noise and public space three years later
Writing this preface, years after the fact, gives us the advantage of making sense of random actions in our past. At least they did seem random at the time. The year 1994 began with little more than a simple idea: sound/body. In January we wrote in our diary: "Sound/body/labor. Maybe if it is written enough times, the piece will take shape." At that point we still weren't clear where our work would take us. Having recently departed from the performing arts collective, bang!manifesto, Marco Larsen and Dont Rhine came upon a terrifying but exhilarating state of aimlessness.
Our previous involvement in the Los Angeles art and music scene was anything but aimless. Coordinating the individual creative aspirations of half a dozen artists, required a certain degree of rigor and focus. Over the course of the four years of its existence, bang!manifesto had evolved from an industrial music combo, fueled in part by the alternative queer scene surrounding clubs like Sit-and-Spin, Trade and Fuck! By 1993, we were a full-fledged artists' collaborative, producing music, critical essays, dance, photography, video, graphic design and fashion.3 More remarkable than our evolution, or even our work, was the near total absence of any shared identification. While most collaborative projects at that time were based on some form of identity politics, ours was organized around the absence of such politics. Rather than crippling our capacity to work together, this condition produced many surprising and exciting results.
Taking advantage of the spacious interior of the Federal Reserve Building, which hosted the F.A.R. Bazaar, bang!manifesto presented an installation of live and djed ambient music accompanied by projections. These projections, which covered the walls of the enormous lobby, investigated in images and quotes the military industrial complex's financial successes as a result of the War. Subsequent manifestations of "redroom" adopted similarly socially-motivated themes, usually specific to the location of the installation. In response to gay and lesbian activists protesting Hollywood's addiction to homophobic cinema, a "redroom" installation at the Directors' Guild of America featured projected quotes regarding sexual liberation by anarchist-socialist Emma Goldman. The projections were intermixed with excerpts from gay-porn videos and accompanied by "ambient music for sex." On the occasion of Art/LA '93 - an oversized trade-show for corporate art - the aforementioned "redroom" at the Exhibition Center followed a fashion show of unwearable creations by bang!manifesto-member, Lun*na Menoh.
When Marco and Dont faced the prospect of a clean slate in the Spring of 1994, we were certain that we wanted to remain working in the ambient music scene. However, we knew we couldn't continue with the esoteric performances of "redroom" which quite often did more to enhance the spectacle-nature of the host-event than create temporary autonomous zones. Furthermore, working within the LA alternative art community, we felt alienated from other electronic musicians. We determined, if we were going to continue producing ambient music events, we had to meet other Angelenos with similar musical interests.
It was during a long car-ride returning from San Francisco that we agreed upon the idea of launching an ambient music club. We had made the trek to the Bay Area to catch an ambient music extravaganza featuring Irresistible Force, Space Time Continuum, Pete Namlook and Velocette. It was this event more than anything that profoundly ignited our imagination. And yet, driving that long four-hundred mile stretch of highway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, it discouraged us that no forum existed in Southern California to host similar chilled events. With a full moon guiding us through the Central Valley and the engine of Marco's Toyota raging against the 70 MPH speed, we knew the only way to meet other musical comrades in Los Angeles was going to be if we founded that venue ourselves.
In September of 1994, Dont departed to New York City to participate in the Whitney Museum of Art Independent Study Program. Marco continued to organize events and book artists along with the newest member of the Public Works Administration, Lynn Hasty. Under Marco and Lynn's supervision, Public Space continued to adhere to its mission of hosting some of the most exciting and inspiring performances in Los Angeles. During the summer of 1995, Marco left the coordinating of Public Space in Lynn's capable hands who, together with Los Angeles musician John Tejada, sustains the club today.
The articles contained in this collection represent the first five months of Public Space's existence. During the combined involvement of Dont and Marco, guests to PS events received a short newsletter titled Contact: Earth Orbit Rendezvous. The newsletter featured a list of thank you's (usually friends and supporters who had helped in some way make the then-weekly club come together), a brief description of the evening's performers, a calendar of upcoming events and simple artwork, typically based on Soviet designs from the 1960s. Of course this last fact went generally unnoticed except by those clubbers who bothered to ask us about this "Laika" character. The joke, unfortunately grasped only by ourselves, made reference to the then-current fixation on space-memorabilia in the ambient community. We thought that by evoking the history of the Soviet space program we might recall the material realities which surrounded the space race that seemed so uncritically romanticized. Hearing the Orb sample a bit of Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin for the title track on U.F.Orb,6 we knew others shared our skepticism.
Besides the artwork and list of fellow ambient locals, each issue of Contact featured an article on a range of topics usually specific to ambient music culture. It is those articles which we have assembled together in this collection. Given the immediacy surrounding the newsletter, the articles often responded to events in the ambient community as they happened, record releases, magazine articles and so forth. Additionally, the articles also suggest a certain degree of activist urgency, even when the actual nature of that urgency remains undisclosed. This fact stems from the involvement on the part of Marco and Dont in the Los Angeles needle exchange, Clean Needles Now. Ironically, the Hollywood site for the clandestine AIDS-intervention program was a mere two blocks from the home of Public Space. Occasionally, we would recognize club-goers as users of the needle exchange program, and when guests would inquire about drug treatment or the spurious "War on Drugs", we were always quick to refer them to Clean Needles Now.
