Diane Torr, 1948-2017: a spotlight on performance


The death of Diane Torr, the performance artist whose work did so much to highlight the gender performativity, has been announced. According to her website, Torr died in Scotland on 31 May. She had been suffering from a brain tumour.

At the present time, gender and its performance (in whatever arenas by whatever methods) is never far from the media eye, so it’s easy to either forget or overlook just how pioneering Torr’s works actually were. In 1996, when I interviewed her as part of a small feature on gender for the New Statesman, a greater discussion and exploration of  what we might loosely call gender fluidity was only just coming out of the universities – and this the legacy of Judith Butler’s groundbreaking Gender Trouble (1990). Torr’s drag king workshops were playful and political – she pulled in people who were seriously curious about presence and power. I didn’t take one, but I do remember her saying, in one of the sections of our interview that I didn’t use, that dressing up was one thing, but acting the part was something else. Until one gets a handle on the power that gender triggers and figures out how to lever it, then clothes are just clothes and a moustache just a moustache.


Ps The photo used in the NS article does not show Diane Torr. It’s a photo taken in a drag king club in the mid-1990s by Gordon Rainsford.


The power of (the refusal of) words

coverWhat’s the best way to make narcissists unhappy? Guy Blakeslee, the Los Angeles-based musician behind the band, Entrance, thinks it’s to refuse to pay them any attention. Which is just what his powerful “Not Gonna Say Your Name” invites us to do.

Rush-released to be ready for this week’s inaugural farce in Washington, DC, Blakeslee is donating all proceeds from “Not Gonna Say Your Name” to Planned Parenthood, something that will go down splendidly with the incoming US president and his henchmen. The song costs $0.99 and it’s available from all the standard download sites, including iTunes and Thrill Jockey, Entrance’s label.  (UK people: buy now before the pound falls any lower!) Couched in neo-folky choruses, apocalyptic references to the “great storm coming”, rousing verses and wrapped in a cover that represents the latest adaptation of Jamie Reid’s iconic punk image, Blakeslee has penned a damned fine protest song that deserves to become an anthem of the movement against the Orange Id. The temptation for many of us, I know, is to go into an internal exile of extended mourning for the next four years, but that really can’t be an option for the world. This catastrophe is bigger than one that pertains only to the US.

Sing this song loud and sing it often. And wouldn’t it be nice to see this song topping the download charts this week? Let’s get some momentum going.


Download options


Thrill Jockey direct: http://thrilljockey.com/products/not-gonna-say-your-name

Spotify direct link : https://open.spotify.com/album/250HKscog2CVeEz9L2XJBg

Amazon: http://a.co/ehchBsb

Apple Music: https://itun.es/us/L0ckhb

iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/not-gonna-say-your-name-single/id1193815333


Me on Pauline Oliveros, BBC Radio 4, Last Word (23 December 2016)

I’m grateful to Radio 4’s great weekly show, Last Word, giving me a slot to talk about Pauline Oliveros, her life, work and legacy. My item was broadcast on 23 December. You can hear it here on the BBC Radio 4 website: http://bbc.in/2hxZTtj

My item — the last five minutes of the programme –- was recorded in early December, but it took a few weeks to get onto the schedule. Pauline is in some good company here: Rabbi Lionel Blue was a wonderful humanitarian, too.


The what-ifs of history: Alison Knowles, Pauline Oliveros and Beethoven

A link to an online article that I have written for The Wire (online edition) on how fictional history is a way of exposing the gaps in ‘real’ history.



Pauline Oliveros, 1932-2016

Pauline Oliveros – artist, friend to so many, composer, listener, humanitarian – died yesterday at her home in New York state on Thanksgiving morning. Ione, her wife and partner in so many enterprises, including Pauline’s career-long Deep Listening practice, posted the news on Facebook and tributes are pouring in, as well they should, for Pauline was a person who changed worlds and was someone who changed the musical world. This is not hyperbole.

Many will talk about Pauline’s work – at the San Francisco Tape Center in the 1960s, with Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender, as an educator at Mills College and elsewhere, as a truly radical composer who put listening at the centre of of all her work. I’ll write more about her soon.

