Author Archive: Bill Caraher

Punk Rock, Materiality, and Time

Monday, May 2nd, 2011 by Bill Caraher

I spent part of the weekend doing three things: learning how to make pasta with my new pasta maker, listening to low-fi punk, and reading Kathleen Davis’s Periodization and Sovereignty (Penn 2008). I am not sure that I learned much applicable to this blog from making pasta (although it was delicious last night at dinner), but low-fi punk, a short Twitter exchange, and Davis’s book did bring together some ideas that I had been meaning for some time to post to our semi-dormant Punk Archaeology blog.

The low-fi sound that has become popular thanks in large part to bands like the White Stripes, the Black Keys, and other purveyors of so-called Punk Blues positions itself as an antidote to the austere, “over-produced” stylings of contemporary pop music.  (Recently, I’ve been hanging out with the album “GB City” by Bass Drum of Death, but I also listened to Soledad Brothers self titles solo album and their more polished 2006 offering The Hardest Rock. My original idea for a post was to compare the low-fi, thoroughly average sound of “GB City” to the produced sound of Arcade Fire’s “Suburbs”, but that seemed too easy). The sound harkens back to garage rock and rough live albums produced in make shift recording studies on 4 and 8 track recording machines.  Low-fi recordings replaced the spaceless character of the recording study with the gritty and flawed presence of the garage, the basement, or the warehouse. Echoing and distorted vocal tracks compete for space against raw guitars and abusive drums. The best low-fi captures something of a hastily-arranged live recording without actually being anywhere in particular. Low-fi comes from anyone’s basement, garage, or abandoned strip mall.  It embodies marginal (maybe even abandoned) spaces (it’s not surprising that Detroit has become a Mecca of low-fi sound) and pushes out music that speaks to haste, temporary accommodations, and immediacy without specificity.

With the advent of digital music, low-fi has projected the materiality of its sound by producing vinyl LPs or even cassette tapes.  The sonic texture of the 8-track recorder in the basement or garage comes packaged in neatly anachronistic forms that insists upon a material presence even more physical than the music itself.  A friend of mine (on Twitter ironically enough!) suggested a track from an Oblivian’s album recently. When I asked whether she could share the track with me, she told me that she only had it on vinyl! So the grounding of low-fi music in a time and place moves from the practice of recording and to its materiality as a recorded product. Digital music, which can exist simultaneously in an infinite number of places resists any effort to impose physicality (and with music moving to “the cloud” in the very near future the location of music recordings will become all the more ambiguous).

The link between the physical sound of the low-fi recording and its circulation in physical media positions low-fi (and punk) to resist (in an ironic way, to be sure) the ephemeral character of so much “cultural” production today. From blogs and ebooks to musings in the indistinct space of social media, the viral distribution of music and video, and claims of a reimagined-ascetic minimalism, the space or even material nature of cultural production is collapsing in on itself.  In the future (bee-boop-boop-boop-beep), the diagnostic rims of Late Roman fine ware vessels will be stray bits of sound, text, or video clinging to the deteriorating disks of disused servers or discarded along with iPods and Kindles in modern middens.  Unlike the vinyl LP or even the (comparatively) primitive cassette tape, there is little on the iPod or Kindle that links it physically to the music or text stored on the device. Moreover, the use of these devices  do not cause the music or text to deteriorate.

So, I sat around this weekend, grading papers, making pasta, reading Kathleen Davis’ book, and listening to the space of low-fi sound spooling off a hard drive and running through my stereo. I could listen to it as much as I wanted and wherever I wanted.



Monday, August 16th, 2010 by Bill Caraher

On Kostis’ urging, I have been listening to the new Arcade Fire album, the Suburbs. The album itself is a meditation of urban planning and its social impact, but I’ll leave this larger issue to Kostis.  What I want to focus on in particular is the notion of sprawl that comes through in the last couple of songs in the album.  As critics have noted, the idea of sprawl (as in, but not exclusively, urban sprawl) derives some of its meaning in punk circles from William Gibson’s fictitious topography of the post-apocalyptic east coast.  Gibson described an massive east coast settlement stretching from Boston to Atlanta partially housed in a series of dilapidated geodesic domes.  This forms a suitably bleak environment for his high-tech dystopian novels.  Arcade Fire’s understanding of the sprawl clearly has roots in their critique of urbanism in its many 20th and 21st century guises.  The sprawl consists of a bleak assortment of architectural (“dead shopping malls”, bright lights), social,(dead end jobs, threatening police), and perhaps environmental images (the black river).  All these images resonate with Gibson’s dystopian and apocalyptic vision of the near future world.

