Mirrors In An Empty Room: Metal Gear Solid and the Catch-22 of Constructing Better Realities

            On June 27, 2020 something inspiring happened that gave hope in a time where there is little. On a 7th generation console from 2006 on 5-year-old multiplayer server, every nuclear warhead was dismantled for PlayStation 3 in Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain. This was done without any given objective from the developer nor was any infrastructure put in place to do so. Subreddits were made and alliances were built, R/Philanthropy and R/MetalGearPatriots, respectively. Nuke watchers were ever present hoping to reach a virtual world free of nuclear weaponry. After the impossible was achieved they were treated with a previously known but never authentically unlocked 8 minutes cutscene around the fight against nuclear proliferation and to leave the world as we found it for our children. Although the PS3 reached nuclear peace, the other servers seem to be in a perpetual nuclear age with PC servers carrying 1193 and the PS4 showing an astonishing 2479 nuclear warheads. With both subreddits having over 5000 posts and countless discord replies, why go through all of this effort in creating sides, narratives, friends, enemy, and rallying cries? What do you do in the aftermath of a completed myth?

            Jack, the protagonist from the second game in the series, Metal Gear Solid 2, said it best, “It’s like being a nightmare you can’t wake up from”. The decay of the world seemingly reaching terminal velocity all happening behind our screens is a particular dystopia I don’t think we saw for ourselves; at least so soon. In this techno-psychedelia where certain truths only makes sense depending on what timeline you find yourself on. Mass social labor movements as you click through your stories, race wars centering around a white womans bantu knots on another, and the full transition of a site we used to find our old middle school sweethearts now a swamp of fascist leetspeak. Life can begin to feel like just another day in a war without end where to imagine a world worth fighting follows the law of diminishing returns like driving a car off the lot. The one space we first enjoyed with the bright optimistic potential of a digital utopia was co-opted as the largest vehicle of manipulation through ad-sensed misinformation. The shattered black mirror only presented another empty room to us all.

            Hideo Kojima, an artist seemingly obsessed with this technological anxiety behind and in front of us has been wandering in these Bladerunner backrooms since 1988. Games he made prior to Metal Gear Solid like Snatcher (1988) and Policenauts (1994) spoke of fears surrounding state sanctioned violence spreading past our atmosphere, but it was with Metal Gear Solid for the Playstation in 1998 that elevated his text surrounding the slow, granted stripping of agency in a world that takes the reign of our future and places it in a government funded hard-drive mount. A game about the choices of a hard-nosed veteran, Solid Snake, assigned what was to be his final mission of taking back an Alaskan nuclear warhead testing facility from a group of terrorists, Metal Gear Solid predominately carries theme centered around genetics, political/military corruption, nuclear proliferation and disarmament, cybernetic prosthetics, gene therapy and genetic engineering, child soldiers, and post-traumatic stress disorder but carries a torch in fighting to take back agency in our own lives. That our futures are not dictated by our genes but in our choices. Such comments examined at length in a video game was unheard of at the time in 1998 where the other top games at the time being Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Banjo Kazooie. Now we have Kojima’s offspring in the ways of Bioshock (2007), Spec Ops: The Line (2012), and just about any game that speaks of player agency in their own postmodern metafictional ludonarrative dissonant ways.

            A series about genes shifted to a series about memes in the follow-up to Metal Gear Solid, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. Without falling into the endless hypertextural rabbit hole around what the game is and what it’s about, 2001’s MGS2 is a game about the inherent failings of a sequel but it’s also siren cry around the perils of the Information Age we now face today. How the rapid flow of information rids us of any context to understand the world around us, it speaks of echo chambers on forums that carry their own truths while never being able to see other truths in other subcommunities. All this information is “junk data” but who could or should be the curators of the ideas worth passing on? They can’t all come with us and given to future generations. In 2001 (!) MGS2 believes that choice was never in our hands in the first place but in artificial intelligence. That AI term has been moved into the present day under the guise of The Algorithm. Deciding what will be show to us on our feeds. The canary in the coal mine was already dead in 2001 and we’re only coming to terms with the smell in 2020. For almost a two-decade old text, they really nailed it on the head. Honestly, I’ll let the colonel, the who’ve you follow all your order from through all games in the series, say it better than me. (Spoiler warning as this is easily THE cutscene of the entire game; if you do wish to play it then you maybe shouldn’t be reading any of this anyway?)

           first documentation of a video game blackpill?

MGS2 moves its theme from the prison of the body to prison of the mind but still believes in a fight towards living with your own agency in life. That the stories we tell ourselves, and not the ones we’re told, are ones worth fighting for. That words don’t mean so much. We should look past the words to find our own meaning in a world filled with symbols only given meaning by those before us. In all its truth telling, this game still believes in a story; it still thinks the empty room that we awaken in after the nightmare is salvageable.

            14 years later, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain shows us what it’s like to live in that empty room where all we face is our own ineptitude. MGS5is the terminal conclusion of a dream denied. A game about blind revenge and the lies we tell each other to keep that fire alive at all costs, it tells us what a nation-state does when it run out of enemies to supplant their jingoism into. When the memes we tell ourselves run their course. When the flow of information is so fast that history can’t keep us. When poor intentioned American sentiment of solidarity turns into paranoia and imperialism overseas becomes at-home authoritarianism. The two games really document to the pre and post 9/11 American objective quite clearly in my eyes: as MGS2 came out weeks after 9/11 (and had many parts of the game taken out due to taking place around New York), it heeded warning over information, unmediated spread of memetics, and hypertextual discombobulation. MGS5 looks at the carcass of a culture that once stood for something, albeit violence against others, and the endless spiral that can be strewn in every direction, including your own, when your enemy is a just another phantom.

