29 June – 8 September 2018

Mark Aerial Waller
Leave Nothing Behind But Your Footprints And Take Nothing But Your Time

Collaborators in Pandæmonium
by Jonathan P. Watts

 

‘Everything which here arouses horror and indignation is of recent origin, belongs to the industrial epoch.’ – Friedrich Engels, The Conditions of the Working Class in England, 1845

It was in the 1950s, in the wake of Allied bombings and Blitzkreigs, that pop stars and consumer commodities finally demoted the gods (cf. Reyner Banham’s ‘Household Godjets’ and Richard Hamilton’s Adonis in Y Fronts (1963)). Extending the Hollywood dream frontier, youthful visages first were possessed of the infinities in the fifties as spectacular media became a calculating dream syndicate. Embalmed in broadcast sounds and images, stars lived forever as mere mortals died once and for all.[1]

Twice Mark E. Smith died. Once in January, earlier this year, of lung and kidney cancer, and before that, according to a BBC News Tweet in March 2017, on his sixtieth birthday. ‘I was ill around that time,’ he told an interviewer after death one, ‘but was starting to feel better and somebody comes in and says, “by the way, you’re dead”’.[2]

Neither star nor mortal, somehow resisting both, Smith, former frontman of the band The Fall, was more like a terrorising poltergeist of the kind that haunts Richard Bovet’s guidebook to the occult, Pandæmonium (1684), or perhaps an industrious disruptor of time and space in the Surrealist Humphrey Jennings’s fragmentary anthology of writing on the coming of the machine age, titled, too, Pandaemonium (1985).

The building of pandæmonium in book one of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, written in 1660 but not published for a further seven years, is equated with the burgeoning industrial revolution. It begins with fallen angels toiling to mine, smelt, forge and mould the metals in the soils of hell. A foul wind tampers the landscape:

There stood a Hill not far whose griesly top
Belch’d fire and rowling smoak; the rest entire
Shon with a glossie scurff, undoubted sign
That in his womb was hid metallic Ore,
The work of Sulphur. Thither wing’d with speed
A numerous Brigad hasten’d.[3]

‘Pandæmonium,’ Milton wrote in the introductory notes to an early edition of book one, ‘is the Palace of All the Devils’. Alchemical knowledge, proto-scientific magic, is equated with the quest to build a new Jerusalem – ‘it will never be finished’, Milton concedes.

Historically, pandæmonium has been courted by the European artistic avant-garde as a productive derangement and potential rearrangement of the senses (colonising, imperialistic, it is a model of civilisations formed in conflict). Wyndham Lewis, Mark E. Smith’s artist-hero, co-founder of the Vorticists, served on the western front in world war one. Before he went over in 1917, he’d been editor of Blast, the ‘Review of the Great English Vortex’, which took the name Ezra Pound had used to characterise an artistic milieu that identified as neither Post-Impressionists nor Futurists. For Lewis, Vorticism captured the still place ‘at the heart of the whirlpool… where all energy is concentrated’.[4] Discussing his dazzling figurative drawings of 1910–12, the art historian Charles Harrison writes that the

tendency… is towards the energizing of the whole picture space by a rhythm established in delineating the figures, so that the total design becomes as it were an embodiment of human action or interaction, ‘rationalized’ according to the metaphor of mechanization.[5]

Mark E. Smith as pandæmonium: preternatural, supernatural, techno-human. Bored of the ‘natural’ body. Fucked on booze, caned on speed. Man-machine. Extremist. Psychotropic-man-machine. Senses deranged and rearranged. Action and interaction irrationalized according to the metaphor of mechanization. Repetition, repetition, repetition. Beyond human.[6]

For a decade, between 1998 and 2008, Mark E. Smith became collaborator-raconteur in a trilogy of Mark Aerial Waller’s films: Glow Boys (1998) (accompanied by the ‘paratextual’ film Interview with a Nuclear Contract Worker (1999), featuring the poet Douglas Park, Midwatch (1999) and Resistance Domination Secret: Agamemnon (2008). Beginning with Glow Boys, paranoiac fiction of the working practices of actual nuclear engineers who exceed their recommend daily dose of radioactivity for pay, Waller’s casting of Smith as the canteen caterer is on point.

An intoxicated (and toxic) vortex of speeding energy, Smith may as well have already been radioactive man in his white lab coat like a velveteen lounge tux. He croons, announcing his presence as a singular Aeschylean chorus:

‘I am the caterer! I am the caterer!’

