Industrial 3: Post-Industrial Self

Part 2

Loneliness clarifies. Here silence stands
Like heat. Here leaves unnoticed thicken,
Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken,
Luminously-peopled air ascends;
And past the poppies bluish neutral distance
Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach
Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence:
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.

This final stanza from Philip Larkin’s poem Here is one of the most famous descriptions of the psychogeographic affect of living in Hull. Situated at the eastern end of the M62, the city has previously drawn little attention from the rest of the country (except to mock its post-industrial stutterings—and later retractions). Liverpool, at the western end of the motorway, has its own unique version of this phenomenon but Hull has continued to exist in apparent isolation for most of the post-war period. COUM and Throbbing Gristle were one of the few instances of engagement with the negative community of those who too face the sun, untalkative, out of reach.

February 2017:

The COUM retrospective opens to the public. The atmosphere is welcoming, honest and open, but it was still not without its tensions. Prior to the opening weekend, some of the members of COUM had not spoken to each other for decades. There was an air of uncertainty with regards to whether everyone would get along.

Two panel discussions were held over the opening weekend, considering COUM’s legacy. During the first panel with former members of COUM, those gathered were reticent to give the city of Hull any credit for their genesis. COUM could have come into existence anywhere, they said—no doubt trying to offset their inclusion in the City of Culture organisers’ superficial project of city-wide self-esteem boosting. Whilst this may be true, I believe their project of communication was needed in Hull more than elsewhere, even if—at the time—the city was not yet ready to listen. These tensions emerged again during a second panel discussion held later the same day.

“Reading COUM” was convened by the exhibition’s co-curator Andrew Wheatley and it was intended to be a collective reading of COUM’s legacy within the context of the contemporary art world. Chaired by writer and artist Ghislane Leung, the panel also featured writer and editor Paul Buck, editor of Frieze Dan Fox, and writer and former editor of The Wire Anne Hilde Neset. The painfully dry discussion was interrupted by a man who introduced himself only as Brooke. He had once played guitar with COUM, aged 15, he said. His full address to the panel is lost to memory but I particularly remember him shouting, amongst other things: “You hated us, you drove COUM out of Hull … I’m sick of you lot talking a load of posh shite”.

His five-minute tirade decried the panel’s retroactive acceptance of a group that vehemently opposed the kind of reification that this panel represented. The “you”, I assumed, referred more generally to the Big Other of a metropolitan cultural elite. Surprised and no doubt feeling accosted, the panel offered Brooke limp and sarcastic thanks into their microphones as he left the venue. The interruption went unaddressed and I left not long after the panel’s discussion had continued.

It must be noted that Brooke’s outburst was not unexpected. He had previously been vocal during the first panel of the day—a conversation with former COUMers and Luke Turner of The Quietus—hovering at the side of the stage, loudly concurring with the on-stage reminiscing. Whilst some seemed irritated by his participation, everyone knew better than to clarify the delineation between performer and audience at a COUM event, even one so civil as a ticketed panel discussion. His outburst was also not unwarranted. Despite the second panel’s advertised focal point, Paul Buck had onanistically spent most of it talking about himself and little else. Buck was the only panel member present for many of COUM’s actions and he seemed to want to position himself as other to the other contemporary art-world big-shots. Judging by Brooke’s response, his approach lacked any self-awareness to be remotely successful as he spoke unnecessarily at length about his background as part of London’s experimental literature and theatre scenes during the 1960s and ‘70s. Rather than choosing to heckle the panel, other audience members had simply walked out. Brooke took a more COUM-worthy approach (by his own reckoning, at least).

The question of “What is at stake…?” that had, for me at least, orbited the Humber Street exhibition in my primarily academic ruminations became, in that moment, a question of immediate political proximity. The conversation instigated, antagonistically but appropriately, by Brooke was not allowed to continue. His outburst was resolutely ignored. The panel had failed in its attempts to communicate with its audience and it resulted, in that moment, in a breakdown of relations with those that COUM had, at first, often attracted.

On the train back to London the next day, I found myself sat at a table across the aisle from the members of the “Reading COUM” panel. Ghislane offered me a smile of recognition. I smiled back, before opening my laptop to write. I felt frustrated, finding my own silence hypocritical, but who was I to reach out? I thought to myself: if communication is the focus of the exhibition as well as the focus of my writing, then a sensitivity must be given to all these communicative tensions—both in the present and as previously pondered by COUM and Bataille. That is not to say that Brooke’s outburst or my own experiences should function as case studies of the exhibition’s ethical implications but within an exploration of “community” and “communication” it is necessary to allow these interactions to be included in order to preserve the ruptures of “communication” and resist the limiting effect of “discourse”.

