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|SHOCK TREATMENT : JOHN DUNCAN |
by Jim Haynes
originally published in The Wire, 208: May 2001
With the digital age firmly entrenched, shortwave radio may appear destined for obsolescence, but not for the American sonic extremist John Duncan. The globetrotting agent provocateur has lifted shortwave, and all of its transient frequencies, to a lofty position within the pantheon of his phenomenological research. As Duncan explains from his base in San Leonardo, Italy: "When I started using shortwave, I was looking for something that made sound without the immediate recognition connected with a traditional instrument - a piano, guitar, violin, etcetera - but at the same time had a complex and unpredictable range that synthesizers couldn't produce. Soon it became a lot more: the sound became erotic; a source for phantom voices; a direct source for proof of an information war - Numbers Stations - one government's broadcasts jammed by another's. Sound that changed constantly and unpredictably from cosmic events - solar interference, atmospheric disturbances, electrical storms. Aside from the human voice, it's the most beautiful sound producing instrument I've ever heard." While shortwave appears in almost all of his work, it is impossible to categorize John Duncan as a dilettante pulling elements from the ether for the purpose of thrill seeking, culture jamming, or pure noise worship. Duncan is a rare artist who is totally immersed in existential research. His lengthy career of electroacoustic intensity and confrontational performance art happenings is the result of rigorous investigations into a number of arcane, metaphysical, and at times transgressive themes. The culmination of Duncan's research has revealed "that being alive is a timeless process, that death is [only] a part of it, that my existence and everyone else's is an insignificant and at the same moment essential element in it."
Duncan's artistic career began in Los Angeles, whose social climate also spawned the 'sensationalist' art movement known as Helter Skelter, following a 1992 art show of that name at the LA County Museum of Contemporary Art. The dominant mood of the movement was of urban and contemporary abjection and dislocation, as purveyed by installation and performance artists such as Jim Shaw, Charles Ray, Mike Kelly, Raymond Pettibone, Lyn Foulkes, Paul McCarthy and Chris Burden (who had himself shot in the arm to "experience something as American as apple pie"). Duncan attended CalArts, met many of these artists upon graduation, and eventually contributed to the Louisiana Museum's 'Sunshine/Noir' show in Denmark in the late '90's.
His first significant works came after his studies under Allan Kaprow, the father of the happening, at the California Institute of the Arts in the early '70's. Although Duncan began his tenure as a painter interested in the psychological implications of colour theory, his discovery of the Vienna Aktionismus group of Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler led him to produce events that directly challenged the audience. 1976's Scare is one of Duncan's more infamous and criminal performances, in which he knocked on the doors of his unsuspecting participants and, when they answered, fired a gun filled with blanks at their heads and fled. Happy Homes (documented on the Creed EP) was a radio event from 1980 in which Duncan called up a talk radio psychologist to discuss the emotional numbness he developed after witnessing several incidents of child abuse while driving the city bus in Los Angeles. Today he somewhat disingenuously qualifies this work as "gestures to give experiences to others that happened to me, that were useful to understand a situation and my 'position' in it, and that the recipients very probably hadn't already had".
During the 1980's, Duncan travelled to Japan, where he focused his questions within the realm of pornography, which he found to show the most hidden aspects of the culture. His first experiments (film works such as Brutal Birthday, Trigger, and The Immemse Room) collaged together segments of various appropriated 8mm movies into subverted narratives, in a similar manner to American underground film maker Bruce Conner. Soon afterwards, a genuine erotic video producer offered Duncan a chance to script and direct his own commercial series. Of course, Duncan also scored these films with a complete disregard for porn's penchant for whimsical slap basslines and cheap, silken disco grooves. The John See Soundtracks are an eerie collection of shortwave Morse Code, ritualistic percussion and ecstatic moans, which he multitracked and treated to form a topographic, sexualised drone.
While Duncan was in Japan, conquering the language barrier proved to be an enormous task. Although he learned enough Japanese to get around, he relied heavily on interpreting non-verbal cues for communication. In a 1989 interview with Andrew McKenzie of the Hafler Trio, he discussed the challenges of imposing an American cultural perspective on his Japanese audiences' responses. He confessed, "In this kind of isolation, it became clear that I was seeing what I wanted to see, that I was doing exactly the same thing the people I was calling weak were doing, refusing new information by judging it from irrelevant past experiences." Duncan has chosen to accept the difficulties of constantly attacking and probing his own existence and those around him to unleash new ideas. Throughout the past decade, he has often sought out those artists considered to be difficult to collaborate with in order to challenge his own aesthetic and conceptual proclivities. McKenzie and Bernhard Günter are just a few of the strong-willed individuals who have worked extensively with him.
