Doing a Yoko. For the army of macho guitar heroes whose posturings of the mid-90s attempted to reclaim a ‘classic’ canon, it was the ultimate excuse. Groupies are fine, they seemed to be saying, but otherwise girls don’t count.
However necessary it may have been for the Britpop pack to reassert masculinity following a decade of bedwetting sensitivity, such misogyny failed to grasp one thing in its emulation of ‘authenticity’. Far from the hanger-on she was made out to be, Yoko Ono was more of an artist than they would ever be. The Spice Girls’ equally misguided notion of Girl Power was an equally vacuous manifesto. Not for nothing was their first single called ‘Wannabe’.
Such rock follies may appear incongruous in introducing an exhibition and associated events by female artists who utilise mediums of sound, vision and out and out noise. But much of what passes for ‘avant-garde’ in today’s music scene is too often afflicted with attention-seeking outbursts. So the social importance of Her Noise cannot be overstated.
Curated by Electra—the producing partnership of journalists and cultural strategists Lina Dzuverovic and Anne Hilde Neset—this is no separatist enclave, cordoned off by some monstrous regiment of women. Rather, the sound of the underground expressed here is akin to a community activist’s adventure playground: all felt-tip pens and Plasticine, thrown together in a multi-coloured riot of infantilism.
The Plasticine belongs to Hadley Newman’s ‘MiniFlux’—more than 1000 objects, including a grand piano, a tricycle and a ‘Shit-Covered Bust of Bismarck’. All reproduced in miniature, they have been used in musical scores produced by the Fluxus movement—whose members included, yes, Yoko Ono. They’re like mantelpiece ornaments of an obsessive hoarder of everyday minutiae, who has cast them into some kind of throwaway immortality. During the exhibition, concerts performed by musicians including Matthew Herbert and Bruce Gilbert of Wire brought them to strange, after-hours life. The felt-tip pens (and accompanying sheets of card) are the final port of call for contributors to ‘Reverse Karaoke’ by Jutta Koether and Kim Gordon, bass-player of the legendary US underground band Sonic Youth (see page 64). Here, in a tepee-like construction, participants are invited to sing or play guitars and drums along to a recording of Gordon’s voice. The resulting recordings are then burned onto two CDs (one for you, one for her), and a customised sleeve constructed from the adjacent materials. It’s this very tactility that counts in this, the visual focal point of Her Noise .
Meanwhile, Kaffe Matthews’s ‘Sonic Bed Laboratory’ is a practical exercise in healing the fragmented self. Visitors are invited to lay down their arms and be massaged into submission by soundwaves. Christina Kubisch’s ‘Electronic Walks’ also makes audible the otherwise undetectable electromagnetic signals beamed out from security systems during a series of psychogeographic ‘dérives’. In spirit, it resembles the analogue primitivism of an early Cabaret Voltaire record, with all the accompanying cityscape paranoia.
Accompanying events include concerts inside the ‘Reverse Karaoke’ tent by Spider and the Webs, primal steel guitarist Heather Leigh Murray, and Ana Da Silva—whose former band The Raincoats could be considered among the grandmothers of Riot Grrrl movement.
Gordon and Koether are pivotal and ubiquitous figures in the Her Noise network —which moved their low-key slideshow and musical improvisation to Tate Modern. The slides document ‘The Club in the Shadow,’ a ‘nightclub’ the pair set up in 2003 at the Kenny Schachter contemporary gallery in New York. An attempt to put gigs in galleries, allowing music to interact with art, this venture has a direct line of descent to ‘Reverse Karaoke’.
Given the slavish sycophancy of the audience, however, the effect is not so much an exchange of ideas as a one-sided teach-in. While Gordon and Koether can’t be held responsible for the mildly infuriating banality of the contributions from the floor, their stoic unwillingness to demystify the process does not help. Gordon and Koether should just tell them to form their own club: that’s what DIY is all about, after all.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Emma Hedditch’s ‘We’re Alive, Let’s Meet!’ This is a room festooned with a tantalisingly accessible catalogue of ’zines, records and videos, its walls decorated with record sleeves by such cross-generational pioneers as The Mo-Dettes, Erase Errata and Electralane. Hedditch has hosted a series of six ‘get-togethers’ between women, with the aim of putting ideas into action.
Out of this women’s zone hopefully will emerge a scrappy but militant sense of sorority and solidarity—similar in spirit to that which developed during the 80s in Reagan’s US; and over here at Greenham Common, Faslane and other peace camps where protest co-existed with creativity.
But the most important contribution of all to Her Noise is the extensive archive of filmed interviews with its major players, including Pauline Oliveros, Diamanda Galas and Peaches. Here too is Lydia Lunch’s bile-filled rant against Madonna for selling sex. Most amusing of all is ‘Men In Experimental Music’, in which Gordon and Neset quiz Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Jim O’Rourke with questions of a kind male hacks normally reserve for the ladies. Particularly of note is O’Rourke’s goofy analysis of fanboy collectors, and the impossibility of women ever indulging in such obsession. On the evidence of ‘We’re Alive, Let’s Meet!’—and the filmed interviews—he may in fact be wrong.
The potential for additions to this ever-growing library are endless. Manchester collagist, performer and chanteuse Linder Sterling, for one, would be an essential contributor. Sterling’s seminal Buzzcocks record-sleeves married pin-up-girl stereotypes to faceless domestic goddesshood and put both in their place. Her notorious meat-dripping dress, too, offered a tart challenge to perceptions of gender. But it was in her deadly agit-cocktail musical outlet, Ludus, that Sterling’s aesthetic was articulated most pointedly.
Lora Logic, too, would be a vital addition. The original saxophonist for pioneering femme-punks X-Ray Spex, Logic later joined The Red Krayola, singing lead on the single ‘Born in Flames’. The song soundtracked Lizzie Borden’s film of the same name, as part of the band’s prolific collaboration with the Art & Language conceptualist collective. In a serendipitous link, the mid-90s line-up of The Red Krayola featured future full-time Sonic Youth member and Her Noise interviewee, Jim O’Rourke. However it shapes up, the spirit of Her Noise can be seen and heard at events such as Glasgow’s Ladyfest club, and in bands like London’s Wet Dog and Edinburgh’s The Gussets. All this activity is umbilically linked to The Raincoats.
As the circuit-board family-tree adorning the cover of the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue makes clear, Her Noise is about making connections. It’s a creative lab, a workshop, a vague, vaguely counter-cultural exchange of ideas, similar in ethos to the Free University network founded by Joseph Beuys and others. It’s theory made flesh, cut, pasted and plugged into action via vinyl, video and a multitude of ’zine scene activity.
At its most socially, politically and creatively significant, Her Noise is networking without shoulder pads for ladies who do a lot more than lunch. Doing a Yoko has never looked so much fun.
Neil Cooper is a critic living in Glasgow
Featured as ARCHIVE SPOTLIGHT #5 as part of Suzanne van der Lingen & Claire Walsh’s Footnoting the Archive project, 2016