ALL THIS COULD BE YOURS / limited edition cassette - 2010
The A-side and B-side of a cassette single, produced and assembled as a limited edition in Detroit/Bay City as part of my Cranbrook MFA thesis work back in 2010. Thanks to Trevor, Phil, et al. I recently found a box of 20 original cassettes, so I decided to make them available for sale on Bandcamp. The cassettes come with xeroxed and hand-colored J-cards and a double-sided 11” x 17” poster.
Manchester, perhaps more than any other city I’ve explored, embodies this connection between place and musical expression, as music is inextricably linked to the city’s history in the second half of the twentieth century. This is probably due in large part to the culture of mythology that has developed around the city, particularly in recent times, as 2010 marked the thirtieth anniversary of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis’s death. Indeed, beyond embodying the connection between place and identity, Manchester embodies the confusion that occurs when official narratives, half-remembered pasts, and obsessively romanticized versions of history and place build up on top of each other, so that the mythic city of “Manchester” and the location’s physical actuality are completely inseparable.
Manchester’s transition from post-war hellhole to urban property development “paradise” is closely linked to its musical history, following a line from the Sex Pistols’ performance in 1976 at the Lesser Free Trade Hall to the progression of Joy Division, Factory Records, New Order, the Stone Roses, and Oasis. As journalist Paul Morley writes, “It’s crazy, although oddly it can be done, to map a journey, some muffled, defiant adventure, from the suicide of Ian Curtis to the opening of a Manchester Harvey Nichols. It’s just as crazy, but I’ve attempted it and sometimes pulled it off, to chart a course from the shorts that A Certain Ratio wore as they danced to their very own barking, grievous dance music to the number of boutique hotels that existed in Manchester by the early years of the 21st century.”1 Joy Division, or the memory thereof, forms a sort of collective cultural pivot point within the myth/story of Manchester, a point knowingly honed during the band’s existence and afterwards by its godfather/guru, Tony Wilson. Wilson founded Factory Records, built the Haçienda nightclub (a pinpointable example of place, music, and myth converging), and became the de facto cultural leader, for better or worse, of an entire city’s public persona. He was a key part of shaping the city’s organic cultural development, and, in a remarkable example, he became responsible for shaping the city’s “official” narrative based largely on that organic development, for better or worse. Manchester has become such an archetypal example of organic development, official story, and mythologizing coming together in a confusing mass of story and “story,” with Joy Division, Ian Curtis and Tony Wilson at its center, that it’s now impossible to separate truth from fiction, Manchester from “Manchester.”
You could think of Unknown Pleasures as a psychogeographic map of Manchester itself, with Ian Curtis and Joy Division as not only the creators of the music but the channelers/conduits of some sort of energy emitted by that particular time/place. Their work becomes a shared hallucination based on location. Owen Hatherley writes about the character of place that seeps into the work of Joy Division and their contemporaries: “This sense of space is one of the most salient things about Manchester’s post-punk... The very emptiness [of Manchester] retrospectively claimed as the blight from which regeneration saved the city was instead the source from which it drew its power.”2 As Paul Morley writes, “People discovered themselves, and created themselves, and turned dreams and love and hate into music, all in the space of a ‘Manchester’ that was outside itself and inside itself and beside itself. The space of ‘Manchester’ slips from view as soon as it becomes visible.”3
London and Manchester have both struggled with this idea of “the mythic city” to different degrees. These are but two examples, and Detroit is definitely another. I’ve become interested in applying that idea of the mythic city to places in my past, places less well known than these more archetypal examples. This idea contributed to my impulse to approach Bay City, and Bay City Bullshit was an attempt at creating that myth, through self-aware music and visual texture.
The Bay City project, then, and the musical aspect of it in particular, became an attempt to create a microniche genre for Bay City, one that was both organic and self-aware. In fact, it became a microniche genre for “my Bay City,” because I am a product of the experience of living in Bay City, and I can’t divorce myself from my own musical interests, not that I would want to. In a sense, in this project I used myself as a case study -- Bay City and its history served both as the “origin story” for a pop persona and as an actual emotional foundation for the person behind that persona.
The music I wrote was based around various forms of electronic music, both because that’s the sort of music I like and it was therefore an honest expression of myself, and because that music is built upon the deep connection between place and expression. I was consciously referencing a set of musics that developed organically from a sense of place, largely in contrast to the “official” version of those places. In doing so, I wanted to create a hybrid of the organic and the official. Bay City would never use my “rebranding” ideas to actually rebrand itself, of course (particularly because the project was called Bay City Bullshit), but it was interesting to think about. With the A-Side of the cassette, I was partially referencing Mancunian post-punk, and the B-Side was a dub “version,” referencing the Afrofuturist nature of dub music that developed in the Caribbean and later influenced, in an organic manner, jungle, garage, twostep, grime, and dubstep, all contemporary British movements with an inherent sense of “place.” This is the kind of music I listen to anyway, so the songs on the Bay City cassette built on my own musical foundation while being aware of the implications of their musical ancestors.
