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4th Annual Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture 2021 with Test Dept and Peter Webb

Tonight I'm taking part in this hybrid event hosted by Goldsmiths. Entitled Notes from the Underground, it's a hybrid format rather than a traditional lecture. The first part is a new film, produced at speed and under lockdown, followed by a Q & A. The film blends Test Dept archive footage and some of my local photography with reflections from Paul Jamrozy and my own theoretical commentary. The commentary explores Test Dept's legacy and relates their work to some of Mark Fisher's concepts. The full text is below. 

You'll be able to watch the event live this evening and youtube users will be able to pose questions. 

If you prefer to use Zoom, please book a free ticket

Commentary: Test Dept Notes from the Underground

DS30/Sailing the Industrial Styx 

An ex-industrial site is supposed to be mute. It should know its place in the symbolic order of sedative post-imperial heritage that Test Dept have always confronted. It should be picturesque, but not intrusive. It may retain a degree of eeriness, but this should not spill over or become active.  One of the problems affecting much so-called hauntological culture is precisely its coziness, even when applied to dark pasts. In short, too often hauntology isn’t haunting. Or rather, is only safely, meekly haunting. 

Yet a re-occupied, illuminated and amplified ruin, visible and audible at some distance is more alarming.  DS30 was a rebuke to the cultural stasis and retrospection that Fisher diagnosed. The video featured hundreds of cold witnesses to the battles of the 1980s and how these haunt the present. Rather than burying them, it brought them back to life. 

The sequence in which archive photos of mining sites gradually fade into the post-industrial landscapes is a good example of this. Viewed alone it could seem like an apolitical hauntological fetishisation, or even a celebration of the disappearance of heavy industry (regardless of the human cost). Yet because of the conceptual, aesthetic force and rigour of the whole, it avoids these traps. The film and the site were certainly suffused with mourning, but also with anger. Test Dept’s militant(ly) modernist melancholy leaves space for grief and the tragic, but  also strives to avoid being captured by them.  Rather than simply aestheticizing ruins, they agitate and galvanise them. Not ruinporn but ruinprop, which transforms sites of inaction to sites of action. Here, like the historical Russian avant-garde, they suggested how art and action can be united, without diluting the power of either.

Debris/Environment

Ruin and dereliction are also a form of official history. Allowing a site to rot is a slow motion form of historical erasure. A site like Beckton Gas Works was a decaying monument to the labour of those who had worked there (and also to those killed in wartime bombing). Yet closure can silence such personal and collective histories, as well as the actual sounds of labour and machinery. 40 years ago, the group began to challenge this process in real time, learning how to occupy and to play ex-industrial spaces, how to utilise the acoustic properties of concrete, steel, iron and eventually increasingly vast buildings. As fast as monetarism shut down sites, they scavenged and began to plan how to re-animate them. The debris lying around could be honed and forged into defiant new uses, as could the buildings themselves.
 
Test Dept represent a mode of corrective cultural force, and one of the strongest expressions of this was the conscription of ruins and former industrial spaces as site of corrective memory. This mode of memorialisation is rigorous rather than resigned and fights rather than celebrates the erasure of memory. Their interventions in such spaces challenged the narratives that declare when a space and its workers are useful and useless. The temporary artistic re-occupation and re-animation of increasingly vast spaces, whether still used, in a ruin state, or scheduled for destruction, can spur audiences to remember, not just the specific histories of a building, but its wider physical and sonic environment, enriching the space and the memory of the space. 
 
40 years on, who will control the coming wave of ruins-to-be that the crisis will create? And who will make them resonate and how?

Shoulder to Shoulder/The Collective

When “the collective” is invoked, many are alarmed. They consider what they might lose individually, rather than gain collectively. From the outside, the façade of Test Dept’s militant collectivism can seem daunting. In many ways this was necessary – much of its impact derived from having a fearsomely regimented image, which succeeded all too well in intimidating state authorities, as the surveillance they were subjected to revealed. The image of Test Dept’s total machine wasn’t a romanticised form of the collective, but a forcefully functional and efficient one, especially as it clashed so vigorously with the privatising ethos of the time. 
 
