Simon Poulter

Agit Disco

AGIT DISCOedited by Stefan Szczelkun and Anthony Iles, 2012 Mute Books
review by Simon Poulter, February 2012

Walking into a record shop in Hamilton, Ontario last year, it was as if I was going back in time. It is hard not to be sentimental about such places – the smell, the sense of anticipation and the overall experience of a physical space full of music. Oh, a physical space…

One of my favourite songs is ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’ by the Only Ones and after scuffing around the shop I walked out with a used 12″ of ‘Special View’. Popular myth would have it that once upon a time there were formative list-makers, DJs such as John Peel, who would spend their time sifting through the world’s music and relaying it back to us via the fuzzy radios in our bedrooms. Then digital music formats appeared supplanting the rule of vinyl before music completely disappeared into data-space, evil piracy and downloads. Along the way the discourses between music, youth and activism changed when music as a popular networked medium gave way to the distributed torrent of the web. So music became ‘content’, free and subjected to random acts such as ‘shuffle’. The Poisoned Apple.

There is no shuffle in the work of Stefan Szczelkun. He has created a project in the form of a book that comprises of a series of suggested CD compilations assembled by invited cohorts. At first, the choice of a soon to be redundant medium such as the compact disc seems oddly perverse, yet Agit Disco offers a syncretic approach to the music histories that transport us from Muddy Waters to Mos Def. The contributors insights are of course reflective on their personal histories; for example Tom Jennings’ reminder that the source code of rap is direct action and not designer clothing. As far as I am aware there are no baseball caps or designer ales as a spin off from this book.

But Agit Disco is a book with a purpose. As soon as you pick it up you are reminded of the personal intimacy of the print medium. The book is anchored on the author’s long-standing connection to working class politics and its musical anthems and idiosyncrasies. As I have thumbed through it I have come to the unshakable conviction that with a straight shoot out between Google and Agit Disco, I would have a higher degree of finding something musically interesting from the observations of the contributors of the book. So there is still work to do on the algorithms of the semantic web, or higher granularity in the recommendations of a human who has listened.

The editors, Stefan Szczelkun and Anthony Iles, are fully aware that this is no contest and that their roles may lie more as archivists and not activists. While Julian Temple’s trilogy of films about punk act as an archaeology of personalities for example, there are still many layers beneath of lesser known mortals who have performed interesting acts. Indeed, Stefan Szczelkun’s credentials in mining and recording the cultural moments of London and the UK’s sub-cultures are impeccable and if I had one criticism of this book then it would be that it lacks a more in-depth narrative on these matters. But perhaps this is a future project that both the editors have in them, given the predominant focus on cult of personality in music writing and relative absence of a political story.

However in his introduction, Anthony Iles, expertly dispenses with the lame reconstructions and self-agrandisations of artists. Northern Soul, oh yes I saw that at an art gallery somewhere. He also points out that Agit Disco emanates from the blogosphere and a requirement to problematise aesthetics and criticality on music as a political force. Wryly, he draws attention to the contradictory status of celebrity within a countercultural milieu, so we have Stewart Home slotted in as a natural contributor here. Home’s playlist takes up the challenge wholeheartedly, recognising the importance of juxtaposition and classics – so we have Toots and the Maytals ’54-46 Was My Number’ spinning into ‘Don’t Be a Drop Out’ by James Brown and the “E Pluribus Unum’ by The Last Poets.

A comparator piece of writing that springs to mind is Paul Morley’s ‘Words and Music’, always bound to be trapped in time with its focus on Kylie Minogue. However, a quote from it:

“Some day music will only be air. There will be no objects to hold or fetishise and people will simply collect lists. No disc, nothing spooled or grooved, no heads to clean, no dust to wipe, no compulsive alphabetising.”

While most of this is true, we could argue that rather than collecting lists, more and more people are making them, as a consequence of distributed media and the disruption of the music industry distribution model. This is one of the most revolutionary actions of our time.

