Introduction to The Size Queens’ iBook,“To The Country”

Over the past nine years, The Size Queens have deployed a variety of interdisciplinary approaches, experiments in distribution, and collaborations primarily because we could not exist as a touring ...

Over the past nine years, The Size Queens have deployed a variety of interdisciplinary approaches, experiments in distribution, and collaborations primarily because we could not exist as a touring band. I’ve lived overseas for most of the time the group has been in existence, and, as its vocalist and lyricist, this has led us to reconsider the accepted conventions (touring, specifically) foisted upon musical acts. Merchandising, the life-blood of bands on the road today, is a pointless consideration for us. Not to mention, in the short time of our releasing music, we have watched the CD—never beloved, but adopted nonetheless––become reviled, even prohibited paraphernalia for most bloggers and online music reviewers. By 2010, music editors were posting photographs of themselves unhappily obscured behind precarious stacks of CDs. A long list of what not to send reviewers––miniature animals or the underclothes of band members—became commonplace. Now, the preferred mode of distribution is obviously the most disposable, or those that are never acquired: large files shared online or streaming on third party sites.

Of course, most of us have also witnessed the return of vinyl, a commodity fetish indulged with a great deal of justification (its analogue warmth is especially praised) for a residual medium no one of my generation needs to be convinced about. A band that doesn’t tour has to think twice about how to find a “demographic” because it can’t build one in any conventional sense. It is primarily for this reason that collaboration and a loose sense of ourselves as a “collective” has become so integral to what we do. We are also politically predisposed to the idea of the collective; in this period when income inequality is the stuff of retail politics, the most pragmatic approach is to assume that we will never really possess anything individually, and would be naïve to think we actually own anything artistically. For this reason, we have extended invitations to collaborate with literary journals, artists, other collectives, performers, and of course, musicians.

These relationships have been incredibly rewarding. There are too many stories of in-studio magic to share, too many web designers and editors at literary sites to thank, but one learns very quickly to trust the artistry that others bring to one’s work, and at its heart, The Size Queens are content to watch our songs transform at the hands of other artists. In the case of this iBook, I was able to invite authors to create original, accompanying texts for each song, in this way, extending the very idea of the song, or at least seeing if the song and written word could be coextensive.

In the past, The Size Queens have premiered music videos with online journals, including a feature-length movie for our fifth record, Consumption Work: Tammy, Cybertariat, At The Aral Sea. In keeping with the economic theory of “consumption work” (a theory I first read about in Ursula Huws’s The Making of a Cybertariat: Virtual Work in the Real World) we launched a faux Kickstarter campaign and offered a set of tiered rewards, providing greater amounts of work at the higher contributor levels.

Consumption work involves paying to perform labor that was once considered part of the service (self checkouts, TurboTax, or booking your own plane flight online). It’s that unaccounted-for labor that poses as a convenience, mostly done at home. For this reason the lowest contributors received the sound files and a blank CD on which they could burn the record. Our highest contributors were offered the greatest set of tasks. At the highest tiers, contributors would be provided a set of addresses and labels, as well as press release “text” that could be altered as they wished, so that they could carry out the work of distribution and promotion “as a member of the band” might. Our fourth recording, Appetite for Redaction was released in a limited edition “leaked dossier” that included “confidential” information on the band, including its signed “legal bylaws.” Our record, III, was released in the San Francisco Camerawork exhibition catalog, An Autobiography of the San Francisco Bay Area. Our only subsidized recording came from the art departments of University of Chicago and Princeton University when we were commissioned to write and record the soundtrack for the theoretical/ performance upstarts, Our Literal Speed. And our second recording, Magic Dollar Shoppe, was produced in the cheapest and shittiest commercially available way (a jewel case with a single paper insert) so that it could be sold for a dollar without great financial loss to the band. Understanding that the jewel cases would inevitably be cracked in the mail, we added value by pre-cracking the covers before shipping. This also emphasized the privileging of the item’s shipping charges over the value of the music. Our first CD, Is It IN Yet?––produced during the rise of Photoshop’s everyone-is-a-designer ethos––provided an opportunity we couldn’t turn down: to indulge every design failure we could employ including arbitrary capitalizations and the use of that most reviled font, Helvetica. We returned to that clumsy aesthetic on our last CD, Save the Plant! with its ostensibly misspelled title in a handwriting font. That recording, primarily about the prison industrial (and surveillance) complex, also featured a drawing by Pelican Bay State Prison inmate Jose Villarreal for its cover. The drawing was purchased at a fundraising auction to draw attention to the inhumane use of solitary confinement. This brings me to the iBook, and the collaborations herein.

