Interview with Stewart Home, writer
Conducted by: Tom McCarthy (General Secretary, INS)
Venue: Office of Anti-Matter, Austrian Cultural Institute, London
Present: Tom McCarthy, Stewart Home, Anna Soucek, Roman Vasseur, Andy Hunt, Alexander Hamilton, Iain Aitch, Jen Wu, Others
Tom McCarthy: The first time I met you was at seven minutes past two o'clock on the afternoon of the fifteenth of February, 1994, in Greenwich Park, South London. It was the hundredth anniversary of the death of Martial Bourdain, the French anarchist who'd blown himself up while carrying a bomb towards the Royal Observatory, and in so doing become the inspiration for Conrad's novel The Secret Agent. I wanted to do something to commemorate the event, and thought of phoning a bomb threat into the observatory, but chickened out and opted instead to create an organisation called the Society of the Black Glove whose members, i.e. myself and my girlfriend at the time, dressed up smart and went and threw down some flowers on the exact spot where Bourdain had died. So that's my alibi for being there that day. What's yours?
Stewart Home: Oh, well, I was just hanging around. At that time I lived in Poplar and had a very good friend who lived on the Isle of Dogs and the nearest pleasant place for us to go was Greenwich. He had one of the few terraced houses on the Isle of Dogs, and we'd spend hours on it drinking red wine and talking the night away, and one of our favourite topics of conversation was the notion of organisation within the Communist movement. We talked specifically about a group called Socialism or Barbarism in France, where Castoriadis was arguing for a more Party structure against the Lefortist model of spontaneous self-organisation by the working class. We decided one night that we'd solved the problem of organisation: what we'd do would be to all have our own organisations. So my friend, Richard Essex, set up the London Psychogeographical Association, and he was the only member - although there was a split at the end when parts of his personality went in different directions, a self-conscious parody of groups like the Situationist International, where you had the split between the Debordists in Paris and the Nashists from Scandinavia and Germany - the more artistic and the more political currents respectively. So when Richard's personality split schizophrenically there was this joke about the Nashist arm - Nashe here being Thomas Nashe, the Elizabethan writer…
TMcC: Do you see him as a sort of proto-psychogeographer?
SH: Definitely - in novels like The Unfortunate Traveller. So we'd talk a lot, but there were other groups too. Iain Aitch over there had his own weak version of one-man groups. I think he had three people involved in Decadent Action at one time - but we always looked down on him for lacking our rigor. Our idea was that everyone would organise their own thing and we'd all go along and support each other. So Richard Essex decided he'd have this thing in Greenwich for the hundredth anniversary of the bombing. I was always, through the nineties, more hard-line non-anarchist than he was - not that he was an anarchist; but he did work politically with some anarchists. But my dislike of anarchists and their dislike of me was more entrenched. So it's not an event that I'd have organised, but there were networks of support going on there, trying to map out different territories. For a lot of reasons Greenwich became a focal point for a lot of what both of us were doing - partly because it was nice to go over there. A lot of that was destroyed in the build-up to the millennium, especially Greenwich as a centre for books, and the pie-and-mash shop Godards seems to have disappeared too more recently, which I've been going to for years; it is my favourite pie-and-mash shop in London. But Richard discovered this ley-line that went through Greenwich and across the river to the Isle of Dogs, and Canary Wharf Tower was a virtual pyramid and if you extended it down then the ley-line crossed the base of the pyramid. Were you there that day Iain?
Iain Aitch: No.
SH: There were definitely some people from the Association of Autonomous Astronauts there. So there were lots of groups, networking, and I was just hanging around.
TMcC: Greenwich was, of course, the seat of Empire.
SH: Yes, the imperial palace there and Richmond palace are the keys palaces.
TMcC: You describe a curved ley-line between the two…
SH: In Come Before Christ and Murder Love, yes, with Elizabeth the First and John Dee, Elizabeth actually being born at Greenwich if I recall correctly. We developed this fascination with Greenwich and Richmond. I had particular reasons to go to Richmond and Mortlake and would trundle off there. There are quite amusing things, like there's a block of council or housing association flats called John Dee House very close to the river. But it's hard to locate the sites there. What interested me was the notion of travel up and down the river, a classic London thing. I don't remember that day in Greenwich as clearly as I remember another one, another LPA trip, which was based on the fact that I was doing a lecture to the students at Trinity College, Cambridge, this writers' day, so I was up there reading from my work and talking and then we had this trip up the Cambridge Mount. That was beautiful. You, Tom, turned up at Greenwich with the flowers, which was lovely; but at Cambridge we never quite worked out what went on. There were all these students, and stories going round, and the student paper had this article 'Cambridge gets Leyed'. So there was all this excitement - but generally what happened when we did things was nothing very much. It's just an excuse to go somewhere nice. And create a mythology.
TMcC: So you'd sent an advance guard to Cambridge? A fifth column?
SH: These people turned up in Cambridge who were acting a little bit strangely around the edges of the crowd of students. And we went up onto the Mount and someone said: 'That's him!' And these radios or mobile phones or walkie talkies, I don't know which, came out, and there was communication between different places, and what could be described as a red-haired man went running down the Cambridge Mount and was caught by some other people and bundled into a van.
TMcC: Which reappears in Come Before Christ.
SH: Yes: so I get loads of material for my novels by doing these things.
