Pop Will Eat Itself: Hidden cycles of exchange in contemporary sound


Julian Day

 

Exactly twenty years ago several men boarded a ferry to the bleak Scottish island of Jura, described by former resident George Orwell as ‘extremely ungetatable’. After a late dinner of battered haggis they carried two suitcases through the rain to a brick boathouse. There they lit a fire, unpacked fifty bundles of banknotes and shoved it in. The total amount – one million pounds – was all that remained of a very successful music career.

The two protagonists were Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty who called themselves the K Foundation. In previous years they’d enjoyed phenomenal chart success as, in turn, The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, The Timelords and The KLF. Their tracks Doctorin’ The Tardis, 3am Eternal and Last Train To Trancentral helped establish them as ‘the biggest-selling singles act in the world for 1991’, an achievement pre-empted in their 1989 manifesto The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way).

After amassing considerable royalties they began to dispose of them in increasingly elaborate ways. Firstly they terminated their pop career by firing blanks into the audience at the 1992 BRIT Awards, dumping a dead sheep at an after-party and deleting their back catalogue in the UK. They established the K Foundation award for worst artist of the year in which they gave Rachel Whiteread double what she’d won earlier the same night at the Turner Prize.1

Then they nailed the cash to a board and displayed it in a snowy Surrey field. Two men wearing tuxedos guarded the money as a red armoured van blared K Cera Cera, the K Foundation’s single with The Red Army Choir made ‘in acknowledgement of the recent brave steps taken by the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.’2

They offered their million pound fortune to several galleries for display but even at the bargain price of £750,000 no one bit. So they decided to burn it. They planned the deed for the then-disused Bankside Power Station on London’s River Thames, which would reopen six years later as Tate Modern. Eventually however they undertook the ritual privately and destroyed the documentation. What remains of their act – besides memories, aura, later regret and a secretly kept videotape – is a single house brick made from the ashes.3

 

 

Why burn one’s most tangible asset and not, as many implored, give it to charity? Two years later Drummond and Cauty tried to explain their actions on a late night Irish talk show. The audience were visibly aghast. One man said ‘I think it’s disgusting that two people should be allowed to do such a thing with so much poor in this country and in foreign countries. It’s such a disgrace.’ Drummond countered: ‘If we’d gone and spent the money on swimming pools and Rolls Royces I don’t think people would be upset.’4

In fact, burning the money – illegal as it would be – might have indirectly benefitted the poor. According to controversial economics professor Steven Landburg, the act of burning money subtly increases everybody’s wealth due to the immediate vacuum in available currency; that is, deflation. ‘If you are thinking of remembering the Treasury in your will, and you are something of an egalitarian, consider a bonfire instead.’5

The viewers’ reactions echoed those to Michael Haneke’s 1989 film The Seventh Continent, which charts the slow breakdown of a middle-class Austrian family. En route, the father flushes all of their money down the toilet. In an already harrowing film the ‘money shot’ proved most controversial. Haneke recalled that audiences at Cannes ‘left the cinema, slamming the doors. Everywhere I showed the film, that was the main scene people complained about. Because it’s the greatest taboo. It’s a lot less disturbing if parents kill their children and themselves than if they destroy money. It’s completely taboo in our society.’6

 

 

People get funny when artists fuck with money. Exposing the financial workings of the creative industries seems especially taboo, as Andrew Frost recently wrote in The Guardian:

 

One of the ironies of contemporary art is its will to be subversive. It’s a product, sure, but it has a meaning beyond its material worth and that’s why people are willing to pay big dollars for it. To be reminded of that commercial transaction is deeply unsettling and to do it blatantly is seen as bad taste.7

 

Drawing attention to art’s economic conditions is especially uncommon in sound practice. The K Foundation’s actions were unusual in the nineties and such a nascent tradition remains startling in the work of newer artists such as German composer Johannes Kreidler who has sonofied global market behaviour with devastating results.

 

Johannes Kreidler, Charts Music (2009), image courtesy the artist.

