That’s Not My Name

Roughly a decade ago the seminal breakcore and experimental label Praxis produced some t-shirts. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary there, you might think. Except Praxis were committed to creating a counter-culture (or “sub-net” network) of people who didn’t wish to become celebrity DJs or producers.

Instead people were encouraged to adopt pseudonyms and to find new ways or working collectively. To not play the “business” game. The use of the “DJ Jackal” multiple name was one example of this. Inspired by the Luther Blissett and Karen Eliot phenomena, DJs were invited to adopt the same name for flyers, records, projects.

The t-shirts themselves were not designed to promote the Praxis label. They had the label logo printed on them, for sure. But printed on the inside of the t-shirt where nobody would see it. Printed on the outside of the black t-shirt, in black ink, was the slogan “Visibility Is A Trap”:

“It’s actually a quote from Foucault, from ‘Discipline and Punish’. It refers to surveillance, ie. being controlled through being visible to the authorities. So it has that meaning from the original quote but it also has what I think is important, that what I do is part of a collective and there is a certain degree of anonymity, so that it’s an invisible situation.”
Interview from Deadly Type zine

Burial photographed by Georgina Cook - drumzofthesouth

Burial photographed by Georgina Cook / drumzofthesouth

I was thinking about this earlier today when ruminating on last week’s chicanery regarding Burial’s identity. Burial (for those who don’t know) is a producer operating at the more atmospheric, less “dancey” end of dubstep. He’s released two albums on Kode9’s Hyperdub label to much acclaim.

Burial has gone some way to refuse the role of being a “star” by not revealing his name or being photographed. He is interviewed rarely, and then only by trusted journalists. This has lead to some speculation about his identity, with most agreeing that the lack of a face or name to pin the sounds on makes a refreshing change in the days of flickr, facebook, Hello, DJ Magazine, myspace, and all the other DIY-surveillance which is now all-pervasive.

But then Hyperdub put Burial’s “Untrue” album forward for the 2008 Mercury Music Prize. Whilst this was a courageous move, potentially catapulting the music to a vast audience (and creating some interesting opportunities for collaborations…) it was obvious to everyone that this drift towards mainstream conventions would necessitate a compromise about Burial’s anonymity.

Sure enough The Sun, in the form of tedious knob-end Gordon Smart and his “Bizarre” column began sniffing around:

“Help me dig up the real Burial

A MYSTERY is rumbling through the music world which could threaten one of the biggest nights in the showbiz calendar. Mercury Music Prize nominee BURIAL is the chart equivalent of graffitti artist BANKSY.

Hardly anyone knows the true identity of the producer, widely tipped for the gong in September. […]

Conspiracy theories are rife as to who is behind the tunes, with producers NORMAN COOK and APHEX TWIN in the frame. […]

Know who he is? Get in touch by calling…. email …. or text BIZ (space then message) to …”

Burial responded to this by posting a photo of himself and stating his real name on his myspace.

Kode9 seemed as sanguine as ever, posting this entry on his blog.

This, you would think, would be the end of the matter. But it’s easy to forget the frenzy the media gets into over identity. Smart managed to pad out the Burial non-story into a further four episodes.

Gordon Smart considering his next groundbreaking expose. Photo by Stuart MacKenzie

Gordon Smart considers his next earth-shattering expose. Photo by Stuart MacKenzie.

William Burroughs pointed out that in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the only way you can progress through the afterlife is by knowing the names of the correct spirits. Smart’s obsession with uncovering Burial’s name (and promoting his own by association) shows us that the world of tabloid journalism stinks of death. It is a very real form of Zombie Culture. Subsequent writing by Smart has even latched onto the names of people who emailed him to criticise his first piece, such is his mania to traverse the underworld.

Whilst we should pity Smart for being trapped in such a barren landscape, a more pressing issue is the need to build an arsenal of techniques to resist Zombie Culture. My colleague Boris Karloff has made some suggestions here, but in these days of instensified speculation about our private lives, there is a great need for more.

Footnote 1: Comrade Joe Muggs has written a fuller account of the debacle here. It includes details of Smart’s advanced state of zombified degradation – with the full symptoms of pissyness, plagiarism and pique. By now he will have latched onto some other “story”, but be careful not to reveal your name should you have any dealings with him.

Footnote 2: In the late 80s I had cause to visit the legendary London body-piercer and tattooist Mr Sebastian on a few occasions. He was a lovely man, entirely unaffected by his towering status in that world as far as I could tell. Seb unfortunately (and through no fault of his own) became embroiled in the Spanner Trial, in which various consenting adult S&M practitioners were had up for assaulting each other. Essentially he was charged with assault for conducting a piercing on a paying customer who was entirely happy with the results (more info on this at the wiki link above).

The case came to trial at the Old Bailey in December 1990 and I got a call from someone I didn’t know asking if I could help. I was delighted to be able to do so and managed to rally a few friends to turn out. Watching the trial was a completely bizarre experience, but that is for another time. Our most important contribution came at the end of each day when the judge (Judge Rant, he was called!) had retired.

Our aim, through a variety of tactics, was to get Mr Sebastian home safely and without being photographed by the paparazzi who were lieing in wait. I use the word “safely” advisedly. One of the other defendants in the trial was knocked to the ground by a mob of photographers and suffered a broken arm. It became a bit “cat and mouse”, but we succeded in our objective and no recognisable contemporary photo of Mr Sebastian appeared in any of the newspaper coverage of the trial.

