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Mike Cooter is an artist, writer, and lecturer based in London and working internationally. His work investigates the structural agency of objects, be they sculpture, cinematic props or other anthropological artefacts – objects co-opted or created to drive narratives, fictional or otherwise. He is currently preparing a book on MacGuffins, the subject of his PhD from Goldsmiths (London, 2018). This is his first major work for radio.

Ed Baxter is the CEO of ResonanceFM, a radio station devoted to lived culture, championing arts radio and radio art. Now in its twentieth year, it has maintained a pioneering spirit while establishing itself as a globally acclaimed broadcast platform via its wide ranging, astonishingly diverse programming, distinctly independent ethos and its utterly unique output.

  1. Ed Baxter

    If I remember correctly, we started talking about this project back in 2010. Remind me how it actually came about.

  2. Mike Cooter

    Ha, yes… this took a long time, didn’t it? I imagine your invitation was to develop a short piece for radio, but I rather took it somewhere else. Well, I’d heard about – no, I’d read about this radio show, some sort of strange detective drama serial, when I was researching a different project in the microfilms that the BFI Reuben Library hold of old issues of Variety – one of the main US film, radio and theatre production publications of the period [the 1930-50s] I was interested in. I was preparing to start a PhD at the time and was thinking quite a lot about ‘things’ generally, and maybe German formulations of ‘dings’ more specifically at that stage, and so the name rather leapt out. I was also familiar with the term in its American slang usage, an appellation for a slightly or often deliberately non-specific thing or artefact – a character in The Maltese Falcon [written by Dashiell Hammett in 1930 and popularised by the 1941 John Huston film with Humphrey Bogart] refers to the eponymous ‘falcon’ using the term. An English approximation might be ‘thingamajig’ or ‘whatchamacallit’, but the etymology of the German root is more elegant. What I didn’t know then was that it was also used to refer to someone considered ‘stupid’ – or, in other words, someone thought of as being deficient of knowledge or understanding, and I liked that too. What a great way to frame a detective!

  3. Ed Baxter

    And what did you discover about the serial, about Dingus, at that stage?

  4. Mike Cooter

    Well, not very much to be honest, and no amount of trawling OTR [‘Old Time Radio’] websites, which I did quite a bit of at the time, turned up any trace, much less a recording of one of the episodes. The first break came through researching the author, John Everett Haynes: I managed to find a couple of scholars who had looked into his history a little in relation to his involvement in a US-led arbitration in South America – the somewhat notorious Tacna-Arica Compromise [1929]. This, of course, made the project even more mysterious: what was a government employee doing writing a radio play, and perhaps more intriguingly still, did the radio play have anything to do with his ‘day job’…?

  5. Ed Baxter

    I’ve never heard of the Tacna-Arica Compromise, I must have missed that lesson at school. Can you say why exactly it is important?

  6. Mike Cooter

    Sure, but I think I should briefly address the time this all took. As someone who spends a lot of time in archives for their practice maybe it’s useful to say that many projects involve quite protracted periods of research – all the while never knowing whether it will result in an artwork, or just sit on the shelf as an interesting collection of stuff or comprise an obscure conversational anecdote or similar...though of course, the way things go, telling an anecdote might lead to the next stage of a project. As for Tacna-Arica, the documentary episode goes into quite a bit of detail on this, but in broad terms it concerned an ongoing territorial dispute between Chile, Peru and Bolivia in part due to the rich mineral resources of the land under dispute: particularly nitrates derived from guano, the industrial use of which Haynes makes a series of references to in the script.

  7. Ed Baxter

    A bedrock of distilled excrement then. But why? To ground it in a place and time?

  8. Mike Cooter

    Well in a sense yes – and the question of the degree to which this story reflected real life in some way is subject to some discussion – but also because it seems that Haynes wanted us to think about materiality, both of the object that propels the story and in a more general sense. Maybe this starts to suggest why I’ve always thought of Dingus as a work of sculpture, and the work to rehabilitate it was supported [by The Elephant Trust, Henry Moore and Jerwood Foundations] in those terms. And of course it’s also not inappropriate, for me at least, that the search becomes a thing in itself: there’s a famous line from John Huston’s film of The Maltese Falcon where [the private detective] Sam Spade describes the object of their pursuit as “the stuff that dreams are made of”, and here I am looking for this thing that I don’t know the shape of but whose blurred definition becomes a site for all sorts of hopes and projections, and consequently every mention of possible materiality or attribute changes its shape in one’s imagination…

  9. Ed Baxter

    You’re talking about the object in the story?

  10. Mike Cooter

    Yes, but also about the story itself. Because one constitutes the other, in a way.

  11. Ed Baxter

    It’s all very intriguing and raises the question as to why you think the serial ‘disappeared’. That’s on the one hand. On the other, what sort of precedents are there for this kind of drama and what was the context in which it was made?

  12. Mike Cooter

    It’s clear in the broadcast that the author of Dingus is interested in the clichés of the form – in part relying on them but somewhat self-consciously commenting on them also. There are points where [the detective] Dingus almost seems trapped by narrative conventions. This I found very interesting. And to be honest its failure was a lure – I hoped that it was experimental or pushing the potential of the form it worked within, because so many of my favourite films from the time were ones that sat uncomfortably between genres: challenging conventions or expectations and taking positions which were creatively exciting and reflexive – choices that were often box-office (and critical) poison. It must be said that we are much more used to that sort of thing now, but I remain interested in how we got here. Of course, such experiments are not always successful: for example, it’s hard to see past the limitations of the technology in Robert Montgomery’s first-person-perspective adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake (1947), but something like Orson Welles’ uncommissioned TV pilot The Fountain of Youth (1956) was formally radical and something of a revelation when I saw it, clearly demonstrating the influence of Welles’ radio work and repurposing it for a form [syndicated television] that wasn’t ready for it yet. One radio production that Welles would star in is clearly related here: The Black Museum (1951–), where each episode is inspired by an object in the Scotland Yard [the detective branch of London’s Metropolitan Police] internal museum of evidence. And this is maybe a good example of how the research goes – I heard about The Black Museum while I was conducting interviews related to forensics – itself, of course, another object-led pursuit.

