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The Trial of The Franz Kafka Big Band

January 1, 2016

Rehearsal May 2006 1 B&W

 

The Franz Kafka Big Band – the Radio Sketch Comedy group that I had the pleasure of working with for many years – has returned to Radio Scotland. There’s a half hour of classic sketches from our two series – and a whole new half hour of documentary exploring what really happened when our show was banned.

I documented the Franz Kafka Big Ban on this blog. If you’re particularly interested then you can find it here.

The show itself, you can find on the BBC iplayer radio here.

It’s not just superheroes that have origin stories. The Franz Kafka Big Band also has one. I often find myself glued to documentaries on BBC Four about the origin, progress and eventual cocaine fuelled implosion of bands/groups/creative enterprises ~ regardless of whether I like the music or not. It’s just interesting to find out how people ‘get there’.

Here’s my version of how we ‘got somewhere’ ~ even if that somewhere was arguably more the overflow car park outside ‘there’ and we only got as far as the bins outside the burger van.

Here’s my version.

Prog Rock. It begins – and perhaps ends – with Prog Rock. As a young man – 1992, I think – I auditioned for a Prog Rock band in Clydebank, called ‘Animation’. They had just sacked their singer, Colin Edwards and were on the hunt for another singer, probably just like Jon Anderson. I survived the laser gaze of Prog Maestro Colin Broom, but only for so long. I too was sacked a few months later. Musical differences apparently. We did, however, all remain on good terms. They were a quirky, friendly bunch. They also said that I should meet their chum Colin Edwards, who was a funny guy. Apparently he played the ukulele (take note hipsters, the ukulele family tree is George Formby – Colin Edwards – and then all of you). He performed some Comedy Sketches at Glasgow University with his chums – calling themselves ‘The Franz Kafka Big Band‘.

Anyway, I didn’t meet Colin – not for years. Even when the guitarist of the band I eventually gigged with (Ernest 1991-93), Jay Farquhar, went out with Colin’s sister, Marina, we still didn’t meet for years.

Frustrated with my lack of musical progress after my band broke up, I drifted into Radio – at C.I Media in Cardonald. C.I Media ran an Employment Training Scheme that served as an asylum for unemployed Journalists, Sound Engineers and like. There I met many a legend in the Glasgow music scene; including one day, a girl called Penny Sharp popped in with her bandmate Shona Marshall. I remember being disgusted/embarrassed by how much Penny was mobbed by fusty, sex starved employment trainees. Dirty boys. I kept my distance out of respect. It’s funny how things turn out…

I also met the supremely talented Stuart McLean – aka Jeff Santana aka DJ Frenchbloke – and together with Robert Park and Debbie Jack, we made Special Treatment: a kind of Easy Listening/Special Music Magazine Show presented by an avuncular Consultant Psychiatrist. Dr Baker was born in 1994. Take note Matt Berry’s lawyers. I’ve had a mustachio’d character with a fruity voice for 21 years.

Anyway, eventually Special Treatment got on Subcity Radio (Glasgow University’s RSL Radio Station) in 1996 – and it’s spin off sub-series ‘The Beat Route Bistro’ used to play live at Bar Brel – I think this was from 1996 to 98.

Special Treatment had its fans. One of them was Marina, Colin’s sister – and when Colin decided to reboot his comedy ambition, I was recommended to be on board.

I can’t honestly remember when this was: 1999? 2000? No idea. Things moved fast. The band consisted of friends from Colin’s Glasgow Uni days: Dave Barr & Craig Stobo (by day, sober professionals, by night, wide eyed maniacs). We were also joined by Jenny-Ann Marshall, an actor who Colin knew from his years in the Lake District (Colin’s a qualified Alexander Technique teacher, fact fans). Colin Broom – he who threw both Colin & I out of his prog band – was now on board as our composer. (Kafka went onto use a lot of CNUT music – my collaboration with Dave Graham). Colin also knew Giles Lamb – who luckily for Colin, had a top-of-the-range recording studio, Savalas, staffed by top-of-the-range engineers – Kahl Henderson (who I already knew through Stuart McLean): we recorded a demo of sorts – or rather a fully-fledged polished show of nonsense.. (Like a lacquered and mounted near death vision of Spike Milligan’s paradise). Marina lived next to a BBC Producer, Gareth, who passed the demo to Jeff Zycinski (who I already knew through being a BBC Talent Finalist – and my work with Margaret-Ann Docherty). Luckily Jeff loved it. And luckily for us, Jeff became the Controller of Radio Scotland.

We had previously made shows for Radio Magnetic – and appeared on a Radio Scotland Christmas Special, but our first proper series on the radio first aired in 2005.

It took us a few years to finesse that demo/initial show. What started as an absurdist sit-com that would bewilder the likes of Vic & Bob and The Mighty Boosh, ended up a surreal sketch show. Colin’s brain is a fine thing: our first series featured much genius* ~ including ‘The Walnuts Sketch’ which could have been the start of a long and fruitful collaboration between Colin and World Famous Animation Legend, Sylvain Chomet. As it happens, this enviable collaboration was undone by the envy of almost everyone in show business who wanted to get onboard. Shame on you, you arseholes. If two pandas want to mate, you don’t throw away your pants and join in, howling “orgy!” …. How’s that going to work? And. It didn’t. Anyway, a tragic aside – and getting ahead of myself.  

Ah. There’s more to be told. And far more to be told about what happened next.

But that’s chapter one – according to me. 

As to what the current chapter is? I have no idea. Remember Prog Rock? Well, we’ve just made a gatefold concept album – with a pop-up middle finger and pull-out ‘fuck you’ booklet. It’s clearly not to everyone’s taste. If Rick Wakeman was in the band, he’d throw tomatoes at it.

So, last hurrah? Or will we all burn our capes and go punk. Or burn our capes, put them on and go even more prog?

Yeah. That’s more our style.

 

* Genius is an oft overused word. But in this case, it applies. Genius is surely about being inspired to produce something admirable that you couldn’t possibly conceive of yourself. Colin’s capable of comedy genius – who else has given us a Tiny Bull or Mr Melty’s Melting Pet Shop?

Procrastination & Biscuits

November 22, 2015

Richard III

I’m a BAFTA nominee. That’s nice.

A film I made with Once Were Farmers has been nominated for a BAFTA – the Children’s Short Form Award. It was designed and animated by Scott Morriss – and doesn’t it look great? I wrote and voiced it – not in my usual avuncular Dr Baker style – but as Danny Fizzpants, a rather excited and excitable Hollywood Gossip Columnist. It helps to do voice overs consistently, if you create a little character for the voice to come out from.

It’s a plot summary of Shakespeare’s Richard III – a great play condensed into a cheap and cheery stock cube of villainy. He’s such a great character because he’s relentlessly amoral. He just sees the throne and he’ll do anything – anything – to get it. He’s like any one of those strange characters in ‘The Apprentice’ with a faraway glint in their eye that can’t possibly conceive that they’re wrong. Actually, he’s well aware of some of his limitations, which means that The Apprentice candidates are worse than Richard III.

Anyway, the single minded focus of Richard and total lack of empathy for all others rather suggested the format of a computer game. There’s something all consuming about the ambition and drive of a gamer. When did Super Mario say ‘sod this!?’ The Space Marine in DOOM just look at the view? Crash Bandicoot have a massage, scented candles and ‘me time’? Just hang back and wonder if it was all worth it? 

