Monday, 15 November 2010

Enter the Void - The Ultimate Trip

Enter the Void, the new film by French-Argentinian Director Gasper Noé, is a truly remarkable film. Its visceral affectivity is staggering, and is matched only by its total commitment to transforming the current state of cinema. Arguably it is just not like anything ever seen in the cinema before. This film is relentlessly experimental, and is unafraid to totally immerse and disorientate its spectators by placing them in the most abstract, frenetic and artificial of filmic landscapes. It is a classic example of a truly ambitious work of cinema which is completely unhinged from the realm of conventional representation, and operates according to a completely different schema.

Ultimately this is a work that attempts to situate us entirely within the abstract interiority of thought. Surrounded as we are by the banal hegemony of contemporary Hollywood it is tempting to believe that true cinematic innovation is dead - but Noé shatters this belief in the most spectacular way. In the past ten years only a small handful of films have even come close to the sheer immersive totality, visceral power and vertiginous disorientation of Enter the Void, and two of them were by Noé (Seul Contra Tous & Irreversible), the others being Lynch's Mullholland Drive and Inland Empire, Haneke's Cache, and Despentes & Trinh Thi's Baise-Moi. Increasingly I find that most contemporary cinema simply doesn't make me feel anything at all, and all too often I leave films feeling numb, bored and tired. Cinema, in both its 'popular' and 'art' forms, seems to have forgotten that it is primarily a visual medium, and that as such its primary means of expression should bethrough ‘showing’ things rather than 'telling' things. All too often cinema is trivialised by becoming the mere visual adjunct to explicit narrative ends. I often find myself in the cinema thinking, if I just close my eyes and stop watching the film being screened I wouldn't be missing anything, simply because I am being told everything. Moreover, far too much cinema has become entirely divorced from the activity of thought, having settled into a trite set of formal clichés that align themselves with and merely duplicate the patterns of ordinary, everyday, living.

I think that is very sad.

When I go to the cinema I don't want the everyday reproduction of the familiar - I want to be actively disintegrated. I don't want to be immersed in the familiar. I want to be taken out of myself to the point of total estrangement. I want to be transformed.

Enter the Void presents itself as a striking experiment in extreme subjective visual perspective in the style of Robert Montgomery's 1947 adaptation of Raymond Chandler's Lady in the Lake.

In Montgomery’s film the camera adopts and sustains Marlowe’s first-person perspective throughout his investigation, with the character only occasionally being glimpsed in mirrors, shop windows, etc. This is a cinematic experiment seldom pursued, having been considered a less than successful filmic novelty in much the same way that Hitchcock's later experiment with continuous editing in Rope had been.

Noe’s other obvious cinematic influences include Kenneth Anger’s magickal films, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ken Russell’s Altered States and Tarkovsky’s Mirror.

(from Anger's Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome)

(visual effect from Russell's Altered States)

In Enter the Void the camera forces the spectator to assume the perspective of a young American, Oscar, who is living with his sister, Linda, and working as a drug dealer in a neon-suffused Tokyo. We see this world through his eyes. It is not simply achieved through a point-of-view camera shot, but is developed into becoming the closest approximation of the way the world looks through embodied eyes. Hence the camera blinks, shifts frenetically and goes blurry in odd ways. Behind closed eyelids Noé presents entire abstract worlds of light and static. The first scene with Oscar plays out as a single, real-time shot lasting over half an hour, following Oscar as he settles down in his flat to smoke the powerful hallucinogen DMT (at one point we are told that DMT is similar to the drug released by the brain at the point of death). The scene includes some of the beautiful, detailed, abstract and pulsing CGI 'interiors', designed by visual artist Glenn Jacobsen aka "Glennwiz."

These minutely detailed micro-landscapes composed of unfolding and expanding brilliantly coloured spirals, fractals and delicate tendrils, accompanied by extracts from Coil's alien sound experiments on the early ANS synthesiser, recall Kubrick's 'stargate' sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was described at the time as ‘the ultimate trip’.

As I watched this part of the film (although it is perhaps more accurate to say that I was physically immersed in the film)my body began to be very powerfully affected; I felt an intense feeling of physical anxiety, fear and excitement, as well as a strong sensation of psychological vertigo that recalled some of my most intensely hallucinogenic drug experiences. Noé, by harnessing the spectacular visual CGI work of Glennwiz with Coil’s luminous soundscape, manages to perfectly capture not just the visual micro fabric of the hallucinated interior, but also its weird pace and aural tonality. One is immediately reminded of the quite literal transformative affective potential of cinema when it is used appropriately. Why hasn’t anybody ever truly tried to visually and aurally express the psychedelic experience on the big screen before?

This part of the film, where we are interiorised within the hallucinogenic realm, operates as a kind of preparation for the subsequent exploration of disembodied interior thought and memory. We will move from the abstract and synthetic meditative interior landscapes associated with Oscar’s drug experience to a more concrete and determined set of visual memories, associations and fantasies, but which are no less interior.

Called to make a drug deal mid-trip Oscar makes his way to a club called 'The Void' with his friend Alex, they have a rambling conversation about The Tibetan Book of the Dead. This conversation about the Tibetan mythology of the soul's journey after death (a journey that involves the nightmare of being confronted with versions of your past life as if in a mirror) appears to set out the narrative parameters for what follows; but in fact it is less a crude narrative device than you might initially think. At the club Oscar has been betrayed by his fellow drug dealer and is shot by the police after attempting to evade arrest.

At the point of his fatal shooting his earlier conversation offers an explanation for what it is that Oscar will be thinking in his final compressed moments as the flames from his dying brain are extinguished forever. The conversation about The Tibetan Book of the Dead provide a crude framework for Oscar’s desperate last thoughts. Noé himself has said that it is ‘a dream of someone who read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and heard about it before being shot by a gun. It's not the story of someone who dies, flies and is reincarnated, it's the story of someone who is stoned when he gets shot and who has an intonation of his own dream.’