In 1981, very few people imagined the levels of personalised commodification we see in the instagrammed Big Brother era, when we’ve all become products and the unspoken command is to constantly reveal as much of yourself as possible. Their collectivism was a rebuke in advance to the Americanised selfie culture we’re now consumed by. Perhaps we can draw inspiration from the refusal to share or to perform degrading emotional labour for corporations or social media audiences. 
 
Yet their work is not emotionless or heartless. Nor do they refuse all emotional labour.  Instead, they focus productive emotions: anger, resolve and militant melancholy. The collective was also always more flexible than it may seem, allowing for tactical alliances and productive meeting of minds rather than demanding the total orthodoxy that their image once suggested. 
 
There are few directly personal stories in their work and Total State Machine was  a rare example of the group speaking openly of their own biographies. While these definitely played into the group’s work, they never become the subject of the work itself. 
 
By processing and depersonalising emotions they make them more collectively resonant. In 2021 they remain dissidents, subverting the emotional economy through collective resolve, setting out a model of focused effective labour that refuses conscription into shallowness. 
 
In the 80s they wielded the spectre of the utopian collective, not just against the predatory Thatcherite state, but in the dysfunctional contexts of so-called “actually existing socialism.” It may be that their Eastern Bloc experiences of clandestine performances, militarised border crossings and police harassment are going to be become very grimly relevant as we experience the accelerating failures of “actually existing imperialist revivalism” in England. We may face shortages of goods and compassion, but we will not face shortages of historical parallels and useful lessons from the past. 

Large scale/site specific/location responsive/strategies.

 
It’s not only the materials or sounds of a location that can be useful and expressive. Its histories interact with and enhance the history of a group’s site-specific engagements, even if these come to light long after the intervention. Here, it’s important to remember an older meaning of ‘engagement’ that predates its use in so-called ‘international art speak’. What’s relevant here is the martial sense: ‘engagement’ not just with a difficult or even hostile location, but with those forces who dictated its histories.  
 
Modern historical precedents for Test Dept’s work such as Constructivism are well known, but there are other far older connections. In their early years, the decaying industry of Deptford was a key source of material and bleak inspiration. Yet besides its industrial history, the area has a strategic, political one. The old Deptford Bridge was the site of two highly significant struggles. In 1381, Wat Tyler led his rebels into London across it. It was also here that in 1497 Cornish rebels, led by a figure known as An Gof  battled an overwhelming royal force that had originally been intended to fight in Scotland. 
 
So the group gathered their sonic arsenal and began their campaign in a historic battlefield area strongly associated with the struggle against English royal power. Like so many others, these uprisings were crushed but remain in the historical record (despite the indifference or hostility of councils in London and Cornwall). They form part of an alternate lineage of resistance movements, moments when the “powers that be” met defiant opposition. 
 
In the light of this history and their 1987 cooperation with another defiant Celtic force - Brith Gof - Test Dept appear as inheritors and protagonists of this lasting legacy. Gododdin was first staged in the already-doomed former Rover Car Factory outside Cardiff. The vast space was erased not long after the project temporarily resurrected it for a final battle, this symbolically connecting two narratives the Thatcherite state was keen to downplay or erase – the Celtic and the industrial.
 
Their powerful mode of transgressive, weaponised monumentalism tried to compete with and even to overshadow actual state and corporate rituals. From the mid 80s they increasingly worked with orchestral and choral elements, augmenting their sonic power and just as their work was orchestrated, they orchestrated the sites that they occupied. The buildings needed to be played and sonically re-animated in a convincing way that left no room for doubt about the group's efficiency. The sounds were not only monumental, but could function as sonic monuments in themselves.
 
They unnerved the state because they looked and sounded like they meant business and being able to produce convincing work in this type of space was a key part of that. It was also unnerving and challenging because it could compete aesthetically and symbolically, partly by using the neo-imperialist symbolism of the Thatcherite state. Examples of this include the use of the military band at Expo 86, the use of Falklands War footage (as seen in their 1988 TV collaboration with Steve Martland, Albion), and the use of massed drummers and pipers, a technique that reached a dramatic climax in Glasgow in 1990. 
 
Their monumentalism could and can continue to have powerful effects, disrupting the symbolic order, compelling audiences to re-consider their stances and perhaps inspiring future struggles. It may be possible to accept that monumentalism from below is not a virtue in itself, but it can definitely have virtuous effects. 

