Virus / Film / Festival

Decoder between Fantasia 2019-20

by Randolph Jordan Volume 24, Issue 4 / April 2020 7 minutes (1666 words)


And what then is the written word? My basis theory is that the written word was literally a virus that made spoken word possible. The word has not been recognized as a virus because it has achieved a state of stable symbiosis with the host… – William S. Burroughs, The Electronic Revolution

Remember the “before times,” when things were “normal?” Only those with short memories, or little interest in history, might imagine that what we’re living in the COVID-19 era is unprecedented. Rather, it is the latest manifestation of a long line of disruptions along the path of human evolution, disruptions that appear biological but which are deeply embedded in our sociality. Communicable disease is communication made corporeal.

Muscha’s 1984 film Decoder, screened in a new restoration at Fantasia 2019, offers two glimpses of the before times. In 2019, gathered as a crowd of now globally recognized festival fanatics, we could scarcely imagine that the next festival would not meet in person, even with a steady diet of pandemic-themed films coursing through our veins. In the retro programming, we look to the past to remember the before times of cinema. “They don’t make films like that anymore,” we quip. But we would do well to see something of our futures in these pasts, as when we watched 1980s West Germany under siege by anti-capitalist cyberpunk terrorists spreading communicable disease through coded audio consisting of the heavily manipulated vocalizations of tortured frogs. Cassettes spread the infectious sounds through crowded public spaces using boom boxes and hijacked Muzak systems in commercial establishments. This is a reminder that today’s conspiracy theories – like that one about the outbreak of COVID-19 being ignited when an early 5G test network went live in Wuhan – have a long pedigree. Let’s indulge. To what end might the use of communications technology be used to communicate disease?


I have said that the real scandal of Watergate is the use made of recordings. And what is this use? Having made the recordings as described, what then do they do with them? ANSWER: THEY PLAY THEM BACK ON LOCATION. They play these recordings back to the target himself – if the target is an individual – from passing cars and agents that walk by him in the street. They play these recordings back in his neighborhood. Finally they play them back in subways, restaurants, air ports and other public places. – William S. Burroughs, The Electronic Revolution

Decoder uses footage of the 1982 anti-Reagan riots in West Germany to illustrate the chaos that ensues after overcrowded hospitals have to release sick patients back into society, the goal of the experiment being to incite popular uprising against the government and their increasing alignment with corporate interests. Meanwhile a corporate cleaner played by Bill Rice (prototype for the X-Files “smoking man”) attempts to infiltrate the organization and stop the attack from within.

In Western society it is easy to forget that there were those in Berlin who did not favour healing the breach between East and West on the foundation of capitalist culture. Interesting that our own virus of the moment has targeted the movement of capitalist culture so effectively, and that states with social welfare programs in place have moved so well to support their citizens. In this respect, Decoder indicts the legacy of Reganomics brilliantly, even without saying so. And reflects that the hallmark of the virus’ global passage is the politicization of misinformation.

TO SPREAD RUMOURS. Put ten operators with carefully prepared recordings out at rush hour and see how quick the words get around. People don’t know where they heard it but they heard it… AS A FRONT LINE WEAPON TO PRODUCE AND ESCALATE RIOTS – William S. Burroughs, The Electronic Revolution

Decoder is loosely based on the writings of William S. Burroughs, particularly The Electronic Revolution, the text providing the quotations woven through this ramble. Burroughs’ tape cut-ups are featured in the film, as is the man himself in a brief on-screen appearance as the owner of an electronics shop who provides our protagonist with a little something “special” to assist with his viral transmission – a scene shot on location and surreptitiously filmed from outside by Derek Jarman who used the footage for his own Pirate Tape (1982). A fitting interlocution, as the pirate tapes in the film – jacked into public spaces – serve as overlays that send people reeling into the streets, the images of which are their own archival overlay onto this vision of the future.

Decoder has some legendary status in avant-garde noise and industrial music circles too, starring FM Einheit of Einsturzende Neubauten – whose scheduled Montreal performance on Oct. 27th has been cancelled. Genesis P-Orridge of Psychic TV briefly appears in the film as some kind of high priest in the war on information distribution. “Information is like a bank,” he says. “It is our job to rob the bank.” Usually, cyber piracy is about stealing the information itself. What would stealing FROM the information look like? We have a shift from the notion of busting into brick and mortar vaults to tapping virtual flows.