TMcC: One of the aspects of psychogeography as you practise it, it seems to me, is to identify seminal moments in the history and formation of, firstly, power and, secondly, knowledge systems. In Come Before Christ and Murder Love the hero wanders past St. Alfege's Church in Deptford and describes Christopher Marlowe's murder, which happened there, as 'the cataclysmic conclusion to the rite that brought the British Empire into being.' And a chapter or so later we get another lecture, in another churchyard, on Francis Bacon, who lay the foundations of modern science…
SH: Yes, I'm interested in pinning those spots and moments down. I think what happened with the psychogeography part of the occult obsession that went into that book - particularly as Richard Essex developed the ideas rather than me, because although you end up with your name on the end of a text it's come out of your interaction with a lot of people, whether you've met them or just appropriated chunks of their work and put it into yours, working through their ideas critically (and hopefully I am using it critically: I might react quite negatively to someone's work and think it's quite bad - but maybe there is still something in there for me to use or bounce off against) - one thing that concerned Richard Essex probably more than me was the ongoing academicisation of the Situationist International, and there was that passage in Debord - was it from the Preface to the Fourth Italian edition of The Society of the Spectacle? - where he talks about unacceptable theories, and how it is necessary to create unacceptable theories. Richard Essex in particular was interested in injecting a huge occult element into the Situationists as an inoculation against it being drawn into the academy. And obviously, psychogeography's a means to do that. If you want to understand the Situationists you have to understand them on the one hand through the history of left-communism and on the other through the history of the avant-garde, even though they have a critical relationship to that. Within Surrealism too, and within Dada, you have those occult elements that can be drawn out quite easily. The Situationists brought these interests together: the avant-garde, the occult, the political. You find that in Germany, with publications like Die Aktion,, you have the Dadaists writing side by side with politicos.
TMcC: What time was that, then?
SH: Around 1919, but there's a more recent Die Aktion too; my German publisher does a magazine with the same title to keep the flame going. There's an ongoing - one hesitates to use the word 'tradition', but anti-tradition is problematic as well. All those elements are there and the emphasis on particular historical moments, particularly with an occult strand, was developed through (one) reading the material and (two) discussing it, and my take on the Situationist relationship to their historicisation was that it was more ambiguous than Richard Essex saw it. He was very much against this process, whereas I argued that to try to live differently in this world is to reproduce anarchism as an ideological doctrine. This means both more and less than trying to change the world because the world is always changing whether I want it to or not; but I do want to have a hand as part of a social group in directing that change away from a commodified culture, but at the same time while you're living in a capitalist society you have to deal with that capitalist form; you can't escape the contradictions of that society. This is one of the things the academics have used to justify their work on the Situationists as well: the Situationists did deposit large amounts of material at Silkeborg and then again in Amsterdam in the archives there. So I think there's an ambiguity, but I don't think it's an unproductive ambiguity.
TMcC: No: you can have an ambiguity going right to the core of something and it still functions. That's something I think your art strike shows. I'll come onto that in a minute; but first I want to ask you about the notion of plagiarism. There's a point, again in Come Before Christ and Murder Love, when the hero on his psychogeographical wanderings says that it's necessary to reuse every brick and every stone from which ecclesiastical buildings are built when renovating them because the fabric itself is imbued with special powers. For me that echoed perfectly the doctrine of plagiarism you developed in the mid-eighties, and it also made me wonder whether plagiarism is the right term - what about 'reiteration' or 'recycling' or 'resiting'?
SH: Or détournement or whatever. Yeah: plagiarism is slightly sensational, but I started using the term in the very early eighties when I was quite immersed in a kind of punk and post-punk culture which reacted strongly against plagiarism and had this insane fetishisation of originality, so that's why I started using the term. That specific section you're talking about in the novel: I don't know if it's plagiarised, but it is rooted in an only slightly exaggerated account of one of the most pleasant evenings in my entire life. I went out to a church in Essex where there was a piano recital. I went with Richard Essex, his former wife and her daughter Hannah by a later relationship, so the daughter Hannah is black. So we turned up at this church, this high church where there was this piano recital, because we wanted to get in because the remains of Anne Bolyn were allegedly in the church, and we couldn't get in by just turning up at any time, so we went to this piano recital. There was this very bizarre woman playing Bach and explaining her keyboard technique, and saying she'd reached the level before being a qualified concert pianist, and she dressed strangely; and this guy who obviously looked after the church who actually came out with all this stuff about how it was necessary to reuse the brick and stone from ecclesiastical buildings because the power of prayer was imbued in it. They're called George and Mildred in the book but I don't remember what their original names were. We got this strange reaction because no one could work out why we were there. You had this guy who looked like a hippy, then this guy who looked like a skinhead (me), then this well-dressed white woman and a black child. The people from the church were asking us questions to try and figure out who we were and why we were there. And the pianist would stop while she was playing the pieces and explain why she was playing them in this staccato fashion. You almost couldn't make something like this up. But I don't know if it's plagiarism to reuse it.
TMcC: No, but my point was about the recycling of already existing material. I mean, how do you see plagiarism as working in that context?
SH: It's a brutalising treatment of it. I can't help returning to what Peter Burger says about the avant-garde in The Theory of the Avant-Garde: that rather than creating new techniques of its own it treats the whole of previous culture as a commodity to be plundered and reassembled.
TMcC: That reaches its zenith in your work in Neoism.
SH: Yes, so I don't know that 'plagiarism' is the most accurate term; but that inaccuracy can be productive. But it's also an inaccuracy that's quite understandable and graspable; and if people want to get into those arguments about modernism and the avant-garde they can, but by using the term plagiarism rather than saying 'détourne', it is more immediately accessible - I mean, lots of people would say 'Détournement? What's that?'
TMcC: Your interest in plagiarism runs alongside one in the use of multiple names and a refusal of identity. Could you explain how the whole Monty Cantsin 'open pop star' concept and the Karen Eliot network work?
