The politics of gear and the Randian nature of The Whole Earth Catalog.
Multi-media artist Steven Warwick first emerged on the international experimental scene about a decade ago, cultivating free-range noise experiments in the duo Birds of Delay (with fellow Englishman Luke Younger, who also performs under the moniker Helm). Outside of his participation in that project, Warwick began to craft Casio-induced hallucinations under his current moniker, Heatsick. While much of the sonic renderings are an obvious extension of his early work with Birds of Delay, Warwick’s solo excursions are informed by house, UK garage, and Hi-NRG disco aesthetics and form. The earlier work of Heatsick mapped out a constellation of subversive philosophy and ideas, alluding to figures like Theodor Adorno, Magnus Hirschfield, Claude Lelouch and Frank Ripploh, revealing its conceptual depth through repeated listening. In Warwick’s most recent work, Re-Engineering (PAN; 2013) the textual engagement between artist and audience is more directed, formal, and explicit.
I sat down with Warwick for a conversation just a few days removed from a brief East Coast trip, wherein he played ISSUE Project Room in Brooklyn.
Ian Kim Judd How has your recent trip to the US been, and what have you been up to?
Steven Warwick It has been really good so far. I have been basing myself on the west coast, where it’s, you know, a lot warmer. (laughter) I started out the trip in San Francisco, played a DJ set and conducted a Q&A, and then played a live set. Then I went down to LA—where I’ve been basing myself—and spent a few days there. And I just played a gig here at ISSUE Project Room, which I was happy with. The shows have been quite fun. Part of me needed some time to catch up in New York, so I spent a bit of extended time out here.
IKJ With regards to the show at ISSUE Project Room, it was interesting seeing your music performed in something more like a Space—with a capital S—than in a conventional club setting. Is there a distinct difference in vibe between playing spaces and galleries and playing straight-up clubs?
SW I don’t feel conflicted by it. When I play in Europe, it is quite often the case that I play in galleries, especially in continental Europe. But with regards to ISSUE, what was different was that it was more of a seated affair, which isn’t so common. But I can adapt the set to it and actually, I felt that it was a bit more meditative and immersive. And I was showing that film in the lobby that was about “better language perception training;” having visual cues provides something of a cushion at times.
IKJ Do you feel that having those visual cues lends a different reading, or more of a psychedelic quality to the performance, than if you were just playing a club?
SW Yeah, definitely. If you see some exhibitions when you’re in a gallery space, they can be very immersive. I played a show before at the closing of an exhibition by an artist named Danny McDonald, and he had this room which was garish and bright—filled with pop images—and playing amidst all of that was very psychedelic. I’m very happy to have it where it’s playful and there are extra-sensory cues that are non-musical.
IKJ Can you take us through your writing process?
SW Because I am constantly playing all of the time—sometimes I’ll make sketches and then come back to them—it’s a comparable process to a DJ’s approach to making sounds.
IKJ Like making edits?
SW Yeah. Sometimes I’ll throw a sound back in and be like, I wonder how that sounds?—checking in on its compatibility. Sometimes I’ll just have a spurt. For example, I made all of the tracks for that twelve-inch that Rush Hour put out (Convergence, 2012) in about twenty minutes, though sometimes I will be working on a particular track for months at a time.
IKJ I am always interested in this kind of question—what kind of music did you listen to growing up?
