3.18 / May the Force be with you

Can Weirdness Still Happen? An addendum to “The Sound Issue.”

By marcella faustini June 26, 2012

Image: Unsound, Vol. 1, no. 3, 1983 (detail); magazine cover, offset printed in black-and-white on newsprint and saddle-stapled; 8.5 x 11 in. Courtesy of the Commodes, San Francisco.

Written in collaboration with Commode Minstrels In Bullface

Let’s talk about a point of contention: the differences between visual and sound modes of production and their respective subsequent consumption. Let’s talk about porosity. Let’s talk about the possibility for weirdness. That’s what I came here for—as in, to San Francisco, to the far edge of the western frontier. Let’s talk about the intersections that I have witnessed while participating in the experimental sound and music communities in the Bay Area: from my first visits, I identified the Bay Area as a place that could accommodate what could be described as a space for weirdness. A type of weirdness that is not easily described by words—a personal space without self-consciousness that allows for creativity to take the driver’s seat without commitment to pre-set systems. After I moved to the Bay Area and learned about the local culture, I found that, indeed, a handful of the area’s inhabitants have cultivated the space for such a weirdness to flourish.

I’ve frequently watched manifestations of this space through music performances; series such as the Godwaffle Noise Pancakes, Infrasound, and some shows at Recombinant Media Lab have been able to articulate this odd space for participants. Although attendees can largely interiorize these experiences, the events are also often described as opening up one’s physical awareness. Some larger shows have had massive groups moving as a singular entity in what could be described as a protozoan Bosch pit. The collective blank mind of a crowd can create awkward movements that are less like human thoughts and more like radio static. Much of this sound has corporeal effects on a listener, so a strong physical response manifests in participants and oftentimes becomes an eventual mental response.

While curating the now-defunct sound series, Echo de Pensees at the California College of the Arts (CCA) in 2005, I observed certain patterns in the experimental sound and music communities that had no echo in the local visual art community to which I was becoming more deeply indebted, both literally and metaphorically. Echo de Pensees was a monthly series sandwiched between exhibitions at PLAySPACE, CCA’s graduate student–run gallery. It featured live experimental music performances by John Bischof, Joe Colley, Scott Arford, and many others, and in this experience I saw a certain pervasive openness emerge from a back-and-forth exchange between the academic and DIY sound communities at PLAySPACE in a way that I have yet to witness in the visual arts community. Perhaps the best way to explain the distinctiveness of what I call this space for weirdness is to share some conversations and exchanges themselves.

Mark Flood poster

Mark Flood. Untitled, early 1980s; concert poster; 8.5 x 11 in. Courtesy of the Commodes, San Francisco.

Let’s begin with my own house. I live surrounded by a collection that has been amassed for over twenty years in a true old-school San Francisco style. This collection belongs to some of the house inhabitants who have been developing various bands and projects within the area’s experimental sound community for the last twenty years. I reside amidst eccentric hoarding: hallways are lined with a cassette tape collection that includes but is definitely not restricted to rare Bollywood gems, the German Shepherds, esoteric noise groups, twentieth-century avant compositions, and much, much more. It was here that I came across a massive and pristine collection of seminal zines and flyers that serve as documentation of the underground/punk/experimental music scene beginning in the early 1980s, including Another Room, Bananafish, and Unsound, not to mention the mint-condition copies of Wet magazine, the legendary publication of “gourmet bathing and beyond” that I’d been longing to come across. There are also piles of original concert flyers by the likes of Raymond Pettibon and Mark Flood.

My housemates put me in touch with Ray Farrell, who moved to the Bay Area in 1976 and stayed through 1985. Farrell would go on to work for SST Records from 1985 to 1988, working with Black Flag, Sonic Youth, The Minutemen, and Hüsker Dü. We talked extensively about John Gullak’s tape label and experimentations, the Bay Area’s “lack of confrontation,” and its simultaneous willingness to embrace weirdness. Farrell had a radio show on 94.1 KPFA, Assassinatin’ Rhythm, whose 


Unsound, Vol. 1, no. 2, 1983; magazine cover, offset printed in black-and-white on newsprint and saddle-stapled; 8.5 x 11 in. Courtesy of the Commodes, San Francisco.

programming ran the gamut from experimental to post punk to a kid interviewing a vacuum cleaner. He talked about Over the Edge, Negativland’s radio show‚ which is still broadcasting and in which “they were experimenting with the radio format, using taped sound bytes that were put in cartridge machines. People would call in to talk to what they thought was a live DJ. Instead, they were carrying on conversations with tape loops.”1

After Farrell, I talked to Fred Rinne, who has been in the Bay Area since the late 1970s. Rinne is an artist who has had various concept band projects, such as National Disgrace, Hogwind, and The Bringdownzz. He described for me many of the venues that contributed to the experimental and weirdomusic that hybridized and flourished through the ’80s and ’90s in the Bay Area, including Mabuhay Gardens, On Broadway, Club Foot, Tool & Die, and Deaf Club, which was run by a group of Deaf people.2 Tool & Die was basically a pit accessed by a ladder that descended into a smoke-filled basement full of poles that one would inevitably slam or get slammed into. Other venues that factored into shaping this scene are the Native American Hall on Valencia Street, Show and Tell Gallery, Martin Weber Gallery—booked by David Lynch music editor Kim Cascone for his Noisenacht series—and The Sound of Music in the Tenderloin, which Rinne told me would book just about anybody.

