Ilia Rogatchevski interviews Joe Banks. Originally conducted for Resonance 104.4fm in November 2016.
Joe Banks is a sound artist, author and researcher, originally specialising in radio phenomena and electromagnetic noise. For over twenty years Joe has been performing, releasing albums and exhibiting under the guise of Disinformation. This Disinformation brand name allows for a critique of corporate identities and modern communication, and uses a sonic palette sourced from errant radio waves, natural earth signals, and interference from the sun and from the National Grid, etc. In 2012, Joe published “Rorschach Audio – Art and Illusion for Sound” on Strange Attractor press, a book that explored the subject of EVP (ghost voice) research in contemporary sound art practice. Joe’s work currently focusses on language and evolutionary neuroscience. Joe lives in London, 40 metres from the spot where physicist Leo Szilard conceived the theory of the thermonuclear chain reaction.
For more information, please visit https://rorschachaudio.com/about/
IR: Disinformation began in the mid-1990s. What was the conceptual reasoning behind branding your creative output, rather than just making works under your given name? Has the conceptual framework behind the Disinformation handle changed or shifted in the last twenty years?
JB: To clarify when it was that all this activity started, the first Disinformation solo releases were published by the record company Ash International – an imprint of Touch Records – in 1996. The first collaborative recording, where I contributed Very Low Frequency (VLF) radio noise, to a track by Andrew Lagowski’s SETI project, appeared on a compilation CD called “Mesmer Variations” in 1995, and that contribution is credited to Disinformation in the printed CD sleeve-notes.
The name Disinformation works well for performing concerts and publishing LP and CD tracks, but was intended as much as a brand name. At the time I was interested in exploring ideas around corporate communications, logo design, corporate identities and branding. The name Disinformation also suggests parallels with philosophical concepts like the Liar Paradox and so-called Strange Loop. The name is also useful in collaborating with other artists. Creating collaborative artworks and publishing under the authorship of “Joe Banks” could arguably be misleading for audiences and disrespectful to collaborating artists.
If I’m writing research, obviously I have to publish using my own name. However, I’m also careful to not just acknowledge, but to actively advertise all the inspirations and sources that I make use of, in terms of the artists who’ve inspired my artworks, and the authors of material used in research work like the “Rorschach Audio” project.
As for the name itself, with all this talk of “post truth” politics, “fake news”, and Michael Fallon’s recent statement about “weaponising misinformation”, if anything, the idea of encouraging scepticism is more prescient now than it has been at any point in the last twenty years.
IR: What attracted you to using sound as a medium? I’m particularly interested in finding out what your gateway to experimenting with radio waves (VLF, ELF, Noise from the sun and and the National Grid) was. What creative potential do you see in radio?
JB: Part of the appeal of making sonic art using VLF radio noise was that on the one hand the imagery associated with VLF is just extraordinary – electric and magnetic storms, radio science, electricity, space physics, communications science, defence electronics, etc. On the other hand the techniques required to record these phenomena are technically straightforward and cheap to realise. It was really about research, about ideas, and a creative thought-process, rather than being about technology as such.
IR: In the past you’ve described your work as being akin to natural wildlife recording. Do you find that recording storms or interference places you in a similar realm of debate as soundscape studies and acoustic ecology? Do you see interference, i.e. your source material, to be a pollutant on our (sonic) landscape?
JB: The idea of presenting recordings of electromagnetic interference as a form of wildlife recording is important, but only really applies to a few Disinformation tracks – unprocessed, un-remixed field recordings like “Theophany” (meaning “The Voice of God”), “Stargate” [both from the “Stargate” LP, 1996] and “Ghost Shells” [12”, 1996] for instance, and, later on the “London Underground” and “Bexleyheath to Dartford” tracks [from “Sense Data & Perception”, 2005], but the idea’s still relevant.
Compared to the acoustic ecology movement, part of the artistic strategy was to poke fun at some of these over-romanticised conventions about what’s considered “natural”. The idea that any electrical activity, and, even more so, any human activity, is or can be part of nature goes against the more sentimental notions that some people project onto what they see as being nature.
In contrast, it’s about stressing how electricity is an aspect of the natural world, as opposed to being exclusively and purely a product of technology, and about stressing how human activity is part of nature – stressing these facts as a positive, as an expression of idealism, to question traditional ideas about how we’re seen as distinct from other species and from the rest of the natural world.
IR: Reading through some of the materials you sent me, I’ve noticed that you place great emphasis on copyrighting your work, images, sounds and ideas. While this is not uncommon, I’m interested to find out what your relationship is to appropriation, synchronicity and originality in art? In the example of Tacita Dean’s ‘Sound Mirrors’, is it possible that there was overlap in interests, rather than outright theft of intellectual property? Have there been other examples where your work has been subjected to misuse or appropriation without your consent?
