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Ultra-red: Second Nature – An Electroacoustic Pastoral [Mille Plateaux]

“Thus it was the time of year at which the Bois de Boulogne displays more separate characteristics, assembles more distinct elements in a composite whole than at any other” (1)

A CD of aural psycho-geography that draws documentary and acoustic sources from a three-year project spent in and around LA’s Griffith Park. This park, a well-known site for public sex, is presented as the locus for a political struggle against the specific targeting, entrapment and policing of homosexual men: “to turn a back on the park is to turn back on a sexuality liberated from identity”.

As part of an activity of reclaiming this public space (“the largest municipal park in the world”) Ultra-red make interventions into its dells and rest rooms by means of a rearticulation of public address tactics: a beat-box, placed near-to prohibitive public signs, relays the history of the policing of Griffith Park to passers-by: 37 arrested at once. Dialogues recorded during an occupation of the park tell of the on-going struggle against all measure of prohibitions. From restricted parking and arbitrary charges to the cordoning-off of areas through to the random closure of the entire park, the policing of a supposedly ‘free’ space is foregrounded at the same time that liberal intentions of providing “recreation for the masses” is made to reveal its oppressive and repressed face – an imperviousness to meanings other than the one it itself has sanctioned. These dialogues, with their merging of resistance, suspicion and celebration, also make audible the unrecognised complexities of a politics based around the power of pleasure. As with the free-party scene, an organised hedonism claiming its right to pleasure is one that becomes sensitised to a dual-pronged policing of monitoring and restricted movement that infers, almost by auto-suggestion, that the pursuit of such hedonism should be channelled in the direction of commodified pleasures. Against such authoritarianism it organises to defend its right to differentiate from a ‘mass’ that can admit of no nuances. However, Ultra-red, in intervening in the park, collecting experiences and publicising their findings, come to occupy the paradoxical position of being an incipient authority. Yet, just as they are mistaken for Park Rangers they seem, as with their use of public-address tactics, to be detourning the techniques of surveillance and information-gathering into a means of creating their ‘pastoral’ at the same time that, by foregrounding their political intentions within the pastoral, they depict how any vaguely interrogative behaviour or will-to-organise can carry an authoritative component. Thus we move from hearing a Park Ranger asking Ultra-red for a sample flyer to the fine, auto-critical instance when two Ultra-red interviewers each respond differently to one protester’s hesitant question “are you taping?” One responds with a “yes” the other with a “No”. That their responses are overlaid, becoming a simultaneous yes/no, means that our attention is thus drawn to the hazards of a documentary practice at the same time that it decodes technological equipment as ‘inherently truthful’.

