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PAINT IT BLACK: STEWART HOME ON STEWART HOME
One day in the spring of 1982 I woke up and decided I would be an artist. I was twenty years old and thought that art was pretty much whatever those in positions of cultural power said was art. In other words my understanding of art was institutional and I believed various bureaucratic maneuvers were required to transform me into an artist, rather than the possession of some utterly nebulous quality such as 'talent'. It was obvious there were hierarchies of painting and writing and other cultural forms, with certain works within such categories being treated as art on the basis that those who’d created them had been legitimated as 'great' by the institution of art. Clearly, 'genius' was not something innate to those who allegedly ‘possessed’ it, but was rather a social fiction that was bureaucratically conferred. Thus the writing of James Joyce was art, while that of Harold Robbins was not; the music of Mozart was art, while that of Frankie Goes To Hollywood was not; the graphic work of John Heartfield was art, while that of Barney Bubbles was not etc. Since I was bored with the London music scene, I decided to test my institutional understanding of culture by transforming myself into an artist. Back then I saw there being two main routes into the art world. The front door to artistic fame, riches and beautiful lovers was to go to a commercial gallery, knock on the door and ask to be signed up. Artists taking this path would be put in group shows, then got given solo exhibitions with catalogues and critics paid to write about them; once an artistic profile had been built up sufficiently, other galleries internationally would be asked to invest in the new cultural prospect. This process was expensive and seemed unlikely to work for me: I hadn't been to art school and had few cultural credentials, I therefore felt it unnecessary to put to the test my belief that every gallery in London's Cork Street would tell me to shove off if I approached them as a prospective client. There was however a slower but surer road to cultural infamy, and so I chose to follow the sometimes sublime but more often unnecessarily picturesque detours taken by the avant-garde through the archive and the library. I'd noticed that many early histories of the avant-garde were written by those involved in what they recorded, whether this was Richard Hulsenbeck telling it how it was (or more likely wasn't) about Berlin Dada, or Ken Friedman on Fluxus.
Although my ultimate game plan entailed being recognized as an ego-maniac on a world historical scale, the beginnings of such a project were inevitably modest. Initially what I did was xerox off some leaflets containing manifestos and advertising myself as a performance artist. I also promoted myself as part of a non-existent anti-art movement called the Generation Positive. A piece entitled Proclamation of the Generation Positive provides a typical example of my output of the early eighties, it reads in part: "The Generation Positive will appropriate the modernist tradition of revolt by revolting against this tradition and returning to pre-modern values. The Generation Positive will sing the love of hot running water and colour television. The Generation Positive worships a new beauty, a beauty of its own creation. The Generation Positive creates an art that is as delightful as the mass production of ornamental china…." Obviously this mélange of appropriations cannot in any sense be read straight. My parodic intentions are obvious enough from the fact that I took a line from the First Futurist Manifesto in which Marinetti announces 'we will sing the love of danger' and transformed 'danger' into 'hot running water and colour television.' Even at the age of twenty I understood it was necessary to recognize the bad aspects of modernity and attack them, while celebrating modernism's progressive 'achievements' which invariably prove to be moments of negation. I always and already knew that the best and worst of modernity was to be found co-existing within figures such as Max Stirner, Georges Sorel and Amadeo Bordiga. Likewise, it was precisely because of my 'bad faith' and 'vulgarity' that in time I came to be hailed (initially by myself) as the only proletarian post-modernist capable of reinventing world culture in its entirety.
The general tenor of my early prose pieces was comic, simultaneously appropriating and scoffing at avant-garde traditions in the arts. Since to become infamous one must be recognizable, and repetition is one of the easiest ways of achieving this, I continued to write parodic manifestos. At the same time I took out classified advertisements to offer myself as an artist for hire, as well as producing anti-poetry and graphics. Eventually I decided to begin collecting this material together in a magazine I called Smile. Since I had no visual arts training my layouts were simple, centred and essentially classical; rather like the Surrealist and Situationist journals. Similarly it's because the figure of the artist provides a relatively acceptable vehicle for male emotionality and egotism in bourgeois society, I placed my own photograph on the front cover of most of the early issues of Smile magazine. Pursuing a strategy of self-historicisation in which I determined the meaning of my own work rather than asking critics to interpret it for me, I eventually got involved with the post-Fluxus movement known as Neoism and ultimately the London gallery circuit. Although some of those involved with Neoism claimed the group had nothing to do with art, this anti-movement remained classically avant-garde from its name on down. Neoism is, of course, a prefix and a suffix without any content and as such reflects key modernist obsessions relating to death, negation, silence, iconoclasm and all round bad craziness.
