Magick Mixtapes

There is a story about William S. Burroughs putting a curse on a diner using a Sony TC cassette recorder.

Burroughs is famous for his pioneering cut-up technique: cutting, editing and rearranging newspaper clippings to form new prose and poetry. Students do this a lot on their fridges now and it’s all over Tumblr. Less practised are his multimedia cut-ups made by arbitrarily recording fragments of television or similarly remixing his own field recordings. They all follow the same basic principles.

The story of the cursed diner goes that after being treated terribly one day by its disgruntled service staff he took up his cassette recorder and, pacing back and forth in front of the diner, recorded the ambient sounds around him. Later, back at home, he cut the sounds from outside the diner with “trouble noises” he had recorded during various negative scenarios to which he bore witness, such as the 1968 Chicago police riots. Chanting and screaming; the ambient sounds of terrible events.

He then returned to the diner, once again pacing up and down the pavement in front of it, playing his new mash-up field recording, channelling the negative energy captured and spliced amongst the ambient sounds of the diner in the hope that this energy would leak back into the world and infect the diner’s atmosphere, and sure enough, or so the story goes, the diner shut down soon after.

This story of a cassette recorder as a “magickal weapon” can be found in Time Mirrors, the autobiographical tenth chapter of the Psychick Bible by Genesis Breyer P-Orridge. He discusses his relationship to William Burroughs as friend, student and collaborator.

What Bill explained to me then was pivotal to the unfolding of my life and art: Everything is recorded. If it is recorded, then it can be edited. If it can be edited then the order, sense, meaning and direction are as arbitrary and personal as the agenda and/or person editing. This is magick. For if we have the ability and/or choice of how things unfold – regardless of the original order and/or intention that they are recorded in – then we have control over the eventual unfolding. If reality consists of a series of parallel recordings that usually go unchallenged, then reality only remains stable and predictable until it is challenged and/or the recordings are altered, or their order changed.

P-Orridge describes Burroughs as using what sounds like a weaponised mixtape with magickal properties. It does not require a great stretch of the imagination to imagine these properties. Mixtapes are an incredibly popular cultural phenomenon and have been for decades. Why? Because there is something about the process that continues to resonate with people, or rather something that comes naturally. It is a phenomenon that has transitioned through technological advances almost seamlessly. No longer is it required to press a RECORD button and edit tape reels or transfer one format to another. (I myself fondly remember the hours spent transfering my favourite songs from my Dad’s record collection onto cassette tapes to play on my Walkmen as a young child, although I doubt I would have the patience to return to that method). Now making mixes can be done digitally and shared via the internet to a potentially global audience at the click of a button. The hard work and over-thought that was initially engrained as part of the creative experience can be completely avoided, if the “labour of love” scenario is not desired.

Mixtapes endure. They already hold a special place culturally, sitting as they do on a broad spectrum that encompasses the mass-produced, commercialised compilations that we buy to the personally crafted gifts and love letters we make to give away. Few other objects can proclaim to share such a territory.

What Burroughs, and in turn P-Orridge, have done is extend the cultural potential of mixtapes. They ground their relationships to this personal cut-up process metaphysically to the world around them and their experiences of and within it – and we are encouraged to do the same. They go beyond the cultural snobbery and reverence that can be found, for example, in the popular book/film High Fidelity where mixtapes are objects to be scrutinised against a set of arbitrary bastardised rules no matter their intended listener or audience. Burroughs and P-Orridge free up the experience itself, focussing on and channelling the all-important emotional intentions first and foremost. Burroughs’ negative intentions towards the diner and John Cussack’s character’s positive intentions towards his girlfriend Laura are not so different, though their attitudes to the craft are polar opposites.

The positive intentions are the most familiar use for us thankfully: either as a soundtrack to a specific time period or event, or as a gift for someone who you wish to instil with positive vibes. In the context of Burroughs’ magickal reimagining it makes the process all the more endearing. We are offered potential mixtapes of mass destruction or potential seeds of love, and all other emotions in between if we so choose. They are released from their shackles of ritualised demonstrations of taste to become something more.

Further still, for P-Orridge and Burroughs the mixtape as form as well as its personal and subjective contexts can serve as a wider metaphor for reality itself.

Concensus reality is […] an amalgamation of approximate recordings from flawed bio-machines. The background of our daily lives is almost the equivalent of a flimsy movie set, unfolding and created by the sum total of what people allow to filer in through their senses. This illusory material world, built ad hoc, second to second, is uncommon to us all. It will only seem to exist whilst our body is passing through it. After that its continued existence is a matter of faith, and our experience of it seeming to have a continuity of presence that seems solid comes from our assumption (only) that we can apparently go back there at some future time of our choosing.

Such is the power of auditory memory that a mixtape can become a map of a remembered reality. Experience envelops each track and falls between the pauses like a fractal. The sounds we hear and remember can be repeatedly shifted from their contexts to be reinterpreted and used again — even mixed again — creating a made mixtape as rhizome that is inseparable from the experiences that surround it. By definition, the mixtape’s potential for “magick” (or magic) is bountiful and, similarly, beautiful.

Liner Notes #001

The aural and the visual are often seen as complimentary. We encounter them both almost every day. We watch films and get caught up in their soundtracks. We listen to records and see their iconic covers. Records bring the aural and the visual together quite harmoniously. There is little jostling for space. We almost take their relationship for granted.

We own records, of the twelve, ten and seven inch varieties. CDs too. They are a form to be appreciated — the bigger the better — but there is little need to revere them. The least revered of records are the bargain bin compilations. Our most treasured are the compilations we put together ourselves. There is an interesting void between the two.