This points to Ultra-red’s use of such equipment on this CD. Second Nature is in no way simply an informative documentary that seeks to make visible the micro-political struggle of Griffith Park. Instead it works intriguingly as a politicisation of the musique-concrete approach that not only avoids aestheticising our notion of the environment but, in being resistant to pedagogy, also avoids the pitfalls of functioning as propaganda. Rather than posit a rhetorics of speech there is, with this CD, a divergent micropolitics of sound in that the field-recordings taken from the park are not plundered and transplanted into a music industry arena to function as ‘radical chic’, but are tracked and treated to work transversally as an ever-present ambiance, an evocation of the context from which the CD was crafted. Thus the atmosphere of the park plays an important role for Ultra-red as it is an ambiance that is inflected with the presence of sexual desire (the sounds of furtive sex in Lewd Conduct) whilst at the same time being inflected by the social desire for free-space in general (the sound of helicopters in Auto body). This foregrounding of desire gives rise to points of crossing for the listener: switching devices between the sexual and the social where a ‘single issue’ becomes a group concern. It also posits Ultra-red as indistinguishable from the struggles around Griffith Park. They are active proponents, a groupuscule who, by making the ‘local’ struggle operate in a wider register become involutionaries rather than revolutionaries. This being-between documentary and musique concrete, between public and private, between politics and music means that the process of differentiation, of singularisation, can come to subvert a majoritorian frame of reference; a generalising and thus exclusory mechanism that Ultra-red identify as “the bourgeois sphere and its definitions of a homogenised public where antagonism requires regulation and sublimation”. This homogeneity is undercut by Ultra-red’s micropolitical practice. The documentary material that is gathered is researched to the extent that it begins to reveal, within say the so-called homogeneity of ‘Queer culture’, the presence of conflictual differences that undermine the stereotypes of the mobile and affluent gay: the class dimension of queer culture is raised. The material is tracked for its idiosyncrasy just as the surroundings of the Park are tracked for the sensitive and precocious balance between constriction and freedom: arrests are being made under bogus pretexts but Ultra-red proceed in a sexing of the atmosphere that, by being made sonic, introduces an unconscious subversion of the ‘natural’. Griffith Park becomes the Bois de Boulogne becomes any quarry or ruin or open field that is made to resound with unwanted sound. The source material of the field-recordings is similarly explored and the tracing of its ‘making-different’ seem to be suggestive of a seeking after the ‘other’ of naturalised sound that itself can take on an antagonistic quality. If our first nature is conditioned then our second and third natures are the exploration of de-conditioning. The juddering rhythms of Auto body and the use of an ‘acid-line’ on Pleasure Grounds seem to make this point musically: the familiarity of a 303 is made unfamiliar by its being ridden of bass and its divergence from techno orthodoxy thus figures the shift of a paradigm that has become second nature.

Thus the field-recordings do not just function as an ambience but their being processed as sound sources that are treated, interrupted and magnified as sound fragments has the effect of depthening the political dimensions of the CD. As with the simultaneous ‘yes/no’ the previously imperceptible can come to switch gears and be made audible just as that which is over-familiar becomes perceptible again. Do we hear the sound of crickets or is it the formerly infrasonic sound of overhead pylons? The sound-sources become sound-molecules and their being-between the natural and the produced, the electronic and the acoustic, music and sound, is presented as a further means of differentiation where the sound-molecules, in eluding categorisation, come to operate as an “active medium of becoming” (2). Our inability to distinguish an exact source to the sounds has the effect of enlivening us to aural details that propel becoming by disabling us from making the usual identifications. Thus, with the accent upon production as transformation, Ultra-red’s project is micro-political in that it seeks-after relation. A surmounting of differences, witnessed as the generalising and ‘all-inclusive’ ethos of a liberal-capitalist frame of reference, is a way to make “distinct elements” become imperceptible again. Even to each other. In place of this closure and blockage, where with everything pinned-down, there is no ‘becoming’, Ultra-red, as “pinko-commie-scum”, offer a variegation that cannot but elude such frameworks. The molecularisation of sound, not leaving sound undisturbed, thus becomes a spur to the transformation of theoretical concepts. The title of the CD ‘Second Nature’ makes reference to the Marxist theory of reification where capitalism becomes imperceptible as a social system and is experienced as a second nature that cannot be questioned. Ultra-red, however, reclaim the notion of a second nature and, in their transformation of the ‘natural’ field-recordings, offer that they are composing “an ambient pastoral which retraces its steps from the given”. Producing nature differently. And so Ultra-red return to the classical notion of a ‘pastoral music’ and re-inflect it with a divergent meaning: no longer the natural as a model of behaviour or as a utopian originary-point, but the pastoral here becomes the exploration of libidinal energy – a natural being de-naturalised. The park is in our living room and Ultra-red imply, through their socio-poetics of sound intervention, that there can be a ‘non-human’ sex in the sense that a ‘given’ erogenous zone can be produced differently. It can be autonomous from the innate instinct of identity and gender division and can make perversity an element of its freedom. The sound of people fucking becomes an intensified revelation of the ever-present libidinal-charge of music in that any cutaneous region can be an indirect source of sexuality. Vinyl is skin. Sound and sex merge when centrality is given to desire: “Public sex is thus a transgression on the level of acoustics”. On this CD Ultra-red work on undermining a consensus that doesn’t know itself as one but knows that it is happy to be afraid of a diffuse social desire it is constructed to deny it has.

