Ballet Shoes, Butchers’ Knives, and Black Leather Gloves: Narrative of the Body in Harsh Noise Wall (One: The Rita)

(Given at the Punk Scholar’s Network’s “Anyone Can Do It: Noise, Punk and the Ethics/Politics of Transgression” conference, Newcastle University, UK, 17th December 2019.

As reflected in the abstract for this paper as it was included in the programme, it was my initial desire to do something of an artist study of both Richard Ramirez and Sam McKinlay here today. However, I did ultimately decide it would be best to focus on the latter for the purposes of the 20 or so minutes we have together, as McKinlay’s work can, for the most part, be easily and legitimately be synecdochised through discussion of his moniker The Rita, whilst an understanding of Richard Ramirez’ goals, aesthetics, methods and developments of those three require discussion of – at the very least – his group Black Leather Jesus and solo project Werewolf Jerusalem, if not also many other of his myriad projects, such as Crash at Every Speed, Last Rape, or his increasing output and performances simply under his own name. Accordingly, it is my belief that these artists deserve at least one chapter each, and I would encourage anyone interested to follow my blog, which will have this paper going up almost immediately, and can expect a follow-up relating to Richard Ramirez as soon as is possible.)

 

In the Instagram and Bandcamp-based copy for The Rita’s most recent release, Martine Grimaud, UK-based noise label Foul Prey introduced the EP thus:

“Few noise artists manage to imbue their material with such sensitive, intimate emotion as Sam McKinlay. Resolutely dedicated to his art form and the subjects therein, his work is nothing but sincere devotion.

On the face of it, Martine Grimaud is an actress known for her roles in various Euro-erotica films, but to The Rita she is much more indeed.  An example of ‘aesthetic perfection’ and a most worthy subject for detailed contemplation, The Rita sets about manipulating his source material like only he can.  Spoken exchanges and passages of film score are subjected to the trademark gated fuzz turbulence the artist has become synonymous with.  Puckered folds of sticky, crunching noise gather and enfold, as voices become strangled and melody choked, occasionally straining out through the thick curtain of distortion.  The result is a devastating and heady affair that breathes and throbs as if alive.”

Such a description can certainly evoke various responses, including criticality toward a male gaze objectification of a woman into a fetishized female object, rendered a dehumanising, pedestaled ideal. It is not my intention in this paper necessarily to rescue The Rita from such an accusation, rather instead to muse to a certain extent upon what it means to have a dynamic of relation, identification and power between two agents in which humanity may be reduced or discarded, when placed within the context of musical production whose sonic brutality is often celebrated and castigated, simultaneously by different parties, for its inhuman qualities.

In this paper, I shall engage with aspects of The Rita’s oeuvre, particularly charting what might roughly be bifurcated into two relatively distinct eras: the initially giallo slasher and horror-focused work of the late 90s and 00s, and the current era of albums and Eps, predominantly centred around classical ballet, and individual actresses from softcore and mondo pornographic cinema. My aim here is to open conversation regarding The Rita’s particular sonic interaction with ideas and bodies, the extent to which these may create specific sounds, and in what ways such a supposedly chaotic aural oikos can alter (or at least alter our perception of) the subject/object caesura of events that, pre-recording and manipulation are so routinely considered the very icons of such distinctions, not least of all within the context of power relations.

The album I would most typically indicate as the apex of McKinlay’s first decade as The Rita, the magnum opus of the giallo obsessive, is 2004’s Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence.

Bear Traces of Carnal Violence makes conservative, but still evident, use of recognisable samples, distinguishable from the noise wall. Which is to say, although the primary source sounds are present throughout the album, there are variations in distortion as such to reveal the nature of the sound’s originary source at sporadic moments, before crumbling back into a “purer” noise. The screams and crashes coming from the album title’s inspiration, I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale, and many other gialli besides, are of the very same instances of psycho-sexual murder to which the film title refers. Nevertheless, McKinlay’s decision in translation – however conscious it may or may not have been – to leave out the article “The,” as indicated by use of the Italian masculine plural i (i.e. The Bodies Bear Traces) abstracts the declarative statement to a degree of startling astuteness within the context of Foucault’s account of corporeal genealogy. All bodies bear traces of carnal violence:

 

 

