Light travels faster than words
By Bridget Penney.
Shoot the Wrx: Artist and Film-maker Jeff Keen at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery until 21/04/13.
‘Kill the word before the word kills you,’ ‘How right Motler was to kill the word,’ are among the phrases which flash by in the course of Jeff Keen’s Rayday Film (1968-70). At one point in the film Motler the Wordkiller, embodied by Australian poet Dexter Duke, stuffs pages of text into his mouth and chews them up. Which could be seen as the destruction of the pages, the nourishing of Motler and a dismissal of the metaphorical element in words such as consume, devour, digest which are commonly used to describe reading and acquiring of knowledge. Rather than trying to negotiate the tricky gap between words and what they describe, Keen creates a seamless work where both are unstable and can appear simultaneously, often in the process of transforming into something else.
Though best known as a film-maker, Keen worked as a poet and artist throughout his long career and the exhibition (where Rayday Film shows continuously on the balcony above the main hall of Brighton Museum, hopefully spiking the curiosity of visitors browsing the art nouveau furniture below) provides an opportunity to consider examples from all aspects of his extremely prolific practice. The graphic work on display ranges from early detailed nature studies through surrealist-influenced drawings and large paintings on board which riffle playfully through Hollywood tropes to examples of the ragged-edged works on cardboard which appear in his films of the late 1980s-90s. There are also props, models, bookworks and a selection of publications.
Text appears in several of the paintings. Sometimes its deployment appears relatively straightforward, as in Sincerely Dr Gaz (1973) where Keen, under his nom-de-guerre, plays with the convention of the signed fan picture. The much earlier Victoria Cinema, Betty Grable (1950) makes another point about the way people experience movies by showing not the star herself but the huge grin and starstruck eyes of a young man outside the cinema underneath a poster which bears her name. Reception and transmission of imaginative experience as an undifferentiated part of everyday life is central to Keen’s work. The two Secret Origins paintings (1967) on display employ text in a different way. Stencilled chunks of the alphabet — which look like they’ve been done from the plastic lettering stencil which might at one point have featured in almost every school pencil-case — form a matrix. It could become a wordsearch if the viewer was so inclined, zigzagging from one letter to another, all the makings are there. ‘…Birth of another word’ is handwritten on the first of the paintings, among a whole lot of other fragments of text and image. The phrase ‘Secret Origins’ is open to multiple interpretations of which the DC comic title is only one.
The paintings on cardboard which appear in Keen’s films of the late 1980s-90s are stencilled with slogans. One reads ‘CUT BACK TO 1942/A FOR ART WAR/&POETRY IN FLAMES’. These phrases pop up elsewhere in Keen’s work. The Art War Reader is the title of the 1998 collection of Keen’s poems; there is a listening post for a recording of eight poems made by Keen in 2010 on the balcony alongside the screen showing Rayday Film. Sound elements of language (e.g puns, homophones, onomatopoeia, the kind of aural slippage that leads to ambiguity of meaning) seem important in Keen’s work. If read aloud, ‘POETRY IN FLAMES’ can be heard as ‘Poetry inflames’. Other cardboard paintings from the period bear the legends ‘ORFEO BLATZO’ and ‘BLATZO FURIOSO’. ‘Orfeo’ and ‘Furioso’ are associated in their original contexts with dangerous states of frenzy, whether brought on by disappointed love, as in Ariosto’s poem, or signalling Orpheus’ fate at the hands of the maenads. In Rayday Film, Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar shuffles across the frame and Coleridge’s portrait pops up, his name morphed into that of a hard-boiled private eye. ‘Get me Sam T. Coleridge.’ Any notion of peaceful, pastoral seclusion suggested by The Poet’s Cot (a model on display here which appears in Keen’s film Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke) is quickly dispelled once you spot the small green plastic soldier crouched in the doorway, his rifle aimed and ready.
