Heatsick – Re-Engineering
“Relax, it’s only a crisis.” So ends the ‘artist statement’ that accompanies Heatsick’s Re-Engineering.
The last two years have birthed an endless morass of articles bemoaning contemporary music’s perceived inability to grapple with the tectonic shifts that have been wrought on the culture. The world is collapsing around us, the chorus goes, so where is music’s response? These arguments, such as they are, are written exclusively by people who have already lost touch with that culture. They are the preserve of people who bemoan the loss of the acoustic protest song tradition, people for whom arch-liberal Dorian Lynskey’s 33 Revolutions Per Minute is some totemic proof that artists’ engagement with politics is something that can be entirely historicised; something that was, but is no longer; something that occurs exclusively in the realm of vocal music. The argument is so daft as to be barely worthy of a response but, if you were looking for one, you could do very much worse than reach for Re-Engineering.
Warwick’s new album, his second for PAN, takes a broad view of crisis. For Warwick, the crisis did not begin in 2008. Rather, late capitalism (or ‘latest capitalism’, if you prefer something less millenarian) is the crisis, responsible for the bastardisation of language and the myopia of post-modernism. On Re-Engineering he looks askance at the contemporary, illuminating its stupidity, and, most importantly, presenting us with a genuine blueprint for the future.
Re-Engineering is intimately linked with post-internet art, a thread that is drawn out in Lisa Blanning’s illuminating interview with Warwick for Electronic Beats. ‘Post-internet’, a term coined around 2009, ostensibly refers to art that deals with the internet no longer as a novelty, but as part of the furniture; as a quotidian world element. A voguey aesthetic that recently dominated post-internet art played heavily on the visual signifiers of the early web, making gaudy use of Windows 98 graphics and clunky gifs. Commentators and practitioners call themselves things like Horrible GIF and LuckyPDF.
There are clear parallels between Re-Engineering and this trend, and also with alt lit, a literary tendency that has broad overlaps with visual post-internet art. The latter two are in thrall to the digital while also projecting an affect of nonchalance towards it; they attempt to treat the internet as everyday, while remaining fascinated to the point of obsession with its grammar and its mores. In alt lit particularly, there is often a sense of writers trying to escape the ironic language of internet, to replace it with something self-consciously sincere, and yet their work remains dominated by scare quotes, intentional misspelling, and syntaxes hacked at in order to write in emotional escape hatches.
In Re-Engineering, Warwick is both part of and separate from these tendencies. The title track, which opens the record, repurposes late capitalist buzz phrases interspersed with well-known quotes from people like the Situationists. “Beaches under the paving stones…Second annual trend report…E-Scape,” the woman’s voice intones, her inflection suggesting some quiet satisfaction with her words. The cut-up nature of the speech is analogous to alt lit’s version of image macros, in which often pseudo-motivational phrases are pasted across highly saturated images of nature. He nods directly to poetry, borrowing William Carlos Williams’ maxim that “a poem is a machine made of words”, while the music itself seems to reflect the macros’ technicolour luminosity.
The track seems to revel in its recitation of the sorts of phrases you might expect to read on the flipchart of a boom-time marketing company. “Modern life is still rubbish, you say. Modern rubbish is still life,” the woman recites, and there is a sense that Warwick is well aware that this is something of a non sequitur. He needles at the vacuous language that dominates smug, off-white-parallax-scroll-website corporations, throwing into relief their dumbness against music that bounces along happily, impervious to external stimuli. “Re-Engineering” feels almost retro-futurist; it is not quite contemporary – no one could with a straight face any longer use the phrase ‘second annual trend report’ without being alive to its newly anachronistic nature. Rather, it seems to refer to a period during which capitalism was both living and anticipating its own future. It sounds like what the capitalist class imagined, ten years ago, they would be living ten years hence.
Warwick, though, wants to weaponise those anachronisms. The final track on the album is called “Accelerationista”, referring to accelerationism, the notion that the most efficient way through capitalism is not to try to row it back, but instead to speed up its ‘progress’ until its own internal contradictions precipitate its collapse. The track has a male voice repeating the phrases from “Re-Engineering”, but here they seem less like a rehashing of pre-crash hubris than a plan for the future. By hyper-powering capitalism, he suggests, by taking the brakes off rather than by locking them on, we can destroy it. As the hackneyed but still useful phrase goes, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” In an article for the New Left Review theorist Fredric Jameson added: “We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.” For Warwick and the accelerationists, we can only witness the new by allowing the old to kill itself.
Throughout the record Warwick both seizes and rejects the contemporary. “U1”, which closes the first side, consists of a field recording of a busker singing “Wonderwall” while a voiceover warns U-Bahn passengers to mind the gap. It is somehow out of time and yet definitively of its time; it is easy to recognise the uncanny feeling of hearing someone busking a mid-‘90s track on a fin de siècle transport network a decade and a half into the 21st century. On “Watermark”, meanwhile, Warwick pokes major labels’ insistence on anti-piracy measures, having the woman from “Re-Engineering” recite the words “this is PAN” before her voice quickly disintegrates into binary glitches. “Watermark” is also representative of the strange constancy of the record, on which tracks don’t really end, but rather roll into each other, suggesting the endless stream of digital stuff from which we draw every day – another popular theme amongst post-internet artists. Indeed Re-Engineering is impossible to grasp, shifting relentlessly and seeping through your fingers just as you begin to grip onto it. In its form, then, it reflects exactly the incessantly metamorphic nature of capital, the internet, the culture, and our own subjectivity as constructed by our exposure to these things.
It is rare for records to fulfil conceptual ambitions as lofty as those set out in Warwick’s artist statement. Re-Engineering, he says, “can be looked at as a speculative manual for self-help/replication/realization/organisation,” as a map of the ecology of capital and the digital, and as an interrogation of our place on that relentlessly shifting terrain. And, extraordinarily, it achieves exactly that, acting as a junction for ideas about philosophy, music, ourselves, and our future.
It is a shame that Re-Engineering is materialising this late in the year, by which point everyone, it seems, has already firmed up their ‘best of 2013’ lists. I can’t imagine Warwick particularly cares about that sort of thing, but by rights Re-Engineering should occupy a prominent place within them. This is an exceptional record, perhaps the most impressive in PAN’s discography, and one that will offer further chances for unpacking perhaps for years to come.
A5. Clear Chanel
B2. Après Moi, Le Déluge!
B3. Dial Again