Which is why being nominated is so nice, because it applies a soothing poultice to the howling void of self-loathing/crippling self-doubt that occupies the core of all writers/artists. At the beginning of any project, I’m near-paralysed by ‘can I do this?’ and at the end by ‘is this any good?’ Inbetween it’s all procrastination and biscuits. So, it’s nice that BAFTA have shortlisted something I’ve worked on – it means that I should spend a bit less time being paralysed, procrastinating or eating my 10th chocolate digestive.

Thanks BAFTA. And thanks to Will and Rory the Directors/Producers; Scott, the designer and all the others who have worked for, and with Once Were Farmers making films for BBC Learning. Thanks also to Penny for the patience to put up with so much procrastination – and all her support/biscuits/biscuits of support.

Yeah, BBC Learning. I don’t see any commercial broadcasters filling the internet with educational films to assist the Government achieve the goals set out in the National Curriculum. Thanks BBC Learning.

Thanks for everything.

I’ve already voted, but I haven’t yet decided.

September 19, 2014

It’s been a while. There’s another blog entry stuck up my epistular colon waiting to be fully worked out (festering in the drafts folder), but I can hardly not write something today.

Referendum

 

Today is the day when Scotland decides to stay or go.

At the time of writing, it’s midnight. When the sun rises, we’ll know. Across all media, many commentators are appealing for post-referendum unity, that ‘regardless of the decision, we’ll all have to work together in the best interests of Scotland (and/or) the UK’. I’m not quoting any particular commentator, just generally reflecting most of them.

But here’s the funny thing. I sat down to watch the mere first 10 minutes of election coverage and caught the scrolling banner at the bottom of the screen, telling me that YOUGOV predicts a NO vote, and is 99% certain of that. I didn’t feel that regardless of the decision, etc, etc…. I felt sick. Furious, ashamed, sick.

Here’s the thing.

I’m a sucker for metaphors. Love an analogy. SO, to think about this referendum debate in terms of a possible divorce, it makes perfect sense. Indeed, the Union of Scotland and England has long been seen in terms of a marriage. It was always thus. ‘The Rough Wooing‘, etc. England married Scotland after a lot of rough wooing, and eventually won us over with Gold*. How romantic.

307 years later we’re standing on the threshold. Caledonia. With her fine ginger locks and mountainous bosom. We look back at our husband, England, whom we adore for his charm, his confidence, his sense of humour and his naughty ways.. But, y’know. We’ve grown apart. We no longer want the same things. We say, “I’m thinking about leaving you” and he responds, he responds, well f*ck me. ‘You’ll never survive on our own’, ‘You’re a burden, a lazy burden‘, ‘You can’t have any of my things’ and ‘All those clubs and parties that we used to go to? Well, I’ll still get invited, but they’ll never let you in!’….  Eh. What!!?

First of all. How dare you say I can’t cope on my own? What sort of person do you think I am? Lazy? A burden? Really? Are you kidding me? After all the things I bring to the table? And the clubs and parties? I’m suddenly a pariah!? Nobody wants to speak to me!? How is any of what you say going to happen? And last, but definitely not least, infact, this really makes me mad: It’s not your things, it’s our things!

You just, don’t get it. Everything you’ve said to make me want to stay ~ is making me want to leave. For all your wonderful charms, you can be such an arrogant, insulting prick. And you JUST. DON’T. GET. IT.

The one thing you could have said, you should have said, is ‘I can change‘. ….. Yeah, yeah, you say you’re going to give us a bit more pin money and bit more control over our housekeeping, but that’s not what we want. We want you to be like us, or we’re going. Infact, if anything, you’re getting ever more right wing with age.

This, for me, is the perfect metaphor. And because, (I am a simple soul) I think it’s a perfect metaphor, I really can’t understand people who vote NO. Don’t you have any self esteem? Aren’t you a feminist? You want to stay in a marriage like this? Do you really, really think that if you stay that things will get better? That England will change? I have seriously heard people say that ‘oh, we’ll make a mess of it’ or ‘we can’t run our country’, or any other kind of statement that just cries out I AM IN AN ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIP.

Okay. Metaphors are not reality. Analogies are very useful to understanding something better, but never understanding something completely. So, I shouldn’t get carried away here.

I’ve been a nationalist for as long as I could vote. But please note, Scottish Nationalism for me, and for 99% of the rest of them, has always been about democracy and fairness. However, at the beginning of this referendum campaign, I had a wobble. I honestly thought I might vote no. Why? Because I love England and the English too (and the rest of the ‘home nations’) and was reluctant to break up the Union. But, it didn’t take long for me to figure out what to vote. Here’s my reasons in a nutshell.

  1. Vote Yes and get rid of Trident. I mean, for f*cks sake. C’mon. Nuclear Weapons don’t just kill your enemy – they kill your enemy’s cat for f*ck’s sake.
  2. Scotland’s Natural Resources should benefit the many, not the few. And by few, I mean a tiny amount of rich men living in Texas.
  3. There seems to be a political consensus in Scotland not to privatise every single f*cking thing in the universe. Renationalise the Scottish Royal Mail. For starters.
  4. A vote for Yes is also a vote to liberate England from an Imperialist state-of-mind. Go England, Wales & Ireland! We’re doing this for you too! X X X

That’s it. All the rest of the fear, uncertainty and doubt can get to f*ck. I’ll live in a ditch and eat sh*t to achieve number 1 alone, and shame on any c*nt that thinks otherwise. I mean, what’s your f*cking excuse? An excuse.

And that’s now my muse. My anxious Nationalist dilemma. I pride myself on being magnanimous and jolly. The debate so far has been passionate, but fun. I have debated and chatted with No voters. It’s all been very affable. As soon as the bile rises, I calm down. I fire in a wee joke. Or I bugger off.

But right now, if Scotland votes no, I’ll kick a hole in the wall and throw shit out the window. Y’know. Do an Edwards.

How can I look my country in the face again? How will I cope with cheery chats with people I know, who’ve voted no? How will I behave when inevitably a No vote will mean that Westminster will sigh with relief and get back to ‘business as usual‘. You think there’ll be change? You think politics will change? Really? I don’t think it will ONE BIT. Remember, Mr England never said he’d change. You just hope he will. He f*cking won’t.

If it’s YES, ignore all the above.

But if it IS a NO….

Then my next decision will be to move to Slovenia!**

 

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* Contrary to popular opinion, Scotland was not bankrupt at the time of the Act of Union and bailed out by England. Rather, it’s politicians were – being the rich merchants and aristocrats that poured their money into the failed Darien Scheme. Scotland’s finances were positively rosy in comparison to England at the time. Or should that be thistley? The Parliamentarians of Edinburgh were very much bribed to join England. 

**Penny and I love Slovenia. A country smaller than Scotland and rich in natural resources, produce and culture. If it’s a NO vote – and I can afford it*** – then I’ll seriously consider moving. 

***So, it might be some time then…… 

POSTSCRIPT BEFORE RESULT KNOWN

Okay. I’ll not kick off. …….I’ll try not to kick off. As for my friends that have voted NO, if you win the day, then I promise I’ll be nice. I will. But I’ll be gutted. And everything else I’ve said – I ain’t taking it back….. But, I’ll be nice. I promise.

If it is a YES vote, then The Scottish Government will now have the most fired up citizens ever: YES voters with such high expectations. NO voters desperate to be proved wrong and see an independent Scotland prosper. You better deliver.