A typical Neoist event would consist of some dour 'artist' handing out bags of crisps to a sparse audience of fellow Neoists in order to produce a 'sound sculpture' (the audience participated by eating the crisps and the sound of this was recorded to produce an 'audio document'). Alternatively a Neoist 'art work' might be displayed, such as Cheese Crackers On Cheese Crackers, a parodic invocation of Kasimir Malevich which pathetically failed to grasp the full depths of the Russian Supremacist's nihilism. As a baby-faced twenty-two year-old I met a thirty something Hungarian "filmmaker" Georg Contour during the Eighth International Neoist Apartment Festival held in London in 1984. Georg Contour had traveled from Berlin to London intending to make "an experimental classic" movie called The ABC of Seeing which was to star his then current girlfriend, a heavily built aspirant Californian actress in her late twenties called Jennifer MacGregor. Jennifer had met Contour in Berlin where she’d been promised a role in an alternative German play but ended up working as a waitress, and before meeting Georg had been sleeping with the guy who’d tricked her into leaving the US on the promise of a theatrical role that never materialised. Contour’s plan for making the ABC of Seeing was simple; a younger man would be found to play Jennifer’s boyfriend in the movie, and she would seduce her co-star after he’d ceased acting, while unbeknownst to this dupe Georg would hide close by and film the resultant sexual action. Thus Contour’s planned anti-narrative would relentlessly document both the factual and fictional manipulation of a younger man by an older woman, without the male lead ever discovering what had really been going on until the film was premiered. After I was chosen by Contour to play his lead fool, MacGregor's interest in me quickly moved beyond the bounds of avant-garde anti-professionalism. As a result Contour became enraged and while attempting to clandestinely film yours truly getting it on with MacGregor behind some bushes in Kennington Park, he blew his cover by attacking me and accusing me of trying to steal his girlfriend. As a consequence Jennifer and her "evil cameraman" boyfriend split up, and The ABC of Seeing was never completed. MacGregor then spilt the beans about Contour secretly following me around for several weeks and shooting a huge amount of footage of us together without my knowing about it. Jenny followed this up by attempting to persuade me to elope with her to Italy, and seemed a bit miffed that I preferred to remain in my native south London, where I was able to support myself relatively handsomely by claiming welfare.
Many of the Neoists who'd introduced me to Contour had a liking for assumed names and perhaps those with the most colourful monikers present at APT 8 were an American couple calling themselves tENTATIVELY a cONVENIENCE and Gail Litvinoff. In reaction to this, from 1985 to the end of that decade I called myself Karen Eliot and in order to maximize the resultant gender ‘blender’ identity confusion, I persuaded a number of other (mainly male) anti-artists to use this name too. A number of these men turned out to be cross-dressers, and one south London mail artist in particular took great delight in sending me images of himself dressed up as 'Karen Eliot'.
Moving on from the specific to the more general, the conceptual turn art took in the twentieth-century meant that pretty much anyone can now be an artist regardless of how poor their draftsmanship happens to be. This is something that both I and most of the Neoists used to considerable advantage. Likewise, technology enables even those whose pen and ink pictorial representations never progressed beyond stick people to produce sophisticated representational art. That said, one of the things that interested me from the early eighties onwards was seeing how little I needed to do to various artifacts - for example painting statuettes in day-glow colours, or making simple arrangements of everyday objects - to transform them into art. All that was required was an explanation cum justification of the work. For example, a simple negational arrangement would be to play an Al Green and a Robert Johnson record at the same time. Al Green is one of a number of soul singers closely associated with the Christian faith, whereas Robert Johnson is a blues singer and guitarist who allegedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his talent. Playing releases by these two musicians simultaneously creates an effect quite distinct from hearing works by either on their own. The actual pieces I've made using such principles are often simple inversions. The Lettrists and Situationists describe such an approach to what they termed ‘detournement’ as the weakest and least effective means of departure from bourgeois notions of sense and logic. However, I've often found that what theoretically are the weakest forms of detournement generally have the greatest immediate impact. For example, I rewrote the copy on a mid-eighties UK government anti-heroin poster from 'my friends told me high how I'd get but not how low' to 'I didn't know the meaning of glamour until I started shooting smack, now I'm a star.' After I published it in my magazine Smile and fly-posted copies around London, this detourned poster was soon reproduced in a number of commercially published magazines. Even when I'm not detourning an existing advertisement, my graphics are usually simple. A prime example of this is a photograph of a packet of tea with the word 'FREEDOM' underneath. These two elements set up a simple but effective dialectical opposition between the slogan 'FREEDOM' and the historical reality of the production of tea being based on slavery. So while there isn't necessarily much visual delectation to be taken from the graphic and it only requires the viewer to look at it for a few minutes, for anyone intelligent enough to understand how the racket we call society is organized, this combo could potentially spark off hours of thought on the inequities of commodity production and the bourgeois world.
