The Lighter Side of Psychedelia, Pareidolia and Stroboscopy
John Calcutt navigates through the films and recent sound works of Glasgow-based artist Stuart Gurden
When the world names itself, it does so in a language beyond us, and employs a typeface that is a bit retro. What does the world itself care for reason and season, or time, or things such as love, law, peace and other human values? It’s just a cellular pulse, a geological throbbing and rip, a prismatic halo, an abyssal heaving, a carousel of light and dark, a shroud of noise. Dad, why is there something rather than nothing? Dad?
In 2004 Stuart Gurden arrived in Lumsden, Aberdeenshire, to begin a Scottish Sculpture Workshop research residency (followed, in 2005, by a production residency). Taking Julian Cope’s The Modern Antiquarian, 2000, as his point of departure, Gurden embarked on a 1,000 mile road trip, which took some three to four weeks, and comprised visiting and ﬁlming 60 of the region’s neolithic standing stones. Cope’s book intrigued Gurden for several reasons, principle among them its awkward, unwieldy bulk (a ‘repellent’ object, in Gurden’s words), and its idiosyncratic blend of autodidactic passion, psychedelic mysticism, shifting authorial voice, and genuine scholarship: ‘Terriﬁc and daft in equal measure’, according to a Mail On Sunday reviewer. Such apparent inconsistency in authorial perspective and narrative development were already of interest to Gurden as structural models for his work, and John Ashbery’s mid-1960s poem ‘The Skaters’ proved exemplary in this respect. Just as the reader of Ashbery’s poem, according to Brian McHale, ‘encounters an intractable ﬂux of verbal "found objects" shifting styles and registers, teasing literary allusions and echoes, fragmentary narrative episodes and descriptive scenes’, so the viewer of Gurden’s ﬁlm installation ‘Awl-love’, 2006, experiences an equivalent assemblage of seemingly disparate citations, visual disorientations and formal conﬂicts (there is no voice-over, for example, and subtitles compete with visual imagery for the viewer’s attention).
But Gurden’s ﬁlm is far from random and chaotic. It is a kind of road movie, much of it ﬁlmed from the passenger’s seat. Its sense of purpose, of forward momentum, engages us from the get go, giving recognisable form to experience. Yet this forward drive is constantly tripped in the opening sequences by rapidly interspersed black frames, turning the experience into ﬂickering, stroboscopic hallucination. Driving releases the seventh art, the art of the dashboard: dromoscopy. This is all Paul Virilio: ‘The opposite extreme from stroboscopy, which permits one to observe objects animated by a rapid movement as if they were in repose, this dromoscopy allows one to see inanimate objects as if they were animated by a violent movement.’ Gurden offers something different: dromoscopy and stroboscopy are not opposed in this way; they are entwined. The affect is ominous. Violent interruption—the ghost of the crash—haunts each meter and frame, breeding anxiety. On another level, this ﬂicker in ‘Awl-love’ is the conscious evocation by Gurden of a deﬁning characteristic of much so-called structuralist ﬁlm from the 1960s. But Gurden’s interest in structuralist ﬁlm is not restricted to a shared concern for producing immediate, un-coded, physiological effects in the viewer: rather, it extends to new effects. So the strobing image now pulls against narrative, inserting stasis into the ﬂow rather than denying narrative development entirely, as in much structuralist ﬁlm. With every forward movement there is a return to blankness. Perhaps there is an allegory of (historical/technological) progress here, an allegory comparable to Zeno’s paradox of the arrow that can never reach its target. Or, equally possible, perhaps this stroboscopic effect has now been reduced to a banal effect, another trick in the repertoire of mainstream ﬁlmmaking, a shorthand method of indicating ‘excitement’. And perhaps those standing stones are, after all, no more than prosaic lumps of rock.