POSTSCRIPT AFTER RESULT KNOWN

Right. How to be positive about this? Instead of thinking that 55% of Scotland doesn’t think like me, 45% of Scotland does. But, I’m still furious. I’m sick. And sick of all this talk about unity and working together, etc. Consensus politics is why we’re here, why this country is in such a mess: 45% of Scotland doesn’t agree that we think Nuclear Weapons are part & parcel of modern living, or the free market is the universal balm to soothe all the world’s ills. 45% is fed up of Dave, Nick and Ed and all the other pinstriped carpet baggers. And 45% has found out that their national broadcaster is no better than Fox News. Yeah. That’s right. The BBC is as fair and as balanced as Fox News. And on a local, Glasgow level: the Scottish Labour Party and Glasgow City Council ? The establishment here told us to vote no. We voted yes. Your citizens overwhelmingly smelled your shite and is now telling you to smell yer maw.

But 55% of Scotland are still wee battered wives, so f*cked in the head that you’ll be happy to stick your head back under your Tramadol soaked pillow and forget all about this. You poor wee soul… 

EPILOGUE 20th Sept

It’s amazing what difference a day makes. No. I’m still angry and really, really upset. But I’m positive too. Because a closer analysis of the result means that the reason why NO won was because 73% of Pensioners voted NO. They didn’t want to rock the boat. They didn’t pop online to find out the real facts, instead they were bombarded by a (sadly) very effective propaganda machine. All this means that the next time – and DEVO MAX will in no way prevent further demands for independence – we’ll get independence. We will. This is not a cynical or heartless point, but just a statement of fact: with each year, there will be less and less no voters in Scotland. So, let the countdown begin. 15 years? A bit more? A bit less? And the other thing we can do next time, is be far more savvy in countering the mainstream media. We have to. Remember it is – presently – only a 45/55% split. A balanced and fair coverage of the issues would have made all the difference.

So, to our Imperial Masters: You’ve got a couple of decades left of taking our oil and extracting nuclear protection money from us, so enjoy it while you can. It’s not going to last. 

 

30th Biennial of Graphic Arts

November 15, 2013

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This is a review of an art show. If writing or talking about art doesn’t interest you, then fair enough – I don’t like it much either*. So much of how we respond to anything – whether it’s art, music or food is down to taste. We don’t quibble or debate with someone over their choice of ice cream, so why do art critics end up fighting with each other on late night talk shows? Art is not Science. Art will always be about objects which also exist subjectively. Yet the art world is obsessed with evaluating and valuing – and thus the constant haggling, the attacking and the defending, in the social sphere. Dragging the subjective into the objective is always a painful process.

The Graphic Arts

I prefer the Graphic Arts, because they are generally speaking, more figurative, pictorial and representative. Aye. It looks like something. Conceptual art might look like something too, but that’s not the point. Duchamp’s urinal (Fountain 1917)? Man Ray’s iron (Cadeau 1921)? They challenge the intellect. They make us think. Infact, once you know what Duchamp has done, you don’t even need to see it. But a little sketch of a man underneath a tree…well, who is he? Where’s he going? What does the tree look like? The sky? The sketch will fire our imagination. And how to render the sketch? Almost an infinity of possibilities. And almost an infinity of interpretations. But here we are in 2013 and almost a hundred years into the era of Conceptual Art and Conceptual Art reigns supreme.
Why? Because the art world is in control of the interpreters. Not you and me. The Professional Interpreters. And imagine work that didn’t need interpreted? That would put a lot of powerful wafflers out of a job**. So, the perverse equation still rings true: the greater the obscurity or simplicity (or obviously awful) the work of art, the greater the interpretation needed.
But the graphic arts are not just about content, but the method of execution. It’s because the Graphic Arts are about Printmaking, Book Illustration, Posters, etc, that the content tends to be figurative, pictorial and representative, but to say anything else about Graphic Art, well….
It’s enough to know that the one-stop-shop for all homogenised knowledge these days – Wikipedia – has not just one, but two warning banners above the entry for graphic arts:

graphic art wiki banner

See? Now we need an expert. A Professional. An Interpreter. Good Luck with that Wikipedia, the Experts are still trying to work this one out.

The Graphic Biennial

Indeed they are, and the Graphic Biennial is one way to have the debate in public. Starting in 1955 in Ljubljana, then part of Tito’s Yugoslavia, the biennial swiftly became a unique opportunity to display work from the West and from behind the Iron Curtain***. It was a global art show, focussing on Printmaking. According to the mglcThe International Centre for Graphic Arts – who organise the Biennials, they have had their wobbles and crises of confidence, such has been the dominance of the conceptual in the commercial art world. In the past two decades, the shows have alternated between shouting louder for the clearly defined domain of the Printmaker, the Etcher and the Image Maker and expanding the boundaries of the Graphic Arts to include computer art, sculpture, conceptual work, whatever. For example, the 28th Biennial had plenty of posters, the 29th, called ‘The Event’, was very much about attention grabbing conceptual work, so the 30th was naturally about ‘what is Graphic Art?’, combining retrospective, a snapshot of what’s going on at the moment – and some speculation about the future. But all the time, bringing it back to the question: ‘what is graphic art?’

The 30th Graphic Biennial: Interruption

Why interruption? I have no idea. Ask Dr Deborah Cullen, the curator. There’s a lot in the official blurbs about considering “the evolutionary graphic field of contemporary times” and considering “both the fresh application of traditional means by leading-edge artists and the innovative incorporation of new printerly technologies in fine-art investigations” and even exploring “the graphic as both form and content, in an invigorated polygraphic terrain that links the work of diverse contemporary artists from around the world” (and this amazingly makes sense) but no reason why Interruption should be the banner under which this Biennial flies. It might have well been called ‘Ink Sausage’ or ‘Pigment Jazz’ or anything else, and maybe that’s why it’s called Interruption? Thinking about why the f*ck it’s called Interruption interrupts your experiential pleasure with a clunky big conceptual THINK fired up your bum hole. This is Dr Deb’s signature writ large over her show. It proves she’s an expert (knowing wink – see above). But before you think I’m bashing Deborah Cullen, I’m not. I think she’s done a really fine job and if this Biennial is about the state of play of Graphic Art and where it might go – then she has admirably succeeded. There were ‘traditional means’ aplenty and certainly lots of work from ‘contemporary artists from around the world’. I think you could kind of tell that she’s a New Yorker, as many artists featured were American, but her interests are broad and wide-ranging (Cullen is a fan of American Art, as in the actual North & South Continent, not just the US of A) and her choices very much reflect her background and her experience. But how could they not? So, you already know that I enjoyed the show and Debz has got the thumbs up, so now onto specifics.

The Review

Ljubljana is a most handsome setting for an art show.  You’ve probably never heard of it, so it’s a pleasant surprise to find a pocket-sized central European city with the charm of Krakow or Budapest. It’s buildings are grand but the streets are intimate. And with the biennial always showing at the tail end of Summer/beginning of Autumn, when the leaves are turning and the riverside is filled with the smell of roasting chestnuts (and newly opened bottles of wine that looks and tastes like cloudy apple juice), then Ljubljana has a relaxed charm that’s hard to beat. It’s obviously a tourist destination, but most tourists – like us – are hoping that it will remain off the beaten track and not turn into another Prague, Paris or Edinburgh. The first time Penny**** and I came to Ljubljana, we discovered the Biennial by accident. Everyone knows about the Venice Biennale, with its attendant press frenzy and Russian Oligarch’s yachts moored by the quayside, but the Graphic Biennale? It was news to us. Now, it’s one half of the reason we visit Ljubljana every second year. The other half is Ljubljana*****.

But on to the show itself.

The Biennial is shown across multiple venues across the city. The main venue is Tivoli Mansion in Tivoli park. It’s the HQ of the aforementioned mglc and hosts the opening night. We started off our tour here.