Raymond Pettibon. Black Flag at the Mabuhay / Fri Feb 27 / Sat Feb 28, 1981; concert poster; 8.5 x 11 in. Courtesy of the Commodes, San Francisco.

Throughout these conversations, Lou Harrison’s name kept popping up. One of the most relevant American composers of the twentieth century, he taught at Mills College and left a deep imprint on the Bay Area experimental music scene. William Winant,  who currently teaches at Mills, studied with Harrison and according to Winant, “Lou was a great painter. His whole house had murals in most of the rooms that he painted himself.”3 Winant himself is a great example of the porosity I mentioned earlier. Having performed with such varied musicians and composers as Iannis Xenakis, Sonic Youth, Cecil Taylor, and Oingo Boingo, Winant has been an observer of and participant in the mingling of academically developed music and more informal but no less experimental musical processes in the Bay Area. We agreed that the geographical location and conditions of the Bay Area are influences on its musical output; because it is located within the “Wild West” of California, a perceived sense of isolation from judging eyes allows experimentation to flourish. And the Bay Area is not only isolated from stereotypical East Coast media and academia—as Winant notes, “Being closer to Asia, the European element in avant-garde music tended to give way to an Asian-inspired sensibility permeating these composers’ works.”

The ability to switch one’s environment from the urban to the “sublime” in a short amount of time can also be cited as a decisive influence on the scene’s development, as it compelled the choices of composers Harry Partch, Terry Riley, Lou Harrison, and James Tenney to move to the area. A sense of informality contributed to many of the collaborations between these composers and visual artists and experimental filmmakers. Riley, who still lives in the Bay Area, had a long friendship with Bruce Conner, who provided images for some of Riley’s releases. Conner used one of Riley’s pieces when he re-edited his Looking for Mushrooms short film. Tenney provided sound to one of the very few non-silent films by Stan Brakhage. Winant also talks about the influence of Surrealism, Dadaism, and Assemblage Art in some of these composers’ practices, particularly the penchant both Partch and Harrison had for using junk materials to make instruments.

My conversations wrapped up with Joshua Kit Clayton, who inhabits a variety of spaces. Upon moving to the Bay Area, he became involved with the type of minimal, experimental techno often referred to as intelligent dance music (IDM) and has run a couple of labels, including Musork. More recently, Clayton has been making work that utilizes both awkward and not-so­-awkward spaces of social interaction as source material. He also works for Cycling ’74, a San Francisco–based software developing company, developing sound and video software. We spent some time discussing Clayton’s music projects and his participation in IDM, collectives he encountered upon arriving in the Bay Area such as early 5lowrshop and their anarcho-raves at Toxic Beach, some influences like Chicago Ghettotech and Detroit Bass,  the academic perception that rave music lacks criticality, and history’s current atemporality. We eventually fell into discussing these musical movements in terms of how they contributed to the possibility of the aforementioned “weird space,” where one can proceed unselfconsciously and without mandates.

Lou Harrison. Organ Concerto with Percussion, 1973.

This brings us to the question of whether such weirdness can still happen. Is there a type of necessary environment that it needs in order to occur? Because the same technology that facilitates experimentation also collapses and makes culture a commodity so quickly, how do we circumvent and escape commodification in order to create the conditions where weirdness can flourish on its own terms? Clayton believes that experimentation manages to escape the normative conditions and still happen in a variety of ways.4 He cites Giorgio Agamben‘s “Marginal Notes on Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle” as a possible approach to negotiating the separation between language, communication, and being that occurs through commodification. Agamben argues that through the disassociation of these elements, all one is left with is a space of being that can’t be articulated or identified by the system. This creates the possibility for a space where these shifts of meaning and unorthodox means of creating might happen.

Can the space conducive to cultivating weirdness be activated or enabled by visual culture? It is my opinion that this space emerges much more rarely in people’s experiences with visual art, possibly because visual art seeks to justify itself through associations with pop culture or conceptual deconstructions of meaning and language better left for the competency of semiotics and linguistics. I am not arguing here for a lack of criticality or a return to full-on surrealism but, rather, for a reconsideration of strategy. I will be a broken record and posit again if there is a way to circumvent or subvert the capitalist approach: Can we possibly observe the methods utilized by other mediums, such as the one described here, and create some sort of naufrage—a shipwreck—thus sabotaging the visual culture’s boring ways? Hit me: marcella.faustini@gmail.com


1. From a conversation with the author on June 19, 2012.

2. From a conversation with the author on June 20, 2012.

3. All quotes by Winant are from a conversation with the author on June 19, 2012.

4. From a conversation with the author on June 21, 2012.

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