SH: I'd start developing an idea and discover that someone else had already done it. This happened to me a lot, especially in my late teens when I was first trying to systematically work through material. The idea for the multiple names, or my use of them until I discovered historical precedents, which I did more and more - what happened initially was that I'd been playing in some terrible ska and punk and post-punk bands, and I had a friend who shared my taste for the ridiculous, and we'd formed this new band and we couldn't decide what to call it. We came up with these different names; I think for about three days we were called something like The Orchestra of the Academy of Applied Musical Dramatic and Literary Arts, and we were like: 'Let's play a verse like the Fall and then a Rockabily chorus, that'll really annoy people!' Then I had an idea that would get loads of people in to see us: 'Why don't we advertise as Led Zeppelin?' But then we thought: 'Hmm, no one will believe that.' So what we then decided to do was to take the name of what had been one of my more successful bands and just reuse it. And then I created this manifesto saying that all bands should use this name, which was White Colours, which came from a really bad experimental novel by F. D. Reeve published in 1973 that opens with a passage from Newton concerning the refraction of light; This reuse of the name White Colours really upset the people who'd been in the band with that name before it had been a multiple name concept, and then I thought: 'Well, hey, you could do this with magazines!' So I thought I'd do this magazine called Smile and that all magazines could be called Smile - although that wasn't that rigorous because it was taking off from General Ideas's File, and there was Vile in the Mail Art Network, so I came up with the name Smile when I should have used File or Vile. And after I'd put out the first two issues of that I came into contact with the Neoist Network, which could be characterised in a lot of ways. A lot of the people involved were interested in Fluxus and things like that, but because I'd been going to things like London Workers' Group, going through the Situationist stuff but looking at the cultural aspect as well as coming in contact with it initially through a political context - and the Neoists were much more fixated on Fluxus, which I hadn't looked at so thoroughly, which was useful for me, and they had this concept, an idea that had been invented by a bloke called David Zack, who was probably one of the craziest guys on the planet. He'd known a few people who wanted to be musicians and he thought that if you had this open context where everyone could use this name when they wanted some attention, then everyone could become famous as the pop star Monty Cantsin.
TMcC: Where did he take the name from?
SH: It seems to relate to free spirit heresies: Monty Can't Sin - the idea that God is everywhere, so we are God, and if we are God or a part of God then we can't sin because God is perfect. I also suspect that Blaster Al Ackerman who was hanging around with Zack in Portland at that time had some influence on the first name, since he is obsessed with street cons and I feel it must be more than fortuitous that the first name is Monty as in Three Card Monty or Find The Lady. It's probably a corruption of Maris Kundzin, the guy who first used the name. By the time I first came across it there was only one person using it within the Neoist Network and they were quite proprietorial about it, but there were other people with a more mischievous sense of humour who, when they saw that it related to what I'd been doing, were quite quick to encourage me to use it as well. You had this guy doing concerts as Monty Cantsin using a Neoist chair, and he'd make altars with toy soldiers and rubber cement and things, then smash them to pieces with a stick and beat the chair and invite anyone who wanted to be Monty Cantsin to sit on the chair, which not surprisingly didn't really encourage people.
TMcC: Were any tracks cut as Monty Cantsin?
SH: If you went to the V&A Museum you'd find them there because my copies of the records, which are on the whole fairly standard examples of French-Canadian electro-pop - as recorded by a Hungarian immigrant with a strong French accent when he sings in English - are there. What happened was Zack, when he was in Europe used colour xeroxes (which were quite a novelty in the mid-seventies) to entice this guy who he met in Hungary called Istvan Kantor, to go, via Paris on a student visa, to Portland, where he was working on various cultural projects with Blaster Al Ackerman. Of course, this cultural work mainly consisted of getting high on grass, or in Ackerman's case drinking copious amounts of sweet wine, but Ackerman also connects in to all sorts of other things, like Throbbing Gristle (he wrote the lyrics for 'Hamburger Lady'). But he's a very interesting character in his own right: he's the guy who, as far as I know although he might have taken it from somewhere else (because there's historical examples of Bread Dolls), wrote the first Bread Doll sex story, which is something I've very much taken up. So Zack encouraged this guy Kantor to take up the name Monty Cantsin, and Kantor went from Portland to Montreal and got involved with all these younger kids who called him 'Grandpa' because he was about thirty. And in this way the Neoist network spread from Portland into Canada. There are arguments about how and where the term was first invented. And some of the people who were involved say that it wasn't an art movement and are very cross with my historicisations of it as being within an avant-garde tradition - but this rather misses the point that my historicisation was rather cynical and wasn't meant to be a true representation of what Neoism was. So coming across Neoism and then going back through Dadaist material and finding the Berlin Dadaists had Christ & Co. Ltd. -
TMcC: The what?
SH: A thing called the Christ & Co. Ltd, where you paid so many marks and you could be Jesus Christ too. And then I was thinking about things like Santa Claus… So I always found it very heartening to see historical precedents for what I was doing within currents that interested me, because I thought: 'Well, I'm on the right track, and if I can push this forward it can really go somewhere.' I think one of the problems that happened with that - I mean, I got fed up with the Monty Cantsin project and decided that we'd have a multiple identity called Karen Eliot, because I thought that Monty Cantsin was too male at the end of the day -
TMcC: Karen Eliot doesn't work the same way as Monty Cantsin, though. Monty Cantsin is an open mike slot where you can come and say what you want, whereas Karen Eliot is quite consistent. She has many manifestations but she's always on-message.
SH: I felt that one of the problems with Monty Cantsin was that it was dominated by various people who wanted to be Monty Cantsin all the time, whereas I saw Karen Eliot as a mask you could take on, and do some things as Karen Eliot and some in other personas. But the problem that arose was that Karen Eliot became very much identified with me, and even when I wasn't doing the things that were attributed to Karen Eliot people thought it was me. There'd be a letter from Karen Eliot in City Limits and the next week someone would write in saying: 'I know for a fact that Karen Eliot is a man and is Stewart Home!' Well it wasn't me in that case. The important thing is to learn from these problems that come up. I think that the Luther Blisset project, which was the next big thing to come up in terms of multiple names, initiated by some people in Bologna -
TMcC: The real Luther Blisset was a minor Premiership football player, wasn't he? He's still a football commentator now in Italy.