            Culture used to be a very small thing. Whole countercultures distilled into street names, bricks thrown, and seats taken on buses. Now we don’t know how to cope with how much history happens to us every day. The names, the protests, and tragedies coming at such a rate where it’s impossible to reconcile and place within a greater context. So how do we cope? We don’t! They wash over us as we create our own slower, smaller fiction that makes more sense than reality ever could, not unlike what the colonel spoke to in games prior. MGS5 is an ode to the third act of America, where we are no longer the scrappy nation fighting from tyranny nor are we the king of the hill for the rest of the world to look up in jealousy, we’re the snake eating its own tail since we’ve run out of food to eat. How can we create meaning in the abyss?

            The players on the PlayStation 3 version of Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain created their own meaning in the abyss by creating a problem worth believing in. On R/Philanthropy (now r/metalgearantinuclear) and r/ThePatriots vicious sentiment travelled between cross posts, many would take shifts in the middle of the night to see if nuke we’re being made under the shroud of darkness. Private discord had watchdogs figuring out next steps towards how to avoid hackers and moles infiltrated into their own voice channels. The names are based off of in game organizations: The Patriots Philanthropy being Snake and his partner’s anti metal gear NGO and the Patriots, the metal gear’s equivalent of the deep state. Started in earnest back in March, reddit user u/thehunghorse created a discord server to round up anyone will to get the war count to zero for the first time ever. In an interview with arstechnica, thehunghorse admitted to the beginning issues ,”At first, nothing got done because we simply didn’t have the numbers. But slowly, our numbers grew to 60, 70… It was heartwarming to have everyone come together for this goal. Me and a few other members actually bought a PS3 copy [of Metal Gear Solid V] just to help out”. Planned coordination brought the number of warheads in the thousands in June to just 100 by July and to zero by the end of the month. After they reached the number they had been fighting for all of lockdown, Japan’s Metal Gear twitter account responded quickly but in the way they had hoped. “A nuclear abolition event has occurred in PS3 version of MGSV:TPP from July 28, Japan time, but we are currently investigating this matter.” Was posted the very next day and have yet to confirm Philanthropy’s efforts. Some people feel as if getting confirmation of nuclear abolition day will unlocked some new content in a game that is widely considered to be unfinished, but this is all hearsay and will most likely result to nothing. A discord server can dream, I suppose.

            This journey shows that when your dreams are denied you construct your own approval. And even through all this inane hardship they were still rewarded with Kojima hiding a 8 min cutscene in the game only seen once by hackers fooling servers into thinking the nuke count reached zero over two years ago. Echoing the same sentiments as MGS1 we have a role in not bettering the world but leaving it be for our children to allow them to make their own choices. MGS5 continues to show its prescience even half a decade over in other ways too. A large story beat surrounding MGS5 is the spread of a vocal cord parasite that grows only when certain languages are spoken from the host. In this case, it’s the English language, the world’s lingua franca, to liberate society from the social consciousness of how our brains are shaped by the English language. The coincidence of how predominately English speaking countries refuse to come to grips with our own reality’s global virus where the more we talk the faster this virus spreads is not lost on me through replays of this Sisyphean game about forming an enemy in an empty, endless war. These phantoms also have their own analogs in modern times. In MGS5 its “Cipher” and “Zero”, but in real life its Qanon, the Deep State, and Antifa. We must create our own myths to fight, even if nothing is really there. 

            The reason this series is in the medium of video game in the first place is due to Kojima’s ideas on player agency and how the form of video games can supplant textural narrative, elucidating the passivity of storytelling other media showcase. The character will not progress in the story unless you do, unlike a movie where the story will unfold the same way every time with or without you present. Form and Metal Gear Solid go hand in hand. These games not only speak of agency, but  alsomaterially confront what it means to control an avatar that being controlled by higher power both in game and in real life. In MGS1, the only way to beat a particular boss battle was to switch controller ports from player 1 to player 2 so he could no longer “read your thoughts.” You were expressly told in game by a character that you could only find the phone number for another character by reading the back of the game disc case. These fourth wall breaks were impressive at time but MGS2 took it a step further. Multiple times through the last act you are ordered to turn the game off. That Jack will face continuous hardship as long as we play. That we enjoy all the killing. By holding the controller, we aren’t just a part of the conflict, that we are the source of it. MGS5 provided a more subtle examination with the nuclear proliferation multiplayer component. The only way to stop this is if both side stop playing. Why are the servers still up for a lesser version of a five-year-old game on a console no one plays anymore? Why we’re subreddits and discord servers created for dismantling virtual nukes? Why does this make me happy that people fought for something? Do we enjoy all the killing, the posting, thee tweeting, the in-fighting? Maybe because even if we never arrive at an absolute reality, the joy of believing in something was worth it.

            On June 27, 2020 they’re were 0 nukes, touting a small victory in a subset of an already tiny microcommunity. By August 2, 2020, 40 nukes were back on those PS3 servers,106 at the time of me writing this. In 2021, the START treaty initially made in 1963 will expire, leaving us with nothing towards supervision against facing the second nuclear age. Nuclear proliferation as it happens on servers can now happen in real life with the US and Russia’s arsenal now left unchecked. As Putin states that he happy to extend the treaty without any precondition, the US stalls on signing the extension. The mirrors of conflict face each other in an empty room- battling for a decaying world stripped of its resources and wonder. Do we continue to stare in a never-ending brinkmanship? Do we break these mirrors, or do we walk out the room and build a better one? Whatever we do, we must something. Lest we face just another day in a war without end. 

A Biography, Curriculum Vitæ, and Selected Works

A selective chronologist from the Northern Gulf, Ryan C. Clarke notices the passage of time through both an oceanographical lens as a trained Coastal Geologist and musicological as a co-editor at Dweller Electronics. He is currently studying ethnomusicology at Tulane University.