Our simultaneous involvement in the needle exchange and the ambient music community had a profound impact upon how we conceptualized Public Space. The articles in Contact reflect that impact as we worked through the basic matter of how to conceive of ambient music in its most obvious, material manifestation: the sound culture of everyday life. From the start, we were not in the least persuaded by ambient music's pretensions for spirituality or its mystical capacity. Perhaps this cynicism stemmed from the very real experience of harm reduction and needle exchange. No amount of ecstasy - particularly spiritual ecstasy - completely erases the body and its material needs. In fact, the capacity to experience pleasure is directly linked to the quality of care given to the body. This we learned from harm reduction. The same seemed to apply to a musical movement which took its inspiration from a history of avant-garde music, from Russolo and Cage to Eno and the Orb. Central to that tradition was the notion of giving audition to the sound culture of the everyday: finding musical pleasure in the mundane soundscape.
In Adorno's near-eschatological judgment, music has in part failed in its capacity to transform its conditions by becoming a mere metaphor - what Deleuze and Guattari call a tracing - of the world as it is. Adorno again: "It is obedient to the historical tendency of its own material - blindly and without contradiction."8 Thus for any music which boasts its status as part of a universal language is not the liberating utopia it hopes to be but, rather, the sad repetition it is bound to be.
For us, what Adorno identified with grim resignation, is precisely where musicians, as social actors, have the potential to break apart the monopoly of universal signification (under the sign of capital) by transforming the soundscape of everyday life. Perhaps our experience as activists convinces us toward such optimistic folly. We were musicians and club promoters before we were theorists. And we were activists (as our police records demonstrate) before we were promoters. This fact, an admittedly ontological move on our part, instigated on a day in May 1994, informs in everyway our approach to ambience, not as the production of commodities (records to promote - the traditional role of the disc jockey), but rather as the production of space.
In the movement from a temporal understanding of music and sound to one which is spatial, the inevitable question arises: what language do we employ to discuss ambient music practices? This was clearly the dilemma posed by ambient music, and continues to be even in its present post-mortem phase. While it may be easy to dismiss the discourse surrounding ambient music as vulgar metaphysics or even kitsch, we should first examine the context of this discourse. The problematic introduced by those of us involved in Public Space suggests that any examination of context stands in danger of contaminating the very object of consideration. Context becomes something performative rather than a fixed and stable object which one studies - or even occupies - with any degree of self-mastery. The challenge then, is to celebrate this ambiguity in our language rather than turn it into the terms of a new modernist, individuated ego, immune to the contingencies of the social. As Attali suggests:
Some take their music, their noise, to the streets, claiming a space against its official uses or, conversely, reterritorializing it for its official use. This mode of sonic action can include the car that goes boom, the van equipped with a PAS announcing a political candidate, or even the merchant's cry - "two for a dollar." Each practice utilizes sound as a matter of territory. This description is not meant to minimize the latent violence in the act of territorialization. On the contrary, we need only recall the use of heavy metal music in the late-`80s US invasion of Panama to remind ourselves of its deadly potential. Furthermore, if we think back to Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing, the controversy that surrounded the film could have been construed as an extension into the real of the climatic scene, a scene which commenced with the destruction of a portable stereo at the hands of one who tried to resist the music's deterritorializing assault.
However, this discussion leads us into the present-day and Ultra-red's work-in-progress; PS/Occupations. For the moment, we invite the reader to acquaint herself with the earlier efforts of Ultra-red. These articles are as much markers in the development of our thinking as they are testaments to an evolving ambient community. In keeping with this last point, we have included notes for each essay which explain the origins of the articles. Otherwise, the texts are presented here blemishes and all. If they serve any function today, all these years after their writing, it is to encourage others in a way which rescues the materiality of audition - listening material - and gives to sound its proper attention as one perceptual means for enunciating a new political subjectivity. In this effort, we commit these articles to lovers, learners and the ambient international.
This collection would not have been possible without support from the following individuals: Renee Edgington, Pablo Garcia, Jonah and Billee Sharp, Tamara Palmer, the Shuffle crew, Seamus Malone, Frank Gutierrez, Susan Otto, the advocates of das bang!, Sarah Pierce, Ben Neil, Lun*na Menoh, Tosh Berman, with much love, David Ross and all the amazing musicians and fans who have supported PS over the years. Special acknowledgment goes to Lynn "Green Chick" Hasty and John Tejada for their enthusiastic and tireless administration of Public Space. Big sloppy red kisses to comrade Terre Thaemlitz for his sublime efforts in giving Din a new life, and for his generously sympathetic ear.
Dedicated to the Ambient International.
Los Angeles, January 1997
1 Michael Kirby and Victoria Nes Kirby, Futurist Performance (NY: Paj Publications, 1986), p. 169.
2 Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, tr. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), p. 18-19.
3 The best documentation of bang!manifesto can be found on the Diversion CD, Advocates of das bang! (1993), distributed through Soleilmoon in the US and Staalplaat in Europe. Additionally, a video of the collaborative performance between artist Lun*na Menoh and bang!manifesto, "Dress for Poet" (1993) is part of the fashion and art archives at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
4 The "redroom" manifesto, "The Background is a Front" is included in this collection.
5 For bang!manifesto, the flirtation with Kabbalistic mysticism originated in a lengthy engagement with deconstructing metaphysical concepts of fixed gender identity. Electing to employ Kabbalistic forms had less to do with a Jewish identification than an interest in the neo-platonic rationalisation of metaphysical concepts.
6 London: Big Life Records, 1992.
7 Theodor Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, tr. Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster (NY: The Seabury Press, 1973), p. 112.
9 Noise, p. 6.