Agit Disco is therefore a project that combines friendships and associations with the full use of the extended communication of digital tools. It’s a book that utilises the aggregation effects of the web to hand the reader back some discrete thoughts and tunes.

Peter Conlin flags up Dissident Island [] and a reminder that music creates a mutuality among generations as we ‘pick the same stuff’. This is never more problematic for some, where in the UK, we have apparently selected political leaders, who as well as studying PPE at Oxford, were listening to The Smiths, hunting stags and wreaking chaos in restaurants.

The last contributor to the book, Tracey Moberly, signs off her list with ‘I Don’t Give A Fuck’ by Peaches (with samples from Joan Jett). A truly seminal track that never fails to bring a smile to a misty grey morning wherever you are.

Ending on an Amazon moment – for aficionados of the UK underground, you might also like Stefan Szczelkun’s ‘Survival Scrapbooks’.

To purchase Agit Disco go to Metamute

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Paul Morley in Conversation

Paul Morley in Conversation

An interview with Paul Morley as part of the McLuhan’s Message Programme curated for Watershed Media Centre in October 2011.


Duration: 1hour 5mins 39secs

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MadLab Manchester 15th May 2011

Wider Implications of Software Culture

The Event

  • What: Salon discussion and short presentations at Mad Lab in Manchester
  • When: Sunday 15th May – 2pm-4pm
  • Theme: “Open Source vs. The Big Society”


Listening to Firefox exists to create a space for open and engaged discussion across a spectrum of digital-art-technology practice with an emphasis on the social, cultural and political implications of this work.


Theme for this event: Open Source vs. The Big Society


Format: 5 practitioners are invited to present extremely short (<3mins) single-slide examples across a spectrum of digital-art-technology practice. From there, the emphasis moves to an open and critically aware roundtable discussion.


Rooted in practice, the event will facilitate greater peer awareness, cross-pollination and hopefully instigate conversations which need to be had!

Origins: Listening to Firefox emerged out of discussions held at the 2011 Metal/DEC Digital LAB held at Metal’s Chalkwell Hall in Southend on Sea. The LAB was facilitated by artists Graham Harwood and Simon Poulter and attended by 8 artists from a wide spectrum of disciplines.

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Processes of organisation

I feel pushed to respond to the entry John made after our discussion on Friday morning as I feel that I have been misunderstood and do not find the label of skeptic appropriate. I wish to outline a few of my current frustrations I have with the cultural environment in the UK at the moment.


The discussion arose from a question of how to continue once the workshop was over. How can the ground covered over the past week be developed further and whether or not we felt there was anything we could do to support each other in our long term goals for the future.


From this we decided that we should try to meet up again in a few months time and set John the role of organising it.


The discussion then turned to the ways in which groups and artists organise themselves and the level of control they have in producing and exhibiting the type of work they would like. John brought up the point that he felt there should be a way to circumnavigate  cultural organisations whom he feels siphon off the (public) funds available and act as gatekeepers in cultural production – artists becoming employees of the organsations when they fulfill the remit set for residency programmes or commissions and do not get to wholly dictate the manner in which they work.


I perhaps did not make this clear at the time, but yes, I do agree that artists should continually find ways in which to produce and display the type of work that they find critically interrogating and should not chase the funding money pot, adapting their methods to suit the desires of the organisations strategic agenda if they do not feel it fits with their own outlook.


However, regardless of whether you are an individual or group working directly with the public funding bodies or you are receiving funds through a supported cultural organisation at some point there will still be the need to provide reasoning for your allocation of funds and evidence of its impact. This is a task in itself and one that requires knowledge of the relationship outlets have to funding bodies and the goals (goalposts) those bodies have had to set and which you must fit into (otherwise there will be no funding). The cultural organisations all came about for their own reasons and in the eyes of funding bodies they must also come up with their own strategic plans for the development of artistic production within their self-designated context. This secondary and perhaps more narrow set of specifications within the funding structures can of course bring about further hurdles for artists to hop over on the way to the fruition of their ideas but these constraints can also be enabling in that they promote particular forms of practice and help to better establish them by developing a platform dedicated to its exploration.


