The point being made in that glossed overview — written fervently (and as ever) on my lunch break yesterday — of a year of XF discomfort emanating from a predictable subsection of Facebook leftists, seemingly missed by the critics mentioned in the post themselves, is that their arguments are undermined by their insistence on a bubblewrap of caveats and bad research that hang around them.
More patient readers than I have noted that the most recent article on Metamute, about XF and alienation more broadly, actually has some interesting things to say once you get past the language of “sniff[ing] out the suspect traces” and unfounded accusations of “lively esoteric fascist movement[s]” that make up XF’s still-unravelling genealogy.
In fact, Gleeson’s conclusion, read in isolation, is a good one. She is right to say that “we need to move beyond either accepting [XF’s] terms, or denouncing its corruptions.” “Repair work must begin here”, she says, and that is a sentiment I am happy to get behind.
So why did the article’s beginning only serve to perpetuate the opposite?
I’m reminded of a paragraph in Annie Goh’s critique where she falls into the same hypocrisy, noting how “Mark Fisher heaped praise on the [XF] collective for ‘definitively grasp[ing] feminism back from the […] hands of the moralising-spiteful petit-bourgeoisie’.” Unfortunately, despite this, Goh’s recognisably Goldsmiths variety of squeamishness later takes over.
Because that’s what this is. Sophie Lewis asked from which academic institutions she and the others are supposedly supposed to be boundary policing, presumably because she isn’t officially affiliated with any, but this is precisely where this need to disavow without research came from. It was a paranoia that fell out from Goldsmiths in 2017 and leaked all over the rest of the London Left. Whether affiliated or not, that’s where this came from and it is for those sorts of people that these snide acts of disavowal take place. It is a type of “saving face” that is endemic and petty.
It was following the reemergence of this in Gleeson’s article that the point was made yesterday that, rather than dismiss U/Acc as fascist without evidence, or based on nothing other than the long shadow of Land, why not take a closer look and see what is being done to further interrogate XF’s questions of otherness and alienation in that adjacent discourse? Because there’s plenty going on there.
This isn’t just a tantrum over being sidelined, as Gleeson assumed. It sticks in my craw only partly because I’m proud of this blog’s U/Acc Primer repeatedly finding itself on imageboards, posted by people seeking to counteract the alt-right bastardisation of these discourses that Gleeson lumps us in with. I’d wager that post alone has done more than most articles to turn 4chan shitposters away from violent edgelording and towards an actual engagement with the ideas, but I’m far from the only person writing on these issues. In the aftermath of some atrocious events where accelerationism and its influences have found themselves in very hot water this year, U/Acc writers has done more than any other subsection of people to galvanise debate to the contrary, and its transfeminist contingent is exemplary of this.
Gleeson’s response to this yesterday was that the article wasn’t about U/Acc and XF does its own thing — of course it does — but surely this is still implicitly relevant to the argument she ends on about comradeship, togetherness and repair? Starting off with such an embarrassing misrepresentation of an adjacent discourse is a pretty bad start to that, isn’t it? It begs the question of who it is they want to repair relations with. Their own inner circle? Not a bad place to start but it stinks of London leftist myopia.
This morning on Twitter, Sophie Lewis weighed in with her own weird logic that echoes this as well. She’s friends with Helen Hester, you see, and so she feels emboldened by the fact that “at least one of the authors that are the subjects of the comradely critiques did explicitly regard them as comradely.” But the thoughts of a single individual don’t make for a strong endorsement of comradeship by any measure. (No shade cast on Helen but the argument is dumb all the same.)
This is the issue that seems totally lost on those concerned over the last two days. They betray themselves to be in favour of the Goldsmiths version of comradeship — internally emboldened, critiqued just enough to appear progressive whilst still being run by the same “moralising-spiteful petit-bourgeoisie” that the politics they pay lip service to was meant to unground. The insistence on scattering poorly researched digs at others throughout their texts proves it and the overall conclusions being made here, by Gleeson in particular, deserve far better than that.