Keen’s war experience remained central to his practice and the use he makes of it is perhaps particularly interesting because of its refusal to settle neatly into a conventional narrative of the second world war. Of course military and film-making vocabularies share the word ‘shoot’ and as the famous telegram sent to Jonas Mekas on the occasion of the founding of the London Filmmakers’ Co-op ‘PURPOSE TO SHOOT SHOOT SHOOT SHOOT SHOOT’ demonstrates, it generates an excitement that’s hard to resist. Keen’s fondness for that visual/verbal pun pops up in the second of the Amazing Rayday broadsheets which shows the words ‘ALL TIRED MOVIES’ issuing from the barrel of a gun. Are these movies being simultaneously generated and bumped off? You decide. Elsewhere on the page, and gnomic enough to be Lichtenberg via Gertrude Stein, a speech bubble proclaims ‘Cinema will/be compulsive or/not be’. But is shooting in a military context a destructive act diametrically opposed to film making as a creative one? It’s not that straightforward. Military action can lead to radical transformation though most frequently not of a positive kind. Keen’s films often document the burning and melting of items, usually toys, in the process of becoming something else. His work reflects, as part of daily experience, familiar, oddly denatured images of weaponry used by the film industry, advertisements and toy manufacturers. He certainly doesn’t glamorize violence but is realistic about the seductive power of its accessories.
Keen seems to have rejected the label ‘pop artist’ and it’s not hard to see why. If pop art is about elegantly subverting existing art world conventions by substituting ‘pop’ content and styles for more traditional ‘high art’ content then the pop artist would have to have accepted that a distinction actually exists between high and low art. If he or she sees all kinds of images, executed for whatever reason in any medium, as forming part of daily experience, unmediated by these conventions, then he or she is probably not a pop artist, even if making use of the stuff that pop artists also use. In its omnivorous sourcing from all aspects of modern life and interest in the processes of transformation, Keen’s work seems to have some affinities with that of Californian collage artist Jess. Against the elaborately crammed background of images in Jess’ massive collage Narkissos (1976-1991), the eponymous central figure grasps George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comic strip on the theme of Narcissus in the way a classical statue, or a more contemporary figure drawing on that grammar of symbols, might display an instrument of power. This is not intended to be kitsch; it’s there because it resonates within the work and beyond it. The poet Frank O’Hara’s seamless transmissions of the complex sensory and information overload of his immediate environment also share some common ground with Keen’s approach. O’Hara’s nimble meditation on the headline announcing the collapse of Lana Turner as he tries to cross the street might be seen as elegantly mapping the same refusal to discriminate between types of experience and these lines from Biotherm (for Bill Berkson) (1962)
‘bent on his knees the Old Mariner said where the fuck
is that motel you told me about mister I aint come here for no clams’
ricochet off Keen’s oft-repeated ‘Get me Sam T. Coleridge on the melting brain line’.
Much of Keen’s published poetry, on display here, reads more like a reflective journal on his film-making than an attempt to achieve something radical within the form. ‘A blade of light/cuts up/the FASTEST FILM ALIVE/snap-shots spurt out/left & right./Each perfect atom/contains the movie/we’ve been waiting for (from 24 Films). Maybe Keen’s memorable line ‘Light travels faster than words’ from Will Yr Brainstem Leave an Imprint? suggests that he didn’t think words had the same radical potential as film. He was certainly aware of contemporary adventures in refashioning language ‘anyone can do it cut up anything says mr wm burroughs & remember old dadamen cut up world/HAVE YOU GOT THE NERVE cut up melt down/respray old art &/life factors’ (from Amazing Rayday no.3). Elements in Keen’s practice line up with some of the ‘old dadamen’s concerns. Kurt Schwitters’ attempts to extend painting and poetry beyond the structures into which they had settled might be echoed in Keen’s 1977 pronouncement on Expanded Cinema: ‘Concerned from the outset with extending film beyond its traditional limits, it seemed a logical step for me to get beyond the frame.’