Whilst Mr Sebastian ended up with a suspended sentence on those bullshit charges, he was really happy with the support and solidarity he’d been shown.

I think the main lesson I have learned from this is that you need to surround yourself with people you can trust – you can’t battle Zombie Culture on your own.



  2. In my opinion it´s a bit too easy to identify the formula “artist names = business principle”.
    Artists on Praxis records used anonymity as a strategy but I think the situation is a bit different if you are a underground hardcore producer in the late 1990s whose music is interesting for a small amount of people – or if your products of work have potential for reaching huge audiences.
    The masking of your identity only works if you already established a certain position in the specific art/ music context. E.g. if you´re a totally unknown musician and would hide your identity nobody would care about your music nor write about it (so we wouldn´t even know that this specific artist had existed).

    Everybody speculates about the identity of Burial (or Banksy) which boosts the hype around the artist. This is not a critique of the bourgeois concept of the artist, but the system of the star in it´s purest form: you have a) the specific artist name with b) artworks related to this name and c) one person as a genius behind it. In the cases of Burial and Banksy anonymity is a clever marketing idea: you have the just mentioned criterias of the artist PLUS an extra which makes the product additionaly attractive: the speculation about the “real person” behind the name which creates a huge media attention.

    (Note: I´m talking about mechanisms of capitalist production of art here. I don´t believe in blaming certain individuals for their actions when it comes to “sell out”. )

    The other way round: The anonymisation IS A business strategy to sell certain goods labeled as “subversive”. You brand your products as underground, non-mainstream by connecting certain attitudes with them. It would be different if you would not use artist names any more: why would you need them, when you can put out your stuff anonymously (which Praxis records does on some upcoming releases, by the way)? You could also produce music under the names of a collective so the music can´t be related to one individual person. Or use the above mentioned neoist collective names. Why use a label name, which is also a form of capitalist branding of products? Why putting even DJ names on party flyers (by the way: who produces the rave as a social event: the audience of the musician) ? And least: why produce art at all? Every artwork aimes to an audience and follows the specific rules of capitalist production, either to aim to accumulate economic capital or symbolic capital (according to Pierre Bourdieu), which is the currency of scenes and subcultures. I believe there are strategies of posing critique on the capitalist forms of art production but there is no way out yet.

  3. This was another interesting one which I only sort of understood, maybe…

    So here’s the thing, I don’t think “artist” is the right word at all for 99.999% of musicians, performers, producers, DJs, etc. It sets up an implication that is impossible to satisfy, creates a false idol. Its a job, plain an simple and usually a shitty one at that. Most of us inside and around try to pretend that we are the golden calf when in fact its just a spray paint job on a plaster lump. Its a job. All that romantic notion of the tortured soul? Mostly bullshit we wrap ourselves in to play the game.

    The men at the factory are old and cunning and all that. Do your job, play some tunes, make some records, but if you dont want your 15 minutes, just don’t play.

  4. the obv thing to do would be to make carbon copies of mr smarts myspace, lots of them, invite people to be friends, and work out who da real gordon shmart is. the people choose.

  5. i think burial just didn’t really want to be known, you can be cynical about it or not, but he didn’t carry on with it when smart was trying to expose him.

  6. unkultur – thank you for those interesting responses! I think one of the pitfalls of Burial’s approach was certainly operating as an individual and being readily identified as such. Whether or not this was a cynical promotional move is open to question but my impression is that he genuinely wanted to opt out of a lot of the shite that goes along with music production these days.

    But yes, you end up in a hall of mirrors whatever you do – DJ Jackal (and Karen Eliot) become overly associated with particular individuals… perhaps there is no way out but it is still worth exploring the boundaries and trying to punch the odd hole in the wall.

    I really like the idea of *not* putting dj names on flyers tho (but then whatever you name the party becomes the “brand” like a record label…)

    I think, as you imply, creating/producing anything has the potential to feed into “celebrity” culture but doing things in a rougly collective/anonymous fashion is the best tool we have yet to subvert that.

  7. Downpressor – I’m not very comfortable with the role of “artist” per se, so that all makes sense to me. Certainly a lot of electronic music production seems to have a great deal in common with a more “craftsman”/”technician” role – like plumbers or programmers maybe?

  8. Truth is, playing any instrument professionally, recording/mixing/producing professionally, DJing professionally, etc etc etc is a trade. Its an unwritten rule if you are successful at this trade, ESPECIALLY if you do it in front of people, that you can not discuss the mundane aspects, except under very limited circumstances, such as an “I’m so lonely on the road” song. To do so with the press breaks character, or the fourth wall and outside of experimental theater than only hairy, unshowered people go to, that is NOT a good thing.

    Part of your trade craft is dealing with the press, TV, radio, etc. Of course as unkultur referenced, being coy with the media can be part of that strategy. Its worked for many people, but when you do talk to them, you better be good.

    Going back to the unwritten rule bit, the trap here is you can never break character when you are under the spotlight and in these days of paparazzi, the internet, gossip rags/sites, etc., the spotlight is always on. Some folks handle that very well, some (myself included) do not. I’m far happier to toil in obscurity than to have to pay the ante of joining that game.

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