Programmed for Realism and Programming for Progress

“The soft sweet sound of sedation

Sold with a chorus of tears

Culture stripped bare of emotion

And stamped with religion of fear”

Test Dept., Sweet Sedation.

Like Fisher, Test Dept tried to map and to combat what they called the “sweet sedation” of the market. Now, in an era of industrial-scale, algorithmic self-sedation, the repressed demand for means to cast off sedation continues to seep through cultural and media filtering systems. There is a hunger for what the group now calls “industrial agitation”. One issue we’re currently confronted by is the over-production of bloodless, nostalgist simulacra of 1980s styles such as industrial. Test Dept stand out not just as historical pioneers, but also because even their newest work remains full- blooded, fuelled by sweat and toil. This trace of the real makes it stand out, but – just as in the 80s – also guarantees that it will be partly overlooked.

The book “Total State Machine”, which Fisher this history was self-authorised and self-built, released by an independent publisher. It didn’t go through “the usual channels” and if it had been allowed through, could not have done so without some degree of tempering or decontamination to make it more palatable. Yet the price of refusing to make the usual compromises can be isolation. Following the Expo 86 action, which no British publication ever reported on, and which I wasn’t aware of until I began work on the book, the group noticed that British coverage of them dried up for some time. The situation now isn’t radically different. What limited coverage their activities have received has been in a narrow range of “alternative” outlets such as FACT or The Quietus and one isolated appearance on Radio 3. 

Beyond the existence of the book, which was scarcely reviewed, they remain peripheral and beyond the confines of music and subcultural history, are not really canonical. Besides the collaboration with AV Festival in Gateshead, their only other artistic presence in recent years was in a Leipzig exhibition space run by former East German underground activists. Test Dept remain largely “beyond the pale” of the wider art establishment, even those parts of it that claim to be supporters of radical causes. 

A statement of Fisher’s gives some clues as to why this might be. In 2016 he lamented:

“… there's almost a deliberate removal of affect in many pieces of contemporary art now: what makes it art is that you don't feel anything in relation to it. We're encouraged to feel that we're Neanderthals if we still think that art should create feelings and affects, that it should have aesthetic texture, content, etc.—that's not sophisticated. Lots of tendencies in the contemporary art world are exactly against those things. But I'm happy to be Neanderthal if that's the case, to be honest.”

This artistic holding back operates in negative synergy with the “exhaustion of the future” that Fisher diagnosed, along with its associated depressive, inhibiting effects.  Given the state of things, depressive nihilism and fatalism are tempting options for many.  Knowledge of the apparent exhaustion of the future can itself be exhausting. In these conditions, the lure of romantic decline and affecting nostalgia can be very seductive. Yet rather than fetishizing it, should we perhaps try to work through the exhaustion, as the group once did for hour after hour in a Dickensian New Cross basement?
 
If you want a paradigmatic example of art and music that refused to collaborate in this “removal of affect”, even before affectless-ness became an orthodoxy, Test Dept would surely be it. Sound man Jack Balchin remembers how seeing them in action “broke through a depressed core in me.” This is an example of the galvanising effects produced by working through the exhaustion. Perhaps hope needs to be worked for and at, to be produced and re-produced by constant rehearsal, repetition and exercise (mental as well as physical) … or through metaphorical or literal drilling.  Could this be one way to re-forge or re-galvanise new futures? Even when the concept of utopia has been extensively privatised and trivialised?
 
The shockwaves of post-imperial collapse - which both Fisher and Test Dept anticipated - are finally reaching the archaic Westminster structure and the survival of the current state structure is openly questioned. Besides a proliferation of ruins, we’ll face a proliferation of debris of all sorts. Once again, entire industries may be scrapped and entire districts may experience the type of devastation that inner cities and mining areas did in the 1980s. Even the most recently gentrified parts of the cities may be much more vulnerable than they imagine to the scale of destruction. Massive sedation and disinformation will be deployed to shore up the façade, but how well can these work when rather than the slow, insidious cancellation of the future Fisher described, individuals are faced with the brutal, overnight cancellation of their futures? There may be no alternative but to forage amidst the literal and metaphorical wreckage, gathering scrap, testing it out and seeing how it can be made to resonate and to agitate. 21st Century “Fuel to fight” may still be found amongst the falling masonry and toxic waste of British democracy.


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