The kind of dystopian social critiques of the future are almost always rooted in a kind of utopian view of the past (and has obvious links with genres like the jeremiad).  In fact, they rely on a recognizable past remaining hidden in plain sight to make it clear to the reader that their own present has become just another layer of detritus.  Gibson – like Sonic Youth and to some extent Arcade Fire – liken the Sprawl to the failings of capitalism to produce a sustainable, responsible prosperity. The chorus from the Sonic Youth anthem chants: “Come on down to the store, you can buy some more and more and more.”  The verses paint the same kind of dystopia as Arcade Fire’s with cheap clothing, depressing shotgun houses, and rusted machines along a river. 

Scenes of polluted nature, urbanism, and faded modernity, is pretty standard fair for both science fiction and music, and the same ideas inform our archaeological imagination as well.  As I’ve mentioned earlier, romantic views of the natural landscape appeal to me even though I know that these views are as profoundly unhistorical as utopians imaginings of a primordial, edenic nature.  Human activities have had a fundamental influence on almost every aspect of the Eastern Mediterranean places where I work.  As an archaeologist, I already understand that there is no escaping from the sprawl and our own present is, in fact, a past dystopian future.

Like the works of Gibson and the music of Sonic Youth and Arcade Fire the crass consumerism of late capitalism is held up to be at least tacitly responsible for decline.  The focus falls (predictably and particularly) on the relationship between individuals (and their behavior) and objects.  In fact, the physical character of objects take on an archaeological character as they become vehicles for both present identities and history.  This is archaeological thought: while punk’s characters take in the sprawling ruins of shopping malls and rusted machines that stretch outward from centers of human settlement, archaeologists lovingly document the tell-tale haloes of ceramic material encircle ancient sites.  In fact, many scholars argue that the practice of spreading manure created these ceramic haloes. Within the settlement, residents discarded bits of broken pottery on piles of household (both human and animal)waste.  The practice of studying the remains of human activity in the countryside by documenting these worn fragments of discarded goods reminds us of a profoundly dystopian image: communities literally consuming their own waste.

So, as both archaeology and our punk friends scrutinize materiality as an indicators of culture.  They invite us to contemplate the remains of the past as both a cautionary tale for the ephemeral nature of the material accomplishments that we hold dear, while at the same time validate our ability to understand the past (and the present) through bits of meaning embedded in those same good and practices.  The failures of culture manifest themselves in the discarded objects, buildings, and goods scattered about, and these same practices construct a body of material that we can study and reproduce the past. 

The presence of nature amidst these man-made ruins and the parallel between the ruins of capitalism (dead shopping malls) and natural features (rise like mountains beyond mountains) reminds us that all of our surroundings are cultural, and, at that point, dystopian landscapes become familiar.  We not only live in the sprawl, but we have always lived in the sprawl.

More Punk and Nostalgia

Monday, August 2nd, 2010 by Bill Caraher

Kostis Kourelis brought to my attention a recent New York Times article on an exhibit of Victorian era stereoscopic photographs called “A Village Lost and Found”.  What made this exhibit interesting to punk archaeology fans, was that former Queen guitarist Brian May curated the exhibit and co-wrote the accompanying book.  The New York Times review of the exhibition both feigns surprise that a rock ‘n’ roller like May would be interested in such quaint, esoteric artifacts as hand-colored stereoscopic images and, at the same time, acknowledged the deep nostalgic vein in British society (and its music).  In doing so, the NYT’s author makes reference to one of my favorite albums which lurks around the margins of punk rock, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society.