In exploring one man's apparent spiritual journey after an untimely death, Noé manages to achieve things with point of view filmmaking that are striking in their fluidity and unfamiliarity. In ways that are reminiscent of certain scenes from his earlier film Irreversible, his camera is unhinged, it floats, dances and whirls, stitching together footage taken of reality with entirely computer-generated imagery in ways that challenge our notion of how film cameras can even move. Oscar’s disembodied soul rises up out of his lifeless body and speeds across Tokyo to check on the reactions of his friends and his sister to the news of his death, all still from his eyes - except Oscar now has no eyes, he is disembodied. So the blinking stops, as does the frenetic hand-held quality of the camera; the camera now floats and drifts smoothly across the tracks of Oscar's disjointed pattern of thought alone. This part of the film is entirely engaged in the interior perspective of Oscar's memory.

In scenes that are reminiscent of Resnais' time travel masterpiece Je t'aime, Je t'aime, the events that led Oscar to this place in time, namely his death, are shown in a series of disjointed fragments, again from his perspective, but now with a difference: it is now as if he is positioned behind his past self, watching the scenes play out with the back of his own head in the foreground. We are presented with images of Oscar and Linda as young children with their parents, the close incestuous relationship between the two siblings, the violent accidental death of their parents, the pact they make to never leave one another (which is broken when they are sent to separate foster homes), and the road that eventually leads them back together in Tokyo - he with his drug problems and her falling into a job as a stripper in the ‘Power, Money Sex’ club within her first few days in town.

Oscar's incestuous desire for his sister, which is heightened by the death of his parents, is explored in these often moving, sentimental and occasionally nightmarish flashbacks. Yet there is artificiality about the way these scenes are shot, not least in the self-conscious way the camera is positioned behind Oscar's head in the past and observed from the perspective of Oscar's present spirit self, and in the highly stylized and psychedelic presentation of a CGI Tokyo cityscape.

Massive shifts of time are spliced and linked together, with the film moving back and forth through time at the speed of thought. It is with these rapid edits of time that we realise that we are seeing a visual hallucination of Oscar's past, coordinated together into an abstract patchwork by remembered points of trauma, loss, grief, desire, pleasure and longing. In much the same way as Resnais' time traveller is oriented to repeat fragmented moments from his past through the forces of his desire, grief, guilt and a desperate need to change the past, Oscar is driven to make some attempt to try and reconcile with his sister, to make up for his act of, what he sees as, childhood betrayal. Yet this desire for reconciliation is corrupted and confused, and has now become suffused with incestuous sexual desire for the sister/mother.

If, as I’m suggesting, we are to read these interlinked moments as the compressed interior thoughts of Oscar as he lies dying, as the film progresses we are inevitably moving ever closer to the oblivion of the void. Oscar’s thoughts become more disparate, looser, weirder and more abstract. As we progress the scenes become harder and harder to recognise as the movements of the film as thought - perhaps they are closer to being the movements associated with the primal instinct towards survival, Oscar’s desires, fears, hopes and his force of will to remain in being.

The third, and perhaps most impressionistic and challenging, part of the film, deals with the aftermath of Oscar's death. The perspective we adopt once again floats the camera through walls as Oscar watches in mute helplessness as his body is disintegrated and the most important people in his life fall to pieces in the most repellent ways. For me, one of Noé's greatest achievements emerges from the fact that by this point, as a viewer, you have become so immersed within the interior perspective of Oscar through the visual medium of the film that Noé is able to somehow convey the emotional state and thoughts of a character who has absolutely no voice and no way of communication. This aspect of Oscar has become pure observation and abstract movement between images, yet he has distinct and recognizable emotional responses to the world around him that he sees, yet cannot affect. You realise at a certain point that this is being achieved through us having become immersed within Oscar as his brain dies. We are Oscar at the point of a profound mutation, perhaps the profoundest mutation of all, namely death, the void. Again, at this point one recalls the startling final sequences from Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Throughout the film, from the point Oscar has been shot, there is a relentless rhythm associated with the continued movement into the saturated pulsing/strobing realm of light and flames, almost as if one is circling around oblivion, as the last circulations of blood pulse around the brain and the final synapses fire. The linkages between images where we are plunged into oblivion match onto these neurological pulsations, and we become unhinged, floating and driven by the desperate surges of desire that had fundamentally animated Oscar's brief life. We float through the venal amphitheatre of the 'Money, Power, Sex' club, as grubby, nihilistic and bestial as the club 'Rectum' in Irreversible, before Oscar's spirit floats through the hallucinogenic sex chambers of the 'Love' hotel in the final moments of the film. Both ‘Money, Sex, Power’ and the ‘Love Hotel’ operate as ciphers for Oscar’s mammalian instincts and desires, with the latter signalling the complete realisation of the fantasy psychedelic neon model of the ‘Love’ Hotel that we glimpse earlier in the film. Here what Oscar feels as a purified love towards his sister (i.e. purified of money and power), his desperate need to reconcile and make amends for having abandoned her in childhood is identified through the only matrix of desire he knows, sex. In weird scenes reminiscent of a Murakami novel, all of the characters from Oscar's present life are engaged in passionate sexual acts where the energy generated by their sexual organs floats from them like psychedelic ectoplasm. He discovers his sister and his best friend Alex fucking in this spectral set of love chambers, and in his final moments, in a move contextualised by his recent reading/conversation about The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Oscar 'decides' to become transubstantiated into one of Alex's sperms and to reincarnate as his sister's child. Oscar becomes his father as he fucks his sister, and then becomes his own seed which impregnates his sister become mother. This vertiginous spiral of desire signals the last mad moments of Oscar’s life, his desperate desire to continue to cling to existence as he nears almost total oblivion.

In the final scene (again, a scene which directly echoes the final scene from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) we see Oscar reborn as his sister's child, his sister having now become his mother. This is profoundly illusory. This is the hallucinated spectacle of the dying Oscar as he swirls vertiginously around the void, desperately clinging hold to his past and seeking a way, any way, to persist in being. Ultimately, I think this is another of Noé’s films about the primal human desire, in the face of suffering, misery and death, to persist in being, to find a way to adhere to life. Think of his butcher in Seul Contre Tous as he considers killing his daughter and himself at the end of the film, as he contemplates ‘entering the void’.

