"They are men possessed, outcasts, maniacs, and all for love of their work. They turn to the public as if asking its help, placing before it the materials to diagnose their sickness" - press commentary on Zurich Dada [1]

The main source of industrial music's ideas may have been the radical literary tradition, but a great debt was also owed to the avant-garde performance art tradition, dating back at least as far as Futurism at the turn of the century. Here was a tradition from which industrial music drew not just rhetoric but also the tactics and methods.

Performance art as a means of provocation undoubtedly goes back as long as there were people who resented their culture and thought to change matters by creating shock and confusion. As an alternative to purer forms of song, dance and theatre it's history can be traced back through Renaissance spectacle, and medaeval passion plays to tribal ritual. In the nineteenth century, music hall performance came the closest to the mixed media spectacles that would resurface in performance art. Histories of twentieth century performance art often start with the twenty-three year old Alfred Jarry's proto-surrealist performance of Ubu Roi in Paris in 1896 [2]. Jarry's absurdist theatre provoked an uproar that would be echoed throughout the century's history of performance art. Filippo Marinetti, whose Futurist Manifesto was to be published in 1909, took up the provocationist baton in his own play Roi Bombance, written in 1905, and the desire to provoke played a major part in first the Italian Futurist movement, then successively in Dada and Surrealism.

The politics may have superficially differed, but the basic thrust of these movements has many similarities to the later activities of COUM Transmissions, Whitehouse and others. All three artistic movements (Futurism, Dada, Surrealism) shared a disgust and contempt for the social common ground of the day. Their response varied. Futurism opposed tradition with an enthusiasm for dynamism, for technology, and for patriotic militarism, all of which ensured that fascist politicians would later attempt to claim the Futurist cultural heritage as their own (unlike more recent flag-burners, whose anger has been directed at their own society, the Futurists' flag-burnings of 1914 in Milan were of a foreign country's flag - Austria's).

Their positive view of "progress" has few echoes among the early industrial musicians; even Kraftwerk, whose clinical embrace of the coming information age proved such a fertile resource for industrial music's exponents, leavened their technophilia with a sense of irony (at its clearest on their paean to the atomic age, Radioactivity). However, as the electronic beat tendency in industrial music drew on emerging synthipoppers like the Human League and eventually fed in to the cyber-culture of the late 80s and early 90s, the Futurists' uncritical fetishisation of technology and artifice re-emerged. Marinetti's celebration of the industrial revolution has a lot in common with the ill-digested cyber-fandom of some recent musicians. Certainly, the electronic pop of the late seventies New Romantics (such as Ultravox) betrays a lack of humour that the Futurists would never have shared, but it has the same uncritical adoration of technology. In general, industrial music drew upon a much more cynical view of science's contribution to history.

The similarities between Dada and industrial culture are less ambiguous. Dada's anger was as much inspired by the First World War as by a more general revulsion against the general banality of society. Their reaction also had a lot in common with industrial art; it was an attempt to find an aesthetic where most of the audience only found ugliness. For Dada this consisted of primitivist, abstract painting, and at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, performances including seemingly nonsensical sound-poetry. Industrial music also adopted the primitive, abstract approach, and like Dada, rejected conventional musical structures in favour of chaos and noise.

From Richard Huelsenbeck's Dadaist Manifesto, written in Germany in 1918: "Art in its execution and direction is dependent on the time in which it lives, and artists are creatures of their epoch. The highest art will be that which in its conscious content presents the thousandfold problems of the day, the art which has been visibly shattered by the explosions of last week, which is forever trying to collect its limbs after yesterday's crash. The best and most extraordinary artists will be those who every hour snatch the tatters of their bodies out of the frenzied cataracts of life, who, with bleeding hands and hearts, hold fast to the intelligence of their time." [3]

Industrial music was very much of its time; you can hear the shattered dreams of the 60s in Throbbing Gristle's music, you can hear the defeatism and boredom that accompanied the decay of the welfare state. As in Huelsenbeck's prescription for "the highest art", this music (whether deliberately or not is irrelevant) addressed the important questions of the day; social alienation, media illusions perceived as reality, and the impossibility of morality in a culture where the traditional arbiters of morality were losing their power.

The anti-art tradition that Dada embodied continued in various forms throughout the century. Its first successor was the Surrealist movement, which included artists inspired by their direct contact with Dadaists like Tristan Tzara, and it also owed a considerable debt to the absurdist French art tradition embodied in the work of Jarry, Raymond Roussel and Guillaume Apollinaire. The break between Surrealism and Dada has been presented as a clash of personalities between Andre Breton and Tzara, but some argue that it represented the replacement of a movement that had valued disorder, anarchy and confusion with one that, paradoxically, attempted to rationalise its irrationality.