Johannes Kreidler, Charts Music (2009), image courtesy the artist.

 

When the K Foundation destroyed their fortune, reactions varied – ordinary people were horrified, the music industry was awed and the art world shrugged. You could say their value dropped, rose and flatlined. The economic value of their sound was high – the duo sold thousands of records – as was their live sonic actions. Yet the value of their final act was mixed at best. When they went to sell the ashes they discovered the art market value of their career to date – the most optimistic gallery prognosis was £850.8

One could argue their primary art world value was the latent prestige of their anarchic Situationism – they lived the destructive rock lifestyle as a conscious set of strategies, enacted expertly through the press. Yet although the music industry celebrated their actions as provocative and brave the art world dismissed them as naïve and unoriginal.9 Despite this various British visual artists echoed their actions in subsequent years. In 1995 Damien Hirst won the Turner Prize after displaying his own dead sheep. In 2001 Michael Landy destroyed the 7,227 items he owned in an act supported by Arts Council England and Art Angel. Soon after, Tino Sehgal became known for his own undocumented ephemeral transactions (the ones that, in contrast, generate lots of money).

The K’s action can be seen as a particularly extreme interplay between materiality and immateriality. They accumulated value through a mix of actions (releases, performances) and more tangible means (LPs, CDs and cassettes) then erased their capital. This immediately stunted their economic value – radically – yet afforded a residual prestige through the extremity of the act. Their career can thus be seen as a simple curve in which material emerges from the immaterial – from nothing to something to nothing again. Curiously, their action created virtually no ‘currency’ in the art world despite similar actions before and after by other artists.10

The foundation was dedicated to purging their materiality. Their manifesto The Manual specifically denotes that in order to achieve musical success ‘you must be skint and on the dole… [this] gives you a clearer perspective on how much of society is run… having no money sharpens the wits. Forces you never to make the wrong decision. There is no safety net to catch you when you fall.’11

The apex of their immaterial bent was expressed in their single K Cera Cera whose advertisements declared it to be ‘Available nowhere. No formats [war is over if you want it] is the interstellar anthem of the K Foundation.’12 The reference to John Lennon and Yoko Ono echo the latter pair’s silent track The Nutopian National Anthem for a country with ‘no land, no boundaries, no passports, only people’. This echoes John Cage’s 4’33 and 0’00 as well as the master of immaterial exchange, Yves Klein, whose The Monotone-Silence Symphony features a dramatic twenty-minute chord followed by forty minutes of silence.

Many visual artworks directly address the cycle of exchange or the means of their own production. Denis Beaubois’s Currency series (2011-ongoing) memorably displays a wad of $100 notes comprising the exact amount of money granted to make the work.13 However, such self-reflexivity remains rare in sound arts. There is a disjunct between how sound is read critically within different disciplines. In visual art, sound is often viewed as an immaterial post-object practice. Sound art theorists, by contrast, typically treat sound as an abstract material phenomenon. Musicologists tend to analyse sound as a set of formal relationships. Pop writers take a more sociological approach, although not always with a critical eye to the economics.

In recent sound scholarship one might highlight two sympathetic yet diametric viewpoints. On the one hand, Christoph Cox acknowledges the need to go beyond abstract or formalist readings of sound in favour of a more concrete approach, ‘a complex of forces materially inflected by other forces and force-complexes.’14 Seth Kim-Cohen resists such approaches. In In The Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art (2009) he counters essentialist and phenomenological readings in favour of thinking more contextually and conceptually. He seeks to align sound practices with the non-retinal conceptualism of Marcel Duchamp and strongly rejects the notion of sound-in-itself.15

A key work for Kim-Cohen is Robert Morris’ Box With The Sound Of Its Own Making (1961) in which the artist built a small wooden box and, as the title suggests, embedded within it a recording of the box being built. An equally self-referential work is Tom Johnson’s Failing: A Very Difficult Piece for String Bass (1976) in which a solo double bassist undertakes a piece whilst continually commenting on their performance, contemplating failure whilst daring themselves to succeed – and in the process, of course, both failing and succeeding.16

Just as the literal generation of sound is frequently invisible, so too is the complex chain of economics that brings it into being. Classical music particularly avoids such transparency. It never foregrounds the massive infrastructural back end it demands – the most expensive instruments played in the most expensive spaces by those with the most available time to train and practice – and never mentions the minimal cost of its material (dead composers rarely ask for a fee). One could further argue that the classical music industry depends on its heroes to impale themselves, Christ-like, upon the economic vagaries of their time in order to serve our sound economy now. Mozart dies for our subscription seats.