The double album, released in 1968, consists of series of tracks celebrating traditional village life in England.  Topics range from the Village green to picture books, trains, farms, and typical village characters (Johnny Thunder and the deviously rocking Wicked Annabella).  The nostalgic element captured, however ironically, in the Kink’s album continues in punk music.  As I have noted before, punk always had an affection for the pop music of the earlier generation, even though punk rockers from the Germs to the Ramones and the Heartbreakers typically sped up the hooks and contorted the lyrics that gave pop music its wide-spread appeal.  One of my personal favorites is the Germ’s cover of Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round”.  At the same time punk rockers like Jonathan Richman (especially in his early Modern Lovers tracks like Old World, which is bracketed later in the first Modern Lovers’ album with the track Modern World) produced music with the same whimsical nostalgia as the Kink’s Village Green:

I see the ’50’s apartment house
It’s bleak in the 1970’s sun
But I still love the ’50’s
And I still love the old world
I wanna keep my place in this old world
Keep my place in the arcane knowledge
And I still love the ’50’s and I still love the old world

As I have argued before the archaeological character of these songs is not in their perfect reproduction of the past, but in the preservation of the past through critique.  For example, the Kink’s celebration of the Village Green evokes the nostalgia for the earlier times that shot through modernizing British society. In fact, as Matthew Johnson has described in his Ideas of Landscape, such nostalgia for  an earlier period influenced how archaeologist have studied the landscape and regarded material and buildings from the modern period.  Romantic notions of the earlier, rural world, celebrated its simplicity, inherent virtues (especially of Britishness and, as we have witnessed recently the “real” America of the small town), and purity, and expected some degree of continuity to be visible in the society and culture of contemporary denizens of the countryside and the small town.

Punk tried to make a mess of these idyllic critiques by taking the staid nostalgia and melding it with what to many appeared to be the most fleeting, contemporary, and critical musical genres. In some ways, this finds a parallel between those of us committed to sophisticated and critical approaches to archaeology of the countryside, but still enamored with the illusory, anti-modern character of the countryside.  I can admit to loving to explore the lonely hilltops in Greece, to document isolated ruins, and to embracing the contrast between the bustle of the village or city and the peaceful “isolation” of rural Greece.  I often will pause and listen just to the wind and revel in the absence of the motorbikes or trucks while at the same time scrutinizing the read-out on a state-of-the-art GPS unit or looking at a map showing an aerial photographs and analyzed via sophisticated computer software.  As much as my analyses call into question the notion that the Greek countryside was isolated, I still use view of olive covered hills in my publications and presentations to evoke the exotic character of an archaeological past.  The contrast between my reliance on modern technology to document the past and the romantic image of the rural Greece produces a productive conflict.  My appreciation of the beauty and isolation of the Greek countryside drew inspiration from traditional romantic views of rural life while, at the same time, my approach to field work and conclusions challenges those very same views.  A Punk Archaeology approach embraces these same ironies drawing heavily on traditional of thought while at the same time challenging them.

For more musings on Punk Archaeology be sure to check out our blog here.

Punk and Spolia

Thursday, July 29th, 2010 by Bill Caraher

Over the last week or so, I’ve been listening again to the Detroit Cobras and thinking about some of our first conversations on Punk Archaeology.  The Cobras specialize in what they have called “revved up soul”.  They make this wonderful noise by covering (mostly) lost classics of the MoTown era over the  driving rhythms of punk and the fuzzy, distorted lo-fi sound of the punk blues movement.  Rachel Nagy’s voice succeeds at being both smooth and abrasive at the same time.  Some critics have called their sound “Garage Soul”.

Their first album, Mink, Rat or Rabbit covered songs by 1950s and early 1960s bands like The Marvelettes, The Shirelles, Irma Thomas, The “5” Royales, and The Shangri-Las.  Later albums continue this tradition.  (They’re first two albums – Mink, Rat or Rabbit and Life, Love and Learning – are, to my ear, their best.  (Notice the absence of the “Oxford comma” in both titles.)

The point of mentioning this somewhat obscure band is to consider the relationship between punk and spolia.  Spolia is a technical archaeological term for the re-use older fragments of architecture in new construction. It is typically associated with Late Antiquity and was initially regarded by critics steeped in the Classical Tradition as indicative of the lose of technical skills and economic impoverished conditions at the end of Antiquity.  Other saw the use of spolia as a conscious decision on the part of Late Antique builders and, at worst, reflective of a taste for a discordant, disorganized, and, ultimately, decadent aesthetic.

Of course hip-hop music withstood similar criticisms as they cut up and sampled R&B classics to form  rhythmic backdrop for their poetry.  Such reuse of earlier material was unoriginal and indicative of a kind of creative bankruptcy among “today’s generation”.  Punk took their lead from pop music which they sped up and made more up-tempo, raucous and chaotic.  The Cobras occupy a third space recently developed by bands like the White Stripes and the Black Keys where punk, R&B, and blues infused with the DIY, lo-fy sound of the garage (which represents a more austere and suburban version of the venerable lo-fy Juke Joint).