I've used various rudimentary forms of detournement with considerable success for twenty years, so it will come as no surprise that in 1999 I produced the Necrocard. These body donor cards enabled those who carried them to leave their corpse for sexual experimentation. The design of the Necrocard mimicked the layout of the British National Health Service organ donor card of that time, but with phrases such as 'I want to help others live in the event of my death' transformed to 'I want to help others experiment sexually after my death'. As well as generating much media interest, the Necrocard reflects the fact that as I've got older I've found my thoughts fixed increasingly firmly on the big issues that fascinate anyone whose mind has a morbid modernist bent, that is to say sex and death. If prior to their death someone has given their consent to necrophiliac sex, then I don't really see what moral objections can be raised against it. One of the things that makes this world an interesting place is a wide variety of sexual tastes. People should be free to experiment sexually as long as this is done with the consent of those they are shagging. The Necrocard also served as my introduction to a lot of foxy Goth chicks, although to date I've failed to get it on with any of them, since the potential groupies my necrophilia themed work brought flocking to me are only interested in bonking me once I've snuffed it. Which I guess is fine from their point of view, but it doesn't really help me get my rocks off.
Having dealt with the weakest form of detournement, it is perhaps worth mentioning that my deployment of such techniques is intended to demonstrate both the meaninglessness of high culture and my indifference to it. Indeed I have quite consciously used such notions to manipulate the art world. A ridiculously simple example is the picture Weymouth Bay: After Constable, Aprés Chernobyl (1987). The work consisted of a print of Constable's Weymouth Bay which I daubed with day-glow paint and placed in a cheap white plastic frame. Having created this utterly banal work, I then looked at ways of getting it exhibited. Seeing that the Young Unknowns Gallery in Waterloo were asking for submissions to a group show entitled The Lie Of The Land, I seized my opportunity by delivering the work in person and simultaneously subjecting gallery director Peter Sylveire to a thirty minute rant about ecology being the political issue of the eighties. My piece was selected for the show but failed to sell. I hung the picture above the fire place of my council flat in Poplar for a few years, but eventually threw it away when I moved to Bethnal Green.
Way back when in the eighties I also assembled an "artist's book" from test sheets that had been overprinted when the registration and inking was being fine tuned on a printing press. My role in making the art work consisted of simply choosing the randomly printed sheets, cutting them down to A3, then folding and stapling them into an A4 format. The results once numbered and signed were sold to various institutions including the Tate Gallery Library. I then added the Tate as a collection in which I was represented to my CV. Anyone looking at this was likely to conclude I'd sold a painting or a sculpture to The Tate for several thousand pounds, when all I’d done was flog a book to them for £10. Still, my claim to have sold work to The Tate could be verified by anyone who cared to check it out, and it served to greatly impress those who simply took it at face value. More complex in execution was the collaborative installation Ruins of Glamour/Glamour of Ruins that was on show briefly at the Chisenhale Studios in London during December 1986. Spectators entering Chisenhale Studios found themselves blinded by a spotlight. Since there was a wall to their left, they were forced to veer right. They thus found themselves entering a spiral of heaped coal. Any progression beyond the outer ring of the spiral was impeded by sharpened wood spikes. Similarly, it was not possible to step over the spiral at the point where the spotlight was hung. Spectators were thus forced to step over the spiral at a point just in front of the spotlight. By turning their backs to the light, they would find themselves at the best vantage point for viewing both the exhibition and any injuries they’d sustained from the wooden spikes.