I think the most frustrating thing about these successive attempts to disavow XF is that each writer has in turn acted as if they’re throwing down the gauntlet — here are our challenges, now come at us! But, speaking of breakthroughs versus bait, all that is liable to emerge from any of these critiques is a pissing contest.
The question I’d like to ask of these critical trio is: How can you expect anyone to bother addressing any of these arguments when they betray an embarrassing ignorance of their source material? Are you completely unaware of this? If so, what’s the aim here? Just to protect the boundaries of your academic institutions?
The Xenofeminist Manifesto was an attempt to thrown down the cyberfeminist gauntlet in our present era by a loose collection of para-academics and feminists who wanted to shake up contemporary thought. And they did just that, with an array of references and challenges to be built upon.
This is obvious, you’d hope — it’s a manifesto after all: a form that inevitably comes with various problems and demands regarding its unpacking. So simply declaring that its contents aren’t developed enough is a weird approach to take. (I’ve addressed all this before.)
What I’d like to demand, in turn, of these critics is that they at least do the necessary work to understand what it is they’re trying to pick a fight with, because the holes in their research — never mind their reasoning, as highlighted by @qdnoktsqfr and @Josh86480104 — are nothing short of embarrassing.
If they want to introduce some academic and political rigour to the XFM, that means keeping up with the field you want to critique. Instead, each article feels immediately out-dated, taking a five-year-old text at face value, providing — as Sophie Lewis rightly acknowledged — “a paranoid reading” of a text but not its present environment.
Gleeson’s “response” drives all these previous points home. A response is an answer, isn’t it? A response is a reaction. Gleeson’s reaction seems limited to: “here’s what Goh and Lewis said with a few more details”, and these in themselves are further out of date. As S.C. Hickman rhetorically asked: “Anything that doesn’t reduce to 19th Century Marxist thought becomes ‘fascist’? Spoofy world; bogus thought.”
Personally, I’ve struggled to get past the article’s third paragraph, in which Gleeson argues that “since 2015 a furtive network of pseudonymous Twitter accounts and shortlived cultural spaces have arisen to develop ‘unlimited accelerationism’ as a lively esoteric fascist movement (known as ‘u/acc’).”
U/Acc — unconditional (not ‘unlimited’) accelerationism — is an emerging area of thought that has already been thinking about and dealing with the questions that Goh, Lewis and Gleeson throw out from their respective positions as an attempt at some sort of ‘gotcha’ moment. Most memorably, Goh’s critique was that u/acc is an “appropriation of the alien” — ironically whitewashing the Ccru and its influences based on a contemporary perception of contemporary Twitter shitposters.
Her main issue was with the “xeno-” prefix:
The Greek xenos means ‘strange’ or ‘foreign’, and the prefix ‘xeno’ commonly denotes ‘relating to a foreigner or foreigners’. The name ‘xenofeminism’ is one of the first things people often query and I recall an audience question at the book launch regarding the prefix ‘xeno’, in relation to how the collective negotiated any proximity it might therefore seem to have to the commonly associated word ‘xenophobia’. A somewhat awkward answer came back from the collective to the effect that: ‘among us (the authors), some of us are queer, some of us are trans, some of us are mothers […] we are all white and from the Global North.’ Yet, we were assured that the manifesto’s subtitle, ‘a Politics for Alienation’, associated xenofeminism with the notion of ‘alienness’, but not the ‘xeno’ of ‘xenophobia’. … [W]ith xenophobia being a very real and pressing issue in the context of the contemporary resurgence of the far-right, and with the well-known rise of white nationalist and Islamophobic feminisms, to make this immediate equivalence of ‘xeno’ with ‘alienness’ and attempt to fill it with positive rather than negative content, cannot be regarded as straightforward.
Sophie Lewis summarised her questions as: “Xeno for who? Xeno from whose perspective?”