The epicenter of this music has been Detroit (or the Rust Belt more broadly) where the punk of the MC Five and the blues Son House and John L. Hooker intersect.  The music here has tremendous symbolic significance, as Detroit has become emblematic of the decline of “traditional America” and images of the ruinous conditions of the factories have become images of the decline of America’s fortunes as a manufacturing power.  The photographs are archaeological in their attention to detail and the need to accommodate history.

The music of the Detroit Cobras provide a counterpoint to the haunting, archaeological photographs of abandoned Detroit.  Fragments of the city’s earlier days come through in their music, but rather than critique the declining fortunes of America’s industrial heartland, the music calls forth the continued vitality of those days in much the same way that spolia maintained a conscious connection with earlier architecture.

The archaeological impulse in of punk rock of the Detroit Cobras reveals a kind of native archaeology of the American city which draws backwards on its unique history to produce critical memory.  Such work is the work of archaeologists both of the past and the present who sought to communicate something meaningful from the fragments of the past that remained visible in their present.  The spolia preserved in the music of the Detroit Cobras presents a musical museum in much the same way that the fragments of the past in produce meaning in the context of a physical museum today or in the context of monumental architecture in Late Antiquity.

Punk Archaeology, Squatting and Abandonment

Monday, February 22nd, 2010 by Bill Caraher

I spent part of the weekend exploring Thurston Moore‘s and Abby Bank’s evocative book, Punk House. The book largely features Abby Bank’s photographs of punk houses across the U.S. Thurston Moore, of Sonic Youth fame, provides a short introduction where he talks about the punk house phenomenon, the practice of squatting associated with the most radical expression of the punk lifestyle, and the aesthetic of the punk interpretation of the DIY approach to home decoration. All of these practices speak to the radical politics behind punk rock as a movement. The rejection (or total disregard for) private property made squatting an appealing alternative to ownership, and the collective house represented a more domesticated (and less risky) alternative.

Squatting, Archaeology, and Abandonment
Squatting is essentially an archaeological phenomenon; archaeologists are squatters who occupy and savor the abandoned corners of a society. While archaeology tends to be a form of high impact squatting which often leads to the destruction, punk squatting represents a whole series of ephemeral practices that can go almost undetected by subsequent visitors to the space. Like archaeology itself, the practice squatting challenge any simple view of abandonment and in turn challenges the notion of ownership, possession, and use that are vital in some way to our understanding of function within an archaeological context. So while archaeologists are squatters, like punks, the practice of squatting undermines basic assumptions that allow archaeology to function. Archaeologists, like squatters, put spaces in the margins of the mainstream world into use.

Recent attention to the practice of abandonment both within the archaeological record and in the American cities wracked by the recent economic downturn has tended to view the spaces of abandonment as tragic expressions of the ultimate futility of human efforts to transform the landscape or the false optimism of progress. Abandoned monumental architecture – especially hospitals, prisons, factories, churches, or public works – provided evidence for the cynicism of the punk world view as well as the backdrop for their ability live without these amenities.

Archaeological evidence for so-called squatters in the period of history that I study, Late Antiquity, almost beg such ideological questions. Were the Late Antique squatters in the monumental architecture of the earlier, Classical, era proto-punks who recognized and celebrated the futility of their predecessors? Should we view their re-use of abandoned spaces as critique?

At the same time the modern archaeologist as squatter likewise searches for fragments of the past – something useful among the neglected corners of society – in a utopian and ideological quest to produce a singular, uninterrupted world.

Formation Process and Provisional Discard
Bank’s photographs capture the layered, weathered, look of group houses that both support the impecunious lifestyles of their punk residents as well as the chaotic, multi-generation application of DIY practices. The rooms that Bank’s photographed were filled with objects out of context – junk – deployed to support lifestyles at the margins of capitalism. The houses stand as living testimony to the value quintessential archaeological practice of provisional discard. The pattern of occupation produces a stratigraphic space as each resident adds a layer of interpretation to what went before.

These houses take what archaeologists have sometimes seen as an almost subconscious or deeply structured processes of discard into a performative critique of society. Short term habitation practices, in turn, transform a series of practical choices into the chaotic pastiche of lived stratigraphy.