Full disclosure:

The first two posts—or versions of them at least—in this series were written earlier this year for my postgraduate degree. My infatuation with COUM and TG—which peaked as a Hull-born teenager feeling like a outsider in an outsider city—was something I had long wanted to write about and this degree seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so.

Having worked in art galleries after completing an undergraduate degree in photography, and soon finding myself working in an art world that had nothing in common with my interests in that particular medium, I decided to undertake a postgraduate degree (still in orbit of the arts) that dealt more explicitly with contemporary philosophy—my other long-term “hobby”. (I was naive to think I might find a community that had shed the art world tensions I had become so rapidly tired of.)

Earlier this year, as a result, I decided to take a module in curating and ethics, somewhat masochistically. From my experience, there was little these two “disciplines” had in common, especially in the world of photography where “journalistic ethics” were too often parroted without any consideration for how oxymoronic that phrase is.

An essay about COUM, on the occasion of their return to Hull (which I had, back in 2013, had a minor role in instigating), felt like one way of exploring a curatorial ethics outside the strictly “curatorial” and “ethical”. It was an exploration that was nevertheless sincere, despite my cynicism. Unfortunately, the problems that arose within the essay were, rather than addressed, unfolded infinitely, echoing around my social circle—and they continue to.

The essay ended, in the midst of what now, reading back, feels like confusion and delusion. Written in the first person, I nevertheless felt like my self was being eroded by an ongoing depression and this was something I had hoped to capture and weave into the essay itself. Drunk, in the downstairs bar of the new Humber Street Gallery, feeling like I was in the eye of a storm of swirling contradictions and tensions, I wrote the following ending to my essay:

I am currently sat in the cafe bar of the Humber Street Gallery. It’s 6.30pm. In an hour I will be next door in Fruit—an independent music venue that opened in 2010. A lot has—quite suddenly—sprung up around it. The City of Culture programme has brought not only the new Humber Street Gallery but a host of trendy bars and restaurants to the street that was, until relatively recently, home to little but abandoned warehouses. From my seat in the bar I can see the numbers “eleven” and “15” hanging over the quiet doorways of what I assume are more soon-to-be restaurants and bars, rendered in shining acrylic plastic and signifying little for the moment. Luxury flats are due to be built somewhere nearby but I’m not sure where exactly. Maybe they’re already here, tucked above the hollow spaces. The area is explicitly unfinished and incomplete but it has already become the hip “place to be”. Gentrification in full swing.

By no means above all this, I am on my second pint of Dark Matter, one of three beers from a presumably local brewery called Atom. All the names relate to science. Quantum State is the name of another. The third, Phobos & Deimos, takes its name from the two moons of Mars; the sons of Ares, the god of war, in Greek Mythology: twin brothers personifying horror. I shared my first pint of Dark Matter with Andrew Wheatley—co-curator of the exhibition. I hope to talk to him about the process of curating the show but he is here this weekend on a “jolly” and I can’t find the right moment. We talk about his next exhibition instead—manuscripts and materials from the archive of the similarly transgressive literary figure Pierre Guyotat.

Having eaten little today the second pint is going to my head. I am left alone as the rest of our disparate group of event participants and their friends go off in search of fish and chips. I try to write seriously on COUM before the evening’s performances, hoping that sitting here with the exhibition situated directly above me will make it easier to write, but the opposite happens as I get closer and closer to the bottom of my glass.

My thoughts keep returning to Bataille’s Guilty:

Drunk, I found myself on the platform for the metro Strasbourg-Saint-Denis not long ago. I wrote on the back of a photograph of a naked woman. Amid the nonsense I wrote: “Not communicating signifies exactly the bloody necessity of communication.” [1]

Right now I feel more of an urge to talk than to write and perhaps that is what Bataille means; needs; wants. I have no photographs to write on, although I have of course taken my own, some of which are presented here. Photographs anchor my personal experiences and yet, in their formal separation from experience itself, eviscerate the “I” in their testimony. A notebook and pen languish in my bag, neglected through my reliance of technology. I am using my laptop right now, but it is cumbersome—perched on this small round table, a pint of beer inches away, its charger is hanging precariously in mid-air plugged into the wall a few feet behind me: an irresponsible setup in my increasingly drunken state. I feel the need to communicate now. The future communication that this essay will enact when it is finished is not enough… 


