Disinformation (art and music project)

Disinformation (art and music project)

Disinformation is an experimental electronic music and sound art project, run by artist Joe Banks, which (since 1995) pioneered the use of electromagnetic (radio) noise from live mains electricity, lightning and electric storms, laboratory equipment, industrial, metro, railway and IT hardware, geomagnetic storms and (applying techniques of basic, home-brew radioastronomy) the sun etc, as the raw material of CD and LPs, DJ sets and concert performances, and sound art installations and events.

After a period of initial research, Disinformation began releasing material that was published the record company Ash International - "Ghost Shells" / "Data Storm" (Ash 2.7 LP 1996), "Stargate" / "National Grid" / "Theophany" (Ash 3.2 LP 1996), "R&D" (Ash 2.9 CD 1996) and "R&D2" (Ash 9.2 CD 1997). Most of these releases were recorded using Very Low Frequency radio equipment, and (bearing in mind that man-made phenonema are in the final analysis just as much part of "nature" as anything else) were conceived (not entirely sarcastically) as electromagnetic equivalents of more conventionally-marketed wildlife recordings (although the subjective tone of this material varied from the very gentle to the sometimes overwhelmingly extreme). Sleevenotes for "R&D" (1996) summarise ideas that underpinned this period of Disinformation's development...

"Tuning down into the lowest reaches of the radio spectrum, particularly in night's shadow of the solar wind, the listener enters a world of diverse phenomena, opening an acoustic window on a world alive with electrical activity. VLF whistlers from lightning and thermonuclear EMP ricochet along field lines of the magnetosphere, bouncing between hemispheres of the globe; storms crackle: biostatics whisper, hiss and sigh: televisions scream: pylons and power loops drone and roar: military signals, the musical pulses of navigation systems, timecodes, and coded data broadcast deep beneath the sea. Time and space divided, live 'vivisection' of particle physics, voices, map lines, weapons, mirrors hidden by the illusion of quiet."

While many sound art projects emerge from the social milieux of fine-art, art school and/or contemporary classical music, Disinformation is also unusual in openly acknowledging a strong influence from early 80's punk. Reflecting its origins in "underground" noise music, and the diversity of influences that have come to bear on this project, the name Disinformation was chosen (and is used) in the spirit of what Ludwig Wittgenstein referred to as the "Liar Paradox", similarly Umberto Eco described semiotics as “the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie” (Umberto Eco "A Theory of Semiotics", Midland 1976), and the name was also consciously modelled on the imagery of punk groups like Disorder (see Disorder (band)), Demob (see Demob (band)) and Discharge (see Discharge (band)). Although at first glance extending the connection between punk and noise music to creative use of radio noise as an artistic medium may seem a little far-fetched, a direct link may be found in the influence on Disinformation of the sound collage techniques used in for instance the track "Reality Asylum" by the punk band Crass.

National Grid

The lowest "G" on a piano keyboard has a fundamental frequency of 49Hz, while the frequency of mains electricity is 50Hz in Europe (and 60Hz in North America, parts of Japan, etc) - so, seizing upon the potential that the musical characteristics of amplified interference from mains electricity offered for concerts, recordings and gallery installations, Disinformation first performed versions of "National Grid" live at record label Blast First's club Disobey and at The Royal College of Art in 1996, and exhibited the "National Grid" sound sculpture live, below the floorboards of The Museum of Installation in London in July 1997 (with the gallery preview being attended by Gustav Metzger, pioneer of auto-destructive art). According to the curator and exhibition administrator respectively, vibrations produced by The Museum of Installation exhibit dislodged masonry from the front of the building and triggered car alarms in the street outside. "National Grid" was also published on LP and CD by Ash International, by Galerie fur Zeitgenossische Kunst (Leipzig) and by The Hayward Gallery. "National Grid" has been performed at ZKM (Karlsruhe), the Volksbuhne (Berlin) and The Royal Institution (London) etc, and exhibited in an underground nuclear warfare command centre near Troywood (Anstruther), in the engine room of the trawler Arctic Corsair (in Hull), and at The Foundry sub-basement (London) and Fabrica (Brighton), with the version exhibited at Kettle's Yard (Cambridge) running continuously for 6 weeks. Some performances of "National Grid" feature live arc welding, more recently an array of vintage high-voltage laboratory and medical equipment and electrostatic machines...

