The Perfervid Underbelly of Recordism: A Fond Exposé of the Surrealist Antics of William A. Davison and Sherri Lyn Higgins

strange doings on a rooftop

I come home from work one afternoon to find Frida Kahlo on my roof, arguing with a neighbour. Not just any neighbour, mind you, but my dear friend William A. Davison. And on closer inspection, that's not just any Frida Kahlo, but Davison's partner - in art and life - Sherri Lyn Higgins. They've crawled out there through my bedroom window and are engaged in some kind of Recordist activity: a camera, a tripod, a visionary Surrealist icon resurrected. Apparently, there's something not right with the framing of the shot, or the angle of the light, or the way the perfectly replicated costume falls. I poke my head out. "Hi, William. Hi, Frida." The tension of their squabbling absorption in the job at hand - the crux of which, like so many of their endeavours, is not quite fathomable at a glance - instantly turns to hilarity as Higgins and Davison, caught in another of their outlandish acts, recognize and embrace the absurdity of the moment. It's some time before Sherri-Frieda can recover herself, her laughter echoing over the rooftops, wending its way down Crack Alley - past the Baptist Church on the corner where Reverend Robotham welcomes his congregation every Sunday - beyond the pet shops and cobblers of Ossington Ave, and all the way home to Recordism Central.

Or did she laugh? Am I getting mixed up with another time perhaps? It is just the sort of thing she'd do, however serious the moment. And yet… if I could just rewind the tape in my head and hit play… but memory is a dubious recordist.

an expedition into the heart of Recordism

Well, it has to be them. I've never seen them before, but clearly there's a vibe of the Marvellous emanating from that particular table of intent beings in the midst of a crowded Future Bakery crammed with Annex residents, students and poorly disguised extraterrestrials. They seem to be engrossed in some sort of game as I wend my way towards the table: jotting words, folding slips of paper, passing hidden texts from one to another. My expedition has evidently met with success.

"The International Bureau of Recordist Investigation, I presume?"

Davison - the one with the shaved head and genially demonic beard - looks up, as does Higgins (the one with the auburn Celtic mane and galvanic gaze - a Scorpio thing, I later surmise). Recognizing me from a reading I'd given some weeks prior - in another chamber of the same building, coincidentally - Davison welcomes me to the fold (our recent correspondence by email did not reveal the fact, discovered upon meeting, that we lived around the corner from each other).

Switching to the past tense, I pulled up a chair and took my place beside Jubal Brown, who seemed rather nice for an art scene enfant terrible. In all, there were less than forty of us assembled - I don't recall the exact number, but if I had to guess, I'd say it was six. I had arrived at the tail end of an "exquisite corpse," the old Surrealist game of collaborative wordplay, which can also manifest in drawing, collage, and other media. It was an exercise conducted, I gathered, partly for the results - which were strange and amusing - and partly for the synergistic charge it afforded. Clearly the old adage of Lautreamont's, about poetry being made by all, not one, had been taken to heart.

So what was the significance and value of a para-Surrealist meeting in Toronto during the final days of the second millennium? I was there to find that out. And, above all, to engage in the orgy that was rumoured to follow each meeting. My own interest in Surrealism went back to the days of my youth when… hey? Oh relax, I was just joking about the orgy. Besides, if one was really on the prowl for lascivious goings on, one would be better off crashing a meeting of Neo-Antediluvian Archaic Revivalists or something like that (Recordists are actually rather Victorian in some ways). Really, I just wanted to find out what this Recordism thing was all about - a quest which would ultimately extend into the following millennium and be taken up by my descendants. One of them, anyway.

what is Recordism, dada?

