Le Guess Who: Day Two

This is part two of my account of November’s Le Guess Who festival in Utrecht. Part one can be seen here. This part deals with Friday 9 November, the second day of the festival.

The main part of the festival was taking a break during the day, which left us with an opportunity to visit a place called BAK to see an exhibition entitled Forensic Justice that was being shown in conjunction with Le Guess Who. This had been put together by Forensic Architecture, a radical architectural organisation headed by Eyal Weizman, whose work has previously appeared in the LRB (the other paper of record). We watched a series of videos where the Forensic Architecture people carefully dissected video and other evidence to investigate official narratives of events. These were interesting as examples of how the panopticon society in which we live does not just lead to a Big Brother society in which the State continuously watches us, but one in which non-state actors have the tools to expose illicit state action.
Some of the Forensic Justice installations were pretty intense, like the reconstructions from multiple CCTV images of a hospital in Aleppo being bombed by the Syrian air force, which showed people being thrown around by the force of an explosion, or their analysis of the killing of two Palestinian school children (unarmed, not obviously taking part in rioting or even demonstrations, apparently on their way home from school), which showed they were killed by Israeli soldiers firing live bullets but falsely claiming to have fired only rubber bullets.

For me though I think the most upsetting was an analysis of the fatal beating of Pavlos Fyssas, a Greek anti-fascist, by members of the Golden Dawn, with the analysis of Forensic Architecture showing that the Greek police had stood by and let the attack happen. What made that the most disturbing I think is that crazy things (hospitals being bombed or soldiers shooting school kids) seem almost normal in crazy places like Syria or Palestine, but they are much more unheimlich in an urbane and democratic country like Greece. Good job nothing like that happens closer to home, eh readers?

The last examination we saw by Forensic Architecture was something of a relief as it did not involve anyone losing their life. Instead by careful analysis of several video clips they appeared to disprove the assertion of the Italian coast guard that a sea rescue vessel was operating in concert with people smugglers.

There was more of Forensic Justice that we could have watched (something to with the unfortunate plight of Orangoutangs) but I can only take so much, so we left BAK and headed off to Lombok, which is another area of Utrecht where a Le Guess Who satellite festival was taking place. Beside an impressive mosque there was a food market taking place, with stalls selling a variety of tasty noms. We sampled their wares. Lombok seems to be multicultural bit of Utrecht so we were also treated to some guys walking around playing drums and those squeaking trumpets they have in the Orient. There were also some children doing some class of traditional dance for us; I think they might have been Turkish rather than Arab but it’s hard to tell. I definitely admired their intense concentration.

And then we strolled around Lombok looking for further excitement. And we found it in the form of some class of Dabke flashmob taking place outside a church. If you do not know Dabke, it is the traditional dance thing from Syria and Palestine and other places round there, typically done by guys joining arms, often forming rings that rotate frenetically. This is what was going on here, with some attempt to bring home to Whitey that Dabke does feature actual steps and is not just all about the speed. We watched amusedly from a distance, careful not to be drawn into the maniacal gyres.

At some point we were sated by Dabke, so pretty much at random visited a place called the Ubuntuhuis, where some chap called Cengiz Arslanpay was going to be combining electronic music with his ney flute (ney!). The Ubuntuhuis turned out not to be a place for people to hang out working on the latest Linux releases but rather some class of centre for homeless people and persons newly arrived in the country. The venue where Mr Arslanpay was playing was living room sized and we were all more or less on top of the player but that made it all that bit more entertaining. Sadly he was unable to treat us to his electronics for reasons but he did play a succession of different Turkish flutes.

My Beloved and I reunited with our spiritual guru Mr B— in the Tivoli complex and went to see some chap called Serpentwithfeet (I think he might call himself serpentwithfeet but I do not hold with proper nouns beginning with lower case letters; frankly he should be glad I am leaving the spaces out of his name). Mr Feet is not actually a serpent, footed or otherwise, but an impractical red anorak wearing fellow from the USA. He apparently used to be a choirboy but now he makes music that is sometimes classed as experimental but seemed to me to be a fairly accessible form of R&B. The real joy of his performance came from his persona as presented to the audience, which was basically camp and endearingly positive. Everyone who saw him was happier than they were beforehand.

We then split off to the Janskerk again to see some of Vashti Bunyan, the lost folkie sensation who is now back in action. Ms Bunyan whispers very quietly between songs but then when singing projects at an audible but restrained volume suiting the delicate nature of her songs. She is also a bit of a roffler, quipping at one point that back in the day she was told her music had no commercial potential before launching into ‘Train Song’, from whose relentless use in films and advertisements she has made a mint. Overall though I wished that scheduling had meant that I arrived early enough to get a good seat at the front.