Co-Editor (2020 – ) @ Dweller Electronics

Musicology, MS (2022 – ) @ Tulane University

Earth and Environmental Sciences, M.S (2019 -2021 ) @ Tulane University

Geological Sciences, B.S (2012 – 2016) + M.S (2016 – 2018) @ Louisiana State University


Text

Reverse Hallucinations of the Lower Delta” (2020) @ Rhizome

Southern Electronics” (2021) printed in Arena Annual 2021 @ Arena

“Running Out of Space: Drexicya, Boards of Canada, and the 9/11 Digital Psychedelia You Haven’t Processed Yet” (2021) @ Dweller Electronics

The Collapse of Modern Culture (2021) @ Terraforma (Journal #1)

Ghettoville (2014): An Ode to Forgotten Black Geometries” (2020) @ Dweller + printed in Cultural Bulletin Issue E, Jan 2021

Where’s The Drop?: Notes on Dance Music Ecologies” (2021) @ Soap Ear

“Microtuning” (2021) @ LuckyMe Records

Fog Springs Eternal!” (2020) in Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry by Speaker Music @ Planet Mu

“Mirrors In An Empty Room: Metal Gear Solid and the Catch-22 of Constructing Better Realities” (2021) @ GreyOverBlue

Digital Techno History Library (2020) @ Dweller

Space is Our Place: Notes on Southern Electronics” (2020) @ Dweller

“A Brief History of Techno-fascism, 1976-1996” (2020) @ Dweller

Vertical Sediment Accretion in Jamaica Bay Wetlands, New York” (2018) @ Louisiana State University

Black Care, Blue Notes” (2020) @ Dweller

Fate with Love: Actress – ’88’ Review “ (2020) @ GreyOverBlue

“’We Don’t Come Past Here’: Impressions of ‘T’, a film by Keisha Rae Witherspoon (2020) @ GreyOverBlue

A Lost Care Package” (2019) @ GreyOverBlue

Suffocation of the Void: Hauntology, New Orleans, and Art Neville” (2019) @ GreyOverBlue

A/V

Shirley Sound (2021) @ Boiler Room Festival New York 2021

“Nature’s Notifications” (2021) @ Computer Mouse Conference 2021

Tired” Official Video (2018) by Suicideyear @ LuckyMe Records

Album artwork for “Hate Songs” (2018) by Suicideyear @ LuckyMe Records

Care Forgot: A Southern Electronics Visual Mixtape” (2019) @ Rhizome

Ep. 11 of Silent Reading Hour w/ Sparkle Nation Book Club (2021) @ Montez Press Radio

“WORKER005 (。・ω・。)ノ❤️ Early Works 2012-2019 (。・ω・。)ノ❤️” (2020) @ Worker

Lüisiana Fugiēns” (2020) @ YesWeCannibal

“UNITY MUSIC” (2020 – til) ; Every Monday from 6-8@ 91.5 WTUL New Orleans

Well-versed in

Louisiana Geological History, Sedimentology, Grain Size Analysis, Vibracore/Multicore/Auger Sampling and Analysis, Coastal Dynamics, Sequence Stratigraphy, Radiocarbon Age Dating, Geochronology Gamma Dating, ARCGIS Data Interpretation, Radio Hosting, Podcasting, Editing & Publishing articles

Technical Skills

Microsoft Suite, Genie 2k, MSCL 7.9, Sigmaplot, ArcMap 10.1, LS 13 320 Laser Diffraction Particle Size Analyzer, Adobe Photoshop CS7, Ableton 9, WordPress, Audacity, GarageBand, and a wide array of audio devices

Honors, Awards, and Leadership Activities

GSSA Representative for Tulane’s Earth and Environmental Sciences Department, 2020-2021

Critical Minded Grant for Dweller Electronics, 2021

Member of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, 2012-2016

Vice President of LSU Geology Club, 2015

Member of the American Geophysical Union

Recipient of the LSU Staff Senate Scholarship, 2012

Views From The Quar II

Never really introduced myself on my own website; here’s a scrapped intro for an interview i was asked to do but things happen. Reading this in hindsight of how proud i am of the people ive connected with between reaching out and where we all are now does the heart some well needed good. Enjoyed reading inner reflections on how I came into the electronic critical sphere & the work i’m up to at dweller. Maybe you’ll find some joy in reading it too. Staring at my thoughts and feelings in the mirror hurt most of the time, hoping this transparency makes the squinting a bit less tumultuous in the quar void. As the layers of myself show themselves to myself, this blog will surely decompose into more personal writings through the lens of the music that shines their light on me just so you know. Love yall

“In my childhood drifting into adolescence, my experience with techno was a triptych of insularity. My brother and I spoke our language of music with no one else, late nights on bulletin board systems online, and imagining sonic worlds bootlegged from limewire onto CD-R’s for the bus ride home. Over the years I had felt secure that this was the only area where the electronic realm could have a black kid from the Deep South. Thankfully as the internet ceased to be purely a space for me to print out DragonBall Z power levels and Stones Throw records forum posting, access of stories untold finally reached me.  Techno flourished within my identity and shattered previous reflections for a genre that I always loved but felt this ethno-Berlin wall delineating my racial outsideness to a genre well documented to be white. We now all know this not to be the case. That techno is something created, for, and sustained by Black people. This sense of pride resulted in a reflex to connect my personal roots with my ancestral ones in showing the relationship between Southern Dance Music like New Orleans Bounce to Techno as the rituals rhyme well together. 

Those mental connections finally coalesced with making the pilgrimage to Dweller earlier this year. Making it out to ~90% of the shows over the course of 4 days, I had finally broken the dual-seal of both never going to a rave and finding a real communion alongside family. Finally, I had met friends only seen across the internet; I danced alongside smiling known only before behind pixels. Knowing this was something worth investing in I decided to meet up with Frankie, the showrunner of Dweller and Discwoman, in hopes to do build some sort of relationship. Thankfully what came from that is the Dweller blog. As I cannot be “on-site” in New York (who is right now?) I am thankful to write, edit, and bring together those alone as I once was. We strive to be a Black lighthouse; a siren in the storm for those who know the isolating whitewaters of electronic all too well. In this particular time we’re in, the authorities controlling this current sees to drown the voices that can reverse the flow of power back into our hands. We must be vigilant towards persisting as to not just speak for ourselves but redistribute resource, equity, and justice in a space that has long made its worth on the backs of the silenced.”

