Banality and Liminality:
Assessing Throbbing Gristle Through 'After Cease To Exist'
Throbbing Gristle have left an uncertain legacy; this piece from Declan Cochran examines that legacy, via the short film After Cease To Exist...
Throbbing Gristle’s short film After Cease To Exist (1977, COUM Transmissions) acts as the apotheosis of the first stage of their career, as they began to cast off the shackles of their previous incarnation as COUM Transmissions, a freewheeling, Tory-MP-upsetting, performance-art collective styled as the Wreckers of Civilisation, and forged ahead with their development as musicians.
Like all things Gristle, nothing was straightforward. As their later work would go on to demonstrate, Throbbing Gristle were beholden to no one idea, and albums such as DOA: The Third And Final Report Of Throbbing Gristle (Industrial Records, 1978) and their opus 20 Jazz Funk Greats (Industrial Records, 1979) were equally content with minimalist tales of rape and schoolgirl coercion as they were with glittering synth tracks that sound like ascending a staircase of jewels. To this end, After Cease To Exist is an almost archetypical example of how un-archetypical the group often were.
Bookended by several minutes of black screen scored with a harsh ambient hum (which would later go on to be released as the entire second side of The Second Annual Report (Industrial Records, 1977)), the film acts as a demo, art piece, and concert film in only a few minutes of audiovisual assault. Footage of concertgoers walking out, scenes of the band playing to an empty room, and desolate soundcheck, are all intermingled with the real ‘meat’ of the film, footage of band member Chris Carter being tied to a table and castrated by his future wife Cosey Fanni Tutti and collaborator Soo Catwoman.
It is probably entirely incidental that these scenes of the film resemble the now-notorious torture porn genre, yet unavoidable. But where that genre exists entirely within the spaces between the buildup, the infliction, and the aftermath of the pain, this film defies any attempt to try and reason with what is on screen. If the impact is meant to be one of horror, then the absence of any dialogue track goes a long way to neutering (for lack of a better word) the squeamishness of the potential impact. The film renders the viewer mute, and passive; the impact comes not necessarily from what is happening, but from the viewer’s perspective in relation to it.
There is something matter-of-fact, tossed-off, about what’s happening. The camera does not shy-away from the close up, but in recollection we feel far away from the ‘action’. This is in part due to the crummy, cigarette-stained aesthetic of the yellowing VHS tape that the film is currently viewable on (although it was originally shot on 16mm), and also the absence of the diegetic soundtrack. There is no crescendo, or buildup; we are not guided into the castration, but instead presented with it as a fact to understand on our own.
The result is that the film doesn’t seem to think that what’s happening is especially notable or impactful, and such a cavalier attitude is much more disturbing than anything we actually see. Coupled with the impressive effects work, a silicon pair of testicles complete with sperm tube, the result is a snuff film that, it feels, could be real; at the very least it defies what we now know of as a fictional representation of snuff, so divorced from the trappings of the genre, and so influential in developing said trappings, that it cannot help but stand alone.
With the exception of nearly-forgotten British horror film (and proto found-footage feature) Skinflicker (UK, Tony Bicat, 1972), there was nothing to match (what I will term, and return to) the heightened banality of After Cease To Exist upon its release. It would take until Nine Inch Nails’ Broken (US, 1990, Peter Christopherson) music video for there to be some kind of mainstream equivalent, but given NIN’s bona-fides in the industrial music genre and the fact that Broken was directed by Gristle’s very own Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson, it feels more like a (sleeker, weaker, edgier, chrome) continuation of the same aesthetic from the same source, as opposed to different take with a similar impact.
The two things I think compare most closely (in wildly different ways) to After Cease To Exist are The Witch Who Came From The Sea (US, Matt Cimber, 1976) (in function), and Guinea Pig 2: Flowers of Flesh and Blood (Japan, Hideshi Hino, 1985) (in form).
Cimber’s film, released in 1976, also deals with castration. Mainly, it shows the effects of repressed trauma on a young woman, Molly, as she finds herself, in a series of sequences that straddle the line between reality and fever-dream, castrating several men who have made advances on her. The emotional impact of the film, and it is a significant one, is through Millie Perkin’s anxious performance as Molly; she plays her neither as victim or madwoman, but instead someone forced to act against her own will as the damage dealt to her in the past bubbles up to the surface. We learn, through cannily shot flashbacks, that she was raped and abused as a teenager. It doesn’t matter if the men are leches or genuinely interested; the end result, tragically, will always be the same.
Although it would be disingenuous to suggest that the gender politics of After Cease To Exist intersect with The Witch Who Came From The Sea’s, there is nevertheless overlap in their parallel approach to the upending of common gender tropes within such horror films. Namely and notably, in both films, it is the woman who is the aggressor. Although Witch contextualises Molly’s crimes in a pre-existing network of trauma, and After Cease To Exist is entirely decontextualises everything shown, both situate men in the ‘victim’ role, and (crucially) show a disinterest in their pain. Indeed, as Sleazy was working out the dynamics of a woman in a dominant role towards a man, he found it so alien (as a gay man himself) that Tutti had to take over.
