Monday, 17 July 2017

It's In The Computer: technology and the unknowable in John Carpenter's 'The Thing' and 'Prince of Darkness'

This weekend I attended a 35th anniversary screening of John Carpenter's The Thing. It was every bit as mad and visionary as I remember, but I also felt I was now far more able to appreciate the impressive degree of humour which carries the suspense of the script. There's the absurdities of Childs and MacReady's punchy, hyper-masculine dialogue, and the occasional drifts into slapstick, but the scene that raised the biggest laugh was the sequence in which Blair, the station's doctor, turns to his computer in search of answers.

Aside from representing a now conspicuously convenient exposition device, one of the biggest sources of amusement here was the idea that it was possible for a computer to plot so accurately the behaviour of this entity in so short a time, and in such a specific fashion based on a scattering of initial data. It's easy to put this down to the technological ignorance of an audience for whom computers were something still largely beyond their grasp. This was after all a time in cinema where a film in which Matthew Broderick accidentally hacks into the US's nuclear defence network via a computer game could still make a viable plot. This trope was even lampooned in Garth Marenghi's Darkplace (2004), with Dr Liz Asher's famous line: I'll cross-fertilise the data.

But this scene is perhaps not as absurd as it seems. Advances in epidemiology had been taking place for much of the later part of the 20th century, with computers assisting in the creation of sophisticated modelling software to support large scale research projects. As Luke at the Pencil Neck Record Geek blog points out, this was also the year in which AIDS finally gained national recognition, and the behaviour of viruses suddenly became a matter major popular concern amid a climate of growing paranoia. But while the film actually now seems weirdly prescient in light of the recent story of the 'coming back to life' of the largest virus ever discovered, preserved for 30,000 years in the Siberian Permafrost, this application of computing would have been high on the agenda in the scientific community even then.

This wasn't impossible technology. But even so, such an analysis would only be possible if they had the software with them at the base that had been designed with a similar purpose in mind. This then begs the question of what exactly they were researching at Outpost #31 that they would have access to such a resources (plus flamethrowers)? Given the costs of maintaining and staffing an Antarctic research station, it's likely that multiple projects would be running simultaneously across the base, and this does seem to be the case. The cast lists Blair and Fuchs as biologists, Norris as a geologist and Bennings as a meteorologist, together comprising pretty much all the fields of study you would really cover in an Antarctic research station. MacReady is also identified as a meteorologist in the book but is re-introduced as the company pilot, most likely so as to be more in-keeping with  Kurt Russel's characterisation as the hardbitten, whiskey-fuelled badass we see in the film.

Yet there is another dimension to the presence of this technology in Carpenter's film. One of the first segments of dialogue is between MacReady and and the dedicated chess computer: Chess Wizard. And while her role in the film itself is short lived, her precocious intelligence being written off after beating MacReady (MacReady's 'cheating bitch!' line made all the more pointed given that hers is the only female voice in an otherwise all male film), she marks an important thematic aspect of the film - the idea of Computers against the unknown.

The unknown and the unknowable is a persistent trope in horror. Much of how we conceive of it today is shaped by its role in the works of H.P. Lovecraft. His fiction is filled with unnameable terrors, made frightening not by the absence of their description but the impossibility of their description. Eugene Thacker explores it in his book In the Dust of this Planet: Horror of Philosophy Vol. 1, and points to a trend of persistent and conspicuous vagueness in the descriptions used in film titles like Them, and They Live. The Thing, and its amorphous, implacable alien nemesis is no exception from this trend. Yet it is important to note the quality of unknowability is a figment of human subjectivity. Not so, perhaps, for the objective mind of a computer. And the fact that this is even fleetingly identified as a feminine presence, while all around men are turning on one another, is certainly worth bearing in mind when approaching the film from a critical perspective.

The Thing is not the only one of John Carpenter's films of that decade to feature a computer as an interface with the unknown. 1987 saw the release of his less celebrated but equally visionary Prince of Darkness. Like its predecessor, Prince of Darkness also features a research team holed up in a building against an invading entity. But in the later film they are transposed from the icy wastes of Antarctica to the dilapidated cityscape of downtown L.A. where they establish a research post in an abandoned church with a murky occult history. Here the horrors that await them are more overtly supernatural, and the team set to analyse them represent a significantly more diverse bunch consisting of theologians, mathematicians, ancient language scholars and philosophy professors alongside the scientists.