Fate with Love: Actress – ’88’ Review

Communication is really hard. Not just getting across your message across, but the tone, emotion, posture, context, meaning, etc also wants to be nestled in between each letter and space within and between those words. Even with these acts of good faith, words often if not always fail us. Being in agreement with such a statement with the main verb I do is “to write”, it’s an acute pain to realize your reality is that of an errand boy in a fool’s dream. But these failed words are in me to the point where I need to get them out unfortunately, usually in a hurried frenzy. Today’s hurried frenzy comes out due to Darren Cunningham, or Actress’, most recent release, 88. Released as one whole piece, Actress’ new work is a prelude to his upcoming sonic love letter, Karma and Desire. 

The worst failings of communication come about when expressing the seemingly inexpressible, love. How can one show the intangible product of external joy from another now internalized within you? Or your own internal love cultivated into something larger? How can you get it out in a way that doesn’t feel inauthentic, like you’re not giving the emotion the medium it deserves? Many feel like art is the only way as we’d otherwise burst from emotional pent-upedness. For many, going abstract feels closer to reality than taking the literal route of word. Words are a rough and often harsh language, I’d consider (the good) writers and poets the true magicians of our time; able to translate the ethereal into something legible. In our daily lives, we feel our own limited capacity towards translation by including an “lol”, “LMAO”, or an emoji. In certain tough text conversations, the inclusion of a period or not tells the true emotion of the operator on the other line moreso than whatever paragraph came before it. In the world of the Message App, we may feel like this sort of thing a somewhat new phenomena but its goes back (probably farther) to the early 1800’s. Morse code telegraph operators used various number successions to communicate a sort of short hand to the operator on the other line. “73” stood for ‘best regards’, ’21’ meant ‘stop for meal’ (the ‘brb’ of the 19th century), and ’88’ for ‘Love and Kisses’. These numerical protocols emoji consolidated such a powerful feeling into muffled beeps and tones. This abstraction probably felt just as strong as we felt sending our first hearts to our gradeschool sweethearts across T9 keyboards back in the day. 

Text messaging - Wikipedia
Forgotten/forgiven love languages

This counterintuitive idea of how the abstract can get us closer to our feelings rather than spelling it out is the prevailing theme of 88. The record seems to be split up in three or four parts, giving homage to Darren’s past output that those who took the time to crack the code needed to access the file for 88 are surely well versed in. The first large suite feels like a fugue state coda for his last release, 2017’s AZD. Sounds straight from that album’s prime jewel, “Dancing in the Smoke”, are on full display as well as some snippets from his Rinse FM show back in 2017 (still yearning for that first tune, geez). Here, these sounds feel like an old friend who came home for Christmas to see his family, but found time to grab a drink for a bit before they gotta rush home. The second chunk of the record reverbs the mood of a dance floor much moreso than what came before with the mere input of a 4/4 from Actress immediately begins a remembrance of 2010’s Splazsh. As the four on the floor gives way to swelling violins and generous arpeggios, the concept album loosely based on John Milton’s Paradise Lost, 2012’s R.I.P, comes to mind. 

You get five seconds of a groove here, a quick melody with a counterpoint there; the experience of this album begins to feel like piecing together a morse coded message and as you piece together your dots and tones together, you start to crack a smile. The signal may not strengthen but your love grows with each subsequent transmission. Many speak to Actress’ more later works post-Splazsh as sketches, but if 88 is galvanizing anything for me is that the message isn’t to be found in the fog and haze, it is the message. The in-between we decide ourselves is whats worth fighting for, not whatever structure we we’re told is necessary to best get your feelings across. What we feel in the in-between is our native tongue. The ’88’ at the end telegraph received in 1871 most likely is what let the heart swell to lovers apart. Morse code and radio signal in general can reach further at night as the signals can bounce off of Earth’s Ionosphere allowing much farther transmissions to reach. In 6th grade, we did this sort of thing for our HAM radio operator club (on brand, I know) where in the afternoon our puny device could reach China with my teacher speaking Mandarin to students on the other side of the world. Not much could be heard so shorthand like ’88’ was used and was responded by excited yells from children on different continents. What was said is not what matters, but what was felt. 

track titles with (maybe?) some songs being five seconds.

I must say, even piecing this writing began to feel like a code, hearing bits of side projects like Levantis and smaller releases like the Xoul EP in small songs where I had to write down timestamps as track titles we’re given but in a tweet with no numbers, its hard to feel solid on when a song begins and ends. The nostalgist in me related it to IDM Newsletter contributor Greg Eden piecing together names for Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume 2, with the track titles merely being pictures with name. Like Richard, this connect through the abstract felt different, like having a conversation with someone through design instead of dictating feeling and meaning on the back of a jewel CD case. 

The Aphex Twin Community / Learn / F.A.Q / The SAW II GRAPHICAL F.A.Q
SAW2’s track titles

The last suite reflects a monster work and namesake of this blog, Ghettoville. The beeps from AZD are ever present as they then form into a haze of desolation until ending on a murky but hopeful melody. Something that I’ve always felt about Actress’ mainline releases is that I feel like he’s carries the desire to end his work on a hopeful note. IWAAD, Visa, and Rule are the examples where each monochromatic tone poems surrounding Hell, cybernetic otherness, and poverty oft speaks towards a brighter future and 88 does something but a bit different, it speaks. The last few moments of the record before being driven back into the digital haze are words. Hard to decipher, yes, but you hear a voice. It feels like we can see the lighthouse just barely on the horizon after being out in the cold for so long. Maybe we’ve finally begun to get through and can understand what he’s been trying to say to us this whole time but we hadn’t the language to hear it really. Karma and Desire’s tracklist (once given in a ig story but is now switched from letters to triangles/the real ones know what’s up) suggests the jump from non-word into something spoken is on the way. Excited to hear what Darren has to say in his newfound tongue.