The Witch Who Came From The Sea does present the men’s pain. In an early sequence Molly castrates two jocks, and the scene presents their fear in the way that horror films usually present fear; with lingering impact. But we never leave Molly’s perspective, and the incident is referred to thereafter only in terms of its impact on Molly, as the grip on her sanity begins to loosen. After Cease To Exist does not show any pain at all; Chris does not fight against what happens to him, and when he is later seen (post-castration) on a bed with a wig and a dress, although he is tied up, he does not seem particularly distressed. Tutti has written in her book Art Sex Music (Cosey Fanni Tutti, 2017) that Chris developed cramp which drew tears, but that doesn’t seem especially visible.
Guinea Pig 2: Flowers of Flesh and Blood from 1985, by contrast, resembles After Cease To Exist much more closely in form. It is 40 minutes of a young woman being tied to a table and slowly dismembered. Famously, Charlie Sheen watched the tape and reported it to the FBI; less famously, a young man was fined £600 for importing it in 1992. Although the film goes further than After Cease To Exist, it acts as a canny microcosm for that films legacy; there is something that has endured within the lexicon of horror movie images of someone helplessly tied to a table and tortured, and After Cease To Exist can be viewed, in some ways, as the originator of that image in the form we recognise it in today (I do not mean to suggest that the image itself originated here. For one thing, due to its lack of availability, I doubt many people have seen After Cease To Exist, and even as far back as Freaks (US, Tod Browning, 1932) we can see that the image of horror through surgical mutilation has existed).
By virtue of the fact that After Cease To Exist was not attempting to be part of any wider movement, or even really ‘be’ a horror film (or anything for that matter, other than an attempt to shock by a group very adept at doing so), it takes on a greater impact. Flowers of Flesh and Blood is only disturbing in terms of sheer technical skill, and has little appeal outside of the undeniable craft of the gore effects. There is no texture, no roughness. The Witch Who Came From The Sea, on the other hand, is a beautiful and underrated film which nevertheless is a film; it has themes, and characters, and conflict and resolution. After Cease To Exist creates a whole world, contingent with the world created in the COUM Transmissions pieces, and it is one that is hard to wriggle out from, fleeting but scarring, harsh but also, viewed in the right way, kind of comforting..
Further, Gristle’s approach to gender is by the standards of the time (and possibly by today’s standards too), enlightened. Genesis P-Orridge would go on to become a trans woman, and Tutti was afforded relative parity within the band (although her testimony of mistreatment at the hands of Genesis bears remembering). The only straight male member of the band was Chris; it is fitting, then, that he is the one to suffer at the hands of Tutti and Soo, in the most emasculating way possible.
Throbbing Gristle’s work, taken as a whole, inspires an uneasy plethora of responses, including disgust (both viscerally and morally), amusement, fear, and uncertainty. They were peddlers par excellence of the seedy, unpleasant, and ‘wrong’. Listening to their music feels like taking a bath in grim unfamiliarity, but like all baths, it does bring a modicum of comfort. This is, perhaps, an unusual admission, but it is one I mean with complete sincerity. There is something I find close to soothing about their output, and I believe it is through the way the band paint a picture of the grotty ley lines that underpin British culture, and British life.
After Cease To Exist is one of the key manifestoes that delineates this comfort. Taking place, as it does, in a faceless and nameless basement with sparse, dirty walls and a brutally minimalist interior design, it nevertheless strikes one as familiar. These are places we have all visited, in some form, either from a purely aesthetic standpoint, or in the sense that we have all wound up in unfamiliar places where it feels like we don’t belong; places that invoke a strong reaction of the uncanny, or unheimlich. We can tell ourselves that there is nothing ‘dangerous’ about them, but they feel dangerous through their heightened banality; the uncertain intersection between their disarmingly unremarkable nature and the undeniable stench of their aura.
This heightened banality articulates a queasy, but very British, liminality. We all, at some point or another, find ourselves passing through rooms like these. They were not built to be stayed in, but they remain unavoidable. Whether it’s a public toilet, the backroom of a pub, an empty church hall, someone’s basement, an unusually spacious cupboard, a betting shop, an empty cinema, the stockroom of a restaurant, an apartment corridor, the stairway of an office building, an alleyway stacked on both sides with walls of red brick, the grey drizzle of the highstreet; we never stay in these places for very long, but they impart something onto us. Every country has these places, but Throbbing Gristle, with their working-class Sheffield and Hull roots, and their dictum of ‘industrial music for industrial people’, latches onto the British form and articulates it beautifully.
