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It's hard to write about The State without writing about history. Steve Tanza, painter and the musician behind The State, cofounded Bourbonese Qualk, with which he remained involved from its 1981 beginnings in Liverpool to 1987. With Bourbonese Qualk, he established the Recloose Organisation, the record label which released recordings by Het Zweet, Muslimgauze and Club Moral, as well as their own. Taking over the Old Ambulance Station in London in 1984, they created a base for film and art exhibitions, and performances by groups like Test Dept and Nocturnal Emissions, as well as the Jesus and Mary Chain, Shop Assistants, Conflict and others. Despite idealistic ambitions, the sheer grind of trying to maintain enthusiasm in the face of apathy, combined with harassment by local government, eventually killed the Ambulance Station. At the same time, Stanza studied at Goldsmiths Art College, and he has exhibited his paintings ever more widely. His video installations have travelled to Spain, The Netherlands and Italy, amongst others.
Bourbonese Qualk continues on its own way without him, and he has devoted himself to his new project, the State.
The video label Provision was started in 1986, with the aim of "releasing video art and music from other artists within the field who could not find an outlet for their videotapes". To date, performers such as Etant Donnes, Muslimgauze, Club Moral and Autopsia have contributed. Stanza has also transformed Recloose into Sound Sound, a music label devoted to The State and allied artists.
Almost all The State's work deals with the city in some way. His paintings incorporate an urbanist aesthetic, depicting and distorting the geometries and patterns apparent in the urban landscape of South London where Stanza lives. The videos that he has produced contain similar images. Return to Order, videos made for Bourbonese Qualk's music explore a variety of textures, heavily processed video images filtered, manipulated and superimposed. In keeping with the Qualk's musical miserablism, it's a desolate, stark piece of work, grey in tone despite the bright colours.
Similarly, Artitexture limits itself to the use of urban geometries as texture. Intended for showing on several video screens at once, and also produced in the form of wall-papers for more conventional display, the textures take fragments of the city, replicate them and render them almost unrecognisable through colour processing, so that the urban feel remains present, detached from the obvious content. For its time, it was quite adventurous, and the textural concept behind it remains interesting, but video technology has now left it far behind.
Stanza: "It's not pop video material. Over the last few years more and more people have got access to this equipment. A lot of those videos were done in 1986-87. Since then there's been a whole revolution. People can get into studios and mess around with edit suites, chroma-key and so on. I can look back on them, and think that some of them are all right. A lot of them aren't. At the same time, it was quite a challenge to try and be given studio time, and come out with a product.
"I used to take the front of a lot of machines when the technicians weren't around and mess about. You can mess around with the video EQ similarly to the sound EQ, take the tapes from one studio to another, link up loads of machines that you weren't supposed to do. And you come up with something like Artitexture. These days of course it's done at the push of a button, which is where all the computer people have got things right." Although Stanza retains a great interest in video as an art form in its own right, he's unconvinced that it has been explored even superficially yet.
"The things that are successful on video are really only things that are of a performance of another art form. Video alone, as an artistic medium ... you can cite Eno, or David Hockney, or Warhol, but they really did nothing.
"Artitexture is just based on various colour field things. Basic artistic values from painting placed onto another medium. Having said that, watching it does give you a completely different appreciation of your environment. One of the best audio-visual experiences that I've ever had was watching the Philip Glass films, Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi [directed by Godfrey Reggio]. They create a disorienting illusion ... allusion of what your environment's about."
A more recent video, Conundrum, attempts something completely different. The stage is for the most part the same: dismal tower blocks, demolition sites etc, but it's less a film about the urban texture than it is a film about urban alienation, and about the cyclical nature of urban development. It repeats images both of the countryside and the city, of demolition and reconstruction. Stylistically, it has a similar visual feel to the experimental 8mm and 16mm films of the late sixties and seventies. What's most striking about it, even when it features people, crowds of them walking through the city, is its sense of detachment, of alienation. There's no contact with these people, they move past as if asleep. "I think the feeling came, because the motifs that you see, all those things are to do with the sixties architecture that still exists in London today. The big thing for me was the whole issue about postwar urban redevelopment. Despite how much money was offered, it just didn't seem to work. The council estates. The fact that they built high-rise blocks, and didn't put the terraced houses back and the families back where they wanted to be."
Along with the whole modernist art movement, particularly groups like the International Group, and others like the Situationist International, Stanza has had a long-term interest in urbanism: in the planning and architecture of the urban environment, and how it affects those who have to live within it.
"The architectural principle definitely has to do with the function: it relies on the function and the content. The design principle always denies that. It always has, because if it hadn't, it would have been successful. I think over the last few years there has been a complete reevaluation of this. The architect should live in it. It's like building the beautiful form just for the hell of it. You can do that with music and you can do that with painting because they have a singular existence. There is no audience involved until you invite them there. But with a domestic dwelling there's no invitation. People have to live in them, and in that sense the whole modernist ethic has failed."
Although Conundrum deals directly with the alienation produced by the city environment, The State's other work, both visual and musical, approaches it almost as a source of material. The paintings and videos use the repetitive geometries of sixties building as their basis. His music also creates itself around relentless, mechanical rhythms, and the other instruments tend to provide a distinctly depressing coloration. It's music for the unsettled and the paranoid. His Schizoid cassette, available from Sound Sound, employs synthetic and acoustic rhythms, marchbeats and mechanical pulsations. The atmospheric drones lack definition, waver elusively. At times distorted vocals come through a pounding beat as a frustrated response to it all.
"Sometimes I'd like to deny the political stance. A lot of the images stem from a sort of urban, ecological, social stance, and the denial of that does lead to a pure aesthetic within music and painting. That's why the painters did it and that's why the likes of Asmus Tietchens do that.
