Warren Ellis, Ubu.com, Serial Storytelling

Every month, the great ubu.com gets someone to curate its content. The vast Ubu archives are, as the site’s Alfred Jarry”“inspired name suggests, an incredible trove of the avant-garde. Last month, December 2010, the curator was Warren Ellis, best known as a writer of comics, but also a major out-cultural omnivore and evangelist, with a more than passing interest in electronic music.

The monthly curation involves the selection by an individual of ten items from the catalog. Ellis’ ten touch on various themes in his work, from technologically mediated art to the ramblings of end-of-life geniuses to tribal ritual to transcendent dreamstates.

They are: (1) the Balinese “Ketjak: The Ramayana Monkey Chant”; (2) Vassili Silovic‘s 90-minute The One Man Band (1995), comprised from unreleased segments of work from late in Orson Welles‘ career; (3) Sun Ra: The Berkeley Lectures, 1971 (yeah, you read that right); (4) Tuvan throat singing from a 20-year-old collection; (5) the four segments of John Berger‘s BBC TV series Ways of Seeing; (6) Samuel Beckett‘s Film, which started Buster Keaton; (7) early works from the 1970s by minimalist composer Charlemagne Palestine; (8) Dreams, a collaboration between famed BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s Delia Derbyshire and Barry Bermange; (9) peculiar flyer esoterica from modern day Chicago; and (10) music by Eliane Radigue.

These aren’t cultural objects selected at random. Nor do they simply correspond with various aspects of Ellis’ fiction (the mad memories of an aged man in Desolation Jones, the spirit drummer in Planetary, the street culture of Transmetropolitan and countless other fictions). They also correspond with other hints of where Ellis’ head is at, based on his numerous Twitter posts (at twitter.com/warrenellis), and his blogging, such as a recent spate, at warrenellis.com, focused on the Radiophonic Workshop.

With some writers-who-tweet, such as William Gibson, the Twitter activity tends to correspond with periods of inactivity — it’s generally understood that Gibson blogs when he’s done with a book, in part to reconnect with the world beyond his laptop, but also, no doubt, to build up some cultural steam.

With a writer like Ellis, there is virtually no on and off; he’s always producing, and almost always present in the public forum that is the Internet. When he posts online that he’s going dark, he tends to clarify which of his myriad Internet connectivities will be active (direct messaging on Twitter, but not casual @ mentions; via the Whitechapel forum at freakangels.com/whitechapel, but not via email — or vice-versa). Watching Ellis work — which is, in effect, what we’re doing when we follow his Twitter account and read his blog posts — is a kind of social-media version of the serial storytelling of yore. Instead of reading Dickens chapter by chapter in advance of the work’s collection as a proper book (or perhaps in addition, since that is the model by which most graphic novels are produced), we watch Ellis’ stories take shape from the raw materials on his mental desk (or as he has called it, his “outboard brain”), into something finished and formidable. The December 2010 Ubu curation is not just what he listens to (and watches) while he works, but what will become his work.

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