Somnambule - Writing About Music

Double Vision Presents Cabaret Voltaire (DVD)

Seminal is a term almost exhausted by overuse. Cabaret Voltaire was a seminal group. The Cabaret Voltaire inaugurated Dadaism in the back room of a Zurich tavern 1916, the owner agreeing to its use in order to increase the sale of beer, sausages and sandwiches. The entertainment included music, dance, manifestos, theory, poems, pictures, masks and costumes by the likes of Hugo Ball and Hans Arp. Dadaism’s anti-art stance sought to mirror the confusion wrought by the First World War’s senseless slaughter. More than five decades later, Stephen Mallinder, Richard H. Kirk and Chris Watson formed Cabaret Voltaire in Sheffield. They were horrified and mesmerised by the power of the ever-expanding media, fascinated by the control it exercised and in response they developed strategies aimed at loosening its grip. Their audiovisual output should be seen as a meditative protest that connects directly to the cutup techniques first explored by the Dadaist Tristan Tzara and later developed by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin. Cabaret Voltaire simultaneously enacted and interrogated the corruptive power of the media. An essential part of that aesthetic was the act of sampling, both sonically using Chris Watson’s tapes and visually in the form of edits from broadcast media, ‘b’ movies, etc. alongside the sampling, deconstruction and rearrangement of the group’s own images. In so doing they critiqued afresh the relentless jumpcut bombast of current broadcast media experienced by David Bowie’s alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth.

The liner notes state that “The audio and visual quality of this programme may be of a slightly lower standard than is usual today.” The visuals are indeed noisy, harsh, unforgiving, brutal, lo-fi verging on no-fi. And how refreshing the experience is, its very crudeness acting like an aesthetic sandpaper to roughen the surface of the viewer’s sensibilities, thereby increasing porousness and ultimately receptiveness. A range of effects are deployed including slow-motion, close-ups, light/dark and colour/monochrome contrast, fast edits, unfocused footage and noise. These techniques are applied to a wide range of subjects including World War 2 V.E. day, fornicating monkeys, surgical operations, a man slowly opening his eyes and holding the camera’s gaze, oscilloscope close-ups, religious flagellation, pornography, primitive computer graphics and so on. The first track Diskono repeatedly cuts blurred images of a bridalwear shop window with deathcamp survivors, a Red Square military parade and a bikini-clad sunbather. These images are overlaid continuously with linocut-style images of the group alternately staring fixedly ahead and burying their heads as if in pain.

The concentrated impact of the media is acted out, revealed and reconfigured within Cabaret Voltaire’s critical armatures. All the while, throughout the 90 minutes of this dvd Cabaret Voltaire’s music exerts its dark and nagging pull. Double Vision is a fascinating document whose message is as urgent and relevant today as it was on its release in 1982.
Colin Buttimer
December 2004
Published by Milkfactory