It’s the caterer who feeds the workers contaminated food and tolerates Mister Fantastic’s messianic latitudes (played by Grahame Fox, Ralf Kenning in Game of Thrones), a Marvel comics meets Isambard Kingdom Brunel kind of character, who, seemingly plugged into the electrical grid, is high on energy: ‘I’m a fucking creator! Father of power!’ When he dies, shot as game by the local pub landlord, the grid shuts down and the film ends. Even the cinematic apparatus relied on his labour.

Glow Boys is retro-futurist Coronation Street, a Surrealist high jinks. But it’s also serious ‘state of the nation’ work, a recognition that, since world war two, nuclear power has been our – the world’s – post-war pandæmonium.[7]

Waller shows us the nuclear energy ‘sweatshop sublime’: Mister Fantastic is one of Milton’s fallen angels, who toils to mine, smelt, forge and mould trace plutonium, as are the military veterans Waller interviewed while researching the film, Ron and John, assigned to ‘Operation Mosaic’ in 1956 on Monte Bello Islands and ‘Grapple’ in 1957 on Christmas Island, Australia. ‘People,’ Ron told Waller,

were saying about seeing lights through the back of their heads and all manner of other things, and loud bangs. But I’d heard loud bangs. If there hadn’t been a bang I would have been bloody… [pause] It’s part of my whack.

John recounts wading into a nuclear test pond encircled by black scum:

It was strange because there was nothing that would cause it. There was no vegetation as such. All that was there were some lizards and some spiders, and some deformed cats that had escaped from the previous explosion.

At the end of the day his legs were ‘absolutely bright red’. Waking up the following morning,

my legs had started swelling, feet and everything, they had swelled so badly that I couldn’t even wear sandals. I had to have the sandals on with string wrapped round them… and I’d reported sick to the sick bay… and during one of his sober periods the doctor looked at me, and started washing the legs with Potassium Permanganate, Calamine Lotion, Gentian Violet… so many bloody different colours they used to call me Rainbow Legs or Technicolor Feet… and everybody could hear me because the sandals were loose on the deck they would go: flip flop, flip flop, so I was wearing a pair of flippers. After a while the swelling started to go down a bit and it creased like a peach does… or an apple; little depressions and it started bleeding, and they’ve now been bleeding for forty years, sixteen days.[8]

The domestication of nuclear power plants belies the horror and indignation of the nuclear epoch and is further veiled in black comedy by its experimental operatives (an ameliorative for exploitation?). Mutated cats the norm. John transforming into frog. John becoming The Wizard of Oz. Back in the glow boys’ canteen a sign announces that ‘Science Never Sleeps’; in this perpetual dusk the speeding caterer raps a paean to Mister Fantastic: ‘He braved the unknown terrors of outer space and was changed by cosmic rays to something more than human.’

Waller calls Interview With A Nuclear Contract Worker (1999) ‘paratextual’, or a parasite to a host, which is to say mutualistic, one sustaining the other, fusing. Off set, away from the narrative frame, the interview’s intimacy, carried by the low-fidelity image, impresses the viewer, pre-Big Brother, as insight expressed through reflexivity. Yet this very contract worker can be seen resting in the twilight canteen of Glow Boys, shifty and paranoid.

Perhaps it’s not only the body that’s changed by cosmic rays but fact and fiction’s very frontiers too? Mutating seamlessly between hired actor and actual contract worker, experiences fictional and actual, Parks’ fabulated monologue to camera draws a parallel with actual glow boys pretending to be who they’re not in order to work longer hours. Cosmic rays obliterate identity. We pass to make do in the world. ‘We,’ Parks says, glancing coquettishly into the lens,

are almost some kind of driving power in ourselves… If you think of it as with the atom in purely scientific… terms something that makes things happen in the modern world but perhaps… we go somewhere more celestial or perhaps divinely appointed. It couldn’t happen without us.

Likewise, these films couldn’t have happened without Mark E. Smith. Waller once described his video practice in mediumistic terms as:

a conduit flowing from the viewers in the gallery, plunging down a hole to the crypt/archive, and out to the production process and its economics, politics and historical context, before finally spilling out onto the set, the street and the material reality that once was.[9]

Mark E. Smith and Waller’s films as conduits: compressed occultish channels for wayward historical voices and embodiments. In Smith’s lyrics we feel that all of the British working class’s times and places flow through him as vividly populated panoramas.

