John Wiese – Selected Visual Works

[Text originally published in the exhibition catalogue accompanying John Wiese’s Battery Instruments sound installation, High Street Project, Christchurch, New Zealand, 8-29 December 2009.]

Botanically speaking, dehiscence signifies a splitting open or a gaping by a divergence of elements, especially as part of an organic process […] a seed pod dehisces to discharge its mature contents.

    – Ed Cohen
The fraught and implacable restive editing-cuts that characterize of John Wiese’s noise compositions are in effect enacting a furiously focused process of pure sonic parturition. Similar to the ruthlessly exacting musique concrète reductionism of Ralf Wehowsky and the feverish abstractions of Swiss neo-aktionist cabal Runzelstirn and Gurgelstøck, Wiese operates microphonically upon his source material, reducing with each frenzied, split-second edit the tangible if elusive physicality of sound to fleeting apparitions of spectral arrhythmia and skitterish traces of evanescent sonic disjecta. Throughout his solo work and numerous collaborations, Wiese’s distinctive editing style – which he has dubbed “total precision grappling” – makes itself felt in and through a distinctive dynamic rigor that links and affirms the recalcitrant materiality of monadic noise aggregates across the space of their own difference. Sculpting substantial bodies of sound down to tiny, molecular blips stripped of their musicological mandate to mean, what we might call Wiese’s materialist poetics of dehiscence splits open Pierre Schaeffer’s objet sonore to release a teeming, fecund ‘[...]’. 

In addition to being prolific noise artist, Wiese is also an accomplished typographer, and many of his compositions and multi-channel sound installations are based on typographic scores, which typically take the form of sparse collages of minutely fragmented letters and type forms. Foregrounding the opaque materiality of scattered and dismembered graphemes, Wiese’s scores present superimposed constellations of minute lettristic errata, forming a visual counterpart to the precise editing and jump-cuts of his music. Wiese’s collages, like is music, are all discreteness and collision. Rupturing the integrity of the formed letter shape, these unruly visual poems mark a return to the material base of language, zeroing in on a restive interplay of microscopic forces and intensities in (or beneath) the signifying graphism of writing.
Wiese’s collages of fragmented letter forms evoke nothing so much as entoptic floaters, those minute bits of debris (dust, hair) “in the vitreous fluid cast of the retina” visible as “small opacities [that] appear to drift and flinch across the field of vision like the transparent bodies in water seen under a microscope,”[2] and phosphenes, those spectral, dissipative lines and shapes that emanate from within the eye and brain as opposed to an external light source. These effects, Craig Dworkin notes, have something of a history in the modern French poetic tradition, appearing in works by Rimbaud, Beckett, and René Daumal, among others. In what could easily be taken as a description of one of Wiese’s sparser collages (see figure 1), Francis Ponge, in “La Crevette,” figures phosphenes in explicitly typographical terms:

To begin with, let’s acknowledge that people, with their vision disrupted by fever, hunger, or simply fatigue, sometimes undergo a fleeting and no doubt benign hallucination: they notice – from one spot to another across the field of vision, shifting in a particular way, by animated, jerky, successive backwards leaps followed by slow returns – a type of tiny marks […], barely delineated, translucent, in the shape of rods, commas, perhaps other punctuation marks, which, without concealing the whole world from them, do obliterate it in a certain way, moving around there superimposed.[3]

Phosphenes, in fact, occur spontaneously, and are perceptible in environments devoid of external visual stimulus (such as a darkened room), as well as when the eyes are tightly closed, as there is “always some residual neural activity reaching the brain, even when there is no stimulation of the eye by light.” Along with the causes listed by Ponge, Dworkin notes that phosphenes can also be directly induced or intensified through a variety of mechanical and electrical means, including violent blows to the head, prolonged visual deprivation, psychotropic drugs, electrical shocks and – most significantly for our purposes here – loud noises.

Not coincidentally, Wiese’s album and track titles consistently evoke entoptic phenomena: the “Casual Psychedelics” of vitreous floaters that resemble minute bits of dust and hair: “Hairy Ghosts,” “New Wave Dust” “Attack Clouds”; phosphenic sparks that opacate clear vision: “Light of a Ghost,” “Behold the Scathing Light,” “Snow Pit” (the latter title suggesting a centripetal ‘hollowing out’ of the optical field by grainy visual noise or ‘snow’); and, more bluntly, the total obscuration of vision altogether: “Curtains,” “Opaque,” “Veiled” [4]. As these titles suggest, Wiese’s brutal and exacting noise compositions, with their startlingly violent edits and sudden, jarring changes in volume, appear to be a calculated attempt to directly induce phosphenic response in the listener. Cutting rapidly between split-second bursts of coruscating digital shrapnel, inframince canyons of near-inaudible susurration and whirr, and grinding walls of overblown distortion, the unpredictable and assaulting juxtapositions of Wiese’s music make for a particularly tense and unnerving listening experience, one that, at the appropriate volume, is fully capable of producing the kind of nervous system shocks conducive to increased phosphenic receptiveness. Wiese’s collages, then, may well figure forth the phosphenic manifestations of dismembered typographic chimera that may be induced in the listener by the violent, unpredictable, and abrupt transitions of his frequently aggressive and extreme music. 