Stuart Gurden maintains an ambivalent attitude to making ﬁlms, thus sound-work features more prominently in his recent output. He is uncomfortable with how artists’ ﬁlm and video often seems to be locked in a damaged relationship with mainstream, commercial media, each partner resisting, while simultaneously being seduced by the other. Rather than avoid ﬁlm altogether, he states he is keen ‘to return its blank/over-ﬁlled gaze’. The focus on sound, then, helps in terms of reconsidering structure and direction—reducing the tendency of images to become over-determining. Sound interests him because it is more difficult to avoid, or to assimilate to mainstream cultural norms. It can be awkward, and awkwardness and discomfort are effects that Gurden values. ‘Oh! Nine One Two Eight Eight’ was an important transitional work in this move towards a realignment of image and sound. Flashing erratically between black and white and shades of reddish pink, the light from the projection screen ﬁlls the darkened space with stroboscopic snaps. There is no image in the conventional sense here, and Tony Conrad’s (in)famous structuralist ﬁlm ‘The Flicker’, 1966, comes to mind. Nevertheless, in the staccato explosions of light it is possible to glimpse brieﬂy the other works in his solo exhibition Pissant (Intermedia Gallery at CCA, Glasgow, 2007)—frozen moments blasted from the continuum.
In the soundtrack to the ﬁlm we hear someone addressing an audience, and the band preparing to get the next song under way. Every time this person speaks, the screen ﬂashes into colour. The sound engineers have fucked off and My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields is fucked off. This 1988 bootleg recording captures the band as they wait to launch into their track ‘You Made Me Realise’, but all that Shields can do for the moment is complain about the absent sound engineers and feebly encourage the audience to riot. It’s a thoroughly uncomfortable feeling: the ﬂashing light makes you feel uneasy, and the band’s impotence is irritating. Once, MyBloody Valentine seemed to offer Gurden an exit: its heyday during the late 1980s and early 1990s coincided with the ﬁnal years of Thatcher’s government, and its bleak psychedelia suggested a radical alternative during these, his formative, years. But we never get to hear ‘You Made Me Realise’, with its celebrated ‘holocaust section’ in which the repetition of a single chord exceeds the normally bearable limits of distortion, implied violence and, in live performances, volume. ‘Oh! Nine One Two Eight Eight’ examines strategies of assault, and detaches them from agency. The ﬁlm has no narrative—it is an isolated episode, an event, all looping frustration, endless agitation, empty threats. Mrs Thatcher’s job, it seems, was well done. If the engine of history is conﬂict, then that engine has gone cold; it coughs and splutters and stutters, but will not kick into life. ‘Monstrous’, 2005, one work included in Pissant, is a meticulously drawn reproduction of a letters page from the New Musical Express in 1992 where MBV fans battle it out, their youthful passion now severed from its moment; original immediacy and urgency are displaced by secondary mediation and cool retrospection. What was once a dynamic exchange of views is now an object of detached inspection.
Harry Pussy’s music is equally extraordinary and uncompromising; sonic Blitzkrieg, atonal noise rock. ‘Drop The Bomb’, 1997: 15 seconds of guitar, drums, bass and vocal screams throwing up blocks and slabs of mineral sound. ‘On the Marriage of Bill and Adris’, 2010, is a sound installation by Gurden in which a written interview between Harry Pussy founding members Bill Orcutt (guitar) and Adris Hoyos (drums and vocals), has been recorded, manipulated (Bill’s voice is artiﬁcially low and slow, Adris’s artiﬁcially high and fast), and played back through two suspended guitar speakers, one for each of the voices. Awkwardness is once again at the forefront. Not only do the treated voices make the musicians sound slightly comical, like animated cartoon characters, but Bill and Adris were formerly married and an occasional irritability enters their exchange:
Adris: ‘Why are you hesitant to discuss musical inﬂuences?’
Bill: ‘I’m not hesitant to discuss musical inﬂuences.’
Adris: ‘Why do you strive for perfection in
Bill: ‘I don’t strive for perfection.’
Adris: ‘You work very hard at it.'
Bill: ‘No I don’t.’
