N O   P A R T   O F   I T
Far more important than baking bread is the urge to take dough -beating to the extreme - Otto Muehl

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Interview Series #6: James Whitehead / jliat

The NO PART OF IT Interview series was a strain of questions sent to a number of different people between February and March 2019. Each entry was scheduled chronologically to be thrust upon the world on a monthly basis since then. Each individual is introduced informally as if they were being discussed at a bar.


 Scheduled on February 18, 2019
Jliat is the alias of one James Whitehead; noise artist, composer, writer, philosopher extraordinaire.  Whitehead has created programs just to mimic a certain album by Merzbow in certain randomized ways.  He's created variations on classical compositions made with car crash sound effects and explosions.  His list of conceptual work continues endlessly.  I still need to ask him if he ever finished his 233 dvd box set of randomized noise that he hasn't even listened to in its entirety.  I was told that there is a CD which seems to be totally silent, but in actuality it is sound transformed or extracted from a jpg file, and is said to have caused speakers to smoke when set to full volume. 
 James and I have argued a ridiculous amount about art, and this is a fella who studied in proximity to John Cage, AMM, various early fluxus artists, and has lectured on noise music, and all I have done is play a piano that John Cage first prepared once!  Jliat has sent me his PDFs of what would be his power point lecture clips, complete with animated Gifs, and they are a treat for those who have an interest in the subject. I believe he also has a book available soon.   As a reviewer, JW is notorious for waxing philosophical all over an artist's work, to a degree that several complaints have been mounted and others have claimed to be made delirious (I did an article about it on WFMU's blog, with hand selected reviews from Whitehead here).  I enjoy what he gave us here, and I hope you do to.

1. What types of things have you been getting into lately?

Making Noise tracks using Roland Modular effects all pieces based on two Merzbow recordings, 1930 and Pulse Demon. (Variations). Recording various synths presets, (Voreinstellungen). You can find these on Sound Cloud.
Making what I call “Black Swans”- using old computer parts, resin, paint and glitter. Writing about my work for a proposed seminar in May. Reading German Idealism, Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel.

2. What you do, do you do it as an artist, or is it a hobby?

For the last few years I've decided neither. After visiting the Quai Branly ethnographic museum back in 2017 I realised that all these things were made by people who never considered them particularly as “art” or anything. Like when as a child I would play in the garden, making tunnels and stuff, it was just 'stuff'. So, though it might sound pretentious, now I just make “stuff”, whatever anyone else might want to call it.

3. How would you describe what you do?


4. How would you describe your creative progression over the years, in a brief synopsis?

I started out as a painting student and whilst at Falmouth School of Art was introduced to contemporary music, and the painting department had an electronic music workshop based around a VCS3 and a couple of Revox tape machines. I was hooked, as they say. After college I bought a Synthi AKS and a couple of tape machines. I did some work with video, but by the 1980s went back to electronic music, in particular drone works. I then became very interested in noise, especially its lack of skill and meaning and what this meant philosophically for ideas about just what was art and music. I guess I thought “Art” was something one could approach 'objectively' by working within some framework that was given. As I say above I've pretty much abandoned that idea, and see art now, if one wants to call it that, as something purely personal and subjective. My “progress” has then been to achieve the freedom from planning, reasoning and thought to being able to 'play' like a child might, and produce things that please and fascinate and maybe even frighten me. It's odd that to get to this I had to read a lot of philosophy to understand that the real 'problems' of art and life are that there isn't any problem, and so nothing to understand, or that the problems are unsolvable. At a similar time I came across the work of Schelling in particular his ideas of the impossibility of bringing together freedom and nature, or consciousness and the unconsciousness. So he claims the intuition to do this cannot be made by any rational philosophy but only via art which is not rational. Art achieves a harmony between these opposites, something rationally impossible, including between the finity of consciousness and the infinity of nature, the objective unconsciousness, or in Kantian terms to bring about a synthesis of the things in themselves with perception.