And no outbreak film is complete without a foundation upon basic ecological concern around human community with the non-human world. We’re told that so many of the viruses that spread among humans made the jump from animals. Now we postulate that the same might be true for machines. Decoder threads these layers together by placing the frog at the centre of the sonic warfare enacted in the film, the wailing of the tortured creatures recorded, manipulated, and encoded onto the cassettes for dissemination. The death of a species spreads the death of other species, a standard premise of the deep ecological mindset, and a marker of the human-led impetus for such a chain reaction. It’s also a war on mainstream commercial culture, the burger joints enacting mass environmental slaughter for consumption amidst the environment of Muzak, and the war that “alternative” music cultures seek to wage on this process. The way we establish networks of electronic communication is, in this formulation, directly connected to our processes of consumption, and can therefore be disrupted by the same means.


Imagine a pop festival like Phun City scheduled for July 24th, 25th, 26, 1970 at Ecclesden Common, Patching, near Worthing, Sussex. Festival area comprised of car park and camping area, a rock auditorium, a village with booths and cinema, a large wooded area. A number of Tape recorders planted in the woods and the village. As many as possible so as to lay down a grid of sound over the whole festival. Recorders have tapes of prerecorded material, music, news, broadcasts, recordings from other festivals, etc. At all times some of the recorders are playing back and some are recording. The recorders recording the crowd and the other tape recorders that are playing back at varying distances. This cuts in the crowd who will be hearing their own voices back. Play back, wind back and record could be electronically controlled with varying intervals. Or they could be hand operated, the operator deciding what intervals of play back, record, and wind to use. Effect is greatly increased by a large number of festival goers with portable recorders playing back and recording as they walk around the festival. – William S. Burroughs, The Electronic Revolution

Burrough’s vision of an endlessly compounding feedback loop of simultaneous recording and playback in large scale media events reflects a basic tenet of festival reality: the identity formation, transformation, and reflection of the participants with our products. Our voices are heard in the programming and shouted back to us in playback, infecting the novices and curious along the way. In turn, the documenting of this process fills the archive with material to be reiterated at the next outing. And so on down the line. Community is the weave of people, product, and transmission. Many shots throughout the film are re-photographed from television screens, providing a layer of remediation that suggests the slippage across lived experience, live transmission, and playback of recorded materials. This textural detail is important to the film’s basic premise, and is also something that is easily lost in the low-resolution copies that have been circulating all these years. It’s harder to see recorded scan-lines if you’re watching on a format to which these scan lines are inherent. This is one of the things that makes the new Vinegar Syndrome blu-ray transfer that screened at Fantasia last year so glorious.

The archival impulse is revered among cinephiles, and a company like Vinegar Syndrome occupies a special position in their devotion to non-canonical genre fare, the recordings etched deep within the marginal, and menial, quotidian efforts that get lost amidst hype for the classics. The technology of the photograph allowed the written word to become images that speak out loud, a folding back of the viral implications of human speech back into the machines of inscription that set the virus in motion in the first place. This is amplified into a third stage when such documents are then screened in public. The written word – and its photographic equivalent – can be kept dormant for ages and then reawakened to unleash upon society at any moment.

This year’s Fantasia Film Festival has no public place. We have gone virtual. Masses of fans, usually ready to brave the Montreal summer swelter to make willing subjects of vast arrays of media experimentation, mind control, and body control, must now submit to new realities of transmission. Everything is going online. Can the virus be contained this way? Or is this, in fact, another layer of its transmission? And what will be left of our festival memories when mediated this way?

He is gone away to invisible morning, leaving a million tape recordings of his voice behind, fading into the cold spring air – cold, grey, colourless questions. – William S. Burroughs, excerpt included on the Decoder soundtrack.

Virus / Film / Festival

Randolph Jordan is a Montreal-based film scholar, educator, and multimedia practitioner. His research lives at the intersection of acoustic ecology, film studies, and critical geography. He teaches in the Humanities department at Champlain College, and has previously taught film, media literacy, and environmental philosophy at Concordia University, Ryerson University, Dawson College and LaSalle College. He is co-editor of the Sound, Media, Ecology collection (Palgrave 2019), and his monograph Acoustic Profiles: A Sound Ecology of the Cinema has just been published by Oxford University Press (2023). He has been covering Montreal film, music and new media festivals for Offscreen since 2001.

Volume 24, Issue 4 / April 2020 Festival Reports   Film Reviews   contagion cinema   fantasia international film festival   german cinema   pandemic