 

Julian Day, Music for Pianist, 2014

Julian Day, Music for Pianist, 2014

 

This elusive dance between acknowledging and disguising money only enhances classical music’s value: it’s art for art’s sake, unsullied by a grubby world, but sounds best within glittering sails on Sydney Harbour. Is it coincidence that right between the two remaining nubs of public housing in Sydney’s CBD, Australia’s best funded major performing arts group Opera Australia splashed $11.5 million to float a giant chandelier for Verdi’s La Traviata?

In her paper Terminal Prestige Susan McClary addresses the partition between economy and artistry in contemporary classical music, criticizing ‘the nineteenth-century notion that music ought to be an autonomous activity, insulated from the contamination of the outside social world.’ She tags the value cycle the ‘economy of prestige’:

Within the context of industrial capitalism, two mutually exclusive economies of music developed: that which is measured by popular or commercial success and that which aims for the prestige conferred by official arbiters of taste … [Composer and conductor Pierre Boulez] states: ‘The economy is there to remind us, in case we get lost in this bland utopia: there are musics which bring in money and exist for commercial profit; there are musics that cost something whose very concept has nothing to do with profit. No liberalism will erase this distinction’.17

It’s worth remembering that Boulez, once the outspoken leader of the European avant garde, has now amassed more Grammy Awards than U2, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Kanye West or Beyonce.

 

Johannes Kreidler, Audioguide (2014), image David Helbich

Johannes Kreidler, Audioguide (2014), image David Helbich

 

Boulez first attracted attention as a leader of the so-called Darmstadt School, a group of forthright composers that met and taught at the Internationale Ferienkurse Für Neue Musik in Darmstadt, Germany. Their approach, forged in the aftershock of World War II, was the epitome of locked-off abstract musical thought. One of the lingering images from this year’s festival, however, was of 100 violins lying smashed on a stage after a 7-hour series of ‘talk shows’ in which the topics included the aesthetics of the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers.

The instigator was the young German composer and artist Johannes Kreidler who creates ingenious and pointed works in the traditions of Fluxus and German artists Martin Kippenberger and Joseph Beuys. His oeuvre includes compositions such as Charts Music in which stock market charts are fed into a pop music software program, rendering the fall of Lehman Brothers and the Bank of America into vertiginously nosediving melodies. In a triptych of three photographs he drops a precious violin, mimicking Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s famous destruction of a 2,000-year-old Han dynasty urn.18

 

 

Kreidler has also undertaken actions that address politics both within and outside the music world: smashing a cello onstage to protest the merging of two orchestras; bringing together children, singers and 100 robots to demonstrate outside an employment office; and delivering a truckload of copyright forms to a performing rights agency to register a 33-second piece of music containing 70,200 samples.

Kreidler’s most notorious work remains Fremdarbeit (‘Outsourcing’) from 2009. The Klangwerkstatt festival in Berlin paid Kreidler €1,500 to write a new piece. Kreidler in turn outsourced the labour to a Chinese composer who charged €30 to write the music and an Indian computer programmer who charged a whopping €15 to analyse Kreidler’s recent work, provide a breakdown (25% samples, 75% instrumental sounds, 39% loud, 15% soft) and write a generative code.19 Kreidler pocketed the remaining cash.