“Domination…establishes marks of its power and engraves memories on things and even within bodies. It makes itself accountable for debts and gives rise to the universe of rules, which is by no means designed to temper violence, but rather to satisfy it…The law is a calculated and relentless pleasure, delight in the promised blood, which permits the perpetual instigation of new dominations and the staging of meticulously repeated scenes of violence…Humanity does not gradually progress from combat to combat until it arrives at universal reciprocity, where the rule of law finally replaces warfare; humanity installs each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination.” (“Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” p.85)

Unlike so many horror film samples in noise and extreme metal, which are typically used at the very beginning of a song, as indication of a breakdown, or sometimes at the very end, the muffled screams first appear noticeable halfway through the first track of two, “Vice Wears Black Hose,” before dissipating into the harsh noise wall once more. Indeed, thus, so too is the violence abstracted from any singular origin, as Elisabeth Freeman described sadomasochism’s “temporal noncoincidence between action and result.” And, just as the sounds of the act dissolve back into noise, the violence of the act dissolves back into power. (“Bodies Bear Traces: Noise, Power and Perpetual Disintegration,” p.45-6)

 

 

The primary source material for Bodies Bear Traces is in fact a film of McKinlay’s own making – or rather, his own compilation – Black Gloves and Razors, a feature-length super cut of violent murder scenes from a vast number of giallo productions. McKinlay’s consciously simple mode of performatively amateur contraction and compilation impresses upon the spectator the sensation-al violence of power’s destructive movement through a temporal condition of recurrence. Without invoking a concept of such quotidian legibility as “story,” Black Gloves certainly contains a narrative movement – even if the condition of recurrence prohibits progression – in the form of the affective variation from one murder to the next: though largely decoupled from all prior-established contexts, one murder immediately elicits revulsion; another, laughter; another, tragedy. We may consider Deleuze’s description of repetition operating within an economy of “reflections, doubles, echoes and souls” (Difference and Repetition, p.3). Perhaps, Black Gloves and Razors provides us with the echoes, with the souls of the ultraviolent encounter, extant in its power despite the potential alienation of its extraction, though its “meaning” (by which I mean how it may be understood in the context of human reception) certainly does wither in relation to its “nth generation” status. Indeed, we the spectator are given no opportunity in watching Black Gloves and Razors to divorce the events on-screen from the mechanics of its production: a DVD-R rip of a VHS-to-VHS transfer of videotapes which, in almost all cases, were transferred, copied, bootlegged indeterminable times before. Here is that rendering of the filmic (that is to say, the original, finished and released copies of Death Carries a CaneSeven Murders for Scotland YardRed Cats in a Glass Maze etc) into the pro-filmic (the exogenous “reality” to be captured onto film itself). Where does “real” reality go? It is difficult to say, but also largely irrelevant: Deleuze indicates that, in a world of repetition, what ultimately is repeated is repetition, itself. The rips and transfers become a method of genealogical praxis, although McKinlay, through Black Gloves and Razors, enacts this praxis in the guise of another masked killer: obsessional in his focus, he nonetheless abstracts bodies of text – and figures within – through his own editorial method of slicing and dicing. Corpses/corpuses are dismembered, scattered across the timeline, while their skin is marked, branded, bruised, bleeding, disintegrating.

 

 

Whilst earlier works’ overt interactions with unquestionable representations of violence, a significant amount of McKinlay’s more contemporary The Rita releases act as individual investigations of typically highly specific subjects – a body part, an item of clothing, the application of makeup – or an individual dancer, performer or actor, still through the medium of harsh noise. The prevailing terms for understanding The Rita’s relationship with the topics indicated most clearly through titles and images accompanying the sound itself remain obsession and abstraction, the latter in particular appears to have made something of a nuanced transition from that of multiplication to that of magnification. Objects and bodies are conceptually, sonically and visually honed and zoomed in on, such a degree of focus centralising less, as I have discussed previously, “the dynamic brutality of power’s traversal across delineated points of relation in the mode of ultraviolence,” and more the notion of power operating as a potential energy, interpreted through noise as a representational medium associated with an affective violence, within established performative arenas of reception. Although the increased insistence upon the investigated topics’ spectacular position might be understood as an emphasis of their inertness, the “violence” of noise renders it anything but a genre that indicates the pure passivity of its subjects.