With the Glamour exhibition I realised most of my initial ambitions with regard to the art world. Among other things the show was favourably reviewed by William Feaver ('Pink feather duster, matching fly swatter', Observer 14/12/86), so I’d proved to my own satisfaction that becoming a publicly recognized artist entailed the manipulation of various bureaucratic and symbolic systems, rather than any particular form of talent or training. Ruins of Glamour received a second wave of publicity after being completely trashed by vandals. However, more valuable than the publicity I received as a result of this act of cultural negation was the insurance money I picked up. I doubt that I'd have sold any of the work if the show had remained open for its scheduled period, but everything on display was priced and the insurance pay-out was based on this. The anonymous vandals had broken into the building after the exhibition was locked up for the night; they sprayed Situationist inspired graffiti over the wall paintings and smashed up and urinated on the floor pieces. It has been suggested by various disapproving parties that I vandalised the show myself, but obviously I wouldn't admit to that since it would make what happened fraudulent. Let's just say I did very nicely out of the vandalism, since I got further press coverage, a lot of money and even the gallery was pleased because the insurance money paid for the entire exhibition space to be repainted. After the Glamour show I found myself able to make a bad living from the culture industry.
Moving on ten years I want to address my only solo gallery show of the nineties Vermeer II (workfortheeyetodo, July-September 1996). While the Royal Academy was unable to bag Vermeer for its plush west end exhibition space despite the best efforts of head honcho Norman Rosenthal, I successfully brought the ‘old master’ to east London. Rather than mounting an expensive blockbuster with the original paintings, I exhibited degenerated photocopies of Vermeer's work. These famous images were distorted far more powerfully by cheap copy technology than through the opera glasses used by those visitors unable to get anywhere near Vermeer's paintings when they were shown in 1996 at the Mauritshuis gallery in the Hague. Thus blockbuster conditions in which it was impossible to properly view the work were effectively simulated without spectators having to suffer the inconvenience of being pushed and shoved by a milling crowd. However, Vermeer II did far more than simply raise questions about authorship, the institution of art, the relationship between a copy and an 'original', the commodification of culture and the status of painting in post-industrial society. My treatment of Vermeer's work also invoked the detourned paintings of the COBRA and Situationist activist Asger Jorn, who in the early sixties set up the Scandinavian Institute for Comparative Vandalism. Simultaneously, Vermeer II developed themes raised by Gustav Metzger's Historic Photographs exhibited immediately before my show at workfortheeyetodo. I was by this time already notorious for my aggressive appropriation of Metzger's 'Art Strike' tactics. For more on that, see below.
In terms of its articulation and presentation, the staging of Vermeer II was the product of a labyrinthal trawl through the highways and byways of art and history. Since art objects gain their appearance of ideological autonomy from their commodification, marketing is obviously a crucial component in the production of a successful work of art. Naturally, unique works command higher prices than multiples. Thus while modern technology enabled me to produce the work for Vermeer II in the course of approximately twenty minutes, it was necessary to introduce an element that made the pieces on display appear unique. By adding paint to manipulated xeroxes of Vermeer's output, I was able to inflate the price of 'my' work. Since a relentless interrogation of the notion of ideological autonomy constituted an important element of the work, the pricing of the pieces reflected the deconstructive intent of the exhibition. The price for one picture was £25, the price for two was £100, three of these pieces bought together cost £400, and so on. With each additional piece purchased, the price was multiplied fourfold. In this way I inverted the market place ‘logic’ of offering consumers discounts for buying in bulk. The cost of all twenty-two pieces bought together from my Vermeer II show was a prohibitive £10,865,359,993,600, which prevented any institution or collector from snapping up the lot. I sold most of the pictures singularly for £25, although Bill Drummond did buy two xeroxes for £100 and then framed the receipt. The show received mixed reviews in publications ranging from Time Out to Art Monthly.
Moving back in time, I'll provide a brief overview of my early nineties Art Strike. Any painter can tell you how important it is to pay attention to negative space when composing a picture. But more importantly negative space also exists in life, and framed correctly a great deal can be done with it. I went on Art Strike for three years between 1990 and 1993. I gave my 1989 farewell explanatory talk about why I was giving up art at the ICA in The Mall, while my comeback lecture in 1993 was at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which shows that doing nothing probably did more for me than if I'd slogged my guts out producing art works over that period. Instead, I just signed on for unemployment benefit, lay around in bed, watched a lot of kung fu and Hong Kong action flicks, and read Hegel. In other words I lay back and enjoyed the fruits of five years hard work during which I disseminated a great deal of propaganda calling for artists to stop producing art between 1990 and 1993 because their activities made the world a worse place than it would be without the production of high culture. While a lot of people mistakenly thought the partial collapse of the art market in 1992 - with a reported sixty percent drop in sales - was due to an economic recession, in actual fact it came down to the psychological effect of the Art Strike finally kicking in and giving the cultural industry an injury where it hurts (in the wallet).