I know I’m going of track here but I suppose what I’m trying to say is that regardless of how we manage to gain access to funds so that we may make and promote our work we will still have to provide reasoning to the powers that be as to why we should have it in the first place. The organisations and individuals still have to spend lengthy hours filling out forms and building the case which can at times undermine the work itself.


John pushed the notion that a group can continue for the longer term without any central co-ordination. I do not feel that a group or organisation can and as I have tried to outline above it is because in the long run, if they want to access public funds or become larger entities in order to further promote their ideas they will then have to take on the role of administration. You suggested that this would be absorbed into the group and members would take it upon themselves to carry out this task in a act of self governance. I then responded by saying that these less artistic tasks will become more time consuming to the point where people will be unwilling to give up so much of their time unless they can have some sort of recompense, namely income.


As Simon pointed out there are pressure points at which organisations do alter their structures, some close in upon their decision making processes, creating a line between management and production and allocating these roles appropriately. It is here that groups must be vigilant in reaffirming the equilibrium so as not to create a hierarchical distinction between the two roles. Rather they should maintain access to broad opinion but not in such a way that it becomes an endless and debilitating task – seeking to strike a balance and knowing when to move on or quit.


The insistence during the discussion of entirely open means of organisation where everyone is self-governing, especially in light of funding cuts when opportunities will become all the more sparse, feels a little too close to the recent conservative initiative of the ‘Big Society’. People willing to offer a significant part their time for the greater good. A reasoning that asks people to absorb disproportionate cuts in public spending brought on by the economic crisis by a Government that is trying to get out of providing key public sector services (health, education, culture etc) yet protecting the very financial infrastructures that brought this situation about. I suppose my frustration has been unfairly directed, instead I should be asking the core question effecting all of these instances which is how we value cultural production because at the moment we are pushed into viewing it as a direct capitalist transaction and have to quantify it in monetary terms to prove impact within society. Currently we are being pushed further and further into treating artistic production as a consumer object or service, one that requires a proved rate of return on investment and I find that the re-appropriation by the Conservatives of the long established practice within arts communities of self-organisation into their ‘visions’ for society a difficult pill to swallow. I believe that public provision of culture is something that should be protected and feel it is not being accurately defended against and ever encroaching commercial value system.

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Paranodality in Southend-on-Sea

This morning we found ourselves talking about activating peer groups and their different modes of organisation.  Simon brought in ideas from network theory and if I understand correctly the point – the strength of the weakest links in a network will correlate directly to the effectiveness of the network.  Caroline maintained throughout a skeptical viewpoint of the forces involved which act to instrumentalize the role of artists into a capitalist media machine.  Disparagingly she quoted Chris Morris’s satirical Shoreditch anti-hero Nathan Barley: “I am a self-facilitating media node.”


From my own perspective I agree that it is important to challenge and reflect upon existing models of collective energy, and work and how this activity becomes constituted, ritualised and institutionalised.  What limitations can we place, in the form of an “ethic” or “attitude”, which might prevent or subvert the emergence of patterns of behaviour which we do not want to perpetuate?


In conversation with Metal chair, Jude Kelly yesterday a very intriguing (and perhaps paradoxical) question was posed:

“How can intimacy be scaled?”


These fascinating discussions are, of course, from the privileged perspective of viewing and building a “model” and this activity and speculation must be distinguished and recognised as only one small part of building relationships within the “cultivation” of a peer-group.


An interesting email I read several years ago seemed to posit a counter-view to “network-logic” by thinking in terms of something called “para-nodal” space (the ‘space’ which is not represented on the network map of nodes and their connection).  I am going to copy and paste the email below (I’ll send a quick email to the author too – I’ve never followed this idea up really but I think it has had a profound effect on how I think about the relationship between “models” and “life”).