Such is the question inherently asked by accelerationism and unconditional accelerationism most explicitly. The challenge repeatedly put to equivalences of u/acc-adjacent discourses with the acc of the Christchurch shooter is that the latter is precisely the kind of modern subject that u/acc attempts to critique.
More generally, after the left and right accelerationisms of the early 2010s found themselves limited by subjective biases, u/acc emerged to challenge these assumptions (and so did the XFM itself) asking precisely the question of “xeno for who?” Nyx’s gender accelerationism blackpaper had one answer to this — notably absent from all critiques despite being the most well-known continuation of the XF challenge to now.
This is likewise something I explored in depth in this blog’s U/Acc Primer, which I’m proud has become this site’s most viewed post and is frequently shared on imageboards to counter the prevailing alt-right acc appropriation.
XF’s critics are unaware of this, of course. They lump everything in together betraying an total ignorance of their own subject matter. They focus entirely on Nick Land, doing more to limit the perspective of acc-adjacent discourses than the people they supposedly critique. And what’s worse is it’s not like any of this other stuff is hard to find.
It begs the question of who their critiques are for. They only embolden the anti-intellectual, unengaged and clout-seeking. They are preaching to the converted. If they’d like to be taken seriously by those in their crosshairs, maybe even change the minds of those who think xenofeminist is pretty cool, the least anyone such expect is an actual engagement with the arguments on the table, rather than a superficial paranoid appraisal of art world buzzwords.
Do better, then each might get the sort of responses they mistakenly think they deserve.
UPDATE #1: Gleeson has responded to this post with the dismissal that it’s “1100 word blog saying I’m not worth responding to, lol.”
It’s not that I don’t think she shouldn’t be responded to but simply can’t, because the inaccuracies undermine everything she has to say. This post isn’t intended as a response but a nod to everything written since the XFM that extends its questions and has already dealt with many of the badly formed questions posed in her article, as well as Goh’s and Lewis’s.
I share @qdnoktsqfr’s position:
I would have been a full supporter of her comments there, if not for the terrible tribunal-style associationism that holds sway throughout the first half of the article, whatever its retrospective ‘methodological’ justification. 
I no longer have any mercy for this way-too-easy ‘intellectual contamination’ argument. 
UPDATE #2: There was a line in this post that suggested Gleeson was suggesting the XFM had a “transphobic undercurrent”. She has correctly pointed out that this isn’t the case and so it has been removed.
Is she capable of rectifying all the myriad inaccuracies left in her own text?
Typos are not the issue — it’s the dismissal and shadowboxing of a thought, declaring it “a lively esoteric fascist movement”, when in fact already attempts to deal with the challenges she is posing. It is this that undermines the rest of the argument, as it undermines the arguments of all the others. You don’t know who you say is your enemy.
UPDATE #3: An extra something here, in lieu of a Twitter hellthread I don’t have the time for, there’s a short reprisal here that hopefully gets more to the point of what is missed by these bizarre XF articles that can’t help but get digs in about adjacent discourses.
The real opposite of nostalgia is psychedelic, the reverse of remembering is hallucinating…
This line, from Leslie Fiedler’s 1968 book The Return of the Vanishing American, is on my mind constantly at the moment. I’ve been trying to process it and explain — for my own confused self — how and why Fiedler’s dichotomy is nowhere near as clear cut these days. I’m coming back to it again and again in my blog drafts.
Fiedler is talking about nostalgia and hallucination in relation to the New Western or “Acid Western”. For America, the Wild West has always been a genre-space for thinking about itself and its values but, in the 1960s and ’70s, when America seemed to be undergoing a major transformation in consciousness, the standards of the Western did too. They weren’t rememberings of a fictional past anymore but hallucinations of a still-shifting frontier.
It’s hard to see this same process today but I’m certain it’s still out there. We can think about the hauntological musics of Burial, Lee Gamble, The Caretaker and others, with their distinctly oneiric qualities, which aren’t just false memories of music’s past or visions of its degradation in the present but dreams of an emergent new.
I think we have to be more attuned to these dynamics, clouded in the fog of a melancholic present. We might even start with pop that has been through this fog and has produced some very interesting results.