When I finished the Art Strike, I was looking for a way of transforming those three years of negation into something physical and I hit on the notion of the Art Strike Bed. Since I'd done nothing in terms of cultural production for three years, I figured that 'my bed' was the best metaphor of this. The idea was that every time I showed the Bed it would be a different object, beginning with a manky single bed and gradually moving from there to double beds and finally four posters and even water beds. Among other things these increasingly plush beds would signify my meteoric rise to the top of the culture industry. The first time I showed the Bed was as a part of the Imprint 93 show at City Racing in 1995. I had slept on the bed on show, but not during the Art Strike. On display was a sagging single bed I'd found in a squat in the mid-eighties and which I'd kept for guests to use, I didn't want The Art Strike Bed back as I'd be using a different object as the same piece next time, and I'd acquired a sofa bed for overnight guests. The artist Paul Noble ended up taking my old bed away, since he didn't have anything better to sleep on at the time. The next time I showed the Bed was as part of the group show Yerself Is Steam, which was put on in a temporary gallery in London's Charlotte Street during July and August 1996. This exhibition included people like Tracy Emin, Sam Taylor-Wood and Jake and Dinos Chapman, as well as me. Time Out in their review didn't know whether my Art Strike Bed was intended as "a monument to slackerdom or a treatise on Marxist aesthetics... maybe that's the point." Tracy Emin might have waited a few years, but her attempt at recuperating this piece was more brutal. I believe that there can be no authenticity under capitalism, so the Art Strike Bed was an attempt at radical inauthenticity. Emin, by way of contrast, used her 1999 work Bed, which as an object looked remarkably similar to my Art Strike Bed, as a vehicle for processing trauma - and thus attempted to present her work as something authentic, which was clearly an attempt to subvert and bury the critique I'd been making with my earlier piece.
Another art related jape was the production of my fifth novel Slow Death. My idea was to historicise Neoism in a fictional form, in order to make it harder for critics to broach the subject. Unfortunately I failed miserably in this somewhat absurd aim, since critical works dealing with Neoism have appeared in both German and Finnish since Slow Death was first published in English. At this point it is also worth mentioning that I conceived the covers of my books No Pity and Red London as a detournement of cultural stratification. I dressed up as a skinhead for various publicity photographs and then put a pair of these pictures on the front of two titles published by AK Press. Since potential readers would see what appeared to be someone involved in a youth cult on the front, it would hopefully bring to mind the New English Library skinhead and hells' angel novels of the early seventies. When the book was turned over, the images in question were credited as being photographs of me by Marcel Leilenhof, and by this means echo the covers of John Calder's high-brow modernist imprint Jupiter Books which featured black and white portraits of authors on the front jacket.
Related to such anti-art activities are various pranks I've pulled. These include distributing invitations to the Booker Prize dinner to down and outs with the lure of 'free booze, nosh and strippers'. On another occasion, I mailed details of a Gresham College mathematics lecture to various occult groups. On the reverse side of a postcard that contained a Rosicrucian emblem and the slogan 'The Invisible College Rides Again', was the following blurb: "We, the deputies of the principal College of the Brethren of the Rose Cross are amongst you in this town, visibly and invisibly, through the grace of the Most High to whom the hearts of all just men are turned, in order to save our fellow men from the error of Death. Please attend Gresham College at 5.00pm on May 31st when Sir Christopher Zeeman, Gresham Professor of Geometry, will lecture on the proof of that seventeenth century enigma, Fermat's Last Theorem. Let the scales fall from your eyes. Gresham College is at: Barnard's Inn Hall, London EC1N 2HH. Please arrive in good time as seating is limited." As a result of this, the Provost of Gresham College was forced to introduce Zeeman's lecture by explaining that it had nothing to do with the occult to an audience of disappointed new age types who'd turned up in considerable numbers.
Without doubt, my personal favourite among my many pranks was a press release which purported to come from representatives of the author Salman Rushdie. It read as follows:
THE CONSORTIUM PRESENT SMASH THE FATWA, BURN THE KORAN!
Among the things that prompted me to mail this prank press release to fifty literary critics was the dualistic nature of the media debate around the Rushdie Fatwa: One was either supposed to be for Rushdie and free speech, or else one was allegedly a Muslim fundamentalist. I found the British press coverage of the Fatwa quite extraordinary, it treated Islam as if it was monolithic, whereas if Christianity had been presented in this way there would have been an outcry, since there are easily recognised differences between Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox positions. By ignoring the very different forms Islam takes - for example in its Shiite, Sunni and Sufi guises - much of the British press coverage of the affair was inadvertently racist. This is something one might have hoped Rushdie would speak out against. Likewise, I deliberately gave Rushdie political views somewhat to the left of those he actually held in my made-up statement from him, since this was what I'd have said if I'd been in his position. Rushdie, of course, was determined not to use the media spotlight he'd cynically engineered himself into as a platform for propagating revolution. I wanted to demonstrate there were other positions to those being expounded in the press, something Rushdie had already said was the job of writers. Of course, I didn't expect anyone to be fooled into thinking my press release was genuine, I simply wanted to make a point and in doing so inadvertently caused considerable panic and confusion. It could almost go without saying that today only exaggeration can be the medium for truth.