The link between these houses and punk music is clear. As we have observed before, punk music is a nostalgic, utopian, critique that seeks a more profound authority than punks observe from the world around them. The punk houses, the temporary residence of squatters, and the archaeology of a stratified, provisional existence, forms a physical counterpoint to the archaeological overtones in punk music.

Performing the Margins: Punk and Place

Monday, September 7th, 2009 by Bill Caraher

Even as Kostis was conjuring his posts on Pink Floyd at Pompeii and the Scorpions at Mytilene, another iconic locus of punk rock magic is reaching the end of its life.  The Uptown Bar & Cafe in Minneapolis is apparently slated to close sometime this year.  Its octogenarian owner, Frank Toonen, is looking to sell the bar to secure the financial future for his family (a noble cause, if there ever was one).  The bar hosted virtually every major punk(ish) rock band to come out of Minneapolis (Soul Asylum, The Replacements, Hüsker Dü) and ranked as a local CBGBs or Max’s Kansas City.  Ironically, the bar will be torn down for a three story retail space as the Uptown neighborhood continues a process of re-gentrification (for a nice history of the neighborhood).

To be honest, I’ve never been to the Uptown Bar & Cafe (nor Uptown, for that matter), but the story of the Uptown Bar & Cafe caught my eye in the context of our ongoing conversation about punk and place.  Many of the most storied punk establishments established themselves in seemingly marginal urban spaces made available by white flight and the post-war growth of suburbs and now confront the reopening of the urban center to economic development which in many ways challenged both economic opportunities made available by the marginal status of various neighborhoods and urban locales as well as the gritty and explicitly anti-suburban ascetic that punk cultivated. The creative risks exploited by punk rockers as they returned to the urban center from the security of suburban “garage” demanded an authenticity of the punk experience that cannot be maintained when surrounded by boutique shopping spots and chain clothing retailers who seemingly revel in the make-believe character of the consumer experience.

The authenticity of the urban experience is not just a hallmark of punk music. Today, it is seen most visibly in hip-hop music where credibility is tied a performer’s ability to maintain their ties to economically and socially marginalized segments of urban areas.  (As hip-hop has globalized, it has shown that the performance of authenticity has transferred from marginalized areas within the American city to marginalized areas of the globe.  Take, for example, the Somali-Canadian rapper K’naan who mocks the urban posturing of North American rappers by contrasting their claims and experiences to his upbringing in Somalia).

Common’s song “The Corner” is a another great meditation on the space of performance in contemporary hip-hop.  The song juxtaposes Common’s lyrics about his experiences on “the corner” with nostalgia tinged lyrics of the radical spoken-word poetry collective “The Last Poets” who note:

…The corner was our Rock of Gibraltar, our Stonehenge
Our Taj Mahal, our monument…

Of course, in hip-hop the corner invokes more than just an urban space associated with drug dealing, informal social gatherings, and, perhaps more properly, the performance of dozens between rappers that formed the basis for the combative aspects of modern hip-hop music.  The corner invokes the crossroads which was an iconic symbol in American Blues music.  Most famously, the crossroads was where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical talent.

Crossroads represent both central places where diverse paths cross, but also liminal sites where clearly-defined spheres of control and authority break-down or lapse entirely.  It is not surprising, for example, that Oedipus met the Sphinx at a crossroads (see: S. I Johnston, “Crossroads,” ZPE 88 (1991)217-24) .

To return, then to punk and place, the impending loss of the Uptown Cafe & Bar (and other punk landmarks) stands out as the return of marginal spaces to the control of the center.  In many cities in the US, this has manifested itself as reclaiming the marginalized zone of an urban core neglected in the post-war migration to the suburbs for the commercial, capitalist, gentrified space of the new suburban centers (i.e. let’s make the cities look like we imagined them when we built those surrogate cities: suburban shopping malls).

To bring my archaeological interests more fully into the conversation, I’ll just point out that for the last 7 years I’ve been working with the team of the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project to study a community situated at a crossroads along the coast of southeastern Cyprus.  Peripheral to the main centers of power on the island, there is reason to think that the ancient community situated in what is now the coast zone of the village of Pyla (another liminal space!) served as a local crossroads community.  David Pettegrew’s work at a similar site in the Eastern Corinthia commonly referred to as “Cromna” is another example of a crossroads community.  These liminal spaces situated neither clearly within an urban core or in the romanticized space of the rural periphery defy categorization.  The complexity and density of the artifact assemblages found in these areas press to the limit methods devised to document more dispersed kinds of activity in the countryside.  At the same time, the absence of a built up center with known, monumental architecture, makes it challenging to justify large scale, systematic excavation.

