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The Butcher of Common Sense
Take a diversely talented creative collective, place them for ten days in an abandoned radio station in the former East Berlin and record everything. The result is a remarkable fusion of sound and vision that exploits both contemporary technology and that of the analogue Cold War world.
Part of the idea of working in Berlin in that old broadcasting studio, which was so important during the Cold War in terms of pumping out Beethoven and propaganda 24 hours a day, was to engender a son of psycho-archaeology: so we weren’t so much building things as uncovering them – feeding off the space and the city. We wanted to take that process, distill it and then record it.
Jon Baker, the Neutrinos
The Butcher of Common Sense is an ongoing experiment in music and art which has been evolved over a four year period by a group of musicians, an artist and a writer, initiated by the explorations into music, image and performance in architectural spaces by the band the Neutrinos - Jon Baker, Karen Reilly and Mark Howe – and myself, a visual artist and long-term collaborator. The project began with ten intensive days at Funkhaus Nalepastrasse, a defunct former East German radio broadcast centre in Berlin, where we immersed ourselves in its time-scarred but imposing surroundings with the aim of experimenting and making a range of audio and visual art. The original plan was not only to make an album but also to experience a wider artistic adventure in Berlin, and needed a derelict building or some type of art space. Eventually we came across a studio based in the Funkhaus complex, a vast and beautiful structure dating from the early 1950s and designed by a former Bauhaus architect Franz Ehrlich.
Our creative process, our ‘Butcher’ method, came through several years of working with spontaneous composition, improvisation and ‘cut-ups’ in both the musical and visual fields, further amplified by a series of creative evenings which we called ‘We Made Our Own Entertainment’. These events were all about musical experimentation: pieces created in 30 seconds; instantaneous film soundtracks and image making; ‘found’ instruments; free improvised singing – all done in preparation for putting a team together to go to the Funkhaus to explore these techniques and ideas further. During the Berlin residency we documented everything. The musicians did a great deal of improvising and acoustic exploration in the halls and corridors, all recorded, and also made rule-based and game-based compositions. Simultaneously I worked on artwork and film using a set of similar constraints, alongside our writer-in-residence Roz Coleman, working on prose streams and essays. We got entranced by the notion that the building would somehow have absorbed everything that it ever ’heard’, the idea of ’playback’. Returning to the UK, our first task was to gather all the data from the residency. This comprised all the collected and recorded sound, the illustrations, films and sketches. There were also a large quantity of photographs, some very beautiful, reflecting the space, while others were simple documentation. There were also song maps and lyrics from the musicians, scraps of doodles, notes, printed texts and emails and general thoughts and instructions alongside the essays and an abstract questionnaire filled in by us all on our return. Our starting point for the assembly part of the process was our Butcher technique. This was influenced musically by the traditions of John Cage and John Stevens - the leader of 1960s radicals The Spontaneous Music Ensemble – and visually by William Burroughs, Hannah Hoch and the Dadaist appropriation of everyday objects in collage and photomontage, alongside the photocopy fanzine art of early 1980s Europe.
My studio is in an old canning factory complex, four floors up in Bermondsey with a view of the London skyline. It has the familiar bleakness of a disused factory, having escaped any precious redevelopment; it has simple plaster- board interior walls with an external one featuring original, unsealed windows. It felt appropriate to continue the work in this space after the vast, overwhelming ghost of the Funkhaus. Though initially a daunting task in terms of its volume, I took the photographs to a photocopier and printed an A4 version of every image. The prints came out showing many ghosts, initially obscured, in the white sections of the copies, and this instigated the initial narrative idea, alongside the accounts, descriptions, preliminary illustrations and experiences, which were starting to take shape. Mapping out a chart, I recognised rhythms and motifs within the layers and this started to feel like music. It needed to resonate with the sound so that the relationship between the artwork and the recordings became symbiotic. As the Neutrinos worked on the demos and field recordings taken from the building, they sent them to me and I used the sound to generate authentic responses. I put the essays on the wall of my studio and chopped them into single lines of text that removed meaning and, using the tradition of cut-ups, generated abstract stories and new layers of narratives and reverberations. This led to the initial graphic style as I worked on Concrete techniques to pursue visual rhythm, repetition and space.