Cosey is unfortunately too busy to talk to me about my essay. As the release date of her autobiography looms, she is preoccupied with book signings. My essay deadline is at the end of April. She says she would be happy to talk in May. We meet in person for the first time just prior to her performance with Carter Tutti Void. I have been invited backstage by Sophie (an old school friend) and Luke from The Quietus. Sitting across from Cosey, he looks across at me and smiles, unsure of who I am or why I’m there. I introduce myself as she gets ready to go onstage and she thanks me for doing so—we previously engaged in email correspondence, discussing a potential COUM exhibition in late 2013. I tell her I’m writing about this weekend for my degree. Later, after the performance, she comes over and sits next to me. She asks how my research presentation went in class. I say it went fine and then we talk about other things. Someone brings out a birthday cake. The conversations shift and turn as conversations do. We talk some more together and then with others. It’s a lovely, jovial atmosphere and I am so happy to meet everyone. There have been opportunities since to ask Cosey questions but I cringe at the thought of being so self-absorbed. There will be other times in other places. Or perhaps there won’t. I grab another beer from what was once an ice bucket, now just glass bottles struggling to float in cold water.

Later in bed, writing down my thoughts in my notebook, the room spinning around me, I worry that most of conversations had over the weekend were irrelevant to this essay, but it doesn’t matter.

Bataille, again:

I write a book: I have to put my ideas in order. I am diminished in my own eyes, sinking into the details of my task. In discursive form, thought is always attention to one point at the expense of other points, it tears man away from himself, reduces him to a link in the chain that he is. [2]

It is now the morning after the night before. The majority of my essay is unfinished but it nonetheless feels appropriate to write the ending now; to leave it unfinished. My thoughts turn to the potential encounters ahead of me prior to the essay deadline and beyond it. Cosey says she’s sorry that she’s busy before my hand-in. I tell her I’d love to talk in May regardless.

In the end, only chance retains a disarming possibility. [3]

I never did talk to Cosey in May. In the midst of writing my dissertation, I didn’t have the capacity to return to my COUM essay and rectify its failed ending. As I return to it now I think about reaching out… Maybe that can be a future post…

The final feedback on the essay was complimentary, if questioning this ending and suggesting there is far more to a Bataillean ethics than writing drunk. I agree, of course, but still wonder how else it could have ended—at that time, in that moment. I had wanted to emphasise the generosity of others and the way that so much communication is left up to chance—not just practically but consciously (that is to say, tied to the emotions, moods and capacities of subjectivity which, despite our pretensions to the contrary, we seldom seem fully in control of).

Reflecting on these thoughts now, I am in the midst of a more personal crisis of communication. University friendship groups have quickly and traumatically dissolved after the completion of the course. Having spent a whole year thinking through problems of community and communication, ethics and care, and feeling theoretically reassured that this shit is fraught and hard, all of it nonetheless feels like it was for nothing. A desire for longevity is repeatedly met with transitory relationships. I’m thinking a lot about social desires and my fluctuating capacity to sustain them. Now, no doubt coloured by a resultant depressive mood, I feel I have ended the year back where I started: facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.

Questions of blindness have been repeatedly thrown at my feet in recent weeks by those people who I cared for most dearly—without, it must be said, any reciprocal self-awareness. Criticisms of self-absorption and unchecked privilege have thrown a careful orientation towards a fractured but communal self off course, leading to only more self-absorption as I try to take account of my actions and words. “It’s not about you,” I’m repeatedly told, as I stare down a number of fingers pointed in my direction. I know it’s not about me—it never has been—but now, more than ever, I’m left with very little else to go on.

“Not communicating signifies exactly the bloody necessity of communication.”

Bataille’s words resonated strongly back then when circumstances meant communication was constant in its wounding but necessarily so. Somewhere along the way, that communication stopped. Now, a community feels burnt out by communication whilst at the same time stifled by its lack thereof. In attempting to communicate in blog posts, in reading groups, in essays, over beers, over coffee, over joints, over cigarettes, have I communicated too much?

(Please excuse the counter-intuitive soul-searching, but I’m hurting.)

Perhaps I have not been explicit enough, in my actions and my writings, about the struggles of subsuming the self within the collective—speaking of “I” only in an attempt to reach, articulate and then push beyond its limits; in an attempt to inhabit with honesty and sincerity a fundamentally and eternally ungrounded position. It is a struggle that is always only half articulated, just as depersonalised (despite itself) when written down as any other narrative that leaves more room of its reader.

Photographs anchor my personal experiences and yet, in their formal separation from experience itself, eviscerate the “I” in their testimony. 

How to account for the death of the author as an author? Drinking helps.

Is the diaristic “I” really so incompatible with the communal “we”? “I” cannot hope to speak for this “we”, even when we speak together. In trying to attain this “we”, the “I” slips, is sliced. Forgive me for overusing it regardless but sometimes, amongst nightly fantasies of its all-too-physical obliteration, it becomes a compulsion to try to account for it.

Perhaps all that sounds like bullshit. Perhaps, as a result, all I’ve done this year is sound like Paul Buck.

