Excess, Machine, Culture: Three Plateaus on Noise Aesthetics

The following essay was originally intended for publication, but I find it to be a bit too unwieldy, and not fully articulated in the sense of coming-together that I would have hoped. I’m posting it here, however, as a sort of introduction to future posts and essays on the topic of noise. I will also refer interested readers to an earlier post, Cut it up and start again: Dub soundscapes and aesthetic solidaritywhich is cut from the same cloth as this. 

Excess

Most cities have them: that strange, soft underbelly, teaming with the most unexpected of people, huddled together in little-known venues, or just as frequently spaces that have been appropriated and transformed into sound-stages, littered with jungles of wires, cords, and equipment. Fliers announcing the events maintain a limited circulation. They can be found stapled to walls of dimly-lit dive bars or sitting on tables in small vinyl shops. The aesthetics always invoke a provocative strangeness, an other worldiness that captures the curious eye. They bring to mind the xeroxed collages from the hey-day of punk, and in Louisville, Kentucky (my hometown), at least, they exhibit many of the key characteristics of what is labeled as “outsider art”: “fundamentally different to their audience, often thought as being dysfunctional in respect of the parameters for normality set by the dominant culture.”i Consider the two following fliers, one of Louisville’s annual “Cropped Out” music festival, and another of a small show sponsored by Cropped Out:

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This form of music, too, defies explanation. What is classified as “noise” runs a lengthy gamut: there is grating, pulsing sheets of white noise (Merzbow), free-form jazz (Ornette Coleman), deconstructed punk-rock (No Wave acts like DNA), mutant pop, strange grooves, classic rock stretched into infinity, silence (John Cage’s 4:33), drone music, found sounds, plunderphonics, tape music, glitch music, glossolalia, pure improvisation, on and on and on. Sometimes its a person surrounded by homemade instruments, turning light waves into soundwaves.

Colin Rhodes situates the origins of outsider art in various spaces: psychiatric patients, auteurs and visionaries, criminals, those who evade popular notions of sexuality, those who are deemed autistic or underdeveloped, and spiritual mediums.ii In an age past – and perhaps still within the present – these individuals would have been subjected to what Foucault dubbed as disciplinary institutions: the criminal in the prison, the sexual ‘deviant,’ the autistic, and psychotic in the therapeutic institution, and the medium eliminated through the supremacy of scientific thought. Each of these individuals, then, is marked as a manifestation of social excess, heterogenous elements that must be removed from the society that produces them in order to maintain stability. As Georges Bataille argued, the censorship of heterogeneity produces a state where an encounter with these elements “will provoke affective reactions of varying intensity… sometimes attraction, sometimes repulsion,” and sometimes “any object of repulsion can become an object of attraction, and vice versa.”iii Following Bataille, Tiqqun infused heterogeneity with a militantly political agency with their formulation of the “Imaginary Party,” a diffused means of “establishing forms-of-life in their difference, intensifying, complicating relations between them…”iv

In ancient Greece, the act of excess, or the transgression, was depicted as a state of ekstasis; in the Dionysian rites, dancers overcome with passion would whip themselves in a fury, ingesting drink and mind-altering substances, before tearing apart and consuming a sacrificial animal. The excess here is the mental state of the dancer-participants; the collective frenzy combined with intoxicants induced a state where the normal, culturally homogenized subjectivity falls away, replaced by an invasion of the ektos, or the outside. The climax of the ceremony is a catharsis, but a catharsis achieved through entering into a state of madness, induced by a possession. Music here plays a fundamental role, aiding the generation of the individual’s trance and transforming the state into one where the plateau of intensities achieves meaningful qualities.v Elements of this tradition continued into the certain mystical strands of Christian theology, particularly in the via negativa found in the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, who depicted divine transcendence as an “inebriated ecstasy.”vi Later, St. Teresa of Avila described this rapture as being pierced by a flaming sword, a “pain so great it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it…”vii Picking up on the erotic dimensions of her prose, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s famed Ecstasy of Saint Teresa in Rome clearly illustrates an orgasmic experience.

