Interrogating the Alien: Theory, Sound, Vision

By Drew Hemment, 10 June 1996

conferences: FUTUREsonic and Thinking Alien

Two interlinked events will be taking place in Leeds on 16 and 17 September 1996 that seek to accelerate and collide theory, technology, art and music, examine their constituent particles, and reassemble them in metastable compounds.

Thinking Alien is an academic conference aiming to bring together theorists from diverse fields. FUTUREsonic is an event that aims to create a space of creative interaction and enjoyment for practitioners in music, multimedia and visual arts, theorists and anyone else who is interested in engaging with the music, the art, the technology and one another. The event aims to produce sounds, images, argument and pleasure.

While both FUTUREsonic and Thinking Alien are organised around particular themes the organisers are open to suggestions from participants. The idea behind the events and the link between them has evolved and mutated as more people have become involved, bringing with them new enthusiasm and ideas. What follows is intended to open a conversation, with your proposals and suggestions for the events supplying the response.

Thinking Alien

In 1967 the Apollo 4 mission took a photograph of the earth from space that was to become an iconic image of our age. Of all the events in the history of the prosthetic extensions of the human sensorium this event was perhaps the most profound - a becoming extraterrestrial of the human eye. And the modern world was provided with perhaps its most phatic of images - one which has been embraced by everything from transnational corporate advertising to ecological and new age discourses.

It is precisely this point of view, of the extraterrestrial looking back on the world, that Donna Haraway suggests is that of the cyborg. The cyborg is a breached boundary, confusing the realms of the natural and the technical, disrupting the narratives of evolution and progress, displacing the ontology of subject and object<1>.

Thinking alien, then, is an imperative of our time. The aim of the conference is to draw together theorists of alien thought in the fields of philosophy, sociology, cultural studies, aesthetic theory, political theory, musicology and performance arts.

An organising theme of the conference is the impact of technology upon culture and upon art. But the conference also seeks to interrogate the fetishisation that allows the sign of technology to play the lead role in this drama of disruption and decentring, reducing the aliens that have always walked the earth to bit parts in a world historical narrative.

Thinking alien in terms of theory means to think beyond the subject, to think of a certain world coming to an end and of the other worlds that lie beyond. Thinking alien in terms of the art object means to think outside the terms of signification and subject. Thinking alien in terms of music means to think beyond form and meaning and towards a horizon where our concepts give way.

FUTUREsonic thinking through sound and image

To think through sound and image is to explore the nature and the terrain of modern music and art. But it is also to think with sound and image: to use music and art to confront the way we think, to open up thought to the free flowing domain of imagination and creativity that it would otherwise confine and restrain. This is to treat music as music, and to oppose it to the labelling and stereotyping to which it is so often subjected. And it is to confront the materiality of modern music, its forces and its frontiers.

To think through sound and image is also to explore the relation of music and visual art, and the techniques of their combination. The convergence of media will be addressed not as a presumed end in itself, but as a synthesis that radically affects and extends the dimensions of musical reception.

To enter into a relation with music - whether through writing, production, or even through dance - is to step out of the mundane, out of the strictly human, and onto another plane. This presents a point of resonance with recent theoretical perspectives that explore a becoming alien or cyborg which constantly escapes humanist categories, whether within the arts, culture, or politics.

Modern electronic music - dance or experimental - poses new questions to our understanding of the creative process. Central to these is the matter of technology, which inserts itself into the heart of musical production, displacing the human author from his (sic.) position of centrality, and dislocating music from its expressive function.

FUTUREsonic seeks to investigate technology and its implications; but not to fetishise it. There will thus be an emphasis on technology in action - engaged and applied - rather than as an end in itself. Alien arts demand extra-mundane uses of technology, not just a blind race towards the new. The FUTURE is not seen in the listings of the most up-to-date sales catalogue, but in lines of flight that flow from the impact of technological developments on cultures of expertise and enjoyment.

Whilst the parameters of the event are set by music as such, FUTUREsonic takes its point of departure from dance culture: insofar as it aims both to recognise the important developments that have occurred within that cultural site and to provide a forum and a focus for the wealth of creativity that has grown up with it or been inspired by its example. It is thus only appropriate that the venue be one of the leading clubs in the country, backtobasics: a natural environment for an alien endeavour.

We live in an age which overwhelms us with possible destinations, but that is all too often devoid of direction. If, as Brian Eno claims, modern technologies set us adrift in "a sea of unmoored judgements"<2>, then the task we face is that of navigation: not of imposing an orientation or a set of co-ordinates, but of discerning horizons and points of reference that allow the journey to continue.


>the horizons of sonic expression: directions and diffusions

>music production and computer technology: techniques and new vistas

>digitalisation; beyond the organic/synthetic divide: expectations and results

>the human-machine interface: the location of creativity, and its subordination to preset potentials

>'multi-media': synergy or compromise?

>sampledelia and origin-ality: the re-routing of the past into the present

>non-linear histories of music: slave to the rhizome?

>commercialism and the micro-politics of dance culture

Drew Hemment

<1> Haraway, D. "Foreword" to Gray,C.H.(ed.), The Cyborg Handbook, Routledge 1995 <2> i/v The Wire 139, p.36