Real Talk: Lawrence English

The Australian multi-disciplinary artist charts his creative path and, in doing so, questions societal issues and the need for DIY culture.
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Lawrence English is an artist who deeply questions everything around him. His child-like fascination with dissecting life, from its unnerving questions to the sounds surrounding us on a daily basis, permeates the fabric of his entire artistic existence—one that he has unwaveringly pursued via sound, film, writing, live performance art, and curation. Look at 2013's 'Songs Of The Living,' for example, a collection of field recordings collated over a decade and a half and taking in sonic stories as diverse as Cormorants flocking in the Amazon or Australia's Daintree Rainforest at night; or 'A Young Person's Guide To Hustling in Music and The Arts,' an essay in which English explores surviving and creating in "one of the most underpaid areas of creative enterprise." His latest album, 'Cruel Optimism,' which is named after and inspired by Lauren Berlant's book of the same name, also attempts to inspire and unearth questions on "how power consumes, augments, and ultimately shapes two subsequent human conditions: obsession and fragility." This all-embracing approach and enduring dedication to the arts is refreshing in a society that, more often than not, looks for instant gratification.

Outside of his solo works, English has been a bastion of the underground for well over two decades—he started his first label and zine at 15 years-old—the main outpost of which is Room40, a multi-format label English started in 2000. In its 17-year run, Room40 has been home to the works of artists such as Grouper, Bee Mask, Ben Frost, Tujiko Noriko, Tim Hecker, Norman Westberg Rafael Anton Irisarri (a.k.a. The Sight Below), and Function.

For the latest edition in our Real Talk series, English take a fine tooth comb to his artistic processes, what lead to his sprawling body of work and his latest album, and society's need for DIY culture.

New Futuring: Mined From The Past

I’ve never been the kind of artist who arrives at music directly. When I speak to friends and colleagues who make work I am often dumbfounded by the ease with which music seems to flow out of them. This is quite honestly not the case for me and I have had to come to terms with the fact that music for me is relational. By this I mean that I arrive at music through often very divergent journeys; pathways that might seem unusual or plainly unnecessary are, for me, part of the deal when it comes to making work. In some ways, this is why I have so readily taken to field recording amongst other practices—the setting and the sense of place in which the sound unfolds begets a certain bounded understanding I find invaluable. So, with this in mind, I have recently been considering how it is I arrived at Cruel Optimism and in the process of doing so, I have had the chance to trace out some of the territories that sit underneath the more pressing and contemporary concerns addressed in the material content of the record.

I have to start this piece by saying I am incredibly fortunate and privileged to have enjoyed a life that knows a richness of love and possibility that I do not take lightly. I come from a very supportive family and now have one of my own. I live in a country that still displays a great promise, even if some of the fundamental, historical underpinnings are deeply flawed; especially our relationship with the original inhabitants of this country. This is not to say that I have not had to face challenges and loss in my days, but it is to say that in doing so, I have faced these with great support from key people around me, a community of friends and family far and near, and through a background that softens out what might be much harder edges for other folks. I should also clarify that what follows is perhaps a reflection of my antipodean heritage, socially and geographically.