The places described above are not horrifying, but their liminality and uncertainty of purpose makes it easy to link them to horror (easy to shoot an art film in which someone gets castrated, for example). They bristle with the unknown, the uncertain, the darkness of potential. Mark Fisher, writing in The Weird and Eerie, posits that the eerie ‘seldom clings to enclosed and inhabited domestic spaces; we find the eerie more readily in landscapes partially emptied of the human’ (Mark Fisher, 2016); in the spaces I describe above, the mental image forms without individuals. When we consider the presence of people, of ourselves, we are only passing through and never actually staying there.
After Cease To Exist is the exception that proves this rule. Although it contains people, there are no humans. Nobody reacts in the way one would expect to a live castration, and any visible sense of pain is mitigated by the absence of diegetic sound. The un-existence of the people is a valid match for the un-existence of the room it takes place in. As witnesses, we are trapped there for as long as the camera remains there; the camera will not leave, and without the camera, it might be the case that we ourselves cease to exist. Indeed, through a combination of the film and also the manner in which it exists now, in a degraded format, all lines are blurred. We are neither coming or going, we are simply there, watched but not seen, watching without seeing.
The question to be asking is whether it is, ultimately, worse to be watched than ignored?
One other film to which a direct comparison is useful is Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (US, Korine, 2009). That film, a sort of bizarro road movie-cum-horror film, takes place in the forgotten backlands of Baltimore, and concerns a group of people roving around the suburbs and causing disturbances, be it smashing up an abandoned house, throwing old televisions into the freeway road, or suffocating a baby doll.
It resembles After Cease To Exist in form (both exist as expressions of the crummy VHS aesthetic, although Korine’s film is through direct intention), and also in tone. I would go as far as to say that Trash Humpers is After Cease To Exist’s American cousin, unruly in all the same ways but with a distinct national flavour. Both take place beyond the parameters of society, and both seem to relish in it. The quasi-performance art of the Humpers is close to a COUM transmission, and the group take great joy in pushing the boundaries of perceived taste and being deliberately upsetting.
Korine has written that Trash Humpers is something of a love letter for the lost souls who inhabited the spaces around him when he grew up, and although it is not necessarily correct to call After Cease To Exist a love letter, it nevertheless has been made out of a sincere desire to be shocking, and a sincere belief in their means of doing so. Both films exist within a singular space, and capitulate the specific tone of that space. They are also articulated and elevated by the format in which they’ve been brought to (visual) life. They are dispatches from the outside brought in kicking and screaming from the cold and left in the hallway for us to regard them in their wonky fauxnicolour glory as they drip on the carpet.
A lot has changed since After Cease To Exist was released. The world has undergone the rise of neoliberalism, austerity, deregulation, massive cultural shifts, a renegotiation of the acceptable boundaries of unproblematic art. In this sense, it is a time capsule to a time when the arts movements operated on the underside of power, utilizing that dark energy to say something about the state of the world; about Britain.
It is not fair, or accurate, to describe COUM/Gristle as an apolitical group. Though their intent was to upset, this was usually aimed at those to whom upset would not go unnoticed; the ruling elite. Their 1976 show, Prostitution, drew an amount of ire from politicians (and one Tory in particular, Nicholas Fairbairn) that seems almost anachronistic, in the way the Video Nasties and Mary Whitehouse now seem anachronistic; relics of their time, reminders of battles that have long since ended, a preach to a choir and amusement to anyone else.
The diffusion of collective identity and lionisation of individual viewpoints that has taken place since then means that another After Cease To Exist, the work of a group with singular aims, is not likely to occur; whatever today’s equivalent is has likely already been filmed, and is lying out there waiting to be discovered by someone else in forty years’ time, its impact not likely to be assessed until the world has changed to leave it intact. But we have the 1977 film with us now, and the light it shines both on Britain, and the changes that have taken place within Britain since then, are invaluable.
Although After Cease To Exist is ostensibly a work of the industrial music and arts movement, wrapped around the form of the horror film, to me it stands as one of the great punk statements of the last fifty years. It is impossible to watch it and not consider the misery, griminess, and relentless squalor of the liminal spaces that follow us through life; heightened banality.
The true horror comes from the fact that you might find this banality familiar, or even consolatory.
– After Cease To Exist (Britain, COUM Transmissions, 1977)
– DOA: The Third And Final Report Of Throbbing Gristle (Industrial Records, 1978)
– 20 Jazz Funk Greats (Industrial Records, 1979)
– The Second Annual Report (Industrial Records, 1977)
– Skinflicker (UK, Tony Bicat, 1972)
– Broken (US, 1990, Peter Christopherson)
– The Witch Who Came From The Sea (US, Matt Cimber, 1976
– Guinea Pig 2: Flowers of Flesh and Blood (Japan, Hideshi Hino, 1985)
– Art Sex Music (Cosey Fanni Tutti, 2017)
– Freaks (US, Tod Browning, 1932)
– The Weird and The Eerie (Mark Fisher, 2016)
– Trash Humpers (America, Korine, 2009)
Watch After Cease to Exist below…