Unpicking the codes of Ghettoville

Theorist and music writer Mark ‘kpunk’ Fisher on the global ghetto and privatised drugs of Actress's awesome new album

Music Actress Day
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All today, we're celebrating London producer Actress's jaw-dropping new album, Ghettoville. Possibly his last release, it's a dark journey to a dystopian capital, and we asked him to curate content to take you on a day trip to Ghettoville. We've interviewed an early inspiration Adamski, premiering the awesome video for "Street Corp.", and caught up with the artists that drew Ghettoville. Here, his favourite writer, Mark 'kpunk' Fisher, offers his thoughts on the album:

The future's over, but you already know that. For a while now, neither politics, nor science fiction nor electronic music has offered us much of a way out of a past that seems as if it can infernally, eternally repeat forever. Darren Cunningham aka Actress's solution to this impasse has always been to patch together something new from fragments of prematurely discarded science and sonic fictions.  

Actress's new album, Ghettoville, is a sequel of sorts to his 2008 debut, Hazyville. It’s an album of extreme, sometimes violent, contrasts in mood and feel. Ghettoville opens in maudlin murk and a sense of overhwelmingly heavy gravity, acid drizzle, squalls of distortion, a hip hop trudge light years from "dance music". Escape velocity is achieved later, when "Gaze" takes flight towards the dancefloor on fragile, mottled wings, while the machine code, industrial smog and phantom voices on "Skyline" are held together by a compulsive bass figure. There’s another tonal shift at the record’s end, where we find we have arrived at a state of fugitive calm. The closing pair of "Don't" and "Rap" are as celestially sylph-like as the openers are earthbound and entropic: each track is based on a single sampled vocal phrases that is looped and dreamily smeared out into some simulation/extension of smoochy 80s soul, as eerie as it is alluring.  

As ever with Actress, Ghettoville is rich in concepts. The album plays on various different senses of the word ghetto. One of the inspirations for Ghettoville was a visit Cunningham took to the Congo, and the first sense of ‘ghetto’ in play is the global ghetto: the global South. You could hear Cunningham’s methodology on the record as in tune with the improvisational way that ghetto science works, producing unstable compounds by combining the cutting edge with the ostensibly obsolete. The old imperialist model of history and geography which wanted to place Africa in pre-history, and the ‘West’ as the summit of progress was always a mirage. From the start, technological modernity depended upon the so-called periphery - for raw materials and forced labour. Now, new technology begins in the global ghetto – with, for instance, the minerals mined in the Congo, without which mobile phones could not function – and it ends up there, tossed on to toxic junk-heaps when it is excreted by the metropolis. 

But Ghettoville also refers to the ghetto as a place of class exclusion. In notes he wrote about the album Cunningham refers to: “Social underclass, (homeless). Mind control, social control, social cleansing, youth work, social drugs, Prozac, vaccines, identity cards.” He has also pointed to the work of author/director Michael Crichton – particularly his cybernetic mind control thriller The Terminal Man and the lesser known 1984 film, Runaway, starring Tom Selleck – as a crucial touchstone for what the album is doing. Crichton is now perhaps best known either for ER or Jurassic Park, but his 1970s work had a different, more paranoiac, tone. The Terminal Man, written in 1972, and adapted for cinema in 1974, was the second in a triptych of bleak Crichton fictions from the early 1970s. It was preceded by The Andromeda Strain, written in 1969 and adapted into a 1971 film, which saw a team of scientists seeking to contain a deadly extraterrestrial virus. (The film has a stunning all-electronic soundtrack composed by Gil Melle.) The third in the set was the 1973 movie Westworld, which was about a theme park populated by androids. The Terminal Man is key because it was a pre-cyberpunk take on cybernetic control.

In some ways its vision of mind control via implants has been superseded by the anti-depressant regime that Cunningham alludes to. Control doesn’t any more need to operate by directly intervening in the brain: rather, we ourselves go "voluntarily" to technology to be controlled, becoming addicted to the clicking of our smartphones and the red alert-stimulus of social media. Of course this appearance of voluntarism and choice is itself highly controlled – by the libidinal engineering (PR, branding and advertising) which constantly cyberblitzes our brains and nervous systems. Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi has argued that the rise of drugs like Prozac can be correlated with the emergence of the new infosphere. We need drugs to cope with the relentless demands on our attention made by capitalist cyberspace. Cunningham also talks of "concealed pain" in relation to Ghettoville ­­– and the rise of the use of anti-depressants amongst the young is a sign of the way that social and economic catastrophe has been privatised and internalised. Where once disaffection was externalised – not least via music – into politicised rage, now it is experienced as a private burden. What would it be for this pain to be directed outwards again? Would this, at last, be a way of recovering the future once more? In its own cryptic way, Ghettoville both poses these questions and starts to answer them.

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