NEOISM AS NEGATION & THE NEGATION OF NEOISM
There are many ways in which it's possible to explain the phenomena of Neoism. A prosaic history of the movement would probably suggest that Neoism started life as No Ism, a concept invented during the late seventies by David Zack, Al Ackerman and Maris Kundzin in Portland, Oregon. No Ism was an open, inclusive and anti-ideological grouping of individuals who saw themselves as artists opposed to the gallery system. This idea was transmitted to a group of French Canadians via Istvan Kantor who'd fled Hungary on a student visa after David Zack enticed him to decamp to North America with the aid of some colour xeroxes. Kiki Bonbon and the rest of the crowd Kantor befriended in Montreal then hit upon the idea of transforming No Ism into Neoism and parodying the legacy of the twentieth-century avant-garde.
The French Canadians had a gang mentality and Kantor found himself on the fringes of the group. Bonbon and his pals called their Hungarian friend 'grandpa' because he was in his early thirties. In an attempt to overcome his isolation, Kantor cultivated international contacts. Individuals such as tentatively a convenience in Baltimore and Peter Below in Germany got involved with the group but Kantor remained a fringe figure who never fully understood the Neoist project. Kantor's cluelessness as to what was going on around him is legendary. Al Ackerman once told me that when Kantor arrived in Portland in 1978, the Hungarian was informed a mentally retarded man who hung out with Zack would act as his manager and get his singing career off to a flying start. As the weeks passed, Kantor became increasingly abusive about the retard, regularly indulging in hysterical fits where he'd scream 'this guy is useless, he's supposed to be my manager but he hasn't got me any gigs'. Once he settled in Montreal, Kantor lived off the extremely generous Canadian grant system for the arts and established a reputation as a tame performance artist who was happy to work within the gallery system. In stark contrast to this, the bulk of the Neoist Network was made up of potential iconoclasts who spent much of their time challenging consensus reality. However, Kantor's conventionality resulted in much of the press coverage the Neoists received during their early days focusing on him as an individual. Such verbiage now looks ridiculous - but rather than proceeding with a conventional interpretation of Neoism, I'm going to be more elliptical in my approach to the subject.
Allegorically, Neoism could be explained in the following fashion - during the middle ages there were a succession of heresies that have been described by the historian Norman Cohn as mystical anarchism. Adherents to these creeds believed that all goods should be held in common and that many things considered sinful by the Roman Catholic Church were in fact virtues when practised by the elect. Ranked among the more interesting of these sects are the Bohemian Adamites. On 21 October 1421, four hundred trained soldiers moved against the Adamite heretics and virtually wiped them out. By a miracle, their leader - known both as 'Adam' and 'Moses' - escaped to Prague. 'Adam' then took on a disciple, who in his turn, trained up a further initiate after his master's death. In this way, the Adamite creed was passed down through the ages and the Neoist Network is simply a contemporary manifestation of this ancient heresy. Viewing Neoism through the prism of this allegory makes imagery associated with the group accessible to those who have not been initiated into its ranks. When the Neoists speak about Akademgorod as their 'promised land', this is actually a code name for Prague. According to Neoist eschatology, Prague is the omphalos of our planet and once the movement seizes control of the city, the ancient Adamite plan of world domination will be effortlessly realised.
In keeping with this allegorical interpretation of Neoism, the initiation of individuals into the movement must necessarily be described as follows: the candidate is blindfolded and led into a darkened room. The fourteen secret masters of the world (or at least a group of available Neoists) interrogate the initiate. As a sign of obedience to the order, the candidate must answer 'yes' to a series of ninety-five questions. After this humiliating set-piece - in which the initiate admits to being a complete sexual failure - the candidate is fucked by every member of the lodge and then symbolically reborn by the removal of the blindfold. If this sounds an unlikely allegory, it's only because the story is - to an extent - literally true. John Berndt was kept blindfolded for a period of seven days during the so called 'Millionth' Neoist Apartment Festival. During this time he was subjected to gropings and other sexual stimulations, made to carry dangerously sharp objects on the New York subway in the rush hour, had his usual sleep patterns completely disrupted, was flipped upside down and forced to run on his hands, &c.