Some would say I was a careless parent, allowing my son to fall under the influence of Recordism (which is, yes, partly Dada) at the impressionable age of twelve. But the consequences of that exposure, along with my own Surrealist brainwashing efforts when he was even younger - "Don't ever forget, son: Only the marvellous is beautiful!" - turned out to be not all that bad: his creative instincts emerged intact, and I'm inclined to think that his Surrealist predilections predated our attempts at conditioning. How else to explain such early childhood declarations as: "My lovely gun went funny ways" (of course, as Breton observed, children are natural Surrealists; even so, mine was extra-Surrealist, I'm pretty sure). But however he came by it, Kerry Wright Zentner grew to be an artist and writer with just the right set of sensibilities to dissect the mysterious and perfervid underbelly of Recordism. Cunningly, he infiltrated the movement in 2003, forming a visual art collective with Davison and Higgins under the brand name North Mutator. Four years into that joint endeavour, he interviewed his collaborators for an online art magazine called Mondo. Noting their tendency to proffer "evasive bits of non-information", Zentner nonetheless managed to extract certain statements that go some way towards defining the essence of Recordism.

Kerry Wright Zentner: Okay, so what is Recordism?

William A. Davison: Recordism can be loosely defined as an artistic ideology concerned with the continued development of certain forms of Fantastic Art, literature, etcetera; the investigation into and use of chance and automatic methods in current art practice; and an ongoing exploration of the connection between art and magick.

Recordism refers specifically to the act of "recording" - a metaphor for the application of chance and automatism to the creative act.

Recordism is both the process of "recording" and the set of ideas which surround and inform that process.

Recordism is an ideospheric mutation of the meme known as Surrealism. It lives between the hairs of poet animals or in the dark folds of fabric on the masts of sunken ships. Recordism is a loose, soft, downy mass of hair, feathers, etcetera.

Recordism is a length of string tied to the neck of a salamander.

Recordism is ice cream suits worn only on hot days.

Recordism is a flyspeck capable of occluding the sun.

KWZ: At what point did you realize you were Recordists?

WAD: It was the morning of Dec. 5, 1984. I woke up and wrote the word "Recordist" in my journal, not knowing where the word came from or what it might mean. It's taken me over twenty years to figure it out. I think I've almost got it.

[Using his best journalistic guile, and the flexible Magrath Electric Shocker Wand cattle prod his mother and I got him for his birthday, young Zentner artfully elicited the following biographical statement:]

"The short version is that we met in small-town Nova Scotia and were part of a visual art collective there with some other misfits through much of the 1980s. Then we went to art school (NSCAD) in Halifax, after which we moved to "the big smoke". In the early 1990s, we proceeded to infiltrate various Toronto art scenes, starting with underground film and experimental music, and later performance art and the lit scene. We got involved in Neoism, collaborated with Istvan Kantor/Monty Cantsin, and played in the Neoist industrial noise band Phycus. In 1994, we started the International Bureau of Recordist Investigation and began various networking and collective activities. We created the open concept improv/noise collective U.R.G. (Urban Refuse Group), built homemade instruments, and played tons of gigs. In 2000, U.R.G. got trimmed down to six members and became Six Heads1. We hosted weekly open meetings to play Surrealist and Recordist games. We exhibited/published visual art/comics here and there. William did many solo sound/performance art pieces under the name Songs of the New Erotics. Sherri did a number of ritual-based performances under her own name. We curated events for 7a*11d Performance Art Festival and Pleasure Dome film group. We met Steve Venright and collaborated with Torpor Vigil Industries. Beatriz Hausner joined the Bureau, then unjoined the Bureau but remained a friend/collaborator. William had his poetry published. Sherri did CD covers and book jackets. We went away to New York and to England to meet modern-day Surrealists and play improvised music with some of them. We disbanded I.B.R.I. in 2004, but continued with most of the same activities. We became friends with surrealists from and/or living in Mexico (Enrique Lechuga, Ludwig Zeller, Susana Wald). We got involved in Toronto's improvised music scene and then drifted towards noise, playing with Gastric Female Reflex and others. We came into contact with San Francisco's Oneiromantic Ambiguity Collective and worked with and Steve Stapleton/Nurse With Wound. Recently, we've been drawing a lot with a certain kwz. And yes, that was the short version!"