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Ektos was the ghost that haunted so much of modernity. Against the backdrop of the industrial revolution, the life of the poet Baudelaire revealed a preoccupation with excess as not only fundamental to the creation of his art, but as synonymous with the art itself. His follower, Arthur Rimbaud, sought excess as a means of becoming a ‘visionary and seer,’ in order to use his poetry to chart a passage from what can be known to the unknown – a certain materialist reorientation of the via negativa. Nietzsche resurrected the Grecian rites in his dialect of Apollo and Dionysus, while Antonin Artaud combined intoxication with his own state of madness to wage war on the organizational pillars of religion, capitalism, and the state. Bataille’s own political economy analyzed the modes through which society purges the excesses it creates, while the delirious nomadism of the Dadaist, the Surrealists, Henry Miller, and the American Beats helped frame all sorts of desiring politics, from the Situationists to Deleuze and Guattari.

In today’s communication and information theories, originated in the 1940s by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver’s The Mathematical Theory of Communication and elaborated upon in Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics, excess takes on a new dimension through its equation with noise. Driven by the necessities of developing optimized communication platforms during World War 2, Shannon and Weaver’s schema depicts the transmission of a message from the sender, where it is coded, to the receiver, where it is decoded; common cultural platforms of communication are essential for either end, while a threat becomes present in the forces of entropy, or the thermodynamic principle that all things that exist are worn down. Entropy, in this context, is noise, and it is capable of impeding the transmission of the message, either destroying it outright or contaminating its content. Shannon and Weaver, ultimately, are concerned with being able treat information itself as a quantifiable object, ultimately rendering the content of information itself as meaningless in their formulations. The presence of noise, however, causes them to confront an issue that could potentially undermine this entire approach. On one hand, the intrusion of noise disrupts the message, and thus noise is antithetical to information itself. On the other hand, the presence of noise marks an increase in randomness and chaos within the message, thus opening up and widening the content of the message and the interpretations of its decoding. From the first perspective, the fact noise disrupts the message points to the fact that the content of information does play a role; from the second, we find that the increase of randomness within the message means that information is increased. Not only could noise be considered information, but its alterations are to the content of the message itself.

From either perspective, the fact remains that noise’s relationship to information is one marked by randomness, chaos, spontaneity; in early times, from the Dionysian rites of Greece to St. Teresa’s rapture to Rimbaud’s derangement of the senses, each one is not only described as the intrusion of a force from the outside, but also one that induces a chaotic state of a transformative nature. For Wiener, working on fire-control systems to shoot down enemy aircraft during World War 2, it was essential to produce stable systems through the control and management of the entropy within the system; too much noise was then a de facto destabilizing agent that ruined the careful calculations that organized the system, its purposes, and its operations. Metaphorically speaking, we could argue that the approach to noise in information and systems theory is no different than the elimination of heterogeneous elements from society: at the bottom of each is the removal of randomness, divergence, and chaos. Shannon and Weaver’s removal of noise was the ability to properly decode, interpret, and reproduce a message, while Wiener’s was a drive to achieve a state of homeostasis in a given system, preventing it from either degrading or transforming beyond its present state.

In the earlier 1900s, noise interfering with the priority of a signal’s transmission became associated with various otherworldly manifestations; Nikola Tesla, for example,claimed to have received communications from Mars, while strange, “non-static” noises were intercepted by the French military in 1923 and attributed to unknown forces.viii Others attempted to utilize technology to communicate with a supposed spirit world, a belief that persists today where white noise is sifted through to find communiques from ghosts another other supernatural entities. We should note that the term “medium” itself, as in one who acts as a conduit for communication between the living and the dead, indicates that individual’s position as communication technology – for the Surrealists, this was launched into the world of aesthetics by the practice of automatic writing as a ‘doorway’ of sorts to the primal, unconscious mind. Noise, therefore, seems to be an indication of a world beyond this one, and it is from this space that heterogeneous elements belong and from which vantage point they destabilize homogenous discipline. Likewise, outsider artists are frequently preoccupied with worlds other than their own, as Rhodes notes: “the transcendent world takes them beyond the reality of harsh living conditions. These might be grinding poverty, incarceration in psychiatric hospitals or prison, or other forms of social marginalization…”ix