So the depth of detail in tracks like Cruise Control (original), Auto Body, and both mixes of Curbed Behaviour(s) are illustrative of a condensation of the elements, ambiance and sources of the struggles around Griffith Park. Thus composed these elements seem to mark a subtle step forward for a politicised music that is no longer reliant on the empty-gestures of a ‘passivity-inducing’ propaganda but is exploring instead the eliciting of sympathy and solidarity through the ‘affectivity’ of a shared aural space. Acoustics of change. So, in an almost direct contradistinction to the tactics of propaganda, speech is here made to reject polemic and rhetoric. It is either made to to stutter, repeat and move back in the mix or to present information in a matter-of-fact manner. When such speech is alloyed to Ultra-red’s molecularisation of sound the cumulative effect is to undermine the narrative expectations that political activism has formerly made us accustomed to. As listeners we receive neither a clear-cut message nor its attendant mode of identity but must, at times, work to discover the nuances, carry out our own researches and track the differences ourselves. In this way, by being open to “differential affirmation” rather than “dialectical negation” (3), we are no longer subject to the propagandist mode of desiring to perceive correctly (ie accede to an accepted ‘truth’) but are encouraged to have desire invest the field of perception directly (ie proceed from a constructed ‘truth’). The former is intent on defining a political position that becomes a steadfast and diminishing one whereas the latter, being attracted to what is different from itself and being drawn to connect those differences, is one that can elucidate new areas of politicisation and multiply the points of potential confrontation. Desire is not a ‘single issue’ say Ultra-red and that they theorise their own practice in extensive sleeve-notes is not a measure of their intent to correct “potential misreadings” nor is it the way that a propagandist pedagogy can come into play, but it is a means that, in foregrounding the very problematic of self-expression, they can maintain an autonomy from the majoritorian frame of reference. A crucial factor in this is that the sleeve-notes decrease the distance between the pastoral and its theorisation and thus dissolve the ‘division of labour’ that is operative between ‘musician’ and ‘writer’. By writing about their own music, by providing context and tangents, Ultra-red are both musician and critic and thus they do not separate their own consciousness of the activity from the end-product of that activity. Such an auto-theoretical component to their work ensures the presence of desire throughout all aspects of the project and makes of it a ‘process’ that can ward-off their potential entry into the homogeneity of such classification as “ambient” or “electronica”. As with other post-media practices such an involutionary project “runs its own line between the terms in play” (4) and marks-out for itself an autonomous space that, in making audible the imperceptibles and being charged by the melding of desire and perception, carries its own safeguards against recuperation. Music is made explicitly political. Thus Ultra-red mark out their difference by setting-out the terms of an engagement that encourages our own. Difference becomes a force for change rather than an excuse for repression and exclusion, and the increasingly nostalgic coupling of music and propaganda, as riot-beats said to ‘induce’ resistance, as the constant depreciation of the will to act, is, on this CD, becoming a pastoral sound, a ‘feed-forward’, a past-participle, that is antagonistic to the “regulation and sublimation” of desire and seeks instead to “excite willing” by means of atmosphere. Propagandist music doesn’t ask you to become, it doesn’t ask you to enter into your own micro-political process, it asks you to share in the guilt, to conform to pedagogy and discipledom and thus to sever desire from perception. By “winning a majority” all that is won is an ever-flailing transparency that knows better. What is lost is the desiring-charge of the imperceptible. With Ultra-red libidinalised music spreads the desublimated difference.


Quotes taken from Ultra-red’s sleeve notes [Mille Plateaux CD 62].


(1) Marcel Proust: Remembrance Of Things Past:1, p457 [Penguin 1989]
(2) Deleuze & Guattari: Thousand Plateaus, p291 [Athlone 1984].
(3) See Gilles Deleuze: Nietzsche and Philosophy, p12 [Athlone 1986].
(4) Deleuze & Guattari, ibid, p239.

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