SH: He had a disastrous season in Italy and became a symbol of heroic failure and was one of the first black players playing in Italy too. But when it was decided to launch the Luther Blisset name -
TMcC: So just to get this absolutely straight: 'launch' in the sense that it would operate so that you could publish as Luther Blisset and anyone could take the name and just 'be' Luther Blisset and it had thousands of users who weren't necessarily conferring among themselves or had even met each other…
SH: Exactly. Luther Blisset was much more successful than Karen Eliot. Engaging with culture and politics in a contemporary way, and even moving forward from the present, means working through things historically, but without becoming hung up on them historically. It means being quite open to transforming pre-existing chunks of culture and learning from other people's mistakes. I think that's what the people doing Luther Blisset really did, because they created a myth to launch him: they created a non-existent person called Harry Kipper, which was loosely connected to the Kipper Twins, these performance artists, but wasn't actually them. And the idea was that Harry Kipper, who didn't actually exist, had gone missing. I was supposed to be Harry's best friend in London who'd rung up people in Italy because Kipper had been cycling across Europe joining up different cities to spell out the word 'ART', this psychogeographical exercise, and he'd disappeared in the direction of Yugoslavia. As far as the Italian media was concerned, I wanted to know where Harry was and what had happened to him. So the people in Bologna put out a press release saying that this individual had gone missing, and while he'd been cycling around he'd been asking everyone to call themselves Luther Blisset. By creating a mythical individual, and then having him disappear as he launched the name of Luther Blisset, the actual initiators of the project prevented the name being over associated with any particular individuals. So they went further than anyone else had gone previously. It was great to see people pick up the ball that I'd been running with and go further.
TMcC: What was the Mail Art Network about?
SH: Mail Art emerged from different currents. People like Ray Johnson, who was Andy Warhol's favourite artist, wrote people crazy letters and did funny drawings of bunny heads and stuff. Fluxus was another big input. But it was a network of people connected through the mail sending artworks to each other. It's still ongoing, although I'm not really plugged into it any more, and it's probably partly switching over into the internet. Initially it was an exchange thing: Johnson would write to someone and say: 'Pass this on to this person at this address.' You'd have a network of sympathetic people for certain types of work. Everyone who got involved denounced the network's degeneration after their involvement: so if you got involved in the early seventies then by the late seventies it was all quick-copy crap instead of handmade pieces being distributed, and if you got involved in the late seventies then it degenerated in the mid-eighties.
TMcC: So you become an elder statesman in about four years…
SH: About that, yes. But some people, like Vittore Baroni, have been doing it for years and years. He plugs into Genesis P-Orridge and Psychic TV, and he's also a rock critic. Genesis P-Orridge was very into the Mail Art Network. So it's people sending things around, and people will organise shows of work although I don't think that's so important. Anything's acceptable, which can be problematic: in the seventies this woman in London called Pauline Smith was doing the Adolf Hitler Fan Club, in a non-critical way. There's a certain hippy-liberalism in the network, which has its upside and downside. Mail art was something I knew about before I met the Neoists, but they were very plugged into it. Dave Zack and Al Ackerman, who did these wonderful limited print magazines, were part of it: there were texts and magazines and objects and pictures going round - but also some quite boring collages.
TMcC: Is it the same as the Eternal Network?
SH: That's another name for it, yes. All these artists were in touch with each other. I immersed myself to some degree in this movement, and I found myself getting forty to fifty letters, parcels, whatever each week. You might get nice things, like one time I got this wooden arrow which I found out later had been stolen from a golf course.
TMcC: What was it doing on a golf course?
SH: Pointing you to the green. It had been painted over and posted to me. Some people wrote a friend's address on a football and stamped it, so you'd get the postman walking up to the door bouncing this football. Or this guy Simon Anderson had a pound note and a dollar bill in a transparent envelope with 'Trust the Postman' written on the envelope next to the address. He tried to post it to this Mail Art show someone was organising called 'What Can You Get Through the Post?'. That envelope got returned to him. He teaches in Chicago now and knows a lot about Fluxus. And Ben Vautier did this piece called 'Postman's Choice', with two addresses written on either side of a postcard, addressed to different people, so the postman would decide who got it.
TMcC: In 1990 you declare the Great Art Strike, calling on artists to down tools for a three-year period, till 1993. Why?
SH: I declared the strike because I'd been working through lots of avant-garde material that interested me and I was thinking about art and the function of art in society. I had a very problematic relationship to art. While I can't give a wholesale endorsement to art, my position is that you can't live differently in this world and art is a discourse you can sometimes do something with, but that can neutralise you too. There's a whole set of left-communist debates and avant-garde debates which raise obvious questions, and this goes right back to Hegel and the status of art within his system: is art dead within the system when you move on to philosophy? Will art exist when we have a mature communism society? - to which my basic response was: 'No.' There's Marx's famous phrase about being a hunter in the morning, a fisherman in the afternoon and a critical critic at night without being hunger, fisherman or critic: in other words art won't exist as a specialised activity of non-specialist specialists. So there was a massive amount of dense theoretical discourse about what art is or was that interested me, and I found myself taking an increasingly antagonistic position towards art as an activity, and I'd also come across Gustave Metzger, who interested me a great deal. He'd been on the fringes of Fluxus and had organised the Destruction in Art Symposium in 66 in London and been prosecuted for the Vienna Actionists' piece; and in 74 he'd contributed to the Art into Society/Society into Art catalogue at the ICA and produced this short text calling for an art strike. He wanted to destroy the gallery system so that artists could take control of their own work, which was a somewhat different position from where I was coming from.
TMcC: He actually expected the strike to happen? It was a straight-up call to strike?
SH: I think so. There have been actual art strikes - in Poland and Czechoslovakia. But there's a naivety to Metzger doing it.
TMcC: What was the result of his declaration?
SH: He went on strike for three years and no one else did. He was a Jewish refugee from Nazism, but there was a suggestion within his text that camps where artists could go and any artworks they produced could be destroyed on a regular basis should be set up. This got denounced as Nazism. It's difficult to unravel exactly what he thought he was doing, but I don't think it was intended to cynical or ironic. I think Gustave's naivety can be incredibly productive, I view him as a very important figure. I thought the idea of an art strike was interesting, but more as a propaganda idea than a practical proposal. In 1985 I thought: 'If I announce an art strike now for five years' time then I can build up propaganda for it.' I put out pamphlets occasionally, and in the final year leading up to the strike there was a build-up of interest. Some people in San Francisco who'd been involved in the Mail Art Network took it up, so I could say in London: 'Look, this is happening worldwide - look at San Francisco!' and in San Francisco they'd be going: 'Look what's happening in London!'