The crude translation from artisan-for-hire to score yielded several problems. At one point in the performance the pianist stops and explains that the score goes beyond his instrument’s range, which he dismisses as ‘probably a misunderstanding’.20 Further, the Chinese composer wrote for more instruments than Kreidler was willing to fund so he substituted them with high-quality samples (‘if you close your eyes, you might not notice the difference’).21 When, at the premiere, a member of the audience accused Kreidler of exploitation the composer replied:

 

Well, that’s globalization for you. This keyboard was probably also made in China and sold here at a much higher price. The clothes I’m wearing come from third-world countries and are sold here for a lot of money. That’s the system we use all the time and no one seems to mind.22

 

Like Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons before him, Kreidler is unafraid to expose, frame and embrace the capitalist cycle of production in his work. The discomfort that different audiences have felt in experiencing Fremdarbeit exemplifies the consistent ruptures in art between the idea of unique objects and mass reproduction, high art versus low art platforms, asymmetrical power structures and conspicuous versus embedded wealth.

Kreidler is an example of what philosopher Harry Lehmann calls a “content-based aesthetic shift”, an attempt to move beyond the focus on material in modernism and the rearrangement of material in postmodernism to instead deal with aesthetic and intellectual content transparently and evenly.23 When the same listener at the premiere protested that they weren’t hearing Kreidler’s music, the composer replied ‘Of course it’s my music! I bought it. Legally, it is my music – I own the patents.’ He also said ‘I’m not hiding anything. And composers who do nothing but write their little structures should be ashamed.’

Kreidler visits Australia this month for the Liquid Architecture festival of sound arts, which is curated this year by Other Film’s Joel Stern and Danni Zuvela. In their catalogue the pair recognize the dichotomy between essentialist and conceptual readings of sound and aim to present a more contextual program that is ‘invested in artists working with sound to ask questions about the systems, forces and assumptions structuring our society, our experience, and our listening, and to make those audible, or visible (or maybe let’s just say, ‘perceptible’).’24 This translates to work that recognizes the hidden relations in sound practice and frames ‘context not as an “added extra”, but as indivisible from the work itself.’

Alongside Kreidler, Liquid Architecture features Australian sound art collective Ur 1st Luv whose Pozible campaign A Sound Investment ricocheted against the end of the financial year. Like Kreidler their LA work addresses the generation of value within the structure of the work, a form of autophagy in which the system feeds on the system. The implicit underpinning of economy is reflected in the embedded dollar signs in their section of the festival catalogue.

A Sound Investment invited individual philanthropy in the form of a Pozible campaign in which the artists Andrew Brooks and Sam Pettigrew offered incentives to reach their target. This utilized a federal government initiative to match dollar-for-dollar Pozible funds up to $5,000. Their work suggests that the shift to crowd and corporate funding is problematic because more experimental initiatives are less likely to attract an audience. It also ponders that the government uses dollar-matching campaigns to wean artists off public funding and force them into survival mode. The artists note that in recent funding cuts the 28 major performing arts bodies retained secure funding whereas independent artists remain vulnerable, a potential class of unfunded excellents. True to the experimental spirit the material outcome of their project remains speculative although they sold enough T-shirts and mugs to vault over the Pozible line.

As seen in the work of Ur 1st Luv, Johannes Kreidler and the K Foundation, sound presents an complicated case study in value. Several dichotomies are often present: rarity versus availability, ‘in’ versus ‘out’, materiality versus immateriality. Sound’s economic value can be difficult to ascertain. It is clearly contextual – it depends on the genre or artform and the stature of the person creating, recognizing, selling or buying it. This applies to different aspects of the material cycle: buying a physical track, commissioning a new composition, performing a piece. Person A moves their right arm up and down. Person B does the same. Person A – let’s call them a famous orchestral conductor – gets $100,000. Person B – let’s call them the local choir director – receives nothing. How can the same physical gesture represent two different values?

