The Rafani collective is a group of artists founded in Prague in 2000 as an “open collective structure for artistic action within the society”. For this feature they are one of seven voices in our series of monologues on the city of Prague. Read more here.
3:34 pm: The indomitable Rafani Artist collective
Rafani is a five-piece art collective from Prague, who, when holding monologues and giving interviews, always refers to itself in the third person. They wear uniforms when on duty and can easily be identified as members of Rafani by the blank, white button on their black shirts. Rafani is heavily influenced by the Situationist International movement of the sixties, originally founded by Guy Debord in 1957. In an unofficial action, some members of the Rafani collective used the Prague National Gallery as a public toilet to comment on the degree of corruption within the official Czech art scene.
As an artist in Prague you can be engaged, passionate and even clever. But unlike in Germany or the UK, you’ll never get a chance to participate or benefit from the institutional system. In response to this unfortunate reality, Rafani shot and edited the film 31 koncu/31 zacátku [31 Endings/31 Beginnings] in 2011, featuring interviews with 31 subjects—many from various fields of culture, including the visual arts, literature and music. Some of them live and work in the city center, but the vast majority of them live on the fringes. This statement alone is worth a film’s length: nobody lives in the city center. Everybody lives in the outskirts. Replace Prague with any city that is in a state of social flux, and the film can be seen as a comment on an international state of affairs.
Nevertheless, 31 Endings/31 Beginnings is a conceptual piece of video art, not a documentary. Rafani cut up all the answers from the subjects interviewed and reassembled them as a narrative bricolage. The mosaic of answers that were left in the film constitutes a rhizomatic map of any city center and its multitude of satellites—the periphery. Rafani perceives the city center as a core whose borders delineate the mainstream. The core is a representation of normalcy and normality. Periphery is more of a mental than a geographical definition. There are lots of peripheries, but only one center.
The members of Rafani are not children of the revolution. They all originate from families that were not in opposition to the Communist system—normal families. To investigate this particular aspect of normality to a greater extent, Rafani became members of the official Czech Communist Party for exactly one year. As with all other actions, Rafani’s Communist experience was an abstract way to challenge the members with new artistic problems. But none of Rafani’s actions are considered ironic. Check out the actions of the Situationist International movement and you can sense the seriousness of it all.
This text first appeared in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 31 (Fall 2012)
Photo: Luci Lux
Transgendered electro-acoustic pioneer Terre Thaemlitz is a contrarian’s contrarian, though she’d probably take issue with that (and the above description) just to disagree with you. And, as evidenced by her abridged performance of her “Soulnessless – Canto V: Meditation on Wage Labor and the Death of the Album,” she possesses the perverse ability to mediate her anger through a delicate plaintiveness. By the end of the night’s 90+ minute performance—one imperfectly repeated chord, all white-keys—the question arose whether ambient music might have a political impact. Was Keith Jarrett actually Che Guevara? In a preceding interview with Electronic Beats’ Max Dax, the answer turned out, much to Dax’s bemusement, to be a qualified “maybe.”
The day at Hebbel-am-Ufer’s Hau 2 (under the auspices of the many-tentacled techno-fetishistic Transmediale Festival) was devoted to the entire Soulnessless project, which has mostly been reported on concerning its unwieldiness—3.99 gigabytes sold on a 16 gb microSD card, with “Canto V” on its own running a tad under thirty hours, arguably laying claim to the title of longest album of all time. And, thanks to the extra 12 gigs on the SD card, the most useful. But the irony behind the project (and that’s a phrase one can overwork concerning Thaemlitz) the project, as a recorded object, remains incomplete, a Sprinkle of sonic companionship to a multimedia manifesto.
The evening started with a performance of Cantos I-V during which Thaemlitz accompanied a 90 minute film in the vein of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, dense with text superimposed over documentary footage and collage (the clips from sexual reassignment surgery reminded me of my ’80s-daze following the Butthole Surfers). As Thaemlitz, under the misapprehension that the citizens of Berlin don’t primarily speak English, chose to show the German version of the film (the SD card holds the work in ten different languages) this reporter cannot speak to the thorny specifics of its contents, which might well be summed up in the title of chapter one: Rosary Novena for Gender Transitioning, with a side trip to the rights of immigrants who, like the Missouri-raised Thaemlitz, live in Japan.