JB: It seems pretty obvious that from time to time artists do independently re-discover aspects of each others’ ideas, in good faith, so-to-speak. It seems equally obvious that problems with genuine rip-offs have as much to do with issues of professional and personal courtesy and common sense as they have to do with actual copyright law, but, to be honest, I don’t think there is any more emphasis on copyright in my work than you’d find in any mainstream cultural product.
It’s more a question of not being naive about the fact that today’s avant-garde cultural experiments become tomorrow’s mainstream and trying to protect yourself from exploitation in that context. Copyright is far too complex a subject to do justice to here, but I notice that in your own material you talk about being influenced by the Situationist writer Guy Debord, who is perceived as a famous, almost legendary, opponent of copyright.
What is less well-known is that Guy Debord, his partner Alice Becker-Ho and Debord’s friend, Gianfranco Sanguinetti, all asserted and defended their own copyrights when they felt their ideas were being misused (and this is well documented on a pro-Situ website called “Not Bored“).
As a case in point, from 1999 to 2006 my research project “Rorschach Audio” generated between £0 and £150 per year, mostly in lecture fees. Then, after successfully fending-off a number of fairly blatant copyists, from 2007 to 2012 the project attracted £234,000 in AHRC funding. Suffice to say that I only got to see a small portion of that funding in terms of personal salary, but this does show how much ideas can go on to become worth, even, in some cases, after years of being marginalised and ignored.
IR: I’ve been reading “Rorschach Audio” with great interest and while I consider the subject of EVP to be a bit of a red herring, I wonder if you’ve come to a consensus regarding the reason why artists are attracted to and get sucked into working with EVP? Is there anything beyond the grief/loss factor or the lo-fi aesthetic?
JB: The Electronic Voice Phenomena – ghost voice – belief system is just so blatantly false that when I first got involved with sonic art my attitude to EVP was outright hostile. I didn’t become interested in EVP until it became apparent that the psychological processes which enable people to mishear poor-quality voice recordings as ghosts, are, in themselves, more interesting than the recordings themselves. But it never ceases to amaze me how many people in electronic music, alternative and mainstream art, even academia, seem sympathetic to the idea that EVP recordings are actual ghosts.
One reason, perhaps, that a few people get attracted to EVP, is, frankly but honestly, because they flunked science at school, so they don’t seem to understand why it is that using a bit of made-up technical jargon and messing around with electronic recording technology isn’t enough to make EVP experiments “scientific”.
From time to time, and particularly among some artists, you also come up against a kind of postmodernism-by-numbers, which is so anti-rational that some people don’t seem to understand what science is, why science is important, or how science works; who have little concept of the distinction between science and technology, and no concept of science being a methodology first and foremost.
Obviously bereavement can be a genuine motive, but in some cases artists choose to work with EVP because it seems to challenge conventional thinking, albeit on a very superficial level. And because EVP recordings are just really easy to make.
IR: How has your research developed since the publication of “Rorschach Audio” in 2012? I get a sense that you’re moving into a more language-focused direction. Is the technology that’s responsible for most electronic music now playing a smaller part in your practice?
JB: I should stress that I’m actively continuing to exhibit and to develop all the existing work; also, since 2012, a great deal of new material has been published on the “Rorschach Audio” website. “Rorschach Audio” features have been published in places as diverse as the lifestyle magazine of the Soho House hotel chain and “The Psychologist” – the magazine of the British Psychological Society.
Having said that, you’re absolutely spot-on – whereas in the early days “Rorschach Audio” focussed on illusions of sound, as the project progressed, the focus shifted towards illusions of language, then to language more generally. Technology itself has never really been the prime focus – as the “Rorschach Audio” book says, “the earliest form of sound recording technology was not a machine but was written language”.
Even when I was producing sound art almost exclusively with VLF radios, even that work was really about radio as a sensory extension. It was about psychology of perception, and this is something that makes this work qualitatively different from most work by artists who’ve used electromagnetic noise. It’s what Geoffrey Grigson called “the electricity of the mind”… it’s about excitement… it’s about ideas.
In light of what you say, if I may I’d also encourage your readers to check out an article I wrote about evolutionary neuroscience, with the subtitle “visual reality is in itself a carefully constructed optical illusion”, for the website of the AXNS [Art X Neuroscience] Collective (see below). That is one I’m particularly proud of, not least because it’s almost exclusively about visual perception, and, in fact, because it says almost nothing about sound at all.
Interview conducted by Ilia Rogatchevski