Whilst Enter the Void offers no false condolences about the unremitting nature of material reality (about this it is almost Gnostic in its view of the world), and whilst it might appear to offer the Buddhist no-exit sentiment regarding the wheel of life (we will persist in being come what may), ultimately Noé offers the certain exit to the void. All we see, all we hear, all we feel, and all we think during this film are the compressed moments of Oscar's dying, expanded and cinematically laid out, and his desperate efforts to reconnect the fragments of his life, his desire and his hopes into a persistence of being. But Oscar must die, and like we all must, he enters the void. I suppose one might understand this as an ugly, yet ultimately optimistic, form of nihilism.

I think that what is finally so remarkable about this film, and what places it alongside classic transformative films such as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Resnais’ Je t’aime, Je t’aime and Lynch’s Eraserhead, together with other recent masterpieces such as Lynch's Inland Empire, is that this is a highly accomplished and ambitious film which explores the everyday, damaged and corrupted, spiritual dimensions of subjectivity. Oscar is no idealised hero-protagonist, like us all he is fucked up, confused, damaged and damaging, but the peculiarities of his interiority are no less compelling for that. I believe that this is a realm to which cinema is uniquely suited to explore, yet so rarely does. I left feeling that all cinema should be about grasping this vital possibility for exploring the labyrinthine qualities of spiritual interiority, and I left with an overwhelmingly powerful desire to immerse myself in this thrilling and spectacular film again. And I just don’t say that about too many films anymore.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Herzog: Ecstatic Truth

The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner (Herzog, 1974)

Herzog has described his 1974 documentary The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner as one of his most important films. Ostensibly a "documentary" made about the Swiss ski-jumper Walter Steiner's mammoth death-defying and record-breaking leaps made during the championships in Planica, Yugoslavia in March 1974, Herzog transforms the material on Steiner into a powerful meditation upon the capacity to ecstatically transcend the apparent limitations of the human condition. As Herzog, himself obsessed from an early age by ski-jumping, once said - "They dream they can fly and want to step into this ecstasy which pushes against the laws of nature - Ski-jumping is not just an athletic pursuit, it is something very spiritual too, a question of how to master the fear of death and isolation. It is as if they are flying into the deepest, darkest abyss there is. These are men who step outside all that we are as human beings, and overcoming this mortal fear, the deep anxiety these men go through, this is what is so striking about ski-jumpers".

From its remarkable opening sequence, in which we see a ski ‘flight’ played to us at 1/20th speed set to the hypnotic tones of regular collaborator Popol Vuh we immediately become aware that this is much more than a mere documentary. Herzog makes no real attempt to contextualise the event for us, or even attempt to elaborate a meaningful psychological explanation of those individuals who participate. He relies upon beautiful super slow speed camera footage of the skiers in mid-flight , and their often violent and catastrophic landings, accompanied with possibly one of the most beautiful soundtracks ever produced by Popol Vuh. The stunning imagery of open-mouthed ski-flyers in mid-air aiming towards the vast white space of the landing area captures perfectly the sheer ecstasy that the competitors feel from achieving the gracefulness of flight. This documentary miraculously manages to express moments of genuine euphoria and weaves a powerful dreamlike mythology about those who repeatedly attempt to transcend the very limits of the human.

Land of Silence and Darkness (Herzog, 1971)

Land of Silence and Darkness was Werner Herzog's first feature-length documentary, made in 1971. Herzog has said of this film that it "is without doubt one of the most essential and important things I've done". It tells the story of Fini Straubinger, at the time a leader of, and advocate for, the deaf and blind in Germany. Straubinger developed a unique tactile form of communication which she uses to talk with and teach some other deaf-blind people who have language-learning capacity. Like many of his other characters, Herzog portrays Fini and the other deaf-mute people as lonely outsiders isolated from society, suffering from an inability to communicate their existence.

It is a film utterly driven by an obsessive compulsion to communicate, seeing it as touching upon the deepest question of what it means to be human, and this is central to its enduring mystery, beauty and power. The film begins with Fini communicating with other deaf-blind individuals who have a comparable grasp of the tactile language, with many of them having become deaf-blind later in life. There are some extremely powerful scenes of them sharing poems at Fini’s birthday party, them taking a first aircraft flight, a visit to a botanical garden and a zoo. However, the film transports us from this realm of silence and darkness inexorably towards a far stranger and mysterious place by introducing those who have been deaf-blind from birth. These individuals are seemingly totally locked into their terrible isolation with little or no way of communicating their interiorty. Herzog presents some of the ways these children are being taught to communicate, but we are told that it is seemingly impossible to communicate abstract concepts such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘love’ and ‘happiness’. Amidst this seeming despair and lonliness Fini is repeatedly filmed reaching out to these children, to touch and to try and communicate with them. Fini's efforts at communication become transcendent and transformative acts. At this point it becomes about communicating the bare presence of others to individuals trapped in a terrible form of lonliness, a dignified communion of lonely souls. Herzog said of it - "In the film one finds the most radical and absolute human dignity, human suffering stripped bare".

At the heart of the film is a seemingly perverse and paradoxical tension arising from the attempt to use the medium of film - a medium that appears to be limited to communicating through the senses of sound and sight - to examine people who can neither see not hear and their efforts to communicate with others and the world around them. The sensual form of communication that is at the heart of the film, unlocking the deaf-blind from their strange and bleak solitude and loneliness, seems to provoke Herzog to try and discover a uniquely 'haptic' form of cinema, a cinema capable of turning the eye into an organ of touch as well as seeing, as well as a cinema capable of exploring deeply spiritual and profound sensations. Arguably, the most powerful modes of spiritual communication in the film comes from those non-discursive touches that create a sensory communion that is more immediate and less ordered, see for example the young deaf-blind boy Harald luxuriating in the pure sensual delight of the shower, or Fini's remarkable tactile interactions with a young deaf-blind man Vladimir and her introduction of the radio which he grasps to his chest as if it were a living thing.

