Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Chris & Cosey : London Institute of Contemporary Arts

Around the time that I started this blog, Friday 4th February to be absolutely precise, I charged down to London after work to see Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti performing a selection of the material they released during the 1980s and 1990s under the name of Chris & Cosey, this being the first time any of these tracks had been played live in over a decade. As most people will know, the duo now record and perform using a hybrid of their "surnames" Carter Tutti and this "exclusive" event was, no doubt, intended to tie in with the recent re-release on vinyl of four of their best loved albums also showcased in this five minute video clip I've snatched from their website.

4 CHRIS & COSEY ALBUMS IN 5 MINS (1980s' stylee) from Chris Carter on Vimeo.

Anyway, I was extremely glad I made the effort to travel half the length of the country as, not only did it provide me with another opportunity to see support band Factory Floor who I'd enjoyed enormously when they played in Leeds with The Horrors a couple of summers ago, but Chris & Cosey were completely compelling and provided one of my best live experiences of all-time ever. I thought that I'd missed the moment by not writing about it straightaway but watching a couple of clips on You Tube today brought it all flooding back so here goes.

Now, when Throbbing Gristle split up in 1981, it was C&C who took with them and developed the sequenced electronics, gesturing oh-so slightly towards disco and the commercially viable, that was in evidence on tracks like "AB/7A", "Hot On The Heels Of Love" and "Adrenalin", as well as Chris Carter's solo cassette release from 1980 "The Space Between", he being the ingredient in the band most renowned for his techno wizardry and love of the swirling electro dreamscapes of people like Tangerine Dream, as well as the paradoxical phenomena which was Abba's sometimes complex, sometimes seemingly unadulterated ultrapop - often all of this at the same time. Combine this with the bitter-sweet, seductive-yet-commanding vocals of Cosey Fanni Tutti, the foghorns in the night blasts of her cornet playing, both of which are perhaps best exemplified on TG's "Heathen Earth" album, and the double-edged atmospherics of "Hometime" (her solo contribution to the album "D.O.A.") and you're a good way towards getting a sense of the Chris & Cosey sound and aesthetic which then evolved along with the technology and developing tastes, both in Britain and abroad, for rhythmic and danceable electronic music during the eighties and early nineties. Titles like "Synaesthesia", "Pagan Tango", "Musique Fantastique", "Techno Primitiv", "Exotica" and "Trance" are also quite apposite reference points.

When the duo took to the stage in February, somewhere around nine thirty, a lot of people were still at the bar and the black studio-like hall was less than a quarter full, this meaning that the majority of those in attendance missed Cosey's prologue to the performance during which she said a few words about the important place that the ICA holds in their history, it having been the venue for COUM Transmissions "Prostitution" exhibition in 1976 where TG played one of their earliest gigs. She also  took the opportunity to briefly dedicate "the energies we create tonight" to the recently departed Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson and "his sense of indulgence and fun." As he would have said, she told us, "don't be sad. Enjoy yourselves," and with that they launced into a rendition of the haunting "Dr. John (Sleeping Stephen)" from 1987's "Exotica" album, the rhythmic slabs of noise, funereal chords and electronic stabs and pulses providing an elegiac and incantatory opening to the set over which Cosey unfolded her "Porphyria's Lover" type narrative of strangulation, followed by the ritual undressing and washing of the corpse. The closing words of "good night" had a particularly apt resonance on this occasion.

From here on, for the next hour and a half or so, they played a set which seemed very carefully planned in its evolution and purpose, as the rich, multi-layered and hypnotic electronics provided by a purposeful Chris Carter, operating a bank of keyboards, sequencers and oscillascopes at the back of the stage, cloaked and seduced the audience in a manner which seemed to possess magical potential. There's an old clip of Amii Stewart somewhere, singing "Knock on Wood" on something like "Seaside Special", whilst all around her a really disparate group of people perform the most frenetic and uninhibited dances, all seemingly lost in their own worlds, as though under the influence of one of those humiliating TV hypnotists and this was the effect the music seemed to be having on a large number of those gathered at the ICA. As you looked around, all kinds of people, seemingly unconnected, swirled, gestured and dipped as though involuntarily entranced whilst others gawped at Cosey who blew and banged a range of complementary instruments and provided the vocals, her voice often adding to the tonal blends rather than being a conduit for verbal ideas. For the most part, she didn't speak directly to the audience, this adding to the sense of it being a pre-meditated aural journey in which to become fully absorbed, although at one point she did say something along the lines of, "do you remember all these songs? It's been such a long time." This was possibly when they did "Driving Blind" from 1983's "Songs of Love and Lust" album with its lyrics of "driving blind to hell knows where" and "and I'm never like this when I'm not with you" which seem to epitomise the atmosphere I'm trying to describe above. This track received one of the largest cheers of the night and some kind soul filmed it and put it up on You Tube.