I've often used journalism as a vehicle for hoaxes and pranks. In an article for The Big Issue I jokingly claimed the pop star Jimmy Cauty had shown me an arms dump, but only after he said he'd prefer me to make something up rather than do a straightforward interview with him. My tall tale resulted in anti-terrorist police making a raid on the musician's farmhouse, and subsequently holding him for four hours at Exeter police station. Similarly in another Big Issue piece, I invented a non-existent movement called Glop Art, then sat back and laughed as other journalists copied my fake story about organised gangs of teenagers modifying posters with chewing gum. Of course like anyone with a juvenile sense of humour, I also enjoy making prank phone calls. The hoax calls I made to prostitutes towards the end of the nineties proved particularly popular when they were broadcast on various alternative radio shows. Here's an example of one:
And here’s another call from the same series:
MISS WONDERFUL: Good afternoon. How may I help you?
Among the many points I was making with these prank calls is that commodified sex like everything else in an alienated society lacks excitement and imagination. As the Situationists pointed out back in the sixties, while those of us privileged enough to live in the overdeveloped world are unlikely to die of hunger, we still risk dying from boredom.
Of course, coming from a long line of juvenile delinquents I find many ways to keep myself amused. Recently I've been making quite a lot of work inspired by my mother Julia Callan-Thompson. My mum moved to London from the family home in south Wales when she was sixteen in 1960 and worked as a showgirl and hostess. At that time there was a lot of drug experimentation going on and a shift in musical and philosophical tastes reflecting the transformation from beatnik into hippie culture, and my mother's involvement in this forms the basis of my novel Tainted Love. Moving on, in September 2004 I got artist Chris Dorley Brown to take portraits of me imitating the poses thrown by my mother in a series of 1966 modelling portfolio photographs. Morphing these two sets of images together produced extraordinary results, since facially my mother and I are very alike, and given our differences in age (when I restaged the pictures I was twenty years older than my mother had been when the original photographs were taken) and sex, it is surprising how similar our body shapes are. I had previously made a forty-one minute film The Eclipse & Re-Emergence of the Oedipus Complex while I was in Australia doing an artist-in-residence at Melbourne's Victorian College of the Arts in May 2004. In the film avant-garde techniques and the avant-garde obsession with death interweave with reflections on the life and death of my mother. Images of my mum working as a fashion model and club hostess during the sixties are cut against an at times deliberately dissociated soundtrack that uses stories about her to explore the limits of documentary cinema. This is simultaneously an expression of love and loss and an attempt to draw out the ways in which the avant-garde Lettrist cinema of the early fifties in France was commercialised in the later work of Godard, Marker and Resnais.
Going back in time, the first film I ever made was with a guy called Chris Wilson in the early eighties. It was called Wet Dream and features me writhing about in a chair. Chris had one of those old Polaroid video cameras and he used to get a lot of young men round to his flat in Hampstead where he'd film them. I then did a few films with the Scottish artist Pete Horobin. I think the first was Tower Bridge Exchange. In this three minute short I was doing super 8 camera work as well as appearing in footage. I then shot a twenty minute silent super 8 film of Pete Horobin pushing a pram - with a rubber rooster on the front and his camping gear inside where the baby should have been - around the Highlands of Scotland, which was called Pram 84. There were various other deliberately unpleasant shorts in the late-eighties including Refuse and Turn On, Tune In, Freak Out both made with Neil Aberdeen and with the latter incorporating genuine suicide footage. In the mid-nineties I was doing stuff with pop video makers Nick Abrahams and Mikey Thompson. We did promos for some of my books in pop video format including the AK Press titles No Pity and Red London. In these I would appear in skinhead drag doing stuff like sucking yoghurt off the toes of an 'Asian babe', or eating whipped cream out of the armpit of a 'rock chick'. In the late nineties I also made stuff like Ut Pictura Poesis, a forty-five second short that attempted to do in condensed fashion what I felt Debord set out to achieve with his first feature film Screams In Favour Of De Sade. I appear in this 'blipvert' dressed in boxing gloves and a skirt and attempt to make the audience extremely self-conscious; the film concludes with the slogan - "long live revolutionary communism, long live the hermaphrodite international". This got shown alongside the advertisements at independent cinemas in the UK in the late nineties. I understand it was seen by about half-a-million people.