One of Keen’s prime locations was Brighton’s municipal tip which appears in his films as a cross between a punk alchemist’s laboratory and a particularly bleak spaghetti western set — a great place to light fires and smash things up without getting into trouble. Making props out of rubbish could be seen as having similarities to some of Schwitters’ Merz work but while Schwitters used discarded items to fashion artefacts on a scale up to monumental, Keen seems more interested in speeding up the process of their transmutation.
Keen’s collaboration with Bob Cobbing and Annea Lockwood on the soundtrack of Marvo Movie (1967) is curated on Ubuweb as a sound poem but is much more effective as part of the film. The silent, onomatopoeic ‘sound effects’—‘zowp’, ‘krak’, ‘burst’ and the mysterious ‘zurp’—that appear on cardboard cut-outs in Rayday Film and other works seem to serve a structural purpose in addition to referencing a grab-bag of comics, films and the Batman TV series starring Adam West. The ZAP and ZIP poems that occur in the Amazing Rayday comics are possibly Keen’s most effective attempts at combining the visual and phonetic elements on paper (not only does a column of ZIPs look like the object the word represents but coming from an onomatopoeic source in the first place the sound is a perfect match…)
Cut Staple Flick is displayed here as an uncut sheet but designed to be assembled as a flick book (pun intended) — on which the text OMO ZAP TOR NAP ART emerges and self-destructs. OMO ZAP is Keen’s self-explanatory pun on homo sapiens. Before hearing Keen read his poems I assumed ‘ZAP’ to be a quick impatient sound but his Wiltshire accent draws it out long. In Amazing Rayday no.4 the reader could interpret ‘…is only shatturd wurd frgmtz imploding brain-needlz’ as dialect pronunciation or a scatological pun; I don’t think it much matters as long as an impression of the flexibility and resilience of language — strongest under pressure, as splintered words are the building blocks for new ones — comes across.
A couple of Keen’s ‘pomediscs’, (elliptical cardboard circles that vary in size between a 7 inch single and and an LP with a central hole for the spinner) are also on display. A panelled — but as far as I could tell entirely non-sequential — spiral of drawings unwinds from the central hole to the outer edge. Clouds and other shapes open to a variety of interpretations are overstencilled with texts like ‘MOMOT’ and ‘KAKA’, numbers and more stylized images… They can be glimpsed in action, generating an indecipherable blur during Rayday Film.
The speed at which text erupts in the films — on characters’ clothing, over the walls Keen is filmed graffiting — make almost as it hard to follow, and watching the films with an eye to textual apparitions meant much hitting of the remote and an increasing sense that my attempts to pick out individual words were pointless, as their significance lay only in transition. Which might be why I turned with some relief to the series of five Amazing Rayday (Secret Comics), dated early to mid 60s (plus a reworked version of no. 1 also on display), though I should admit that even when looking out for possible ‘expansions’ of verbal meaning, I failed to notice the obvious echo of Rayday/Mayday which an exhibition panel points out.
The Amazing Rayday (Secret Comics) are all single sheets, slightly larger than A3, on which a dense array of collaged images and text intermingle. The effect is more akin to an old-fashioned newspaper or catalogue than a comic as there’s little in the way of sequenced panels but the editorial voice, for the little it owes to anything, is closer to Wyndham Lewis’ Blast or the magazine the Bastable children put together in E. Nesbit’s Story of the Treasure-Seekers. Onomatopoeic headlines compete with bizarre images and swathes of typewritten text run in all directions through the interstices. On a first glance at Amazing Rayday Secret Comic no. 1 the jumping superheroine in golden bikini and boots at the top right hand corner catches the eye. Individually cut-out typewritten words ‘THE/DAZZLING/SHADOW/OF/THE/PRECIPICE’ outline her torso.
