Outside the System – Test Department

Outside the System
Robin Rimbaud – Scanner

London Bishops Bridge Maintenance Depot. Cold, wet, extremely dark, the common feel of a Test Dept show I recognise now. Figures, shadowed, stand in an industrial complex, off the edges of a motorway. We wait. Inside it is lighter but no warmer. Slides, films of figures and Malcolm Poynter statues are continually projected onto the walls of the building which itself resembles the inside of a ship. At the centre stands a vast platform with pleasingly designed metal sculptures, Test Dept percussive equipment, lights, wire, more metal. Dancers in black, dancers in white, leotarded acrobatics interchange with a long musical set, that climaxes in a score that resembles a study of Russian Constructivism. Painting, artwork. Powerful. Large space with no central place to experience it all. It’s an EVENT, not a gig. More than mere sound. They Work. Arbeit. Free.
29 March 1986 Diary Entry

I was in my late teens when I wrote these words in my scratchy fountain pen handwriting. I was a boy obsessed by sound, yet mesmerized by image, words and film, constantly trying to locate a place that united these art forms into a singular vision. Like many other curious teenagers I had actively searched out and embraced figures that stood out from the mainstream, from Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, painter Francis Bacon, artist Joseph Beuys, composer Edgard Varèse, German musicians Einstürzende Neubauten, Slovenian group Laibach and prankster and creator Marcel Duchamp. These were days without the convenience of the Internet, so hours were spent hovering in libraries, exchanging letters in the mail and rustling through second-hand bookshops, record shops and friends tape collections.
The very act of discovery was and remains essential to my interests. Music has remained a consistent force in my life and back in the mid-eighties these energies centered on forms of music that waved an unsteady hand at convention. Throbbing Gristle, SPK, Cabaret Voltaire, 23 Skidoo, Severed Heads, and Virgin Prunes. Each of these acts and many others seem to offer a vision that embraced a discordant response to the harmonies of the day, consciously looking towards ways of using music to revolt, to transform it from a repetitive commodity into something inspiring, refreshing, exploratory.

Subversion seemed key to the essence of many of these artists. The writer and critic Jon Savage identified five areas that characterised these forms of music: access to information, shock tactics, organisational autonomy, extra-musical elements, and the use of synthesizers and anti-music approaches. An environment developed that could openly embrace almost genre-less creators, to which Test Dept very adeptly connected. My first discovery of their work was through NME writer Don Watson who captured their enticing vision in his article on 13 August 1983, which I still hold in my archive today, that spoke of the group as a single voice, ‘four musicians and a film technician whose individual ideas and aspirations work in one direction towards a single aim. Live the power is captured by the use of constructivist imagery and film techniques derived from the speedy cutting of the revolutionary Russian cinema. On record it’s the simple crashing magnificence of that sound, that takes the forces of oppression and hurls them back with equivalent force.’

Inevitably I was duly sold on experiencing this with immediate effect and bought a ticket to attend their ‘Titan Arch’ show in November 1983, advertised at a ‘concealed location,’ but tragically this was not to be. Squeezing through a tiny wooden door in a damp arch beneath Waterloo station in London, the hum of electricity in the air, tape loops playing in the darkness, the location was shortly raided by the Metropolitan Police and arrests made throughout the audience for attendance of an illegal event. Thankfully I was able to slip out of this oppressive location and leave unmarked as a minor criminal.

A year later I was fortunate to witness their Program for Progress show at Cannon Street Mainline railway station, where it was clear that they felt the desire to present both a visual AND audio statement beyond any parameters that I was familiar with. The show itself was an ambiguous celebration of power, anticipating their forthcoming album entitled Beating the Retreat, crowds filled out the expansive space replete in greatcoats and neatly shorn haircuts. A compelling and unforgettable performance followed that pummeled the central nervous system with ponderous beats and angrily ripped vocals.

“Only one and a half hours ago I was watching Test Dept live at Cannon Street Railway Station. They actually played on the platform itself, industrial atmosphere, cold, stark, black clothing everywhere, cropped hair, blinding white lights, painful. Forty minutes of pure metal percussion. Showed videos, Ken Campbell dropping a magnet over a bridge. A brilliant, if brief gig. No known songs.”
23 June 1984 Diary Entry

It was clear that Test Dept were interested in this seamless connection between the creative forces, with a tremendous energy spent on curating events with ever more ambitious manifestations. This more theatrical work drew on ideas of détournement, a movement developed from practices of the Situationist International movement in post-war France, which had developed into a commanding and subversive critique of modern commodity society in the 1960s. With the charismatic figure of Guy Debord fronting this movement these were ideas resonating around issues of representation, and the illusionary universe of meaning. At heart they were battling capitalism in turning around the spectacle of images around us into a new reading. In addition Test Dept had advertently joined the dots between the earliest forms of mechanised music of 1910 Futurism, the freedoms of post John Cage avant-garde composition and contemporary thinking.