Back in the Tivoli complex I let myself be brought to see Paddy Steer, wondering if I had made a terrible mistake. For the first song I thought that maybe I had but then either he got better or I was reprogrammed. Mr Steer’s music is an odd combination of analogue synth sounds and live drumming, with his vocals affected by the vocoder type thing he has in the space helmet he wears for some of the songs. I was intrigued by the question of whether all of the music was strictly live, as the drumming seemed pretty intricate and hard to imagine someone doing while also playing synths but it was impossible to be certain either way as he had a bank of equipment largely obscuring our view of whatever he was doing with his hands. We nevertheless did get to see his impressive space suit. Overall Paddy Steer hovers gamely on the borderlands between weirdo art music and novelty shite, staying I think on the right side of that boundary.

I stuck my head briefly into where Blanck Mass were playing and was a bit surprised by what I saw. Blanck Mass have a membership overlap with Fuck Buttons, but the my sense of how they divided was that Fuck Buttons played the more heavy beaty stuff while Blanck Mass play music that is not entirely dissimilar except that it is a bit beat free, making the music a weird kind of in your face ambient (use your Babbage machine to compare Fuck Button’s ‘Brainfreeze‘ with Blanck Mass’s ‘Chernobyl‘). But on the face of this performance Fuck Buttons and Blanck Mass appear to have converged, with the music on offer tonight featuring lots of big fucking beats. I reckon this would have been great to dance to if you were so inclined. Even as listening music it was not unentertaining, but we were a bit *tired* so we repaired to our house and caught some Zzzzzs.

Day three coming soon!

Exhibition image source:

The Omar Bin Abdul Aziz Hospital in Aleppo (Forensic Architecture: Forensic Justice)

More of my Le Guess Who photographs

More of my Utrecht photographs

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Le Guess Who: Day One

Since the demise of All Tomorrow’s Parties many have wondered if something would ever arise to take its place. Earlier this year my old friend and quaffing partner Mr B— asked me if I was interested in attending Le Guess Who in Utrecht. I was curious and as always am eager to hear exciting sounds, so I agreed to go, with the promise of a line-up based around strange weirdo music being the draw. This is an account of what happened there.

Le Guess Who is a city festival, with concerts taking place in venues across Utrecht but particularly focussed on the Tivoli Vredenburg, a central complex of multiple performance spaces, ranging from ones reminiscent of the Barbican main stage down to more intimate locales. As a city festival, Le Guess Who does not provide convivial chalet accommodation to its attendees; rather they must find their own places to stay, scattered across the attractive Dutch town. In our case we were staying in an Airbnb house in the university quarter, we being Mr B—, my beloved, Mr McG—, and myself.

The quaint olde worldeness of Utrecht
If you’ve never been to Utrecht and are wondering what it’s like… well it’s a bit like Amsterdam. Or rather all those olde Dutch town are like each other: canals, dinky buildings, sudden bursts of modernist architecture. Utrecht has less tourists than Amsterdam, but it makes up for the lack of stag party dickheads with another menace: out of control cyclists. It has also has a strangely non-Euclidean street layout that keeps feeling like it is approximating to a grid system when actually it is not. I think other people of less logical minds (and a willingness to let Google guide them around) found the city easier to navigate; for the first couple of days I was reduced to following them around hoping they knew where they were going. Anyway, let me adopt a day-by-day approach to the festival which may turn out to just be a list of people I saw as I am writing this a good bit afterwards and did not take any notes back then because I am a fule.

On the first night of the festival (a Thursday) an initial bug/feature of the event became apparent: it is massively multi-tracked. If you are lucky there are only five things to choose from at any one time, but there were sometimes more. So it was that I found myself missing DRINKS (sadly not a drinks reception but a two-person band featuring Cate Le Bon and someone else) and instead found myself in the Domkerk seeing an ensemble called ONCEIM performing a piece called ‘Occam Océan’. Who were they and what was this? Well ONCEIM are a contemporary music ensemble, the name being some class of acronym (in French, so I won’t write out the words as you would not understand them). ‘Occam Océan’ is a collaboration with Éliane Radigue, the French composer being bigged up by many cool members of Frank’s APA, the paper of record. The piece was a fascinating piece of edgy contemporary classical music, which broadly speaking might be my favourite class of music, and atmospheric environs of the church were a great place to hear it.

Forward thinking
ONCEIM were going to be playing again with Stephen O’Malley of SUNN-O))) but the festival’s multi-tracking and our own craving of varied experiences drew us away from the Domkerk to the Tivoli complex where after some exploration we settled down in front of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, legendary political jazz figures of yore (well they appear on that political jazz comp from SoulJazz). They were playing in the big main venue in the Tivoli, where every seat has a good view, and we looked down upon them like Olympians.
Then we hightailed it to another church, this one being the Janskerk, where the Jerusalem In My Heart Orchestra were playing. They had already started when we arrived and, as is traditional with church venues, bad sight lines meant it was a real struggle to actually see anything of the performance. Eventually though I managed to reach a point where I could see some of the musicians and some of the images being projected behind them, which looked like they were portrait photographs from the 1950s and 1960s by Lebanese photographer Hashem el Madani, about whom I remember reading on the BBC News website; his photographs are mostly portraits, of individuals (sometimes posing with guns) and friends. Musically Jerusalem In My Heart play Middle Eastern classical music. On this occasion they were joined by an orchestra from Beirut (suggesting that normally they are not actually an orchestra) and were playing some 1928 piece from Egypt. Readers, I liked it and wished I had caught the whole concert from a comfy seat with a good view of the stage.