The marginal status of crossroads places have made them a kind of improvisational space for archaeological fieldwork.  In this way, they echo the marginal spaces of desiccated, post-war, urban core which became the places of punk performance, or the ill-defined and marginal space of the corner which became a zone dominated by ancient and modern sphinxes.   Punk archaeology revels in the marginal, ambiguous, ambivalent and, in many ways, dangerous spaces that only become central through the ephemeral performance.

Woodstock, Landscape, and Archaeology

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009 by Bill Caraher

A few weeks ago Kostis mentioned that he thought that archaeology was “a post hippie” discipline.  A certain tendency to emphasize rural places, the integrated, almost spiritual, character of landscapes, community engagement, and political activism would seem to evoke many of the central ideals of the hippie movement, albeit within a far more structured environment.  (It’s an open issue whether punk shared the celebrated spontaneity of the hippie movement or parodied it).

This weekend, the New York Times offered a shortish article: “Woodstock: A Moment of Muddy Grace“.  Aside from well-worn ironic observation that the memory of Woodstock became a commodity almost as soon as the festival was over, there was a short paragraph that included one interesting line:

With the 40th anniversary of Woodstock looming — so soon? — the commemorative machinery is clanking into place, and the nostalgia is strong. There’s a Woodstock Festival museum now at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts and a recently built concert hall at what was the concert site, Max Yasgur’s farm (though the original Woodstock hillside has been left undeveloped).

The notion that the original hillside would be preserved is an interesting example of how the absence of development could nevertheless represent the commidification of a particular landscape.  Paralleling the desire to preserve battlefields, archaeological landscapes, and other places of cultural significance, the archaeology of absence evokes both the notion of a sacred precinct as well as haunting ideas of ritual abandonment.  In the hyper-commodified world of Woodstock nostalgia, the protected hillside stands out both as an ironic and highly structured place of commemoration.

Perhaps this is another characteristic that separates Punk Archaeology from its post-hippie variants.  The hippie movement, for all its energy, has long been overrun by a kind of crude commercialism so even an archaeologically motivated decision like preserving the famous Woodstock hillside cannot stand outside the discourse of capitalism and gain.

Has Punk remained more authentic?  Certainly the battle to save Punk landmarks like CBGBs has been less successful.  The urban foundation of Punk perhaps created landmarks in an environment which had a more ephemeral character.  Change was anticipated and expected in urban landscapes.  The countryside was idealized as unchanging and efforts to commemorate the countryside typically involve limiting the impact of human activities or even marking it off entirely.  Archaeology, however, relies upon the traces of change through time to document human culture.  The urbanism of Punk contributes to its resistance to commodification (and makes its appeals to nostalgia more ironic still) and preserves it for a different method of documentation later.  Punk Archaeology.

Punk Archaeology: Trench Sounds

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009 by Bill Caraher

The long awaited final Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project podcast has arrived.  Titled “Trench Sounds”, it is a 10 minute extract of over 3 hours of taping in Dallas DeForest’s trench at Pyla-Koutsopetria.  (For more typical discussions of this trench you can down load these two podcasts: Koutsopetria East Week 1 and Koutsopetria East Week 2).  The goal was to capture the sounds of a trench in all of their mundane glory.

The inspiration was Punk Archaeology.  Kostis has posted on Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music and its seminal influence on the New York “No Wave” movement.  This album, which is almost impossible to listen to, is composed almost entirely of various ephemeral sounds of the musical production process particularly looped tracks of guitar feedback much of which was created intentionally by placing guitars facing their amplifiers.  This dissonant noise was then remixed and edited to produce tracks including an unusual locked groove track at the end of side “D” (of a two record set) which would play the final 1.8 seconds continuously (an effect lost on 21st century listeners who are more likely to spend the 4$ to download the album in MP3 than the $20+ to purchase the album on vinyl!).