//Updated 12:45 – here is a link to a website for Ulises Mejias //


From: “Ulises A. Mejias” <EMAIL ADDRESS>
Date: 22 April 2008 01:57:01 BDT
Subject: [-empyre-] unwired sustainability
Reply-To: soft_skinned_space <>

My apologies for not having posted as actively to this list during my time as moderator this week (technology is partly to blame, but mostly it’s my fault). I want to end by providing my own take on wired sustainability.

I believe networked forms of production, collaboration, activism, and mobilization will be essential to figuring out how to engender more sustainable relationships with the world and with each other. However, in my own work I try to examine the very unsustainability of the network episteme, of this ‘wired’ logic.

Since the distance between two nodes within the same network is zero, and the distance between a node and something outside the network is practically infinite, it follows that a node can only see the world in terms of other nodes. Something that is not a node is, for all practical purposes, invisible. I call this tyranny of nodes “nodocentrism.” Nodocentrism is the assertion that only nodes need to be mapped, explained or accounted for. It is a reductionism that eliminates everything but the reality of the node. Nodocentrism informs a model of progress or development where things not on the network must and should be incorporated in order for them to exist (this is the ideology that informs the discourses of the digital divide, pervasive computing, etc.).

In opposition to nodocentrism I use the concept of paranodality. Contrary to what is represented in network diagrams, the space between nodes is not empty or dead, but very much alive. In fact, this space–the paranodal–acts as the only sustainable site from which we can articulate a subjectivity separate from the network, from which we can unthink the network episteme. The paranodal is, as Ranciere would
say, the part of those who have no part, the site where disagreement, not consensus, takes place (and hence, the locus of the political).

Of course, to unthink the logic of the network is not to pretend the network doesn’t exist, or to refuse to deal with it, but to re-imagine one’s relationship to it. The relationship of the paranode to the network is perhaps like the one of the parasite to the host (and here I’m borrowing from Serres): the parasite inserts itself into the
communication process, between the sender and the receiver, disrupting the communication by being ‘noise’, and forcing the system to adjust to its presence. In this context, the paranode can be described as a parasite of the network, an element that lodges itself between nodes, distorting or introducing noise into the information that passes between nodes, and forcing the network to adjust to its presence.

I guess what I am suggesting is that perhaps sustainability is not wired, but unwired. What is subversive and creative is not the network episteme (wired logic), but the parasitical disruption that can provide a way to think outside the logic of the network, to disidentify from it, and to resist its nodocentric view of the world.

empyre forum


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Anarchy and the Big Society Machine

Anarchy and the Big Society Machine

talk prepared for Goldsmiths MA Interactive Media (2011)

Anarchism in an electronic age defies definition and will always tend towards sets of values or ways of thinking and doing that evolve from tensions in the individual and collective process. We could say that in this respect anarchism is defined as useful tension between community (or state) and self. Correspondingly, any dogmatic attempts to discuss anarchism are simply evocations of a dynamic process, illuminating, infuriating and then discarded. But they are not without purpose or an element of progression from one place to another, that is to say in negotiating the behaviours of the individual and the state.

We might think that the effect of the growth of electronic media has been to dissolve the power of the nation state in our affairs and the opposite in the case of China – the creation of what has become known as ‘the Great Firewall’. The unregulated and unprecedented movement of information has, as McLuhan predicted, decentralized our actions, as we move from conventions of trade of goods and services to an electronic world economy. The parcelling up of toxic debts within electronically facilitated trading was estimated by the International Monetary Fund in 2009 to be 4 trillion dollars. The consequence of such spectacular meltdowns has been the reappraisal of financial regulation throughout the developed economies. Neo-liberalised economic processes have brought many states to the point of self-destruction.