Along what I first took to be the barrel of a space gun (but seemed on closer inspection to be an amorphous form of twisted vegetable matter or internal organs) small white ‘z’s explode forth into ZAP, enclosed in several spiky layers of speech bubble to suggest maximum impact. STUNRAYDAY runs down along the long right hand edge of the page. In smaller type, WHAM, more or less centred, heads downwards on a collision course with EYEBLAZE underneath. Further down and slightly to the right, the letters forming EEEEEEE! rise at a slight angle, enclosed in a gently spiky speech bubble which gives the impression of trembling. In the middle of the long left hand edge BLAM! runs vertically upwards but apart from the final ‘M’ all the letters are slightly tilted on their axis. In the lower left hand corner, apparently straight from Amazing Stories, a four-armed monster uses his lower pair of hands to strangle a professor-type as a girl rushes to intervene with a stick. Above the line of the monster’s upraised, dagger-wielding upper right arm runs the word AARGH! It doesn’t have to be clear who utters it. ‘ALL ANSWERS PLEASE TO FUTURE/CITY MARSMAN ENTERPRISES/JUNK CITY HOUSE OF SECRETS’.
My attempt to render such a complex tangle of immediate visual impressions as a coherent whole is completely unsatisfactory. By contrast,
‘ray words are all junk words cut up/newstrash pulp scientifiction nat/ional marvel comic words……….’
‘THE CREATURE WALKS THROUGH THE/MOVIE DARKNESS AND THE/GLASSHOUSE/ OF DECAYED/MEAT’
‘KNOW HOW terror methods of history’s no holds/barred terrifying struggle for power fighting/KNOW HOW secrets of hideous vandals thugs/ferocious aztecs vicious karate kas SECRET/POLICE METHODS are all KNOW HOW methods of/once in a lifetime fighting machine secrets’
‘ZOOM INTO SPACE say cosmic/ray commandoes rescue kisses/to star maidens beyond ray/time daylight magnet time’
These are only a selection of the texts ranging freely across Amazing Rayday (Secret Comic) no.1. Are they here to act as mortar holding everything else firmly set on the page, or as a fluid medium of rehashed verbiage in which images and sounds can freely float? If forced to choose I would opt for the latter, but both are relevant. In his foreword to An Anthology of Concrete Poetry (Something Else Press, 1967) Emmett Williams writes in a way that seems to address the issue better than I could. ‘The visual element in their poetry tended to be structural…a “picture” of the lines of force of the work itself, and not merely textural. It was…a poetry that often asked to be completed or activated by the reader, a poetry of direct presentation — the word, not words, words, words or expressionistic squiggles — using the semantic, visual and phonetic elements of language as raw materials in a way seldom used by the poets of the past. It was a kind of game, perhaps, but so is life. It was born of the times, as a way of knowing and saying something about the world of now, with the techniques and insights of now.’
There are a few bookworks on display in the exhibition; Burnt Book (early 1970s) and the Dreams of the Archduke sketchbook (1970s), featuring, among many other things, E.A. Poe’s submarine. All its richly interesting pages can be viewed in a short film on the balcony. The Secret Battleplane</em£ (early 1960s) and Parachutes fail to open (early 1970s) are bookworks which have been formed by hollowing out the page block of an old volume, creating a hiding place when the book is closed (and thereby paying tribute to a staple device of pulp stories).
These books are displayed open and the void left by the removal of the text has been filled with small objects to create a tableau. Peering closely at the frame of overpainted text that surrounds the tableau, there’s an engagement between the text which has been cut away and what Keen has chosen to replace it with. The title of the book transformed into Parachutes fail to open was originally The dreadnought of the air; painted tangles of melted wax, fine thread and anomalous plastic spokes suggest catastrophe (and implicit transformative potential). The Secret Battleplane, however, has kept the original title of the book from which it is formed. The space where the pages on which the story would have unfolded once were now contains; a plastic diver with a silver helmet, a plastic skeleton with a loop on its head, a cream-coloured die with two dots uppermost, a plastic palm tree and a large blue and red ZAP badge. The multiplicity of stories this combination suggests to the viewer is perhaps simultaneously the best argument both for and against words as an effective means of imaginative communication.
Finally, my favourite text on display — and maybe the best trailer ever — is from the poster for Keen’s film White Dust, ‘A Family Star Production’.
& missing close-ups’
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 11th, 2013.