Alternately, the pieces based on broken line fragments (see the first three images below) are visually evocative of a number of classic avant-garde experiments in textual deletion and erasure. They share certain affinities, for instance, with Marcel Broodthaers’s seminal (image), in which the conceptual artist replaces the lines of Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés (“A Throw of the Dice”) with black cancellation bands positioned and sized on the page according to the typographical layout of the original poem. “The result,” as Craig Dworkin observes, “is a geometric, constructivist design in which the calm expanse of Mallarmé’s over-sized page is interrupted by the hard-edged precision of the fixed forms that punctuate it” [4]. By eliminating or censoring reference, Broodthaers lays bare the underlying rhythmic structure of Un coup de dés and elevates an experience of the material duration of poetic form over semantic meaning.

Broodthaers's (image) 

Similarly, Man Ray’s 1924 visual poem Lautgedicht (“Sound Poem”) consists of schematic figures of straight lines designed to reproduce the pausal melody and rhythm of the conventional lyric poem: language reduced to the state of a totally illegible, pre-semantic materiality. As in (image), we find the same visible notation of a wordless music in the spatial disposition of lines and pauses. Both of these works thus help bring to near tactile presence what Bruce Russell – following Agamben and, further back, Deleuze – terms ‘repetition and stoppage’: that basal material-rhythm structurally constitutive of montagic cinécriture and (traditional, at least) poetic lineation alike [5].

In John Wiese’s line-works, however, a wavering, Steinian vibration (“[A]re you willing to moisten rapid repetition with angular vibration [?]” Stein asks) agitates the cool, geometric clinicism and strict linearity of these earlier experiments, surfacing as a kind of inaudible visual murmur, tremolo, or resonance that cuts the straight lines of the static lexeme at angles oblique to inscription [6]. Unlike Man Ray’s poem, which evokes the measured melodic structures that have always underwritten lyric utterance, Wiese’s disaggregating line-segments again offer a kind of proto-semantic linguistic image of the multiple dishevelling vectors subtending his ever mercurial music. 

[1] Ed Cohen “Poesis, Autopoesis, Autopoethics.” Culture Machine, Vol 3. (2001).; No pagination.

[2] Craig Dworkin Reading the Illegible. Evanston, Northwestern University Press (2003).

[3] Quoted in Dworkin, 61, emphasis added. One may note that, perhaps not coincidentally, Wiese’s initial interest in typography coincided with a bout of mono, the symptoms of which include fever, fatigue, and malaise.

[4]  John Wiese “Casual Psychedelics” Soft Punk (Troubleman Unlimited), CD, 2007; John Wiese and Jesse Jackson Hairy Ghosts (Troniks, TRO-116), CDr, 2004; “New Wave Dust” Soft Punk; John Wiese “Attack Clouds” Teenage Hallucination: 1992-1999 (Troniks, TRO-206) CD, 2005; John Wiese Light of a Ghost (Helicopter, H33), LP, 2005; John Wiese and Daniel Menche Behold the Scathing Light (Helicopter) 3”, CD; John Wiese “Snow Pit” Soft Punk; LHD ‎Curtains (PACrec /‎ Troniks) CD, 2004; LHD ‎Opaque (Pure) CD, 2005; LHD ‎Veiled (Helicopter, H62) 7”, 2011. 

[5] Ibid. 150.

[6] See Bruce Russell “The Cinema of ‘Pure Means’: John Wiese’s Battery Instruments as History Lesson.” Battery Instruments Catalogue, Christchurch, HSP (2010) 28-35; and “Time under the Rule of the Commodity: Notes Towards an Epistemology of Tape Music.” The Book of Gilded Splinters, Lyttelton, Ekskubalauron Press (2007) 6-9.

[7] Gertrude Stein “Saints and Singing: A Play.” A Stein Reader. Ed. Ulla E. Dydo. Evanston, Northwestern University Press (1993) 397.


John Wiese Selected Discography
Zombie LP, Presto!?, 2009  
Circle Snare CD, No Fun Productions, 2009  
Dramatic Accessories LP, Ultra Eczema, 2008 
Soft Punk LP/CD, Troubleman, 2007  
Fronts (with Bruce Russell) 7", Helicopter, 2006  
Teenage Hallucination: 1992-1999 CD, Troniks, 2005  
Magical Crystal Blah 3 CD, Helicopter, 2004.