Unfortunately, no one ever succeeded in ordering the rather loosely organised Neoist Network into a masonic structure. Pete Horobin made a brave attempt with his Data Cell project but this operation was ultimately a failure. Of the various twentieth-century avant-garde movements, only the Surrealists and the Situationist International came anywhere close to replicating the classic structure of a secret society. Until 1984, Neoism was most obviously influenced by Futurism, Dada, Fluxus, Mail Art and Punk. I managed to forge a few links with the Situationist tradition after joining the group but my comrades lacked the discipline to make the most of this input. Ultimately, Neoism derives the little historical importance it can now claim from the fact that it acted as a false dawn prior to my organisation of the far more significant Plagiarist and Art Strike movements.
The Neoists wanted to avoid any single meaning being imposed on their activities and believed that by bombarding their movement with a series of contradictory interpretations, they would split the meme and simultaneously create a monadic earthquake fierce enough to destroy world culture in its entirety. Thus Neoism was viewed simultaneously as modernist, post-modernist, an avant-garde transgression of modern and post-modern traditions, as underground, Neo-Dadaist and an outgrowth of Fluxus. It was also a rejection of all these things.
Like every other avant-garde group, the Neoists hoped to project an image of themselves as the very latest trend in culture and this accounts for the more archaic aspects of their project. The occult elements provided a perfect counterpoint to the movement's faddish innovations, making these appear even more new-fangled and up-to-the-minute. It was a technique that had been employed very successfully by the Dadaists, Surrealists and Situationists.
Ultimately, the Neoist project was a failure because most of those involved with the group paid no heed to the lessons to be learnt from the critique of the image made by the Situationists and within Auto-Destructive Art. While the details of Situationist theory are fatally flawed - partially due to Debord's obsession with the Stuart succession - the notion of the spectacle is still of some use to those who wish to break with the world as it is and create a new tomorrow.
The avant-garde is in many ways a return of the repressed, the re-emergence of Protestant iconoclasm in a post-Christian world where art serves as a secular religion justifying the activities of a murderous ruling class. For example, in 1441 Hugh Knight went into a Cornish church and burnt the chin off a statue of the Virgin Mary. The result was a work in which the Virgin appeared to have grown a beard, making this act of image-breaking an important precursor to Duchamp's moustached Mona Lisa.
The Specto-Situationist obsession with text is an inevitable result of the group's assault on the image. Guy Debord would have felt very much at home if he'd ever had the opportunity to hang out with the Bible-thumping Lollards of the middle ages. The word is sacred, idolatry (the dominance of the Spectacle) an ever-lasting sin. Before heaven is realised on earth and every wo/man can live in their own cathedral, the word must be accepted and the sensuous image stamped into the ground by a legion of jack-booted Debordists. The critique of the image made by Gustav Metzger, who used acid to simultaneously create and destroy 'auto-destructive' works, was a far more incisive response to Judaic, Islamic and Protestant traditions of iconoclasm than that of the Specto-Situationists.
While I remained within the Neoist Network, I was unable to synthesise these and other forms of contemporary iconoclasm. After breaking with Neoism, I announced the 1990 Art Strike which brought together innumerable types of idol breaking. Once I'd fashioned this coffin for the corpse of art and defiantly nailed my ninety-five theses to the lid, the Neoists realised they'd been decisively outflanked. It was at this point that they began to claim my post-Neoist activities as an integral part of their project.
Today, when a Neoist or one of their friends writes about the group, I become the chief star of the movement. Neoism is no longer an attempt at negation via the destruction of the meme. For the past five years, various ex-members of the group have attempted to claim successful examples of iconoclasm - such as the Art Strike - as being somehow related to their personal activities. And so, while Neoism is of no significance whatsoever and this is its most interesting attribute, the search for truth increasingly resembles a quest for an unholy grail. Although I split the meme in 1985, what actually matters is how long news of this achievement takes to spread among the various populations of the world.
Written in April 1993 for the Negation: The Last Book edited by Jack Sergeant (which to the best of my knowledge never appeared - the text was subsequently included in "Neoism, Plagiarism & Praxis" by Stewart Home)
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