Two functions are simultaneously performed: one is the uplifting and naming of ballerinas and underground movie actresses in equal measure, simultaneously, respectively democratising and rarefying seemingly mutually exclusive realms and industries of culture through a univocal environment of distortion. The second is to indicate as effectively as possible the place of the body within this economy of power – namely, the body of the receiver, be they in the role of collector or audience. Noise’s role as portal to, if not environment of, jouissance is exactly that which allows such allegedly disparate topics as ballet, pornography, horror, find their chaotic common ground. Jouissance as that limit-experience, that which is too far beyond the pleasure principle to be neatly definable, so often mistaken for largely conventional sadomasochistic engagement that repurposes pain as a route to pleasure, is in fact a state in which such notions are rendered meaningless, having no dividing line. In quotidian discourse, one word that has descended from the realm of jouissance, to be typically domesticated, is that of passion. Its original meaning most routinely indicated in biblical rhetoric – The Passion of the Christ – being an often transformative state of emotional hypersensation, be it of love, lust, anger, fear, madness, or all of the above and more.

 

Screenshot (192)

 

Illness as Metaphor, Sontag reminds us that passion-as-suffering is the etymological root of patient, whilst Spinoza’s treatise on the emotions emphasizes the passive status of passion, conversant with the active position. Thus, noise as sonic manifestation and medium of passion parallels the asymmetrical relation of power between the body of the performer – which is to say, the titular women, rather than McKinlay – and the audience – us – as entirely in the favour of the performer. However, that is not to deny the women depicted are themselves in pain, as the above quote from Kristin Hayter indicates, or that, every day, they are placed at the unfortunate, repressed and indeed oppressed end of patriarchal gendered power relations. See also, McKinlay’s listed influences:

“The writings of Emile Zola, the realist films of Jean Renoir, the Lustmord movement of the 1920s, the Old Dark House / Whodunnit films of the 1930s, the Krimi films of the 1960s, the Giallo films of the 1970s, and most recently for me the feminist ideologies that surround the early classical ballet into early-mid 20th century contemporary ballet.  The genres listed above are all portray the harming of women and the themes that surround the societal problems that create the tragedy that is misogyny… these details all culminate for myself into the apex – a woman’s stage portrayal in the classical ballet.  The fascination for all the genres above I’ve used as source sounds trying to garner the various dynamics from each genre into abrasive sound.”

 

Similarly to the ways in which Black Gloves and Razors approximated the harsh noise wall through its multiplication of scenes of total violence, revealing through the repetitiously singular distributions of power operations of a frenzied choreographical unconscious, later work may be understood to investigate a latent power, signified through choreographical performance, translated into that which approaches total sonic violence.

 

 

The Rita’s mode of harsh noise, as a transmogrification of dynamics of gendered power that are typically conceived of solely in visual terms operates, for all its manipulation and processing, operates as a system of reduction to monadic elements of bodies and power. Doing so through a simultaneous application of the alchemical principles of solve et coagula, we understand these bodies in terms of repetition, subjection and production; assemblage and fractures. Within the chaos of the noise wall, notions of passion and possession, and the bodies that both project and have these notions projected onto themselves, find themselves becoming decoupled, deterritorialized from their conventional positions, whilst their extant relation to power, even if the power relations themselves are in flux, each bear a subtle uniqueness:

 

“All of my various interests and obsessions that I have worked with I try to directly transform into the various textures of abrasive sound.  No matter how deconstructed the original sound is, be it sharks banging against an anti-shark cage and the hull of a boat, spoken word, film scenes, skateboarding, women’s physical movement, a fishing lure down a fish’s throat, etc., I believe firmly in the fact that the subtle nuances of the the various sounds directly effect the final work.  Even if its at a subconscious level, I imagine that an hour long re-mixed, deconstructed and distorted version of the women from a classical ballet will be very different in the end from an hour long track of very similarly processed ocean snorkeling sounds.”

 

The subtle uniqueness of each body’s interaction with the violent power upon it and within it is a whisper in the thunderous electronics toward a pure deterritorialized state, one that has achieved a line of flight. Parallel to the seeming oxymoron of a narrative of noise: within the violence, we may find our escape.

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