So, contemplating this question of what underpins some of the sentiments that lurk in Cruel Optimism, I’ve been struck by a realization that the world of today and the world of my mid teens feel deeply linked. The sense of heaviness and anguish that was present then appears very present again. The names may have changed, but the phenomenon that informs the concerns and suffering of everyday people seems to have become more readily perceivable at every level. What seemed like a fanciful dystopia 20 years ago is more tangible now. It’s as if the lessons of the 20+ years since that time have not been retained in any meaningful way and, rather, we’re just in a quickening downward spiral, towards what I am unsure. Let’s be frank, there’s nothing new about this inability to retain learnings or, more pressingly, meaningfully process them at a societal level. Progress, for the most part, moves so very slowly, it’s perhaps the most persistent feature of the human race. What is surprising though is, in light of the developments in technologies of communication and the possibilities of accessing information, we haven’t seen a more successful campaign in progress. We haven’t realized the promise that access to information suggested, largely, I argue, because we’re not asking the best questions of that information—or any questions at all. We’re not aspiring to Neil Postman’s translation of information into knowledge and then wisdom. Rather, it all just appears too overwhelming, the access to information is a prison of excess, rather than a portal of liberation. Some argue most people are largely disinterested and or that they are subscribing to the ‘I’m alright jack (pull the ladder up)’ attitude. I’d like to think the later is reflective of only a few around us and I don’t agree that people are disinterested, distracted yes, but disinterested, no. It's hardly surprising, distraction is paramount; there has never been more choice of things to steal our time away from us. It’s a smorgasbord so epic that gluttony is encouraged, if not enshrined. This smorgasbord was not always present though, and my teenage years growing up in a city/country which was still a long way away from the rest of civilization is a testament to that.

The Present Past

If I was to trace back the roots of how it is I came to the modest ontology I have crafted for myself, I think the local and geopolitical conditions of my teenage years resolutely formed the essence of how I choose to navigate the world today. It shapes a majority of the work I do; whether that be through a politics of perception as it relates to listenership, my installation practice, or my performance work, which I consider, more and more, is related to bodily effect and the implications of collective gatherings and public assembly offered through music. When I was 14, Australia was in a significant economic downturn. It began to suffer its worst recession since the great depression. Somehow, the childhood glimpses of adult life I had witnessed, which looked hopeful, joyful, and full of promise—if not gently excessive—seemed to be engulfed by a horizon of upwardly mobile precarity.

At the time, I did not know what precarity was; in fact, it wasn’t readily theorized as a thing until more than a decade later. All I knew, or perhaps, all I was being told, was that the world that rode high on the bubble of 1980s economic possibility had vanished. The ideas of employment that were taken for granted were gone, as were so many of the fundamental social beliefs, institutions, and structures that had served us to that point. The promises made by those holding political power across the late 1970s and into the 1980s were unable to be realized beyond the moment of their utterance. That brief honeymoon period—perhaps best summarized by the attentive documentation of Eaton Ellis’s American Psycho and through the conspicuous consumption that somehow made ‘Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous’ a realized proposition—was gone. We were being kicked out of the house by late capitalism and being taken for everything we had left in our pockets by the relentlessness of neoliberal policy agendas. Okay, sounds a bit melodramatic, but hell, that’s how it felt; I can’t think of the number of times I was told I had no future as it was known by the generations before me in those years of the early 1990s. What lurked ahead was a void, an uncertain, abhorrent void, not dissimilar to what many friends are presently describing their day to day feels like.

This was a current fuelled by a sense of determination that small actions could have large ripples, even if it took some time for those ripples to gather energy.

So it was in this foggy zone of dimensioned possibility that I started to become. Beyond the macro sense of dread, however, there was an extraordinary sense of passion and hope running as a sub-current, buried somewhere in the deepest trenches of this otherwise bleak sea. This was a current fuelled by a sense of determination that small actions could have large ripples, even if it took some time for those ripples to gather energy. I think back to Riot Grrrl, for example, here were a group of young women (and some men too) pushing for new ways of considering gender, equity, and more, through a passionate musical manifesto. It was regular people living regular lives striving against the status quo. They were hungry and determined, politically engaged and willing to action theory through practice. Not just that, they made amazing music, too—experiencing Bikini Kill in Brisbane still stands out as a highlight of that decade. It was inspiring and invitational in a way that I think offered a huge hope to that generation. The ideas of DIY were a central organizing framework for this methodology of radical and, in other scenes, not so radical dismantling of normative hegemony. It was a place in which everyday people, like you and me, could actualise things. Cumulative things. It was a dual recognition that artists, through their voices, had the capacity to reach out to others and affect them and, simultaneously, that the gathering of bodies in spaces had a value and power that was both subtle and radical. We could exchange ideas, find comradery, seed friendships, and have the chance to learn that the world was not just how we lived it—that other people lived in ways that weren’t like us, and that those ways were just as valid and valuable as our own way of being.

