In 1958, on the studio wall of the BBC Radiophonic Workshops, Daphne Oram - head boffin and groundbreaking experimental musician in her own right - pinned a quote from A New Atlantis, Sir Francis Bacon’s technological utopia, to serve as inspiration:
“We have also sound-houses, where we practise and demonstrate all sounds and their generation. We have harmonies which you have not, of quarter-sounds, and lesser slides of sounds… We represent small sounds as great and deep, likewise great sounds extenuate and sharp. We make divers tremblings and warblings of sounds.”
The quote is fascinating in its prescience of 20th century music technology, and was important for Oram as a description of an attempt to imagine as-yet unheard sounds. The workshop also shared something of the utopian imagination of Bacon’s Atlantis, using pioneering technology to bring experimental music into people’s homes, smuggled in under the guise of sound effects and theme tunes. The otherworldly frequencies produced by the studio stand in contrast to the prosaic photos taken of the engineers at work, in hand-knitted sweaters, tweaking knobs, re-wiring patches on sythesizers, and carefully tending to their equipment.
Walking into James Richards’ 'Crumb Mahogany’, one of three works that make up his solo show at the ICA, I was struck by how closely the sounds I heard resembled Bacon’s strikingly spatial ‘warblings and tremblings’. But it is also easy to imagine the artist at work, a radiophonic tinkerer kneading, plying, and stretching sonic properties into strange and unfamiliar shapes. This seems to be an image Richards himself promotes. The publication that accompanies the exhibition features a series of photos of his different studio set-ups, rather drab spaces lined with monitors, samplers and mazes of wiring. The artist here is presented as a digital seer, almost an extension of his hardware and software, plugged into the matrix and trying to ride its waves.
'Crumb Mahogany’ is a 6-channel sound installation, where samples of music, field recordings and incidental noise are woven into a tremulous sonic tapestry. Overlapping cycles swell and disappear, enveloping a stationary listener through an adept and fluid use of surround sound. In one moment, the roar of traffic from one speaker is joined by a police siren from another, but now the original recording starts to breathe and shift, until the hum of car engines resembles a human mumble, and the frequencies of the siren are eaten away at until only a synth line remains. Before long, we are in alien territory, completely unable to mentally map the spaces described by the sounds we are hearing. Samples seem to be chewed up and spat out of one speaker, only to be caught and twisted further out of shape by another. The effect is one of dislocation and disorder.
Amidst the confusion, one is drawn to the lack of a theatrical source, the absence of narrative content, and the emptiness of the gallery. What fills this gap is a heightened awareness of the sonic textures themselves, and the manner of one’s own listening. Whether the effect of this absence constitutes a species of zen mastery, or of existential panic, I was left undecided.
In the upper galleries, one room is dedicated to 'Rushes Minotaur', three vertical, scrolling projections of still collages. Like the vertical cinema of Paolo Gioli, who inserted narrow slices of photos down lengths of 16mm film, Richards’ slow loops of HD scans invite a closer look at the shifting surfaces of the images themselves. The grains of a photograph of diseased skin intersect with the lines of a dark highway; an abattoir meets an identical abattoir, this time in negative. Echoing the shifting movements of the sound piece downstairs, there is no productive collision in this collage, no third term, and we strain to find an associational idea that holds them together. In order to make sense of the arrangement, we have to look for graphic rhymes and contrasts in the surfaces of the images themselves. Their fascination depends on the hyper-real corporeality of the cadavers and clumps of hair, and the slow rhythms of the reveal.
In the adjacent space, the large video installation ‘Radio at Night’ really holds the exhibition together. The audio here is more of a soundtrack, in sync with the edit, and when I entered an undulating vocal refrain was playing what sounded like the kind of self-absorbed humming one makes while engrossed in a practical activity. ‘Ba-dum, ba-dum’ sings the voice, scanning and glossing over, trying to figure something intuitively rather than intellectually. This way of working seems important to Richards, who comes across as an artist embedded within interfaces, and software, combing through archives with a magpie-like eye for sparkling textures that he picks out, turns over in his hand and gently works into some new relationship.
The film is associational in form, but with a clearer set of recurring motifs than the other pieces. Blooming fog, icy landscapes, and underwater footage all engulf the screen with their particular intangible hardness or softness. Clips from a vaudeville pageant, where people in fanciful costumes and make-up circle one on another in a ritualised display of showing off, is set against found footage of two figures getting cosy underneath bedsheets. This is the language of the strange intimacy of looking in public, as opposed to touching in private.
A crucial sequence, perhaps the crux of the exhibition, presents us with a stream of images that scan across the screen in smartphone-aspect rectangles; mouths, pores and hair; sutures and incisions; surgery, intestines, strange holes in dead things; gunshots through windows; all watched by ever-present eyes, roaming over the flow of images and looking back at the viewer. As well as radiophonic pioneers, Richards might be compared to cine-poets of the 1960s like Stan Brakhage: these men and women sat hunched over their editing desks, creating singular works of art, trying to replenish the eye to an innocent, prelapsarian state of sensitivity. But Richards is not interested in revealing the world as ‘it really is’; he is not providing a key to the doors of perception. He seeks to complicate rather than clarify. Like his flat images of dark holes that lead nowhere, or the eye that stares glossily back at you, Richards invites us into the matrix, where everything reflects everything else, but where the core of things is always inaccessible.
Although cool both in its atmospheric temperature and zeitgeisty appeal, the work remains unmannered and unpretentious. To call it sinister would be to miss the point - there is no real affect in this realm, although Richards does offer moments of beauty, and there is clear joy in the making too. The thrill lies in the more subtle sensations, the tremblings and warblings, that he manages to tease out of his rather inanimate material.