In interviews Herzog has claimed that all of the protagonists in his films (both documentaries and fictional features) are sympathetic points of self-reference, as if he has been gradually filming his own life. The inability to communicate their interiority and their existence reflects Herzog's own struggle to find “a new grammar of images” capable of communicating a deeper and more profound sense of the truth of existence cinematically. In his 1999 “Minnesota Declaration”, Herzog laid out the principles of his personal documentary style, attacking the failure of cinema vérité to go beyond a superficial “truth of accountants” based in objective facticity. Herzog distinguishes between the mundane facts of the surface and a far deeper and more profound “ecstatic truth” that can only be reached “through fabrication and imagination and stylization”.To this end, a subtle stylisation is employed in both The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner and Land of Silence and Darkness, and virtually all of his documentaries (with subjects all too willing to cooperate in the process), whether by staging certain scenes for the camera, scripting bits of dialogue, or even fabricating whole sequences from limited historical facts. To get a sense of how Herzog elaborates "ecstatic truth" in these films it is necessary to draw attention to a number of things which occur there. During the Land of Silence and Darkness Fini Strauber, who has become deaf and blind in later life, says that something she remembers from her childhood was watching men fly in the air at a ski-jumping competition. As she says this an image of a man flying with his skis against the sky is inserted by Herzog. Yet, this strange premonition of Walter Steiner which is presented as an important memory of Fini's occurs before the film about Steiner. In fact it is four years before Herzog made The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner. Herzog has subsequently acknowledged that this "memory" was fabricated, and that he gave Fini the sentence to speak, which he says she immediately understood the reason why. It speaks of Herzog's own attitudes towards ski-jumpers and his intuition that a sensuous link could be formed between Fini and them. Of ski-jumpers he has said - "Ski-jumping is not just an athletic pursuit, it is something very spiritual too, a question of how to master the fear of death and isolation.It is as if they are flying into the deepest, darkest abyss there is. These are men who step outside all that we are as human beings, and overcoming this mortal fear, the deep anxiety these men go through, this is what is so striking about ski-jumpers." By fabricating a memory of ski-jumpers for Fini Herzog is intuitively linking the two together in order to suggest a very deep, almost spiritual, truth about Fini's character. Herzog himself says - "Very early on, I had the feeling that only through invention and stylization would I reach a very deep truth about a character, even in a documentary. So in this case it is made up. But as much as it is made up, it also points to her deepest truth".

Again, at the very end of The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner, the beautiful quotation from Steiner that is overlaid over the most astonishing slow motion footage of him landing in the bleak wilderness is fabricated by Herzog (the text actually being drawn from the Swiss writer Robert Walser), presumably because he believes it says something essential about Steiner.

I should be all alone in this world
Me, Steiner and no other living being.
No sun, no culture; I, naked on a high rock
No storm, no snow, no banks, no money
No time and no breath.
Then, finally, I would not be afraid any more.

Again and again in his documentaries we see this process of fabulation, and it expresses Herzog's efforts to mine a deeper and more profound truth than the mere factual. He says - "We must ask of reality: how important is it really? And: how important, really, is the factual? Of course, we can't disregard the factual; it has normative power. But it can never give us the kind of illumination, the ecstatic flash, from which truth emerges. There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization."

[These are notes from an aborted talk which accompanied a recent screening of Werner Herzog’s The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner & Land of Silence and Darkness]

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Haunted Air

Haunted Air is a beautiful and haunting new book of found photographs of the festival of Samhain and Hallowe'en collated by the artist, musician and composer Ossian Brown, who was a member of Coil and is a co-founding member of Cyclobe. The book features an introduction by David Lynch and an afterword by Geoff Cox, and is published by Jonathan Cape.

The roots of Hallowe’en lie in the ancient pre-Christian Celtic festival of Samhain, a feast to mark the death of the old year and the birth of the new. It was believed that on this night the veil separating the worlds of the living and the dead grew thin and ruptured, allowing spirits to pass through and walk unseen but not unheard amongst men. The advent of Christianity saw the pagan festival subsumed in All Souls’ Day, when across Europe the dead were mourned and venerated. Children and the poor, often masked or in outlandish costume, wandered the night begging ‘soul cakes’ in exchange for prayers, and fires burned to keep malevolent phantoms at bay. From Europe, the haunted tradition would quickly take root and flourish in the fertile soil of the New World. Feeding hungrily on fresh lore, consuming half-remembered tales of its own shadowy origins and rituals, Hallowe’en was reborn in America. The pumpkin supplanted the carved turnip; costumes grew ever stranger, and celebrants both rural and urban seized gleefully on the festival’s intoxicating, lawless spirit. For one wild night, the dead stared into the faces of the living and the living, ghoulishly masked and clad in tattered backwoods baroque, stared back.

The photographs in Haunted Air provide an extraordinary glimpse into the traditions of this macabre festival from ages past, and form an important document of photographic history. These are the pictures of the dead: family portraits, mementoes of the treasured, now unrecognisable, other. Torn from album pages, sold piecemeal for pennies and scattered, abandoned to melancholy chance and the hands of strangers.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Coil – Colour Sound Oblivion: Disc 3 Convergence, New York , 2001 & Disc 4 DK Gorbunova, Moscow, 2001

CSO 3: New York 18/08/01 – Convergence
Mood: Glowing
Personnel: Jhon Balance, Peter Christopherson, Thighpaulsandra, Tom Edwards & Martin Schellard (additional performers Danny McKernan & Matthew Gibson)

CSO 4: Moscow 15/09/01 – DK Gorbunova
Mood: Glowing
Personnel: Jhon Balance, Peter Christopherson, Thighpaulsandra & Tom Edwards