On the face of it, society wants artists to ‘get a job’ and stop scrounging off the public. As brickie Mitchell Browne eloquently pondered in the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Maybe it is fair that workers stuck on the 9-5 treadmill have their money confiscated so that artists living their dream can remain utterly unfettered by the need to create something with any potential for commercial return.’25 Yet there is a conflicting societal desire here. We want artists to be self-sufficient but we also want art to be art, unsullied by self-realization. We value the entrepreneur but we dismiss purely commercial artistic enterprise. By partitioning the funding of key large organizations but forcing independent artists to beg for small amounts we maintain artists right where we want them – kept.

Perhaps here we can return to the KLF’s The Manual and view it as a kind of action score that consciously references the mechanics of success and exchange.26 As with these other works it suggests that creating and presenting work is not necessarily two halves of the artistic process but rather a loop that extends the frame of reference into a necessary cycle. The K Foundation never gave a definitive explanation as to why they burnt their fortune but offered at least one salient tip along the way. “It’s to do with controlling the money,” said Cauty. “Because money tends to sort of control you, if you’ve got it. It kind of dictates what you can do with it. You’ve got to spend it, give it away, invest it. And we just wanted to be in control of it.”27

 

 



1. They’d already spent £20,000 – the exact amount of the Turner Prize – on advertising their award.

2.  Omnibus, “A Foundation Course In Art”, BBC, 30 July 2014 [originally aired November, 1995].

3.  A colleague who taped the burning secretly retained a copy.

4.  The Late Late Show, RTE, August 1, 2014 [originally aired 1995].

5.  Steven Landburg, The Armchair Economist, (New York: Free Press, 2012), 84.

6. Serge Toubiana, Michael Haneke interview on The Seventh Continent (1989) accessed 30 August 2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Lkl8sNh-C8.

7. Andrew Frost, ‘Melbourne’s tale of two art fairs: paintings, perfume and a Rolls-Royce, The Guardian, accessed 18 August 2014.

8. Rene Gimpel, director of Gimpel Fils Gallery, expressed interest in selling the suitcase with the ash and documentation within the European art market: ‘Since the money is burnt the object now with the burnt ashes has a value which is an artistic value which bears no relation to the original value of the currency inside. That’s how I would come to conclusions. In the sense that the whole gesture of destroying this, this fantastic iconoclastic gesture, this anarchist gesture of disposing of this money, putting it in this case, and along thinking back to the K Foundation’s history and its involvement with Rachel Whiteread and so on, that’s what adds value to this. And I think I could sell a case like this for about a thousand pounds. Which means I would ask for 1200 and settle for 850.’ (Omnibus, “A Foundation Course In Art”, BBC, 30 July 2014 [originally aired November, 1995])

9. Anthony Reynolds of Anthony Reynolds Art Gallery said: ‘I’m afraid I didn’t find it the sort of thing that I was either particularly interested in, certainly not as art, and it was not something that I thought I would want to show in the gallery … Well I don’t think you can want to be artist. You are an artist or you’re not an artist. You can’t set out and say I’m going to be an artist – how do I do it?’ (Omnibus, “A Foundation Course In Art”, BBC, 30 July 2014 [originally aired November, 1995])

10. Reducing the immaterial to the material could be seen as problematic. One of the K Foundation’s advisers said, ‘If you burn a million quid, whether that is a stupid ridiculous thing to do, it’s a grand thing to do. If you make it into a brick you’ve made some pathetic little object … Once you’ve done it, to then make it into a brick, just to throw away what’s actually worth money again on something that’s so tiny and insignificant … you don’t even know why you’ve done it.’ Cauty replied, ‘a lot of pop stars end up a lot worse off that owning a brick.’ (The Late Late Show, RTE, 1 August, 2014 [originally aired 1995])

11. Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond, The Manual, accessed 15 August 2014, http://freshonthenet.co.uk/the-manual-by-the-klf/.

12. The K Foundation, ‘K Cera Cera’, New Music Express, accessed 18 August 2014 http://www.libraryofmu.org/display-resource.php?id=332.

13. An Australia Council New Work Established grant of $20,000.

14. Christoph Cox ‘Beyond Representation and Signification: Toward a Sonic Materialism’ in Journal of Visual Culture 10, no.2 (August 9 2011), 145.