I thought about this when seeing that Frank Ocean’s 2016 album Blonde had topped Pitchfork‘s recent Best Albums of the 2010s list.
For Doreen St. Félix, who reviews the album for the list, Ocean captures “the whiplash experience of being young” in the United States today. The album’s “slight touches of distortion … call attention to impermanence, the trap of artifice, and, distantly, death.” But it’s not melancholic or nostalgic about moments past. She continues that, for Ocean, perhaps “the whole point of existence is that a dark musing on morality can — and should — be interrupted by soft flesh, a sticky plant, a designer shirt.”
What St. Félix taps into here, I think, is the missed meaning of a track like“Nikes”, most explicitly — a song about a grief for the future.
More often than not — at least according to Genius — “Nikes” is interpreted as a critique of materialism but I don’t see it that way. It’s about our pervasive hunger for the new. New sneakers. New art. New talent. But artists are not as disposal as merchandise. Or, at least, they shouldn’t be. Nevertheless, it’s a desire built — materialistically — into the culture, but it’s a culture in which the youth is also dying. The roll call of RIPs is contrasted, later, by the declaration that: “We gon’ see the future first / Living so the last night feels like a past life.”
It’s a theme that continues on my favourite track from the album, “Nights”. A line like “Did you call me from a séance? / You are from my past life” slides into talk of quaaludes, new beginnings and cheap marijuana vacations. Hauntings and hallucinations slide past each other and confuse present perspectives.
It’s gothic, almost by definition. As we, in the present, shift into a new temporality, both past and future are disturbed. Frank Ocean, on Blonde, seems disorientated by the whole thing, even whilst assured of his necessary direction.
The entire album is underpinned by this melancholic psychedelia and this “whiplash experience” that I think defines contemporary culture at large — I might write about my personal favourite example of this from the last decade at a later date — but I also think it’s so frequently misunderstood.
There’s an excellent example of how it is misunderstood to be found elsewhere on Pitchfork today, in an article about Ocean’s attempt to open up a queer-conscious club night in New York.
Prior examples of cultural whiplash — related to the building of a future whilst you watch it die around you — are evidently not lost on Frank Ocean and so, to me, if any megastar was to open up a club night for a queer cause, he’s it. But he was also bound to ruffle some feathers — these things always do.
Jesse Dorris’s review of the night for Pitchfork seems conflicted about this and it is a review that I think is suffering from whiplash itself. He introduces the night as follows:
Imagine if in 1985, instead of acknowledging the existence of AIDS for the first time, President Reagan had announced the discovery of the preventative drug PrEP. Imagine if, as a result of taking it, many of the greatest artists of the late 20th century had lived to see the new millennium. […]
A press release announced that the events would pay “homage to what could have been of the 1980s NYC club scene if the drug … had been invented in that era.” […] Would Ocean’s party be an orgy … where PrEP was sold at the bar instead of vodka sodas, on the dancefloor instead of MDMA? Would he perform, surrounded by survivors of the plague years? Would there be merch?
The answer to all this was no. The reality was, he asked some people to play some music in the basement of the Knockdown Center, a snazzy Queens venue-compound just north of Bushwick. If you had to ask how to get a ticket, you weren’t getting one.
After reviewing a night that — albeit exclusive — sounds like an amazing time, with appearances from Ocean himself and UK queen of jungle Sherelle, Dorris pulls back. French duo Justice headlining the night seems to undo everything that came before them. He continues:
Today, responding to suspicion of the motives and funding for the PrEP+ party, Ocean posted on Tumblr, criticizing the pricing and lack of awareness of the drug. “I’m an artist, it’s core to my job to imagine realities that don’t necessarily exist and it’s a joy to,” he wrote. But hundreds of thousands of visionary queers and weirdo prodigies and casual romancers and hunks and femmes and dykes and people trapped in the closet and those who could never even fit inside one didn’t die just so we could stand at an exclusive party and listen to straight people play Buffalo Springfield. The living, and the dead, deserve better.