For now, an anecdote from June 2016. Pauline was the invited composer to the Deep Minimalism festival in London, organised by the Southbank Centre at St John’s, Smith Square, a church just yards away from the Houses of Parliament. This photo was taken on 24 June, the day of the UK’s European referendum. I’ve got my ‘Remain’ sticker on. To say that that the political campaign around the Referendum had been vicious is an understatement. It was against this backdrop that we met. As Pauline and I finished talking, we looked out of the restaurant window to see a big lorry with a Brexit slogan – INDEPENDENCE DAY – on it. “Huh!” said Pauline.  She had just given me a set of activist postcards she had produced into nearly 1970s: the one that I am holding shows a young Pauline on one side of the picture; she has her toy dagger. On the other side is the artist Alison Knowles as a very scowly baby. “Brahms was a Two-Penny Harlot” reads the caption: Pauline had produced these cards as a playful tilting at the canon of heroic male composers who formed the diet of – just about all of us – for so long.  Another postcard in the series has the title “Beethoven was a Lesbian”. Why not? Pauline understood that official history could close down unofficial histories.

The Deep Minimalism festival opened almost as soon as the referendum results were in. Millions in the UK and around the world were shocked at the vote to leave the EU and Westminster was a scene of political mayhem. To lie on mats in St John’s listening to music by Éliane Radigue, Laurie Spiegel and Pauline was always going to be a good experience but, at this point in history, it was amazingly special. On the last day of the festival, Oliveros led the entire hall – some 400 people – in her Tuning Meditation, in which people sing out tones and pick out the tones of those who surround them. As pandemonium reigned outside, she had us listen to one another, to create a community of listening. Never has this been more needed. Bye-bye, Butterfly.

An afterthought: Pauline understood the importance of archives and understood that she was important enough to have an archive. Which is why she continually wrote papers, lectures, books, gave talks, taught generations of composers and musicians, delivered workshops, uploaded papers to Academia.edu. This isn’t anything to do with an overweening pride on her part – she was a humble person, self-deprecating and deeply funny – but an understanding that if the records aren’t there, then you won’t be in the future. This is hugely important. Artists, women, musicians, composers: get your papers in order now.

http://paulineoliveros.us and https://youtu.be/_QHfOuRrJB8


Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Skeleton Tree in The Wire (#393, Nov 2016)

ce48bf38-c6fe-457b-b338-e82671b5de8cMy review of Skeleton Tree (Bad Seeds Records Ltd), the new album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, is in the latest issue of The Wire (Nov 2016).  Here is its cover with the great Shirley Collins as the lead feature. I can’t link to my Cave review here, but suffice to say, it’s an astounding collection of songs: a work of life built out of mourning. I’ve been writing about Nick Cave’s work for nearly 25 years and this album has been the starkest one yet.



David Bowie 1947-2016


In 1973, I – with two schoolfriends – took a day off from our Suffolk school to see David Bowie play at the Norwich Theatre Royal. It was the Aladdin Sane tour and he, with the Spiders from Mars, were doing two shows. We caught the first, early evening one: after all, it was over 60 miles back home to Suffolk and school couldn’t be avoided the next day. That first experience of seeing Bowie live on stage still resonates.

This gig was a year after the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and its single, “Starman”. The Aladdin Sane tour itself would end in a wildly strange and urgent way a few weeks after my Norwich experience, when Bowie announced the end of Ziggy at Hammersmith Odeon at the performance on 3 July. That was captured in all its darkness by D.A. Pennebaker’s film. (A darkness that, incidentally, artist duo Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard attempted to recapitulate in 1998 in A Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide, a performance re-enactment.) In print, the intensity of some of the fantasies that Bowie trigged in his audience was expressed best by Fred and Judy Vermorel’s Starlust (1985), a book that captures the unnavigable emotional violence of fandom like no other text before or after.

Like millions of others, I saw Bowie first playing “Starman” in 1972 on Top of The Pops on BBC1. A million sitting rooms across Britain were never the same after that transmission of a promise that offered such wild and intoxicating difference. It is not surprising that so many of my generation date a profound awakening, a radical call to expression, to this performance.