SW It’s funny, I was watching this Sex Pistols documentary over Christmas time. It was the one where they played a party for coal miners who were on strike, on Christmas Day in 1977. There’s a bit where John Lydon is talking about the organ, mentioning that he used to sing in a choir, and he always found the organ quite unsettling; that idea really influenced PiL. It reminded me of how I used to sing in a choir growing up as well, and heard the organ—it’s this quite ominous instrument; and a lot of the drone music that I enjoy references that. With regard to these drones, they’re not necessarily religious, but they have this powerful effect. It’s not necessarily musical, it’s more of an energy. I like playing a long-form set. I’ve been at shows where a DJ would perform for about twelve hours or so. I love that slow, gradual transition; how things slowly evolve over time. It’s almost like watching an Eliane Radigue performance; I find that those two things share some commonality. I listened to a lot of different kinds of music growing up, partly from growing up in England. I remember hearing "Good Life" by Inner City when it came out on the radio when i was a child, and seeing the acid house stories in the newspaper. I wondered what the smiley faces were. Growing up, everybody made mixtapes, and everyone was encouraged to outdo each other with how diverse the tape could be. Some of my friends were real “heads” about music, and I grew up in the middle of nowhere, listening to the radio often, and would go down to London to buy records. When you’re young, you have this particular thirst for checking out new music, and I’ve always had that really. I also tend to go for oddities in music, like I was listening to the first Carcass record recently, that metal band. The voice on it sounds similar to the GRM Paris stuff [Group de Recherches Musicales, a French institution and record label dedicated to the creation and dissemination of electro-acoustic music founded in 1958 by Pierre Schaefer; whose records have recently been reissued on Editions Mego.] it’s almost like tape music of the voice, like, “Oi, oi, oi, oi.” I was just listening to it and enjoying it as this weird tape piece. (laughter) I didn’t listen to too many punk bands growing up—I wasn’t really that interested—though I was always aware of it. I really liked that band Void, because they made that really, really bad metal record. They were really quite sloppy, and I was more interested in the sloppier side of it all. When I was sixteen, I had a friend staying with me, and he was raised on classical music, and he introduced me to things like Steve Reich, John Cage, and all of that. He just gave me a stack of these CD’s. It was a complete revelation, especially Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians; it was all very fortuitous, and entirely changed my outlook.
IKJ I am sure that you get asked this quite a lot, but what compelled you to utilize the Casio as your central piece of equipment?
SW It was partly for aesthetic reasons, and partly economic. At the time, especially when I was doing Heatsick around 2009, there was this idea going around at the time of having this “real” or “authentic” synthesizer, and I couldn’t deal with that notion, because a synthesizer for me is inherently artificial. I was thinking of disco, and how there was the subsequent “disco sucks” reaction, because the music was considered to be artificial. I thought, Why not throw this bogus idea of using a Casio right in someone’s face? You end up pre-empting that conversation when you say, “I don’t really care.” House music was based upon the downsizing of disco because people couldn’t afford twelve-string orchestras, so I see it as a logical extension of that form, to be honest.
IKJ I always thought that your use of the Casio was promoting an egalitarian vibe, bringing you closer to the audience, because there’s less of this hierarchy separating those who can from those who can’t master (or afford) the equipment.
SW Exactly. You know, it just gets a little bit dicks-on-tables with all of this gear talk sometimes. It’s a bit boring. I address that concern with the Casio, but in the end I don’t want too much of the focus to be on the instrument.
IKJ There seems to be a reoccurring theme in your records—Intersex, Déviation, Re-Engineering—of transformation and transgression. Do you agree with that?
SW I’m definitely concerned with passages of movement. The inclusion of the lyric sheet was important for this newest record. For instance, in the track “C’était un Rendez-vous” from Déviation, I was thinking about public space in terms of city planning and structural experience. It was a comment on ideology. You have these smaller, narrower streets, such as during the Paris Commune, which they smashed out to make a grand boulevard. So you’ve got the ideological character of this action showing of the power of empire, but simultaneously, this act dwarfs you—renders you powerless—when you’re on a grand boulevard. That narrative is also in conversation with a six-minute film by Claude Lelouch, in which he is driving through the city as fast as possible. In part, through acceleration, one is exploring the destructive madness that could be. Additionally, the story about how that film was made has been very mythologized—whether or not the sound in that film was truly recorded off of the image, noone knows. It could just be a complete visual trick, and that interests me.
That was a theme that informed the lyrics on Déviation, but because I didn’t include an accompanying lyric sheet, I felt like that concept was missed, so on this new record I wanted to make it a lot more explicit. I had all of these specific German cultural references, which I kind of forgot about outside of Germany, and that they would probably be completely misconstrued or misunderstood, like gay German slang, or a reference to Taxi Zum Klo (1981). Most people aren’t familiar with that work. You just have to explain yourself a bit more.