Since that interview, there have been many other collaborative affairs, including a performance with Thomas Carnacki at the 2008 Whitney Biennial and a recent Six Heads performance with legendary noisemongers The Nihilist Spasm Band.

As for the Torpor Vigil Industries collaborations referred to above, my fondest recollection is of the day we hit the streets of Toronto in the TVI Mobile Reality Inspection Lab. But I'm afraid that story will have to wait for some other time.

Huh? What? You really want to hear it? Well… I suppose maybe just a brief reminiscence might be in order.

"you called about the reality?"

Now, where was I? Ah, yes, the Recordist "reality checks," executed via the TVI roving laboratory. What an outfit that was! Equipped with pioneering devices such as the Ontologator, the Phenomenatron, the Vortextant and the Ultimascope, we were on call to examine and modulate the quality of reality at private, public and corporate sites alike. Our skilled crew of technicians and inspectors2 conducted these tests from morning till night, barely able to keep up with the calls for our services, let alone perform crucial spot checks on institutions such as Mayor Lastman's office at City Hall - a mission on which we were fortuitously joined by trailblazing activist and mayoral candidate, Tooker Gomberg (sensibly attired as Robin Hood). After a busy and successful day of ontologating household cats, siphoning reality samples from university classrooms, deturbulating recording studios and basically freaking people out in restaurants (we'd been dispatched with some urgency in at least one instance), we piled back into the "torpormobile" in our customized hazmat suits well after nightfall and drove off into oblivion, never to be seen again. Not in that form, anyway - though I like to think we're still investigating and adjusting reality in our own special ways. When you're a Recordist, of course, it's all in a day's work.

tiny gifts: a diverted prologue to an imaginary discourse on the situation of Recordism in context to the surrealist movement and its ideological imperatives

What is the difference between Recordism and Surrealism? Can a movement be said to be Surrealist while functioning under a different banner? If this were Paris in, say, 1928, would Breton celebrate the actions of Higgins, Davison and colleagues, welcoming them aboard during a meeting at Les Deux Magots? Would he call a trial and demand they justify their position as a rogue offshoot of Surrealism proper? Would he hit on Sherri and get into a big fight with William, who, in an uncharacteristic fit of rage, would tell him quite explicitly how to stuff a poisson soluble before storming off to one of those bizarre flea markets where the adventurous couple would find some really beguiling old mechanical objects, strange, outmoded uniforms and haunting photographs to use in their latest contraptions, performances and collages, without giving much of a damn whether or not the presiding orthodoxy gave its stamp of approval to their vibrant compulsions? I don't know, ask somebody else. I'm not overly concerned about such distinctions. I'd rather tell you about an odd man I once saw whose little life (and I mean that affectionately, for I was instantly smitten) seemed to revolve around the collecting of rusty nails, dead insects, bottle caps, bits of string, feathers, broken glass, cigarette butts, twigs and other detritus by means of a flashlight, some surgical tweezers, a pair of rubber gloves and a cigar box.

I encountered him one night in the autumn of 2001, roaming the halls of the Gladstone Hotel, seemingly oblivious to anything in his surroundings that did not constitute some little treasure for his collection (the present contents of which suggested he had already explored the alley out back). How touching when I was to discover that these precious items he was gathering were really for the enjoyment of others who might deign to pay even a fleeting visit to the (frankly rather dismal) room where he spent his days. Surely, with that monstrous sack-like head of his, he was - however smartly attired and meticulously groomed - no stranger to discrimination. Enchanted, moved almost to tears by the sweet spectacle of his rummaging (and by an allergic reaction I have to Romanesque buildings constructed after 1880 or so), I followed him at a discreet distance until he returned to his room, the door to which had been left open. Evidently, he was not as near-sighted as I'd presumed: without so much as a glance behind him, he motioned for me to join him in his chamber, where two or three other curious souls had already gathered, drawn no doubt by the inexplicable sounds of rustling wind, trickling water and buzzing insects seemingly emanating from beneath the bed. Until he bestowed upon each of us a tiny gift in a glass jar before we departed some time later, he did not acknowledge our presence. And yet he imparted the aura of a most amiable host, perhaps moreso because he simply went about the business of pleasing himself. No, I don't mean that, for godsakes. I was merely referring to the fact that if he felt inclined to listen to a mambo version of Pop Goes the Weasel on his decrepit 78rpm turntable, then that's what he did. If he felt, in another moment, like scritching out a sequence of drones mellifluous only to his ears on a foundling violin, then that is what he did (a concert performed, by the way, with no evident regard for his audience, the presence of which nonetheless seemed to imbue his playing with a modest glow of satisfaction). After playing a "tune" on the fiddle, it might be time for him to make indistinct but painstakingly deliberate marks in a small notebook, or to stand at length upon the bed, staring contemplatively at a painting of some flowers that hung above the headboard.