It’s tempting to say that that “Starman” performance inserted a kind of queerness into mainstream culture. It did, but it was not alone in its action. It was part of a momentum that expressed this. Roxy Music – and especially its disturbing and distracting figure of Brian Eno – did this too, at a time exactly contemporaneous with the manifestation of Ziggy Stardust. Bob Fosse’s brilliant adaptation of Kander and Ebb’s late Weimar-era musical, Cabaret (1972), is very much part of the picture in its seductive stylisation of power and performance. The original stagings of Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Picture Show in the early 1970s also fit the period in its linking of the underbellies of underground cultures.People nicked Sally Bowles’s phrase, “divine decadence”, as a kind of cultural shorthand to talk about all this, but looking back now, whatever was going on wasn’t the implosion that characterises decadence but something at the other end of the scale.

But Bowie, in those pre-internet days, was the beginning of an education. I bought the Velvet Underground LPs because he mentioned them and spent hours trying and beginning to understand them; I looked for Jacques Brel. Words that I found out came from Buddhist teachings lead to books on Tibetan Buddhism He mentioned Nietzsche – I read Nietzsche; ditto Warhol, ditto so much other stuff.  The libraries, record shops and bookshops of Suffolk were scoured. Brian Eno got tangled up in this for me, and by the time of his Obscure record series, he and Bowie were meshed together for me. Such was the nature of self-directed research.

I mourn him, like millions. But I also celebrate the synaptic connections that he inspired me to begin to explore. May everyone, everywhere, have their own Bowie.



Deep listening with Éliane Radigue

Éliane Radigue and me, November 2015

Éliane Radigue and me, November 2015

Last week, I was privileged to be granted an interview with the truly exceptional composer Éliane Radigue at her home in Paris. The interview will be written up for my research project, currently underway at CRiSAP, at the University of the Arts London. It will eventually be available to all researchers who visit the Her Noise archives at the London College of Communication. Other interviews will include Ellen Fullman, Laurie Anderson, Annea Lockwood, Laurie Spiegel and the mighty Pauline Oliveros herself, whose life work has been the development of the Deep Listening practice.

I’ve done lots of interviews in my years as a journalist, but there aren’t many where I’ve felt that a real meeting took place. This was one. Once it was over, Éliane said, “Take a selfie!” So we did. (Thank you, Catherine Facerias, for the nice photo.) We also got to play with her very nice ginger cat.

There’s a very nice film of Radigue by Anaïs Prosaic (link below). Her 65-minute  L’écoute virtuose (Virtuoso Listening) was made a few years ago after the composer was in London for the superb Triptych: The Music of Éliane Radigue, a 15-night series of concerts organised by British new music champions Sound and Music in June 2011. I attended an evening of early feedback and loop pieces at St Stephen’s Walbrook in the City. It consisted of seven Radigue works composed between 1969-70, which were originally created for gallery installation. This was work that predates Radigue’s radical work with the ARP 2500 synthesiser, an instrument she used until quite recently. Nevertheless, the seeds of her later work are al here in their slow, minutely changing timbres, shapes and colours. It was an occasion for deep listening (pace Oliveros) as well as deep looking as the evening shadows lengthened and the interior of the church descended from light to dusk to darkness.

Anaïs Prosaïc’s 65-minute  L’écoute virtuose is also available on DVD with English subtitles.


For the background of Triptych: http://www.soundandmusic.org/projects/triptych-music-eliane-radigue/talks

And a nice interview (in French) between Radigue and Hans-Ulrich Obrist at the Foundation Cartier is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l6gncKkp34E

Keep an eye on the schedule of Sound and Music, too. There are always some exciting curatorial programmes and commissions going on: http://www.soundandmusic.org

Laurie Anderson – a dance party from the archives of yesteryear

el's archive 1 front

Thank you, Élisabeth Lebovici, for sharing this flyer from your personal archive! Elisabeth’s always fantastic writing on art history can be found here – http://le-beau-vice.blogspot.fr – and at many other outlets.