88

Views From The Quar

J Dilla

This will be a general rambling in a way to produce something that merely isn’t falling into the void of “no one is bored, everything is boring” loop of social media. It carries such a numbing effect in a plethora of ways that within the absence of never being bored, we’ve “decided” to substitute that with anxiety for a future with no horizon. All of this is in tandem with the writings of Mark Fisher and his ideas of the slow cancellation of the future. Although he predominately used music and its surrounding culture as his example of how cyber-capitalism has squeezed the idea of a singular moment to align with cultural production, I think the present moment of George Floyd’s murder and its subsequent result on our timeline can be another mark on this idea of a watching any semblance of a future merely become an dated aesthetic, like 80’s day for spirit week. The “future” in so many way is behind us. We’ve been delegated to a hamster wheel of the same hot takes, death videos, responses, appeals to humanity towards a system explicitly designed to strip any idea of exactly that, calling congress people who could care less about us, urges to call police station to fire their own fellow blue bloods. I’m exhausted, enraged, and numbed out simultaneously. 

I honestly got up and decided to type this after watching the same James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Malcolm X instagram excerpts that almost begin to feel like a sociopolitical Punxsutawney Phil that communicates a summer of Black Death two weeks early ahead of time. This combined with how there’s truly nothing new or at least cogent ahead of us is most seen in these clips. Imagine those in 1968 purely referencing those that came before them 50 years ago for a moment that is intimately happening to them. I believe in ancestors like the rest of us but when I look around to a movement, or a moment or a group that we can singularly define us I find myself at a standstill, at a loss. Who will our children look to as a guidepost when their world is burning (and it will be burning, make no mistake)? This is not to place blame or the onus on us singularly as the compression, horizontalization, and blurring of any actual time markers (this becoming even more clear in the lockdown) produces such a structure where we as a people have no means to rise up. There is no culture to place in context of this pain so the only thing that makes sense to people to revert to a time of coherence. We have no choice !

How do you speak about the credit sequence of a movie? The era we find ourselves is the empty wake of when things actually happened and carried weight. America has begun to treat black people like marvel movie characters. Completely flat, static characters we either emulate or plea to exterminate. “Black girl magic” and “black boy joy” place us on pedestals where we have been yaas’d and king’d into unhumanity. Racial politics in America is so warped where those who outright call for our executioners because they don’t want to leash their pets are granted a light, euphemistic nickname. We historically police our own blackness in so many ways that we strip our own people from finding some sense of happiness in this hellscape through revoking black cards for one reason or another (this is a whole conversation that I am only willing to have over drinks). White people that have no black friends are obsessed with a people they know nothing about. Kids in the suburbs fantasizing about living in Staten Island with the Wu Tang Clan. This isn’t our fault but due to the structure of capitalism, we end up commodifying ourselves into a flattened object. One to be passed around and spread across the world through memetic virality. Nothing new of course, but we’ve reached critical mass where instead of the new hot Jazz tune, our views of our own deaths are now hitting billboard-like numbers. 

The compression of blackness on the world’s stage will almost always lead to the result we’ve see before. This is something we too are complicit in but only because we’ve been stripped of the agency to do otherwise. Late capitalism has rendered us without the toolset to produce anything accelerated as we cannot formulate our own awareness in our bouts of constant collective trauma. We have nothing but the past as there’s nothing in front of us. America in so many ways is on the locked groove of time that keeps looping. Unfortunately that needle keeps eroding this record with each revolution; each cycle eating into the material we’re tuning into. Interested when we’ll finally break the record and put something new on. Please ACT in the ways that institute REAL CHANGE in your surroundings, as small as that can look like. It’s only way we can break this incessant loop and listen to something truly new. 

the idea that this is 20 years old should prove my point

“We Don’t Come Past Here”: Impressions of “T”, a film by Keisha Rae Witherspoon

“When you do things with your hands it heals you in places lower than where you cry from”

Tahir

T is a short film from Keisha Rae Witherspoon, a filmmaker and creative director of the Third Horizon Caribbean filmmaking group based in Miami, Florida. T centers around the artists that are getting ready for what is known as the T-ball, a gala of sorts where people in the community who have passed away are commemorated through artwork on T-shirts and other artistic works. The T-ball is a celebration of people who have passed on to new life outside of this one and the film itself is one that grapples with how we all navigate the world after loved ones have passed. The ball is an extremely colorful night that carries themes of acceptance of new lifetimes. More than anything, what oozes out of every second while watching this piece is this confidence that  past gives light towards futures unforeseen.

Across the film’s runtime, we are allowed us to walk with three people: Dimples, Tahir, and a man whose name is never given. Dimples is a seamstress whose home is both an alter and workshop in remembrance of her son, Jasper. Jasper was a painter and these works strewn across the walls create a prismatic overstimulation inside her four walls. We meet her preparing a dress made completely out of potato chip bags, a common snack for Jasper back in the day. Through our time with her she smiles fondly on memory of her son with such a warm that without a second thought you feel a sense of place and home around her. Tahir and the man create a similar atmosphere; giving such an interiority to the complex textures of their everyday that you feel a sense of closeness to each of these people over only a runtime of about 14 minutes. 

One of the many t’s in T

But it’s the blowback you receive so often in this film that transcends T by forcing a third thought that you actually don’t know these people and whatever sense of binary joy you initially received is so much more complex. Throughout the film, the connections we genuinely make with these people are complicated with actions that morph us as viewer into fifth wall observers. We realize that we aren’t following these people around and that there’s camera operators between us and the subjects. We are flown back into our own bodies and have to reckon with the accountability of ourselves that we so often give to documentary subjects in creating a false sense of kinship beside people we’ve only placed our eyes on for 4 minutes at this point. This is most seen with Dimples and the man whose name is never given.

