by Olga Pek
This Australian collective continually entangles itself with the question “What is sound poetry?”
We’ve selected a rockish arf arf set and begin with our song GAP, Marcus making unholy, inhuman vocalisation NENAGGGG NENNNARRRRGNEEEENNNNRRAAAAG, a wailing, grunting, sighing, wailing again, long word. The crowd falls silent. All faces turn to the stage. We cry out - GAP - and Marcus begins again a rollercoaster of guttural notes. A cry from the audience, and a few voices join in. Everywhere fixed attention. For twenty minutes the pub is a concert hall. … Coming off stage I’m approached by someone elbowing his way through the crowd with a beer in each hand. He hands me one of the beers and says—Thanks mate, I really needed that. (Lovece, “Clanguage15: Byway of Conclusion”)
Complaints that poetry has been undergoing a “decline” exist in a peculiar tension with the rising numbers of poets, poetry books, even poetry TV programs (eg. Million’s Poet) as well as its accessibility and popularity amongst young people (see “Poetizer,” the Czech social network centered around sharing poetry). What really seems to be at stake is the status of poetry on the printed page, poetry in its exclusive, canonized form (Van der Starre, “Why Professor of Poetry candidate Ian Gregson might be wrong”). A look at its subgenres—such as concrete poetry, sound poetry, digital poetry—will quickly confirm the unrewarding nature of potential success there: very few creators ever achieve the status of “classics,” and once they do, their names tend to be repeated, their work left unengaged with. The freedom of the margins seems to disqualify sound poetry from serious study by the seemingly schizophrenic collision of the easy fun it offers and the level of in-depth understanding it requires.
It doesn’t seem much of a paradox, then, that the opening anecdote belongs to the same oeuvre as the following:
We saw Cabaret Voltaire only thirty years ago, but Bauhaus were much better. Kurt Schwitters lives in a ‘mythical space’ because he was already dead before we were born.
These are the words of Michael Buckley, who in 1985, together with Marcus Bergner, Marisa Stirpe, and Frank Lovece, started the collective Arf Arf in Melbourne. With the performer Myriam Van Imschoot temporarily substituting for Marisa Stirpe, Arf Arf is now, after a 15-year pause, touring Europe as part of the launch of two Internet publications: Clanguage and VOLUME SP, both released with [Oral Site/SARMA->www.oralsite.be] in Brussels. Recapitulation by means of an archive is a parallel project to the recapitulation via their physical reunion: neither is more important than the other.
Performing on the road is nothing new to them: the group has long toured Australian pubs, keeping in touch with artists such as Bob Cobbing in Britain and Bernard Heidsieck in France, and maintaining their separate artistic careers as filmmakers, visual artists, poets, and performers. Now the “wolf pack called Arf Arf,” as they described themselves in an e-mail conversation, plans to be “doing all new material but with a strangely visceral and intuitively familiar appreciation of each individual group member’s own distinct voice and approach to things.” Their two publications illustrate similarly integrative ambition. Clanguage places old recordings and performance scores from the 80’s and 90’s alongside recent recordings and new writings and showcases the rebellious sophistication of the group’s explorations into performance, sound poetry, video, film, and visual art. Lovece’s Internet anthology VOLUME SP offers another look at the group’s activities: its curating, connecting, international aspect. Both forms evince Arf Arf’s ongoing commitment to the question What is sound poetry?
“We have got younger,” quips Buckley, in anticipation of my slightly provocative question on anarchism and aging. What he alludes to is not just his own juvenescence, or that of the group. The youth here may be read as a synecdoche for the enthusiasm of the May 1968 student uprising in Paris. It was these events that inspired Deleuze and Guattari’s ideal of nomadism, one that is strongly present in Arf Arf’s philosophy as well. With the ideals of Parisian youth receding from view today faster than ever, it is as if Arf Arf’s work, in its “maximized dispersion,” has become comparatively “younger.” The sentiment they express might be true for other lagging harbingers of that revolution, such as the—one decade older—poet Pierre Joris, whose interest in nomadism translates into the publication activities of North African poets.
Łukasz Guzek praised Arf Arf for their “use [of] written text as the starting point for sounds, reversing both the process of civilization and the cultural process, in this way descending to the bottom of civilization” (Guzek, “How the Word Became a Sound”). The reversal is not temporal but structural: it is humanity explored humorously, self-deprecatingly, in pre-civilizational aspects. Just watch the recording of the group’s “Telepathy” performance from July 2013 (Buckley, “Telepathy”). Nothing communicates the fragility of culturally sanctioned meaning better than the non-verbal richness of the “involuntary,” embarrassing, animalistic sounds the group keeps squeezing out of themselves, tongue-in-cheek, under the “hard” duress of concentration. The absolute license and lack of deference to convention is reminiscent of art brut, but in the Czech context, its childlike, self-mocking freedom may rather remind one of Boca Loca Lab or the “physical poet” Petr Váša.
