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Sigmund Freud, André Breton, Automatic Writing and Electronic Voice Phenomena

Andre Breton

André Breton at the flea-market in Paris, photo by Gisèle Freund c.1955

I was recently lucky enough to come across the Atlas Press edition, translated by Antony Melville, of “The Automatic Message”, originally published in 1933 by the artist and poet André Breton – the founder of the Surrealist movement, no less! André Breton’s essay offers what should provide some food-for-thought for those numerous (and sometimes famous and influential) artists who’ve opted to incorporate imagery of Spiritualism and of Electronic Voice Phenomena (ghost-voice) research into their work. Now, while the “Rorschach Audio” book notes that obvious precursors to contemporary EVP research existed in the form of Victorian Spiritualism, and that Spiritualist practices evolved into the modern EVP movement following a pretty-much smooth and continuous path, a major component of Victorian Spiritualism was the practice of automatic writing and automatic drawing, through which, in a manner similar to EVP recording, authors and artists were said to have communicated messages via direct mediumistic contact with the deceased. If we consider automatic writing and drawing to have been therefore more-or-less direct historic equivalents of technologically-mediated EVP recording, then Breton’s analysis stands in sobering contrast to those in contemporary art and music who in some cases promote literal belief in the alleged supernatural origin of EVP, or who adopt a stance of superficial and misleading neutrality while still perpetuating the myth that a bunch of (mostly) con-artists and charlatans were somehow “scientists”.

Sigmund Freud asserted that “the psychical origin of religious ideas” does not stem from “experience or (from the) end-results of thinking”, but from “illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind”, and stated that “where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanour”. In fact Freud’s book “The Future of an Illusion” then goes so far as to describe the results of Spiritualist research as “wretchedly meaningless”. André Breton’s essay is equally striking, not least in reminding us of the critical influence that automatic writing and drawing had on the formation and development of what was arguably one of the most important art movements of the entire 20th century, but more because Breton states that…

“Numerous samples of medium-based automatic writing which have from time-to-time been offered-up for examination have proved far less interesting than drawings purporting to have the same origin, and it must be said that this is largely the fault of the pathetic spiritualist literature with which they have usually been contaminated from the outset. This kind of literature, as we know, has tended to proclaim vigorously, and try to gain acceptance for, the idea that the dictating element is external, in other words that “spirits” exist (clarity demands the use of this nauseating term). Medium draughtsmen have had their share of this unreasonable belief… but it is above all in writing that this pathetic joke has followed its degrading course… I would rather remain silent about efforts which are generally posited on a tainted basis, by which I mean that the hope of obtaining a communication from “the beyond” pre-exists the writing – of procuring the assistance of a great departed soul whose voice can be recognised by the tone of school recitation. These pieces indeed have nothing in common besides this emphatic tone and staggering level of naivety.” (pp.23-24)

In analysing the role that specific psychoacoustic illusions play in the misperception of sense-data such as EVP recordings, in therefore the transmission of EVP beliefs, and in a variety of other auditory and visual illusions, the “Rorschach Audio” book argues that the perceptual creativity demonstrated by our capacity to form such illusions emerged for very important reasons, as a result of evolutionary biology. The book argues that what these perceptual phenomena demonstrate is not evidence of supernatural activity, but evidence of underlying, intrinsic and in fact universal creative faculties, whose very existence subverts traditional, conservative thinking about the presumed supremacy of exclusionary “high culture” and “high art”. It’s often forgotten just how intensely and intrinsically political and idealistic the Surrealist movement was, and, as André Breton put it, “Surrealism’s achievement is to have proclaimed that all normal humans are completely equal in relation to the subliminal message, and to have maintained constantly that this message is a common heritage of which we can each have only to claim our share, and which must at all costs soon cease to be seen as the preserve of the few. Every man and every woman deserves the personal conviction that they themselves can, by right, have resource at will to this language, which is not in any way supernatural.” (p.26)

Thanks to everyone who came along to Café Scientifique in Oxford, and special thanks to Dr Rachel Quarrell of Balliol College for the invitation.