I used a one week art residency at John Moores University in Liverpool in April 2002 to make three feature length films which emerged from my interest in montage and detournement. Has The Litigation Already Started? was a loose remake of Maurice Lemaitre's 1951 work of expanded cinema Has The Film Already Started? It mainly used copyright notices from DVDs which are made to dance before the audience's eyes with elements from the 1922 Nosferatu cut in. Shortly after its release Nosferatu was suppressed by Bram Stoker's widow for infringing her copyright on Dracula. The soundtrack to my film consists of both silence and different realisations of a piece I did called The Bethnal Green Variations: Turning Silence Into Noise (Cage Caged) which was created specifically to stimulate debate around the issues of plagiarism and copyright. This sound piece was realised on 31 July 1999 by placing a beat box programmed to repeat play Wayne Marshall's version of John Cage's 4' 33' ' (1952) on a windowsill of my flat on the Avebury Estate in Bethnal Green, east London. I had the window open so that the noises of the inner city drifted in (youths arguing and later a thunder storm), and I recorded the results with a Sony MZ-R50. 4' 33' ' is Cage's silent piece for which the pianist sits at his instrument without playing a note. Rather than taking the little sound that was on the Wayne Marshall CD (silence being notoriously difficult to record) directly from it in digital form, I wanted to drown this out with the noises of the city. In a way I was invoking Cheap Imitation, the piece of deconstruction Cage did to bypass the extortionate fee demanded for use of Satie's Socrate. I recorded 32 versions of 4' 33' ' being drowned out by urban noise with the intention of superimposing them over each other. In the end I created different montages from this recording for the soundtrack of my film. Obviously, I performed this detournement on Cage and published my intention to commercially realise it (with a little help from the Arts Council of England) before the court case about the 'plagiarism' of 4' 33' 'in autumn 2002 involving Wombles producer Mike Batt. The Cage estate claimed Batt had infringed their copyright because he'd included a minute of silence on a record he'd released. As well as my anti-realisation of 4' 33' ', Has The Litigation Already Started? also incorporates the noise of the audience's movements into its soundtrack a la Cage. That said, given that the first half of Has The Film Already Started? is silent, Lemaitre had quite intentionally done this before Cage; and rather more significantly in terms of the development of Lettrist cinema, before Debord.
Another film I made in Liverpool, Screams In Favour Of De Sade was an English language colour remake of Guy Debord's iconoclastic classic from 1952. Like the original, my film has no images but whereas Debord's consisted of black stock with silence and white light with dialogue in French, mine has black with silence and TV colour bars with dialogue in English. The original dialogue is not simply translated since in a number of places it has been rewritten. However, while Debord had five voices reading his script, I have one voice with an additional spoken indication of which voice is speaking The periods of blackness and silence in Debord's film are strictly adhered to with the final twenty four minutes being entirely black and silent. Although Debord offered no fully elaborated theoretical explanation for the production of Screams In Favour Of De Sade, I believe his intention was to transform cinema in theatre, turning the audience into actors rather than treating them as passive spectators. If this is the case then it should matter little to viewers whether they watch Debord's original or my remake, what's important is what happens amongst the audience, not what is on screen - which in a classical gesture of avant-garde iconoclasm is essentially nothing.
The third film I remade I entitled The Golem although it was actually Sergei Eisenstein's 1928 cinematic celebration of the Bolshevik revolution October with the intertitles taken out and replaced by those from Paul Wegener's silent version of The Golem. There are fewer intertitles in The Golem than October, which enabled me to use repetition to good effect. This piece was partially inspired by my liking for Rene Vienet's Can Dialectic Break Bricks? (1973), in which a Hong Kong kung fu film of the seventies was redubbed to give the story a revolutionary spin. However, I'm also aware that Debord and Wolman in their 1956 essay Methods Of Detournement, theorised the most effective forms of detournement as being those that showed their contempt for all existing forms of rationality and culture, whereas those that simply inverted pre-existing meanings - as is the case with Vienet's detournement of an ethnic Manchu against Ming conflict, a staple plot device of Hong Kong cinema at the time, which he substitutes with a class war between proletarians and bureaucrats - are viewed as weak. So if my detournement of October is a tribute to Vienet, it is simultaneously a critique of him - and even more obviously an attack upon the reactionary anti-working class politics of the Bolsheviks. A blazing rock soundtrack by Finnish punk act The Dolphins has been dubbed onto my reworking of October - although it was also my intention that at some screenings very different live realisations for the sound might be achieved; which is why I used a live rather than a studio recording of The Dolphins on the soundtrack.