"There's more to life than just art. There you are talking just about pure aesthetics. I am definitely interested in just the pure aesthetic within the forms that I work with. But the thing that contradicts everything, is that the more successful pieces are often the ones that deny the content, that are just involved in the pure aesthetic. The pieces on Conundrum that have no references to anything, the paintings that have no references to anything, the graphics that don't involve any text, they hit another core completely."
I'll admit to feeling a little bit uneasy about all this. What The State is doing is taking fragments of real life, and removing the context. The images are deconstructed: the background to them is removed and all that's left is the aesthetic. This isn't a block of flats in which people live: it's a repeating pattern of squares and rectangles once transformed by The State's art. The paradox is that the more the context is dispensed with, the more "successful" the art may become, simply because it's purer, more focused, less like a straightforward depiction of real life. It's here, in the narrow gap between art and politics that The State somehow survives.
"The Control video is a conglomeration of the same thing, bringing all these forms together. For me it's a tying up. The whole process of Control is just a reevaluation of all these ideas. Hopefully, I've got closer to the aesthetic that I've been trying to state. There is no absolute within it, so you can try again and again to get closer to it. If you say 'is something successful' it assumes the possibility that it could be a failure. There is no success and there is no failure. It's irrelevant within the working process. The most important thing is just to keep on working.
"The thing that I've been striving for for the last four years is to make an analogy between working on a music process and working on a visual project, so that you carry through the same working process. Before, they were completely different.I've brought them back to basic unit forms. One unit, one structure. Then replicate. This is the percussive musical language and the architectural visual language."
The State has increasingly adopted the use of digital equipment to make the music. This isn't any desire to be "up-to-date", it's simply a matter of convenience.
"The obvious thing is working with an analogue system, where you spend hours chopping and changing tape loops, which today you just do at the press of a button."
However, for The State, more has changed than just the convenience of the technology. Along with mass acceptance of music produced by the new electronic instruments has come a mass recognition of new forms of music. Modern soundtracks, effects used in jingles, even elements of pop songs, all use music that would have been considered experimental ten years ago. Elements of what may once have been the avant-garde or 'industrial' music have become part of the popular music vocabulary. And the result, according to The State, is that people know how to listen to far less conventional material than they used to.
"This goes back to the syntax, rhythm and form within the music. All these crashing sounds and rumbling noises and huge feedback noises that make people go 'no I can't listen to that, it disorientates my psyche', they are now accessible. I don't see any reason why people can't go out and buy a hundred thousand copies of, you know, a feedback noise. In a sense, people are plagiarising all these forms in music, and they're churning it out as popular culture.
"The syntax of the sound seems to have changed over the last five years. It's maybe something to do with the revolution in the digital sound. The people working in House and Hip Hop started sampling sounds, reevaluating them, putting them behind a 1-2-4 tempo. That has made the inaccessible accessible at the same time, because it's become much more commonplace. The weirdness of the experimental scene, that doesn't really exist any more.
"I think people do listen to it, and people always have. Whether they buy it or not, that's a different matter, because it's a different market completely. If we're going to talk about why people don't get access to it, I think it's because it's controlled by the mainstream. Mainstream radio stations are controlled by bigger bodies. Independent radio stations, as we all know, are owned by bigger organisations. You have to find the outlets to channel your music through, and once you've done that there's no problem."
As ever though, in Britain, it remains difficult to find such outlets. The State's own label, Sound Sound struggles as much as any other independent labels, and only Stanza's painting is genuinely commercially successful. Unlike the music, the painting survives as part of "high art culture", the world of exhibitions, installations, galleries. As "serious" art, it can actually be a financially rewarding activity, unlike pursuing experimental music.
As well as being exhibited elsewhere, Stanza helps run The Arch, a space under a nearby railway viaduct opened in 1989, used by several artists at the moment. This has housed exhibitions and installations, both by local artists and those further afield, but more generally functions as a studio for any of those involved. The aim, like the Ambulance Station before it, and like the Sound Sound label, is to emphasis the communal nature of underground art, and to satisfy the need for the culturally isolated to support and work with each other.
Performance is however another area where it's difficult to get things off the ground. Britain seems to have an unreliable attitude towards the support of experimental music-related performances. Attempts at festivals tend to be small and have limited success. There's no easy gig circuit, except for the jazz and improv members of the London Musicians' Collective, who support a number of small venues and regular events. Like many of the more experimentally inclined, The State has an interest in multi-media performances, developed through the years with Bourbonese Qualk, accompanying gigs with slide and film.
"I want to present both sound and visuals so that there's a correlation. It's happened before, but there are so many bands that just do it as entertainment, in a competitive field.
"I've had lots of offers to go and do performances, but there's no point. Unless you can get this totality of mediums involved in it, then I'm not interested. That to me would be something successful."
The State, Provision and Sound Sound have plenty of plans for the future. The label has involved itself with a variety of musical artists, from London and elsewhere. The State has a new album on the way to follow Control, which is currently half-finished. "It's more ambient. But it seems to be a progression from the static to something very chaotic. It's as if to me, there's something about to happen. It's a bit more romantic than all the others. Maybe that's a maturing process that everyone goes through, but nevertheless, it's like the Young Gods, their aggression creates a certain romanticism. Similarly, Etant Donnes are very romantic, in the French sense. That's the only experience I get from them."
For further information or a Sound Sound catalogue, contact: Sound Sound, 92 Lilford Road, London SE5 9HR. Enclose an SAE or IRCs.Interview by Brian Duguid, February 1992.