“Rorschach Audio” talk at Café Scientifique, Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Rorschach Audio

Tues 8 April 2014, 7.00pm
Café Scientifique
Oxford University Museum of Natural History
Parks Road
Oxford OX1 3PW

Anyone who saw Christina Kubisch’s “Electrical Walks” in Oxford, check this out –

Pink Floyd, “The Wall” and Gustav Metzger

Gustav Metzger The Wall Rorschach Audio Archive

Gustav Wall -2

In March 2002 I wrote an opinion piece for “Sound Projector” magazine (issue 10, page 138, published May 2002), which was largely inspired by a cache of documents that had come to light among my dad’s possessions – a book and information sheets relating to the “Cybernetic Serendipity” exhibition at The Institute of Contemporary Arts, and catalogues of the “Anti-University of London”. The Anti-University documents are discussed in an earlier post (see below), and all are striking, not least on account of the involvement of auto-destructive art pioneer and peace activist Gustav Metzger. Gustav Metzger was a founder member of the campaign group The Committee of 100, alongside Stuart Hall (see earlier posts); to get to the point however, in the “Sound Projector” article I speculated – and do please remember where you read this first – that Gustav Metzger’s work “Five Screens With Computer” may well have inspired the central motif in Pink Floyd’s album, film and stage-production “The Wall”.

In 1968 Studio International published 2 printings of a special magazine dedicated to the “Cybernetic Serendipity” exhibition – the “first serious consideration of the role of the computer in the arts, and its potential service to artists, composers (and) graphic designers” – which had been organised by Jasia Reichardt, in collaboration with Mark Dowson, Peter Schmidt and Franciszka Themerson, and held at The ICA earlier in 1968. Although technically a magazine, the 2nd printing is a large-format hardback book, and Studio International’s “Cybernetic Serendipity” book contains an article by Gustav Metzger, describing a talk he gave at the Architectural Association in 1965, which in turn described his proposal for an enormous public art project called “Five Screens With Computer”.

As described, “Five Screens With Computer” is “an elaborate project for auto-destructive art composed of five screens made of stainless steel, about thirty feet high, forty feet long and three feet deep. These are arranged thirty feet apart, staggered in plan, and sited in a central place between large blocks of flats. Each screen consists of ten thousand uniform elements three feet in length, whose section is either square, rectangular or hexagonal. The elements are tightly packed, and ejected one by one… After a ten-year period, the site remains to be turned-over to another use. The artist prepares the (computer) programme for the ejection of the elements.” If it wasn’t already obvious from that description, the diagram in Studio International depicts “Five Screens With Computer” (in profile) as a series of walls constructed from rectangular building-blocks, which fall out onto the ground in varying sequences. Understanding the word “screens” to refer here to walls, and “elements” to refer to component building-blocks, with those building-blocks tightly stacked-up in and ejected from a steel shelving system, the similarity with “The Wall” by Pink Floyd seems self-evident. The question remains as to whether (or to what extent) the similarity might have been coincidental? The Studio International article states “these ideas were discussed by Gustav Metzger in his lecture at the AA in 1965”.