The primary thesis of Evan Calder Williams’ book Combined and Uneven Apocalypse is that we need an entirely new, apocalyptic mode of thought to counter the catastrophic stalemate of contemporary capitalism. He calls for “a destruction of totalizing structures, of those universal notions that do not just describe ‘how things are’ but serve to prescribe and insist that ‘this is how things must be.’”4 For him, apocalypse is about revealing that which is hidden. It is not about trying to usher in the era of Mad Max, which, for Williams, represents a gradual rebuilding of the capitalist status quo. Instead, it is about understanding our present condition and building an entirely new way of life based on the ruins of what came before.
I’m fascinated by the fact that the database-esque alternate economy of underground music, born from the “site” of oppressive capitalism and nurtured within the physical spaces engendered by the means of production after the Industrial Revolution, offers a potential counter-argument to that very same capitalist system, using its own tools and methods in a new, organic way. The Bay City Bullshit project has allowed me, in my own way, to use the cause and effect of capitalism as a staging ground for something new. Finally, in that same vein, the project has offered a way to investigate the potential state of “aftermath,” of post-ness, that has characterized the late twentieth century and, especially, the early twenty-first century.
This is obviously based on the decline of American industry in the second half of the twentieth century, a fact that most clearly has affected Detroit, as the archetypal heart of American industrial production, but it also affects places like Bay City, which undergo their own postindustrial apocalypse and have their own sense of post-ness. For Bay City, this apocalypse took the form of the loss of the logging and shipping industries, translating into a population decline in every census since 1960. This state of postindustrialism forms the specific backdrop for the Bay City Bullshit project, in which economic decline and small-town apocalypse serve as a kind of primordial origin story for a pop star persona which “owns” that apocalypse, turning it into an emblem, a status symbol, a source of historical pride, a front.
Yet the twenty-first century has brought a second decline, a second crisis, beyond the death of industry -- the potential death of capitalism itself, as embodied by the financial collapse of 2008 and the ensuing recession. This crisis leads to an inherent crisis of confidence, and crisis of identity, as no one knows how to create, or design, a truly sustainable way of life, after the crash. We have experienced a cultural traumatic event, encapsulated by the word “crisis.” As Geoff Manaugh writes on BldgBlog, “the ‘crisis’ becomes abstract shorthand for the everyday conditions of the twenty-first century, which could thus be seen as already taking place amidst the rubble of earlier, contingent disasters for which no single group or institution can be held liable.”5
In an issue of Architectural Design devoted to this idea, Adrian Lahoud describes the ‘crisis’ as an act of violence, not unlike 9/11, or something more personal. “The traumatic moment ... arrives unrecognizably and without warning, an inassimilable event that shatters the very coordinates of our experiential landscape, leaving us adrift on a sea of excessive sensation. In the moment of trauma, you are exiled from your own psychic landscape, a foreign intruder in an unfamiliar land.”6 It’s fitting that he writes in terms of landscape and location, describing the trauma/crisis as an act of literal disorientation, mirroring a sudden emotional shift. Indeed, the larger cultural crisis plays out across the idea of landscape, both natural and manmade. “‘Conjure up images of the crisis,’ Ole Bouman writes [in Architecture of Consequence: Dutch Designs on the Future], ‘and what you see is architecture: jammed roads, packed airports, automated transshipment centers, ... hypermarkets and quarantine zones, worldwide material transportation, urban sprawl, ... no-go areas and security walls, abandoned homes in ghost towns like Detroit...’”7
We find ourselves surrounded by architectural (built and unbuilt) reminders of a previous, pre-crisis way of life, ruins of structures and ruins of ideologies. “Designed for one scenario,” Sam Jacobs writes on Strange Harvest, “buildings find themselves completed in a different landscape, appearing on the skyline like giant mausolea for a failed ideology, or abandoned half-built like freshly minted ruins.”8 Owen Hatherley concurs, writing in Militant Modernism that Brutalism, for all its utopian pretense, “always was a vision of future ruins.”9 While the built/unbuilt environment takes on the identity of ruins, or monuments, architectural design itself migrates to the virtual landscape, in which “the analog coexists with the digital both as procedure and subject matter,”10 3D renderings are more “real” than the final built structures, CGI replaces reality, and we find ourselves in a situation where “the aesthetic language of the disaster movie is now closely linked to the presentation style of international architecture.”11
There is a bright side, however: the sense of perpetual aftermath brought about by the twenty-first century crisis does not have to merely signify an end. It can be a new beginning, too. Ole Bouman posits that this ‘crisis’ is an incredible opportunity for architects and designers to “turn back to where architecture starts, in the creative spatial organization of life.”12 The ‘crisis’ plays out in the space of architecture and design, in other words, so why not respond to it in kind with a new form of design, mirroring Williams’ “tactics born from dogs gone wild?” Williams himself states that “another world is necessary, but only built from the gutted hull of this one.”13