Their 17 minute conversation ranges over many topics, including the problems of being labelled, power relations—real and imagined—between performer and audience, the creative value of adopting a persona, the currency of shock, the use of repetition (‘like some sort of structuralist avant-garde ﬁlm’), the use of found material, the question of inﬂuences, the ﬁner nuances of retro styles, the delight at getting away with things: a classic inventory, in fact, of postmodern anxieties and obsessions. Laced throughout the exchange, however, are references to humour (Adris: ‘the whole thing is kind of like a joke’), which Gurden speciﬁcally foregrounds. Not only are the speakers’ voices stretched and squashed into mildly comedic tones, they are transmitted through speaker cabinets designed to look like they could be Wall-E’s buddies.
Pareidolia: 'The imagined perception of a
pattern or meaning where it does not actually exist,
as in considering the moon to have human features.’
Pareidolia: word and phenomenon fascinate Gurden. ‘The Approach in Three Parts’, 2008, is a multimedia installation in which pareidolia serves as a pivotal mechanism. The centrepiece is a video that opens with a silhouetted human face in proﬁle, stuttering across the screen in stroboscopic ﬁts and jerks. Fooled! It’s actually part of the rock monument in the ﬁlm ‘The Auld Wives’ Lifts’, the proﬁle of which has a distinctly human appearance. In the ﬁlm’s second section this pile of three heavy rocks (an ancient monument, or a glacial accident?) deﬁes its massive weight by rotating madly like a Dervish in the landscape: ‘ …this dromoscopy allows one to see inanimate objects as if they were animated by a violent movement’. Two ancient (or possibly modern) faces inscribed in the rock begin to leer at us. They approach, they withdraw, they approach again. They start to spin and, then, rather than lying adjacent to one another, they appear as the two heads of a coin, one impassive, the other a rictus of horror. The camera pans vertically upwards to the bleached sky and, in the third section, a jet plane ﬂies repeatedly across this pallid expanse. Successive images begin to overlap in one vibrating form, a face that looks uncannily like a disapproving character from The Muppets. Even the droning soundtrack to this ﬁlm returns us indirectly to the face: it is dopplar shifted aircraft noise fed through a Fuzzface and a MXR Phase 100, classic guitar pedals both designed to look a bit like, um … faces. (Drawings of these effect pedals were also included along with the ﬁlm in Gurden’s show at Glasgow Sculpture Studios). From timeless nature, to prehistoric stirrings and on through the age of modern technology, one thing persists: the Narcissus face. No matter how far into the past or the future we travel, we only arrive when we ﬁnd what we already know: that Face with its comforting ‘Hello’. The Face accompanies us on all our journeys, collapsing origin and destination into a single repetitive ﬁgure.
It may be fanciful on my part, but I wonder if Gurden’s recent focus on sound-based work might also be a way of eluding pareidolia. In 2009 he made ‘Blocks (Live at the BBC)’ for the group show Temporary Nature, an outdoor exhibition of work sited on a patch of wasteland near the new BBC headquarters at Paciﬁc Quay in Glasgow. He used a rock into which he inserted a voice recording of a found text, ‘Blocks to Creativity’, that listed 14 such ‘blocks’ and their characteristic features: Fear of Failure, Fear of the Unknown, Custom-Bound, Impoverished Fantasy Life, etc. The recorded voice is multiplied, blurred at its edges and strung across space; recognisable and comprehensible, yet estranged. During the reading of the ﬁnal block, a new, unfamiliar, unidentiﬁable sound appears, continuing for a while after the voice has ﬁnished. At ﬁrst it sounds vaguely fart-like, or like a revving two-stroke engine, or a ﬂick book. It is accompanied with a lower droning sound, distant and ominous. There are also some occasional clipped sounds, like footsteps. In fact, it is none of these things: it is the sound of the nearby BBC building responding to Gurden as he uses ‘tools’ to play it like some vast musical instrument. No narcissistic reﬂection here, no search for the origins of human consciousness, no attempt to anthropomorphise: this is the stuff of the world speaking in its own funny way.
John Calcutt is MFA acting programme leader at Glasgow School of Art