Whatever you think of Justice, I don’t get the negativity here. I can’t think of a better person to represent the future of queer DJ culture than Sherelle who has blown up here since her Boiler Room set from earlier in the year went viral. Seeing her invited to the US by someone like Ocean provokes a distinct sense of pride in what this country has been doing recently. And, of course, Ocean himself being present as perhaps the biggest openly queer person in hip hop doesn’t hurt.
Surely, for the most part, this is better than what the 1980s had in terms of representation, collective consciousness and hope? Let’s not forget that nights at the Loft were often exclusive and, shy of raising the dead, at least Ocean put a sexual crisis at the night’s heart rather than replicate the Madonna zones that DJ Sprinkles once called “the decontextualized, reified, corporatized, liberalized, neutralized, asexualized, re-genderized pop reflection of this dance floor’s reality!”
Perhaps Ocean’s night wasn’t a complete rebuttal of that old critique but, with that kind of dancefloor in mind, Pitchfork seems like a pretty fragile-looking glass house from which to throw stones about not doing subcultures justice (no pun intended).
But this post isn’t some Frank Ocean defence that no one asked for. I wasn’t there and it’s not like I even knew about this party until the backlash, but Ocean’s own defence does seem to encapsulate the problematics of our present moment perfectly. We need artists “to imagine realities that don’t necessarily exist” and find the joy in process.
We are trapped in a moment of psychedelic nostalgia where politics in particular is determined by a cooked-up nostalgia for a time that never was. On Blonde, Ocean instead mourned lost futures and he did so beautifully, but not every hallucination of a lost future has to be so haunted, does it? Ocean’s night may not wholly live up to the contentious political standards of the present but also it seems that, in this specific case, it was incapable of living up to the expectations of an non-existent past also. And I find that an odd thing to be mad about.
A night about the past that celebrates the present and future is precisely the sort of approach we need, and it certainly sounds better than Dorris’s opening predictions. PrEP orgy with “plague survivors” and merch sounds like a late capitalist horror show. That’s the worst to be expected, surely? How can anyone be disappointed by “he asked some people to play some music”? Collective joy in the orbit of a drug like PrEP seems like as good a night as any.
What’s ironic about this, of course, is that Ocean seems to be attempting an escape from the deadlock of the decade that Pitchfork thinks he has defined. I reckon it’d be better for all of us and the decade ahead if they’d just let him.
Where to start with a night like last night at the Barbican?
“This is totally normal” was Aya’s comment as she made her way onto the stage to begin proceedings for a night that could not have been more perfectly ill-fitting for the Barbican’s main hall. For anyone who had any inkling of what they were in for, “normal” got checked in at the cloak room downstairs. This was going to be something else.
Anyone who has seen Aya perform before will be familiar with her open commentary on her performances. She treats the DJ booth like an MC treats their trestle table down your local pub’s queer karaoke night — and I must emphasise that this is a very welcome addition to any occasion.
In a small space like a bar or club, this makes perfect sense. Aya creates an atmosphere that is immediately communal. She is effortlessly entertaining. She runs the show but all whilst letting us in on what she’s doing. In the Barbican, I was anxious to see how this would translate. Her approach is familiar but also challenges whatever space she is performing in. Even the Barbican? Even the Barbican. It’s like when Wolfgang Tillmans won the Turner Prize — I’m not sure why this is the reference that comes to mind but it’s early in the morning and, to be honest, Aya has left a thousand things flying around my skull overnight. She turns a DJ set into a tombola of affects. It’s surreal to see life documented in this way, so frankly and so irreverently in spaces of high cultural capital, and it calls into question what is normal and what is radical, challenging perceptions of what can take place in bedrooms and clubs and concert halls, turning all spaces and their temporalities on their heads.