TMcC: I was reading yesterday something what Sadie Plant said just before the strike took effect. She says: 'The art strike's value lies in its proposal of silence, rather than silence itself, the propaganda rather than the deed… It is a good thing only insofar as it produces more radical art, of which its own propaganda is a perfect example. Consequently it is a good thing only in its failure, and since this is inevitable, the Art Strike is necessarily a good thing.' Do you agree?
SH: It's one of my weakness to set up scenarios in which any criticism of what I'm doing is already incorporated, which isn't always a good thing. But yes: Sadie grasped very well what was going on. There were about fifty people involved worldwide in the Art Strike, none of whom had any intention of not working on their art for three years - whereas I actually went ahead and did nothing, which for me was very productive, because I got that break and that headspace. I waded my way through a lot of Hegel and watched a lot of Kung-fu videos. Some books came out, but those were ones I'd written before the strike; even when I did interviews about the strike I sent other people along to do them, like Warhol used to. I tried a few different people. There's a poet called Paul Holman who lived quite close to me in East London, and he tried to answer as though he were me, which wasn't convincing. He really wound up the NME doing that - they didn't realise what was going on at first. Then I sent a guy called Simon Strong who's written a book called The A396 Multiplex Bomb Outrage, who's from Sheffield but now lives in Australia, and he made no attempt to be me. He just talked about himself. He gave some great quotes which I've reused in subsequent interviews, like: 'I scream along as I type.' He gave himself away to City Limits when he talked about his enthusiasm for various meat pies, because the interviewer knew that I was a vegetarian. But the point about the Art Strike is that because I took it literally - although I was more interested in the propaganda - I got the credit for it, although many others were involved. And that pissed off some of the people I'd been working with, which to me was very productive because it illustrates something about the art system: you've got lots of people working together but what they produce gets credited to a few stars. Rather fortuitously the Art Strike coincided with a global economic downturn which caused a slump in art sales and the closure of twenty-five percent of West End art galleries - and of course I claimed credit for that. That was taking up what the French Situationists did during May 68, when after certain factories had been occupied they sent out telexes telling the workers to occupy them, and these telexes were subsequently used as proof of their influence on the unfolding of events. You have to understand these precedents and processes. Having said that, I'm also very keen to stress that without people like Al Ackermann and Richard Essex I wouldn't be where I am now.
TMcC: I'd like to look more closely at Neoism now. In your work its advocates real and fictional - and, I should add, the several gradations in between - endlessly reiterate the mantra that Neoism is the logical successor to Futurism, Dadaism, Situationism, Lettrism, Fluxus and so on and so on, but it seems to me that what it really is is a marker for the point at which the avant-garde merely has to declare itself an avant-garde in order to function as such - and its very vacuous, trash-parodic nature lends it a transcendent quality, makes it even better. Is that a fair description?
SH: Yes. That's been elaborated theoretically, in a book called The Theory-death of the Avant-garde: the avant-garde just lives out its death endlessly. That's very much what I was doing. And then there's a whole series of other positions related to that. One is going back through the whole process of historicisation, which is exactly what I've been doing. Repeating a lineage as a mantra is part and parcel of the standard hack historical technique. However, you need to go further than that, you also have to stake a claim for the originality of the group or subject your championing to place them at the end of a lineage, and thus at its head. For example, Barry Miles, in his biography of Burroughs, claims: 'Burroughs predicted the Vietnam War in such and such a book', which of course he didn't. Likewise, if you read the David Katz biography of Lee Perry, you'd think this reggae producer invented every new technique that has been utilised in making pop records over the last thirty years. Some people get even crazier, for example, in his book Lipstick Traces, the pop journalist Griel Marcus claims that because Jonny Rotten's real name was John Lydon and there was a fifteenth century guy called John of Layden, there must be a connection between the two. So to some extent Neoism, or rather my take on Neoism, is a parody of that. And when you go back and look at all those avant-garde movements like Dada or Fluxus it is inevitably the participants themselves who first wrote about them, and so I wanted to push that further and say that my innovation within the avant-garde was to place an emphasis on this process historicisation and the blatant manipulation indulged in to achieve it. It becomes one of those classical conundrums: "everything I say is a lie lied the liar". This is something I learnt in part from observing Neoists like Michael Tolson: he was obsessively documenting everything he did, recording every letter he sent and so on. But there's also a kind of comedy in this: all these videos and photographs exist documenting Neoist actions, but the quality of most is so poor that they're unusable in the mass media.
TMcC: But with your Neoism you get it both ways: you get to parody that process of self-interested self-historicisation and you get to do it as well! I mean, here I am asking you questions about it!
SH: Yes, that goes back to what I was just saying about having a weakness for setting up scenarios in which I incorporate criticism of what I'm doing, and thereby neutralising this criticism. Going back to the issue of historicisation, in the novel Slow Death I wanted to write about the historicisation of Neoism, its being brought into the museum, before it actually happened. The question that I've thereby raised is does having done this make it easier for such historicisation to happen or harder? If curators now want to do big museum shows or books about Neoism, they have to walk into the spotlight that I've placed on them. For the old-fashioned breed of curator, that would make Neoism unattractive. However, for the new style curator who seem themselves as artist and stars of their own shows, I'd imagine Neoism might be quite alluring, particularly as this type of curator is likely to be too drugged up to realise just how tricky and problematic Neoism can be. They might drag in a lot of material that hasn't really got anything to do with Neoism, such as Luther Blissett and the Association Of Autonomous Astronauts, just as Oliver Marchart did in his German language book on the subject Neoismus. Therefore, I can understand why the participants within the avant-garde wanted to write their own history: if they left it to someone else they wouldn't be happy with how they were represented. But there's also a kind of insane control thing going on here. So there's an ambiguity. That's what I want to heighten.