Three interrelated statuses of the force of noise can be observed. The first is noise as catalyst for mutation. While the cybernetics of Norbert Wiener concerned with managing the amounts of noise within a system to achieve a homeostatic state, theories of “second order cybernetics,” such as those of Heinz von Foerster, looks to noise’s relationship to the system as one that can allow new, more complex systems to emerge following a period of destabilization – the principle of “order from noise.”x The second status is noise as otherworldly. This can be seen clearly in von Foerster’s theories, with noise pushing a given system into something that it was originally not. In Shannon and Weaver’s work, noise is treated as an excess, a principle historically associated with the ektos, the outside or beyond. This is further confirmed by the linkage in certain periods between noise in a communication channel and the supernatural, with noise acting as the voice of the outside of the material world. And finally, there is noise as noncommunication. For the early communication theorists, noise disrupts the primacy of a message while still adding an influx of information in the form of randomnesss and chaos; these are precisely the elements that allows von Foerster to observe that noise can mutate a system. At the same time, this disruption deconstructs the message, turning it to gibberish or rendering it inert. The ‘ghostly’ association of noise, too, points to a principle wherein noise communicates the uncommunicatable, something beyond logic and the dogmatism of scientific rationality. It was Jean Baudrillard who described communication as act of going beyond one’s self, a move into the outside or a generation of excess – “the ecstasy of communication.”xi Noise short-circuits this relationship, inverts it by invading the spaces of communication with its inherent ability for detournement. At the same time, we must acknowledge that in the noise paradigm, the hijacking of the channels amounts to a moment where noncommunication becomes precisely the object, perhaps unintended, of communication itself.

Machine

It was the Situationists who looked out at the terrain of everyday life and its colonization by a regime of production, marketing, statistical calculation, and subverted social relations organized though an emphasis on the consumption of commodities. Noting that capital had accumulated itself until it became an image reinforced by the hand of the disciplinary institution, they deemed this glossy world the Spectacle – a representation of life, obscuring the machinery lying beneath. Baudrillard, at one time an associate of the Situationists, made the necessary reconfigurations to the Spectacle and reproduced it as Simulation, a social subsumed in a technological non-space. Writing in his “Requiem for the Media,” Baudrillard observes the roots of this as the “simulation of communication,” clearly alluding to theories of Shannon and Weaver and those who followed in their footsteps.xii This would include Wiener and his cybernetics; Herbert Simon, who applied computer simulations to human cognitive abilities; and Jay Forrester, with his complex “system dynamics” simulations that have today been applied to everything from factory processes, labor economics, the introduction of new commodities into the market, the growth of urban sprawl and populations, and the management of global supply chain networks. Each of these rests on the assumption that the simulation is directly applicable to the realities of the social and the ecological, requiring the retooling of the human and nature to states equatable to behavior of computers and its possibilities for reprogramming.

Underlying this paradigm is the presence of feedback, of which Wiener’s cybernetic theories are entirely based. In a feedback loops, a change in one aspect of the system establishes a change in another part of the system, which loops back and alters the original source of the change. This cycle perpetuates itself, changes in either end feeding back into the other. In Shannon and Weaver’s work, the feedback loop would be the response message following the decoding of the initial message, transforming the receiver into the sender and vice versa. Wiener and Simon both link feedback to control systems, where the homeostasis of the system is achieved through negative feedback, where the movement between two or more aspects of the system assures that no radical change takes place. In Forrster’s complex system dynamics, a multitude of interlocking feedback loops pushes this paradigm into a state where the system can be considered anything both simple – but even in its non-linear, highly abstracted state it is still capable of being subjected to simulation and control through regulation.

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The regulatory processes of negative feedback takes place through the lessening of entropy or noise within the system, the curbing of any or all excess that could disrupt homeostasis. Noise and instability in the system, by contrast, can trigger positive feedback, where the loops can escalate the system out of control, pushing them into higher and higher degrees moving away from homeostasis. The system goes into overdrive; it becomes unpredictable and assumes it own direction without regulation, without control. Cattle stampedes, bank-runs, positive feedback trading on the stock market, all these are examples of this paradigm at work: as the positive feedback escalates entropy threatens to overwhelm the system, threatening it with the possibility of dissolution. From von Foerster’s perspective this entropic force is precisely what allows a system to mutate to higher organizational complexities; noise is at once a force that brings a system to its end while also serving as that which marks the genesis of a new system. We are confronted then with a double movement: while cybernetics, communication theories and the utilization of complex systems amounts to a very real sense of control hovering in tension between the material and immaterial, the relationship between noise and regulatory feedback loops allows us to think about the possibility for degradations of control and their mutation into something else – imagining alternatives to worlds beyond our own.