Nicholas Bourriaud points out that the “post”-ness of postmodernism “will ultimately turn out to be the great myth at the end of the twentieth century.”14 He pivots this idea of post-ness from a look backwards onto a sea of reference and turns it into a look forwards, towards the potential of emerging from a point of origin and telling a new story. “What is more characteristic of the postmodern period than the mythification of the origin?” He asks. “The meaning of a work -- for this second, postcolonial postmodernism -- ultimately depends on its locus of enunciation. ‘Where do you come from?’ is its fundamental question, essentialism its critical paradigm.”15 In other words, the ‘crisis’ becomes an entry point, a platform for something new, not an excuse for endlessly romanticized nostalgia, stuck in what Williams calls “a waste zone that cannot be escaped.”16 Bjorn Quiring writes that when this “foundational myth” is utilized within design or architecture, it manifests itself as a montage of both the real and the fictitious, and it “counts on the city-dweller qua spectator/reader to synthesize mythical past, concrete present, and uncertain future into a meaningful whole.”17
The Bay City Bullshit project, then, encapsulates both of these ideas, both an end and a beginning. It’s an acknowledgement of the past, through an admittedly romanticized lens, but it’s also a foundation for moving forward. The project is ultimately a monument, a marker for a particular point in time and space, a recognition of site, of cause and effect, a simultaneous look backwards and forwards. However, it’s called Bay City Bullshit for a reason. Like all monuments, it has elements of fictional memory, of shaping facts and ideas into a clean narrative, based more on revisionism and reaction than on actual truth. As Graeme Gilloch writes in Myth and Metropolis, “The monument is doubly mythic: in its evocation of a false history and in its proclamation of its own permanence. ... While the city’s proud monuments most clearly articulate the glorification of history, in their ‘afterlife,’ these same structures come to unmask the modern metropolis as the locus of mythic delusion.”18
This is ultimately why the project is Bullshit: it’s an acknowledgement of the past, and of the idea of aftermath, but it’s a means to an end. It’s a romantic love letter to my home town, a town I disliked while living there, and it’s an attempt to come to terms with that town’s present and past. It rewrites that past as an origin story, as an aesthetically pleasing package tied together with the pornography of decay. It’s a front, in a way, with its own agenda. It’s also aware of its own transience, of the impermanence of its self-ascribed status as monument. Its visual style and reliance on obsolete technology (cassette tapes, photocopiers, 35mm photography, one-hour-photo development at the grocery store), coupled with its connection to ever-changing subgenres (the blackletter text of heavy metal, the photocopied nature of punk zines and album art, the musical traces of dub and bass music) that contain within them a recognition of their own temporality, means that this project points out its own built-in and inevitable decline. It is in a state of “aftermath” just as much as the city of Bay City, or the city of Detroit, or the entire Western world is, in this new postcrash, postdesign, postreality, postcrisis reality. This is the paradox that lies at the heart of trying to approach post-industrial America, and the paradox of Mad Max, salvagepunk, and attempting to harness the means of production: where, literally, can we go from here?
1. Paul Morley. Piece by Piece: Writing About Joy Division 1977-2007. London, Plexus Publishing Limited: 2008.
2. Owen Hatherley. A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. Verso, London: 2010.
3. Paul Morley. Piece by Piece: Writing About Joy Division 1977-2007. London, Plexus Publishing Limited: 2008.
4. Evan Calder Williams. Combined and Uneven Apocalypse. Zero Books, Hampshire: 2011.
5. Geoff Manaugh. “Geography X.” Bldgblog. Thursday, February 10, 2011. bldgblog.blogspot.com/2011/02/geography-x.html
6. Adrian Lahoud. “Post-Traumatic Urbanism.” Architectural Design. Sept/Oct 2010. vol 80 no 5.
7. Geoff Manaugh. “Geography X.” Bldgblog. Thursday, February 10, 2011. bldgblog.blogspot.com/2011/02/geography-x.html
8. Sam Jacob. “The Ruins of the Future.” Strange Harvest. December 5, 2008. strangeharvest.com/the-ruins-of-the-future
9. Owen Hatherley. Militant Modernism. Zero Books, Hampshire: 2010.
10. Jasmine Benyamin. “Analog Dreams.” Models. Eds. Emily Abruzzo, Eric Ellingsen & Jonathan D. Solomon. 306090 Books, volume 11. January 2008.
11. “The idea of a rhinoceros.” Things Magazine. November 16, 2010. thingsmagazine.net/the-idea-of-a-rhinoceros/
12. Evan Calder Williams. Combined and Uneven Apocalypse. Zero Books, Hampshire: 2011.
14. Nicolas Bourriaud. The Radicant. New York, Lukas & Sternberg, 2009.
16. Evan Calder Williams. Combined and Uneven Apocalypse. Zero Books, Hampshire: 2011.
17. Bjorn Quiring. “A Space That We Must Inhabit -- Sense Production in Urban Spaces According to Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell.” Comics and the City: Urban Space in Print, Picture and Sequence. Jorn Ahrens and Arno Meteling, eds. The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc., New York: 2010.
18. Graeme Gilloch. Myth & Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City. Blackwell Publishers Inc., Malden, 1996.