TMcC: I'd say that your typical avant-gardist hasn't resolved this ambiguity: they want to be dragged kicking and screaming into the museum, but dragged in none the less. With your whole take on Neoism you seem to replay that in an enlightened way. Maybe that's not the right word - but you seem to have resolved it without resolving it.
SH: Yes. I think it can only be resolved as a matter of social practice. But I was trying to think through these issues more consciously, without claiming to be able to resolve them - because I can't. But what do you do with the avant-garde? On the one hand it infuriates me and I want to stamp on it, and on the other hand it fascinates me.
TMcC: That really comes out in these endless manifestos you wrote, full of contradictions, tautologies, half echoes of Futurist and the Situationists and so on. It's a very charming form, the manifesto: it's very funny. The Futurist Manifesto is a brilliant piece of writing. But we're sort of entering the realm of death here because the manifesto is a dead media form par excellence. Its era was the early twentieth century. What was it that drew you to that form?
SH: I don't know when I first started reading Dadaist and Futurist manifestos. Probably when I was thirteen, fourteen. It was the ridiculousness of them that appealed to me, at the same time as the fact that they were sometimes making serious points. I was developing a critique of the various different positions and realising that politically my sympathies lay much more with, say, Berlin Dada than with Futurism - although there's a strong argument that Marinetti's aesthetic practice went against his ostensible politics. There's also the interesting phenomenon of him being able to maintain his sense of identity as an anarchist at the same time as being a supporter of Mussolini. So I wanted to get inside these contradictions and create some kind of cleavage without being completely simplistic about it. The standard way to resolve this is either to ignore the problems within Futurism or to say: 'Futurism bad, Dadaism good' - if you're coming from a left perspective. But it's more sophisticated to discuss what Futurist aesthetics actually were and whether they went along with the politics. Also, one of the areas I'd like to see developed but don't have the language skills to do it myself is - well, there's a real problem with people like Julius Evola, who was on the fringes of Futurism and Dada, corresponding with Tristan Zara, and who in the post-war period became known as the Marcuse of the right. He's a big guru of late twentieth century fascism. He went through various phases: mystical, political and so on. But he started off as a Futurist and a Dadaist. The whole history of the avant-garde and modernism is a tainted history - but it's not just tainted by those figures; it's tainted for us when we use it. So working through those problems is one of the things that I want to do. But as far as I can recall, when I started working through those manifestos I didn't have this aim. The actual practise of writing and rewriting the manifestos and thinking about them is what brought me to this: take that line 'We will sing the love of danger.' When I was a teenager I could see the problems within the First Futurist Manifesto, the militarism; so I took 'We will sing the love of danger' and turned it into 'We will sing the love of hot running water and colour television' - and I'm speaking now as someone who hasn't watched television for twenty years. I understand there is a difference in my perspective between when I did things twenty years ago and now, and doing those things is part of my way of working through and coming to the position I have now. But to actually step back and get that entire perspective… I can't think myself back to what I was before what I am now without being always and already fictional.
TMcC: The role of the political in your work really fascinates me. You see this best in Slow Death. The premise of that novel is that a totally useless and crap art world is taken over and invigorated by a skinhead gang working under Karen Eliot in her newest incarnation as novel heroine. Now in that book you heap scorn on these idiot Marxist critics and socialist worker newspaper sellers - and yet the book seems to be urging its subjects towards a genuinely Leninist passage à l'acte, a coming-to-the-event. I'd suggest that Neoism, seen from this political angle, is a strategy vis-à-vis closure: a strategy for eluding closure. It allows one to pass through fields of signification and accede to the stage of action in a non-totalitarian way. Is that right?
SH: I would hope so.
TMcC: You reject political action at a superficial level, but by the end of the book you accede to a much more deeply political field of action.
SH: Yes. I think you do need to deal with politics. Some of the characters in that book are influenced by critics you might encounter in the art world. I have a lot of problems with the Adornoist position about the critical autonomy of art, and critics who advance that position. I'm trying to get away from a position that assumes art is superior to popular culture, or popular culture is superior to art. At the end of the day I decided that if I'm going to be forced to vote one way or the other I'd vote for popular culture against art, for tactical rather than strategic reasons. Most of the people I've encountered in the art world have these very simplistic political positions. On the one hand you can caricature them and they do make good fodder for novels, and on the other you can try to get through to a more sophisticated understanding.
TMcC: So there, as with the Art Strike, you're trying to import social practise into the world of aesthetics.
SH: I think it's there already. But I was trying to make it conscious.
TMcC: With Slow Death that seems to go the other way, though. There's a two-way passage between the artworld and the social world.
SH: Yes, that's exactly what I want. It goes back to the classical Marxist notion of continually reforging a passage between theory and practise. One is mediated by the other and it's impossible to separate them out at the end of the day - but it's about becoming more conscious about those processes.
TMcC: Last thing before we open this up: I was interested in what you were saying about the Situationists injecting a bit of occultism into their practise as an inoculation against total historicisation, total closure…
SH: Richard Essex particularly did this. There were plans afoot at one point to write a whole book on the Situationists and the occult, which in the end didn't seem to be worth while. In a way it would be parodying all those stupid books you get with like The Occult Reich and Satan and the Swastika, although there is a serious book by Nicholas Goodrich Clarke called The Occult Roots Of Nazism. It's curious that it hasn't been taken the other way: you could easily portray the CIA as an occult organisation - the rituals, the secrecy and so on. I'm not involved in the occult at all, although I have friends that practise ritual magick.
TMcC: You can see the use-value of it, though.
SH: Oh sure. It's a discourse that you can manipulate and plug into other things and reread. I think there are genuinely elements of that within Situationist discourse, and that comes through most clearly from their interest in Surrealism, although there are other sources too.