How Thaemlitz’s upbringing shaped her nihilistic worldview provided the centerpiece of her talk with Dax, though the process of creating “Canto V” provided the bones which hung the discussion. An audience soaked in bourgeois liberalism (sorry, friends) had a difficult time parsing the Midwestern geniality of Thaemlitz’s repudiation of most of the lite-left’s truisms, particularly how pleasure is ordered to reinforce ruling hegemonics. The concept behind Soulnessless itself was an interrogation of the qualities generally associated with the musical experience: authenticity, in particular. Holger Czukay once explained to me that music should not have feeling; it should elicit feeling. Thaemlitz does not approach even that generosity. “If music is universal, why does everyone have a genre that they hate?” she asked, saving kind words primarily for Jarrett’s massive 1978 Japanese-recorded Sun Bear Concerts, ten LPs of piano noodling. The comparison to “Canto V” was notable.
In mass, that is, not execution: Jarrett is a virtuoso, while the variation in “Canto V” was based primarily in Thaemlitz’s inability to consistently replicate her single chord. This did not seem unanticipated on her part. With many of Thaemlitz’s projects, the music would appear secondary to the concept, and as we listened to the repeated fading of Hau’s Bechstein Grand, a long essay delineating “Canto V”’s title subject, alternately lucid and self-pitying, took up the screen in front of us. We had little choice but to read it and this is when the brilliance of Thaemlitz’s approach became transparent: her performance a Trojan horse with which to smuggle her ideas.
There’s an irony (that word again) in an artist so determined to upend our assumptions of the way language operates on music and its culture that she writes an encyclopedia’s worth of words about it. “Canto V” has repeatedly been described as meditative and there it was, exposing us to an entirely different sort of meditation, one of the Walter Benjamin variety. “Everything I hate about society can be found in the music industry, smiled Thaemlitz toward Dax. “That’s why I focus on it.” Perhaps she should broaden her focus. The Hebbel website, for example, referred to Thaemlitz as “him.”
Photo: Luci Lux
Mark Stewart is a formidable thinker. He talks quickly but his brain is almost definitely moving even faster. To engage him in conversation is to become entangled in a dense web of references, names and concepts, the conversational topics ricocheting from one to the other at an intimidating velocity. That’s OK though, we’ve come to expect that of the man that helped bring us Bristol post punk politicos The Pop Group. With their agitprop approach and DIY sensibilities they helped vocalise the anger and apathy that defined 80s Britain hobbled by a Thatcher government. While few would have predicted that they would ever reform, this year saw the band working on an album of new material.
There’s more to Mark Stewart than The Pop Group, however. A fervent online activist and solo artist, his recent album The Politics of Envy (released via Future Noise) affirmed his influence as he drew upon his friends and peers for collaborations – Kenneth Anger, Primal Scream, Richard Hell and Lee “Scratch” Perry all signed up. Still, for all his old guard status, he still resonates with a whole new generation and today sees the release of his collaboration with Nik Void of austere industrialists Factory Floor for new single ‘Stereotype’.
A good a time as any, then, for Electronic Beats editor-in-chief Max Dax to pick the his brains. Hold tight.
Max Dax: I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the role of protest in music, going back to the 1960s when it was a very real entity. I assume that you don’t consider what you are doing as protest music, but there is this very conscious aspect to the music you make – how would you relate to that term?
Mark Stewart: Personally I don’t separate politics from reality. I think every move you make is political – when you pick up the cup and the cup is made from tin from a death belt in Africa, or your trainers are made with slave labour in China. Everything is political. People say my music is political, so is everyone else in the world blind when they look at the obscene inequalities in the way the corporations are raping the world’s resources?
You are referring to this Joseph Beuys idea, that everything you do, everything you say, has a political component?
Yeah, they have a saying in Bali: “We have no art, we do everything well”. The Greek root of the word politics is just “gathering” or “people”. How come that since the Medieval times a small amount of people have convinced the rest that they are not in control of their actions, that it’s up to kings or queens or politicians. That’s rubbish. Why should pensioners in Greece or Spain be blamed for a banking scandal in America when millionaire bankers ripped off each other? It’s all a big confidence trick. I see capitalism as a mirror that is beginning to crack. I mean, Guy Debord, one of the founders of the Situationist International, wrote this book called “Society of the Spectacle” and I think we’ve been under the spell of the spectacle, we’ve been zombie workers for too long. Even in Tunisia with Tunileaks, in different parts of Africa people are realising that what they’ve been told is complete bullshit. The media is owned by the slavemasters.