My inspiration comes from a life-long hobby of making mixtapes as a reflective record of time and experience, and taking photographs to record day-to-day experiences as they happen. There is an interesting void between these practices too. A project begins with a collection of experiences that can be remixed so that they form the basis of a new experience.

Mixing is now an artform all of its own. Aurally, this speaks for itself. Technically, there is a purist spectrum of cross-fading to beat-matching. For argument’s sake, let us reduce it to curating sound. We curate photographs too and we are starting to treat photographs in similar ways. Remixing photobooks has started to gain a following. Photographers are starting to catch up, but still they do not experiment with the revered.

To mix is now to blend seamlessly. Hail to the beat-matcher! Hail to the Photoshopper! Do you scratch your records when you mix like the early pioneers who had respect for the breaks rather than the objects? Do you scratch your negatives when you print? There is too much reverence for the object in photographic circles. How can we consider photography to be a modern medium but condemn Mishka Henner for blasphemy?

Demix and move to a higher plane. Hail to the thief! Hail to the sampler! Refer, don’t revere. To mix is to bring separate elements together to form a solid whole. To remix is to mix again and create a different whole. To demix is to remove the illusion of the whole, acknowledge the counterpoints and the idiosyncrasies and the independence of forms smashed together.

My practice does not give tribute to records or mixtapes but they are an important point of reference. They explore the aural and the visual from the listener’s perspective of a record and its artwork and how personal experiences can surround and envelop such an object. However, the object itself is no longer tangible: it has exploded and imploded; smashed as if in the Hadron collider.

We can now scavenge through the debris for those elements of the aural and visual that we feel with the most intensity. Smash them again and again. There is no scientific pursuit or elusive God particle. What the fragments mean is not important so long as we allow ourselves to know them and feel them. Contexts are shifted, expanded, ignored, renewed generously. We allow for new ideas, experiences and places to emerge. We deconstruct our ideas of the aural, the visual and the audio-visual. We take these fractured elements to the very limits of their potential.

If something isn’t broken, try breaking it.

Art Flakey

Let me first begin by apologising for such an awful jazz pun. This blog has lain dormant for at least six months now for two reasons. The first was the shame of coming up with and choosing to use such a pun but now I’m fond of it and it has stuck so we’ll all just have to deal with it. The second reason is this blog’s uncertain purpose, which is going to take a little bit of navel-gazing to explain. For that I give you my second apology.

This time last year I was likely to tar myself with that proverbial brush of creative duality: I am an artist and a writer, because I like writing and I’m trying to be an “artist” — currently for economical reasons because I never before realised the burden of occupational nomenclature on things like car insurance which, I have been told, is cheaper for artists than, say, photographers…

But also the words taste strange in my mouth — artist and writer. I am not comfortable with even the most basic acts of self-profession. People say I am reserved or shy or quiet but, like many, I am simply under the constant shadow of my own scrutiny.

When it comes to my written output the scrutiny is so severe that, whilst I might like to think of myself as a writer, the only examples of my writing that exist in the world are the ones I have submitted for marking throughout my education. I say “exist” but I have no way of proving that they continue to exist. For all I know they have been shredded into oblivion because of their blatant obsolescence to a recent graduate and his former tutors.

My problem is that I consistently fail to stand by anything that I write for an extended period of time. More often than not I write to see what I think. Then I go away, think some more, read what I’ve written and decide that is not what I think any longer. I think; I write; I post; I read; I delete. It’s cowardly, really. How can I allow something to stay published when, six months down the line, I may no longer agree with myself or choose to articulate myself in the same way?

The only evidence of my writing that exists for certain (because there are at least four copies of it here in my house) is my 10,000-word dissertation on anxiety in photography and/or the anxiety of photography. I remember regretting at least a third of it as soon as it came through the post in its final, pseudo-book form and I read through my efforts one last time with the knowledge that there was no turning back and this was what I had to submit.

Titled How I Learnt To Stop Worrying and Look at Photography, I realised almost immediately after reading it that photography was not something I had ever been anxious about. Photography is the one creative act that I do almost daily that is free of over-thought. It is my one and only creative respite. This was the case when I first picked up a camera and I worked very hard to relearn that approach after education almost forced it out of me.

This is a common affliction no doubt: to be a navel-gazing, self-criticising, confidence-lacking neurotic non-writer. Evidently I need a therapeutic outlet and Art Flakey is it, for better or for worse. It is no different to anything I have done before. I will post what I usually write and then delete but under one condition: I won’t delete it. I have realised that my neuroticism is a learned behaviour and the fear of contradicting myself comes from witnessing those who criticise those who have public changes of heart, particularly those who experiment in other parts of their lives and creative practices. I need to discover a way of writing that I am comfortable with which complements my practice and the way that I think.

Why is it so often a surprise that visual experimentation is often coupled with verbal or written experimentation? Public records of ideas, concepts and opinions may as well be carved in stone, but surely we are all aware that that is no reflection on ourselves as creative human beings? For photographers, we allow our photographs to be relatively truthful records of ourselves and our experiences at any given moment. We also accept that since those photographs were taken we have continued to grow, change and have new experiences. We accept that they were true when we took them but that they may not be true any longer. Why is the same leniency not given to writing? There are countless works of art that are not defined by a single object or result but by a changing and inconsistent process. Can a blog of inconsistent and potentially contradictory articles fall into the same category of process as art?

Maybe it can. Maybe it is. Maybe I’m just lying to myself and none of this is an issue for anyone else. We’ll see.

Not all of the articles on his blog will be navel-gazing. There will be opinion pieces, reviews, reports, anecdotes, theories, drafts and final texts for direct and indirect use in my photographic work. I reserve the right to stand by them until I die and I reserve the right to disregard them the next day, all without the over-bearing temptation to censor myself.

I reserve the right to be flakey.