Similarly their application of using scrap metal as instruments came from an understanding of détournement, as well as from a financial and functional point of view than any politically overt intentions, echoing ideas of Found Art, or found objects in this instance. When Duchamp presented his ‘Readymades’ – everyday mundane objects chosen by Duchamp as works of art, untouched by the maker’s hand, an understanding of what the possibilities of ‘art’ could be were utterly shaken up. Found art always connects both the identity and the social history of that object, so when Test Dept picked up on using oil tanks, steel springs, hammers and car parts that formed the bulk of their instrumentation, it’s unquestionable in retrospect that these choices reflected the times and the creators themselves, echoing vague abstractions of socialist art.

Though many reports focused on the ‘metal-bashing’ aspects of the group, the human voice almost always played a key role. The voice could be heard breathing rhythmically or delivering words in a frenzied brutal style, repetitive, heated and committed. Looped, echoed, intoning charged phrases, ‘one voice, one will, ‘shockwork,’ ‘efficiency.’ On record and live, a liberal use of radio broadcasts was used inside the soundscapes, which had a profound influence upon my own development and use of found voice and narrative in early Scanner recordings.

Their collaboration with American singer Diamanda Galas in 1985 at Deptford’s Albany Empire expanded upon this connection between voice and sound. Aptly entitled a ‘Convention of Hysteria,’ Galas appeared possessed, with her densely layered vocal style, operatic in origin, torn asunder into a repertory of contorted guttural vocalisms. As Test Dept hammered out a percussive path around her shrieks, moans and whispers, the melodrama was overwhelming, the fury spent and exhilarating. The following year Corridor of Cells on their 1996 release The Unacceptable Face of Freedom built an intensely forceful work out of an operatic vocal loop and aggressive burnt out vocals.

Curiously this use of an operatic voice was most movingly presented via the work of Henryk Górecki in their Bishop’s Bridge multimedia event, where Symphony No. 3 was broadcast in the introductory passage. Also known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, the lyrics tell of motherhood and separation through war, but remarkably it took many more years for this recording to be more widely acknowledged and to top the classical music charts in the UK and USA. To hear this almost mediaeval composition with its mournful and spiritual elegance in such a brutally modernist setting was a profoundly unforgettable experience, and though Test Dept were merely playing back a recording, it was the thoughtful curatorship of this in such a context that remains haunting to this day.

With performance titles such as ‘Ministry of Power Presents Convention of Hysteria,’ ‘Program for Progress, and ‘The Unacceptable Face of Freedom,’ Test Dept pointed towards a political agenda that was suggestive more than didactic. This raw energy spiraled out into supporting the Ambulance Workers Strike, and in 1984 even touring with the South Wales Striking Miners Choir for their Shoulder to Shoulder album release. One miner Alan Sutcliffe was to feature on Statement, a harrowing tale of one men besieged by a troupe of policemen.

“Albany Empire. Odd venue. Started very late. Sat on the floor as 34 Welsh miners sang for 45 mins. Comedian Keith Allen followed. Nervous I would have to leave because of the time. 23.10 they came on. Very good show. Forty minutes. Shockwork, One Voice, One Will, ‘Mo’. Visuals excellent. Slides, video.”
18 September 1984 Diary Entry

Their use of propaganda, the celebration of the workers, a refusal to be named in interviews and on record, drew immediate parallels with the
Spirit of Russian Constructivism, essentially a Russian form of Modernism. Visually they drew on the work of Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, an inventor of images who developed a radical form of editing film by taking separate shots and combining them into vibrant sequences, a kind of montage through juxtaposition. Heavily rhythmic in his editing technique it’s clear to see his influence on Test Dept live projections.

Uniquely in 1984 they released a VHS tape, Program for Progress, which presented a series of eight short films, commissioned to illustrate each title on their most recent album release. Directed by Brett Turnbull, who would later on become Director of Photography on a host of commercials and music videos from the unlikely pop word of Coldplay and U2, each of these films was more of a visual statement than any kind of record company promotional tool. With much of the footage captured in a decayed factory warehouse in London, these images were combined with recordings of men working, marching, blurry 16mm footage of silhouetted figures in shirtsleeves pulling industrial levers. Into this Turnbull collaged TV footage of riots, Poland, a naked chest being sprayed white, a car crash. This was a nostalgic world of steam, engineering, the machine, functionality, David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) meets Battleship Potemkin (1925), Tarkovsky colluding with Rodchenko.

This remarkable mosaic of image and sound is what made Test Dept an unforgettable creative force. Whether collaborating with figures beyond music, such as playwright Jonathan Moore, furniture designer Tom Dixon and sculpture Malcolm Poynter, Test Dept maintained a uniquely authentic voice in a commercial world which means we are continuing to speak about them today. I took many aspects of Test Dept into my own works, both consciously and intuitively, and returning here to my own words written mere hours after each live show at the time, is a form of time-travel that confirms their value. Having kept a diary since I was twelve years old and never missed a day since then, I await further discoveries and revelations of others and myself.