Black Swan

5. How would you describe your philosophy?

Though I read a lot of philosophy I wouldn't be able to describe my philosophy, its not that I don't have one, maybe I have many... As I said above my 'practice' became no longer that of music or art but of 'I make stuff that others might call art' And this autobiographical 'insight' was into work I had been producing for many years prior to 2017.

So now I've 'bracketed' art... for want of 'I do stuff, with stuff'. 'Bracketing', to quote wiki..

“This process also known as the - Epoché - The term was popularized in modern philosophy by Edmund Husserl. Husserl elaborates the notion of 'phenomenological epoché' or 'bracketing' - "suspension of judgement" but also as "withholding of assent".. In its philosophical usage "epoché" describes the state where all judgements about non-evident matters are suspended in order to induce a state of ataraxia (freedom from worry and anxiety).”

So this is my suspension of the worry of 'is it art' and the anxiety of – and 'is it any good?' through to 'What does it all mean'.

6. Do you believe in psychics, magic, ghosts, or gods?

I believe some ideas of these arise out of a human mistake in thinking 'language' is real. This runs from The Bible, where the mere word of God can create reality, through to Harry Potter where spells can make things, change things by incantations. Though language is powerful and can change things, precisely what Marx said, but the change is physical. It's easy to loose sight of this with just thinking and using computers, it's not like carpentry where wood splits, hammers can hit thumbs as well as nails, and something is sharp because it cuts you. Allot comes from this idea of language and words, ideas like 'good' and 'bad'. A tree is not good or bad, but a proposition can be wrong, I can say ”I'm looking at a larch” and be wrong. So a question such as “do you believe” implies the idea of 'truth', yet truth is just that, an idea. Reality escapes language, which is why we make stuff some call art. It's not that thinking, reasoning and language are not useful, it's just that they are secondary to reality, to nature. You never in the real world come across 'Tree' or 'Dog' as generalizations, but particular instances of particular actual trees, and dogs. I suppose more recently I've been impressed by the belief of the Sadducees, who are no longer around. They believed in God, but not in personal immortality. So you would think it odd to bother to worship such a God when your own life is futile, short and meaningless. It's all in Ecclesiastes. 

7. What would you say was your most definitive experience?

I'd say my three years at art school meeting people who didn't judge ones ability to do something, like make music. Prior to art school many of my friends played guitars, and I considered myself not musical, tone deaf in fact. At Falmouth those tutors who were into music would have non of this. And I remember years ago, after working with synths and drones, my wife remarking that my singing was now in tune! And a tutor back at Falmouth asking if I would make art on a desert island, I know I would. And it would be the best art on the island, as well as the worst.

8. Do you have any side projects that I am not aware of? If not, what is something you'd like people to know about you, that you don't think anyone would ever ask?

I think I've covered my recent work, I also do some reviewing for Vital Weekly. Most of my recent and past work can be found on the JLIAT website.

9. Would you care to name any theoretical "desert island" records, or at least releases that you think are approaching your concept of "perfect"?

I'm going to duck this one, which might again sound pretentious, I think the concept of 'perfect' is one of our most dangerous concepts. Once achieved then the game is over. Or as Nietzsche says to the effect if perfection was possible in a universe of an infinite past it would have already come about, that we are here, and imperfect is a result of the impossibility of perfection. Evolution works from failures. And think of all the terrors man has inflicted on man in pursuit of perfection. We have recently re-watched the Tom Hanks film, Castaway, on his island he has a kind of 'god' or spirit when he draws the face on the basket ball... this I think answers your previous question, about belief in gods, in that we, Tom, or I can make 'gods'. Are they real, well to a civilized adult of course not, but to a child or a castaway – yes, very real. So I would on my island, if I managed to survive, make stuff, things, instruments, what others might call music or art. This might be considered perfect, or the best I could do, but then they are in that case one and the same. So what makes perfection not one and the same with the best I can do are 'others'. I'm aware when I write this of there being no errors or typos, but the computer will tell me, and any reader will no doubt spot them. I recently had a paper about public art rejected because of the grammatical errors. (I argued that public art didn't exist.) The reviewers liked the ideas in the piece yet rejected it because of the bad grammar, citing that this didn't meet academic standards. I wonder would the same be true of science or maths papers? Of course it wouldn't, if someone made a few mistakes in some paper on physics which was of interest why would or should it be rejected? There's this futile debate going on about whether Neil Armstrong said “One small step for man” or “One small step for a man”, but he was the first man on the moon! FFS (excuse my French...)