These films have a tendency to mutate over time and get remade. In 2004 I gave a lecture and showed some of my films at The Cube, an art cinema space in Bristol. The curator had programmed too many films to fit into the night, so instead of actually screening my re-make of Screams In Favour Of De Sade, I just played the soundtrack without the silences, which only takes twelve minutes, while randomly flicking the lights on and off in the auditorium. This greatly reduces the time required to 'screen' Screams. Since I felt the film was a lot funnier shortened in this way, I've now done a 2004 remake of Screams where I played a degenerated video copy on a TV and held down the fast forward button while filming the screen with a digital video camera. I then redubbed my English language soundtrack without the silences onto the digital footage. I made this first remake during the day and viewers can see the room it was shot in reflected on the television screen. I did another remake as Screams In Favour Of Neoism, this time at night and with more blackness around the screen, that's a bit purer. I think Screams is a film that can be endlessly remade, so I also intend at some point to do a 'screening' of it where the audience is split into five sections and each section is given a script with the vocal part they should read, the lights will then be turned on and off and the audience cued to do an 'expanded cinema' theatrical version of the film. Conceptually I think the films I made during my 2002 residency at John Moores University are superior to my shorter work with the exception of Eclipse, but the shorter work is more enjoyable to watch. I feel we need more rather than less sensuousness and aesthetic delectation, so I'm not sure that I want to show the longer films much any more. I think it is enough for people to know about these films, they don't really need to see them. Of the three made during the Liverpool residency, I view the remake of Screams as the best, but then my recent and shortened 2004 remake of that is even better.
My work evolves, but just because I'm doing something new doesn't mean I'm going forward, progression requires hard work. That said, being post-modern means being eclectic, if everything is permissible then fractured grand narratives become de-rigor. I can thus happily slip between a world of ever proliferating margins and the uber-historical as I please, regardless of how over determined the results may appear. Having said that, notions such as 'progress' are of no use to me when cast in universal terms, what progress means changes over time. To resort to caricature, in medieval monasteries progress was perfection of the spirit, whereas for the modern capitalist, progress is increased profits. However, while a universal and all encompassing notion of 'progress' is untenable, the concept of progress is still useful in specific fields since it provides a basis for judgment. To me, of course, progress is pretty much anything that hastens the end of profit capitalism and human misery. Likewise, I very actively will my own work to both progress and degenerate, whereas most contemporary London based artists appear incapable of consciously taking their activities to any kind of logical or even illogical conclusion. These artists can only go backwards, they've no where else to go. Since artists are a deformed prefiguration of communised and thus disalienated individuals, and only those artists who actively attack their privileged position as specialist non-specialists can be considered in any sense progressive, by denouncing art I am able to demonstrate that I possess a true understanding of it. In a communist society it will be possible if not desirable for everybody to be like me. That said, once we've realized our species being, it's probable that I will no longer wish to be an egotist in the morning, a porn star in the afternoon, and a critical critic at night. Inevitably, while capitalism persists there will be more of my pranks and further 'self-conscious' 'bad faith' and bad craziness on my part. Having legitimated myself as an artist, I now wish to problematise the process of my cultural canonisation. I remain not only the greatest, but also the grooviest. To sum up, since the world is disenchanted telling outrages lies is the only means of approaching 'truth' and thus making life fabulous once again. "All things are nothing to me".
Captive of the KLF
The above journalistic deception led to the arrest of Jimmy Cauty by Devon and Cornwall police. Cauty's detention was covered in detail by the Western Morning News (28/8/96) in an article entitled "Firearms Raid On A30 Star Home". The Big Issue (4/11/96) commented: "A spoof story in Big Issue 195 on a stash of 'sonic weapons' stockpiled by former KLF star Jimmy Cauty prompted a raid on his home by anti-terrorist squad officers and dogs. Two of his tanks stationed at the Fairmile road protest site were removed for army inspection and Mr Cauty was taken to Exeter Police station and bailed until the end of the month." It took the cops some time to realise they'd been had and much to their embarrassment the story stayed in circulation for several months.
Bill & Jummy mutilate a cow
Chew on this: chewing gum and the rise of glop art
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