Strategies against architecture – and the formative influence of ‘metal bashing’ in the 1980s
February 24, 2012 2 Comments
A couple of years ago I took a group of Real Estate students to Berlin on a field trip. Whilst planning a context-setting lecture on the tortured physical history of the city (in the spirit of Ladd, 1998), I had the idea of opening with a blast of architectural noise from German ‘industrial’ music pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten, recalling an 1980’s NME article that had announced to me that an architecture professor was using their music to inspire his students to think about ruination and materiality. The group’s name had always stuck in my mind, as it translates as “collapsing new buildings built after 1945”. Not many bands have ever been quite so of, and about, the built environment.
As it turned out, caution got the better of me and I decided not to enhance my presentation with a trip down memory lane. Yet, ironically, as I stood up to speak a workman’s drill kicked-in in a hotel room nearby, and my attempts at provocative comments on the culpability of surveyors within the city’s Nazi and Soviet eras were drowned out anyway.
I dallied with Neubauten’s music in the mid 1980s, and also with the Anglophone variant offered up by Test Dept. Both bands focussed upon making angry-abject (Neubauten) and angry-militaristic (Test Dept) performances by pounding, grinding and crushing found metal objects, in order to foreground the rotten state of West German culture (Neubauten) or the death throws of industrial Britain (Test Dept).
I was reminded recently of the experience of seeing Test Dept live. I never got to see Neubauten, but by all accounts a performance combining members of Neubauten, Throbbing Gristle and other luminaries of the industrial music scene under the Stockhausian banner of The Concerto for Voices and Machinery at London’s Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 1984 was something special – the audience got on stage and started to use ‘the band’s’ instruments (pneumatic drills, hammers, angle grinders) to start demolishing the ICA. I first saw Test Dept when they staged a re-enactment of the Gododdin saga, an epic poem about the AD 600 defeat Celtic tribes by the invading Anglo-Saxons. This took place in Cardiff’s disused Rover Car Factory in 1989 and was a collaboration with Welsh performance artists Brith Gof, who went on to stage a recreation of Frankenstein in a disused steel works in the wilds of the Ebbw Vale circa 1994. The image of a massive gantry crane hurtling over the audience with two actors dangling precariously from it in the cavernous space of the vast factory-hall haunts me to this day. Ah, it brings it all back. Oh, and Brif Gof is Welsh for… “feint recollection”.
So, rave parties were not the only ways in which exciting alternative uses were found for these recently abandoned spaces in the 1980s and 1990s.
These recollections got me thinking about the formative influence of this metal bashing and the (so called) ‘industrial culture’ of the 1980s, its angry observation of decay, decline and ruination and its foregrounding of the materiality of abandoned factory spaces and places. Flicking back through You Tube, the rawness of the anger I found in these performers’ early work slapped me round the face. I’ve given a link below to the opening excerpt of Neubauten’s 1985 performance film Halber Mensch. I’m struck by the long (and silent) tracking shots of the abandoned Ruhr factory and its piles of industrial debris. It is very reminiscent of the extended post-human opening sequence of Sophie Fiennes’ (equally industrial ruin-focussed) 2010 film Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow about Anselm Kiefer’s installation project at La Ribaute, a former silk factory.
Meanwhile for Test Dept I’ve chosen an audio clip taken from their 1984 collaborative performance with the South Wales Miners’ Choir at the height of the miners’ strike, a strike which unsuccessfully sought to prevent the subsequent (near) extinction of the UK deep-mining industry. The striking miners were viewed by Thatcher as ‘the enemy within’ for their efforts.
Musically both excerpts are visceral yet incidental. For me (in the footsteps of Edensor 2005), it is the focus on ruin and the new-use-finding qualities of this engagement with industrial debris that has the most enduring resonance. As Test Dept put it in an interview in 1987, their aim was:
“uncovering the stone, the beetles, the dirt and the filth…lifting the stone away so that you get a slightly clearer view of the things that frighten you.” (Neal , 1987: 165).
Edensor, T. (2005) Industrial Ruins – space, aesthetics and materiality, Berg, Oxford.
Einstürzende Neubauten (1985) Half-Mensch, Mute Films, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQnOFNh9HtE&feature=related
Fiennes, S. (2010) Promotional website for Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow: http://overyourcities.com/index.html
Ladd, B. (1998) The Ghosts of Berlin – confronting German history in the urban landscape, University of Chicago Press, London.
Neal, C. (1987) Tape Delay, SAF Publishing, Harrow.
Test Dept (1984) Shockwork, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-xgrkFOAF0Y