TMcC: It goes back through Yeats and Alistair Crowley…
SH: Yes. It's there, but what degree of significance do you attribute to it? I had all these occultists going apeshit when I dressed in a suit and stood outside the Grand Lodge in Holborn for this friend Mark Atkins to photograph me, and I put out the photo with a caption saying: 'This is the Holborn working of the Neoist Alliance.' And they were going: 'What type of magic are you doing?' Well, circulating the photograph was the magick.
TMcC: In Come Before Christ and Murder Love you totally collapse the political intelligence world and the literary/art world and the occult into this one psychotic network.
SH: Which reflects a lot of insane conspiracy theories. I was interested in notions of mind control and reading some of the works on that - which, again, are pretty unreliable and spectacular, especially the more popular end of it. I often have problematic relationships with the things I take on board. For example, Baudrillard I find very interesting and engaging but also very problematic, especially the influence of Nietzsche and Bataille. So having read Baudrillard I was trying to write simulacrums of pulp novels, and simultaneously taking ideas of inscribing pulp prose into experimental literature from the surrealists and the nouveau roman; but instead of just reinscribing pulp prose into a non-linear or non-standard plot I wanted to appropriate the plot as well - which led to my novels being misread as attempts to produce pulp fiction. But with Come Before Christ & Murder Love, because I didn't think the discourse around mind control was resolvable, I couldn't use a linear plot: it just folds back on itself and collapses and goes back to where it started.
TMcC: But it seems to me that there is a conventional arc in it after all, maybe even a tragic one. After all these murders and sacrifices there's a substitution at the end which constitutes a quite conventional love sacrifice: the hero sacrifices himself to save the woman.
SH: The attempt at a sacrifice is slightly rewritten from New Atlantis by Bacon. I couldn't resolve the situation in the book so I went right back to the beginnings of all that humanism.
TMcC: But it's not just going back to the beginning. It's a kind of Hegelian sublimation of all the cycles to a higher level - on which they remain unresolved.
Alexander Hamilton: What do you think of the Voynik Manuscript, this completely fake document that amassed all these academic theories around it?
SH: I'm not familiar with that particular one, but there are loads of others, like Ossian the fake Gallic literature. It's interesting how completely spurious manuscripts can generate comment. Another one is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the anti-Semitic text forged by the Tzarist police - which was itself plagiarised from a couple of other sources. It was exposed as a hoax in 1921 but was still used by the Nazis to justify their extermination policies, and is propagated to this day by people like David Icke.
TMcC: You seem to really relish reproducing that David Icke type rant. You do it in that film by Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit, where you stand in front of the Dome and spiel this complete crap about the Queen mother drinking babies' blood on Millennium Eve…
SH: In The Falconer, yes. But people are meant to see that it's a joke and I don't actually believe it. The problem is that there's always someone who'll believe you're being straight no matter what you say. Some of the stuff I was writing in '93-4 about the Royal family eating children has actually fed back into conspiracist literature about them being reptiles and so on. When I was writing it, I'd just flip open my copy of The Golden Bough or whatever and find some sacrificial description and insert it into a parodic text. But it's quite complex how those things work. If you look at the French Revolution and the underground literature that preceded that, in which the Royal Family were endlessly denigrated. Or the English Civil War, which had a lot of astrological propaganda, and with Republicans like Lilley whose predictions of what was going to happen actually helped create a climate in which the king could be executed.
TMcC: There was lots of pornographic propaganda before the French Revolution too…
SH: Absolutely - about the Royal Family. So I don't want people to believe that what I write is true, but the denigration is serious. I think it would be fantastic not to have a Royal Family. But it's difficult to trace the relationships between what you write and what happens with it, the influence it exerts. My parodic work has even used by absurd right wing propagandists.
TMcC: It's sort of a Pandora's box. It would be naïve to think that your shamanism can only work subversively. As you point out in Come Before Christ, The Man was on to your practises way before you were. Burroughs understands this: the CIA is using the same subversive virus-spreading techniques as the revolutionary avant-garde.
SH: Oh yes. And you can take this from how people like Benjamin read technology as well. He said that unless the proletariat take control of it, technology will lead to a disaster under the capitalist system. But you have to look at how technology is being used as well, which is perhaps a little more sophisticated than some of the primitivist debates taking place recently acknowledge.
Roman Vasseur: Tom was telling me that you've got an interest in Patty Hearst. You've talked in a previous interview, and it's apparent today as well, about your interest in simulation becoming reality. I wonder if you feel that Patty Hearst is someone that knows that operation, and knows she's part of it, and oscillates between various simulations of her characterisation.
SH: The SLA script was a simulation that became reality, and there's the pulp novel whose plot anticipated the kidnapping, and the CIA setting up fake black revolutionary groups which then became real. I also think Defrieze was a fascinating character.
TMcC: He was the black leader of the SLA, the group that kidnapped her…
SH: Yes. And I think you have to deal with race politics in America in order to have any understanding of the Patty Hearst phenomenon. I haven't properly thought through the simulation aspect that you're drawing attention to…
RV: I've done a piece of writing about it, Tom's done a piece of writing about it…
SH: I've read Tom's piece…
RV: We were also talking about the time when whenever you had airport hijacks there was a rush to make the film of the hijack within weeks of the event.
TMcC: Now you've got kids on their mobiles during high school shoot-outs negotiating interviews while the shoot-out is still going… There are also parallels between Patty and Karen Eliot in terms of multiple identity: there was a period after she'd gone to ground when this FBI hotline set up for people to phone if they'd seen Patty Hearst was getting thousands of calls a day saying: 'Yeah, I just saw her disguised as a go-go dancer in Idaho! I saw her as a waitress in California!' All these people 'became' Patty Hearst.
SH: That's curious, I'd most associate that phenomenon with rock stars: 'Hey, I just saw Elvis in Kwiksave!'
TMcC: Has she been interviewed since she a) became a Reaganite in the eighties and b) started working with John Waters?