Tivoli Mansion

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And there it is. A handsome building in the middle of the park with a commanding view across the city centre to the castle opposite. There are plenty of nude bronzes peppered throughout the park, including this one presumably of a couple of ballet dancers. It does however look more like a demonstrator in Woolworths (I know, but I’m old and I can’t think of modern equivalent) showing off a lady’s crotch like a piece of kitchen equipment.

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Parked, or should I say abandoned, directly out the front of the building is this piece by Volodymyr Kuznetsov, a Ukrainian artist, who we are helpfully informed, trained in textiles. Well, who needs a needle and thread if you’ve got an assault rifle? Like much modern art, which can seem nothing more than an attention seeking novelty, the story behind the work packs a punch. The work is entitled VIP Car, Monument to the ’90s. Well, as my old art teacher in first year said, ‘art holds a mirror to society‘, then this graphic reminder of the Balkan Civil Wars of the 1990’s, which would have been unavoidable at the opening night, right next to the Culture Minister’s speech and the gaze of the TV cameras, would have held up a very grimy, cracked mirror. Slovenia hitched up its alpine bloomers and exited the Post-Yugoslavian Wars early, and is often proud of the fact that it avoided the horrors of war and escaped with its reputation intact…. Except that it now emerges that several high level Slovene Politicians and figures in the military were actually selling arms to Croatia and Bosnia during the conflicts, and therefore, there are a few bullet holes in its story of itself. And I wouldn’t have known about this if it wasn’t for this car that’s been shot to shit. It’s a bit more than shit though, apparently the bullet holes mark out map border lines and traditional Ukrainian Folk embroidery. A 30th Biennial, which is part retrospective, couldn’t avoid the bloody conflict that happened within most of everybody’s lifetime, so here it was – up front. Literally. Up front.

Did I like it? No. It was a car shot to shit. But am I glad it was there? How could it not be there?

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Now, in the ground floor lobby is this extraordinary piece by an Argentinian artist, Tomas Espina. And there’s Penny too, wondering what the fuck I’m doing. I’m looking at the ceiling. Apparently Espina is fascinated/inspired by violence and makes work by burning, or using gunpowder or soot. Yeah, whatever. The effect is ironically so delicate, feathery even. This photo does not do the work any justice because on closer scrutiny (it’s scorch marks on the ceiling, so you can’t get that close) the ceiling looks like tea-stained wool or something tactile and 3D. It’s an extraordinary effect. I had to look and keep looking to be certain that it was actually 2D. …I wonder how many galleries Espina goes through? Can he get insurance? 

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On the first floor, this is the first thing that took my fancy. Tiny engravings of exquisitely drawn explosions. Yeah, it’s the whole juxtaposition of chaos expressed with such ordered precision, blah, blah, blah, but it’s so well done. These are beautiful.

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Here’s an awful blurry close-up of Mario Causic’s work. He’s a Croatian artist who wants to resensitise us to the impact of explosions. Erm. I dunno. They’re too beautifully done Mario.  You’ve made these blasts a work of fine art.

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Sssshhhh. Don’t tell anyone, but here’s Penny taking photographs of everything. Especially these. A Brazilian artist, Alex Cerveny illustrated ‘The Adventures of Pinocchio‘ using an old printing method called cliché verre, which uses a glass plate scorched by a candle. This enables the engraver to have a palate from lovely smoky soft lines to pin thin lines. So, not only is the medium charming, but his drawings were…totally enchanting.

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Aren’t these wonderful? Penny found Cerveny’s work particularly inspiring as it’s a printing technique that she hadn’t heard of before (or had, but had forgotten). His work also burrowed right into the marrow of the show, as he was using an old printing method, telling an old story, but using computer scanning to complete the process.

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Wasn’t particularly keen on this, but thought it warranted a mention as the stacks of paper looked positively urban skyline, and there was a satisfying mess to trawl through. The photocopied images were nice too. (Giant fans positioned at corners blew the papers around). Another Brazilian was responsible for this, well, mess: Andre Komatsu. But really. If you blow paper around, you get ….er… paper on the ground? I’m sure someone with more blood sugar or caffeine can be arsed to interpret this, but I can’t.

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Now, if you put magnetic blocks on a wall and invite the audience to create their own graphic dialogue with the piece (insert more art bollocks here), then inevitably people from Scotland will turn up and this is what happens. It was Serbian artist Milos Djordjevic’s idea to create this ‘interactive‘ (his word, God bless him) piece. And I’m sure funders the world over love that word. Yeah. Give the public a voice. Interactive! Tits. That’s what we say.

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A Vietnamese American, Tomas Vu-Daniel, remembers his childhood in Saigon and the American troops who used to surf there. The etchings were quite nice, although could easily resemble any wallpaper from John Lewis these days. The Habitat range of organic Surfboards. However, the occasional detail was sufficiently distracting.

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Like this Octopus made of tits.

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Now this wasn’t a blazing success aesthetically, but I loved the technology involved and the thinking behind it. Maria Elena Gonzalez, Cuban born, but now resident in Switzerland (that’s a choice made by someone who doesn’t want to go back to Cuba), has taken the bark from a Birch tree and turned the lines in the bark into gaps in a piano roll.

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A pianola now plays this roll, so you can now hear what a Birch tree sounds like. ….. ……. ……..It sounds fucking terrible.

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And one last look at Espina’s smoky ceiling on exiting. Kind of horrible and beautiful at the same time. And oh, there were plenty of other works, but I’m only focussing on the ones I like, the ones I don’t, and the ones that can’t escape my attention.

Gallery of Modern Art

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The Gallery of Modern Art is at the entrance to Tivoli Park, so only five minutes walk away. It’s a fine building with some interesting bits and bobs in there. The Biennial takes up half of the building during the run.

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This made me laugh at how shit it was. Now, I begin by making an apology: I don’t know if Dragan Ilic was the first man to make a robot draw. He could be. He was born in 1948, so it’s possible that he was the first to stick a pencil or pen into a metal claw and type ‘run‘. Apparently he’s been doing this for years. My apology is if he was the first, then he deserves some respect in the History or Art, or something. Good on him. Making robots draw. Well done. But if he wasn’t? You’d at least expect him to be good at it after all these years. Check that mess out. He controls the robot arm with a joy pad, so – if artistically inclined – he could draw a boat, or a dog, or even a winking nun. But no, he just faffs around and can’t even keep within the lines – a Primary 1 colouring in error. The point here is what I just wrote – if artistically inclined. If he’s an artist, then of course he should be artistically inclined. If you ask him to do anything arty or crafty, then it should be artful, or artistically realised. Just putting a canvas (or perspex board) on the floor and using technology to make a mark isn’t inherently arty. It’s inherently technical. And this was a theme that ran through a lot of works within this building: many were undeniably technical, but were low (or lacking completely) any artistic merit or aesthetic flair. So, Dragan, you might be able to wire a plug, but you can’t draw for shit.

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This next one tickled my fancy. It combined a few of my favourite things: Sumerian History, Bombastic Claims based on weak evidence and FILTH. Serbian Vuk (what a great name) Cosic (in English we’d pronounce his name Chositch) claims that he’s proven that the Sumerians had animations, using the cuneiform like etching marks, to build up a still image. To illustrate the technique, he marked three clay tablets with three stills from Deep Throat, that 1972 classic about a man in his pants and a very friendly lady. He’s called the work Very Deep ASCII, which is fun considering how shallow and lightweight his evidence is. But who cares? It’s some cuneiform porn. Where else do you get to see that?

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And here’s a close up of one of the tiles. I think this is a sausage being dipped in ketchup. Or no. Hang on. A hot dog fed to a donkey. Something like that.