Even more so than in The Thing, computers provide an insight into the unknown. They are able to present hidden meaning in the words of ancient texts, and reveal the presence of impossibly sophisticated differential equations recorded therein, before eventually becoming the mouthpiece of the entity that is the eponymous Prince of Darkness.

But there is a second technological presence in the film, one that is far more speculative. It appears in the recurrent dream sequence, where the team begin experiencing the same vision of the church in the not so distant future, accompanied by the chilling message:

We are unable to transmit through conscious neural interference. You are receiving this broadcast as a dream. We are transmitting from the year one, nine, nine, nine...

The introduction of broadcasting technology as a means of transcending time into an already conceptually dense film was a daring decision on Carpenter's part. But as well as heightening the occult technological undertones present in the drama, it also represents a call back to an earlier film: The Stone Tape. Created by Nigel Kneale for the BBC in 1971 as part of its 'Ghost stories at Christmas' series, it is cited as being among the principle inspirations of Carpenter's later film. 

The Stone Tape was witness to another point of transgression of science into the realms of the paranormal. It sees a team of scientists attempt to turn their knowledge and their impressive array of audio-tech to examine an apparition of a screaming woman materialising in an ancient stone vault. Like Carpenter's L.A. church, this chamber is located in the lower levels of a semi-ruined manor house. But their experiments  soon turn up something more far less prosaic than an mere haunting.

Again, there is a heavily gendered dimension to the interplay of science and the supernatural in Kneale's work. It features Jane Asher as the brilliant, dedicated and much underappreciated protagonist Jill who, as the data analyst for the team, providing a central role in the work of the team. Yet this goes ignored even when her discoveries prove the only insight into what is really going on. She is also notably the only one able to empathise with the humanity of the dead woman beyond a simple piece of data, all the more poignant given her ultimate fate.

The historic association of programming and femininity is a lost chapter in the history computers that has only recently come back into the public consciousness through films like Hidden Figures (2016) and the growing cult following around Ada Lovelace. This trend carries over profoundly into Carpenter's later film. Even though by this point the field of computing and its image in the popular imagination had been almost entirely claimed by men women are continually depicted as the guardians to the computers. Through them, they stare boldly into the unknown, holding council with CPUs like the participants of some elaborate digital seance.

Prince of Darkness has sadly achieved nothing like the kind of critical acclaim of Carpenter's other works like The Thing and Assault on Precinct 13. But despite all the schlock dialogue, the cod philosophy and gross-out special effects, I believe it is and remains one of his most important and visionary films of the 1980s.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Femme-Fhtagn (Lucy Brady) is available for commissions


Over the last year I've been developing my writing in a couple of different directions to try and expand my portfolio with the aim of going freelance. Recently I've been working on a range of projects, reporting on London's fringe music scenes and exploring the more obscure themes in art and cinema from the last two centuries. Though I mainly come from a background in weird fiction and experimental horror, these things have always been an inspiration for me, and formed a thematic undercurrent throughout much of my work.

I am open to commissions from any of the types of projects set out below. Please don't hesitate to get in touch if you are interested in discussing anything further.

Features
Much of my work in non-fiction has been in the form of exploratory essays, looking into the particular themes present in art, literature and other media, and investigating their historical and philosophical background. Recently this has included studies of the subject of The Temptation of St Anthony in classical and modern art, and the ideas of AI and the uncanny in the film Metropolis (which is due for publication in Living in the Future Magazine later this year).

In terms of music writing, I am currently in discussions with a number of artists about writing articles on their work, and have a number of other connections within the darker and more experimental side of London's alternative music scene. I also recently published a blog reporting on the drone music scene in London and abroad, and plan to make it part of a series taking a detailed look at niche musical subcultures.

Reviews
I am also open to commissions for reviews of any new albums, book or films releases, as well as events and exhibitions happening in London and around the country. I am able to work within tight deadlines and style guidelines, and am also able to supply photography for events and performances.