It was this underworld that I dived into, albeit from the bottom of the world and lived largely through a PO Box for many years. As you can imagine, this vista of culture did not reveal itself immediately, the world at that time did not allow that. Instead, it took several years for me with my hand written and completely personal fanzine about the music and other stuff I was interested in to find a way into a world that still, to this day, fuels and inspires me. The connections were elegantly random at times. For example, I’d read about a fanzine covering industrial music in the back pages of some import music magazine, so I’d write them and organize a trade, and when the issues arrived, I discover the writing of JG Ballard who appeared alongside some interviews of musicians I was interested in. Another literary example is when I came across Naked Lunch through an artist talking about it in an interview, and before long was headlong into the cut-ups that William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin pioneered—still possibly one of the greatest cultural breakthroughs of the 20th century. Through whatever means they could, usually fanzines and cassette trading lists, people like us shared the things that inspired them and that challenged them, with each other.

Through this process, slowly but surely, a way of understanding the world as something so much more than the macro-political void-scape that had become the mainstream reading of the world, began to open out to me. Now, this did not deny the growing precarity unfolding around me as my teenage years progressed into my early 20s. It is to say, however, that I could become better equipped; not just to register these issues in a more informed and considered way, but I could start to think about how I wanted to work against them. I could consider the questions the critical theorist Lauren Berlant outlines in her book Cruel Optimism from which I take the title for my latest work. I wasn’t focused on the fantasy objects, as Berlant titles them, I recognized the means through which these objects were in fact traps, lures to keep me distracted from what was really meaningful, to me, in my life. It was as if the more diverse my interests got, the more open I became to registering the vibrations and murmurings of the world, the more focused I become on realizing the humbly peculiar life I wanted to lead—a life that shunned the narratives people had constructed for me and tried to sell me in my formative years. It was a wonderfully unusual inverse logic that I think many people, like me, reveled in during those years.

It’s around this time that I recognized the power of DIY at all levels. Rooted in punk and then exploding in contest to the mainstream during that period of the early 80s economic boom, this ethic of making things happen as best you could under the circumstances at hand because you believed in their worth was a fundamental realization for me. My time making fanzines and releasing music in the early to mid-1990s was, I realize now, the end of an era. In 1996, I had a Hotmail email address and the web started to shift this way of engaging that up until that point had worked on a different scale of time and, I’d argue, commitment of self. Don’t get me wrong, from that point on it was wonderful to have increasing access to more and more curious materials and people through the web. But in saying that, I count myself fortunate as I had already undertaken an internship, if you like, of how to sort through the various caves and labyrinthine passages that were those underground networks. People were my torch and time unfolded in an almost narrative sense; the web, by contrast, seemed to deny some of those critical functions. And then, somehow, it all seemed to get more and more busy, the echoes of the ways of being that had fuelled those periods of interconnectedness gave way to a more amorphous and then more segmented and splintered engagement. The chance discoveries of those strange and entirely personal fanzines and Xerox art projects seemed less possible. The internet offered the chance for everything (and it still does and let's be thankful for all the amazing work that it brings to us daily), but to actualize that possibility proved more complex than any of us had initially imagined.

When you examine the immediate cultural legacies of punk and the politicized voices of 1980s hip hop, contemporary cultural phenomena do seem somewhat dwarfed, if not a bit muted.