There was an interview I remember reading with Mark Fell once where he commented on why he wore a flat cap and backpack whilst doing a Boiler Room night: to give the impression to all the loitering cool kids behind him that this dog walker couldn’t stay long, sorry, but thanks. It’s a brand of Northern irreverence that always goes down well with me but is too often absent from our main cultural spaces. The first season of Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK comes to mind, critiqued repeatedly for sanitising a UK drag scene that is a lot edgier than the BBC and Ru Paul’s American formatting is capable of representing. Aya’s style of performance is like this. Brazenly endearing. Cheeky and caring. Criminally underrepresented. As such, she insists on making an impression. It is a way of performing that pulls people in, making you feel welcome, in on the joke, and part of an intimate experience.
It is a testament to Aya’s chops that this sort of approach carries over into a space as large as the Barbican’s main hall.
At first, walking out onto the stage, the self-deprecation started almost immediately, as she took her position on stage behind a heavily stickered laptop, calling out to the sound guy about a dodgy RCA cable, wryly commenting “it’s all part of the show, folks — I’ll buy you a drink after if you help me out”. There was an anxiety underpinning the whole affair and at first I wondered how she would win over this unusually (for her) seated crowd. But Aya brought us into her sphere soon enough.
Interestingly, despite the insane size of the venue, her performance that evening felt even more intimate than usual.
Previously, Aya’s sets have always felt self-reflective and in-the-moment, commenting on her performance as she goes, praising and deriding herself with a self-criticality that, rather than undermining what she does, only helps to suspend her audience’s sense of judgement and open themselves up to the new. This was all the more necessary on Wednesday as her set took an even deeper look into her process — of music making and being, of gender and artistic transition — than any previous performance of hers that I’ve seen.
She is a singular artist who nonetheless wants to share herself openly. There is no cloistered and protective reflex regarding her own scenic novelty. She makes the gaps in dance music’s mainstream more apparent by filling them entirely and it makes her openness on stage breathtaking. At first presenting herself as if picking tracks and A/V works from a sonic scrapbook before laying herself completely bare before an audience already in the palm of her hand as her folded skin and ball sack streams past on the enormous projection screen behind her, reciting poems, lip-syncing to Lady Sovereign edits and with a Pulp Fiction-sampling skit about “deconstructed club” thrown in for good measure.
Later, the word “unseen” dominates the screen and her vocal track. It’s hard to know what this is referring to — is there anything left unseen? It doesn’t feel like it. But, in truth, there always is. As Aya scrapes off her makeup, which has contorted her face into a Gazelle Twin-esque goblin visage, inner experience is loud in its absence. Aya has brought us together in her stand-offish vulnerability but there is so much left unsaid. In a space this large, that is obvious. She may have been successful in reducing the size of the hall, bringing us in close, but in the end we’re left all the more aware of the distance between ourselves, and left with the challenge to sustain the intimacy she has demonstrated to us once its all over.
It’s an inspired strategy. As she walks off stage and the hall returns to its normal size, the desire to remain down Aya’s rabbit hole is palpable. (An analogy that feels unavoidably sexual in the context of this performance but that’s fine.) She ends by reciting a poem on gender dysphoria and bathroom politics and the alienating inner experience of our split selves but after 40 minutes of collective joy the distance between inner and collective experience seems marginal. She leaves open a space of infinite possibilities.
As the supporting act, Aya set the stage perfectly for what is to come.
In watching Holly Herndon and her ensemble walk across the stage after an interval — during which I saw so many familiar faces and friends: it truly felt like everyone in that theatre already knew each other — Aya still reverberating in my ears, I was reminded of Pepper Labeija in Paris is Burning describing the house scene in the 1980s, explaining how a house is like a family for people who don’t have families. A different sort of family. Not a nuclear family but a grouping of “people in a mutual bond.”
Aya’s shape-throwing and on-stage sensibilities are only a short distance from this much-adored subculture but the Herndon ensemble were a welcome contrast to Aya’s solitary performance. What she left open was occupied by this group of seven who embody those nascent possibilities so absolutely — on and off stage.