As it happens, in terms of background, it seems Pink Floyd formed some time after members Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Richard Wright met, while studying Architecture at The London Polytechnic in Regent Street (now the University of Westminster), not far from the Architectural Association, around 1962-3 [1]. Now, by comparison, it’s well-known that Gustav Metzger introduced The Who guitarist Pete Townshend to the concept of using destruction (the deliberate smashing of guitars and drums etc) and audio feedback as artistic elements, when Townshend attended Metzger’s lectures at Ealing Art College; Pete Townshend freely acknowledges that influence, and sponsored Metzger’s exhibition at Modern Art (formerly Moma) in Oxford in 1998. Likewise (I am indebted to Bronac Ferran for pointing-out that) Syd Barrett biographer Julian Palacios states that “Roger Waters and Rick Wright shared a flat with Hornsey (College of Art) students (Peter) Dockley and Pete Kuttner” [2] (themselves fascinating artists); Dockley recalled that “while Pete Kuttner and I were at Hornsey, Gustav Metzger gave a lecture-demonstration in the main hall of the college. Metzger used ink suspended in an oil base, housed between glass small enough to insert into a projector that used two-by-two inch slides. The lecture was completely enthralling. Suddenly, these miniature-scale coloured ink events and interactions were blown-up fifteen foot square. I turned to the back and there were (Roger) Waters and (Rick) Wright, soaking up Gustav’s performance. They went to speak with him afterwards, and to look in more detail at his equipment. Artist Mark Boyle was also using similar projections, so it was in the air. I like to think Gustav, a brilliant artist but very unassuming man, was in part responsible for a chief component of the psychedelic experience.” Nick Mason himself is quoted as stating that in 1963 he and Roger Waters lived in a flat owned by architect and light artist Mike Leonard – Leonard also being a tutor at Hornsey and at the Regent Street Poly [3]. Pink Floyd were filmed performing in Mike Leonard’s house for the BBC TV science programme Tomorrow’s World [4], Peter Dockley himself went on to collaborate directly with Pink Floyd [5], and Pink Floyd recorded an (as yet unreleased) soundtrack for the film “Speak” by art-science pioneer John Latham [6], who (separately) collaborated with Gustav Metzger.

So, while this evidence does suggest that Pink Floyd seem to have moved in similar circles to Gustav Metzger, to have attended at least one Metzger lecture, and to have personally questioned Metzger about aspects of his art, what’s most important here is that the sets for Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” were designed by architect Mark Fisher [7]. In addition to the fact that, by the time of the conceptual genesis of “The Wall” in the late 1970s, Metzger’s proposal for “Five Screens With Computer” had (as published by Studio International) been readily publicly available for years anyway, The Guardian also confirms that Mark Fisher “began his studies at the Architectural Association in London in 1965” [8] – the same year that Metzger presented his original proposal for “Five Screens With Computer” at the Architectural Association (and Mark Fisher also worked as a Unit Master at the AA School until 1977).

By any standards “The Wall” is an enormously impressive and powerful piece of work, and, what you might call the official version of the genesis of “The Wall” concept, seems to suggest that, reflecting the increasingly distant relationship between mainstream (ie – stadium) rock performers and their audiences (that, as it happens, strongly influenced the emergence of punk) Roger Waters developed the imagery of “The Wall” as a metaphor for his alienation from over-adoring music fans and from figures of social and political authority. In fact the music in “The Wall” moves away from Pink Floyd’s psychedelic roots towards, in places, almost disco influences, and, in terms of lyrics, the politics of punk. So, while it’s beyond question that there’s a huge amount more to “The Wall” than just that one main visual image, however it’s also true that the official version and the hypothesis posited here aren’t mutually-exclusive. Finally, for those artists, curators, historians, journalists and bloggers etc who might wish to repeat or discuss the idea that “Five Screens With Computer” may have influenced “The Wall”, please be sure to acknowledge my articles on this as your source (and, if any reader has information that sheds more light on this, please do get in touch).

[1] Glen Povey “Echoes: The Complete History of Pink Floyd” 3C Publishing 2008
[2] Julian Palacios “Syd Barrett & Pink Floyd – Dark Globe” Plexus 2010
[3] Nick Mason & Philip Dodd “Inside Out - A Personal History of Pink Floyd” Phoenix 2004
[7] Vernon Fitch & Richard Mahon “Comfortably Numb: A History of The Wall” PFA 2006

Thanks to Colin Banks & Bronac Ferran

Copyright © Joe Banks, 12 March 2014

“Rorschach Audio” at The Royal College of Art

The “Vocal Discords” symposium at The RCA, London, 7 March 2014, featured a Rorschach Audio lecture-demonstration – including discussion of the dramatist John Dennis and illusions of thunder, see earlier post – alongside presentations by Sophie Scott, Brian Dillon, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Nina Power and David Toop. Thanks to everyone who came along, and special thanks to David Crowley for the invite…