RV: Just Hello! interviews. Beyond that she's evasive to a point which is so intense that in the absence of saying anything she's talking about her syndrome. Her own autobiography is bizarre but her Hello! interviews are even bizarrer. But at the same time she works with Waters and models for Thierry Mugler. So she's very aware that she's playing a game. But in a way she's Warhol's dream.
AH: When you do one of your actions are you more relieved when nothing happens or when something happens?
SH: I'm generally relieved when nothing happens. Some of the things that I've done I've assessed the risks and thought about what's going to happen. The classic example would be the Salman Rushdie prank, where I thought I was in a position to get away with it more than a lot of people. On the fifth anniversary of the Fatwa I was very fed up with British media coverage of the Rushdie affair that configured all Muslims as fundamentalists, as though there weren't Sunni, Sufi, Shi'ite etc. So I decided to put out a fake press release saying that Rushdie had teamed up with John Lathan, the sixties artist who was famous for burning piles of books. So I sent this press release to fifty literary critics, with the phone number of Rushdie's literary agency and the name of someone that worked there, saying that Rushdie and Lathan were teaming up to burns piles of the Bible, and the Koran. The five rules of a press release are 'Who, Why, What, Where, When', and you also have to supply a quote so that a lazy journalist can write their article without doing any work, so I put in Rushdie's mouth the line I'd always wanted to hear him say: 'Since going into hiding I've been studying Middle Eastern history and I now realise that the workers are the only people in a position to define transigent Islam. In 1958 when Quisan and the Free Officers seized power in Iraq they killed the monarch and burnt the Koran. This is the kind of activity my collaboration with John Lathan is designed to encourage.' Which of course isn't very believable as a quote from Salman Rushdie, but it would have been interesting to hear him say that. He was on record as saying that it was the job of writers to promote different views. I wasn't into winding up Muslims for the sake of it; I think Islamophobia is a genuine problem and needs dealing with. But at the same time it's possible to have criticisms of both Islam and Christianity. I didn't send my fake press release to Muslim groups; I sent it to people on the so called quality Fleet Street newspapers. I thought I'd get away with this because I was a published novelist, but there was a risk of some kind of prosecution, although it wasn't clear which law I was breaking. So the press release went out, and fortuitously the person at the agency whose name I'd given happened to be on holiday that week. But there was big police investigation into what had happened. The cops got hold of me after a week or ten days. They'd been asking journalists who they thought might have done it, and someone from The Big Issue said: 'There's only one person who's got these interests in the whole of London.' There weren't any particular consequences, apart from a different person standing outside my door every day for a week and then a couple of visits.
TMcC: Did you admit to it?
SH: Yeah. I didn't wear gloves. I used my dot matrix printer and I licked the stamps. I think it was pretty provable who'd done it.
TMcC: But there was no prosecution?
SH: No. I was given a number to call. Apparently Rushdie's camp were pretty mad because I'd wrecked their fifth anniversary celebrations. So if they decided to prosecute me I was to call this number and these mysterious people would sort it out. I think it was to do with the embarrassment. And the only place any information appeared about the hoax was in The Big Issue, so it was completely closed down as a news story. Like when the Grey Organisation threw grey paint all over Cork Street and it wasn't reported anywhere. Likewise, when I produce something like the necrocard it has this risk of being picked up by the tabloids.
TMcC: These donor cards allowing sex to take place with the carrier's dead body…
SH: Yes. I had a friend who was waiting for a liver transplant, and another who'd just had one, and I'd reread Baudrillard's Symbolic Exchange and Death. I thought Will Self's positions yesterday had a certain amount in common with Baudrillard: both would seem to see the West as in denial about death, whereas I think it's a more complex situation. Baudrillard claims there are no ritual enactments of death in the West, but Freemasonry's main ceremony involves a death-and remove-the-blindfold-rebirth-and-light number. So the necrocards came out of a working through of that material, as well as my interest in stressing the importance of consent in sexual relations. The press won't deal with these issues. The necrocards got a fair amount of coverage in glossy monthlies, and no one dealt with the issues I was quite consciously raising. Journalists weren't interested in the fact that the necrocards were initially designed to go out with a satirical critique of Baudrillard and post-modernism entitled The Margins Of Theosophy. I handed one to a Times journalist at an Iain Sinclair event and she recoiled in disgust. Getting vilified in the press would help book sales, but it wouldn't be very nice, as Genesis P-Orridge could tell you.
TMcC: He got charged with…?
RV: Child abuse.
SH: Yes, from a murky video of John Balance, who was overage and had consented to being whipped, or whatever it was they were doing to him. So that kind of attention can be very unpleasant. So you assess the risks, then do it or not. So when I say I prefer 'nothing to happen' I mean this on a very personal level. It would be nice if there were a transformation of society as a result of my activities. However, despite the fact that I'm a very egotistical person, at least if I believe my own press, which I do, I'm not going to change the world alone.
TMcC: Echoes of Auden: Art Makes Nothing Happen.
SH: Benjamin wrote this thing for the Soviet Encyclopaedia that was never published in it, where he wanted to treat Goethe from the point of view of his influence. He didn't consider the life important. The effects of particular pieces of culture can be long term, and a materialist treatment of Goethe would look at his influences and effects over time. So maybe nothing much happening immediately means a lot more can happen later. Something that's easily assimilated immediately is possibly too in tune with the culture to have long-term effects. It's difficult to say, and difficult to chart.
TMcC: I don't want to sound unsympathetic, but you can't have it both ways. You've written that you want to be like Machiavelli, who can be read both as an ultra-conservative and a subversive. If you want to be radically ambiguous you can't really complain when someone misreads you.
SH: You can't control the effects of what you do. It's always a risk, and it's better to take that risk, because otherwise why are you living? But when you come across things you really don't like you have to clarify your position in ways you might have preferred not to. It's only responsible. Some misunderstandings can be productive, but others are just plain unacceptable.
Go to Stewart Home's site: http://www.stewarthomesociety.org