Globalization of economics is intensified and made possible by the globalization of these control technologies; in 1989 Felix Guattari observed that “As planetary machinic integration proceeds, each machine is inseparable from its overall environment. At the limit, there is just one machine on the horizon.”xiii And beyond the limit? Ektos, the Outside, Noise. In noise music, positive feedback is frequently deploy in the relationship between the electric guitar or some other instrument and the amplifier, allowing the sound to gain a sort of autonomous state, liquid and visceral, grating and potent. Referencing Jimi Hendrix’s own utilization of positive in his music, Joseph Nechvatal argues that the guitarist “understood that through the mediation of machines the technological built-in can be contorted and bent, thus changing our awareness of what technology is or can be.”xiv Perhaps a better example than Hendrix would be the Velvet Underground, whose first two albums are elongated experiments in bringing the gaps between the worlds of rock music and New York City’s “downtown music,” deploying the tendencies of each to destabilize the characteristics of the other. At the center of this dual subversion is the utilization of howling guitar feedback, brought to the group from the sonic drones of the Theater of Eternal Music by John Cale, to perpetually overwhelm the pop sensibilities of Lou Reed, a skill honed while working as the in-house songwriter at Pickwick Records.

In these early days, the Velvet Underground’s sonic spectacles served as a vital component of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a multimedia performance involving not only the music, but also light shows and film projections, underscored by the resurrection of the Dionysian rites through intoxication and ecstatic dancing informed in no small part by sadomasochism. It is critical to take a moment to comment on the presence of these multimedia environments, which at the time (the 1960s) were achieving prominence in countercultural circuits. These environments were sometimes reflective of hippie communalism, as was the case of Ken Kesey’s famed acid tests, where the psychedelic nosie of the Grateful Dead, strobe lights, and films provided a frame for LSD experimentation, to the art troupe USCO, which also drew on psychotropic substances with a focus on Eastern mysticism and systems-thinking derived from cybernetic theories.xv As Fred Turner has analyzed in his recent book The Democratic Surround, this fascination with multimedia stemmed from the work done by a small cadre of intellectuals that coalesced in the Committee for National Morale in the early 1940s: disturbed by the impact of fascism and Europe and wary of the possibility of its growth in the United States, creativity, autonomous action and thought, and a more “democratic” relationship with media technologies (so pivotal in European fascism, as the case of the radio indicated) was urged to create a flexible “New Man.”xvi A great deal of those involved in the Committee for National Morale – Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead, and Kurt Lewin amongst others – would soon go on to be involved in the very development of cybernetics and systems theory that multimedia experiences are intimately bound too; beyond these, there are other numerous documented cases where government agencies such as the United States Information Agency and the CIA sponsored and promoted this new art to illustrate how open-minded Americans culture could be, as opposed to dogmatic ideologues in the Soviet Union.xvii

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The fusion of the Velvet Underground, as a sonic abstraction, and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, was an experiment deploying the positive feedback of noise as a means to push the machinic in new directions alongside the continued appropriation of the multimedia environment from those who would use it for propaganda purposes. There is no reconciling Warhol’s use of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, for example, with Edward Steichen’s Family of Man exhibition, circulated by the Museum of Modern Art as an aspect of the government-backed “cultural diplomacy.” Furthermore, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable can be situated in a noise-continuum emanating from the Neo-Dadaist Fluxus art movement in New York City and its related subcultures, populated by individuals such as John Cage, Jackson Pollock, and Allan Kaprow. For example, the technician for the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, Ronald Nameth, had done multimedia work for Cage, while before the Velvet Underground came together, Reed and Cale were members of The Druds, alongside the miminalist artist Walter de Maria and the Neo-Dadaist Jasper Johns. Likewise, the de facto leaders of the Theater of Eternal Music, La Monte Young and Tony Conrad were both intimately tied to this circle: Young had been close the Fluxus founder George Maciunas and put together the group’s Anthology of Chance Operations, while Conrad worked on experimental films that owed much to the movement’s aesthetics.