10. What is the earliest childhood memory you can (or are willing to) recall?

I've written about this recently, and its become very important to me as it alters my idea of how we acquire language and learn the nature of things.

Here is the story...

I must have been two or three years old, I remember a door to a yard with a gap at the bottom where I could see a dog's nose, I then remember being at a gate, and my hand was hot. "Hot” was the name of the feeling at the time.

I can now assume the dog had bit me, and the heat was in fact pain, and so the word “hot” was wrong, but the pain from the dog bite was no different. So the idea of pain was given to me in a material event that mattered to me. An event which I still remember as strange and baffling, an aspect of using the words “pain” and “hot” I no longer have. So language comes from things, and autobiographical things...

To quote from Nietzsche,

“Every word instantly becomes a concept precisely insofar as it is not supposed to serve as a reminder of the unique and entirely individual original experience to which it owes its origin.”

There appears a choice between 'concept' and 'individual original experience'... and the making of individual objects and experiences is Art.

11. Are you able to appreciate other peoples' creative work regardless of their personal shortcomings or inherent flaws? To what extent?

I think so. When I read this question the name that came to mind was Heidegger whose work I think is significant. The problem is he certainly was a Nazi, and anti-Semitic, and extremely arrogant. Add to that a tendency like many Continental philosophers at a deliberately difficult writing style and you don't get a good picture of the person. Having said all that he did think science and in particular technology presents us with great problems, both for humanity and the environment, and argued that Art was the solution. Though I should add that the 'best' art he thought was poetry, and in particular German poetry! As I've said above I'm now more and more interested in ethnographic and Neolithic art, where in the latter case actually knowing the person concerned is impossible. It's the objects themselves which one engages with. From the 40,000 year old flutes made from vulture bones to the slit gongs “among the largest free-standing musical instruments on earth”...

12. Do you have any heroes or heroines? Who are they? Feel free to add anything that makes them stand out.

It would be a very long list...

Masami Akita, Morris Louis, T.S. Eliot, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Wittgenstein, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ad Reinhardt, The German Idealists, especially Kant. Terry Riley, Terry Atkinson, Ethan Hunt, Steve Reich, Lauren Bacal, Stockhausen, Jimmy Hendrix, Tom Hanks, Mr Barlow (my old primary teacher), James Bond, Einstein, Sam McKinley, Georg Cantor, Kurt Gödel, David Bainbridge, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Robert Smithson, Jacques Attali, Romain Perrot, Jack Reacher, Thor, Groot, (from the Marvel movies), Michael Baldwin, George Smiley, Barbara Hepworth, John D. Caputo...

to name but a few, and for many different and similar reasons.

13. What would you like to have on your epitaph? Or what is your favorite quote?

No epitaph, but very many favorite quotes.

“I have come to the conclusion that much can be learned about music by devoting oneself to
the mushroom.” John Cage.

“I can't wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it.” Damien Hirst.

“what is to be done?” Vladimir Ilich Lenin.

"A lot of my work is about sales.” Jeff Koons.

"Who ordered that?" Isidor Isaac Rabi - When the muon was accidentally discovered.

But perhaps this -

“Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of "world history," but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die. One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. “

Friedrich Nietzsche - On Truth and Lies in a Non moral Sense .

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