The Surrealist search for an escape from socially imposed reality certainly influenced some later industrial musicians; Nurse With Wound paid homage to the absurdist and hyper-realist tradition in much of their music, and more recently, composer Randy Greif has specifically said that he attempts to create a genuinely surrealist music (the Surrealists themselves took their figurehead Breton's dislike of music to heart, concentrating on visual art and literature). Others, particularly European groups like D.D.A.A. and P16D4 also show clear traces of surrealism in the way they treat musical collage as an opportunity for humorous juxtaposition.

The Surrealist attempt to put the unconscious on display could be seen as part of a yearning for authenticity through primitivism that has been a major element in twentieth century art. As discussed below, its influence on performance art is one of the more important elements of the industrial music heritage, but several industrial musicians incorporated it more directly. As well as the "surrealist" elements in industrial music, "primitivist" attitudes appear in the work of groups like Zero Kama, Lustmørd, Coil, Crash Worship and Zone (who share an interest in the occult, spirituality, ritualism). Organum's David Jackman, who has passed through the industrial fringes, is even more clearly interested in music's ability to evoke primal spiritual responses, creating drone-based, barely tonal music that owes a lot to non-Western ritual music.

If Surrealism lacked Dada's provocationist tactics, later movements did not. Fluxus developed in the first few years of the Sixties in America, and combined the prank-events beloved of Dada with a specifically anti-bourgeois political ideology. They acknowledged their heritage; in 1962 Nam June Paik organised an event Neo-Dada in der Musik in Dusseldorf, for example. Some of the artists associated with Fluxus, particularly Terry Riley and LaMonte Young would later go on to develop music that, via popularisers like Brian Eno, would ultimately influence many industrial musicians, but Fluxus itself had little direct influence.

However, Fluxus was only one element in a resurgence of performance art in sixties New York. Allan Kaprow's Happenings (from 1959 onwards) were some of the earliest and best remembered events, but they sprung from an ongoing history of performance that stretched back to the New York Dadaists (notably Picabia and Duchamp). In 1936, the Bauhaus's Xanti Schawinsky joined the three-year old Black Mountain College in North Carolina, introducing a performance element into the curriculum that would engage Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Robert Rauschenberg and many others en route to the Happenings.

The growth of interest in performance art in America was paralleled by the activities of various artists at the same time in Europe. Amongst them, Joseph Beuys (a Fluxus protagonist) and Hermann Nitsch achieved particular notoriety and are particularly relevant to the heritage of industrial music. Beuys' work frequently involved the creation of very personal, meditative situations, isolating himself from humanity for days on end, or sharing an art space with only a dead or living animal. His interest in ritual as a way of recovering art's transformative function is much more personal than Nitsch, whose Orgies Mysteries Theatre performances took the form of reenactments of Dionysian rituals, social celebrations involving loud music and the disembowelment of animal carcasses.

Many other artists have entered similar taboo areas. Chris Burden's performances have involved him cutting himself and being shot in the arm [4]; Stelarc and Fakir Musafar hang themselves from hooks carefully inserted into their flesh; Marina Abramovic allowed her audience to cut her clothes and skin with razor blades [5]. The aim is to recover art's shamanic, ritual elements, to break psychological taboos and enter genuinely altered states. Genesis P-Orridge, later of Throbbing Gristle, was an escapee from this performance art tradition, first in The Exploding Galaxy, then via the experimental commune Trans Media Exploration in 1969 [6] on to COUM Transmissions with fellow performer Cosey Fanni Tutti. COUM's performances centered on sex and ritual, culminating in the notorious Prostitution exhibition at the I.C.A. in 1976, which brought Throbbing Gristle to public attention (although Throbbing Gristle had been first used as title for a COUM performance two years previously). [7]

Throbbing Gristle were probably the only industrial group to evolve directly out of a performance art context, but the live art of the sixties and seventies developed several new ideas that later fed into the work of various industrial groups. Cabaret Voltaire's early performances sometimes included showings of surrealist films as the "support act". Percussionist Z'ev's performances have been compared to shamanic exorcisms, and proto-industrial group The Residents owe much of their live costume drama to the Dada / Bauhaus tradition [8]. Most notably, Test Dept, which began life as a music group very rapidly connected with avant-garde theatre; some of their spectacular performances are documented on the A Good Night Out and Gododdin albums. In 1992, they staged an event in Glasgow entitled The Second Coming, in a huge disused locomotive works; this involved three narrators, several dancers, several percussionists and other musicians, and a host of extras, such as flag-bearers and welders. Its large-scale non-narrative approach to performance owes a great deal to the work of people like Robert Wilson in the seventies, although its preoccupations are quite different.