Media/Communications
In addition to set articles and reviews, I am also interested in applying my skills as a writer to social media. As well as bands, this could be for any kind of art projects and events. This would cover things such as album or event copy to blogging and basic website management. I also have some skills in design, which I am able to supplement with my own photography and visual work. Examples of this can be found via my Instagram account.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Thinking in Drones: Encounters at the weird frontier of experimental electronic music

One can hear many things in a drone. Resonances and patterns emerge in a fleeting semiotics of uncertain design. I appealed to the internet for a name to give to this phenomenon and found instead wellspring of strange ideas: forums and journals filled with the dispatches of individuals to whom these signals spoke directly. Many veered towards conspiracies, or the realms of the paranormal by way of explanation. Whatever its manifestation, this form of sonic pareidolia is a function in the programming of our much assuming brains without which there could be no sense in the material world. It is in us all, yet finding a means to accurately describe even one such experience of this phenomenon can be tortuous.

Such was the problem I encountered when trying to form a coherent response to my time spent at the fringes of London’s electronic music scene. When I began to explore the milieu of noise and drone, and their oblique history in music, I found a similar diversity of voices and ideas. Visionaries such as John Cale and Karlheinz Stockhausen saw their creations as representing one aspect of the same cohesive sonic universe that popular and traditional music inhabited, distinguished perhaps only by tempo. Those amongst the more extreme, noise-oriented fringes have drawn a much harder line, seeing their work as a fundamentally different kind of beast, or even a challenge to the concept of music itself. Their dispute echoes the arguments of Surrealism and the Dadaists a century before, striving either to destroy the canon utterly or else subvert its precepts towards stranger ends, but united in a collective drive toward the unknown: new territories and new ideas.

But for the creators of experimental electronic music, what shape do these ideas take, that they now seek to understand? To many, the prism of electronic sound is a glass peered through darkly indeed. To these artists, the realms of drone held a sense of disassociation - of things brutal, alien and unfamiliar. Some have even seen cataclysm; the death of the universe. This has formed the crux of a creative process a creative process that can be at turns expressive, morbid, and coldly abstract. The artist Argumentix, Speaking in the 2008 documentary People Who Do Noise, explained his composition process, drawing inspiration from apocalyptic ruminations on the near future:

A lot of what I think about and write about artistically is the idea of being fifteen years in the future and looking back at the time that I’m living in right now and observing what was going on and what led to this apocalypse or big world change, because I feel pretty strongly that the world is going to completely change as we know it and to express that emotion and that impending doom, I mean, like, pop music doesn’t work anymore, and so people need something that is directly tackling that issue.

The documentary goes on to feature artists incorporating dream visions, altered states, periods of illness, and the ever greater subversions of technology in the pursuit of a desired sound. As a writer of cosmic horror, I felt like I’d come home. In the few months I’ve spent amongst the devotees of London’s own electronic musical fringes, I’ve often wondered that the two worlds haven’t converged more often or profoundly. For H.P. Lovecraft - the patron saint of weird - his legacy to music has been a curiously underexplored thing. In popular music, it has been celebrated almost exclusively in goth and heavy metal, drawing more of the kitsch, pulp horror elements of his work. But there is evidently room for other sounds in the Lovecraftian canon.

Lovecraft himself spoke of music in the real world very little, almost never of contemporary music, and despised most channels of popular culture in which he might have encountered it. Yet from his frequent allusions to music in his stories, one can imagine where his tastes might have lain. His stories contain a profound sonic dimension composed of a myriad horrors: cracked flutes and whistles herald the blind, ‘idiot god’ Azathoth sprawling on his throne at the centre of the universe. Cries of demon hounds are carried on the night winds while ingenious instruments concealed in the mouths of gargoyles breathe eerie monotonies through the subterranean abodes of grave robbers. Tillinghast’s electronic drone engine draws down monsters from the aether, while the mad virtuoso Erich Zann fiddles into the abyss.

Later writers of the Lovecraftian canon have followed this lead. Simon Whitechapel’s Walpurgisnachtmusick, sees its protagonist begin a psycho-erotomaniac journey towards fleshly apotheosis in an specialist record shop, making the work of the fictional minimalist band MiddlePain his primer for debauchery. Likewise in Alan Moore’s The Courtyard the narrative centers around an experimental noise-rock band: The Ulthar Cats, channeling the unwholesome beyond through their psychedelic performances in an abandoned church in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

On a deeper level, Lovecraft’s philosophy of cosmic pessimism and alienation chimes well with the darker side of the electronic scene. In later years, his depiction of the hostile and unknowable universe - the world without us (to borrow a term from Eugene Thacker) - would inspire such thinkers as Michel Houellebecq, and the anarcho-futurist cum radical Neo-Reactionary philosopher Nick Land. Land and his fellow exponents of the Accelerationist movement, his colleagues at Warwick’s ominous sound Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU), were themselves advocates of experimental techno as the collective anthem for their vision of a new world. The circle was so nearly complete.