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We had fun with this one. Ivan Marusic Klif has taken a X Box Kinect, or Connect, or however you spell that all seeing eye that sits on your game console, and used it to scan your body image and project it onto the wall in pleasing laser like lines. I don’t have to describe it much more as I filmed Penny creeping up on it and having fun with it. Is it art? Well, the images are …pleasing. But this is – like I mentioned before – one of those pieces that is far more a technical achievement than an artistic statement. If I was rich I’d probably buy this set up and stick it in the entrance hallway to my eccentric luxury lair: just to wig out visitors. If you didn’t know it was ‘art’, you’d probably shit yourself.

 

I loved the sounds too. Added to the ‘being scanned by something alien‘ theme.

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Disclaimer: we are Scottish. The next bout of fun to be had, was courtesy of a Chinese artist Xu Bing. Book from the Ground is his attempt to create an international lexicon based on pictorial graphics found in airline literature. For all those people who love Webdings but will never bother to learn Esperanto, he’s made two interfaces that interpret your inane chat into his coerced pictograms. Penny and I thought we’d have a go.

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Two computers separated by a wall.

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There’s Penny anticipating what literary delights await her.

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And here’s a wee test of the basics. Would this language be expressive enough for Inter-Caledonian Social Intercourse?

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Aye. It’s getting there.

Jakopičeva Gallery

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This Gallery lurks in a basement of a modern brick building which is an awesome masterpiece of 60’s or 70’s architecture. This location was host to a special show to celebrate the work of the winner of the 29th Graphic Biennial, Regina Jose Galindo. It showed a new work, ‘The Anatomy Lesson‘ and was also a retrospective. Galindo is a performance poet and artist based in Guatamala.

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And here she is. Lying on a slab normally reserved for corpses. She’s saying something really profound about… Oh. I’ll be honest here. I couldn’t stand her work. She’s almost a parody of an artist, because her statements are so weighted with political activism, feminist politics and whatever else you want to sling in there. Now, I feel bad for saying this because it’s hard to slag off an artist who is making bold political points in a country with a history of violence and repression, but I’m almost annoyed that she has this card to play – the perennial artist’s ‘get out of jail card’ of actually being ‘worthy‘ or even worse, ‘brave‘. The reason why this is annoying, is that ‘brave’ artists almost have nothing to contribute to a debate or argument, because they can embarrass a critic to silence with their worthiness. Who wants to criticise a ballet dancer with AIDS? Who wants to tell a blind painter that they’re SHIT? And who’d DARE to say that a small Guatamalan artist who is risking her safety by making her art is an attention seeking fanny? Don’t believe me? Look.

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There she is getting hosed down like they get hosed down in prison. Naked.

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There she is in a plastic bin bag discarded in a rubbish dump like so many people are in her country. Naked.

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There she is making a point about the mass graves and missing dead there are in her country. Naked. Yeah. She’s naked again. Infact, she can almost never keep her twat under wraps. Now, I know that this may be a magnificent act of reclaiming the female body from the lustful possession of the male gaze because of the unblinking power she exhibits when as naked. And the mere fact that I am rendered embarrassed, means that she’s doing it right. But. But, come on. Put some pants on******. ….. I wonder what her poetry’s like?

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Oh for fuck’s sake.

Kresija Gallery

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There’s our foxy artist on her way to the small but perfectly formed Kresija Gallery, which is in the old town across the river. To the right of the photo you can see a famous fountain being restored under a shroud (or rather replica of a famous fountain, the original is in the National Gallery under a glass roof to protect it against the elements). At the top of the photo you can see the castle. Ljubljana’s pretty isn’t it? In this gallery was an exhibition showing the work of Joan Miro’s Print Workshop. There were more artists on display than Miro, but Miro is worth focussing on. I enjoyed Penny talking me through the printing process.

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Here’s the original copper plate which is a thing of beauty.

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And the finished piece which is a handsome thing. A tad phallic with a bloody halo, but maybe that’s why it looks so good?

Museum of Contemporary Art

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The next venue is the Museum of Contemporary Art, shown here in a digital photo, that for some reason, failed to code properly. It’s a nice mistake, isn’t it? If you look closely – click on the image and zoom in if you can – you can see the blocks begin to go awry before they turn bottle green. A happy accident. And another happy accident was the fact that we discovered that there was a music festival on there, that night, called Ear Zoom – a computer music mini-festival. It was great fun. But anyway, another story for another day. Back to the Biennial. Tucked away in one gallery in this building was a show dedicated to the Hungarian Artist, Miklos Erdely. His thing was repetition.

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As seen here in a row of photographs that show triplicates. Penny’s having a good look at them.

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For example, this lady. Look. It’s three photos of her. ….Is it me, or is this really boring? Well. Yes, and no. Some of his drawings had a certain charm, and his photography wasn’t awful. But, his thing was thinking about repetition in art, or in life, and we were provided with his manifesto cum paper on the subject. He did have some interesting and worthwhile things to say.

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He did have some interesting and worthwhile things to say. He did…. snurk snurk! Hilarious.

Ljubljana Castle – Octagonal Tower

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Here’s Ljubljana Castle, which has a most commanding view of the surrounding land. We got there by funicular train, which is a swift and fun ride to the castle, and deposits its passengers within subterranean vaults, all rough hewn out of the rock, sprouting a forest of iron pillars which support the chambers above. It’s a tad 1970’s James Bond. To confuse you, this photo shows you the front gate to the castle which is nowhere near everything I’ve described. Anyway, we were there to see another Biennial treat: a wee exhibit of the American Sculptor, Robert Morris.

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And here’s the diagonal tower hosting the exhibition. And a big banner: Robert Morris. This is exciting. We’re told this is a real coup to have some work by Sculptor superstar Robert Morris.

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And there it is. Some sketches of his sculptures printed on big bits of fabric. …..What a swizz. ………….. I could have been in the gift shop. However, nice tower. This is not the first time I’ve seen a venue totally upstage the half-assed art.

Tivoli Park – Jakopic Promenade

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Leading up to Tivoli Mansion is this promenade, which always has these boards for displaying work – typically photography. For this Biennial, Charles Juhasz-Alvarado, a Filipino artist trained in architecture and sculpture, has turned his hand to photographing sign language, and – we are told – is building a kind of melody that accompanies the viewer along the path.

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This long exposure, blurry photograph is typical of this work – ‘Entre Manos (From Hand to Hand): Cipher, Knot, Nebula‘ – and it’s a nice idea, but well, not particularly captivating. Because, how captivating can a long exposure, blurry photograph be? Not very. And absolutely loads of them? Still: not very.

Svicarija Building

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This handsome and rather large building sits on higher ground to the rear of Tivoli Mansion. Apparently it’s going to be refurbished at some point, presumably into a cafe or restaurant, as that is what it probably was at some time. It gives you a flavour of Slovenian architecture – the rural vernacular – which is pretty much Tyrolean.

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Inside we see the work of German Printmaker Thomas Kilpper. His shtick is to take over a room in an unloved building and transform one plane within the room – be it floor or wall – and transform it into a woodcut or etching. After what must be a lot of ink, Herr Kilpper makes a print, which is HUGE and WHAPS (technical term) onto the opposite plane. In this building, he transformed the floor into printing medium, and ceiling into print. It’s hard to show you the work in these photos as the work is the entire room. I like what he did.

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But Penny loved it. We both liked his bold graphic abstract style, but Penny was blown away by the sheer technical feat of it all. As a Printmaker she could appreciate how much work went into it, and how well executed it was.

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And it was. Nice, isn’t it?