Tracklist (same for both discs):
Higher Beings Command
Amethyst Deceivers
What Kind of Animal Are You?
Blood from the Air
I Am the The Green Child
Constant Shallowness Leads to Evil

The performances on the next two discs are examples of Coil’s second live period, what is often referred to as the Constant Shallowness Leads to Evil live era, one of which is excellent and the other extraordinary. The second time that I saw Coil play was the Persistence is All performance at the Royal Festival, London, on the 19th September 2000. This performance was considerably different from their earlier Time Machines concert, and represented an early outing for their second live manifestation. The set list at the London show was very similar to the two shows on these discs, the only difference was the earlier inclusion of Titan Arch from Love’s Secret Domain, which was replaced at the later concerts by the new song What Kind of Animal Are You? For these concerts the members of Coil were now all clad in what looked like highly reflective boiler suits with loose hanging straps, and they appeared to be made-up to look like they had received head trauma. Depending on the lighting being used, they have the appearance of brutalised cosmonauts having escaped from their straightjackets, or as headless glowing spectral figures haunting the stage.

By this point there had been a clear evolution from their restrained, disciplined and slow ritualistic performances into a much more violent and unconstrained mood, where the magickal intent was clearly somewhat different. Other changes were apparent, including the new set-list, alternative line-up, diverse instrumentation, and the striking visual backdrop. Whilst the two concerts from New York and Moscow in 2001 share an identical set-list, they actually provide some intriguing contrasts, so I thought I would review both of them together.

The New York concert on disc 3, Coil’s only show in the United States, was originally shot and recorded by Don Poe of Muteelation, and had been previously released by him as an officially sanctioned video and CDr. This was a well shot and well edited recording, with the sound and visual quality being of a high standard. For Colour Sound Oblivion Sleazy has undertaken some considerable additional editing, most of which involves blending the performance video with the backing projections to spectacular effect, which raises Coil’s performance to an even higher level of intensity. (Sleazy’s projections for these performances, along with the aural backing track, are included in the double DVD set which make up the final two discs of the box-set). Coil arrive on stage accompanied by Balance’s repeated intoning of Something from Musick to Play in the Dark 2,at which point Balance announces that they are dedicating the concert to the moon. The sound then morphs into the sweeping majesty of Higher Beings Command from Constant Shallowness Leads to Evil. The line-up and instrumentation for this show is slightly different from earlier performances, with Ossian Brown being replaced by Martin Schellard playing heavily processed guitar drones and Tom Edwards adding a very distinctive Marimba rhythm.

Thighpaulsandra can be seen playing one of the group’s rare and wonderful Fenix modular synthesisers throughout the concert, a key piece of sound equipment that largely defines the group’s early live sound, together with the later studio soundscapes of Queens of the Circulating Library and Constant Shallowness Leads to Evil. This beautiful piece of equipment is noticeably absent from the later Moscow 2001 performance.

The next track is a version of Amethyst Deceivers which delivers an interplay between a beautiful deep electronic pulse, that calls to mind the padding approach of a giant feline creature, and Edward’s angular Marimba. Schellard and Thighpaulsandra add stabs of guitar drones and electronic noise to accompany Balance’s heavily processed vocals. This is followed by what is arguably one of the highlights of this particular performance, the new track What Kind of Animal Are You? This piece is marked by a sense of urgency, trauma and intensity, beginning with angular and atonal electronics over which Balance vividly recalls a dream in which he was a large black dog and a man on a cross wearing a crown of thorns. Here Balance’s live vocal performance (unprocessed) begins to reach a new level of intensity, one that would increasingly define much of Coil’s live work. This is a remarkably powerful musical and vocal performance - dynamic, intense and terrifying. As the song’s opening section makes way for the frenetic and swirling electronic insanity of the mid-section, it becomes a kind of transformative ritual centred around one of the key magickal concerns of the group, namely the relation between man and animal. Balance seems to become possessed by powerful forces as he screams of becoming an animal (dog and salamander). This is contrasted by a careful and challenging insistence, signalled by a distinct alteration of the musical dynamic, that when you ‘peel your plastic back, you’ll see’ that man is the animal, that man is divine and that there is no time. It is clear that Balance has once again taken on the role of the intermediary between the dimension of man and animal, pursuing the transformative potential of moving from man to animal and then beyond. With this performance Coil are continuing and persisting with one of the key obsessions evident from the group’s earliest live ‘art’ piece from 1983.

Balance mistakenly introduces the next track as I Am the Green Child, but quickly corrects himself to announce Blood from the Air (from Horse Rotorvator). His vocals, again heavily electronically processed and distorted, are sung over the top of a restrained and disciplined musical performance that sounds indistinguishable from the original studio recording. Balance becomes a demonic messenger, singing of pain and dread, delivering the good news that everything changes and everything dies. Then comes I am the Green Child from Constant Shallowness Leads to Evil, a piece that is all angular marimba, resonant electronics and animal howling. Again Balance assumes a demonic role, emerging from some otherworldy dimension full of anger and vengeful humour. This track functions as dynamic preparation for the second highlight of this brilliant performance, the full-on vertiginous intensity and madness of Constant Shallowness Leads to Evil. The final sixteen minutes mark a controlled descent into an almost inconceivable realm of aural lunacy where Coil elaborate a true cacophonous wall of sound. This is a piece that appears to reveal (to me at least) their obvious concern with discerning and rendering tangible to an audience the invisible barriers and the limits that separate us from other dimensions, to render them manifest and to perform some kind of brief assault upon them. As we draw ever nearer to climax two naked male figures appear on stage bearing a large sheet of metal against which Balance performs the seemingly futile gesture of smashing his head. There is a chaotic sexual eroticism made manifest here, a beautiful masculine fecundity of colour and sound that swells, sweats, throbs and explodes. A fitting climax to a remarkable show suffused with dread, anxiety and ecstasy.
However, as is evident from the frequent stage visits by the venue’s sound technician, Coil’s performance in New York was plagued throughout by a number of technical glitches and failures. This doesn’t seriously detract from what is a quite outstanding concert (and video recording) that was extremely well received by Coil’s US fanbase at the time. But what does become obvious, particularly when you watch both of these performances next to each other, is that the New York show appears slightly disjointed and less coherent. The Moscow performance is, by contrast, the near perfection of this particular live manifestation of Coil. Here the set-list functions as a coherent whole, with the complex dynamics being allowed the space to build and function successfully. The high quality and close-up video recording of the 2001 Russian performance was made by FeeLee and has been previously released on VHS.