"Pulsing sub-bass audio suggests associations with the most primal anthropomorphic element in music - the rhythms of the human heart, with foetal and infant hypnagogic sense memories, with seismic activity, the rumble of thunder (Jimi Hendrix claimed that his earliest childhood memory was of a thunderstorm), and even with war. Disinformation's National Grid is a sub-bass installation sourced either from the ambient VLF field radiated by electricity pylons and mains circuits, or, more recently, directly from the output cables of mains transformers. National Grid offers live physical evidence of environmental electromagnetic pollution, a demonstration of the intrinsic musical properties of alternating current, beat-frequency effects, the architectural acoustics of its own exhibition space, a formula for the realisation and suppression of Futurist sound art, a cathartic response to the pressures of urban life, a monolithic soundtrack for the creative genius of electrification and for the bitter conflicts between government and organised labour for political control over supplies to the nation's electrical infrastructure."


The "National Grid" / "Stargate" / "Theophany" LP also featured what is almost certainly the first ever artwork to recognise and exploit the creative potential of Coronal Mass Ejections on the surface of the sun - realised (in this case) through the publication and exhibition of recordings of hydrodynamic "noise storms" produced by radio-emissions from magnetic-field activity in the solar atmosphere (the effect was hitherto almost completely unknown outside radioscience circles, within which the sound produced on radio by this phenomenon is referred to as the "seashore effect", on account of its subjective resemblance to the sound of massive, rolling surf). "Stargate" has been exhibited as a sound installation in The Foundry sub-basement (London) and at Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art (Helsinki)...

"While solar flares either dissipate in space or are drawn back to the surface of the sun, plasma shock-waves surge outward, increasing the velocity of the solar wind. On impact the earth's magnetosphere warps like a tennis ball being hit with a hammer. Powerlines blow as DC transients induce in AC grids and submarine cables: ionospheric disruption distorts or obliterates radio communications, GPS reception and TV: satellites malfunction and drift off course: impulses in astronauts' nerves misfire: aurora intensify in the sky: whistling atmospherics echo across the nightside of the globe: it has even been argued that electrical accumulations in the metal structures of gas-pipelines and petrochemicals storage have caused explosions claiming hundreds of lives. While this coronal mass ejection may take anything from 6 to 40 hours to reach earth, its emergence through the upper layers of the sun's atmosphere 'rattles' local plasma exciting a radio emission which reaches earth at the speed of light."

Collaborative projects

The "Antiphony" (Ash 3.4 2xCD 1997) and "Al Jabr" (Ash 4.3 CD 1999) collaborative remix projects, and "Sense Data and Perception" (Iris Light 031CD 2005) and Strange Attractor vs Disinformation "Circuit Blasting" (Adaadat 19 CD 2007) projects extrapolated these ideas in more traditionally musical directions.

The "Antiphony" double CD features collaborations with musicians Bruce Gilbert (of punk band Wire), Kapotte Muziek, People Like Us (see People Like Us (musician)), Chris & Cosey (of Throbbing Gristle), Atom Heart, John Duncan & Giuliana Stefani (see John Duncan (artist)), Mark Van Hoen, S.E.T.I., Zbigniew Karkowski & Eric Lyon (of the Sonic Arts Research Centre at Queen's University Belfast), Marc Behrens and Mark Poysden; and featured photographs by Joe Banks of the abandoned ghost town at the village of Imber on Salisbury Plain, and photographs of ruined concrete air-defence Sound Mirrors by Julian Hills. The Sound Mirror imagery was developed in the highly influential "Blackout" video (aka "The Antiphony Video Supplement" 1997) by film-maker Barry Hale (of Threshold Studios), and by the writing of a long and detailed "Antiphony Architecural Supplement" in 1999, which appeared in the Sound Projector magazine published by Ed Pinsent. An entire version of the Disinformation track "Ghost Shells" was sampled (with permission) by composer John Wall and appears on his CD "Fractuur" (1997). The "Al Jabr" CD (dedicated to the Uzbek / Iraqi polymath Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī) features collaborations with saxophonist Evan Parker, Tactile, Jim O'Rourke (of Sonic Youth - see Jim O'Rourke (musician)), soundtrack composer Simon Fisher Turner (see Caravaggio (film)), Mechos, Lawrence Casserley (of The Royal College of Music and Colourscape) and T:un [k] Systems. Disinformation has collaborated on DJ sets at The Mac (Birmingham), The Glue Rooms (London) and Beursschouwburg (Brussels, for Foton Records), and on a display of vintage electrical artefacts at The Study Gallery of Modern Art (Poole), with Poulomi Desai of artist group USURP.