Cage, whose experimentation with silence in 4’33” has been described as the genesis of noise music, recounts that one of the key inspirations for Fluxus came from the Dionysian current of modernity: “In the forties many of us became aware of the thinking and action of Antonin Artaud. This indicated a theater… that would not use all of its means towards a literary end so that a form of theater other than the one he has spoken of would develop, and it has.”xviii This is Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty: a proto-multimedia surrealist theater that obliterated the boundaries between spectator and audience, galvanizing and seeking to promote chaos and upheaval through the usage of blinding lights, thunderous sounds and glossolalia, the stuttering of language. For Artaud, this theater would shatter our illusions of reality, pulling back the curtains of what we observe and perceive – a notion that should speak volumes to our current age of Spectacle and Simulation. The Situationists had crafted their own Theater of Cruelty in the form of Situations, ephemeral autonomous zones where the Spectacle can be pierced by the welding together of militant action and aesthetic experimentation; in Fluxus parlance, this would be the multimedia “Happening,” which in Maciunas’s words would “FUSE the cadres of cultural, social & political revolutionaries into [a] united front & action.”xix We should note that in 1966, numerous members of the avant-garde convened the Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS) to “focus attention on the element of destruction in Happenings…”. Participants in the DIAS included Sylvester Houedard, a concrete poet and monk steeped in the via negativa tradition; cybernetic artists Peter Weibel and Roy Ascott; Yoko Ono; and Enrico Baj, a member of the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, one of the core groups that merged to form the Situationist International (Baj would also go on to participate in the Mail Art scene, discussed shorty).xx

In Karprow’s recounting of the Happenings, the first forms came through exhibitions of Pollock’s large, abstract canvases. Here, the sonic assault of noise is reworked into a visual aesthetic form: at a exhibition gallery exhibition circa 1950, the paintings were used to cover all four walls of a windowless room. “The effect,” Kaprow writes, “was that of an overwhelming environment, the painting’s skin rising towards the middle of the room, drenching and assaulting the visitor in waves of attacking and retreating pulsations.”xxi Through this visual noise became a counter-environment is created to direct the individual away from the everyday environment of discipline and control; if the Spectacle perpetuates itself through dominant media, as the Situationists reasoned, then counter-media, or even anti-media could serve as an opening point to something else. Warhol once remarked that he “always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life. People sometimes say that the way things happen in movies is unreal, but actually it’s the way things happen in life that’s unreal. The movies make emotions look so strong and real, whereas when things really do happen to you, it’s like watching television—you don’t feel anything.”xxii Moving in an opposite direction, Cage once reflected on the Neo-Dadaist art of Robert Rauschenberg (who, incidentally, had been the lover of The Druds’s Jasper Johns) by describing it as akin to watching “many television sets working simultaneously all tuned in differently.”xxiii Proliferating noise.

Culture

If cybernetic information and communication technologies perpetuate the organizations of power in the globalized world, it is through the presence of the network that this takes place. This can be the digital network of the internet, at once bringing instantaneous communication to individuals in every corner of the globe while prying up everyday life to act as both a corporate sale’s floor and computerized Panopticon. Digital networks, in turn, activate all other forms of global networking: the networks of international transportation, the networks of global shipping, military networks of command and control, militant networks of autonomy and resistance. Ours is an age of hybridities; in a network topology, the divisions between each of these have become more and more indivisible from one another to the point where their singularization can appear to be absolute – Guattari’s planetary machinery, surfacing in the form of information-communication mediums.

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Before the internet, and even before the electrical telephone, communication circulated in network form through the postal system. The postal system in many ways prefigured Shannon and Weaver’s own approach to information as something devoid of content: what mattered for the system was the circulation of envelopes, not the messages contained within them.xxiv But just as Shannon and Weaver’s paradigm is destabilized by the anti-homeostatic properties of noise and entropy, avant-garde practices hijacked the postal system with intentional messages that reasserted the primacy of the content. Mail art was established by Ray Johnson, from New York City’s Correspondance School and an individual close to the Fluxus movement. Johnson would mail instructions to individuals, detailing activities for them to undertake or addresses to send mail too, putting into circulation a completely participatory, ephemeral, and largely hidden art that was more often than not humorous in intent and execution. In 1960 the Fluxus artist Robert Filleou wrote of an “Eternal Network,” a “coterie of friends and artists participating in an ongoing open exchange of art and idea.”xxv Johnson’s system provided the necessary groundwork for the Eternal Network to launch into momentum, and by the late 60s and the 1970s mail art blossomed into an extensive, national-level avant-garde platform that moved quickly into the world of faxes, telephones, and the subcultural tradition of cheap and easily reprintable zines.