Duncan portrays his work as a catalyst, inciting a transmission of energy through which he seeks to compel the audience to actively participate in the process of investigation and self-discovery. On Tap Internal - released last year on Touch - Duncan utilises primary scientific methods in his investigations of sonic properties: breaking down a substance to reveal its structure, to analyse the character of its elements and to get the essence of its meaning. He smashes VLF crackle, modulated shortwave bursts of noise and tectonic rumblings with a metaphorical hammer (literally, a computer), in order to unleash the white hot/black hole intensity of a technology as it interferes with the body's electromagnetic frequency. His own description of the recording does not do much to demystify the results: according to him, it is "about turning the computer on itself as a transformative instrument, for itself and for the listener".
Palace of Mind - also completed last year and released on his own imprint, Allquestions - is a collaborative effort between Duncan and Italian mathematician Giuliana Stefani. In this work, he returns to the architectural metaphors which he previously explored on 1996's extrordinary CD The Crackling, in which he and collaborator Max Springer documented the supercharged aural properties found within and around SLAC. Stanford University's titanic linear particle accelerator, SLAC is one of several such plants around the world used in quantum physics research. Palace of Mind follows a labyrinthine architectural schematic which parallels not only the minute circuitry of the computer but also the rhizomatic synaptic connections of the brain. With the movement from an irritable data-stream purity to the gossamer haze of shortwave distortion to gaping drones of treated vocal vibrato, Duncan and Stefani have set a trajectory deep into the heart of their sonic architecture. Just as Barry Adamson's imaginary soundtracks imply the existence not only of a psychological drama fraught with tension, but also of film noir's existential morality, Palace of Mind's architecture expands beyond the metaphors of a structural blueprint, exploring the psychoacoustic properties of a complex series of fictional spaces. Each room is saturated with an anxiousness for what may be on the other side of the door. The resolution of this anxiety does not find Duncan firing a gun at your head, but an interlocking network of chambers that resonate and breathe with a luminous, profound beauty. Dare it be said that John Duncan has created something holy?
For Duncan, science alone does not possess the ability to unlock the mysteries of the universe, but neither does any other belief system. "If you prepare yourself to ask any questions without a system to fit them into, or with a willingness to forego such a system when it stops you, whatever answers you receive will be much easier to use and build on," he insists. "A key element is the difference between knowledge and truth. Knowledge is a network of interpretations, opinions and decisions, passed on from one to another to another. Truth is something you become aware of through your own experiences, by living them, examining and questioning them. A belief system can easily become a substitute for this, or an excuse to deny the existence of some experiences you may have that the system fails to explain." In other words, when science cracks the brain to try and mimic its calculating abilities and intuitive reasoning, it may encounter some kind of 'soul', and have no way of dealing with something outside of the realm of scientific rationality.
John Duncan's research has never been nor is ever likely to remain static. He and Spanish minimalist Francisco López have recently completed a double CD NAV (released on .absolute./Allquestions), which the two of them have been working on for two years.
Furthermore, in December 2000 Duncan and Swedish artists CM von Hausswolff collaborated on a series of performances in Germany, using a live radar system as a major component for their sound design - the results have surfaced on a limited edition 7" on the Die Stadt label.
More intriguingly, Duncan has recently begun a new set of investigations which attempt to solve a psychoacoustic riddle he encountered while travelling in Egypt. "I got the chance to go inside the Cheops Pyramid," he reveals. "Something was happening in the main chamber... difficult to describe: something that seemed to be an entirely acoustic phenomenon, but that left whoever stayed inside for more than a few minutes with a kind of internal energy that was visible in the person's face and actions. Very strange, and very different from the other Pyramids. By chance someone went in with me, a middle-aged woman I'd not met before, who seemed as though she might not be able to make the climb to the chamber. She came out in awe, weeping with joy from the experience. Apparently Napoleon spent an entire night alone there - which, if it is true, inspires pity. I've just started looking into research that others have done into what this phenomenon is."