And yet, watching the Herndon ensemble almost feels voyeuristic. It is immediately clear that on stage is not a band but a family and we’ve all gathered to watch them hang out.
Soon enough, though, they welcome us into the fold as well. Watching Mat Dryhurst in particular, dressed in all black, in stark contrast to the rest of the ensemble’s “technofishwife cyber-Amish electroecclesiastical Hildegardian Mad Max babushkacore” (as Sarah Shin magnificently put it), he stands out, visibly ecstatic to be there and documenting everything like a proud Dad, lurking in the background, vaping and photographing and grinning ear to ear. You immediately feel like you are watching something special — for us and for them.
Colin Self is also a stand out presence within the group, their physical affection for the rest of the ensemble leaking out from the stage.
Sharing a cuddle with different members of the group during the intervals between full ensemble performances is so touching to see. Between songs, where each singer seemingly has their mark, they are quick to dismantle the structured professionalism of a well-rehearsed performance.
And it is well-rehearsed. They demonstrate a collective voice like no other. Each of the voices on stage is a powerhouse in their own right but it is frequently difficult to distinguish what sounds are coming from which person, and which are coming from or being processed by the laptops behind them. They are one and they are many.
Later, when members of London Sacred Harp choir are revealed to be scattered around the audience to take part in one choral piece, the desire to just hug the person next to me became quite hard to ignore. (I resisted.)
Later Holly asks if we will all join Colin in a “call and response” exercise — or “Colin response”, as they put it — so that Herndon’s AI baby Spawn can make an aural map of the audience. She doesn’t have to ask us twice. Everyone around me sings and it is beautiful. I don’t hear a single bum note in the house. Spawn may absorb our voices to map us but we have already absorbed the group on stage and are ready to sing back to them with relish.
It is a show full of details and set pieces. There is a temptation to comment on them all in turn, but it is the overall feeling with which the show left its audience that feels the most important and most difficult thing to define.
After the show, my friend Col Self — her shared name with Colin was an immediate topic of conversation — who I had not seen properly for almost a year, saw me from across the Barbican’s foyer space and launched immediately into a hug. It was the most obvious greeting after an experience such as that.
We went for drinks afterwards in a bar down the road and our conversation turned to magic, “the poetics of the occult”, ritual, the power of radical anti-capitalist unreason in the 21st century, and talk of projects and collaborations abound from there. There was a sense that everyone was deeply inspired by what they’d seen: to hang out, create and be together.
I was reminded of an old essay I wrote for school back in late 2016, “Monastic Vampirism” — an attempt to explore the gothic potentials found within monastic practices, drawing on Giorgio Agamben’s research that suggests early monasteries, before being subsumed into the Catholic Church as a globe-trotting institution, were proto-communist before their forced democratisation.
Herndon’s ensemble does not chime with the gothic image painted previously but they nonetheless seem to be drawing on a rich history of communal ways of life. This sort of thing is often spoken about in the past tense, as a by-gone and extinct way of being, practised only by neofeudalist hippies or anarcho-primitivists, but the ensemble are evidently aiming for something very different to the ways of old.
Leslie Fielder once argues that psychedelia — rather than being a bright, vibrant, tripped-out aesthetic — is instead the opposite of nostalgia. In our present moment, capitalist realism has reduced all alternative ways of life to nostalgic dreams of simpler times but the radicality of the Herndon ensemble’s presentation is that their way of living is adamantly future-oriented. Its nods to past forms feel like nods to the choral ensembles that Herndon has long been fascinated by, a reference to history that is not allowed to languish in the past. Song is inherently communal. Too often the hierarchy of performer and audience makes us forget this. But this is not a reminder — it’s a dream of future versions of ourselves that sing to love and heal.
As our conversation in the pub continued on, Col would insist she wasn’t high, despite her sudden enthusiasm for life, but the show itself was intoxicating. It is an acid monasticism, hallucinating new ways of communal existence, beyond the realms of capitalist normality, that can adapt to the technologies of the present and future.