At that point we could have headed back to the Tivoli to catch any number of acts who were playing late into the night but instead we heeded the call of bed.

Scratched photograph image source:

Mrs Baqari, by Hashem el Madani (BBC News Magazine – Zaatari and Madani: Guns, flared trousers and same-sex kisses)

More of my Le Guess Who photographs

More of my Utrecht photographs

“He is my lawyer” – Ken Russell and the lawyer who wanted to be a singer

In the mid-1980s film director Ken Russell and pornographer Bob Guccione fell out over a failed attempt to film the novel Moll Flanders. A lawsuit ensued, in which the relatively impecunious Ken Russell found himself facing the vast might of the Penthouse corporation. Russell however managed to reach an arrangement with celebrity lawyer Aaron Richard Golub. Golub was interested in launching a musical career, so Russell agreed to direct a music video for him in lieu of paying legal fees. This is that video.

The Russell-Guccione law case was the subject of an Arena documentary entitled Your Honour, I Object, directed by Nigel Finch and broadcast on BBC2 in 1987. I saw it when it was first broadcast and it remains one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen. The BBC has a short excerpt from it here.

A short note on “A Brilliant Void”

Yesterday I went to an event in Hodges Figgis based around A Brilliant Void, the anthology of Irish classic science fiction edited by Jack Fennell. Fennell himself was there, as were the authors Deirdre Sullivan and Ruth Frances Long and Dave Rudden (who chaired the panel). A Brilliant Void was commissioned by Tramp Press after the publication of Irish Science Fiction, Fennell’s academic study of the genre here.

If I think of Irish science fiction I think of writers like Bob Shaw or C.S. Lewis (although Lewis is best-known for his Narnia books of children’s fantasy, he did also write an odd SF trilogy involving trips to Mars and Venus and then an authoritarian takeover of Britain). More recently there are works by literary authors that dip into the SF world (e.g. Kevin Barry’s The City of Bohane, set in a technologically regressed future, or Éilís ní Dhuibhne’s The Bray House, in which a Swedish archaeologist travels to an Ireland devastated by a nuclear accident). There is also a host of young adult books which, as an old adult, I suspect are not for me. Overall though science fiction seems somewhat marginal to the Irish literary tradition, with the energy that might otherwise have gone into it instead ending up in gothic fiction or works based on Celtic mythology or Leprechaun folklore.

This book shows that bubbling under there was always a strain of Irish writing dealing with science fiction topics, albeit in stories that sometimes ended up being otherwise classified. Fennell reported that misclassification was particularly common with works by women writers. At an early stage in the book’s gestation, it was decided to gender-balance the authors but apparently this was initially a real struggle as there just did not seem to be that many science fiction works written by Irish women. However on investigating works classified in other genres he was able to find so many works that in the end A Brilliant Void boasts more stories by women than by men. The tendency to classify science fiction books by Irish women as Celtic romances or similar may reflect a biased assumption that women cannot be into all that scientific stuff.

One question from the floor drew attention to the apparent greater frequency of SF writers coming from Northern Ireland. Long’s response to this was interesting, as she suggested that post-independence the nation-building project pushed writers of non-realistic fiction towards material based on Celtic mythology. Our friends in the North faced no such strictures and could happily set their work in the future or on other planets. It may not be coincidence that Lewis and Shaw (at least in my limited exposure to his work) did not feel obliged to set their work in Ireland or to deal with Irish subjects. I also wonder though whether the greater industrialisation of the north-east might play a part here: if you live near where they built the Titanic it might be easier to imagine characters in your novel building rocket ships.

I have started reading the anthology and already in the first story I feel I have gained from attending the talk. William Maginn’s ‘The New Frankenstein’ (1837) ends with the words “Then I awoke, and found it was – A DREAM’, words which so often feel like the author has played a tiresome trick on the reader. However, Fennell had noted in the discussion that in the Irish poetic tradition of the 19th century dreams were not seen as imaginary but as portents, so the ending effectively doubles up the grimness by revealing to the narrator that he will most likely have to relive the terrible events of the story.

I am looking forward to reading the rest of the book. The stories are mostly from the 19th and early 20th century, with only three of the fifteen from after 1922 (all three of which are translations from Irish-language originals). Apart from Fitz-James O’Brien and George William Russell the authors are all unknown to me, though the panelist bigged up Dorothy MacArdle so much that I feel embarrassed not to recognise the name.

Readers might also be interested in the Short Guide to Irish Science Fiction that Jack Fennell has made available through the website of Dublin 2019, the World Science Fiction Convention that is next year coming to our city.

image source:

A Brilliant Void (Tramp Press)