Our final “Voices of Archaeology” track is hardly as intentionally dissonant as Metal Machine Music (nor will it likely be as iconic).  It does, however, capture and attempt to present some of the ephemeral sounds of archaeology — the gentle thumping of the pick, the scraping of the dust pan, the cascades of dirt into buckets, the interrupted and fractured conversations.  It attempts to capture sonically, what we as archaeologist are attempting to capture physically: the various bits of pieces of the past.  At one point on the track, Paul Ferderer asks whether a tiny fragment of ceramic material is a piece of tile or a piece of pottery.  The tiny fragment was at once almost completely inconsequential (and the question of whether the fragment was pottery or tile was even less consequential as all ceramic material was analyzed by our ceramicist) and at the same time the bit of ceramics is representative of the archaeological process.  The artifact must be contextualized in some way to generate meaning.  It goes without saying (almost) that fragments of the past have no inherent meaning.  They are displaced objects that the archaeologist envelop in contexts ranging from the place of origin, the original “primary” use, and, of course, the chronology of the other objects at the site.  The tension between the decontextualized object at the moment of discovery (the most tenuous and fleeting contextualizing moment) and various “big picture” narrative and analyses that ultimately come to make a specific site meaningful finds its place in the immediacy of punk rock as experience. 

I recently listened again to the MC5’s first album Kick Out the Jams, a live album, and admired their effort to capture the live sound and mark the band as a live phenomenon while evoking punk rock’s debts to the blues (a genre of music almost always recorded live) and the ephemeral connections manifest in garage bands across the country.  The contextualizing narrative of modern American music has, of course, placed the MC5 in a proper analytical and interpretive category (often placing them alongside Iggy Pop’s Stooges whose first album came out the same year and captured a very different kind of sound through the exacting production of John Cale) and striped the first album of much of its shock value (although it still can capture some of the excitement typical of live performances).

Our short track of trench sounds hopes to capture the same thing — at once it is inconsequential (and frankly hard to listen to!) alone just like Paul’s fragment of pottery — but at the same time, it captures a moment that begs a larger, more dynamic context.  The moment of discovery is the point of departure for archaeological analysis.  Trench Sounds pushes the incidental noise of archaeological research into the center,  like the feedback pushed to the center of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.  By recontextualizing the sonic elements of archaeological fieldwork I hope to have shed light on the analytical process itself which brings otherwise discarded and inconsequential artifacts to the center while pushing the archaeological experience to the edges… 

Enjoy: Trench Sounds

Toward a Definition of Punk Archaeology

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009 by Bill Caraher

I was asked recently what exactly Punk Archaeology is… and aside from pointing to our blog of that name, I struggled to come up with a clever answer or really any answer.  The best that I could offer was that Punk Archaeology was an empty vessel, a conceptual universe opening to being filled by the careening intersection of punk rock music and archaeology (in almost all of its forms and meanings).  So far the vessel is filled with bits of methodology, some history, some archaeology (in a Foucaldian sense) and even some proper archaeological investigations.  This description, however, does not necessarily explain what Punk Archaeology is.

So, here goes a first effort toward a definition of Punk Archaeology:

1) Punk Archaeology is a reflective mode of organizing archaeological experiences.  Punk Archaeology began as conversations between Kostis Kourelis and other archaeologists who admitted to listening to punk rock music or appreciating the punk aesthetic while studying archaeology.  The result was a collaboration between me and Kostis as we made an effort to probe the intersection between these two choices.  Why would we be drawn to punk rock — or any particular music — and how does this musical choice explain or organize or condition our approaches to archaeological research.  Both of us came around to the question of whether there is a totalizing discourse in our intellectual lives.  Is there some strand that makes sense of our varied interests?

2) Punk Archaeology follows certain elements of the punk aesthetic through the discipline of archaeology.  It celebrates, in particular, the things that can be grouped under the blanket heading of DIY practices: various low-fi podcasts, infield improvised devices, and serendipitous inventions that allow archaeologists to document space, place, and the past.

3) Punk Archaeology reveals a deep commitment to place.  Punk with its tied to garage band sound has always manifest itself spatially. The tensions between urban and suburban (e.g. Little London Boys), east and west coast, and the persistent association of certain sounds and styles with cities or even places (some of which are intended to disorient: Max’s Kansas City).  As archaeology is, in so many ways, a “science” of place, its affinity to a musical genre that self-consciously laced the experience of music with the experience of place would seem appropriate.