Gustav Metzger and the Anti-University of London

Anti University, Rorschach Audio Archive

In March 2002 I wrote an opinion piece for “Sound Projector” magazine (issue 10, page 138, published May 2002), which was largely inspired by a cache of documents that had, to my surprise, come to light among my dad’s possessions – namely a book and information sheets relating to The ICA’s “Cybernetic Serendipity” exhibition, and 3 catalogues of the “Anti-University of London”, which opened in February 1968, more-or-less equidistant between the site of a much later, now much-lamented bar and art-space called The Foundry, on the corner of Old Street and Great Eastern Street, and Iniva’s Rivington Place gallery, just round the corner. As the first catalogue explained – “The Antiuniversity of London has been founded in response to the intellectual bankruptcy and spiritual emptiness of the educational establishment both in Britain and the rest of the Western World. It seeks to develop the concepts and forms of experience necessary to comprehend the events of this century and the meaning of one’s life within it, to examine artistic expression beyond the scope of the usual academy and to promote a position of social integrity and commitment from which scholars now stand aloof. The Antiuniversity of London of London will be a meeting ground for discussion, discovery, rediscovery and revelation. It is intended as an ongoing experiment in the development of consciousness and will be related to other revolutionary experiments in universities, communities, communes and direct action now taking place in Europe and America”.

If the words of that opening statement sound, by today’s standards, somewhat of-their-era, it’s sobering to note how many Antiuniversity lecturers were, or were to become, acknowledged as experts and even world-leaders in their fields. Among many others, “Psychology and Religion” was taught by the radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing. “Psychology and Politics” was taught by David Cooper. Courses were taught by “Black Jacobins” historian and cricket-nut C.L.R. James, by The ICA director Michael Kustow, and by art-science pioneer John Latham. Stuart Hall (see earlier post) is often primarily thought-of as having been a sociologist and cultural-theorist, however he was also an important communications theorist and peace campaigner, who went on to become the back-bone of that most socially-idealistic and pragmatic of institutions, The Open University. Visiting Faculty included William Burroughs, Hans Enzensberger, Allen Ginsberg, Adrian Henri and Carolee Schneemann.

The 2nd catalogue advertised Pop Art pioneer and former electrical draughtsman Richard Hamilton, as giving 2-hour lectures on the art of Marcel Duchamp, and International Times founder (now cultural historian) Barry Miles as lecturing on “Underground communications theory”, and Yoko Ono as lecturing on “The Connection” (reserving however “the right to interview and choose a limited number of students before the session begins”). In relation to the general subject matter of the “Rorschach Audio” project, it’s also interesting to note the 3rd catalogue advertised (medical doctor and peace activist) Rachel Pinney as offering courses in “Creative Listening”. John Keys was lecturing on… (one word)… “Everything”!

Of particular interest here however was the involvement of the artist and campaigner Gustav Metzger, who I’d briefly met through mutual association with gallerist David Clegg, when David curated the first Disinformation sound-installation into the “Sound Proofs” exhibition at The Museum of Installation gallery in London in July 1997. I was extremely grateful for the abrupt but very encouraging comments Gustav made about my work, and (particularly in light of the self-annihilating and nuclear-flash related imagery produced by the Disinformation exhibit “The Origin of Painting”) was then stunned to read the Antiuniversity catalogue entry describing Gustav Metzger’s talks. “Auto-destructive art is an advanced form of kinetic art. Metamorphosis, destruction and creation are the central features. Instead of painting a scientific view of the universe in ceaseless flux, the artist presents phenomena that are undergoing constant physical change, and is obliged to use advanced technologies to do this. Auto-destructive art mirrors reality; it is clearly related to capitalism in decline. It is also a weapon of social change. Large self-destructive sculptures, made with the latest technologies, that rot and fall apart in public, can modify the attitude of many people to war, waste and destruction, and undermine a suicidal faith in the benefits of technology”. A biography adds “Metzger comes from Germany, and is now stateless. First auto-destructive art manifesto, 1959. Founder member of Committee of 100, 1960. Initiated DIAS – Destruction in Art Symposium, 1966. Exhibition in Filtration Laboratory Swansea University, 1966, featured atomized water, compressed air floating structures, liquid nitrogen, electronically controlled liquid crystal phenomena.”