Cankarej Dom

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This venue is almost worth the plane ticket. And I mean venue, not the Gallery. Cankarej dom, or Cankar Hall (named after a writer) is a massive sprawling conference/gallery/theatre/shopping complex built at the tail end of the 70’s. Yet again, Slovenia comes up trumps with a setting that wouldn’t look out of place in a 70’s Bond movie. One gallery played host to the Biennial: this one hosting a retrospective of all the biennials.

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There are some handsome prints on a …printed wallpaper.

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Lots of wallpaper, specially commissioned. The artist? Can’t be arsed finding out. It wasn’t that interesting. So, I suppose the artist did a good job.

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The mglc collects artists’ books and ephemera, and so, for the punters to peruse are some arty books.

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Phwoar.

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And ZAP! Presumably that’s Zeus getting excited. Actually, this little book was full of great drawings. An Argentian artist called Omar Panosetti is responsible for this memorable image, and many others. Imagine if David Shrigley could draw? Meet Omar Panosetti.

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Some prints from their collection. There are a few big names in there, including an Eduardo Paolozzi, which I would show you, but it was naff. Looked like a sweater from 1974.

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And posters from previous biennials. Some great posters in there. And not so great. Ah, art, how you keep us on your toes with your alternately sweet, and alternately poisoned bounty.

Temporary Exhibition Site

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I know, Temporary Exhibition Site doesn’t sound very classy, but that’s what it’s called. In Slovene, it’s Zacasno razstavisce, which sounds racier. Anyway, we managed to catch the opening for this on the night before we flew home. Or rather, we managed to sneak in before the opening, just as the chain smoking and weary artists had finished hanging their work – and were powerless to resist two nosey Scots. I would have hung around for the opening – just for the atmosphere, the energy, and the free drink – but I wasn’t too well that day, having being assaulted from within by a Slovenian sausage. I’m not kidding you, I think I almost died trying to digest that motherfucker. Anyway, we had a quick tour and this is what I can be arsed showing you.

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There’s some pinkish boards on a wall. And a table, slick with some ink or gel, lagooned with islands of kitsch.

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Tiny porcelain goats leaping over pink hillocks be-sprigged with crimson foliage!

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Some gunmen/freedom fighters/terrorists amusingly embedded within a flock of photoshopped cherubim. What Happened? ….What Happened? That was the name of this show. Apparently showing some local – but not just Slovenian – talent.. And what did happen? Well, some artists made some art that wouldn’t look out of place in any show, anywhere, on Earth. The art scene is the grand homogeniser, and as the compass of taste spins wildly, there’s no way an audience can orientate themselves when visiting a show in Milan, or Glasgow, or Beijing, or Paris, or New York ….or Ljubljana. All they know is that this is modern art – and we’re meant to interpret it. It was a disappointing end to a fine Biennial, but not unexpected if Graphic Art will follow behind Conceptual Art, trying to ape its movements and match its pace. Disappointing too because I missed out on a free drink. And everyone knows that you know it’s art, because there’s free drink.

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So here’s Penny & I enjoying one of many free drinks at Ear Zoom – not the Biennial, but a computer music festival organised by the friendly and charming Miha Ciglar, (who even gave us a carry out*******).

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*If you don’t bother reading the words and just look at the photographs, then fine by me. I don’t blame you. There’s probably only one thing worse than a long article full of art bollocks. It’s a longer article complaining about art bollocks.
**Picture this scene. An artist passing an art theorist in the street. Which one has fancy shiny new shoes? Which one has old trainers with holes in them, letting in water? Well, no prizes for guessing. This little vignette actually happened, and certainly left an impression on me. It was Penny, an artist with impressive skillz (as da yoof say) passing one of her old art crit tutors from Art School. Art Bollocks pays kids: being able to draw, doesn’t.
***In a nutshell, the Communist Leader of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz, popularly known by his nickname Tito, had a ‘non-aligned’ policy, which in essence was a refusal to acknowledge Stalin as being in charge. Stalin didn’t like this and sent assassins to murder Tito. They failed. Tito contacted Stalin and wrote: “Stop sending people to kill me. We’ve already captured five of them, one of them with a bomb and another with a rifle (…) If you don’t stop sending killers, I’ll send one to Moscow, and I won’t have to send a second”. Stalin left Tito alone after that. Tito’s Yugoslavia became the most open and progressive of the Communist countries, but I hesitate to wholly endorse the man, being ignorant of growing up in Yugoslavia. What I can say is that Tito is certainly still thought of fondly by many in Slovenia. When browsing for wi-fi connections in my hotel, ‘Tito’ was the name of someone’s connection.
****Penny Sharp is my better half and also an artist. She’s a trained Printmaker and Animator, and really knows her stuff.
*****There’s always something going on in Ljubljana – especially around the time of the Biennial. We’ve seen Poster Festivals, Comics Festivals, Feminist Artists’ Shows and even Ear Zoom – a Computer Music festival.
******Perhaps I’m being unfair here. After all, who can blame an artist – or anyone – from engaging in a bit of ‘attention seeking’ when the world is so crowded with attention seekers? If she was subtle, or nuanced, then would we know her name? Would anyone pay attention? I’ve been known to engage in a bit of crowd pleasing lowest common denominator behaviour myself, so who is without sin, should cast the first stone. And that wouldn’t be me. But Penny could.  But, she liked Galindo’s work, and has no desire to lob anything at our tiny, intense Guatemalan friend.
*******Of books not booze. If we can afford it (and that’s a huge if), we would probably go back to Ljubljana for next year’s Ear Zoom. It was a lot of fun.

The Dark Outside FM

October 2, 2013

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The radio was tuned to 87.7 fm on the car radio. As the car nosed its way along the forest road, the sea of static on the radio rippled with occasional waves of music. I was travelling with my partner Penny and my elder brother, Sinclair on a Saturday afternoon in September 2013. We were on our way to find the transmitter for a rather unique radio station, The Dark Outside FM, broadcasting for 24 hours in the heart of the Galloway Forest Park, as part of the Environmental Arts Festival Scotland.
With each turn in the road, the signal would either grow stronger, or disappear altogether into hiss – the signal itself, blocked by a ridge of trees, or a spur of grey rock. But slowly and surely with each mile gained further north-east up the road between Newton Stewart and New Galloway, the music would grow louder and clearer. I had been told that the range of the transmitter would be 6 miles, so we knew we were close and closing. It was exciting tracking down a radio transmitter using a radio receiver; and a novel reminder of what the technology is and how it works. Radio waves are out there.

The Dark Outside FM is the brainchild of Stuart McLean a.k.a DJ Frenchbloke, (for those in the know, a formidable talent in the producing/ remixing/ bootlegging/ mashup scene). I’ve known Stuart for nearly 20 years and our first collaboration was Special Treatment, an unusual music show which eventually found itself on Subcity Radio from 1996 to 1998. Subcity was originally broadcast over the airwaves and there’s something especially invigorating about live broadcast. Back in the day we had quite a following and many of our Subcity stable-mates have gone onto have careers in radio; notably Fred MacAulay on BBC Radio Scotland and Steve Urquhart and Aleks Krotoski on BBC Radio 4. However, glittering success and career stability have never been Stuart & I’s style. It’s not like we’re keeping it real – more like keeping it surreal. Special Treatment still crawls forth in different forms: my presenting alter-ego Benjamin Baker is still active as a narrator for BBC Education. And Special Treatment has resurfaced on the online podcast Subcity Radio, albeit for a short time at the beginning of the year. However, without the stimulus of live broadcast over the rolling airwaves, I fear that Dr Baker has somewhat lost his sea legs. Or air legs? Sound legs? Whatever, there’s something undeniably special about radio. Radio waves are out there. Now.

