a̶b̶s̶e̶n̶t̶ origin, the new album by South African-British artist and musician Chantal Passamonte (aka Mira Calix) is an extraordinary piece of work. The record takes material from her history – playing in chillout rooms, releasing electronica for the legendary WARP Records, working with classical ensembles, and creating sound for installation art – and chops it up, rearranging it into new shapes. Then from that, she creates some of the most upfront, song-based music she’s ever released out of these shapes. So many things collide in it: organic and electronic, intellect and senses, Passamonte’s own past and present, sounds from across continents. And crucially, she isn’t afraid of the seams showing.
This record is a celebration of collage. Passamonte has expressly referenced the cut-up techniques of Dada, pop art, surrealism and punk in both the artwork – which she created with literal scissors and glue, rearranging images by hand – and the sound, which slams together music of India, Tasmania, Jordan, Belgium, China, Uganda, South Africa and Britain, along with the sounds of protests, poems, bird song, household appliances, media noise and much more. It’s a record for a time of information overload, yet crucially, in acknowledging and having fun with that overload, it creates, paradoxically, a focused and personal expression from its myriad component parts.
Collage is often thought of as a modern form, synonymous with mass media, printing and avant-garde art. But really, human aesthetic experience has always been a mish-mash. Many crafts like marquetry, mosaic and jewellery have always involved playing pre-existing textures against one another. Markets, carnivals and festivals have always been rowdy ad hoc collisions of sounds, sights and voices. And though the renaissance in Europe ushered in an idea of the individual genius creating a single, self-contained work of art, those artworks never stood alone in blank empty spaces: they have always been viewed in combination.
Churches, museums, and the private homes of the rich have always been works of collage in themselves, evolving over centuries, with the works of individual artists taking on significance from the manner in which they’re hung or placed in relation to the various other objects, textiles and décor around them. A well-preserved space like these can be read as a collage, an intersection of ideas and minds which tells a rich story about social structures, religion, trade, colonialism and a whole lot more besides.
John Bingley Garland, Blood Collage, c. 1850-60; Photo Credit: Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA)
More conscious collage really began in the 19th century, with the mass availability of printed – and particularly colour printed – images. In Victorian England, “scrap books” became enormously popular, and sheets of pictures would be printed for hobbyists to cut up and play around with as they pleased. Furniture was often decorated with these cut-outs then lacquered, a style that became known as decoupage. It all made for a peculiar, disorienting and oddly modern aesthetic – one which would be highly influential on 20th century pop culture like Monty Python and The Beatles – and inspired even weirder “outsider artists” like the British merchant John Bingley Garland.
Collage as a serious art form, though – and the common use of the word itself – came into its own at the start of the 20th century. Cubist pioneers Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque incorporated newspapers and magazines into their paintings, then the surrealists and Dada movements began to make a specific virtue of random juxtaposition, saying that it revealed the unconscious mind. Poets like TS Elliot began to incorporate “found” text, too. This would be made more explicit still and popularised by William Burroughs and his friend, the mystic Brion Gysin, who saw it as a kind of divination. In Burroughs’s memorable phrase, “When you cut into the present, the future leaks out.”
Kurt Schwitters, Little Dance (1920); Photo Credit: The Cleveland Museum of Art
Mid-20th century philosophers ran with this: without delving too deep into heavy theory, what became known as postmodernism had at its heart “intertextuality” and breaking boundaries around what were traditionally thought of as distinct works. This was seen as freeing meaning and expression from the idea of eternal truths imposed by the authority of religion or royalty. The multimedia experimental artist Michel Butor said that breaking boundaries “doesn't mean that these borders do not exist... [but] these borders are not permanent and impermeable. We absolutely must understand that the borders between nations are not the same as they were one hundred years ago, that the borders between the activities of the mind and between the institutions which take charge of them are not the same either.”
The expression of this in popular culture became explosive in the late 20th century. From punk fanzine culture and the art of Linder and Jamie Reid, to hip-hop and dance music’s re-appropriation of musical phrases, all gave the sense that everything was up for grabs. Jungle and drum ’n’ bass brought new sophistication to this, as did electronic artists like Herbert, Matmos and the “clicks and cuts” movement: digital technology enabled microscopic details to be isolated, amplified and recombined. Musicians like Goldie spoke at length about this, again, in quasi-mystical terms, referring to the manipulation of time by altering its source material.
As the 21st century dawned and the Information Age went into full gear, collage as a creative aesthetic began to see less emphasis as a whole. In the early 2000s, we witnessed the “mash up”, an often crass tacking-together of two or more tracks, enabled by readily available audio processing power and “the iPod generation” suddenly being given access to the whole of musical history. On the whole, though, sample-based dance music tended to take a back seat, and theoretical interest in juxtaposition diminished too. For example, according to Google Trends, discussion of “postmodernism” plummeted through the 2000s.
It was ironic because the lived reality of postmodernism was taking over everything. Our very lives became more and more collaged, as we patched together timelines of information, images and sounds in our daily screen-based lives. The folk culture of memes increasingly made endless iterations of image collage part of our everyday language. The global explosion of EDM means more people are exposed to the endless cut-up of DJ culture than ever before. But we take a lot of this for granted.
Of course, there are still artists and thinkers examining what happens when information and images collide, but not as explicitly or boldly as they did when the Dada movement reacted to 20th-century mass media, or when the thrill of samplers becoming widely available revolutionised music several times over. But when a project like a̶b̶s̶e̶n̶t̶ origin comes along, the fact that it shows its seams can jolt us into realising what collaged lives we all lead. By going back to Dada and punk, to Linder and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, to paper and scissors, Passamonte is reminding us that we too can dissect the culture around us.
Maybe, this is the future that was “leaking out” of William Burroughs’s cut-outs. At a time when the future can be a fearful thing, it raises strange and alarming questions of what exactly is leaking out, but Passamonte is cheerful and determined company. Determined to build cultural dialogue and fight entrenched bigotry, she questions boundaries and borders just as Michel Butor did in the Sixties. This isn’t just the random flinging together of pictures and sounds for the sake of it – in the visible cracks in Passamonte’s work, maybe, just maybe, she’s looking for the seeds of a better future.
Cover Credit: WARP Records
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.