Do you consider your music and your role as an artist as an opportunity to spread ideas, concepts and doubts?
Doubt is a very important word for me. The concepts of doubt and the fire of nihilism has been driving me since the beginning of punk days. With my last record “The Politics of Envy” I was collaborating with people like The Raincoats, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Keith Levene from Public Image Limited, Killing Joke and the Slits and it really reminded me of the D.I.Y. messthetics – as Simon Reynolds called it – from back in the day with Rough Trade. When we tried to control our means of production and we were just constantly doing protests rallies. I think at the moment all you can share is a sense of community across the world. Friends of mine are fighting on the front line of Burma, and yet other friends are fighting against loggers in South America. Music is like an umbrella which can give you a little solace and make you feel like you’re not the only lunatic or the only outsider in the world. We thought from punk that everybody was equal, the people on the stage were no more important than the people in the audience. I see my role only as important as someone making a carpet or fixing an engine or putting a shoe on a horse, it’s part of the continuous process.
You just mentioned the importance of friendship, of exchanging and formulating thoughts. One of the irritating facets of the 21st century is how the term friends seems like it’s owned by Facebook. How do you see this shift in how we talk about issues like friends and gatherings?
I feel that across the world people are beginning to see through the lies. There’s a generation of people who’ve been fed by music and radical ideas, from the Occupy movement to Tibet to people on the streets in Thailand. Everywhere I travel people are really beginning to question what we’re being told. Whether they use Twitter to organise a demonstration, whether they organise Occupy protests or hacktivist symposiums, I think the speed of the hypermedia helps. My community now lives online. Back in the day you could say I’m a punk, I’m a goth, I’m into reggae and you’d gather at certain concerts but now there are people like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other groups and there’s a space where people with shared interests can gather – online. It seems that there are punk secret agents from our generation throughout different levels of our society like The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, to the head of a big Japanese media conglomerate. I’ve got a lyric on the new album: “bankrupt ideologies litter the dealing room floors” – I think we’ve really got to keep open minds and keep our antennaes open and not moan and not judge things by the past and use the new tools to build something new. It’s a time of hyperchange and we can’t keep judging it by morals and ideals from the 1950s.
Another ideal, not from the 50s but the 80s, a result of punk, was the foundation of Rough Trade Records. They considered themselves independent from the market and from the media. Then Rough Trade went bankrupt and now when you talk about indie rock, it seems to have become a genre of music but it’s not filled with political context any more. How do you feel about this word Independency being stolen?
It would be a ten page conversation about so-called independent record stores or record labels. My only feeling is when we were kids we built up the tendrils that stretched across the world from Japan, to Survival Research Laboratories in the States, to Rough Trade America to cool protest groups in South America, bands in Japan. What I’ve found in the last couple of years with my friends, my comrades, they’re Chinese artists, people behind Tunileaks, they’re aboriginal people, it’s a much wider thing than just music. I call these people sympatico, maybe we argue over the specifics and maybe somebody’s got the wrong concept of economics … But music is one small corner of this group. There’s a global underground and I’m finding that people on the electronic frontiers have the most imagination at the moment. The discussions we’re having is reminiscent of the old salons in Vienna where mystics, alchemists, scientists and politicians did gather. People at the bleeding edge of new technologies, new political concepts and experiments in art and music are all gathering together. That’s how I found Kreuzberg in Berlin, with people like Bruce La Bruce. It’s possible for bright minded people to meet like they did in the Cabaret de Voltaire and create new things. My father was a great scientist – so I grew up with mad people coming to the house anyway!
Do you see your new record as a manifesto for this?
A personal manifesto. All I’m doing is that I’m going through notes of what I’m interested in, notes of what I think is wrong and what I think is right, interesting things I see in the world, be they political, mystical, artistic, sexual or politics. And often it’s just questions. For me my new album is like a personal letter from my front line. If I have to be a poet in this situation I should be allowed to deal with any subject in the world. Why should we be censored in music to just sing about cars and girls?
You say it’s a personal letter, but normally you write a letter to a certain person you have in mind – and not an anonymous mass of people.
It’s a jumble of my mind. I remember talking to Allen Ginsberg once about how he wrote, and it’s just the way my mind thinks and it’s the way my mind’s been thinking since I was 14. I’m not saying anything is right or wrong but these are the things I find interesting. Other people obviously find it interesting to sing about bottoms or breasts or Ferraris. But I don’t, sorry.
How have you felt about The Pop Group’s comeback so far?
