour choices in knitted garments is a direct embodiment of this). The message one takes away is one of empowerment – this approach to media, techniques and sources asserts that all practices are open to anyone.

Her work The Feedback Shed for ‘The Magic Hour’ in Oxford Botanical Gardens saw her transform a garden shed into a place where visitors could ‘place and save and collect their experiences – to treasure or nurture a moment in time, a sound, a sight…’ (read more). Her Sonic Tuck project which sought to draw attention to the distinctive sonic qualities of noisemaking foodstuffs such as popcorn, exploding mouth candy, fizzy sweets and fizzy drinks, has taken the form of both installation and artists book (an edition complete with recordings but also foodstuffs for you to take home and create the sound yourself).

Ford does not simply use the domestic in the spirit of availablism, but makes accessible for everyone the possibility of making sound art, textile art or food art – or even just finding it – in their everyday lives and homes.

As such I thought it was fitting to donate a copy of her Soundwalk Stationery (created for World Listening Day July 18 2010 and part of the larger radio project – Around the A4074), designed to draw attention to the sounds around the A4074, to the Her Noise Archive. The stationary set comprises both a beautiful screen-printed map and instructions for a circular walk in the area, with a series of colour coded envelopes and tags to enable the walker to ‘record’ what they hear. The recording of sonic events is to paper only and requires no specialist equipment or expertise.

Image credit: Soundwalk Stationary by Felicity Ford

The DJ, Chance and Inclusivity 

In my recent practice, under the broad project title Shit! I can DJ, I have been exploring techniques that emerged in my earlier work with the band Sleeps in Oysters (which made extensive use of appropriation of existing recordings, cut and placed intricately to form dense collages) and my performance installations as a solo artist (where I would build large scale environments which I would inhabit and perform long duration semi-improvised compositions within). In both scenarios to realise the incorporation of existing recordings I became increasingly interested in utilising playback media in conjunction with instruments, electronic performance software or hardware, and my voice – bringing together the sung, the spoken and the ‘played’ with pre-recorded music, textures, stories, and more disseminated from their original media.

This recent practice-based research is one way for me to attempt to understand and perhaps highlight the complex position of the DJ in contemporary culture. Historically ‘DJ practice’ (which I define loosely here as the use of any playback media in music and art) is found in popular music, western art music and fine art. The huge range of what might be understood as DJ practice extends from the beat-matching club DJ, to the home made soundsystem builders of Jamaica and Columbia, the experimental turntablist practice of for example Marina Rosenfield and Otomo Yoshihide, to the sculptural and kinetic work of say Stephen Cornford or Ujino and the Rotators. Despite this rich and diverse history the term ‘DJ’, somewhat paradoxically, is perceived as highly specialised and skilled, but equally DJs are often not acknowledged as ‘musicians’ at all. I’d suggest that these seemingly disparate strands of DJ or playback media practice should actually be understood as reflexive forms in dialogue, and that there is potential for a developing further practice of crossover between them. Certainly in my own work I am trying to explore the possible dialogues between DJ practice and themes and practices from performance art.

My work under the banner of Shit! I can DJ consists of various outputs: (1) DJ performances utilising non-standard or domestic equipment (not just turntables but walkmans, mini disc players and more) and/or located in unusual venues; (2) instruction scores realised in performance by myself, additional performers and the public; (3) the creation of bespoke interactive hardware for audio playback, exploring crossovers between DJing, installation and sculpture.

These works do not require musical training, technical expertise or specialist equipment. By focusing on universal understandings of the sonic and the musical, and situating performances in contexts where the DJ is not traditionally found, Shit! I can DJ seeks to promote inclusivity and accessibility of these aims and techniques.

Therefore the book I’d like to suggest be added to the archive is not an academic text but an instructional text, Of Technique: Chance Procedures on Turntable – A Book of Essays and Illustrations by Maria Chavez. Chavez says of the book:

By offering the reader an option of tearing out the illustrations from the book to use as flashcards to make their own turntable compositions, I wanted the reader to have the choice of how they wanted to keep the book intact. I liked the idea that an object could change without my knowing it, thereby giving the reader the freedom to make the artwork their own. It’s an object that has the potential to change. (Maria Chavez)

I’d suggest it is not only an object that has the potential to change but for making change.

–Lisa Busby, 2013
Lisa Busby is Lecturer in Music, Goldsmiths University of London and a practicing musician, artist and researcher under the name Lisa Sleeps. She plays in two musical outfits Sleeps in Oysters (electronic pop) and Rutger Hauser (noise improv), and creates other work mostly in installation and performance. Busby leads two research projects at Goldsmiths – Editions of You which celebrates and showcases self-publishing and self-releasing musicians and the handmade editions and releases they create; and Shit! I can DJ which explores experimental and crossover DJ practice.

She has donated bespoke releases from her collaborative project Sleeps in Oysters to the Her Noise Archive, including the album Lo! and singles ‘The brambles in starlight’ and ‘Don’t drum for other girls’.

Final image credit: Lisa Busby performing the work ‘Face Off’ in collaboration with David Dixon’s Entangled Practice installation
Image by Emily Alexander
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