The man opens his scene jovially announcing to the camera “Welcome to African America!” alongside a dance and a smile that could warm a cold winter’s night. This warmth is immediately chopped down with a blank stare, making you unsure if this a game he’s playing to get us to laugh or if he’s really not that jazzed about seeing us in his space. As his scene carries, on we peer into vignettes of him alongside his children and friends showing a box full of T’s; T-shirts acting as ephemeral tombstones for the passed away with printed faces, carefully crafted text and dates of a homecoming and home going. During this moment we think we’re sharing with the man and his friend the man asks us, “what y’all really here for anyway?… what y’all really wanna see?”. While his friend continues to show us even more T’s he asks his friend why he’s giving so much to these people and realizes he’s changed his mind about this whole thing. We don’t see the man again. 

Near the end of the film, Dimples takes us down a hallway to a back room; a sacred place where she begins a ceremony in reverence to her passed child. As the camera follows closely behind her and by the time we reach the doors entrance, Dimples tersely says “We don’t come past here”. Dimples herself begins her journey in her own temple while we wait on the sidelines realizing that this moment is not for us. 

These moments (and more throughout the film) implicate the viewer to understand that we are but an intrusion; onlookers in a space that is not ours to call our own as much as we subconsciously believe it to be through the power of cinema. Quite often we have a voyeuristic renarrativization of lives not ours. Does this film center around Black Death or Black Life? What are we really here for anyway? What do we really want to see?

T is currently playing at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and the Third Horizon Film Festival begins on February 6, 2020 in Miami, Florida.

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Ghettoville (2014): An Ode to Forgotten Black Geometries

DJ Screw’s 1996 Impala Super Sport on blades painted Screw Blue.

“Would you like to go with me
Down my dead end street
Would you like to come with me
To Village Ghetto Land”

-Stevie Wonder

Do you ever walk the streets you grew up on? Pristine sidewalks now overgrown with weeds and detritus. The once lively dollar stores where you’d excitedly beg your parents to grab a toy or piece of candy morphed into a sunken hole in the wall. To observe your beginnings as ash can be quite a haunted feeling and Ghettoville takes this feeling to its terminal conclusion; a siren cry for spaces displaced.

Darren Cunningham’s 2014 masterwork, Ghettoville, is a stark reflection of a time that once reveled in the advancement of modernity irrevocably shattered. In the UK, the 90’s brought a hopefulness spitting out an encyclopedia’s worth of dance genres annually and Labour winning in a landslide victory once shined a ray of light toward the bleak horizon of the future. But as the 2000’s waned and we now look back on the 2010’s, the cracks that began to show not only fractured completely but swallowed any notion of hope towards a brighter tomorrow. Sea levels rising, bushfire engulfing the Australian landscape, Brexit marching ever onward, and the Forever War becoming the topic du jour; art nowadays finds itself to be in dialog, sub-consciously or otherwise, about this greying of once blue skies. 

But it’s Cunningham’s 2014 techno funeral dirge double album that questions that very notion and proposes a different context: weren’t those grey skies already here and if so, for whom? 

The dialog that Ghettoville contends with can be approached on nearly level: the cover art of a muddied array of shapes and sketches that seem to be collapsing in front of your eyes, the sound design enrapturing you in glimmers of various windows of blurred glass looking out to the inner city, the song titles give way to allusion of feelings, moments, and what lies behind you after the end of the history. 

Actress – Rims (2014)

Albeit mostly voiceless, these titles allude to lush stories within mostly voiceless pieces. The back to back suite of “Corner” and “Rims” communicates a world-building ethos which sets the tones for the rest of the project. The corner, a territory of which Black culture has coined wholesale has its own, is an upbeat tune with even a small screwed-up “Yeah” every bar or so; giving the album fleeting wisps of swagger within desolation. These moments glides effortlessly into “Rims”, a track with a bouncy baseline worth riding around with but realizing the radio about to die and the neighborhood you’re riding around is a big shell of overgrown car-washes and seemingly bombed out barbershops once holding life and love for its people now all displaced.

The titles and track names relate to tangible, geographic elements remembering that culture and place are inseparable and when they are extracted from each other, a fallacy is created. This fallacy shows up in music festivals or at live shows with the poetry spoken on stage falling onto a listener that could never truly understand what is being told to them. Such a fallacy has been seen for what is it by some artists such as NoName, who said that she’d no longer do shows for predominately white audiences. This apparent lack of dialog comes about when the people and place the work is for no longer plays a role in the system for where to work lies within. “For Them, By Us” doesn’t really roll off the tongue. 

Tracks 6 and 10, “Birdcage” and “Gaze” respectively, is what the outside world may see of Black culture when observed from the outside in. Both tracks easily provide the most energy for an album otherwise on life support. The title “Birdcage” supplants this track in the lineage of Maya Angelou’s writing and although some may think they know why the caged bird sings, if you’ve never been in that cage yourself it’ll only be a hollowed understanding. 

Actress – Gaze (2014)

This idea is galvanized in “Gaze”, the only semi-party ready track on the album. The title alone provides a world of investigation. For how fun this song is, it keeps you at arm’s length; all of its drops and progression subsumed by a grey digital haze. You can look but don’t touch since what you’ve already touch has decayed to what you see before you. This hallowed out house number recontextualizes euphoric joys reached at peak hours and subtly asks you what it means for an entire people’s discursive culture to be stolen into a cultural where they are not heard, seen, or acknowledged except a couple of records that made their mark long before I Love Techno and Majestic Casual became the new history of techno and dance culture.

The examination of what’s left of Black cultures like techno and house once they’ve been gentrified is this record’s bread and butter. Ghettoville refuses to look away from the ways in which this parasitic relationship usually ends in poverty for its creators. “Rap” is a screwed-up R&B track with the phrase ”Wrap yourself around me” playing incessantly for 3 minutes straight. Its constantness gives way to a sinister take on the once silky smoothness of it gives way. The closing track, “Rule” is a slyly joyful but still hallowed tune with various 80’s hip-hop flows stacking and collapsing onto each other behind a Crystal Waters melody. For all the grime, depression, and death that this album showcases in an almost cinematic portrayal, Ghettoville (and most of Cunningham’s past work) ends on a quietly beautiful finale. Whispers of content gratefulness of what life we have between us all as the screen fades to black.