Before heading home our conversation turned to Extinction Rebellion and the question of why this movement has caught on and changed the conversation but Occupy did not, despite its hype.
“There’s such a thing as the right idea at the wrong time”, said @body_drift, who I was also so happy to see. And that’s certainly true. The immanent threat of the climate emergency is hard to ignore but beyond its strong nostalgic undercurrent of hippie organising there is a sense that we are going through a shift in consciousness that is incredibly timely.
We talked about Ballard’s Drowned World and Kerans’ feeling that he’s not showing the early signs of mental illness but of a cognitive transformation for a new world around him. For him, however, this is brought on by an already irreversible climate disaster. For us, it feels different. The threat is making us prepare ourselves for something new, ahead of time.
This is to say that protesting within the bounds of the system in order to change it is one thing but the work of Holly Herndon and her crew seems to represent something else — something outside the headline-grabbing but nonetheless necessary organising; something that is in tune with the same affects that are fuelling XR’s movement but channelling them into alternative forms of life. This is to say that they represent a kind of mutual bond that is beyond street protest, that is more immediately domestic and attainable, that is already in reach and necessary to replicate. It skewers what Mark Fisher called capitalism’s “mandatory individualism” as one of the major mental obstacles to the futures we desire and it gives us a glimpse of a future that it is hard not to want once it has been demonstrated before us. It’s the sort of life-affirming performance that makes you want to hold all your friends and loved ones at once.
Beyond the songs and the spectacle, that is what I am left with after seeing this tour. The harmony of collective experience, nature and technology in productive harmony. Not just on stage but as a challenge for us afterwards. This tour is something to carry with you. The performance itself feels like only half the story.
Art Under the Influence will consider the role of art in tackling the climate emergency. To what extent is art capable of raising consciousness of sociopolitical issues? Can art influence popular opinion from the ground up or is it too heavily influenced by institutions that are a part of the problem? Is art politically galvanising for its audiences or is it little more than a beautiful intoxicant that makes us feel good in the midst of our contemporary chaos?
I enjoyed the new Netflix horror film In the Tall Grass, watched in chunks over the last week, despite all its flaws.
I live for Netflix in October. And other streaming services too. Horror content is inbound. Might need to renew my Shudder subscription just for this month too.
[Spoilers ahead, obviously.]
In the Tall Grass is part Triangle, part Children of the Corn, with a heavy dose of megalithic astrohorror. The main thing I liked about it was the film’s villain, Ross, played by Patrick Wilson, a real estate agent who gets possessed by dark powers emanating from a megalith in the middle of a field of grass from which the cast cannot escape.
It’s an interesting twist on the old racially insensitive trope of the American landscape and its native occupants having their revenge on those who build on their burial grounds. The film’s templexity undoes this, describing a force far older than any of us, but makes capitalist property rights a kind of insidious infection that rises out from the ground beneath our feet.
Is this the latent horror of the first agricultural revolution?
There are subtle hints towards this throughout the film, such as Ross warning his son against running into the grass because it’s “private property”, but everything comes to ahead in orbit of Becky, a pregnant woman caught between her weedy but overbearing brother who seems to have incestuous desires for her, her handsome but unreliable rock star ex who is allergic to responsibility but eventually realises he might want to start a family after all, the creepy young Tobin for whom she becomes a surrogate mother, and her own pregnant body that is working violently against her.
Becky struggles to assert her own autonomy against her social situation and nature itself — be that her own individual autonomy or the autonomy of the world as it exists around her, each always already plugged into the other.
Of course, in the end, the film bails on its own intriguing grassy entanglement. Escaping from the field through a tunnel that leads to a church, Future Tobin stops Past Becky and her brother from entering the field in the first. This strange encounter with the child seems to make her realise that she shouldn’t give up her baby, but her ex — the father? — is still somehow trapped dead within the field where he first went to try and save her.
He becomes the ultimate victim — a victim of his own social elusiveness. Becky, on the other hand, is saved. She does the right thing — reaffirming her property rights, making her claim to the estate of the Real…