Negroponte in ‘Being Digital’ proposes the shift from atoms to bits, as industrial production moves from the material to the digital. This seems now techno-utopian and simplistic. Newsprint or the book, if we follow this idea, are replaced by onscreen media navigated by increasingly responsive interfaces. These interfaces can be increasingly attendant and responsive to our patterns of behaviour, reducing ‘wasteful’ search time. However these interfaces often reach back to forms of representation of prior media, what McLuhan called the ‘rearview mirror effect’. So in an iPad advert the user gestures towards a virtual bookshelf.

But now attention has become money or commodity too, at the same time that technological fetishisation or lifestyle technologies have become symbolic of global culture. Bernhard Stiegler has written extensively on the effects of mass media, the effect of which is the homogenisation of culture and its messages, leaving no space for transgression or alternative tempo or meaning.

The cultural supremacy and pervasiveness of computer generated movies seems undeniable. Could we argue that Toy Story 3 is the ultimate artistic statement of global neo-liberal culture? Its messages, aesthetics and modes of production convey a complete set of values in which the mass audience are emotionally tugged, puppeted and entertained. We might compare this to North Korean propaganda films (featured on YouTube) that take on a warped propagandisation of a dark-side “axis of evil” state. Is there a collective amnesia and form of control in CGI blockbusters?

McLuhan connects literacy with money. Work he says does not exist in the non-literate world, because the ‘whole person’ is in fact a hunter, fisher or even artist. They have no need for money because their activity is directly connected to subsistence. It is within this reduced or non-digital realm that everyday transactions become more meaningful, rewarding and creatively transgressive. This compared to the anxiety of the digital workplace where the extended self is locked into a puzzling world of making and responding to electronic messages, not necessarily knowing where priority lies.

Modern economies break down human activity into jobs and roles, fragmenting this whole person and thus creating a co-determinacy or dependency. McLuhan further suggests that the clock or means of calibrating time promotes a commodification of individual labour. Labour becomes subjugated to a time and motion study. McLuhan was aware that as electronic media and networked extension increased in the digital age, effectively knowledge would become the prevailing currency. Hence automation, as he put it, becomes a way of programming knowledge. We now live in what is termed as the ‘knowledge economy’.

The process of technics or technologisation can be seen as an open prison, where the non-productive post-industrial workforce are occupied in data entry and management of information. Then perhaps in its promotion and optimisation. The trap in negatively portraying digital culture is to imply some alternative ideologue or Eden of self-sufficiency. In ‘Walden’, Henry David Thoreau has provided an enduring example of the problems of disconnecting from the state and ‘the machine’.

McLuhan gives us a resounding picture of where we are with online culture. He says:

“In the age of instant information man ends his job of fragmented specializing and assumes the role of information gathering. Today information gathering resumes the inclusive concept of “culture”, exactly as the primitive food gatherer worked in complete equilibrium with his entire environment”. Our quarry, in this new nomadic and “workless” world is knowledge and insight into the creative processes of life and society.”

This is an intriguing point at which to assess what artistic practice or production looks like in an extended electronic age. John Cage’s ‘Lecture on Nothing’ within his first book ‘Silence’ points towards transgression and a reordering of the collapsed temporal-spatial modes of new technology. There is an implicit understanding that breaths, silences and events taking place in the world outside, will form a new version – each time – of the creative work. As a form of resistance, it serves to locate experience right in the moment, nuanced and unrepeatable. It is in effect undigital, manifest and if you wish it ‘spiritual’.

Quoted here from John Cage:

I am here                  ,                 and there is nothing to say

If among you there are those who wish to get               somewhere                          ,                                 let them leave at any moment                .

What we require           is                    silence                         ;                               but what silence requires is                                that I go on talking                 .                        Give any one thought                                    a push                            :                            it falls down easily                           ;

but the pusher                                    and the pushed                             pro-duce                             that entertainment                                             called a discussion               .                                 Shall we have one later (now)?

What I’m saying is that art is often transgression.


Simon Poulter © 2011