The Future Present

So how does all this connect me to today? In the wake of Mark Fisher’s untimely and profoundly devastating passing, I find myself returning to his writing—and to what his k-punk blog represented as a recurrence of the experiences encountering fanzines and music writing in my teens. Fisher’s texts embodied the character and passion of the work I had first encountered as a teenager, he carved out a way of bringing together disparate ideas and interests and uniting them through a particular series of lenses. His writing was a provocation born of passion and offered serious consideration of materials often disregarded. I didn’t always agree with what I read, but it resonated with me and challenged me to consider criticisms and positions I might not necessarily share. It affected me and, in doing so, lingered in me.

This brings me to a point of this piece: in his book, Ghosts Of My Life, Fisher raises, through the use of Franco 'Bifo' Berardi’s phrase 'the slow cancellation of the future,' the crisis that is ever more apparent now. It’s a crisis of the value and relevance of the work we all undertake, as artists, as listeners, and as engaged human beings more broadly. A crisis about how we approach these increasing complexities that are the environments in which our works exist. Fisher himself summarized, “there’s an increasing sense that culture has lost the ability to grasp and articulate the present.” When you examine the immediate cultural legacies of punk and the politicized voices of 1980s hip hop, contemporary cultural phenomena do seem somewhat dwarfed, if not a bit muted. But I propose that the energy of their ripples functions differently and their immediate impacts are secondary to their potential to linger and resonate in ways unfamiliar and unpredictable. Perhaps this is a naive hope, but I argue it is more than that.

The medium through which these ripples move has shifted. They once vibrated exclusively through the tangible temporality of the world we can readily access through our senses, but now they have been repositioned existing more readily in the relatively new and unfamiliar zone of the web. As Tarkovsky—via the Strugatsky brothers—prophesized, we are all now a stalker in the zone, finding new temporal relations and wormholes of possible experience. The zone is a place we cannot readily know and it is never the same for long. With this in mind, I suggest we embrace these new possibilities for cultural resonance and exploration of the unknowns of this zone into the 21st century. I also suggest we collide them with the promise of what DIY epitomized. We need to remember the pleasures of point to point and remind ourselves not to be overcome with frustration and become paralyzed. I think the frustration can sometimes be a sense of powerlessness to change and address, in a wholesale way, the crisis we perceive around us. It’s an understandable frustration, but it’s critical to remember the macro and the hegemonic is not absolute of how we operate day to day, nor should it ever be. We are so much more than that. Sure, we feel its pressures, but we must push back against them and not let them mold us.

I feel more than ever that what we give of ourselves to each other and what we pursue, critique, and demand through our works has great value, symbolically and, in many cases, literally.

With this firmly in mind, we can look to situate ourselves in these emergent zones, borrowing the most valuable learnings of what DIY cultures before us proposed. This mode of interaction built doorways of thought, encouraged new senses of self to be realized, and built community one connection at a time. It did not seek to transform everything and it did not expect the changes to be instant. What it did produce, more precisely, was a quality of meaningful interactions between people that they could carry forward with them into the rest of their lives. It was a means of forging meaningful community and culture into the future—I have found this to be the case. I feel more than ever that what we give of ourselves to each other and what we pursue, critique, and demand through our works has great value, symbolically and, in many cases, literally. Every conversation we have, each work we create as artists, if imbued with agency and the desire to affect those around us, creates one of these doorways I’m speaking of. In the broadest sense, I feel Cruel Optimism is one such doorway. It is, amongst other things, a call to recognize where power is situated and how it is those structures can be reduced through various methods. Amongst those methods is an active pursuit of dismantling normative positions through the determined recognition of unity in diversity—or difference, for that matter—at its most fundamental and hopeful, as a means of recognizing the potential value of community; In Varietate Concordia.

I gently encourage each of you to become a stalker and to share your learnings of the zone with each other. Through whatever means we have at our disposal, in all settings, we must strive now more than ever to actively celebrate and embrace difference as a means of repositioning the power structures around us—the effects will not be instant, but they will be. It’s just a matter of us refusing to accept the slow cancellation of the future and moreover about us actively moving towards the possible futures we know are just beyond the horizon.