A demented time-traveling caterer from the fleet of Nelson, he’s actually possessed in Midwatch, lurching on deck, rum ration sunk, ranting at the other actor who’s a mutineer from the kind of nuclear bomb tests that Ron, John and friends witnessed in the 1950s. It’s pandaemonium.

Waller shot Midwatch (the term the British Navy give to watch duty between midnight and 4am) on infrared video after midnight in pitch black on a summer solstice in one continuous take. No one, including Waller behind camera, could see anyone else. Before The Blair Witch Project (1999) and the normalisation of fright aesthetics by Living TV reruns of Most Haunted, it is a descent into night, into the subconscious and into the repressed – psychologically and historically.[10] In the final film of the Mark E. Smith trilogy, Resistance Domination Secret: Agamemnon, his disembodied voice is a poltergeistic envoy floating over baroque imagery.

In the true sense of the word, Mark Aerial Waller’s films are parasitic on Mark E. Smith. They’re co-dependents and Waller’s work, in turn, contaminates Smith’s. On The Fall’s album The Unutterable (2000) Smith set the lyrics of Midwatch 1953 to a synth bleep:

The light of the dawn

Midwatch
Who could foresee?

Midwatch
Who could foresee what happened in 1953?

Midwatch
Who could possibly see what happened in 1953?

In Mark E. Smith’s (ghost written) autobiography he tells of how his grandfather was a foreman at a factory. On Fridays he’d stand at the gates of the prison and, as the men were being released, he’d pick them out and offer them a start. As John Fleming writes in the Dublin Review of Books this was the model for the band: ‘a musician’s prospects were a function of how well they fitted in with his plan; their career in The Fall was subject to Smith’s destructive creativity and often-malicious whim.’[11]

Smith, Waller one day realised, had been trying him out. He wanted to star in his own feature-length film. The collaboration ended when Smith realised Waller wasn’t with the plan. Waller’s trilogy, then, were prequels, speedy premonitions of the unrealised project – never finished. Shown together for the first time at RODEO they’re a blueprint for a Palace of All the Devils.

 

Jonathan P. Watts is a contemporary art critic living in Norwich, where he also co-directs the artist-led space LOWER.GREEN.

 


[1] Richard Dyer, ‘Stars as a Social Phenomenon’ in Stars, BFI Publishing, 1979.

[2] ‘Mark E. Smith – the final interview: “I can clear a pub when I want to”’, The Guardian, Thursday 25 January 2018.

[3] John Milton, ‘The Building of Pandæmonium’ in Humphrey Jennings, Pandaemonium 1660–1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers, Picador, 1985/1987, p.3.

[4] As reported by Violet Hunt in I have this to say: the story of my Flurried Years, London, 1925, in Charles Harrison, English Art and Modernism 1900–1939, Allen Lane and Indiana University Press, 1981, p.102.

[5] Ibid. p.79.

[6] Amphetamine, Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons write in The Boy Looked at Johnny: The Obituary of Rock and Roll (Pluto Press, 1978), ‘is the only drug that makes you sit up and ask questions rather than lie down and lap up answers – is the only drug not to act as an all-American palliative. Dope, downers, LSD, cocaine and heroin – they all demand “Thou shalt have no other God before me”, whereas speed does nothing more than act as a hyper-active vitamin pill.’ They argue that it is a useful drug, with 72 million tablets taken by British troops in the second world war, and used by doctors since 1932 to treat epilepsy, alcoholism, schizophrenia, problem children, neurotic housewives, over-worked men, heart block, migraine – the list goes on. Moreover, it is a threatening drug because it ‘increases IQ by an average of eight points… And because, unlike dope and acid which were never anything more than youth (so long as the youth had been to college, that is) drugs, speed has always been an essentially proletarian drug.’ ‘It is,’ they continue, ‘the only drug that can make a prole realise that to make it you don’t need more intelligence, just the confidence to look down on them. Speed is the only thing that can take the place of elocution lessons’.

[7] Smith accepted Waller’s invitation to feature in Glow Boys because it reminded him of Lindsay Anderson’s black comedy, Britannia Hospital (1982).

[8] ‘Backwards Translation’ in Metronome, ed. Clementine Deliss, 1999.

[9] ‘Life in Film / Mark Aerial Waller’, frieze, 5 May 2011.

[10] David Keenan, England’s Hidden Reverse, Strange Attractor Press, 2003/2012, p.vii.

[11] ‘Dead Beat Descendants’, Dublin Review of Books, Issue 101, June 2018.