The Dark Outside FM is 24 hours of music that have never been heard before, being broadcast to the stars in The Dark Skies Park, Galloway, Scotland. Interest in the project has been immense, both from contributors and the global media. An opportunity to air a dodgy remix or surreptitiously unleash a foolhardy side project has been too good to resist for hundreds of producers, musicians and bands. Especially since Stuart erases the file after broadcast. To quote Stuart, “the only way to hear, is to be there!
And so we found Stuart, at the end of a 10 minute climb on a small hill, capped by Murray’s Monument, an impressive obelisk to celebrate a local shepherd boy who grew up to become a Professor in Oriental Languages. Beneath this, was Stuart’s own metallic obelisk – the FM transmitter – battery powered and plugged into an MP3 player.
Last year (yes, this is the second year of the Dark Outside FM), it was only Stuart and Ben Hayes, a.k.a DJ Soundhog (for those in the know, also a formidable talent in the producing/ remixing/ bootlegging/ mashup scene). Just two grown men up a hill all night with frozen equipment.
This year was different. A marquee of sorts, garlanded by disco lights. Inflatable sofas. A coffee table. And sprinkled all around, were radios, blaring out 87.7 FM.
And people. Lots and lots of people. Like I said, last year was a rather sparsely populated affair. But this year, due to the Dark Outside FM coinciding with the Environmental Arts Festival Scotland – and the increasing popularity of the event itself – we had a couple of hundred attendees. I say we because in a small way I was part of the broadcast as I recorded the station idents and stings. It’s not the first time I got to strut around like somebody important or integral despite being the creative equivalent of parsley – this was very much the case with Stuart and Ben’s band Tauchsieder. I am officially part of that band, but I’m very much the Victoria Beckham or Jason Orange of the group. And imagine if they were fat and hairy? What would be the point? It was a Tauchsieder reunion, if only we had all met before. This was my first meeting with Ben. The name Soundhog is misleading. Soundgent? Tweedsound? DJ Justifiable Nostalgia due to Modern Manufacturing Obsolescence? He’s not really a hog. But then again, hogs do get a bad press.

The day went swiftly and amicably. There was a tent to pitch and more art to see. The Astronomer Royal of Scotland, Professor John Brown did some magic tricks and talked about the cosmos in a marquee. Cocktails were served afterwards. This is important as nothing says ‘art’ like free drink. When the sky did go dark, Murray’s Monument was lit up like a giant lava lamp and the party was well on the way.
Unfortunately the stars didn’t come out to play. It was overcast with occasional showers carried on a cool breeze blowing. But with the music blaring and the drink now flowing, it didn’t matter. Infused with whisky, shortbread, good company and very, very good music, it didn’t matter. A soiree up a wet hill underneath a giant lava lamp, tripping over a dozen portable radios, might not be your cup of lapsang souchong, but it most certainly was mine.

In the morning, the primeval pleasure of hunkering down next to a fire (or stove at least) was made complete by the electro-acoustic drone of the ambient music floating over the campsite via a handful of radios. It was like Brian Eno was broadcasting from the grass. Top tip to all you budding campers out there: bring a Scoutmaster. I did. Thanks to Sinclair for his expertise – and to 5th Paisley Oldhall Scouts for the use of their tents.
A final ascent and the pips sounded out. The 24th hour of broadcasting had come to an end at noon on Sunday. The Dark Outside was a unique experience and the project was a complete success. Stuart had edited together a fascinating listen, engaging and never exhausting, for a total of 24 hours. I know glittering success is something Stuart tries to avoid, but tragically with the Dark Outside FM, he’s got a winner on his hands. Next year it’ll be like Glastonbury. But until that disaster happens, the Dark Outside FM broadcast is still out there. Rippling past the moon. Into the dark outside.

Sound

It’s not quite true that everything heard on the Dark Outside FM is heard only once and nevermore. I mean, you could just turn up and record it. This is indeed what Ben did, using an old tapedeck, and pressing record as and when his whim dictated.
This short, edited and poor quality recording nevertheless captures the je ne sais quoi of the broadcast. With the added bonus hiss of a 30 year old audio cassette.




Stuart also puts up the idents on his soundcloud page. But only the idents. Nothing else. Here’s the first one.





Pictures

There’s a theme emerging about celebrating the limitations of technology, and my trusty camera joined in and finally succumbed to entropy. The cracked shutter now lets in light, and is now doing its own special effects. However, you’ll note some images are enhanced by this – notably the photo of Sinclair crouched over the stove. It’s a cracking photo isn’t it? Serendipity!



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Sinclair with Murrays Monument Behind



There was an official photographer and I provide a link to his photos, but there are no photos of the Dark Outside FM. Perhaps photographing a radio station doesn’t quite cut it? I have my own theory. When the gentleman made it up to Murray’s Monument and the FM HQ, it was already dark. Added to this is the fact that Penny spilled whisky over his camera and then later, he fell down the hill. His pics are here.

Kim Ayres was also recording the day’s events and even made a wee film. He also fell down a hill.

Scooby Doo – the outtakes

August 11, 2013

Scooby Doo Outtake

Picture the Scene.

Scooby: asleep in his basket. Shaggy: all shagged out. Daphne: on ebay, she looks the type. I bet she’s got an online vintage shop. Fred: he’s typing up his notes from the latest escapade. And Velma: she’s photocopying. What’s she photocopying? Proformas. She’s convinced that they need to …formalise their investigative methodology.

Okay, so this is downtime between investigations. The necessary flipside of paranormal investigating. Paperwork. But at least they have something to write about. Even if it is just ‘Old Man Withers’ who would have gotten away with it ‘if it wasn’t for they pesky kids’. For those of us who don’t travel in the Mystery Machine, our investigations are usually a little more …sedate. Not only do we – or at least I do – lots of work to complete a report, but what – if anything – are we reporting? Do on-site investigations – or vigils – accomplish anything? Do they provide anything approaching evidence? Or are they just opportunities for paranormal thrill-seekers to indulge in collective fantasy?

Hmmm. Well, it depends

I joined the Scottish SPR in 1998 and joined the investigators group in 2000. Apart from cases involving clients, the SSPR also conducts vigils, which by their nature usually take place in venues which aren’t private residences; businesses, hotels, inns, heritage sites, those sorts of places. When we began, it was before the age of Most Haunted, so our visits were unusual, and most businesses didn’t want anyone to know who we were and why we were there. We were discreetly smuggled in and – if it was an inn or hotel with guests – only given free reign of the place after all of the other guests went to bed. It’s amazing what difference Most Haunted made. Suddenly, the embarrassment vanished. The roaming hordes of paranormal investigators seeking out a haunted hostelry were met with sound business sense. After all, a roaming horde is a roaming horde. Hotels, Inns and Pubs once coy and shifty about their non-paying guests, now included their presence in their marketing literature. Hotels became Haunted Hotels, and their brochures and websites not only advertised their ghosts, but told you what room to book if you wanted a wee thrill in the night. I remember one hotel that actually cancelled our visit at the last minute because it was so paranoid that its secret haunting shame would leak out and ‘damage its wedding bookings’. The same hotel now boasts of its ghosts on the homepage of its website.

So, certainly things have changed. And so has how we – the SSPR – conduct our vigils.

