Over the past few days we have amassed memories from and onto bodies (and it’s Remembrance Day, and with all its complex politics, it acts as a frame, a gesturing echo). And amongst these, we’ve encountered condemned bodies, imprisoned bodies, narrative and subversive bodies. And today, when we begin with bodies encased in latex and end with a burning body, we consider our own relationships to structures and frames, to mediation and engagement.
I think of the confrontation with breath in Adam Electric’s The Tomb, the outlines of bodies in latex, sculptural and liminal (from womb to tomb). The uncomfortable encounter with this sealed, exhibited space of the other (in equal measure controlled and loose, living and dead), which both enacts and blocks affect (who are we, hearing this body and its cries, this dramaturgy of life and death and narratives of breath). The breath and voice become the poetics through which the confrontation is staged, as we consider the pause, the interruption, the being in between. This is a spectacle of struggle: in order for the vacuum to be maintained, breath needs to flow outwards and as it does, our relationship to the bodies changes.
The Tomb is both monument and sculpture; it is made by and through breath, which provides our own space of confrontation. I am confronted with suffocation (and its embodiment), with working through the body, with agency and invisibility, with these outlines that are constantly abstracted by the material, with their own howls and calls for response. (And I think of processes of life and death, of communication and shared languages).
Perhaps the voices in Dead Rat Orchestra’s Tyburnia are still echoing, in their singing through and for history, breathing through history (and what a buried history this is). In dialogue with James Holcombe’s beautifully evocative and politically-nuanced film (Tyburnia: A Radical History of 600 Years of Public Execution), Dead Rat Orchestra’s collection of ballads and field recordings enters a duet on crime and criminalisation, political control and changing ideas around bodies and their agency. (I think of punishment and changing mentalities around oppressor and oppressed, of the erasure of the spectacle of execution, of torture and pain and their role. I think of the neoliberal as a silencing mode of governance which twists the relationships between abuser and abused).
The film (all shot on 8 and 16mm, presented in an ever-shifting triptych) presents moments in the history of the Tyburn Gallows, London’s place for public execution for six hundred years stretching westwards along Edgware Road, alongside contemporary incidents of religious contestation and political protest. We are already referencing the boundary stream, the echoes of those executed (the spectacle of their cries and moans, of the public torture and shaming, silenced by time and by a changing moral, ideological compass). We wander through these historical moments and consider the loss of the voices of those who perished, of the relics that staid behind, and of how folk culture can dig these out.
Both the film and the music hold a strong relationship to materiality and the body; Holcombe’s film reminds us of its qualities as we experience chemical interventions and overlaps, marking its fragility almost to the point of disappearance (Tony Blair’s yellow, burning face, disappearing into itself). The poetics of the document (the sound as séance and the body and bones as relics) remerge, confronting the public spaces we now cross daily.
And for its reference to a public site erased in the 19th century, returning as a new marker of exclusivity, Tyburnia presents a politics of erasure, embodying death and punishment and erasure: in the chemical processes, the relics and skeletons, the narratives that awake in these ballads, trembling and precarious, resurrected and already fading.
Dead Rat Orchestra pepper their works with Peddlers French, underworld sounds and field recordings, creating waves of meaning; we meet executioners and martyrs, who rise up through these voices and sounds. But we also hear of religion, of more contemporary battles occurring in public space, and wander about buried histories and relics, monuments and historical twists. There’s a powerful narrative hyperbole (I think of Godspeed or Silver Mt Zion and Jem Cohen’s work) that works between etchings, bodies and bones, in these ballads of now, which seem to stretch time and compress it, washing over.
The ballad of resurrection, the liminal space of the breathless body, the prosecuted body and the imprisoned body.