Saturday, May 24, 2008

Stewart Home Interview, Mikkel Bolt


BOLT: It seems to be a recurrent aspect of your work to disappoint the audience, to frustrate them – making it difficult to know exactly what is going on? It is difficult to know whether you are presenting yourself as an artist, an art historian, an anarchist or underground agitator – it is always difficult to know from what position you are addressing the audience, it always seems as if you are changing positions and thereby making it very difficult to pin down the 'meaning' and intention of the particular project. Your book The Assault on Culture is an example of this – on the one hand it comes of as an attempt to present an 'alternative' avant-garde stretching from the Cobra movement to Neoism and Class War, on the other hand you never miss an opportunity to point out that the book was written in order to make space for Neoism within the traditional history of the avant-garde.

HOME: I think what I’m about is an overflowing of all capitalist canalisation. When Marx first laid out historical materialism in The German Ideology, he wrote about communism enabling one to be a hunter in the morning, a fisherman in the afternoon and a critical critic at night; of course being a vegetarian, I'd rather be an egotist in the morning (shades of Saint Max here, the main target Marx is tilting against in The German Ideology), a porn star in the afternoon, and a critical critic at night. The point, of course, is that its ridiculous to reduce (wo)man to one thing, to one function, and that this is one facet of the alienation we're struggling against. Life shouldn't be about repeating the same gesture endlessly regardless of whether it is as a factory worker or an 'intellectual'. To regain our humanity, we must live out all the aspects of what it is to be human, intellectual, emotional, physical, and live them as one (this is precisely what the old avant-garde slogan 'poetry must be made by all and not by one' meant, poetry must be made by all the senses and all the people collectively, it should be an overflowing beyond poetry). So one tries to act and create in a revolutionary fashion, and since truth is never one-sided this is dialectical too.

I am not trying to present myself as any one thing, but to be all things as far as possible in an alienated and fragmented world. The disappointment comes from elsewhere, since we all reproduce our own alienation in capitalist societies, it is never possible to overflow unrestrainedly in this bourgeois shitheap. All of anarchism can be found in the idea that it is possible to live differently in this world, and I am most definitely not an anarchist. So The Assault on Culture, can be viewed as a presentation of the post-war 'avant-garde', or an attempt to make space for Neoism within an (anti)-'traditional' her-story of the avant-garde, but it is rather better to view it as both. It is a practical demonstration of how the avant-garde (like the capitalist establishment, but for different reasons and in different ways) manipulates history, and since this is a trait of the avant-garde, doing so as a 'former' 'leading' member of the Neoist Network allows me to claim and make space for Neoism within the avant-garde. There is no real beginning or end to Neoism, it goes on and on… Almost forever…

BOLT: The attempt to frustrate the audience has been a constant feature of the avant-garde since dada. In a certain sense it is through this destruction of the audience that the avant-garde's paradoxical understanding of art becomes evident: art contains a special potential but only insofar as art is realised in everyday life, insofar as art is no longer art. This understanding of art was evident in the situationists group who on the one hand tried to activate the audience in, for example, the exhibition Destruction of RSG-6 in 1963 where the audience was supposed to fire rifles at images of politicians like de Gaulle. Kennedy and Krustjov. On the other hand the situationists always insisted that the 'real' situationist audience was never to be found in a gallery the 'real' (read self-critical) audience was already engaged in revolutionary activities out in the streets. You also have a long and complicated relationship between working-class theoreticians and art, where art is often looked upon as a mere illusion that makes it possible for the bourgeois to present himself as equipped with freedom. How did the Neoist group or how did your version of Neoism try to reconfigure this complicated attitude towards on the one hand art and on the other the audience?

HOME: I think you have to accept that Neoism was no more coherent as a 'movement' than dada, these are names that like fluxus or lettrrism have been pushed and shoved in endless directions. From this perspective the recent Dada exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris was particularly hilarious. One is presented with a range of work that is in no way coherent. To take just the political aspect, Julius Evola is presented as the leading representative of dada in Italy without any mention being made of the fact that he was always a reactionary and went on to become the leading European fascist 'theorist' of the post-war period, the so called 'Marcuse of the (far)-Right', the 'intellectual' Godfather of the 'political soliders' of the Third Position; on the other hand there is a single framed copy of the council communist magazine Die Action among a collection of dada publications, this was a revolutionary journal that bought together the communist left with the Berlin dadaists, who being the most revolutionary members of the movement necessarily made the best 'anti-works'. That said, the bourgeois minds who conceived the Pompidou exhibition have done better than one might expect in presenting the movement, but they baulk at attempting to deal with its politics. For these liberals hacks the dominant cultural history is a snow drift in which all their sacred cows are whiter than white.