Then, as a finale, they pulled out their pop almost-hit "October(Love Song)" from 1982, the celebratory nature and sweetness of which seemed to unlock the spell which had been wound over the last ninety minutes or so. As Chris Carter continued to concentrate on the job in hand, Cosey seemed to be having quite a jolly time making sprinkling gestures with her fingers to accompany the cascading synths and bopping backwards and forwards as she delivered her lyrics of unbridled love and passion. There must have been some irony in there - it's all such a long way from "Zyklon B Zombie" and "Slug Bait" - although none seemed evident.

Anyway, there's some reflections on a memorable night. I'm off to see them again in May when Carter Tutti play at the Mute Short Circuit festival at The Roundhouse and am very much looking forward to it.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Jacques Dutronc / Les Surfs

It's all gone a bit too German and artsy on here so I think we'll have somethings French to break it up a bit. I'll dedicate the first of these songs to Nick Clegg and his friends in the Liberal Democrat Party as they begin their spiral into oblivion for the next century or two and the second one to anybody who has lost or is about to lose their job as a result of the spending cuts currently being introduced by our "wonderful" British  Government as they try to finish the work started by the despicable Margaret Thatcher and her cronies in destroying public services and further widening the gap between the wealthy and less well off.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Die Tödliche Doris-Chöre & Soli(1983)

Mention of Die Tödliche Doris in the previous piece about Nan Goldin has made me want to share the joy and excitement I felt when I finally became the proud possessor of their "Chöre & Soli" box set a few weeks ago when it made one of its very rare appearances on Ebay. I don't mind saying, either, that I payed rather a lot of money for it as it's an item I've coveted since the day I read about its imminent release in the 8th October 1983 issue of the NME all those years ago.

This was actually my first brush with the band/art collective who had, by then, been in operation for about three years and had released several cassettes, as well as an album and 12" for journalist Alfred Hilsberg's Hamburg-based Zick Zack label, an endeavour which cannot be praised enough for also bringing us some of the earliest releases by the likes of Einstürzende Neubauten, Andreas Dorau, Die Krupps, Palais Schaumburg and X-Mal Deutschland during the opening years of the 1980s, as well as other fantastic records by less internationally reaching artists such as Saal 2, Wirtschaftswunder,  Abwärts, Sprung Aus Den Wolken and Der Radierer.

As well as their musical output, The Deadly Doris had also been busy making films, including the infamous "Das Lebens Des Sid Vicious"(1981) in which sometime collaborator Dagmar Dimitroff's two and a half year old son plays the eponymous subject whose life is distilled into just ten minutes of quite startling footage. A couple of stills from the film, which sees him toddling around in a swastika t-shirt, playing with a rubber knife in a squalid apartment, fighting with and murdering a four year old Nancy Spungen and overdosing on heroin, were included in the article and these, along with talk of the aforementioned box set and a growing fascination for anything to do with the increasingly documented Berlin scene which had brought us Neubauten, Malaria and others, had me hooked. As a twelve year old with quite a limited income, though, the delights of coming into contact with any actual Die Tödliche Doris product were several years away.

A selection of their films, by the way, was on display at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin a few years ago and made for extremely interesting viewing. They also made it over to Newcastle around the same time for a showing at the Star and Shadow Cinema when a tiny exhibition of the band's work was staged at the record shop alt.vinyl in the city. Quite a few of these films can be found on the internet, including the one mentioned above, although not the memorable "John Heys Sings"(1984) which, in the words of Chris Bohn (Wire Magazine, July 2006) features "an American who looks like an animated figure from an Otto Dix painting (and who) croons a theatre song in his pension, accompanied by his landlord, in a style that evokes Isherwood and Weimar". Here's a little selection of what is out there, though:

After the punk inspired, industrial leanings of their outings on Zick Zack, "Chöre & Soli" is much more in the dadaesque spirit of the band which is, perhaps, best exemplified by their performance at Die Grosse Untergangsshow: Festival Genialer Dilletanten, held in a circus tent near Berlin's Potsdamer Platz on 4th September 1981. On this occasion, like the rest of the band, frontman Wolfgang Müller was painted and covered in fur, with the addition of feathers attached to his fingers in order to hamper his attempts at playing the violin. A similar example of these tendencies came when they were asked to perform in front of The Wall for a special Berlin edition of German music programme "Rockpalast" in 1984. Free to choose their spot, Die Tödliche Doris selected a section obscured by a mound of sand and then performed two pieces based on the theme of natural catastrophes. In the first of these, "Naturkatastrophenballet", the three members march and sway on the spot in muddy puddles, performing a kind of dance to accompany Müller's dispassionate account of various natural catastrophes. The "musical element" is provided by Käthe Kruse whose movements rattle the teacups and the like which dangle on threads from her arms, as well as the sheet of metal attached to her back. In the second section, "Naturkatastrophenkonzert", Kruse spits fire onto a microphone positioned in front of the mound and, as it burns into uselessness, first Müller and then Nicholas Utermöhlen appear over the obstruction, approach and perform little ditties, Müller on the violin and the latter on an accordian, the keys of which have been covered with drawing pins. As the microphone eventually gives up the ghost, the reassembled group, now in a line, perform a valedictory dance. Marcel Duchamp, I'm sure, would have approved.

"Chöre & Soli", instead of being a conventional 12" record, came as a greeny blue box, limited to 1000 copies and released jointly by Gelbe Musik (Berlin) and Pure Freude (Düsseldorf), and contained a set of eight two inch coloured discs, a battery operated player, the like of which was usually found embedded inside talking dolls, and a booklet containing lyrics, photographs and other text. Across sixteen tracks, one on each side of the discs and each lasting upto twenty seconds, the band and occasional fourth member, Berlin model and actress Tabea Blumenschein, perform a series of squeaky nursery rhyme like accapela solos and choruses totally suited to the equipment on which they are presented and played, all sung in German except for one performed in English. In this latter track, the lyrics read: "You see, we come as friends. / Don't worry. / We know how to take care of ourselves. / So don't get heroic and try to follow me. / (You see we come as friends, you see we come as friends.)" Other examples of translated lyrics read: "The air is full of light / And I can see you well / My heart, it doesn't hear your laughter / It pumps itself so full of blood" or "(...up in the air) / We are two widows / And we live in the same house / And both lost our husbands on 20th May 1975 / (high up in the light) / We still cry" or "The musician passes you the hand / (white spots on the fingernails and the number seven on the heart line) / The Siamese cat eats grass... / See you in the wedding gear not over". Maybe I got the last one a bit wrong. I'm not great at German. I'm sure you get the picture, though. It might sound a bit silly but I love it and it certainly fulfilled their intention as explained by Müller in an interview: "We want to become the most independent band of all independent bands–even independent from a usual record player. But also independent from music-reviews and critics, which want to put you in her sound- and identity-system."


 photo choresoli2.jpg  

As an interesting coda, Die Tödliche Doris performed selections from "Chöre & Soli" live at the Delphi Palast in Berlin on New Year's Eve 1983/4 as part of an exhibition called "The Inclination Towards The Total Work Of Art" by Harold Szeemann. This was then released as a cassette which, like a lot of their output, has since been reissued in a very limited format by the Vinyl-on-Demand label. Here is a film featuring five pieces.

Although Die Tödliche Doris ceased to exist in 1987, their legend lives on and they still remain a source of fascination to me and I cherish everything related to them that I own. This above is just the tip of the iceberg, too.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

NAN GOLDIN-Berlin Work

Nan Goldin first came to my attention when “I’ll Be Your Mirror”, her autobiographical film, was shown late one night on British television very soon after it was made in 1996. Luckily, I had the video recorder whirring and I have had the opportunity to watch it over again on numerous occasions and, as time has passed, she’s someone whose work and aesthetic I’ve grown to love, if that’s the right word to be using.

The story goes that Goldin started taking photographs in the late 1960s and during the early 1970s when she documented Boston’s gay and transsexual community, the fruits of which endeavour provided the material for her first solo show held in the city in 1973. Later in the decade, she studied photography at The Boston School of Fine Arts where she moved away from her earlier black and white work to begin producing the richly coloured images with which she is now associated and developing that which has been referred to as “The Goldin Style”. Rarely using natural light, she more usually illuminates her subjects through the careful manipulation of flash and then, using a technique called Cibachrome, she apparently prints from slides in order to achieve the saturation and vibrancy of colour which is one of the reasons her work is so instantly distinguishable from other photographers. I once accidentally bought a slide film in a Munich chemist and then, when I put it in to be developed in Boots back in England, as well as a telling off for potentially messing up their chemicals, I got holiday snaps with a Goldinesque tinge.