That is of course, if you don’t wait until after the credits with the Japanese bonus track. The idea of Japanese bonus track began decades ago has many CD sellers in Japan realized it was more inexpensive to pirate or import CD’s from countries so the music industry as a whole started incentivizing purchasing Japan’s own CDs by including a bonus track or two. The hope was that Japanese fans would wait and pay more for the local CD than the cheaper import. Boards of Canada’s 2002 magnum opus Geogaddi’s Japanese bonus track “From One Source All Things Depends”, provides an uplifted new ending to what is otherwise a deeply pagan-occult-eerie record. The closer samples an interview of various kids being asked who is god to them. Some say “he’s a big fat man in the air and you can’t see him!” while others speak of him conceptually, but it’s the last boy with the response, “…he’s not though, what – a lot of people think he’s just a feeling – but I think he’s a real person…”. For a record has a running time of 1 hour 6 minutes and 6 seconds, and track titles as “The Devil is In the Details” and “Beware the Friendly Stranger”, such a warm ending feels more complete than the 2 minute nihilistic coda of digital silence of “Magic Window”. 

Boards of Canada – From One Source All Things Depend (2002)

However, the anthesis occurs on Ghettoville with the ending track no longer being the bit of sunshine that is “Rule”, but the eight-minute death-final-finale “Grey Over Blue”. “Grey Over Blue” is the musical equivalent of watching an animal die in an empty forest. If there’s a pulse, it only returns diminished results with each cycle. It’s an ending sequence that feels like an aerial shot of the lifeless city we just hobbled through for the past two hours. Without resource or aid, forgotten with no forgiveness. Where “Rule” may be the ending we want, “Grey Over Blue” is the ending that lies in front of us. Ever encroaching on its fate in becoming the present. 

Grey Over Blue – Actress & Nic Hamilton

Ghettoville is a blueprint for how it recontextualize techno by placing a magnifying glass on the landscape from which it was taken away from. It examines the unexamined, giving attention (and in turn humanity) to the forgotten. It gives a proper eulogy to the body of Black dance music tossed overboard by the Ibizas and Coachellas of the world. The album is steeped in homage to these victims of revisional history. “Grey Over Blue” is a literal reversal of “Blue Over Gray”, a 1998 DJ Screw album (which opens with a 8 mins meditative track). “Rap”, the lone single from Ghettoville, was touted by various online outlets to be a vaporware track but this is merely another version of cultural erasure. It’s a screwed-up track in every sense of the word but with the internet’s constant bout of amnesia, the current history is that Cunningham is merely biting a 2012 internet genre and not giving praise to Black artists and structures before him. “Rap” plays with homonyms alluding to double entendre, “Wrap/Rap yourself around me”. Which word do we decide the vocalist wants us to do? Do we give in to their ask of consuming them or do we narrativize them until their story is ours? Is there a difference between to two?

Actress – Rap (2014)

The aforementioned track “Gaze” continues to be the crown jewel of this concept, how most people experience techno do so with an abstracted gaze. The song itself being this idea at its core as “Gaze” is but a sample of an older actress tune, “Point and Gaze”; a second-order distancing act to gaze upon “Gaze” itself. A gaze that can never be switched for the real thing no matter how close you think you are to it. 

Thankfully since 2014, many people have been carrying the torch of letting others know about this gaze. Artist and writer, Deforrest Brown Jr. gives even more light to the once forgotten fact that Techno is for and by Black people or with crews such as Discwoman, doing an annual festival known as Dweller where Black techno artists come together to uplift and amplify each other in what is an otherwise deeply whitewashed industry.

To finally start fixing our ills is to not only look intimately at our environment but to hold those who caused it accountable. Ghettoville allows us to observe and to become complicit in our past, present, and future. An ode to the spaces, materials, and shapes that Black people create and subsequently get torn apart from. The corner depopulates, the rims rust, the birdcage vacant. What a space sounds like once you remove all the physical material that made the system what it was. I’ll end with the press release that came before the album’s release 6 years ago this month. Happy birthday Ghettoville, may your death live on forever.

William Stein – ‘Function’, a response to Actress’s ‘Birdcage’

Ghettoville is the bleached out and black tinted conclusion of the Actress image.

Where the demands of writing caught the artist slumped and reclined, devoid of any soul, acutely aware of the simulated prism that required breakout.

Four albums in and the notes and compositions no longer contain decipherable language.

The scripts now carry tears, the world has returned to a flattened state, and out through that window, the birds look back into the cage they once inhabited.

Spitting flames behind a white wall of silence.

The machines have turned to stone, data reads like an obituary to its user.

A fix is no longer a release, it’s a brittle curse. Zero satisfaction, no teeth, pseudo artists running rampant, but the path continues.

R.I.P Music 2014.

Actress

-RC

Some Treasured Sounds, 2019

Here are but a few of pieces that moved me this year. Thanks for reading and please send me some recommendations !

Solange When I Get Home

Columbia Records

Sound as contemporary architecture; album as physically regenerative material. Coming back to this album countless times only exacerbates just how odd this record is. Barely a “single” on here; fractured and non-Eurocentric ideas in terms of song structure, this record gets a lot said about it but little about how it bucks traditional mainstream album with its form alone. Solange really did so much here and much of happens subtly and namelessly all under the guise of neo-soul. This album says so much with its eyes, not the mouth. Once your make contact with it, you’re complicit in agreeing or exiling it. Polarity matters more to me than “goodness” and no one can be walk away from this record with a sense of apathy. It demands a response and if that isn’t the mark of art worthy of discussing then I don’t know what is. Thanks Solange.

