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The film-makers who deserve a fair hearing

3 January 2023

From the January 2023 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

Peter Strickland’s film Flux Gourmet (2022) probes the strained relationship between artists and the structures that support them. A group of ‘sonic caterers’ arrives for a residency in a gloomy institution ripe with gothic possibility. In recognition of the prestige that comes with the residency, a certain amount of performance is expected. As well as staging gigs, the group is expected to perform as culturally invigorating guests during awkward meals with its patrons, as picturesque bohemians for the camera of an in-house documentarian and as willing recipients of creative feedback from the Sonic Catering Institute’s director. The film borrows a hefty dose of erotic camp from 1970s European horror – notably the glamorous vampire flick Daughters of Darkness (1971).

If you are a sound or performance artist, Flux Gourmet is hilariously, painfully close to the bone. There are ego clashes, seething tensions and dietary differences within the group. Where the relationship between artist and patron is tense, that between the group and its audience plays out in ritualised orgies, during which fans all but consume the performer’s bodies after each gig. Anyone who has witnessed the intense fetishisation by audiences of the young performers who work with the German artist Anne Imhof will recognise this as a libidinal fantasy with firm grounding.

The genre of ‘sonic catering’ is not as preposterous as it might appear. In 2005 the electronic musician Matthew Herbert performed a concert version of his record Plat du Jour, for which he mixed samples derived from food prepared on stage – chopping, blending, frying – accompanied by videos on a culinary theme, one of which showed the meal Nigella Lawson prepared for Tony Blair and George W. Bush being crushed by a tank in a muddy field. Six years later Herbert released the rather less palatable One Pig (2011), composed from samples taken over the life of a single hog, from birth to bacon. Strickland himself is part of the Sonic Catering Band, who have performed a recipe-derived repertoire since the mid 1990s, and soundtracked Flux Gourmet.

Framing all this performance and food prep are questions about what we do and do not wish to listen to – and allow others to hear. Making art from the sounds of cooking invites us to listen actively to the noise of everyday activity. The film’s narrator spends his days and nights tormented by violent wind, the eruptions of which he endeavours to keep out of earshot: his farting is conducted in the dead of night, muffled by lavatory flush. His effort is in vain. In this aurally attuned environment, all listen closely, and with particular interest in matters digestive.

Flux Gourmet is an audiovisual work in which the audio takes the lead. Even the structure of the film seems to owe more to musical composition than it does to narrative storytelling.

Quarantaine Georgina Starr

A scene from Georgina Starr’s short film Quarantaine (2020). Courtesy Film and Video Umbrella

In Pauline Oliveros’s essay Quantum Listening (1999; republished in 2022 by Ignota Books), the experimental musician lays out the crucial distinction between hearing – an involuntary action of the sense organs – and listening, ‘a voluntary process that through training and experience produces culture’. She chides us for underestimating the importance of sound and what it can tell us: ‘One hears repeatedly that we live in a “visually oriented society” even though the ear tells the eye where to look.’ Oliveros’s deep listening practice involves a continuous reminder to the self to be alert to everything in the acoustic environment – it’s a way of opening the mind, and hearing the world more richly.

A week after watching Flux Gourmet, I went to a screening of artist Georgina Starr’s short film Quarantaine (2020). Like Strickland, Starr pays stylish homage to European cinema of the 1970s, citing Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) as inspiration. The events of Quarantaine unfold in a world apart – a mysterious institute of instruction into which two heroines fall through a portal in a London park. Starr has structured the film around a hermetic language of symbols – among the recurring images are young women lying with their legs held in a V shape in the air, balloons of pink bubblegum, floating eggs and hands, and soft, pink brain matter.

This, too, is a film about sound – at one point the heroines transition to another space by climbing naked through a giant ear – and the question of what we hear, and what we choose to listen to. The young women cloistered in the institute receive polite choral instructions – écoutez et répétez, as per the dictates of the taped instruction. It seems significant that their final action before leaving – the prelude to their freedom – is to chew huge wads of bubble gum, generating sound and spittle that others might prefer to zone out. After the schooling of body and voice, the female characters exercise their ability to disgust.

Pauline Oliveros looms large over Quarantaine. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, mezzo-soprano Loré Lixenberg appears as a floating head and gives a swooping, whooping vocal interpretation of Oliveros’s composition for oscillators and tape recorders, Bye Bye Butterfly (1965). The performance is as impressive as it is knowingly ridiculous.

Visually seductive works of cinema, both Flux Gourmet and Quarantaine celebrate live performance and prioritise the sonic within a culture that celebrates word and picture. As Oliveros reminds us, the invitation to listen in a new way is fundamental to creative thought: ‘Listening is the basis of all culture.’

From the January 2023 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.