My review of Laurie Anderson’s beautiful and profound Heart of a Dog (2015), her first film since Home of the Brave in 1986, is in the November 2015 issue of The Wire (no. 381).


el's archive 2 back

Ceci n’est pas une pipe: art history with Alice Anderson

Alice Anderson, pipe, Memory Movement Memory Objects

Alice Anderson, pipe, Memory Movement Memory Objects

What is it about Magritte’s pipe? And what has it to do with Alice Anderson, whose extraordinary new solo show at London’s Wellcome Collection (22 July to 18 October 2015) revisits what Magritte referred to as “the treason of images”, the original title of his late 1920s painting of a pipe? The answer lies in the game of representation. Just as the surrealist pipe wasn’t the object it purported to be, so Anderson’s mummified objects are no longer the objects they once were. In Memory Movement Memory Objects, Anderson has taken all kinds of objects – a canoe, guitars, shelves, children’s toys, recently extinct technological devices – and, with the help of members of her Travelling Studio, encased them meticulously, mercilessly, in a copper/elastic thread, as brilliant and flame-coloured as her own hair. In the darkened spaces of the Wellcome’s galleries, the objects glisten like treasures in an Egyptian tomb. Platonic, geometric shapes – spheres, cones, cubes – are here, too. In more senses than one, Memory Movement Memory Objects is a return to form. It’s an exhibition that looks back as well as forwards as the objects assume multiple characteristics: they are presences and absences, ritualised forms and performed objects. One of the uncanniest moments comes in the form of the wrapped hi-fi speakers that still broadcast the club music that Anderson heard them playing when she bought them. The music has been commodified as an intrinsic aspect of the speaker – and then entombed. The thump-thump-thump of the beat is a something knocking to get out.

Alice Anderson, record Player, Memory Movement Memory Objects

Alice Anderson, record Player, Memory Movement Memory Objects

Many of the objects here are on the edge of memory – the record player, the Walkman, the Blackberry phone. And it’s memory, and the ambivalence surrounding it, that activates this exhibition so well. This is a process that’s run through much of Anderson’s work – from the 2011 wrapping of the Freud Museum in London, to the dolls, red-haired like their artist, that often peopled her earlier work as she negotiated the – Kleinian – phantastical  palate of the transitional object. More recently, this play of memory and the object has been translated into an engagement with form. I like to think that the 20-foot high Monolith that Anderson created in 2011 for the contemporary art section of the Latitude Festival (which I curated, alongside Ben Borthwick and Anne Hilde Neset), was, in some way, a significant transition work.

Alice Anderson, Monolith (2011)

Alice Anderson, Monolith, Latitude Festival, 2011

Memory, as Anderson acknowledges, is an unreliable process. We will soon forget what a phone box looks like – maybe the experience of its wrapped shape will help remind us of it. Which is where the social nature of the exhibition kicks in. Each object is result of performed work, sometimes the result of hundreds of hours of many people’s work. It’s going to take a long time to cover up the shell of the 1967 Mustang that’s in the gallery. However – and I speak from the experience of spending an hour with it and my own bobbin of thread – it’s a strangely rewarding and contemplative thing to do.

© Alice Anderson 2015

© Alice Anderson 2015

From July 2015 Wellcome Collection presents a major exhibition of works by artist Alice Anderson: ‘Memory Movement Memory Objects’. Anderson’s sculptures are entirely mummified in copper thread, creating glistening landscapes of beautiful, uncanny and transformed objects. Each piece is an exploration and act of memory. London 2015 © Wellcome Collection

From July 2015 Wellcome Collection presents a major exhibition of works by artist Alice Anderson: ‘Memory Movement Memory Objects’. Anderson’s sculptures are entirely mummified in copper thread, creating glistening landscapes of beautiful, uncanny and transformed objects. Each piece is an exploration and act of memory. London 2015
© Wellcome Collection

Alice Anderson http://www.alice-anderson.org Memory Movement Memory Objects, Wellcome Collection, London (to 18 October 2015) http://wellcomecollection.org/aliceanderson Data Space, Espace Louise Vuitton, Paris (to 20 September 2015) http://www.louisvuitton-espaceculturel.com/index_GB.html