Anyway, in 1978, shortly after graduating, Goldin moved to The Bowery in New York and began to photograph and document the post-punk world in which she found herself, hard drug usage, heavy drinking and violent relationships being characteristic of her circle’s lifestyles and, consequently, the resultant work. When people talk about Nan Goldin, they often make the point about her work being highly autobiographical and personal as the subject matter is drawn from her immediate environment and a large cast of friends, some still living, some now dead, who populate her oeuvre. The phrase “snapshot” is also used a lot, too, as the images often have the unposed casualness of a quick snap which captures the fleeting moment rather than the carefully considered and arranged compositions of other art photographers. She, herself, has even said, "My work originally came from the snapshot aesthetic...Snapshots are taken out of love and to remember people, places, and shared times. They're about creating a history by recording a history." A connection has also been made here by some to the fact that Goldin’s sister committed suicide when the photographer was fourteen years old and that this has provided a highly personal motivation for wanting to capture and preserve the transient lives of those around her. Certainly, when one looks at her work, the awareness of such loss is never far away, as her photographs often feature “the ghosts” of those who have now passed on, as many of Goldin’s friends lost their lives to AIDS over the last twenty-five years or so. Probably the most famous of these is ex-John Waters acolyte Cookie Mueller with whom the photographer shared a friendship from 1976 to 1989. The series of fifteen photographs “Cookie Portfolio” which I once saw in Amsterdam are particularly moving, as they show the subject enjoying a night out with friends in one image, laughing uproariously in another, then later marrying the Italian artist and jewellery designer Vittorio Scarpati, going on to be captured standing physically drawn beside the coffin of her now dead husband who had succumbed to the disease and then, seven weeks later, lying peacefully in her own casket. Gaunt, hollow eyed men looking hauntedly at the camera or sharing dwindling time with loved ones are also recurrent in her work. The effect, though, is never sentimental, simply glances into life as it is unfolding like stills taken from a documentary.


When I was in Berlin a couple of weeks ago, I was extremely pleased to find out that a show of her work was on display at the Berlinische Galerie, the 72 works exhibited being the product of several visits she made to the city from 1982 onwards and, in particular, her prolonged stay there when she was provided with a grant to go and work in Berlin in 1991. This was a previously undiscovered aspect of her work for me and what made it a particularly pleasing surprise was that, amongst portraits of people like Blixa Bargeld from Einstürzende Neubauten, the actress Tilda Swinton and other less known friends, were a small number of images featuring members of one of my very favourite bands of all time Die Tödliche Doris. Unbeknownst to me before I saw the show, she enjoyed quite a close friendship with them, struck up during her earliest visits to Berlin, Goldin living for a while with band member Käthe Kruse and going on to collaborate in the mid-nineties with Wolfgang Müller on a work called “Blue Tit”. In one, Nicholas Utermöhlen, who also died of an AIDS related illness in 1996, and a boyfriend are seen drinking at Berlin post-punk hot-spot Dschungel whilst in more intimate pictures Käthe Kruse is seen stepping into the bath in 1984 and almost a decade later posed with her daughter, Edda.

Describing the show as “an intimate visual diary” and stating at a press conference that “the best years of my life were here in Berlin”, the images fit thematically into Goldin's more familiar American work with friends out enjoying the city’s nightlife or in quieter moments reflected in mirrors, lying in bed or captured breakfasting. One also sees the demise of her friend Alf Bold, a founder of the Berlin Film Festival, who first brought her to Berlin and exhibited her “Ballad of Sexual Dependency” slideshow there in 1984, as AIDS took hold over him during the early 1990s. There are self-portraits, too, including a particularly striking one of her reflected in the mirror of her blue bathroom and another with bruised and bloodshot eyes after being beaten up by a lover. Empty rooms also figure quite hauntingly, such as a bedroom with a blood spattered wall in a squat she shared in the Kreuzberg district in 1984, as well as photographs taken on excursions to places as diverse as the Marzahn housing estate in East Berlin or trips to Bavaria and Salzburg with friends. Interestingly, the photograph “Edda and Klara Belly Dancing” (1998) which depicts Käthe Kruse’s young daughters and Goldin’s god-daughters, one clothed and the other naked with her legs apart, was on display without any inkling of fuss or hysteria at potential paedophiles getting off on it, as it was when she tried unsuccessfully to include it in a show at The Baltic in Gateshead a few years ago.



The show is on until the end of the month and, if anyone is in Berlin, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s only relatively small but is extremely powerful and evocative. It’s a brilliant gallery, too, for anyone who hasn’t been before, with an excellent permanent collection on the second floor and a fantastic programme of temporary exhibitions. There was an interesting installation by Ed and Nancy Kienholz called “The Art Show” on when I was there, as well as an exhibition by the photographer Arno Fischer which was excellent, too. I've also seen brilliant shows of work by John Heartfield and Marianne Breslauer there so it's always worth a visit.

I should also mention that I was accompanied to the show by my extremely talented photographer friend Kathrin Ollroge who lives in Potsdam. Why not have a look at her website and buy some of her work whilst you're there?