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In Italy, mail artists Vittore Baroni and Piermario Ciani brought the form into contact with wider, European artist subcultures. Baroni was affiliated with the Neoist network, a loose anti-art movement that drew heavily on Situationism, anarchism, Dada, Fluxus, punk and mysticism; common Neoist tactics included the adoption of “open names” such as Monty Cantsin and Karen Eliot, free for anyone’s appropriation as a moniker for various artistic and political interventions. The annals of noise rock existed in close proximity to Neoism, as Stewart Home, undoubtedly the most influential to emerge from the Neoist network, hosted a series of “Festivals of Plagiarism” whose participants included noise musician Lloyd Dunn, punk artist Jamie Read, and the filmmakers behind 1984’s Decoder, a movie depicting the utilization of tape manipulation to counteract corporate brainwashing through muzak playing in fast food restaurants. Decoder‘s cast includes appearances by William S. Burroughs, the father of the “cut-up” technique that inspired the film, Genesis P. Orridge from the early industrial noise band Throbbing Gristle, with music from Einsturzende Neubaten. These latter two groups were widely influential in the circles in Italy that Baroni and Ciani moved in, transforming the squatted social centers orbiting the punkish post-Autonomist networks into a ripe industrial subculture; with the sudden introduction of the internet, the industrial rapidly became politicized cyberpunk that prioritized tinkering with cultural detritus and a hands-on, do-it-yourself approach to information technology.xxvi

In cyberpunk, excess is no longer a mystical force, but garbage, the left-overs of the hypercirculations of information systems. Data trash. But it is in this moment that noise once again returns to assert itself as a factor of radical chance and mutable chaos. The proliferation of glitch music probes digital errors like computer crashes, the hum of sound cards, scratched CDs in a way that makes the glitch something that “betrays the simulation.”xxvii The simulations of Simon and Forrester, equated so closely with the actual functioning of reality, falls apart in the face of non-functioning of technology. At this moment, it is non-communication that is intended for communication; for the mail-artists and the Neoists, art and communication were inseparable from one another, a notion that is clearly carried into glitch. At the same time, we should observe how the network form of these pre-digital art movements anticipated the ascendancy of cybernetic technology through the internet, with its compulsion for any point of communication to connect to any other point. The mail-artists and the Neoists were amongst the first to art cultures to “go wired,” from the use of “telematics” to organize the Decentralized World-wide Mail-art Congressesxxviii to Baroni and Ciani’s efforts to link internet cultures to the Eternal Network.xxix The networked dreaming built into participatory art and distorted information indicated that at its inception, the net was understood as a potential space for tactical media where the old ways of information transmission through one-way communication channels (radio and television) could be flipped on their heads.

By 2014, the cyber-utopias pictured in the early 1990s has all but collapsed; we’ve seen the transformation from a state of autonomous activity in networked openness to a global digital enclosure. Ironically, the realization of open systems under a regime of unchecked government surveillance has finally reinserted the “content” back into understandings of information, with every digital ‘envelope’ peeled open and gazed upon. From the perspective of the noise continuum, we can perhaps catch a glimpse of a counter-paradigm in the form of broken media and dead media. The aestheticization of the glitch and the error constitute the harnessing of broken media; the source of noise here is the malfunctioning of the system which is then harnessed for a variety of projects and programs, be it electronic music made by the likes of Kim Cascone or Prefuse 73, net.art made by the Jodi collective and others, or the treating of system errors by hackers as an “exploit” to penetrate layers of digital protection. As net artist Pit Schultz commented, “Error sets free the irrational potential and work out the fundamental concepts and forces that bind people and machines.”xxx

Dead media, by contrast, are the media formation that have been made obsolete by the march of technology. In 1995, as digital technology broached the world of movie-making and offered the opportunity to depict larger and larger spectacles, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg published their manifesto of “Dogme 95,” a series of goals limiting the the usage of special effects: no external music or overdubbing, no special lighting or extensive set design, while the camera was limited to handhelds only. While digital cameras – alongside tape cameras – are permitted in Dogme’s “Vow of Chastity,” the other limitations strip the films of the glossy sheen, lavish storytelling, and deep financial backing that typify Hollywood productions. While this lends Dogme films the grainy, do-it-yourself look of dead media aesthetics, a more proper example could be cassette culture, which in the 90s played a fundamental role in the development of underground rock. Outside of the confines of the major music monopolies – indications of what Adorno earlier called the “culture industry” – independent labels were springing up across the nation, generally local in orientation and tapping their domestic music scenes for artists to circulate through the distribution of cheaply-produced cassette tapes. Beyond even this, many bands never affiliated with these labels and chose to make bedroom recordings, with transactions of the cassettes taking place primarily through trade or gift-exchange instead of monetary compensation. Importantly, this cassette culture was fundamentally linked with the mail art culture; in the void of major or independent labels, zines that catered to both subcultures blossomed and the circulation networks rapidly overlapped. Various industrial-noise artists, too, bridged the narrow gap between both these worlds; Genesis P. Orridge of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, Boyd Rice of NON, and Laibach all played roles in the world of mail art while distibuting their music via cassettes.xxxi