The strangest thing happened when Matt Groening curated ATP and he asked Iggy to reform the Stooges and me to reform The Pop Group. I thought it was a stupid idea. I thought it would be like necrophilia. Then, suddenly, with my art projects I’ve been flown to Vancouver and been told to collaborate with a fat Korean artist who works with lard and some shadow puppet maker from Thailand. I keep trying to decondition and question why I’m making certain judgements: One side of my brain said why are you negating this thing, why can’t you just treat the reformation as a new commission. So I thought OK I’d walk into this with new eyes and I just said to the other members “let’s see if we can make something new”. Immediately when me and Gareth Sager started working something really bizarre happened. There’s these alchemical beasts called golem, and golem appeared in the room. It’s nothing like anything from The Pop Group, it’s nothing like anything me or the other guys have ever made, they’re like these huge French chansons with string arrangements and these things are running off with a life of their own. I’m shocked. We’ve just control of our back catalogue so next year there’s going to be a classic box set and we’re going to produce a brand new Pop Group album called The Alternate. The thing’s got a life of its own. It’s interesting for me, I can stand back and watch, it’s like a firework. I don’t understand how these things work but from hanging around with Kenneth Anger last year in Portugal I learned that if magic happens you just have to stand back and watch. You don’t try and control it.
But somehow you control it by having different outlets, you have the Pop Group, you have The Maffia [his band which releases material on On-U Records] your internet activity, how do you know what’s going to come next?
I don’t. It’s random procedures that we learnt from oblique strategies and from the beatniks: You can do these strategies of refusal where you deny your past and break a habit. A lot of it is chance procedures, but those chance procedures create sparks. Over the years when I’ve taken a chance and clashed different genres people have said that I invented industrial or trip hop or whatever but that’s because I deliberately negated a normal procedure and something strange happened and I let it happen and I was man enough to stand back and not say no that’s wrong. Some of the best things in science are when people think in a lateral way and in juxtapositions. I think Kenneth Anger’s juxtaposition in Scorpio Rising, of that homoerotic biker footage and that religious imagery he got through his letter box by chance. I would go that far to say that these random juxtapositions are the most important things of our generation. Then there is a chance for something new without our conditioning. Basically we’re all the constructs of our condition.
How far does it go back? You said it was the beatniks were the first to use this random, anti-cyclic process of putting things together – also called cut-up.
I didn’t say they were the first, I’ve got some old Arabic grimoires and I think it goes back to the beginning of time. As a human being you’ve got to realise, Tricky had this project called Product of the Environment. Basically we’ve got to realise that since we’re born, it’s like the Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, if we were raised in the forest we’d have different ideas to those we have. Part of my thing is to always keep on questioning why I’m doing something. ~
Je suis le petit chevalier is the music project of French-born artist Felicia Atkinson. Her works drift between improvisation and modulated structures, and the concept of getting lost and finding your way back again play a large part in her aural concepts. Some months ago I was asked to organize a concert and exhibition for Felicia; this led to an interesting email conversation in which we got a bit closer to three very important things: music, art and life.
Electronic Beats: I was browsing through your website and got stuck at one particular image—I immediately had the word ‘psychogeograph’ in my mind. While listening to your latest release, the track ‘Following the Mississippi River‘ got me thinking about Guy Debord’s concepts. Your music is tagged with the word ‘maps’ on bandcamp… what role do these sort of concepts play in your work?
Felicia Atkinson: Concepts for me are more like a destination rather than a frame. If we think about Debord’s concept of ‘derive’, that is something that was always very crucial to me. I walk a lot, most of the time without knowing where I am going, but those long walks allow me to think, to be surprised, to feel lost, to meet strange and boring things. In my art and music it is the same: most of my tracks are long, repetitive, with accidents, as a road can be. I see improvisation as a free walk. You know how you move your feet, you know from where you go, and where you will return if you consider your path as a loop, but in the middle, the loop is blank and unknown.
The art installation you are talking about, ‘Little Fires’, was made in 2009 when I was in residency in a very nice sound art space called QO-2 in Brussels. I just arrived in the city, and they gave me this very nice studio for a month. I began to build a mental map to feel less lost i guess. I didn’t make any sound in the sound residency. Just abstract maps on the ground that were build exactly the same way as i build my music. As kind of abstract architectures. Like a kind of score that doesn’t give information or guidelines, but stand in the space as it is.