Watching this performance the extent of Coil’s desire for it to function as a ritualistic act of cleansing and transfiguration became clearer to me – they are elaborating animal becomings, allowing demonic voices to deliver their commanding messages about death, change and renewal, and summoning the courage to confront the limits, to dwell on the threshold and to attempt to go across (or as Balance says, to ‘go under in the company of animals’).

Coil again appear during the ritual invocation of Something, glowing and bearing the same head wounds as before. Balance announces a much longer dedication, which includes all those suffering from incarceration, either externally or internally imposed, those with the courage to live life as it should be lived free from the constraints of sexual inhibition and prejudice, and finally to madness. As was evident from the earlier New York show, this performance will be all about madness. Balance performs a series of significant invocationary gestures as they proceed seamlessly into Higher Beings Command, summoning the messengers from beyond and touching them down to the ground. The screened projections, which are identical to the New York show, are magnificent and are brilliantly edited with the close-up live footage (which is shot on stage during the performance). Coil’s line-up was slightly different from New York due to the absence of Martin Schellard and his processed guitar drones, which are absent from the overall sound presentation. Tom Edwards remains on Marimba throughout, and Thighpaulsandra is operating without the mighty Fenix synthesiser, which has been replaced by two smaller analogue keyboards and a theremin. The replacement of the Fenix by these different types of synthesiser gives the Moscow concert a very different and distinctive overall sound, particularly during the strange intense bursts of electricity that occasionally surge forth from the theremin.

As they move into the familiar rendition of Amethyst Deceivers (which is accompanied by a particularly beautiful and hypnotic visual projection) the close-up live footage allows us to see the way Balance is performing the electronic manipulation of his vocals with a hand-controller, which is fascinating to watch. The song offers a controlled prelude to the frenzied outpouring that is What Kind of Animal Are You? If anything Balance’s performance is even more intense, mesmerizing and extraordinary than the New York show. When I was watching this I became uncomfortably aware that Balance is bringing something formless and unnameable into being, he goes to the extreme to manifest a seething force or energy of the animal, and what’s more he succeeds. It is a hauntingly affective moment that displays the kind of total commitment and sincerity that Balance repeatedly displayed in his live performances. This was anything but Coil by numbers (‘just join the dots’). Balance uses the vulnerability of his ‘wounds’ to lay bare his own animal limits, and to summon up deep atavistic reserves and to channel them into being. It was at this point when watching this performance, which is so full of atavistic becoming, seething with erotic excess and a frenzied electronic automatism, that an intuitive link occurred to me – these performances were obviously a deliberate aural approximation of Austin Osman Spare’s atavistic and orgiastic animal magick. Spare’s art was always significant to Coil, and one can find numerous explicit (as well as implicit) references to his art throughout all of their work. Think here of the sidereal recordings that begin with Love’s Secret Domain and continue with Worship the Glitch and Black Light District. It should come as no surprise then that Coil should demonstrate an ambition to manifest Sparean tropes within their live work. To me the Constant Shallowness Leads to Evil era appears to manifest something akin to Spare’s Ugly Ecstasy and Seance art; voluptuous automatic sketches of erotic multidimensional becomings, where Spare employs a looping and sweeping autonomous line that traces the emergent organic forms at the very point of their magickal becoming from out of the shapeless non-organic mass, and strange pastels/paintings where an ethereal space, dominated by the colour green, is haunted by terrifying spiritual sirens.

These are works of interdimensional becoming, suffused by the erotic desire to transgress everyday boundaries of the normative and the organic, and they were always more than mere illustration or representation – the works themselves function as the means for enacting that becoming, they are gateways allowing the spaces for other (frightening, excessive and ancient) things to come through. This, it seems to me, was what Coil were aspiring to in these excessive and violent performances - animal becomings, demonic emergences, the activation of the ancient Ids of the world - Sparean and Lovecraftian manifestations.

The focussed discipline at work is evident in the stark change in dynamics as they perform Blood from the Air. This is about as good a performance of an individual track that Coil ever achieved. Balance is lyrically spot-on, and the song is perfectly paced and faultlessly executed. The intense and frenetic invocation of the previous track gives way to a tremendously bleak and powerful meditation on the inevitability of pain, death and transformation. This in turn acts as a reflective moment before we are once again plunged into the mad terrain of Constant Shallowness Leads to Evil. The demonic angularity and aggression of I Am The Green Child, with the stage bathed in beautiful green light and hypnotic vortices being projected behind them, leads to the inevitable descent into the final climactic episode. As we descend into the utter sonic chaos at the climax of the show the following words are repeatedly screened on the projection - GOD PLEASE FUCK MY MIND FOR GOOD. The DVD recording of the final section of the Moscow show perfectly captures Coil’s efforts to transcribe the seething contorted mass of becoming one perceives in Spare’s work into an aural and performative medium.