Special thanks to Colin Banks

Joe Banks, 26 Feb 2014

Gustav Metzger, myself and Stewart Home were interviewed on Resonance FM, 24 Feb 2003 - (scroll down through page)

Disinformation works outing in Brussels!

Artisanal Biscuit, copyright © Joe Banks

Artisanal Biscuit for Frivolous Mind!

Theodor Adorno & “The Girl Who Never Was” by Erik Bünger

One of the more perplexing notions, effectively an urban myth, that circulates, hitherto more-or-less unchallenged, in certain sections of the sonic arts milieu, is the idea that because humans have no ear-lids, and can’t therefore shut-off hearing in a way that’s directly equivalent to how we close our eyes, the sense of hearing must therefore be somehow “passive”. As discussed in the “Rorschach Audio” book – pages 177 to 185 – psychoacoustic processes enable the mind to exercise a great deal of editorial control, analysing and selecting those sounds it wishes to bring into or exclude from conscious attention. We all know for instance that after a few days living next to a flight-path or railway, or working next to a monotonous machine, we begin to selectively tune-out sometimes even quite loud sounds, and, as the book says, at a much more basic level, listeners can and do actively control hearing by the frankly obvious mechanisms of turning towards or away from different sounds, and by putting our hands over or fingers in our ears, to compensate for lacking ear-lids.

In context of such obvious facts, statements quoted from the musicologist, philosopher and critical theorist Theodor Adorno, that the sense of hearing is “unconcentrated and passive” and “dozy and inert” come across as autobiographical to say the very least (refer to the book for the source). Just the other day I was re-watching film director George Lucas and sound designer Walter Murch’s extraordinary “THX1138” (see earlier posts) – a special feature on the DVD describes the noted motor-racing enthusiast George Lucas as someone who can diagnose faults in a race-car by listening to the engine for just a few seconds… so much for hearing being “dozy and inert”!

Another successful “Rorschach Audio” demonstration was co-produced by the sonic arts organisation Overtoon to complement the exhibition by artist Erik Bünger at the Argos Centre (for art and media) in Brussels. Erik Bünger presented his “Lecture on Schizophonia” the day after the “Rorschach Audio” event at the Liverpool Biennale, and a video version of Erik’s lecture is exhibited at Argos. In his video installation “The Girl Who Never Was” Erik Bünger quotes Theodor Adorno as stating that “male voices can be reproduced better than female voices… the female voice requires the physical appearance of the body that carries it, but it is just this body (that) the gramophone eliminates, thereby giving every female voice a sound that is needy and incomplete”. On that basis Adorno asserted a case for operatic tenor Enrico Caruso’s “uncontested dominance”, and “The Girl Who Never Was” cuts to a scene from the film “Fitzcarraldo” which shows a Caruso LP playing-out from a gramophone across the Amazon. The notion of an amniotic sound-world is handled very differently in context of the Disinformation exhibit “National Grid” [1]; however Erik’s response to Adorno states that “with woman, the male philosopher thinks, there is always too little of something, too little body, or too little spirit”, adding that “there was a time… when the male philosopher was living inside of a woman, and would hear her voice singing to him from all around, when her voice and his flesh was one”. Erik discusses the translation of Freud’s use of the word “Unheimlich”, and while I couldn’t make-out what mishearing the chant “Deshi Basara” as “this is awesome” has to do with Adorno, I guess some of the video’s slightly tongue-in-cheek. The work is beautifully produced, intriguing and thought-provoking.

[1] “Foetal and infant hypnagogic sense-memories” in “Disinformation – The Analysis of Beauty” (exhibition catalogue) Arts Council National Touring Programme 2003, page 37 (quoting a text originally published in 1996).

Special thanks to Aernoudt Jacobs and Ive Stevenheydens, and many thanks to everyone who came along to the talk.


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