My first vigil was in an Ayrshire Inn, and I was immediately smitten by the smell of coal smoke on the icy starlit air when I arrived. There was a coal fire in the bar, and a trio of locals nursing whiskies in the dim red glow. The inn was run down; threadbare carpets and chipped bannisters on the stairs, but somehow glorious. Faded, but somehow radiant – the glow of a few hundred years and a few thousand lives that have spent time there. Now – and it still depresses me when I think of how it used to be – it’s been restored to a Disneyfied version of the past – all clean and respectable. Somewhere you can bring your cousins from Chipping Norton to. That bad. Anyway, after the punters had gone home, and the guests had gone to bed, we’d set up our cameras and occupy our spots. Two people per location, armed with ELF meters, thermometers, wind meters. Changing places throughout the night. And staying up all night. We’d review our video recordings later. In the morning we’d gather round and compare experiences. Nothing was written down during the night. I don’t even think anything was written down during the debrief. Usually, the vigil organiser would write their own report, and naturally would focus on their own experience.

My first vigil being in charge was in a small shopping mall. Mall makes it sound awful, so perhaps bohemian merchant collective paints a better picture. The first thing that I changed was the protocol of getting everything written down in situ, to eliminate, or at least reduce the possibility of confabulation or being unduly influenced by other people. At the end, people could share, but only that which was written down counted as evidence. This was the first of my tweaks, and what follows is a summary of my current protocol – and reasons why.

1. Is a vigil an experiment? If it is, what it is trying to prove? There’s no point in turning up somewhere with a reputation for being haunted and then ooooh having a spooky experience. It proves nothing. You need a target to hit. First of all, find a witness. Then get the witness to provide you with something tangible to aim for – e.g. a numerical score attached to a particular location within a building. If your investigators (naturally kept ignorant) match this score with something similar, then you’ve proved something. Not necessarily that somewhere is haunted, just that there’s something about that location that makes people have similar feelings or experiences.

2. No need to pair off investigators for corroboration. They’re not there to provide supporting testimony for each other – they’re there to provide data, unmuddied by other participants. You see, if it’s possible for two people to get it right, then it’s just as possible for two people to get it wrong. And the brain can be remarkably pliable when dealing with the potent cocktail of poor sensory information and verbal suggestions from a trusted colleague. During one vigil, when a group broke protocol (the presence of a film crew brings out all sorts of atypical behaviour), a group of five became convinced they were communicating with a disembodied spirit: it was the plumbing. Hissing pipes plus wannabe medium equals that potent cocktail (not forgetting the angostura bitters of showbusiness)… And so much of paranormal investigation (as seen on TV) is some kind of collective thrill seeking – ripe for hallucination, hysteria and all sorts of nonsense.

3. Equipment. What equipment? It’s fascinating to see the plethora of gadgets now available to paranormal investigators, but I use pretty much none of it. In my experience, audio and video recordings rarely if ever come up with unambiguous evidence. And that is the key. Unambiguous. The amount of sound recordings, photographs and video recordings that I’m asked to examine that contains nothing of interest is remarkable: remarkable for the amount, and the fact that somebody thinks it’s worth examining. You’d think hard evidence is hard evidence. But, so much of it is so very, very floppy. It also says something very interesting about the psychology of perception, that people can be so convinced that something is SO solid a piece of evidence, so objective, when infact, it’s so very subjective. Try and convince someone that their photo of a ghost is actually a gap in a hedge, and you become aware that despite sharing the same space, believers and disbelievers live in different universes. … It’s not to say that I would dismiss all gadgets. We’ve come up with interesting results using thermometers (finding out separately from Parascience that ghostly happenings are accompanied by an intriguingly precise drop in temperature – 20 degrees centigrade). And if someone gave me £6,000 to buy a proper infrared video camera, then I’d use it. But until we’ve got a serious budget to spend on serious equipment, there’s little point in faffing about with trinkets.

Paranormal Investigating is ultimately a hobby. And riding hobby horses should be fun. If they’re to be worthwhile investigations, then they at least should nod towards the scientific method, and that’s what I try to do. The SSPR does, after all, investigate the paranormal in a scientific manner. But I don’t believe that paranormal investigating, especially conducting vigils, will ever present the world with anything approaching evidence of paranormal activity. And that’s not because I don’t believe in the paranormal, nor do I think that vigils are sterile environments for weirdness or extraordinary events. It’s just that….

Paranormal investigating will never prove the existence of the paranormal. But paranormal thinking will. It’s not the evidence that’s the problem, although, it is a problem. It’s the rhetorical argument. The theory. The Psi is… There is a lot of evidence. But it’s like a whole bunch of number ones that never add up to two.. We need a really clever theoretical physicist or mathematician to figure out why the paranormal doesn’t add up. It’s long been my gut instinct that this whole paranormal palaver won’t be solved by evidence, but by a neat and succinct thought experiment ~ or a lovely equation.

Perhaps Shaggy’s thinking on this right now. As he sits in a haze of hotdog farts. We always thought he was a moron. Or a stoner. And he talks to his dog, and he’s convinced that his dog talks back. Yup. Shaggy sure is an oddball.

There was a mathematician once that also talked to his dog. His name was James Clerk Maxwell.

C’mon on Shaggy. You can do it.

Yikes!

 

P.S – It’s also worth noting that usually NOTHING happens during vigils, and I’m well placed to say this. Especially at the moment, as I’m writing this blog entry during one! I’m in the basement of a Victorian Mansion in Edinburgh while my team are dispersed throughout the building. As paragaffer, I’m drinking tea and taking it easy.

Pecha Kucha!

July 8, 2013

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Until a couple of weeks ago, I hadn’t heard of Pecha Kucha. A Guatemalan martial art? A Mexican dip? No. It’s Japanese for chit-chat and a presentation format developed by bored architects to lessen the possibility of boredom: just 20 slides, and 20 seconds per slide, to wow with whatever…. Pretty much everyone else I spoke to knew what Pecha Kucha was – just I was woefully behind the times.

Hannah McGill, Journalist, Critic, Writer, Artist, Polymath, Superwoman (I’ve seen the cape) did Pecha Kucha Edinburgh Vol 22, but was unable to attend Vol 23. She very kindly suggested my name to the organiser of the evening, Gordon Duffy (an architect; you’ll find out that architects are still holding onto their baby, unwilling to let non-architects run away with their pre-fab modernist chat gazebo that is branded™, sleekly packaged and a global success) and Gordon kindly put me on the bill.

So, 20 slides, 20 seconds. What would I do? You’re meant to talk about what you do. Well, being reared both Scottish and Presbyterian, talking about yourself without remorseless self-loathing or clanging self criticism is hard, so I tried to avoid talking about my writing, performing or drawing.  Instead, I did a presentation on my paranormal investigating.

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Initially I was going to trawl through old photos of me staying up all night in haunted inns/pubs, etc, but then thought that I should draw the slides instead. I wrote a script and timed each paragraph to neatly synchronise with the slideshow. On reflection, if I had a bit more time to prepare/rehearse, I would have (should have) done it unscripted. Most of the other Pecha Kucha Presenters riffed off their own slides and it was a better experience for it. Anyway, it was a fine night and a good experience.  If I did it now, only a few days later, I would do it differently and write it differently. But, here for you, is a re-recording of the words spoken when it was originally performed. It ain’t perfect but then again, neither am I. I’m already paranoid that it’s too sceptical or too mocking…  I don’t want anyone to think, especially past or future clients, that I don’t take them – or what they say – seriously. I do. And that includes those who claim to be abducted by aliens. I mean, who am I to judge? Like I say repeatedly in the presentation ~ I don’t know. And I really don’t. I was just going for cheap laughs. Shame. So, on the 66th anniversary of the ‘Roswell Incident’ – on which I will say NOTHING – please enjoy my presentation!

CAUTION Contains NUDITY and STRONG LANGUAGE Cert 15!

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