  13. Ed Baxter

    Why forensics?

  14. Mike Cooter

    In a sense it came from a form of architectural research: I was interested in the kind of event-led design you find in cinema. A production designer designs a space appropriate to a specific event (or events) to occur, leaving clues as to what might happen, the space in a sense guiding us to that occurrence. And I realised that of course a forensic scientist looks at the same ‘problem’ from a different perspective: what can be divulged or ‘read’ from a particular arrangement of architectural space and objects that can tell us something about what or indeed how something occurred? And all this starts to make some sort of sense when one week you’re talking to the production designer on the set of CSI Miami (surrounded by the real machines in the ‘fake’ situations, I might add) and the next walking through rooms in at the Forensic Training School in North London that have been convincingly mocked up to resemble domestic spaces, each littered with potential evidence to train a certain form of looking. What are we searching for when our gaze, or our touch, meets another thing? This seemed, many years ago, like a key question for a ‘sculptor’. And so The Black Museum became one of the many object-led narratives that occupied my attention over the years. I could add, as I think perhaps it’s relevant, that my next interaction with the Metropolitan Police would be to borrow a Barbara Hepworth forgery for an exhibition I curated [In form express and admirable, in a sense lying, in a sense not, 2013]. The artworks the Art and Antiques Unit had on their office walls – incredible! But again, this was another discipline defined by its concern with both a close form of looking and with the narrative formations around a specific thing – in a sense, ‘provenance’, but not only limited to this. With regards to more recent references, I wonder now if it has something in common with works for radio like the sound drawings produced by Douglas Huebler (KPFK, 1977), or the Radio Events commissioned by Charles Amirkhanian for KPFA Berkley (1968–72)…

  15. Ed Baxter

    Can you tell us a bit more about the object narrative – and why you suggest that the serial could be considered as a sculpture?

  16. Mike Cooter

    Well, a forgery is just an attenuated or more pronounced situation where we are brought to understand the relationship between an object and a set of narrative (or social) constructions – ‘armatures’, if you will. Our understanding of something can be considered, I think, as a co-production between a set of formal qualities (scale, material, mode of manufacture, appearance etc.) and social situations (where something is experienced, what histories it is associated with, what is claimed on its behalf etc.). As well as being a co-production, it is also a co-dependence, of course… And so while I began looking at this construction initially as a literary one – how certain, often mysterious, objects are used as tools to construct narratives i.e. to set up sets of relations, often conflictual, in drama – I wondered how serious the implicit claims made in those narratives that appear believable, or believable enough, could be? And further: could an object be designed to set up specific forms of social relations – or how, if it’s a co-production, does this process work? In the case of Dingus, I found that it seemed to be asking many of these same questions – not least by failing to let the ‘object’ at its centre slip from view, as normally happens in such stories. And of course the radio is potentially the perfect form for this – you never get to fall back on representation. It seemed important that in the Maltese Falcon – a film I tend to mention a lot when talking about these things, simply because people tend to have seen it – the thing you see, or that the protagonist encounters in the book, is a fake. And still they continue to hunt for the ‘real’ one, at outrageous expense and degrees of risk far outstripping the monetary value of the thing. Which brings us back again to the role of narrative, or social constructions or configurations…

  17. Ed Baxter

    This relates to your PhD?

  18. Mike Cooter

    Sure, though the PhD thesis didn’t take quite so long to arrive! I finished in 2018 [at Goldsmiths University, London]. Appropriately enough it takes as its starting point objects that drive narratives in film and literary works, and asks what kind of curious entities these things might propose given the claims that are made for them. In the PhD these artefacts are explored through the fields of philosophy, the sociology of science and theories of invention. I’m currently working on turning it into a book. The title? It’s called ‘MacGuffin’.

  19. Ed Baxter

    A term I associate with Hitchcock’s North By Northwest [1959], the thing that kickstarts the narrative but soon gets forgotten. But where does the term originate and what is particular about these objects?

  20. Mike Cooter

    Ha, that’s a question with a good history – I guess that’s why I tried to answer it, or to use it at least. The version everyone knows was told by Hitchcock to François Truffaut and Helen G. Scott, amongst others, though it was written for him by a collaborator [screenwriter Angus McPhail]. Appropriately enough he tells a story, and it goes like this:

    …it might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, “What’s that package up there on the baggage rack?” And the other answers, “Oh, that’s a MacGuffin.” The first one asks, “What’s a MacGuffin?” “Well,” the other man says, “it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” The first man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,” and the other one answers, “Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!”

    If you want to know more, that’ll be in the book…

  21. Ed Baxter

    Is Dingus a MacGuffin story?

  22. Mike Cooter

    Good question. Of course I have my own opinion on this, but I’d like people to hear the work first. What I will say, and one reason why I find the serial so interesting, is that Dingus is surprisingly focussed on formalising the object at its heart: the thing that propels the story might be the story, if you know what I mean. And that’s why I’ve always considered it as a sculpture...because it tries so hard to understand something, that it ends up building it, in the end. The serial, and what we know, forms an armature... Of course, that’s how I might see it, but it’s ultimately up to every listener to decide for themselves – which is perhaps how Haynes wanted it, after all…

Dingus was originally broadcast on ResonanceFM on consecutive Tuesdays from 25th October 2022 at 18.30 GMT