Here the Ugly Ecstasy becomes realised in the sheer overwhelming force of the sensory assault Coil manage to conduct. Something formless, unspeakable and previously intangible is glimpsed, felt and experienced during these final few minutes. Like Spare’s own magickal work, Coil also display an awe-inspiring degree of absurd splendour and grandeur that accelerates towards a vertiginous outpouring of dark visceral power. This is an environment momentarily transformed by Coil’s performance into a seething mass where everything appears to be fornicating, the automatism of the complex and layered electronic cacophony allows all kinds of things to become manifest from elsewhere. This is an utterly compelling spectacle, and a true marvel to have it captured on screen. As Coil exit the stage the following words are flashed up on the screen - 'RESIST THE THINGS YOU CAN FIND EVERYWHERE' - amen to that.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Coil - Colour Sound Oblivion: Disc 2: Sonar Festival, Barcelona, 2000

Coil: Colour Sound Oblivion: Disc 2

June 17th, 2000
Coil: Sonar Festival, Barcelona


John Balance
Peter Christopherson
Ossian Brown

Bill Breeze (Viola)

Feeling: Fluffy


Everything Keeps Dissolving

Amethyst Deceivers


The Universe is a Haunted House/Chasms


I was fortunate enough to see Coil play twice, both in 2000. The first time I saw them was their first proper concert performance at the Royal Festival Hall as part of Julian Cope’s Cornucopia programme, performed just over two months before the Sonar performance captured on this disc. This was a perfomance intially billed as The Industrial use of Semen Will Revolutionise the Human Race.The anticipation around Coil’s first London performance was immense, matched only by the speculation surrounding their likely setlist and stage appearance. I remember that I was initially quite startled when Coil came on stage, bathed in a deep purple light, as a four-piece clad in hooded white fluffy costumes covered with miniature mirrors, to take up their places at assigned synthesiser stations in front of a backdrop bearing the John Dee Monad from their 1998 Time Machines album.

They proceeded to perform a relatively ‘short’ set, lasting a mere 40 minutes; yet they played three of the most intense, dynamic and astonishing electronic drones I’d ever heard live. But what I also found striking was their overall stage presence throughout their brief performance; there was an overwhelming sense of them performing a predetermined and highly focussed ritual composed of slow and deliberate movements. I remember being struck by the careful and controlled movement of the four members on stage, it seemed highly choreographed and intentional, compromised of slow synchronised movements and pre-established routines around the stage. Visually it seemed to have the same aura and power as Beckett’s late stage masterpiece Quad.

Coil presented themselves as mysteriously coordinated figures, all clad in identical costumes, tracing out a hidden geometry as if in another dimension than that of the real. Their music suggested an inexorable descent through some kind of fabulous portal akin to the journey undertaken by Bowman during the extraordinary psychedelic sequence in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. This seemed like a journey in both inner and outer space, as well as being a journey in time. The three pieces of music played that night managed to elaborate very powerful dynamics whilst appearing largely static. This was an experiment in altering our perception of time, and to be an extension to the work previously undertaken in the studio on Time Machines. The performative ritual accompanying this music only added to the sense of a strange elongation of time - slow and careful repetitions across the stage, minimal interactions between the four, indiscernible manipulation of mirrors, crystals, incense, wands, etc, all designed to provide the audience with a very powerful transcendent and magickal experience. The final piece, Chasms, presented a vast backdrop of electronic drones which were punctuated by the most enormous and resonant slabs of electronic sound and Balance intoning as if from another dimension the Crowleyean dictum ‘Every Man and Every Woman is a Star’. By any measure this was an extraordinary and astonishing performance, one of those rare and intense experiences that irrevocably alters you in some ill-defined way.

The live performance on the second disc of the Colour Sound Oblivion collection comprises Coil's second performance from 2000, which was at Barcelona's Sonar festival. For this performance Coil again appeared clad in the fluffy mirrored costumes from the London show. Their set here repeats the pieces they had played live in the earlier Royal Festival Hall show (Everything Keeps Dissolving, Circulating and Chasms), but adds three new songs to the setlist, including a beautiful permutation of Amethyst Deceivers. Coil were joined by Bill Breeze for this performance, playing viola throughout the entire set, adding some astonishing aural flourishes which will be familiar to anybody who has heard his previous work with Coil on the Solstice EPs. Christopherson has managed to successfully edit together two different recordings of the concert, of quite varying visual quality, in order to present a full record of the performance that is somehow faithful to its extraordinarily intense spirit.

As someone who saw Coil’s first performance there is no doubt that some of the highly controlled and mysterious quality of that earlier outing was lost in the transition to a much smaller and more intimate venue, but it still amounts to an extraordinarily odd, strange and entirely original experience. The footage enables us to be up-close and personal with the group as they perform on stage, and we are able to see the levels of intense concentration that accompanied the three longer electronic manipulations being carried out by the group over the top of predetermined aural backdrops.

This is accompanied by some aspects of the same ritual deliberation that had been such a feature of their earlier London performance – mirrors, crystals, incense and coordinated and synchronised movements. Balance appears restrained and intense throughout these pieces. Yet, we also begin to get a sense of what will increasingly become such a central feature of Coil’s subsequent live work – Balance’s unconstrained, unbalanced and totally inspirational performances. The final piece, Elves, (where Coil are joined on stage by a wild ecstatic female dancer) has Balance roaring out, over the top of frenetic electronics, with the fury of a man possessed the words ‘God Please Fuck My Mind For Good’.

The first two concerts performed by Coil in 2000 were truly astonishing, and set the bar extremely high with regard to what they went on to become. Of course they made the decision to proceed, more often than not, with a more ‘traditional’ song-based approach for subsequent sustained tours, yet this was always brutally transgressed by Balance’s anarchic and inspirational improvisations. Coil could never be described as a 'traditional' band. However, watching their 2000 performance from Sonar on this disc, and with my memories of Time Machines Live in London, I’m left with a melancholic sense, had Balance survived his battle with alcoholism, of what else they might have achieved, of what else this astonishing group might have gone on to do as an entity exploring ecstatic passages through time.