Bold squatters in any art form available, Arf Arf don’t care as long as they’re having fun—best at their own expense, such as in a comic by Buckley caricaturing the group’s members; or perhaps at the expense of their beloved predecessors, such as Kurtchen, a.k.a. Kurt Schwitters. When artists extol untimely loss, the moral achievements of humanity, individual pain suffered at the hands of fate, tragic resistance, and heroic persistence in the face of misfortune, they uphold an image with which we are asked to identify. But what is to be done with artists who mock themselves? By laughing at them we laugh at ourselves, the whole community established in the here-and-now of the performance.
Yet the artlessness of the form both contrasts with and highlights its commodity aspect, too, objectifying us as an audience. A subtle deconstruction of (not only the art world’s) commodity-exchange conventions, this is the reason Arf Arf thrives in pubs and galleries alike. “Don’t be afraid to try this at home!” they seem to be saying—in the last instance, the performance is not meant to be admired, but to instruct, offer a strategy. Such risks go far beyond, and in advance of, the “crossing of the boundaries” lingo that is part and parcel of the grant applications codex.
Arf Arf collective videos usually feature purposefully low-fi, primitive effects, sound modulation, drawings, etc. When performing live against this video backdrop, the members of Arf Arf never use any technical instruments more complex than a microphone. “We perceive the relationship between humans and technology as one of mutual companionship,” explains Buckley. The setting seems to favor the situation where the machine is present in order to amplify, not elevate, let alone transcend, civilization’s uncultured and uncivilized by-products. Bergner adds: “Personally, I am drawing on my own mnemonic capacities and stage shyness as the basis for spontaneous or secret performance strategies and outcomes. For instance, I did not tell my fellow group members that I was intentionally allowing lapses and jumps of memory to direct, guide, and shape the vocalization of quotes from writers like James Joyce and Francois Villon.”
The emphasis seems justified, as much of the sophisticated cultural coding may get lost in the ostensible umph-umphs, barf-barfs, and urgh-urghs of their cleverly Möbius-structured performance situations. Arf Arf performs primitivism as seen through the eyes of civilization, only to reveal the primitivism inherent in civilization: the way in which the two intertwine, intersect. In this, Arf Arf performances are a perfect mirror reversal of the cool elegance of the lettrist cathedrals of glyphs and sounds erected by the Austrian sound poet Jörg Piringer and the apophenia he invites. Arf Arf’s version of the age-old “no meanings–all meanings” poetry flipcoin is more physical, embarrassed, critical to the idea of progress in general, yet the branching out, looping, and “jazzy” structuring principle is the same. Despite having daily contact with new media in their professional careers, the group have been resistant to the lure of technological equipment and prefer the idea of building on the unexpected; rescuing apparent “failure” is more appealing to them than achieving the smooth polish of absolute mastery. If their work requires technological updates, it is not in order to work better, but in order to work better against technology.
In other words, sound poetry for Arf Arf seems to be located in the turning away from, in flight and defiance, on the visual, audial and conceptual planes. For their Prague performance, Arf Arf seem to be corroborating evidence with their promise that they will be “seeking to locate the midpoint between fluidity and tautness to produce harmonic tensions,” teases Školská 28 Gallery. “Disparities and slippages between ‘then’ and ‘now’, language and verbal noise, blind spots and myopic listening will be plundered, extemporized and recast against, or through, various poetical protocols, illegible events and vociferously stretched cadences.” The recipe for remaining an anarchic artist, according to Arf Arf, not only calls for (in their words) “big doses of collaboration in an area where audiences are forever changing and highly unpredictable.” It also requires methodically deconstructing artistic genres with the view of accruing the resulting debris, where “sound poetry” is ever so close to non-genre and anti-genre.
Buckley, Michael. “Telepathy”. Youtube video. 18 March 2013. 11 Nov 2015.
Buckley, Michael. “Arf Arf Comic”. 11 Nov 2015.
Guzek, Łukasz. “How the Word Became a Sound.” 11 Nov 2015.
Lovece, Frank. “Clanguage15: Byway of Conclusion.” Clanguage. Oral Site. 2015. 11 Nov 2015.
Van der Starre, Kila. “Why Professor of Poetry candidate Ian Gregson might be wrong.” Kila van der Starre. Personal Website. 26 Jun 2015. 11 Nov 2015.
Arf Arf performs at Školská 28 Gallery in Prague on 19 November 2015 at 19:30.