Likewise, it is not just the tone or aesthetic that makes it such a potent territory for exploring these strange ideas. Perhaps the thing which most distinguishes noise and drone as a subcategory of electronic music is its inexorable connection to the technology used in its creation. Not only do its sounds and rhythms not exist in other forms of music, but the interrelationship between the artist and the complicated nexus of synthetic and recorded sound, loops and oblique mathematics that make up its composition is one wholly unique to the genre. Its composition is as much an act of exploration and discovery as it is an act of creation. For here, music is not the work of human agents, but a collaboration with the alien and implacable will of the machine.

Some artists, such as Daryl Groetsch (performing under the name Pulse Emitter) have taken this notion to its more extreme conclusions. Seeking to remove the human element from music altogether, he described one of his experiments thus:

I want to start taking data from nature and patching it into my synthesiser. I’ve done that a little bit with photo cells. You know? I can stick it out the window and the sun setting will go from a higher voltage to a lower voltage, and that can control the synthesiser. But I want to be able to take, like, a topographical map of Mars, and turn that into a voltage that will control my synthesiser, and then have pieces of music that are entirely based on data.

This dichotomy between human creativity and the appropriation of the syntactical currents of the natural world reflect a tension which has existed in music and art that has existed for centuries. Nietzsche identified the dichotomy as Dionysian and the Apolline, exploring the elaborate interplay of the two creative impulses - to learn the nature of the gods through reason or join them in revels on the celestial plains through transcendent intoxication.

To a reader of the Romantic poets, Groetsch’s experiments in environmental data hold a particular resonance. They recall a passage in Coleridge’s Eolian Harp:

 And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?

Two hundred years before the advent of our post-digital age, when Samuel Taylor Coleridge first penned the immortal lines of his poem The Aeolian Harp, he was not simply musing on the beauty of nature or the legacy of classical Greece from which the instrument arises. Writing at the time of the enlightenment, he and many of his fellow artists and writers were wrestling with fundamental questions of the soul and the ultimate intelligibility of the world and divinity during a period of such immense and frenetic change that one felt one's basic consciousness ill equipped to cope, suffering a paralysing disconnect between the soul and the material world. One has only to think about the internet, mass data, Twitter, datapocalypse, augmented reality, globalisation and the many other strata that comprise our borderless world and those beyond it, and such concepts become shockingly relatable.

His response, and that of many of his peers (Wordsworth, De Quincey, Verlaine and Rimbaud et al.) was to seek altered states. Opium and its various preparations are considered the most typical of the movement, but there were others, too. Hashish was de rigeur in France following Napoleon's campaigns in Egypt, and even chemical refinements such as amyl nitrate was coming into use in the medical profession. Yet this rush towards intoxication was never intended as an escape from the modern world. Through this exploration of consciousness and the soul, the thinkers of the age were seeking to attune themselves to this new world, and create a philosophy and a language that could fully comprehend its nature - both the material and the divine.

Unlike the denizens of the EVP forums, the drone never spoke to me in isolation. My first taste of experimental electronic music came while I was in university, but at the time it left me cold. It was only when I came to London and had a chance to enter into the scene and encounter it directly that it really began to make some form of weird sense.

While the ultimate pursuit of the Romantics was in the pursuit of an enlightenment ideal - to bring the light of science to the unknowable realms of consciousness. The electronic mythopoetics of the experimental electronic scene strike at something at once more abstracted, more fanciful and more obscure. A night of drone is an experience somewhere between a Dadaist happening and a ritual invocation. Like devotees of the cult of Mithras, we converge in cellars and dark spaces in furtive numbers. The music is an offering, an appeal to the machine god, like a medieval sorcerer forming furtive pacts with the denizens of the unwholesome beyond. This relic of ancient times takes place against a backdrop of harsh science fiction soundscapes, bathed in the scintillating glow of a myriad LEDs. But the drone scene isn’t new, nor does it exist outside of time. Drone is the perpetual present, the screaming edge of now, the primal chaos that has always been with us beneath the sheen of ordered sobriety. Like a creeping decay, it awaits all that lingers to long in the dark, changing only as we develop ever more sophisticated apparatus through which to observe it.