Coil - Colour Sound Oblivion: Disc 1: The Air Gallery, 1983

Coil - Colour Sound Oblivion: Disc 1

August 24, 1983
Coil: Air Gallery, London

A Slow Fade to Total Transparency


John Balance
John Gosling
Marc Almond
Peter Christopherson (provided backup tapes)

Cerith Wyn-Evans (cameraman)

“John Gosling, Marc Almond and I performed something called 'A Slow Fade To Total Transparency' (How to Destroy Angels) . . at the Air Gallery on 24th August. This was a mixture of reading by Marc and a performance by John and me. It was videoed and I think it will be released in some form. Also Cerith Wyn-Evans, a super 8 film maker is planning to do a film around the original idea.” (John Balance)

The 1983 Coil performance of A Slow Fade to Total Transparency begins with John Gosling (who appears at the beginning to be wearing some kind of night shirt)and John Balance (who is naked apart from a spiked leather thong) preparing materials for a ritual. Balance, clutching a large syringe, has already wrapped some wire around his head and is in the process of tying a tourniquet around his upper arm. The sound being played at the beginning is from Pasolini’s film Salo, including dialogue taken from the infamous shit banquet where the hapless victims are instructed to ‘Mangia!! Mangia!!’ After a minute Marc Almond begins to read a piece of sustained sadistic loathing seemingly addressed to a former lover over the top of recordings of electronic drones (which are quite indistinct). What follows is an intensely intimate performance by both Gosling and Balance, involving winding themselves tightly in wire, cutting and blood-letting, self-strangulation, smearing with liquids, urination, and performing ritualistic manipulations of various objects, many of which are indiscernible. The performance lasts 23 minutes and ends with Balance affecting a prolonged seizure during which he writhes spasmodically across the floor before being assisted from the room by Gosling.

It is difficult to fully grasp the nature of the intimate and visually arresting ritualistic performance captured on this disc without at least understanding something of its occult context. Both John Gosling and John Balance had been early central members of Psychic TV and The Temple of Psychic Youth, (both appear here bearing the tattoos and haircuts associated with their allegiance to the occult organisation), along with the P-Orridges, David Tibet, Peter Christopherson (who supplies the aural backdrop for this performance) and to a lesser extent Marc Almond (who provides the reading which accompanies this performance). In 1983 Balance and Christopherson were in the process of breaking away from their association with Temple and P-Orridge (having performed a handful of live concerts with Psychic TV in 1982 and 1983), and to establish Coil as a completely autonomous entity in order to go on pursuing their own distinctive and highly focussed path.

As is evident from the early Temple of Psychic Youth video First Transmissions the type of transgressive ritual performed here by Gosling and Balance had already played an important part in the magickal activities of the entire group. The ritual depicted in First Transmissions involves members of the group freely experimenting with different thresholds and boundaries of control, including scarification, blood-letting, sexual experimentation, pain and humiliation. Superficially both the ritual work in First Transmission and this early 1983 public performance by Coil resemble the extreme performance art work of Otto Muehl & Hermann Nitsch of the Vienna Actionists of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

Both appear to involve an aggressive visceral quality, attacking the integrity of the body, obsessed with bodily fluids, and overt displays of ritualistic humiliation, pain and control. However, to over-identify in this way is a mistake. Arguably Muehl & Nitsch’s public actions had much more to do with challenging, through art, the historical specificity of post-war Austrian social, psychological and sexual repression and an entire culture that had been intimately complicit with the Nazis. Their work was a deliberate effort to transgress cultural boundaries in a very violent, aggressive, playful and messy way; their intention always being to provide a cathartic Dionysian conduit for all the repulsive tendencies that Austrians had repressed and which had previously found social and political expression through fascism. Far more relevant to this early Coil live piece is the work of Coum Transmissions in the 1970, who were clearly influenced by the extreme and violent anti- aesthetic of Viennese Actionism, but who were much more concerned with the intrinsically mystical and occult nature of transgressive performance.

Coum Transmissions had positioned themselves throughout the early to mid-1970's as largely indifferent to the art world and the high culture of the avant-garde, and had been more concerned with pursuing a highly focussed and disciplined set of very personal (and magickal) concerns surrounding sexuality, identity and freedom. The desire to pursue some of the mystical and magickal aspects of extreme threshold experiences had been carried through the public performance actions of Coum Transmissions by P-Orridge and Christopherson back into the private and intimate realm of the Temple of Psychic Youth. It is in this context within which the early 1983 Coil performance documented on the first disc of the Colour Sound Oblivion box-set should be understood.

However, the experience of performing this piece was clearly a depressing and dispiriting one for Balance, as he once remarked - “When we played at Brixton and the Air Gallery there was no challenge and I ended up very depressed, as for the most part we seemed to be doing it for a jaded, apathetic crowd of art groupies. That's how it seemed. The whole thing was so incestuous and every move you made, everything you did or said was noted and compared to something previous. I feel Coil can move out of that area and I want it to.”

Coil’s attempt to take their private magickal work on threshold experience back out into the public realm (in the aftermath of their steady break from Psychic TV and the Temple), namely through an art performance, seemingly involves a superficial repetition of surface elements drawn from Vienna Actionism and Coum Transmissions. Only in this sense could it ever be judged as somewhat derivative. However, their concerns were perhaps by this point quite radically different from either one of these groups. From another perspective then, one could say that the public form of the performance was simply ill-suited to their actual concerns. Balance’s remarks reveal him to have been deeply disappointed by the experience of performing this action for an art audience, when the magickal and ritual intentions were always beyond the expectations of the London art world in the early 1980’s. The extent to which this performance was and remains art is the extent to which it attempts to connect with an ancient transgressive and threshold experience associated with the very origins of all art (as outlined by Nietzsche and Bataille) . It entails the vertiginous and ecstatic experience of placing the human subject at the very threshold of the animal through rigorous ritualistic experimentation, to somehow undo the fact of being trapped within the confines of the human and attempt to reach a point of indiscernibility between man and animal. Only at the threshold of the human can one ever achieve anything approaching a dematerialised ‘spiritual’ state where one becomes almost ‘transparent’. This is something that remained extremely important to all of Coil’s recorded work undertaken in private and away from the audience for the next seventeen years, as they 'moved out of one area' and into another. However, it is extraordinary to finally be able to watch this early and intense manifestation of Coil and to realise that, despite the fact it is never repeated in public in this form, it somehow holds the key to much that comes later.