The Arches / Glasgow School of Art, Glasgow
When Gustav Metzger talks about the doomed 1937 flight of the Hindenburg in the same terms as the jet planes which crashed into the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001, it puts his ideas of auto-destructive art into an explicitly political context which advocates creativity beyond catastrophe. Metzger’s quietly gnomic presence at the Self-Cancellation strand of 2008’s Instal festival gave things a sense of historical countercultural kudos not seen in Glasgow since he was invited to take part in a 30th anniversary discussion of the Destruction In Art Symposium in 1996.
Also present at both events was novelist/agitator Stewart Home, whose early 90s Art Strike took inspiration from Metzger’s 1970s model. Home pointed to how the nihilism of punk was born from a brief time in the mid-1970s when, with industrial unrest crippling Britain’s industries, there was the possibility of a real revolutionary situation. Metzger himself observed at Saturday’s round table discussion, chaired by The Wire contributor Brian Morton, that auto-destructive art was an “isolated phenomenon, which never got beyond the manifesto stage”, but which was a “failed project which could be resurrected any moment”. Self-Cancellation was an attempt at such a resurrection, itself a bittersweet irony given that its co-producers, London Musicians’ Collective, sit poised to be cancelled out by shamefully small minded funding bodies.
Taking their moves from 9 Principles of Self-Cancellation in Sound, a new ‘manifesto’ by harpist Rhodri Davies, on Friday night ten musician-artists offered a variety of interpretations of self-cancellation. These ranged from Robin Hayward playing his tuba as sand slowly poured into the bell, the ultimate mute, to Lee Patterson’s close-miked burning of seeds and plopping liver salts into glass containers filled with measures of water. John Butcher manipulated saxophone feedback via the use of piano wire and acoustic guitar rather than his breath. Michael Colligan worked with dry ice, while Davies involved the entire company in Palimpsest #1, in which nine Sudoku puzzles taken from The Guardian were used as a score, overlaid until they cancelled each other out.
One of the most familiar meldings of sound and space in commercially recognisable terms was Archisonic, Mark and John Bain’s performed rendering of sounds picked up from seismic sensors and oscillators attached to the venue itself. This generated an organic dub, which later morphed into the sort of Techno beats the Arches are more used to in its longstanding function as a Friday night club venue. Davies’s interpretation with Benedict Drew and Chris Weaver of Metzger’s own Acid/Nylon, in which acid was thrown onto materials that self-destructed on impact, was made all the more powerful amplified and enlarged on a big screen.
On Saturday, Brian Morton mentioned The Shout, Jerzy Skolimowsky’s 1978 film of Robert Graves’s story in which a man’s vocal wail is powerful enough to kill. Mark Bain provided an accidental parallel to this when he pointed out that Archisonic was a smaller version of a system which destroyed buildings with sounds generated from their own bricks and mortar.
Much of the discussion dealt with what self-cancellation actually meant and how it differed from auto-destruction. For artist Ross Birrell, who had invited Metzger to Glasgow in 1996, self-cancellation was “more personal”. As a longtime advocate of Metzger and documentarist of transitory site-specific art, Birrell more than anyone at Self-Cancellation recognised its minefield of contradictions. For Rhodri Davies it was “less about the self, more about cancellation. It’s less about me.”
This was in line with Davies’s thesis that “sound dissipates. It is transient”, which he himself took up as he caused pieces of his instrument, already dismantled and hanging as if awaiting execution, to come crashing floorwards. Metzger was clearly taken with these new keepers of the flame. Even as he talked of his German boyhood in the shadow of the bomb, out of the rubble creativity was all. “It will be fruitful,” he said, “and will multiply.”
The Wire, issue 290, April 2008