Today, cassette culture is undergoing a major renaissance, alongside a rise of printed fanzines, xeroxed pamphlets and mimeographs. As acknowledged at the beginning of this essay, these are the traditional modes of circulating knowledge about noise culture. At the same time, we can view these dead media forms as indistinguishable from noise itself: existing as physical, material mediums, cassettes and xeroxed fliers and zines are subjected to higher rates of entropy than their digital, immaterial counterparts. With the infusion of the sonic palette to the cassette tape surface, the audio itself with mutate through time, shifting due to climate conditions, the hot and the cold, direct heat or dampness. The same holds true for the paper – either becomes ephemeral and temporary, unable to replicate on a mass scale instantaneously. Likewise, the cassette tape is rewritable; content is able to be removed and replaced or simply overwritten, and in other cases the original sounds of the tape can be manipulated into new forms. All of this lends these revitalized dead media formats to a very limited circulation, either in time or space. Thus the dead media paradigm becomes one that remains obscured, largely hidden from view and existing in secret excepted for those participated in the rhizomatic sprawl of subcultural growth and decay.

In the world after the Snowden revelations, the return of dead media presents us with a new strategic primacy: due to its ephemeral nature, and more importantly, because it easily slips or evades tabulation, surveillance, and monitoring, these formats can be seen as a form of communication encased in noncommunication. If everything that can be communicated can be treated as information, then it is specifically that which cannot be transmuted which deserves further probing. “The only resort to responsible social communication,” wrote Florian Cramer, “is to practice anti-social communication”xxxii – yet this is anti-social paradigm that operates strictly by pushing positive iterations of the social through from below, to forsake the social in the form of a mass civil society mediated by capital and the state, all the while building alternative networks between people, organizations, and most importantly, moments in everyday life. Thinking through these things, and especially thinking about the different manifestations noise takes on (noise as music, noise as subcultural catalyst, noise as a mutation device), allows us to work though imagined alternatives to the current order and the current world. But we must acknowledge that, despite of this, we can never put our faith in imagination alone to carry through the crises of our point in time.

iColin Rhodes Outsider Art: Spontaneous Alternatives Thames & Hudson, 2000, pg. 7

iiIbid, pgs. 7-8

iiiGeorges Bataille “The Psychological Structures of Fascism” New German Critique No. 16, Winter, 1979, pg. 69

ivTiqqun This Is Not a Program Semiotext(e), 2013, pg. 13

vAllen S. Weiss The Aesthetics of Excess State University of New York Press, 1989, pg. 9

viPseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Colm Luibheid (trans.) Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works Paulist Press, 1987, pg. 130, note 266

viiSt. Teresa of Avila The Life of St. Teresa of Avila Cosimo Classics, 2011, pg. 266

viiiJussi Parikka “Mapping Noise: Techniques and Tactics of Irregularities, Interception, and Disturbance” in Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parrika (editors) Media Archeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications University of California Press, 2011 pgs. 269-270

ixRhodes Outsider Art pg. 104

xHeinz von Foerster “On self-organizing systems and their environments” 1960 http://e1020.pbworks.com/f/fulltext.pdf

xiJean Baudrillard The Ecstasy of Communication Semiotext(e), 2012

xiiJean Baudrillard “Requiem for the Media” For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign Telos Press, 1981, pgs. 164-184

xiii Felix Guattari Schizoanalytic Cartographies Continuum, 2013, pg. 74

xivJoseph Nechvatal Immersion Into Noise University of Michigan Press, 2011, pg. 38

xvFred Turner From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Catalog, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism University of Chicago Press, 2008, pgs. 48-54

xviFred Turner The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties University of Chicago Press, 2013

xvii Frances Stone Sanders The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters New Press, 2013

xviii Richard Kostelanetz Conversing with Cage Routledge, 2003, pg. 111

xixFluxus Manifesto I

xxStewart Home “Introduction to the Polish Edition of The Assault on Culture” January, 1993

