At the risk of committing professional suicide, I have to confess that words fail me ever more often the older I get. That’s not to say I used to find it a lot easier to scratch together a remotely coherent piece to fill the accusatory empty page staring me in the face. But on reflection, given the ugly stuff that I’ve constantly been drawn into writing about these last 35 years, it’s only right and proper that it has always been such hard work. There must have been easier ways of making a living than struggling to understand the deeply ambivalent emotions awakened by exposure to all the extreme art and music that emerged just before, during and after punk in the mid-1970s.
If it’s not already clear we’re talking specifically about the international axis of malevolent minds linking Boyd Rice/NON, Smegma and Monte Cazazza in America and Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire et al in the UK, each of them variously driven into combat out of anger at being not only short-changed but feeling completely cheated when the good life promised by the postwar Western consumer societies they were born into failed to materialise. Crudely put, they variously devoted themselves to exposing the mind-controlling lie of social harmony and cohesion. Their strategies of decontrol centred on calculated acts of transgression choreographed to alternating currents of numbingly banal and piercingly nasty noise. This writhing sickness of snakes tied together in the global knot of underground resistance branded as Industrial Culture. Like the work of Artaud and the Vienna Aktionists that inspired them, their music planted mindworms of doubt and uncertainty that threatened to unravel socially set patterns of behaviour controlling the ways you moved through the world. Throbbing Gristle declared that Industrial Culture was fighting an information war against the mass entertainment industry. Guess what? Against all odds, the architects of Industrial Culture and their fellow travellers won the war, only to lose the peace. And just like the stragglers and holdouts of the Japanese Imperial Army who hadn’t been told the war was over and only finally surrendered their swords 30 years later, a few grizzled Industrial warriors carry on their lone fight in the Information War. But to what end, other than their own self-gratification? As reviewed in Soundcheck, Boyd Rice aka NON now appears as absurdly comical as those Japanese holdouts. But just as the holdouts carried on killing in the belief they were still at war, Rice refuses to abandon his pointlessly destructive Industrial strategy of baiting the petit bourgeoisie’s knee-jerk mechanisms with his history of encounters with US fascists and killers.
So how to continue in a culture that gained its traction through its mounting series of outrageous acts without repeating them? Nick Richardson puts it well in his On Location review of Extreme Rituals: A Schimpfluch Carnival: “One of the oldest arguments in favour of transgressive art – one cited by Throbbing Gristle and Mike Dando, among others – is that it serves as a tool for the existentialist. By offending you, it makes you aware that you’ve been conditioned to be offended, and challenges you to take control of your reactions. But graphic depictions of sexual abuse, or Second World War atrocities, have been so common for so long – in the world of harsh noise at least, which is where Schimpfluch fans tend to reside – that they’ve lost their power to shock and become mere accessories of genre, redundant next to a mainstream culture already saturated by pornography and violence.”
To repeat: Industrial Culture won their Information War, that’s for sure. They lost the peace the moment their ideas were assimilated into contemporary art. Once they had been purged clear of all Industrial Culture’s queasy, questioning, amoral complexities, transgressive acts were easily transformed into highly desirable art commodities. If words often failed me when I struggled to understand my difficult emotional responses to Industrial Culture, I find myself at a complete loss for words at the moral bankruptcy of Swedish artist CM von Hausswolff’s exhibition of Majdanek pictures purportedly painted from water mixed with the ashes of holocaust victims scraped from the ovens into a matchbox on a visit he made to the Polish concentration camp in 1989 (see Bitstream). Now under threat of criminal prosecution in Poland, Hausswolff is refusing to talk about his motivations for committing such a crass act of numbskull insensitivity. If the cutting edge of art draws blood solely to sell tiny vials of the stuff to the market’s most jaded collectors, there’s nothing left to say about it. Chris Bohn
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Issue 348 February 2013 £4 ISSN 0952-0680
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Words Steve Barker, Mike Barnes, Dan Barrow, Clive Bell, Abi Bliss, Marcus Boon, Michael Bracewell, Britt Brown, Nick Cain, Philip Clark, Byron Coley, Julian Cowley, Alan Cummings, Sam Davies, Brian Dillon, Phil England, Kodwo Eshun, Mark Fisher, Phil Freeman, Rory Gibb, Louise Gray, Andy Hamilton, Adam Harper, Jim Haynes, Richard Henderson, Ken Hollings, Robin Howells, Hua Hsu, William Hutson, Matthew Ingram, David Keenan, Rahma Khazam, Biba Kopf, Jack Law, Tim Lawrence, Alan Licht, Dave Mandl, Marc Masters, Bill Meyer, Keith Moliné, Will Montgomery, Brian Morton, Joe Muggs, Alex Neilson, Andrew Nosnitsky, Ian Penman, Richard Pinnell, Edwin Pouncey, Nina Power, Agata Pyzik, Simon Reynolds, Nick Richardson, Bruce Russell, Peter Shapiro, Chris Sharp, Philip Sherburne, Nick Southgate, Daniel Spicer, Joseph Stannard, David Stubbs, Dave Tompkins, David Toop, Dan Warburton, Val Wilmer, Barry Witherden, Matt Wuethrich
Images Thomas Adank, Jon Baker, Maxime Ballesteros, Frank Bauer, Kasia Bobula, Florian Braun, André Cepeda, Oliver Clasper, Dusdin Condren, Tara Darby, Ronald Dick, Glen Erler, Jason Evans, Jason Fulford, Jamie Hawkesworth, Chris Hoare, Tom Hunter, Jak Kilby, Jason Lazarus, Benjamin McMahon, Tom Medwell, Jason Nocito, Patrick O’Brien-Smith, Savage Pencil, Gérard Rouy, Jaap Scheeren, Michael Schmelling, Bryan Schutmaat, Bryan Sheﬃeld, Wolfgang Tillmans, Chris Verene, Eva Vermandel, Kai von Rabenau, Jake Walters, Jeremy & Claire Weiss, Val Wilmer