That triggers a lot of stuff in my head… but let’s just pick one direction for now. You wrote that the loop is blank and unknown in the middle; can you elaborate on that a bit more?
Well, what I meant by this is that when you do music or art, when it is improvisation especially, I think the question of ‘getting through’ the experience is flagrant. It is a kind of dialogue with the unknown, a passage. Most of the time you hang on to the patterns you know, so you don’t feel lost—like building a kind of method to measure space and time. To follow a trail. But then (especially the times when you play live) for me, there is always a moment of fear. Almost at the middle of the set. Something is terrifying. Where am I? What do I do? I don’t know anymore. Like the sensation of having walked too far in the forest. You need to stop, to think, observe and act at the same time to rebuild your orientation.
Maybe this is the very moment where I feel like experimenting with the unknown. Where I am frighten, lost, and found in the same time. And then, you find your way back, to close the loop, the path you have been taking. You’re back to reality, patterns, habits. It is not necessarily worse, I mean… most of the time, this is where the regular beat comes back, or the melody, or repeated shapes. Sometimes it’s where it’s the most beautiful. But of course, what interests me more is the moment before, the one where you were lost and where ‘it’ was about to break.
I did literature performances for a while, and the more I did them the less I was prepared. It ended in a night where I just had like two words on my sheet, and just now I realize that I was searching for exactly this kind of ‘high’ you describe. I also get this kick when doing interviews while being not prepared. Is all your music improvised?
My recorded music is composed with improvised pieces that I re-arrange. So it is not totally rough improvisation, there are layers. For example, ‘O-re-gon’ was recorded in Portland in one day: one track in the morning one track in the afternoon, nothing was added to it but a light mix. An Age of Wonder was recorded in 2 sessions: side A in Brussels, at home, and side B in Ohio, as a one track improv of 20 minutes.
You wrote you had this residency at the audio studio where you ended up not making any sounds, but instead made a map to hold on to, like in your music. How to you develop your sounds?
Well, I am always a bit suspect concerning proper ‘sound installation’ if the sounds, as John Cage said, are everywhere. I prefer to build threshold for them, or for the absence of them. These are the kind of thoughts that lead me to make silent installations in a sound art residency. For my last art show in Rennes, there was this wooden geodesic dome that was build where people could record themselves with a tape and an harmonium, or just stay silent, or read. What scares me about regular sound installations you can see in museums is that often you feel the omnipresence of recorded sound, and how it empowers the space and spectator. I feel it very violently. I prefer to give the possibility of sound, and the possibility that it will not come. When I draw, or make music, or sculpture, it all begins, I think, with the gesture, the hand—how you want to trace something somewhere. Then you add layers, you observe the echoes, the interaction between things, and you let it play. It’s almost like cooking.
Is that process similar to art for you? Do you cook a lot?
Yeah, I love cooking. I’m vegetarian now, and there are so many nice things to cook most of the time I don’t follow a recipe. I just improvise with what I have, what looks good at the farmer’s market. In Brussels vegetables are not very good and most people (not everybody though) eat very badly there, but I feel cooking is as important as music. It’s a wholesome life. What you eat influences what you play I guess….
You mentioned the omnipresence of sound, feeling it violently… do you also feel that in everyday life?
I was in Finland a few weeks ago (actually when we started this interview) and being in the middle of those northern woods, so up north, so quiet, was wonderful. I feel more and more the desire to escape the city for living. I was born in Paris and I love big cities and the possibilities they offer. But I also feel tired of them often. Right now I am in Kassel, in another art residency (Tokonoma) during the Documenta. I just saw the Pierre Huygue installation in the Karlruhe park, it’s amazing: all of of sudden you forget the actual geography of this beautiful park, and are in a strange landscape between ‘Lost’ and ‘Stalker’…it’s very powerful. Concrete piles, a skinny dog that looks like a cat with a pink leg, another smaller silent dog, some psyschotropic plants are growing wildly, a statue is eaten by bees. You don’t know if it’s heaven or hell—you feel a silent rule, but it is unspeakable.
Do you think there’s too much daily information, and we need small personal systems to filter? Which reminds me of the picture that started our conversation.
I don’t know… I think it’s different for every person. Today would have been John Cage’s 100. birthday and yesterday at the residency we listened to some excerpts from his lectures. I think he’s right most of the time—there is no difference between life and art, humans, nature, and the cosmos. We need to be conscious of that and teach ourselves everyday something new, and try as much as we can to be pure at heart.