The work at this stage didn’t necessarily have a book as its objective. It could have been a box ot images, a newspaper, a manual. As the work was made it went on the walls, in files, on the floor, in layers, through printers. Stretching it, inking it, retracing it, enlarging it out of recognition, adding words, abstractions, collaging, reacting to the contrast and the conflict.
We all found ourselves to be conduits for our chosen discipline, so how to embody an experience in a set of images… how to embody the sound? How to embody the spirit of our residence?
It became clear when stepping back from the emerging imagery that there was now a definitive narrative that concerned creative freedom. We all had our personal experiences of artistic hostility and these stories filled the studio walls.
For a year I played nothing on my studio’s CD player but the demos, the developing album and soundscapes, and music and documentaries made in and about Berlin. These collectively fed our story.
Karen would make periodical visits to the studio so that we could work together with light boxes and projected photographs, developing the layering techniques while being able to photograph quick responses to newly generated imagery. This was then inserted into a growing file of images. Also, being a musician and frontwoman of the band and of subsequent performances in the project she was my ally and link between the music and art.
As a collective we had used the notion of games and restrictions to aid the creative process, and the music continued to be made around improvised and game-style formats. For the artwork response I wrote a self-imposed structure around which I could format the design and content, a graphic line that occurs throughout the book as an obscured pathway:
NUMBERS 1 TO 9 (we were nine) AND OTHER ABSTRACT DEVICES
TWO FIFTHS DOWN THE PAGE
The final book works over a variety of narratives, structured around interconnected stories portrayed in images. An abstracted contemporary graphic novel made up of our individual stories of artistic resistance and release suggested illustration in the style of a storyboard which in turn led me to use cinematic conventions of graphic matching and visual leitmotifs. Closeups and wide shots, differing points of view invoke the wavering nature of collaboration, from the frustration to the elation of creating something in the moment – the reason we were there.
It had to feel like the building, using constructs such as the sense of claustrophobic walls, the breathing into and out of the walls, both physical and mental. Echoes and memories, the acoustic resonance within a space. The textures evoked within. Latex pages arouse cold- store memories and felted inserts imply acoustic protec tion and soundproofing. Font styles suggest found documentation and proclamation alongside styles alluding to familiar reportage. A love letter to black ink and text as image. Concrete poetry and the resistant beat within.
Printing had to be true to the spirit of the building and the city and the nature of the experiment and the residency. There were similar influences that crossed over between the music and art and this aided the communication between me and the band. Together Karen and I experimented with various paper types. We found old and beautiful established companies producing fine art papers and printing papers around the country but none evoked old fragile documents or dusty pamphlets imbued with the smell of old storage cupboards and decades of neglect. This is what we wanted.
Contemporary digital printing put restrictions on paper choice if we were to remain within budget. The small-edition run also prohibited any analogue printing techniques. So we looked back to the original inspiration the pre-digital photocopier. A machine that could take a length of paper beyond super A3, a machine that could allow double paper passes to create a black with a density that went beyond simple black ink. A machine that could take the finest uncoated newsprint, old stationery from a warehouse in Holloway, wall lining paper, tracing paper, layout paper and cheap pulpy sugar paper.
Much inspiration came from the ‘neo-dadaist Fluxus movement of the 1960s, the finding of beauty in the everyday. The DIY post-punk culture of typography and print style, long associated with early 1980s Britain and Berlin, had a particular style of graphic communication and underground distribution of ideas and poster art. It seemed appropriate that the photocopy would be the printing technique for the majority of the pages. This was an 18 month-long, concentrated process.
The book was bound in a hardback linen cover to protect and contrast with the vulnerable pages within. The book is ten inches square, which evokes and is indeed driven by vinyl sleeve dimensions to aid the symbiosis. It is packaged in an archive box from a long established manufacturer, McCarthy & Sons, and is accompanied and completed by the CD album, its sleeve letterpress pnnted and embedded within the back page along with a 10 inch vinyl soundscape record.
The Butcher of Common Sense Artbook was designed and edited, with original artwork, by Sal Pittman; additional artwork by Karen Reilly, also using material and reworked material from The Butchers of Common Sense. Essays by Rosalind Coleman. The book was hand printed and constructed by Sal Pittman and Karen Reilly in an edition of 150. Music by The Neutrinos, with additional material by The Butchers of Common Sense. Both the book and the individual album can be found at The Butcher of Common Sense.