Weyes Blood Titanic Rising 

Sub-Pop

A haunting subtextual meditation on global environmental collapse that relates it something almost cosmic in its fathom of the horror. As someone who intimately researches global climate change through the lens of how humans have forever altered the history of this planet, listening to this record sometimes sounds like how it feels to observe the disintegration of ourselves by ourselves. This is not only in song content but in form. As the tape wobbles, the synths glisten into silence, and its Carpenter-esque vocals force you into feeling the rift between the past and the present, everything in the record is sitting you down to tell you, “yes this is Over and yes it is Our Fault”. 

The Caretaker Everywhere at the end of time (Stage 6) 

History Always Favours The Winners

The almost decade long series comes to and “end” in a stunning fashion that almost feels like I’d be spoiling a movie if I go any further. Leyland Kirby’s observations on memory and memory loss receives all 10’s on the dismount. The complete 6 hour project is a fading masterpiece that cares just much about the rusting bronze frame turning to dust before our eyes than the image itself. Take a night for yourself and take it all in. 

Earl Sweatshirt Some Rap Songs

Columbia Records

Some Rap Songs may have come out in 2018, but it was late December so that narrative for best albums (for me) that year was already encased. Nevertheless, this album has walked with me through this year and so it deserves a space. Recollection and the solemn sadness that follows us as our foundations of reality become stories to tell those who they themselves mythologize our own lives seems to be a bit of a motif for all of these works but SRS puts that notion to the forefront. A eulogy of what was/could’ve been/never can be is the thread through each of these tight, less-than-three-minutes-a-piece group of songs. Ranging from the raw admissions of guilt pertaining to a broken connection with the father to a textural collage of spoken word where Earl’s parents speak their truths that inform his own language is a deft piece of storytelling that doesn’t overstate its welcome with a running time of 25 minutes. The killer is the closer “Riot!”, sampling his uncle and South African Jazz legend, Hugh Masekela. This instrumental piece encapsulates the theme of the record of unfinished stories, regret, second guesses, and momento mori all in a 1:08 jazz tune ! More than the sonics of actual piece, with the sounds arising from the brass being Earl’s own uncle solidifies the quiet sadness you’re left with as the records reaches its end. This life is a family affair whether you want it to be or not and as we look back to watch those we formally believed to immortal fade into memory of record, photography, or writing all we can do is connect the dots to inform where we’re headed for better or for worse. Again, all of this is at play in a short 1:08 jazz piece. I can’t stop thinking about “Riot!” , this record, and where we all fit in it. How someone can arguably have their magnum opus at 24 makes my heart rate jump. 

Klein Lifetime

ijn inc.

I, admittedly, thought Klein was doing nothing special with her Hyperdub debut back in 2015. Almost with a jealously that “anyone could do what she’s doing here”, which I misinterpreted as something flippant. This notion really should be applied to someone doing something genius under certain light and “Lifetime” shines with this idea. Interiority is the only word I can use that makes sense in describing this record. Conversations with elders and sisters run throughout the record often making it feel like your butting in on a family conversation that shouldn’t be public. Abstract collages that allude to finding one’s self or voice give this work a feeling of standing between two mirrors. Hard to figure where you begin or end and its up to your to step out of the loop and forge your own path. All this using some pretty deft tonalities of voice and texture makes ‘Lifetime’ one of those pieces where its almost like staring at the sun; this powerful ever-present object that will hurt you if engage with it for just a bit long but so awe-inspiring that its just hard not to. 

Boards of Canada Societas X Tape

Warp Records

Not an actual album, but I pay for this website so I can write whatever I want to on here. This 2 hour mix for the 30-year anniversary celebration of Warp Records on NTS radio holds such a large place in my heart already, I’m almost afraid of how much it will actually mean to me as I continue on in this life. Boards of Canada is such a reclusive duo that in my +10 years of listening to them, I’ve never even thought of them as existing outside of their Scottish countryside vacuum with respect to influence. This mix kicks all of that aside with a flurry of psychedelia, funk, noise, punk, and classical tracks from the 1960’s to present day showing just how much music I need to know. Mixes like these feel like navigational signposts for another 10 years, turning me on to so much music that will walk with me for a very long time. Grateful for the Sandison’s for their music, but deeply humbled for allowing me to look at their homework a bit to see how much more studying I have to do myself. 

Kelela & Asmara – Aquaphoria

Warp Records

Aquaphoria deserves a place on here for quite frankly being a work that, if I wanted to hear anything else like it, I just wouldn’t be able to. Black chords and ambients over a plethora of legendary Warp/Warp Records adjacent tracks is a treat and a three course meal I didn’t even think I wanted but now beg for ! Kelela has been slowly showing her hand that the ultimate goal for her is more a pop affair than an underground electronic legend, but on rise to stardom (wish her the best ofc) if she can throw some gems like this every now and them I have no complaints. Did anyone this 2019 would have Kelela vocalize over a Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2, Oneohtrix Point Never and an Autechre track??? Me neither, but thank god.  

Mac DeMarco Here Comes The Cowboy

Mac’s Record Label

I am so confused about my connection with Mac DeMarco. Something about him both confuses me and endlessly attracts me. His use of bossanova, subtle Japanese new age studio tricks, analog recordings, and now this stillness in his new works is so enthralling to me I can’t get enough. More than anything, it’s pure comfort music. This might be functionally my #1 album this year out of sheer plays (so says Apple Music). I was in Florida this summer quite alone for the most part working in a lab where I knew no one, barely knew what I was doing a spent of lot of time in the afternoon biking miles just to arrive at an empty apartment. So much of those weeks were spent silent and my only friend was this album. It felt like sitting with a pal that was just as comfortable sitting in silence or goofing around as you were. The aura of being in a room with someone was good enough for the both of us and I kept sitting with Mac wistfully strumming at a full breathed bpm over and over. I was really lonely for a bit and I thank this album for being a friend in a friendless space.

-RC