There was something captivating about witnessing these tranquil pastimes, and I began to feel that I'd become part of the furnishings of this being's life. But eventually even the most charming soiree must come to an end. As silently as I'd been welcomed, I, along with the current representatives of a shifting crop of guests who'd come and gone throughout the evening, was entrusted with a bottled keepsake3 and cordially shown the door. I never saw that dear man again, but now and then there is something in an unguarded gesture or momentary stance by William Davison that reminds me of him, and that is why I'm telling you this. [Editor's note: The author was not aware that the man who dispensed the "tiny gifts" was in fact Mr. Davison in character as part of the Reciprocity/Reciprocité Performance Art Exchange.]

freshwater mermaids and electric crutches

There was an antlered Celtic goddess called Elen of the Ways who, as an embodiment of telluric feminine instinct, would forge paths onto new and bounteous terrain. Sherri Lyn Higgins is a modern incarnation of that deity, though she doesn't make a big deal about it. The paths she forges are of a less tangible nature; the terrain she reveals, imaginal. And the antlers, as best I can discern, are now evident only on the female entities that have populated her photomontages since first she took scissors to paper twenty-three years ago. She is an artist of dream realms and totemic apparitions, a trespasser onto lucent netherworlds and twilit antiquities - a recordist of impossible vistas.

Not content to recombine realities only on paper, she sometimes collages herself onto the backdrop of various urban and rural settings. For example, here she is posing as Ophelia, wearing a satin gown and lying half-immersed in the stream of a public fountain. And here, in this shot, up to her waist in a lily pond, she might be a Pre-Raphaelite naiad, or even a mermaid. There are freshwater mermaids, aren't there? I don't for the moment recall, but it's as if, by superimposing herself onto a landscape, she evokes different archetypes, thereby transforming her surroundings in a kind of mythic alchemy. That's how it seems to me, anyway. Who knows what she's thinking - though I suspect it's of a highly intuitive nature. And what about this video: it's almost as still as the photographs, her form motionless amid the other woodland shapes, as if a spell had been cast upon her, or as if she were the caster of spells, like some lovely sylvan witch. Thanks to the wonders of Recordism, the spell is cast on us as well - a mediated enchantment. In these rituals and tableaux, Higgins becomes the defining element of the scene/seen, objectifying herself to subjectify her surroundings. Often such manifestations are performed for no immediate audience but the camera; and sometimes - in a kind of mystic anti-recordism - not even for that.

While aspects of Higgins' art have Nineteenth Century origins, and certain elements can even be traced back to the caves of Lascaux, there are clear resonances with the work of Surrealists such as Remedios Varo, Leonor Fini, Mimi Parent, Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington, and (particularly with reference to collage) Max Ernst. Indeed, the spirit of Carrington and Ernst, above others, seems to infuse the creative union of Higgins and Davison. The former's connection to Carrington is principally metaphysical and tribal, while the latter innately exemplifies the eclectic formal and imaginative prowess of Ernst (not to mention his gentle nature).

