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Mark Fell - Descartes, Techno and Diagramming the Listener

Rene Descartes isn't the first name you think of when talking about techno-inspired electronic sound and light installations. The seventeenth century French mathematician and founding father of modern western philosophy is very much on Mark Fell's mind, however, as the artist, producer and sonic explorer talks about Diagramming the Listener, a new installation that forms part of Summerhall's Edinburgh Festival Fringe visual arts programme.

“When Descartes wrote 'I think, therefore I am,” says Fell, “it defined what it means to be human, this rational being who solves problems at a distance. In philosophy this is called the Cartesian subject, and is something that's deeply embedded in our culture, but I try to question that.

“For example, coming from a working class background, you make things with your hands, but you can also observe that my dad, who was a steel-worker, is very different to Cartesian man. Descartes only came to the conclusions he did because he had servants.”

This might sound a rather lofty treatise on an installation which references geometry and cognitive neuroscience as well as underground music and radical politics. Fell, however, is cheerfully inclusive.

“It shouldn't just be for experts,” he says. “You don't need a PhD to see it, and I don't want to send out the wrong signals that I'm someone who's just obsessed with philosophy. When I came up with the title of Diagramming the Listener, it was about what it means to be a listening person rather than a thinking person. But it's not important to know that. If someone comes in and just has a weird experience that's fine by me.”

Fell grew up in South Yorkshire in the village next to Orgreave, site of one of the most notorious battles between striking miners and the police during the 1984-85 miners strike. It was a conflict that became a symbol, both of Margaret Thatcher's reign as UK prime minister, and of the class war it defined.

“As a young kid at school,” Fell remembers, “I was quite oppositional. I was like the brainy kid, but I was also a trouble-maker. I grew up dissatisfied with the things the teachers were telling me, and when the Battle of Orgreave happened it felt like everything was falling apart. Britain at that time was a horrible, violent and vindictive place to be.”

A lifeline for Fell came through art.

“The first things I got into as a young person were electronic music, books and films. My brother who was at college was quite bohemian, and he came into contact with that generation of leftist college lecturers who were giving him books that he never read but they came into the house and I could read them. At the same time the New Romantic thing was going on. My parents next door neighbour had a synthesiser which I borrowed, and it was amazing. From the ages of fourteen to twenty-five I was just in this cocoon of music, literature and film. It was psychic survival. I grew up late.”

In the late 1980s Fell went to Sheffield Polytechnic just as club culture was bubbling up through the underground. While there, he made “a lot of very bad House music,” though he recognises some of the excesses of the era as a direct response to some of the iniquities being inflicted on his generation by the government.

“That dance music and club explosion between 1987 and 1992 coincided with a particular point in British history,” he says, “and that wasn't a coincidence. That five year period where everybody was taking far too many drugs – and for me that revolved around what became a community of clubbers in Sheffield - the drug use and the partying was some kind of collective medication following abuses to our community committed by the government. We were just a bunch of people in Sheffield going along with what was going on, but it became its own little community, where we had no time for sexism and racism or anything like that. It was very Utopian.”

Fell makes this mix of hedonism and collective expression sound like an episode of This is England '90, the culmination of Shane Meadows' Sheffield-set saga of a gang of working class friends coming of age in Thatcher's Britain. It's perhaps no coincidence that the series was produced by Warp Films, formed on the back of the Warp record label, founded in Sheffield to release some of the welter of electronic music coming out of the city and beyond. This included works by Cabaret Voltaire mainstay Richard H Kirk in various guises, The Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada.

Fell himself has released records on various labels since 1998 under names including Sensate Focus, and in duo with Mat Steel as SND.

“I was listening to Throbbing Gristle and Coil,” Fell says, “and in the nineties aftermath of the club explosion you had quite extreme electronic music which I fitted into.”

While he cites names such as Pansonic, Oval, Ryoji Ikeda and Farmer's Manual as fellow travellers, it is to club culture he keeps returning.

“A lot of what I do comes from a club aesthetic,” Fell says. “The sounds I use often refer to club music, and even though I use quite weird sounds these days, there is a relationship there with 1980s techno records.”

Beyond Diagramming the Listener itself, Fell will take part in a performance at Summerhall mid-way through the show's run. This will be presented by Edinburgh-based experimental music promoters Braw Gigs, and will form part of Summerhall's in-house music programme promoted under the name, Nothing Ever Happens Here. A trio of solos presentations will feature New York based South Korean cellist, composer and improviser Okkyung Lee, with artist and composer Carl Michaell von Hausswolff will use recording equipment as an instrument. Fell himself will “probably do something rhythmic.”

Diagramming the Listener forms part of Noisemaker, a series of loosely connected exhibitions at Summerhall based around the notion of the artist as communicator, agitator and general provocateur, stirring things up in unexpected ways. At the centre of this is Context is Half the Work – A Partial History of the Artist Placement Group, which documents a unique initiative in the 1960s and 1970s which saw artists seconded to industries and public institutions.

In solo shows, Turner Prize winner Laure Provost presents video works in Monolog, and Haroon Mirza's Adam, Eve, Others and a UFO works with LED lights and computer generated sound. In Hyper Bowl, Tamsyn Challenger creates an expansive performance out of an epic battle of wits, while Glasgow-based artists Pester and Rossi turn the world day-glo with a set of DIY performances. An overview of the relationship between contemporary art guru Joseph Beuys and Richard Demarco completes the season.

Fell may not be aware of what the other shows will be made of as he prepares his own work, but they too will add something to the experience of Diagramming the Listener.

“For me it's not just about the physical space,” he says. “It's about the arrangement of things in there, and different people will respond to different things in different ways. That's human.”

Diagramming The Listener, Summerhall until September 30. A performance by Mark Fell, Okkyung Lee and Carl Michael von Hausswolff will take place at Summerhall on August 17. All exhibitions in Noisemaker run at Summerhall until September 30. Context is Half the Work. A Partial History of the Artist Placement Group runs at Summerhall until October 5.
www.summerhall.co.uk

The Herald, August 16th 2016

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