IKJ I know that the title track Re-Engineering was created in conjunction with a piece of visual art that you were making: “Sicherheitsdienst Im Auftrag der BVG” (shown at the Kinderhook & Caracas Gallery in 2013).
SW I did an exhibition, and I made that text as a map—
IKJ Like a map of secret histories, which I found to be very interesting.
SW Yeah. That show was concerned with privatization.
IKJ Privatization of cultures or of societies?
SW The title of the exhibition translates as "Security Force in Co-operation with Berlin Public Transport" which is what’s along the back of this private security force's jackets.” I find that the idea of “private experience” has collapsed under the private/public narrative, because everything has been privatized, but it’s more transparent and reachable. (touches window) This is transparent, but I can’t put my hand through it. My work sought to address that.
In Berlin, private security works on a trust system. Take the train for instance, if you get caught not paying for a ticket, there are plain-clothes officers who will catch you and fine you. And these agencies were always an extension of the state. Only now, for instance, there is a private force, that is actually, physically transparent, like wearing camouflage. So you can see when they get on the train. There’s this whole dynamic of things being nearer, but further away; whether they’re accountable or not.
IKJ Do you see privatization as a serious threat toward democracy?
SW Yeah, because it always gets into this solipsistic environment of individual self-realization; and that’s coming out of that whole Californian ideology, like Steve Jobs or the Whole Earth Catalog. I actually wrote a review of that—there was an entire exhibition in Berlin about the Whole Earth Catalog this past Summer, and it was really interesting, because it was about how the counterculture at that time basically never wanted to oppose capitalism, it wanted to integrate itself into it and make it better. I didn’t feel like they were out to do anything good. I just saw it as an Ayn Randian, individualistic self-pursuit. Then you have things like self-help or self-realization, and self-analysis, which always focuses back onto the self and the subject, even if its purpose is to be objective.
IKJ And the self has become even more complicated too in our contemporary, Internet age. Human beings have become performative in more ways than they have ever been.
SW Exactly, everybody’s constantly working, and everyone is a free content provider. It’s become integrated into our lives to constantly contribute; like taking polls or commentaries and feeding social media.
IKJ One phrase that stuck with me in the title track to Re-Engineering was “Gay Google.” Was there a commentary behind that?
SW I was talking to a friend of mine about friends of his who worked for Google, and their idea of proportional representation, and I thought that it didn’t really make everything better. That whole series of phrases from that song—“Private Life,” “Use Me Now,” “Black Power,” “Gay Google,” “Born In Flames" (referencing the film rather than the song). “What We Do Is Secret.” It’s a very deliberate stringing together of phrases.
That idea was influenced by an essay written by Peter York called “Machomania,” written in 1979. It’s this commentary about the gay civil rights groups becoming organized, visible, and later trapped. Even though there’s been an emergence, at the same time there’s liability involved, like concern over how that content will be used. Re-Engineering is a commentary on wanting to define yourself—to emerge as a collective or grouping, to want to feel empowered—but simultaneously being quite wary of how these definitions are shaped, of whether those boundaries have become fluid or not. In the current age, as soon as you’re visible, it’s like laying your cards on the table. It’s like a type of warfare.
I don’t want to be too fire and brimstone, but I do find it interesting in how we receive everything. Re-Engineering is concerned with how we process this constant overturn of information and attention, and how it becomes an economy, even though it’s free. You have the commercial language of advertising. How these signifiers—the list I wrote for “Re-Engineering”—play off of each other, and how something would conform, how anything can crystallize and rarify, is what I was interested in. Whether it’s a community, or even a smart phone, it becomes more porous, and slowly evaporates. You see these constant successive transitions, which are more or less what I have been talking about since Intersex. The general state of the world is in constant flux, and we have to categorize things in order to rarify them, process them, and map them. But nature is also inherently contingent and in transition, it’s not fixed. We forget that.
For more on Steven Warwick and Heatsick, go to his blog.
Ian Kim Judd is a writer, musician, and Gemini based in New York City. He is a co-founder of Couple Skate Records.