Disinformation curated "The Rumble" exhibition (named after the famous track by rock n' roll musician Link Wray), at The Royal British Society of Sculptors in March 2001. "The Rumble" featured exhibits by Peter Lord and David Sproxton of Aardman Animations, Georgina Brett, Adam Lowe & Bob Shannon (of The House Ear Institute, Los Angeles), Ravi Deepres, Disinformation, ECM:323, Rob Mullender, Janek Schaefer, chemist James Spiring, and mathematical biologist Michael Green (of the National Institute for Medical Research). The Strange Attractor vs Disinformation "Circuit Blasting" CD and performances are an "affectionate parody" of the Circuit Bending and Generative music genres, which involve using antique electromedical machines to give high-voltage shocks to electronic musical keyboards, and waiting to hear what happens next.

"An Essay on Painting"

Although Disinformation continues to function as an active recording and performing music project (often collaborating with Mark Pilkington of Strange Attractor Journal), since this time, Disinformation has also evolved into a widely exhibited kinetic, video and visual arts project.

During The Museum of Installation show, artist Hayley Newman performed "A Shot in the Dark" in a luminous suit lit by photographic flash guns. Adapting this idea (with Hayley's consent), Disinformation combined ideas from "Artificial Lightning" (a track on "R&D2" inspired by the writings of MIT electrical engineer Harold Edgerton), with a colour scheme inspired by The MOI performance, and a timing mechanism designed by electrical engineer Tim Register, into a machine which enables audiences to photograph their own life-size shadows, and to literally draw with light, to a soundtrack of live (and surprisingly musical) electromagentic noise. A scratch / demo "Artificial Lightning" installation was devised for a few tens of pounds, and remained unexhibited until the idea was resourced (specifically not "commissioned") by The Hayward Gallery for the "Sonic Boom" exhibition (curated by David Toop) in April 2000.

For all subsequent exhibitions, this exhibit has been retitled after "The Maid of Corinth, or The Origin of Painting" depicted by the painter Joseph "Wright of Derby" in 1782 (Paul Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington). Joseph Wright depicted a theme suggested to him by the myth described in William Hayley's poem "An Essay on Painting", in which a woman sketched around the outline of the shadow cast by her departing lover in lamp light against a wall... "Inspired by love, the soft Corinthian maid, Her graceful lover's sleeping form portray'd..." (William Hayley 1778).

The resemblance of this painting's imagery to silhouettes left by the atomic flashes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the image of mortality that visitors see reflected in the act of separating from their fading shadows, cause "The Origin of Painting" to function as an active contemporary equivalent of traditional Vanitas painting. Sci-Fi author Jeff Noon wrote in The Independent that "people are fascinated by this work - it brings a shiver, a sudden recognition of death, as though we have seen or heard our own ghost". The Financial Times described the exhibit as "actively thrilling". "The Origin of Painting" was described as "visually stunning... daunting yet engaging" by Rachel Dybiec in The Metro newspaper. Jessica Lack wrote in The Guardian that "Disinformation combine scientific nous with poetic lyricism to create some of the most beautiful installations around". Paul Clarke wrote in The Metro describing Disinformation as "the black-ops unit of the avant garde".

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