xxiAllan Kaprow, quoted in Immersion Into Noise pg. 164

xxiiKristine Stiles Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artist’s Writings University of California Press, 2012, pg. 345

xxiii John Cage, quoted in Immersion into Noise pg. 166

xxiv Norie Neumark “Relays, Delays, and Distance Art/Activism” in Annmarie Chandler and Norie Neumark At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet MIT Press, 2005, pgs. 6-7

xxv John Held, Jr. “The Mail Art Exhibition: Personal Worlds to Cultural Strategies” in Chandler and Neumark At a Distance, pg. 89

xxviTatiana Bazzichelli Networking: The Net as Artwork Aarhus Universität, 2006, pgs. 84-87

xxvii Peter Krapp Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture University of Minnesota Press, 2011, pg. 67

xxviii Held, Jr. “The Mail Art Exhibition”, At a Distance pg. 109

xxix Bazzichelli Networking pg. 54, note 14

xxx Krapp Noise Channels pg. 87

xxxi S. Alexander Read Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music Oxford University Press, 2013, pgs. 115-119

xxxii Florian Cramer “Analog Media as (Anti-) Social Networking”

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8 Responses to Excess, Machine, Culture: Three Plateaus on Noise Aesthetics

  1. noir-realism says:

    Hey Edumund, I really think you’d enjoy Luciano’s Floridi’s The Ethics of Information book. I’ve been reading it of late along with his main works and find a lot of the notions surrounding these topics you discuss to be pertinent.

    I’ll have an essay going live tomorrow scheduled that will incorporate this below you may find of interest:

    Floridi developed a formula for information privacy as follows: “informational privacy is a function of the ontological friction in the infosphere” (Floridi, 232). Ontological friction? He defines it this way:

    ‘Ontological friction’ refers here to the forces that oppose the information flow within (a region of) the infosphere, and hence (as a coefficient) to the amount of work and effort required for some kind of agent to obtain, filter and/ or block information (also, but not only) about other agents in a given environment, e.g. by establishing and maintaining channels of communication and by overcoming obstacles in the flow of information such as distance, noise, lack of resources (especially time, memory space and processing capacities), amount and complexity of the data to be processed, and so forth.(Floridi, 232)

    One of the key issues of our time is the re-ontologization of the infosphere taking place all around us. Since the infosphere constists of the total environment of what Floridi has termed our onlife (i.e., With a slogan: hyperhistory happens onlife. …We have seen that we are probably the last generation to experience a clear difference between online and offline environments. Some people already live onlife. (Floridi, 14)). Because of this privacy is a major concern. Do we have a private self anymore? Is everything open, accessible, onlife and in the public sphere? Floridi explains:

    “Privacy is nothing less than the defence of the personal integrity of a packet of information, the individual, and the invasion of an individual’s informational privacy, the unauthorized access, dispersion, and misuse of her information is an infringement of her me-hood and a disruption of the information environment that it constitutes . The violation is not a violation of ownership, of personal rights, of instrumental values, or of consequentialist rules, but a violation of the nature of the informational self, an offence against the integrity of the me-hood, and the efforts made by the individual to construct it as a whole, accurate, autonomous entity independent from, and yet present within, the world. The intrusion is disruptive not just because it breaks the atmosphere of the environment, but because our information is an integral part of ourselves, and whoever owns it possesses a piece of ourselves, and thus undermines our uniqueness and our autonomy from the world. There is information that everyone has about us, but this is only our public side, the worn side of our self, and the price we need to pay to society to be recognized as its members.(Floridi, 260)”

    Floridi, Luciano (2013-10-10). The Ethics of Information (p. 230). Oxford University Press, USA.

    • edmundberger says:

      Hi Steve! Just put an order in for The Ethics of Information, and in the meantime I’ve got some journal papers by Floridi that I’m going to dig into after I catch myself up to speed on your blog. Thanks for the recommendation! What you summarize here and the glancing over his works looks pretty intriguing and insightful…

  2. noir-realism says:

    This notion of the ‘informational self’ aligns nicely with many of the surrounding ideas of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the ‘dividual’.

  3. Pingback: Sound Hacking: Further Reflections on Noise and Noncommunication | Deterritorial Investigations Unit

  4. Pingback: Excess, Machine, Culture: Three Plateaus on Noise Aesthetics – enemyindustry

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