4) Punk Archaeology embraces destruction as a creative process.  Archaeologists destroy the very object that they seek to study.  Digging through strata removes artifacts from their physical context and places them in the disciplinary context of the archaeologist notebook, database, plan, map, article, or monographg.  Destruction as a creative process echoes in some ways the process of punk which sought to deconstruct musically the foundation of Anglo-American pop music and build in its place a subversive recontextualized narrative of safe and comfortable bourgeois life.  I am not sure that archaeology is always subversive and I don’t even know whether punk rock forms the best parallel for the recontextualizing process of excavation, but there is a certain symmetry between the two.

5) Punk Archaeology is spontaneous.  The one thing that the Punk Archaeology blog is seeking to capture is the spontaneity of the connection between punk and archaeology.  The performance of punk archaeology through the medium of blogging allows for our definition to remain flexible and fluid.  We can reshape our argument and our juxtapositions and even challenge and contradict ourselves.  In short, we can create distortion, noise, and a kind off creative chaos.  That might, like Punk, have value. 

Or not. 

We’ll see.

Punk and Place

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009 by Bill Caraher

With Lux Interior’s death last week, I offered a short post on The Cramps’ concert at the California State Mental Hospital on our Punk Archaeology blog.  It got me thinking about the close relationship between punk music and place.  I haven’t thought systematically about it, but in fragments, as I tried to link it to the importance of place within archaeology.

Punk as much as any other music played with place.  In their efforts to defy social conventions and question the accepted practices of the music industry and bourgeois society, punk rockers challenged expectations with their concerts.  The engaged in theatrical, chaotic performances openly rejecting the polished and choreographed sets associated with pop music.  By rejecting the systematic in their performances, they embraced the spontaneous and contingent.

This is not to say, however, that their shows were accidental or random.  There was an aura of intentionality.  The Cramps’ show at a mental hospital was full of meaningful references ranging from the tradition of performing to shut in of various kinds to (as Kostis noted in his comment) Antonin Artaud’s Theater of the Absurd and Marquis de Sade’s famous efforts to direct plays while imprisoned at the hospital at Charenton (one could also note M. Foucault’s Madness and Civilization). The former evoked B.B. King’s great live album at the Cook Country Jail and Johnny Cash’s concerts at Folsom Prison and San Quentin (as well as a series of other well-known performances to inmates).  While these performances have been seen as acts of compassion by Cash and King, they also make explicit the link between the dire nature of their music and the dire state of the inmates.  In fact, the power of these shows derives, in part, from the authenticity of the performances.  The inmates as audience have actually shared the tortured stories of the performers.  It speaks of an intimacy that is absent from shows where the audience, the musician, and the music dwell separately from one another. 

A concert at a mental hospital depends upon the understood link between the audience and the music established by folks like King and Cash, but turns it on its head.  The Cramps, with their theatrical stage shows, absurdist lyrics, and chaotic, raucous sound, depend upon the place to define their music.  They play the music of the insane.

“And we drove 3,000 miles to play for you people… And somebody told me that you people are crazy, but I’m not so sure about that. You seem to be alright to me.”

The playfulness with place has deep roots in the punk movement.  The moniker “garage rock” locates the entire genre of music in the informal and marginal space of the garage. The garage is also a symbol of suburbia and the dislocation of domestic space from the place of work and the urban center .  When punk bands played CBGB’s or Max’s Kansas City (the name itself is another play on place) in New York, the garage band sound made explicit their critique of bourgeois values; when the suburbia came to the city, they presented not the well-ordered, picket-fence houses, but a sonic dystopia.

As I posted earlier, punk rock played with time by evoking, manipulating, and mocking nostalgic themes in American music.  The Cramps dedicated their album A Date with Elvis to the late 50s/early 60s rocker Ricky Nelson.  They also drew heavily from the informal “low-fi” sound ironically insisting on a kind of musical authenticity to underpin their blatantly silly lyrics and ridiculous stage shows. Their songs show strong influences of both rockabilly and surf rock.  The Cramps’ sound formed the foundation for later bands like The White Stripes or The Black Keys or Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion who ironically and playfully employed the authenticity of low-fi sound to highly textured, remixed, and produced albums.  

Time and space remain central archaeological concerns.  Punk rock willingness to play with nostalgia and authenticity and use place as a form of social and musical critique provides foundations for a far more radical appreciation of archaeological contexts than traditional chronological or functional analyses allow.