Friday, 15 May 2015

Deep Beats: A Review of Jillian Tamaki's SEX COVEN in Youth in Decline's Frontier #7

Kelly Sheehan: In 2004 I attended a concert that was part of a festival devoted to experimental music and sound artists. The performance took place in an old television studio, an environment designed to ensure optimum audio clarity. There were three acts, Francisco Lopez, Charlotte90 with Tim Coster, and Rosey Parlane. Francisco Lopez was interesting, producing a sound like a cathedral collapsing on you in slow motion, as were Charlotte 90 and Tim Coster, serenading with pleasant electronic squiggles and blips. Rosey Parlane was something else altogether. Just one man illuminated by his PC, his set started with the blips and squiggles familiar from the previous act. Slowly, very slowly, new sounds were layered over the top, each addition still clear and precise. The sound, the noise, began to settle on the listener. After a while it felt like there was a great psychic weight pressing down. Your sense of self began to give way, to crumble and dissipate, and very soon there was only a small nugget of you left in the middle of a great, swelling, oceanic cacophony. Just the you that was listening and nothing else. No thoughts of drinks after, or leaving for India in the next week, or what you are going to do for a job when you returned in six months time. Just sound. It was what I imagine it is like to teeter on the brink of enlightenment or death. After a time the sound was just as gradually eased back, leaving you a little shaken, but awed and grateful.

Reading Jillian Tamaki's issue of Frontier, the monograph series published by Youth in Decline, is not like that, but it captures what it is like to be caught up in discovering something new, overwhelming and possibly dangerous, particularly when you are young and think you are ready to have the foundations of your world rocked or even completely demolished.
Coded messages from Satan.

Daniel Elkin: There's so much going on in Sex Coven, I don't even know where to start. I'm glad you began with your concert experience, though, Sheehan, because it grounds us, gives us some focus, a springboard from which to leap.

Yes, let's talk about the central conceit of the book first. Sex Coven gets its name from an untitled music file that was uploaded anonymously in the mid 1990's, which was then found by a user on a music-sharing site who renamed it Sex Coven and continued to share it. It gained traction, went viral, spawned a cult following, spawned intense public outcry, and there the story begins.

Sort of.

“How to define a wordless, six-hour atonal drone? A sound so profound that each chord shift feels like a new tear in the Universe? Sonic mindfuck gets close.”

With this, Tamaki kind of echos what you were talking about when you were describing Rosey Parlane's performance. Now imagine that experience for six hours. That's what this thing is. It spawns a new sense of possibility because it shifts you in the experience of it.

We're sense making beings, after all, right? Our brain seeks patterns even in chaos. When faced with disorder, in some sort of self-preserving way, we fool ourselves into finding structure, and, in this, perhaps, is the moment of visceral artistic enlightenment found in participatory art. What makes Abstract Expressionism painting and Experimental Ambient music powerful is the emotional state it elicits, not the particular “beauty” of the piece itself. Here, it is the experience of creating the pattern, recognizing what you make it out to be – for all extents and purposes an a priori understanding – and then completely grokking that.

Powerfully individualistic.
It's powerful stuff because it's individualistic.

When you do the work to have an emotional response to art, you are the owner of that experience. Authentic emotions are precious in a world where we are so often sold how to think about things, where outrage is manufactured, enjoyment is a science, and attention an algorithm. And nobody latches on to this more than young people, especially when their peer group embraces it, especially when they see that their parents don't understand it, even more especially when their parents fear it or hate it.

Tamaki captures all of this in her book. The intensity of the reaction to the music and the ritual it inspires are all laid out with fervor and excitement. Tamaki knows the proper moment to abstract her art to convey this ardor, and when to focus on minutia in order to set context and further her story.

But in all honesty, this phenomenon is almost secondary to the other things that Tamaki is exploring with Sex Coven. Ideas of social history and building community are really what I think Tamaki is scrutinizing here.

Sheehan: As much as Tamaki is examining these things it is a retrospective examination. This is as much a comic about people, and the world, moving on as it is about the excitement and personal growth that happens with discovery in youth. I loved the end of the book where the past ends in the present and the realities of running an alternative community 'free' from the burdens of modern life begins to settle on the individual concerned. The exchange between Raven and Furbaby towards the end of the book neatly encapsulates this as it does the tensions and habits that underlie the dance which an relationship involves. It's a dance that as it winds to a close always involves one step forward and two steps back. Running on default, like some background program.

Comic minutiae.
A much bigger story hides behind the short piece that Tamaki presents us with and I think this is a large part of why we both responded to the book. The minutiae of the scene I have just described has a heavy pull for me but so does the final three pages as Raven reflects of the end of the life we have just witnessed. She's back in the world now and the compromise that this involves while often trivial are always around, pressing in from moment to moment. But are they better or worse that the slightly sinister presence of Rob? Rob who does not have that many skills when it comes to being In Real Life.

At the same time the backstory which makes up the first three quarters of the narrative is appealing. That detail, the slightly strange, mystical, experience of listening to the SexCoven mp3, the discovery of the Data, the metamorphosis of an internet community into a sex cult, has the feel of world building, of the creation of a mythology but really, it seems to me, to serve as an elaborate backdrop to the exchange between the 'real' people.

Elkin: “Moving on” and “back in the world now” are apt descriptors for much of the meat of this book, Sheehan. Thanks (again) for pointing us in the right direction.

The final panel of the book sums up this theme perfectly. The resolution of that moment would seem profound if it weren't such a reflection of the daily compromises we make every day of our lives, a concession to the “really fucking stupid rules” that corral the chaos of existence in order to maintain social order, predictability, stability (or is it “Community. Identity. Stability” in this Brave New World in which we live?).

Yeah. I know. There are always those among us, though, who try to live their life without having to make these sorts of compromises, visionaries and luminaries who have latched on to something and have fancy notions of creating an Arcadia. They see undulating ideals of what could be. They have dreams and, the bold among them, try to make this place on earth.

Failed constructs.
But, alas, the history of humanity is littered with failed utopias after all. Unfettered by the constructs of the deadening effects those compromises inherent in religious and/or political expediency, human nature comes to the fore. Self-interest becomes the guiding moral principle, which, when folded into the greater goal of the pursuit of pleasure or a higher state of consciousness, only leads to the elevation of the cult of personality, the subjugation of the others in the herd – people are taken advantage of, the goal is lost, pettiness or perversion prevail.

No matter what deep beats provide the soundtrack.

And those who were part of whatever it was, those there who held out hope for something better, are the one's who feel the loss of the dream most profoundly. They stumble back bleary eyed to re-integrate into the world and start making all those small compromises that we all must make in order to live next to people, selling another little piece of our soul along the way.


“Do you still believe in SexCoven...? Even after you left the ranch?” What sort of answer can Raven possibly give other than, finally, putting out her cigarette on a service plate.

You can pick up a copy of Frontier #7 directly from Youth InDecline Press

Daniel Elkin writes about comics and other things (but mostly comics) on his blog, Your Chicken Enemy and tweets a lot about sandwiches. 

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