However, Test Dept were unusual among industrial musicians in that their disgust for the society they found themselves in led them to a politics of protest that directly embraced the ideas of the left; solidarity being the major one, leading the band through a series of concerts opposing the Conservative assault on the trade union movement, supporting the striking miners' unions, ambulance workers, print workers, and anti-poll tax campaigners. They remained sophisticated enough never to match their strong political feeling with simplistic and unequivocal support for any of the parties of the left, but nonetheless, their allegiances had little in common with most other industrial groups, who distrusted all conventional politics, of whatever wing. Groups like Throbbing Gristle, S.P.K. and Cabaret Voltaire all saw society as a whole to be too corrupt for conventional politics to be worth bothering with.

In Gristle's case, their music and lyrics appeared to present an amoral face full of nothing but revulsion; their songs catalogued the horror of the modern world without attempting to pass comment. Inevitably, their interest in mass murderers, Nazism, and similar topics led to accusations by some that T.G. were more than interested, they were attracted to such ideas. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the surface amorality disguised a deep moralism. It was their hatred of pretence, hypocrisy, oppression and authoritarianism that led to their violent rebellion.

Following the break-up of T.G., this hidden morality made itself most clearly felt through Genesis P-Orridge's group, Psychic TV (Peter Christopherson, also ex-Gristle, soon left to join John Balance in Coil), and its associated "anti"-organisation, the Temple ov Psychick Youth. Ostensibly an attempt to use the framework of a "cult" to decondition people's minds from social indoctrination, rather than to brainwash them, T.O.P.Y. never succeeded in getting beyond its own paradoxes. While it was on the one hand encouraging its members to think for themselves, to question and reject received ideas, it nonetheless insisted on set methods of achieving this de-conditioned salvation (e.g. ritual sex magick), suggested standards of behaviour for members to live up to (members who failed to toe the line were in some cases effectively ex-communicated), and, most importantly, relied on a hierarchical organisation that never succeeded in being in any way democratic or transparent. Its achievements (primarily the sense of community amongst like-minded misfits) were compromised by the fact that its initiators never freed themselves from their situation as role models and, if they ever understood the lessons of anarchist and liberationist political theory, never applied them in practice.

Whitehouse's William Bennett appeared to decide that the moral amorality of Throbbing Gristle was doomed to failure, and his group stuck to its guns with unrelenting challenges to listenability and unrelentingly tasteless lyrics about Nazism, serial killers, rape and similar topics. According to one person who worked with William Bennett, Nurse With Wound's Steven Stapleton, Bennett is "only interested in upsetting people ... His ethic was 'Everybody who buys my records is basically a cunt'" [9]. However, Whitehouse's Stefan Jaworzyn has acknowledged Whitehouse's extra-musical influences: "I've always considered Whitehouse to be more like performance art ... in that Whitehouse is outside of rock, experimental music or whatever." [10] In this respect, Whitehouse continue a long tradition of attempting to outrage and assault the audience; there have certainly been other performance artists who have physically attacked their audience in the past. Notably, this contrasts strongly with the tradition of self-abusive performance that Throbbing Gristle were heir to.

Whitehouse's own inability to articulate their motives has left them open to misinterpretation and opposition. Are they satirists, like Brett Easton Ellis? Whatever the case may be, the attempt to maintain such an extreme vision shows real single-mindedness. Whether or not this culmination of the Dadaist tradition leads onwards is open to doubt. One writer, Hakim Bey, is particularly critical: "We support artists who use terrifying material in some 'higher cause' - who use loving / sexual material of any kind, however shocking or illegal - who use their anger and disgust and their true desires to lurch towards self-realisation and beauty and adventure. 'Social Nihilism', yes - but not the dead nihilism of gnostic self-disgust. Even if it's violent and abrasive, anyone with a vestigial third eye can see the differences between revolutionary pro-life art and reactionary pro-death art". [11]


  1. Dada: Art and Anti-Art, Hans Richter (Thames and Hudson 1965)
  2. Performance Art, Rose Lee Goldberg (Thames and Hudson 1979)
  3. Dada: Art and Anti-Art, op. cit.
  4. Art in the Dark, Thomas McEvilley, in Apocalypse Culture, 2nd edn, ed. Adam Parfrey (Feral House, 1990)
  5. Performance Art, op. cit.
  6. Rapid Eye #1, Simon Dwyer (R.E. Publishing, 1989)
  7. Time to Tell CD booklet, Cosey Fanni Tutti (Conspiracy International, 1993)
  8. The Eyes Scream: A History of the Residents, video (Palace, 1991); Meet the Residents, Ian Shirley (SAF, 1993)
  9. Interview in Audion #28 (1994)
  10. Interview in Music From The Empty Quarter #6 (1992).
  11. T.A.Z., Hakim Bey (Autonomedia, 1991)