15. Seth Kim-Cohen, In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sound, (New York: Bloomsbury), 2013.

16. In David Lang’s Are You Experienced? the composer himself breaks the fourth wall by first introducing his own piece on stage before becoming enmeshed in a concocted story that you as a listener have been kidnapped and knocked unconscious. It resembles the way Michael Hanake breaks the fourth wall in his film Funny Games in which we as viewers become implicated in the horrific violence enacted on screen.

17. Pierre Boulez, quoted in Susan McClary, ‘Terminal prestige: the case of avant-garde music composition’, in David Schwarz, Anahid Kassabian and Lawrence Siegel (eds) Keeping score: music, disciplinarity, culture, (Charlottsville: University Press Virginia), 1997, 56.

18. The act of destroying value – whether material or immaterial – is well established. Countless artists have destroyed things in their work, especially valuable objects of which musical objects are obvious targets. There is a deep oeuvre in which violins are smashed, guitars dragged and pianos set alight. This history is partly about attacking the sacred but also about critiquing social scores, objects that direct behaviour and interpersonal coding across decades. Learning to play the piano as a child is only partly about the instrument, it also guides one’s future social and professional position.

19. The Chinese composer was X. Xiang and the Indian programmer was R. Murraybay.

20. Johannes Kreidler, Fremdarbeit – by Johannes Kreidler Doku, accessed 20 August 2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L72d_0zIT0c.

21. Johannes Kreidler, Fremdarbeit – by Johannes Kreidler Doku, accessed 20 August 2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L72d_0zIT0c.

22. The same listener protested that they weren’t hearing Kreidler’s music, to which the composer replied “Of course it’s my music! I bought it. Legally, it is my music – I own the patents. You can buy things like that. But of course, no one really owns a work of art anyway, not even the composers from Asia. The musicians who play the work are also involved and they play on instruments built by instrument makers. The instruments themselves rely on centuries of technological developments. Every musical score contains centuries’ worth of knowledge and craft. What I’m doing here is just honest for once. When Jorg Widmann sits in the Grant Hotel in Dubai composing Viennese waltzes, that’s cynical. I’m not hiding anything. And composers who do nothing but write their little structures should be ashamed.” (Johannes Kreidler, Fremdarbeit – by Johannes Kreidler Doku, accessed 20 August 2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L72d_0zIT0c).

23. Johannes Kreidler, Fremdarbeit – by Johannes Kreidler Doku, accessed 20 August 2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L72d_0zIT0c.

24. Joel Stern and Danni Zuvela, ‘All Sounds Are Implicated,’ in Liquid Architecture 2014 (festival program), 7.

25. Mitchell Browne, Why should artists at work fund idlers at art? In Sydney Morning Herald, accessed August 30 2014.

26. The K Foundation ultimately described the act of burning money as boring, an undertaking initially thrilling but quickly just a task like accounting. Timothy Quirk similarly describes the reality of money as boring in My Hilarious Warner Bros. Royalty Statement in which he describes the frustrating lengths he goes to as a ‘non-recouping’ artist to make sense of his record company’s opaque accounting procedures. (Timothy Quirk, ‘My Hilarious Warner Bros. Royalty Statement’ in Ann Powers, Best Music Writing 2010, Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2010) David Byrne offered an unusually frank dissection of the backend economics of a successful pop career in his recent book How Music Works?, right down to budgetary pie charts. Both he and Quirk imply a self-defeating question of how musicians are meant to progress in a post-iTunes age. (David Byrne. How Music Works. San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2012)

27. In one of several, sometimes contradictory explanations, Cauty said it was to “see how far we could possibly go with an idea … go the whole way. And then not come back again.” (Omnibus, “A Foundation Course In Art”, BBC, 30 July 2014 [originally aired November, 1995]).

Julian Day is an artist, composer and writer/broadcaster. He treats sound as a political phenomenon that queries proximity, agency and territory, evidenced in two site-responsive...


CONNECT WITH US

Search Runway