The Museum of Loneliness LP Launch
The Whitechapel Gallery
Thursday 2nd May 2013
“I first met Chris in Purgatory,” recalls Iain Sinclair, “otherwise the 1980s”. He is referring to Chris Petit, his friend, sometime collaborator, sitting in the front row. During those early days of friendship, Sinclair remembers above all how compelling he found Petit’s voice: “He should be doing voiceovers, he should be doing adverts”, he was constantly told. Only now, Sinclair muses, has that voice found its “appropriate place”.
That place is the Museum of Loneliness, Petit’s spoken-word 12” LP, scored and produced by Mordant Music. It’s the latest release from new publishing venture Test Centre, officially launched at tonight’s gathering in the Whitechapel Gallery. The record forges innovation out of regurgitation, consisting largely of readings from Petit’s past novels (his breakthrough Robinson, The Hard Shoulder and The Passenger), underscored by field recordings and samples from his films (Content and the earlier Asylum, a collaboration with Sinclair which is shown tonight in its entirety). “In the grand curvature of my career, I never thought I’d do an LP,” Petit admits, but insists that this is no attempt to get on Book at Bedtime. In his own words – which are vastly, reliably, eloquent – the LP is part of, and takes its name from, a larger project of “infiltrations”, to include:
“installations from the memory bank; non-radio exercises for radio and i-players. Sound montages for the electronic age, the audio equivalent to channel-hopping, sound quilts, alternative programming. Cubist radio. Post-DJ. Cut-ups. Audio junk. Electromagnetic slums. Music played in another room. Lonely songs for lonely places.”
The record plays as tonight’s audience shuffles into the auditorium, throwing everyone off balance. We take our seats, but hear Petit’s recorded voice seeping out, indistinguishably, from the walls behind us, like dystopian muzak, played in a lift we hadn’t realised we had just left. What is the ostensible star of the show doing loitering in the doorway, almost out of earshot?
‘Ostensible’, because tonight isn’t really celebrating anything quite as specific or straightforward as the launch of an album. More accurately, it’s a triumphant overview of the progress and productive ethic of Test Centre, and an appreciation of the central position that Petit and Sinclair have come to assume in its output. Its first release, in March 2012, was Sinclair’s own spoken-word LP, Stone Tape Shuffle; to date, all three issues of the Test Centre magazine have featured poetry and fiction from the two writers; they have also published Austerlitz and After: Tracking Sebald, a chapter omitted from Sinclair’s forthcoming book, American Smoke. Future projects include a radio broadcast by Petit from a container at the Tilbury Docks, as well as the publication of his pamphlet, Google Me God. The creators of Test Centre, Jess Chandler and Will Shutes, see the pair as integral to the development of the press: “Through the process of making their LPs, lots of new ideas have been generated, and, as big fans of both of their work, we’ve been very keen to continue working together. The range of projects we’ve developed with them has also allowed us to expand our operation, as publishers of the printed, as well as spoken, word.”
It’s wholly appropriate, then, that Petit and Sinclair dominate the stage at tonight’s proceedings. There is something strikingly similar about them; they are half-doppelgängers, edits of one another. They take turns to introduce and read extracts from their work. Sinclair muses on the formative impact of the unseen American landscape on his early writing, while Petit delivers an excerpt from his project Requiem for Monsters, which he brands “deep topography… the futile retrieval of a past that deserves to remain hidden” – that is, an exploration of the deeply entrenched bureaucracy of Auschwitz.
We are then treated to a screening of Asylum (2000), which is a complete delight. In many ways, it’s a cyberpunk update of Peter Greenaway’s The Falls: a nightmarish, ‘post-viral’ documentary, the catalogue of a catastrophe. Sound recordist ‘Agent’ Emma Matthews (Petit’s partner, and the artist behind The Museum of Loneliness’ eerie cover) investigates the mysterious death of photographer Francoise Lacroix through obsessively listening to collected field recordings. She tracks down such countercultural literary figures as Ed Dorn, James Sallis, Michael Moorcock (accompanied by a cat on a leash) and David Seabrook, whose “estuarine patois” she struggles to interpret. Footage of these investigations is in turn sifted, sorted, examined by a mysterious researcher known as Kaporal, voiced by Petit. It’s a dizzying examination of the ways in which we curate and reorganise ourselves, an exercise in self-stacking, you could say. “Live long enough, and you have a thing called an archive,” Iain Sinclair says by way of an introduction, something that could just as equally be applied to The Museum of Loneliness. Both are projects of obsessive sorting, of reworking; like the clownish figure in Krapp’s Last Tape, we see Petit and Sinclair revisit, time and again, their own records, their own traces, relentlessly, ceaselessly editing ‘versions’ of their work, tentatively proposing some kind of continuum at the same time as radically undermining the prospect. Essentially, they are building upon the legacy of another subversive double-act: William Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s tape experiments from the 1960’s pioneered the use of recorded voice as a disruptive weapon. “You are a programmed tape recorder set to record and play back,” Burroughs concedes in The Ticket that Exploded, but “you don’t have to listen to that sound… you can program your own playback”.
Recently, the publishing world has been gifted with a frankly surprising swell in innovative, bold new presses – Test Centre is possibly the bravest of the lot. Shutes and Chandler explain that their project “grew out of a determination to stop writing about things and start doing things”. As a result, the work they endorse defiantly leaks across genres: a primary interest in literature is combined with an involvement in contemporary music and editing techniques, “recognising the interdisciplinary nature of modern avant-garde writing”. We can look forward to a third LP later this year, recorded by arch-experimentalist Stewart Home and showcasing his famous ‘headstand and book-shredding routines’. A fourth LP will feature Tom McCarthy: a fitting complement to his more recent obsessions with notions of transmission and recording. Aside from the vinyl, there is talk of a pop-up shop, with all manner of readings, launches and film screenings.
“Nothing here now but the recordings” (in the words of Burroughs) – but in the case of Test Centre, perhaps not even those. Their pressings and publications are strictly limited in number: only 200 or so copies of the first three magazines exist; only 400 copies of Stone Tape Shuffle, 600 of The Museum of Loneliness. The seeming permanence of the digital download is resisted; durability is not a given. This point is made most poignantly in a throwaway comment by Iain Sinclair, reflecting on the unused chapter from American Smoke. A stroll through the streets of East London in the shadow of Sebald, his editor found it all a bit incongruous. So, out it came, into the hands of Test Centre, who printed it in a limited run of 300 copies – now all sold. Coolly, almost dismissively, Sinclair remarks that it has “been and gone”.
‘The Museum of Loneliness’ LP is available to purchase from the Test Centre website, alongside remaining copies of the first three magazines.