Once music was stripped of its physical formats (or perhaps those formats are now our phones and other pieces of hardware), the band was faced with the prospect of continuing to produce videos or to rethink what a recording could look like. The iBook seemed a resource worthy of exploiting since it seamlessly allows for audio, image, and text to interact. But if the recording was going to be a book, albeit a digital book, it seemed to me that our collaborators should extend to authors and not just musicians. I sent selected writers specific songs, asking them to “respond” in any way they saw fit. I explained that this was a record about going off-the-grid, but in the most expansive way this could be interpreted: the songs’ protagonists are equally likely to end up in a survivalist camp, to lose consciousness, or to leave the planet entirely. After all, the very opening lines in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature begin by evoking the stars, those “envoys of beauty” that “light the universe with their admonishing smile.” The songs in To The Country bring that distant admonishment far closer to our human engagements. We are wildernesses to each other, in a bountiful and predatory relationship.

The Size Queens only really identify a record’s themes once the songs are written. My San Francisco-based songwriting partner Michael Mullen and I work hastily, again due to the limited time that we have to work together. In this case, the question of “nature” in its manifold historical forms and operations appear to have been a preoccupation for me; it appears elsewhere in our work, but is sustained here. As the cultural theorist Raymond Williams wrote in his essay, Ideas of Nature: “All at once nature is innocent, is unprovided, is sure, is unsure, is fruitful, is destructive, is a pure force and is tainted and cursed.” What then is the country and can we go there? Isn’t the country all those places we are not? Places of enchantment and encroachment, of undomesticated promise and occupying militia forces escaping taxation? It is always a little out of reach, semantically unstable, unrealistic. The country isn’t necessarily “the land,” nor is it a nation. It is not inscribed, and yet the anxiety of “who owns this property?” is always at its margins. When the preposition  “to” is added, the phrase may not imply human trespass at all, but instead a message directed “to the country.” I imagine a man or woman on soapbox, dispensing bathtub wisdom to his or her grubby tribe. Like Freud’s profound struggle with the problem of heimlich and unheimlich in his essay “The Uncanny,” a supposed opposition between the familiar and the unfamiliar melts into an uneasy unity; they are entangled in this place we call: “the country.” There is a deep anxiety of unstable categories. “The country” promises the Puritan virtues of the self-made person pitted against the inhospitable elements: a mute world of rocks, trees, “vibrant” matter––objects withdrawn from our observation but nonetheless endowed with powers and capacities. The land is an expression of unimaginable duration, of violent, eruptive forces and the shearing away of formations that appear permanent. And of course there is the country of the mind, its literary suggestion of a place where one is simultaneously lost and found. The country is where we mine and frack, preserve and worship, a place that binds us to language and custom, expels us, exiles us, and ultimately buries and consumes us.

In Spring & All, poet William Carlos Williams describes the deadness of our desire to quantify the world by its parts, to keep its categories intact. He recognized that state of “presentism” we now seem to feel amidst the proliferating, emergent technologies all around us, their mutant bloom. Williams wrote:

“In fact, now, for the first time, everything IS new. Now at last the perfect effect is being witlessly discovered. The terms ‘veracity’ ‘actuality’ ‘real’ ‘natural’ ‘sincere’ are being discussed at length, every word in the discussion being evolved from an identical discussion which took place the day before yesterday.”

And later, he writes:

as if the earth under our feet
an excrement of some sky
and we degraded prisoners

to hunger until we eat filth
while the imagination strains

after deer
going by fields of goldenrod in
the stifling heat of September
it seems to destroy us

No trees were killed in the making of this iBook. This is certainly untrue. The mining essential to create the devices on which this iBook is viewed has contributed to a widening toxic sludgescape, a network of copper thieves, today’s rag trade. The iBook will be obsolete in no time, it is already limited by not offering ultrahaptic tactile sensation or olfactory interfaces that—like John Waters’ Smell-O-Vision cards produced for his film Polyester—can provide fully immersive experiences on the “page.” Like “the country,” technology is also always an unfulfilled promise. Technology is our new mirror, reflecting our radical dissatisfaction with what is human, even in our awkward, early-cybernetic extension of what we perceive as human. We create these imagined worlds together, simultaneously uncontaminated and corrupted, through metaphor and code. “The country” and the new world of applications are always polyvalent; it is impossible to make them remain at our service.

The Size Queens hope that these interpenetrations of song, text, and image will facet the idea of the “album” and broaden the opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations, generating other narrative forms. But please don’t ask how it should be read. Wander into it. For comfort and cold.



Download the iBook here. icon