I came across Paul Buck again today—this time in text rather than in person. I went to see Cosey’s solo show at London’s Cabinet Gallery—a collection of her “magazine actions”, framed spreads (pun intended) of her various appearances in pornographic magazines. Here again, that fraught re-emphasis of the self is subsumed by societal (and, somewhere within that signifier, coummunal) morals, agency and ethics. Questions of labour, subjectivity and collective gaze fall over each other: “what happens when acts of (self-) commodification imbricate themselves first as sex and then as art, as different manifestations of goods? Furthermore, how does one define a ‘practice’ within this ramified field—who produces what and what produces who?”

I walk around the exhibition confronted once again with other pornographic articulations of “I”.

Sequence 01.Still001.jpg

Whilst I was there, I picked up the new revised translation of Pierre Guyotat’s Eden, Eden, Eden which features, on its final pages, a post-script by Buck. He writes:

Guyotat wants a directness of language with this work. He wants the exasperation of the reader pushed to their limit. He wants you to know what it is like when there is nowhere else to turn after your very being has been spread wide before you on the table. [4]

Reading Guyotat, the challenge becomes avoiding any subjective exit other than the text itself. This sort of text is, for this reason, deeply attractive to me but I’m not yet in a position to attempt something like it for myself. Again, I wish to better account for the “I” before I abandon it completely. Maybe this is the wrong approach. I’m still working it out.

Prior to reading Buck’s text, it is a preface by Philippe Sollers that resonates most acutely. He writes on Guyotat not in explicit reference to the Marquis de Sade, but in relation to the tumultuous time-periods during which both Sade and Guyotat produced their texts. (Eden, Eden, Eden ends with a time and place: Vitry-sur-Seine, November 1968—April 1969.)

Paris, 1969: the reign of the bourgeoisie, still temporarily dominant, is disintegrating; its ideology is being brought to a close on all sides. Nonetheless, the struggle won’t be less long, less complex. […] [I]n the epigraph [to Sollers’ essay: a quotation from a dated letter by the Marquis de Sade to his wife], 1783 means for us both the invisibility of the bourgeouis revolutionary upheaval and Sade’s confined, indelible writing. But who, at that moment, was present to consider its articulation? No one. [5]

Whilst Sollers seems restrained in his known inability to unravel it—Guyotat’s text is already a hallucinatory attempt at that—he nonetheless picks at the thread of historical materialism that joins Guyotat’s text to Sade’s. Transgressions are not a thread in and of themselves but the circumstances that permit, or at least encourage them, are worthy of contemplation. He continues:

The interweaving of history and writing (and not, in an abstract way, ‘the writing’). Its foundation: historical materialism. Class struggle and sex as common themes allowing us to decipher it. 1869: Lautréamont’s ‘Maldoror’. 1871: The Paris Commune. 1884: ‘Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State’ in which Engels notes: “We are approaching a social revolution, in which the old economic foundations of monogamy will disappear just as surely as those of its complement, prostitution.” This interweaving demands its own science. [6]

No surprise, then, that COUM would come to prominence around the same time. No surprise that, in the locality of Hull, their activities orbited the second of the Cod Wars that occasioned the city’s economic ruin. No surprise the ICA retrospective, Prostitution, took place one year into Margaret Thatcher’s reign as leader of the parliamentary opposition. No surprise that COUM reemerge during Donald Trump’s presidency and Brexit negotiations. Perhaps it is the perpetual crises themselves that are no surprise. So many of us orient ourselves towards collective formations and naively discount the inevitability of social entropy. It’s always someone’s fault, apparently—perhaps sometimes it is just the entropic trajectory of all collectives.

There is likewise something to be said, on reflection, of my undertaking this investigation of COUM in a year marred by collective and personal crises. My narcissistic investigations of subjectivity were surely to be an affront to some in light of the events of this year, regardless of the fact this research proceeded them. This was, however, never meant to be an end point. It has always been framed as a necessary beginning—the only honest beginning—that proceeds to attempt to unground itself.

If I end this post again, talking about myself, that is only because it has become necessary to start again. There is little else available when you reach the shoreline, out of reach. It is an eternal recurrence for the landlocked, the bodylocked, and one that painfully occasions new hopes for an exit.

I’m still looking.

To be continued…

[1] Georges Bataille, Guilty, trans. Stuart Kendall. (New York: SUNY Press, 2011), 22-23

[2]  Georges Bataille, On Nietzsche, trans. Stuart Kendall. (New York: SUNY Press, 2013), 136

[3]  Ibid., 109

[4] Paul Buck in Pierre Guyotat, Eden, Eden, Eden, trans. Graham Fox (London: Vauxhall&Company, 2017), 268

[5] Philippe Sollers in Ibid., 5

[6] Ibid., 6


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