The sky is dimly lit, a shade of twilight obscured by smoke, and the landscape is equally desolate: beyond a grimy overpass, towers rise in the distance. A shirtless man enters the frame. The scene shifts with his gaze to a blonde teenage girl. In most post-apocalyptic narratives, the male protagonist is likely at this point to become the girl’s protector and, with any luck, succumb to romantic love. In the video-game Tekken 6 (2007), Bryan Fury instead laughs and serves a series of fatal blows which land on the body of Lili de Rochefort until she crumbles, shrieking, to the ground. Floating text on the screen flashes repeatedly: ‘K.O.’
The computerized sounds of beating and screeching formed the conceptual basis for Morag Keil’s solo exhibition at Outpost Gallery. Her eight-channel sound piece Civil War (2012) includes two audio tracks ripped from Tekken 6, promotional radio spots for amusement parks described by the rush of wheels on rails and the delirious screams of rollercoaster riders, in addition to ambient noise from South London’s Peckham Rye Lane (idling motors, idle chatter, muzak) interspersed with the seductive messagesof French online advertisements (forshampoo and pregnancy tests), the kind that load before the main video on streaming websites. Suspended casually from the ceiling at Outpost, cheap PC speakers playing full-volume loops were poorly insulated by Tupperware shields, ostensibly intended to amplify the sound in each zone. An uncontainable cacophony reverberated from the gallery walls through the listener’s stomach at an unabating level of intensity, despite the rhythmic peaks and lulls built into an individual channel. Enduring such sonic conditions engendered a test of perversity, and good taste.
Much of Keil’s recent installation work makes use of high-street objet trouvés – nail polish, rucksacks, female mannequins, cables – to satirize consumer spectacle, and those clichéd late-capitalist subjectivities portrayed in commercial and cultural imagery which tirelessly promote it. If this low-brow material sensibility shaped the content and form of Keil’s first sound piece, Civil War also reinforces an unavoidable politics of visibility. Sound installations often disappear behind white walls or into slick, streamlined technological product. But the intentional sonic hostility and ham-fisted installation of Civil War punkishly disarm the seasoned spectator, presenting a serious consideration of how mediated (often digitizedand ambiguously-authored) sounds seepinto real life.
Whether Bryan Fury’s ludicrously crashing slaps or the humdrum sounds of Rye Lane, the uneasy murmur of Civil War destroys the sense of individualized control over a shared aural landscape. Keil’s technique – of divorcing real and composed sound from pre-packaged visuals – also dislodges the perception of space and real-time in relation to (presumably image-driven) screen-based activity. Spatialized into three dimensions, the soundtrack to Tekken’s crude 3D battles accrues more sinister connotations for lack of an identifiable source – an effective questioning of the representation of violence. (In the context of gaming culture, it is fighting imagery in particular that is defended as harmless fantasy.)
Well before use of the Internet became widespread, John Cage noted that: ‘We have a tendency to forget the space between things [...] We believe that we can slip as in continuity from one sound to the next, from one thought to the next. In reality, we fall down and we don’t even realize it! We live, but living means crossing through the world of relationships or representations.’ The everyday listener’s passive assimilation of external ‘noise’ from both daily life and online interactions creates a number of social pitfalls – not least in terms of freedom of expression in disembodied, post-political (virtual) spaces, where commercial offers collapse into capricious desires and schizoid performances of the self. In what forums can discontinuity and discord with the accepted stream of influence manifest, distinguished from the melee of user comments and structurally misogynist chat rooms harbouring rapid-fire trolls? While Keil does not propose any firm notion of a 21st-century ethics, Civil War skillfully re-stages the act of crossing through digital and analogue worlds of relationships and representations, ultimately embodying the immaterial content of the struggle between the sexes – which persists despite the surface egalitarianism of polite society.
First published in Issue 149