Davison is an inveterate inventor, in terms of both technology and identity. He has tweaked, dissected, circuit-bent and recombined household, mechanical and electronic objects to conjure previously undreamt of sonic instruments such as the three-string electric crutch, the hellbone, the springboard, the nog nister and the oon (yes, the tail end of a balloon is a surprisingly versatile musical tool, especially when introduced to the conglomeration of reinvented gizmos Davison often uses to process his audio signals). The personas he's conceived and inhabited go by names such as M. Stactor, Baron Brainscapes, and The Anti-Child, but more often these costumed selves are nameless materializations called forth to suit the vibe of a given project or performance. The roles he's assumed include noisician, filmmaker, composer, decomposer, poet, visual artist, curator, balloon animal abattoir pin dispenser, and performance artist.

Irrepressible synergists, he and Higgins have sought to synaptically connect artists of diverse disciplines to form neuronal clusters of unusual and highly imaginative creative activity. In so doing - and by virtue of their industrious devotion to convulsive beauty, dreams, automatism, chance, black humour, nonconformism, outsider art, poetic wordplay, the primitive, the occult, the erotic, and the good old Marvellous - they are, by whatever name, invoking the true spirit of Surrealism.

good heavens, look at the time

Okay, I'm not going to go on forever. I'd love to, but you're going to have to do a little research on your own now. Ever heard of Google? Come on, folks, this is the age of the internet. What are you even doing with this book in your hands - don't you know they make these things out of old growth forests (Cretaceous, I think) using third world orphans for labour? Anyway, I've got to get on with other things. I have guests coming for dinner and I've promised to prepare something extraordinary - possibly a recipe from one of Dion McGregor's dreams, or that dish I saw recently on the menu of a lovely little Paris café: Mexican Smell. I'd have to guess at what it is - I wasn't feeling adventurous enough to order it at the time - but seeing how my guests enjoy the otherworldly cultural aromas of that land (particularly when imbued with a hint of French Surrealist sensibility), it could be just the thing. Afterwards we'll probably watch an episode of some bizarre seventies British sci-fi murder mystery TV show they've discovered, or I might coax them into submitting yet again to a screening of Toby Dammitt, that wonderful Fellini filmette inspired by Poe and starring Terence Stamp at his most decadently deranged. Of course there's always the chance, if all the relevant craniums are present, that North Mutator will rear its delirious head; or that language will be given a run for its money in some mad parlour game that exposes the telepathic machinations of forces beyond our conscious awareness (except, that is, when it gets the upper hand and makes fools of us all). Maybe there'll be a new recombinant sculpture to unveil, or a pre-release mix of the latest luxuriant noisescape, or a guest from out of town who seems normal at first but by god when you see what some of these Surrealist types get up to in their spare time…! And if there's nothing else on the agenda, we can always climb out onto the roof and visit Frida and the ghosts of other heroes now stranded in the tape loop of the past. One thing's for sure: there's never a dull moment when you're the neighbour of Recordists.


1. The other members are James Bailey, Linda Feesey, Colin Hinz, and Peter Mosher.
2. Sam "Sam Andreyev" Andreyev (Data Analyst and Executive Secretary); W.A.Davison (Sampler and Principal Field Strategist); Professor David Eagen (Laserizer and Visionary Driver); S.Higgins (Tranceiver and Dispatcher); Jesse Huisken (Phenomenatron Specialist and Onsite Theorist); Steve Venright (Crew Synergist and Chief Technical Operator); Kerry Zentner (Videographer and Sensory Transducer).
3. I am ashamed to confess that somehow during the decade that has elapsed since I was vouchsafed the little present, its whereabouts became a mystery and remains so to this day. Friends, in kind-hearted attempts to remedy this loss, will sometimes bring me other jars bearing other dead flies (some even hand-slaughtered or deliberately suffocated, I do not doubt), but, for all their good intentions, they might as well try replacing my childhood tabby with a cat made out of popsicle sticks.


"The Perfervid Underbelly of Recordism: A Fond Exposé of the Surrealist Antics of William A. Davison and Sherri Lyn Higgins" by Steve Venright. Published in Open Letter - Surrealism In Canada issue, Fifteenth Series, Number 3, Summer 2013


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