Moving on, there is a danger in the way you frame this question of ending up perceiving all avant-gardes as seeking the realisation of art in life, which on the one hand is something that emerges from the theorising of critics such as Peter Berger and on the other, is something that just might be found in the movements he is writing about in Theory of the Avant-Garde, viz dada and surrealism. Berger wrote about a desire to integrate art and life, sections of the situationist movement (those grouped around Debord and Paris after 1962) propagandised for the simultaneous realisation and suppression of art. These varied positions are reflected in the attitudes of different sections of the Neoist movement. Some former Neoists would even claim that Neoism wasn’t an avant-garde movement at all, but then that's also a typically avant-garde manipulation. So I think some Neoists could be viewed as attempting to integrate art and life (Pete Horobin, Istvan Kantor) and others to realise and suppress, or at least suppress it, and the stress should very much be on suppressing art (tentatively a convenience). Other Neoists, and in particular Blaster Al Ackerman (who is an absolutely key figure), weren't so much interested in addressing the status of art in capitalist societies, as meeting sex partners who were 'dirty and under thirty'. It is not for nothing that the Berlin Apartment Festival was redubbed The Syphilis Festival by a number of its participants, who - it is perhaps superfluous to add - all caught the clap. Likewise, when the Neoists said dirty, they meant dirty, since a perversion heavily favoured by a number of them was snot sex, which entailed nose blowing with mucus rubbed all over the body prior to penetrative sex. Because of such interests, The Syphilis Festival was considered a major disaster, the antibiotics used to clear up the clap simultaneously relieved a number of Neoists of their almost permanent colds. It was, undoubtedly, the beginning of the end for Neoism since without mucus lubrication many Neoists found it impossible to rub along with each other.

However, to return to the question immediately in hand, my own position is, of course, that capitalism provides the material conditions for art and German idealism supplies it with its theoretical justification. Drawing on the same philosophical sources, Marx concluded that human activity constitutes reality through its praxis, truth is process, the process of self-development. Since it is shackled by commodification, artistic practice is necessarily a deformation of the sensuous unfolding of the self that will be possible once we’ve attained real human community. The goal of communism is to overcome the reification of human activity into separate realms such as work and play, the aesthetic and the political. Communism will rescue the aesthetic from the prison of art and place it at the centre of life. While art as we know it continues to exist, it would be ridiculous to expect those seeking its abolition not to engage in and with it. However, progressive artists must always keep in sight the fact that their role of specialist non-specialists must be abolished. Therefore their cultural strategy in this transitional period must be to automonise the negative within artistic practice. We must live out the death of the avant-garde not just in theory, but also in practice, just as we will live out the death of politics as a separate sphere. What artists and politicos must seek is the abolition of those things that most engage them, so that a great tidal wave of humanity can fuse together and swamp capitalist canalisation in a revolutionary overflowing. This flood tide will necessarily originate both within and utterly outside the gallery. Since capitalist reification exists everywhere, we can fight it everywhere; we all reproduce our own alienation, including and especially artists. There is no 'outside' to the capitalist world, only the necessity of moving beyond it.

For the Neoists, as they endlessly reinvented what they were and represented, the question of audience really wasn't an issue. At Apartment Festivals and elsewhere, the Neoists themselves provided the audience for each other's work. Performances were meticulously (or sometimes sloppily and carelessly) documented, for if there was to be an audience in terms of passive spectators, then such drones did not yet exist and would be called forth from (and in) the future (but only so that they might be simultaneously transformed into actors on the theatre of the world). The assumption being that anyone present at Neoist events was a participant, someone who joined in (as would those who took an interest in its his and her-story). So even now, in retrospect, it is still possible to actively engage in Neoism, by manipulating its history. In my book The House of Nine Squares, you can see Florian Cramer and me doing this in our exchanges with each other. I think this constant rethinking of Neoism is important, and Florian played a major role in it. I've found his insistence on stressing Neoism's immersion in occult discourse particularly useful.

BOLT: How intentional was the attempt to transform the Neoist activities into an avant-garde? Some critics seems to read your attempt as an ironic gesture whereby the logic and self-understanding of the avant-garde is ridiculed, while other critics read the packaging as a more straightforward attempt to reconstruct a post-modern avant-garde.

HOME: After the fact it didn't much matter what was done with Neoism. As far as I am concerned Neoism was finished by the end of 1986, the 64th Neoist Apartment Festival in Berlin being its last hurrah. What interested me after this was its half-life, which I wanted to use to irradiate culture. So by the time I came to write The Assault on Culture in 1987 (it was first published the following year), Neoism wasn't ripe, it was rotten. I felt its putrid corpse was something that might very well stink up the institution of art, so I wanted to make it simultaneously attractive and repulsive to some of those in positions of cultural power. My intentions were simultaneously ironic and deadly serious. I wanted to see if this wreck could be dragged into the academy as a post-modern Trojan Horse. I also wished to have the pleasure of seeing a certain kind of purist ranting about Neoism in a museum, how disgraceful! By stressing the process of historicisation within my manipulation of Neoism, I hoped to make it harder for the institution of art to assimilate this tendency, precisely by ironising what were previously perhaps almost unspoken aspects of avant-garde activity, to ridicule and destroy the logic and self-understanding of the avant-garde; i.e. to make it live out its own death in practice as well as in the less mordant realm of theory. This was and remains, however, a high risk strategy, since capitalist culture has become so debased that those critics who mistake these clincially administered death spasms as an attempt to reconstruct the avant-garde in post-modern garb (i.e. to revive art by making it somehow 'relevant') are now treated as serious contenders in the race for intellectual credibility. Should they succeed in foisting such interpretations upon the academy, they naturally enough run the risk of being exposed as the theoretical-cum-practical necrophiliacs they undoubtedly are. As Breton might have said had he managed some form of rapprochement with Bataille: 'death will be convulsive or it will not be at all.' The old Neoist slogan 'convulsion, subversion, defection' might almost also be taken as having something to do with this. Art no longer has anything to say, if it ever did (i.e. prior to 1914).

All of this is satirised in my novel Slow Death, which addressed in the form of fiction the historicisation of Neoism before it had really occurred, and was quite consciously intended to make such historicisation more difficult for anyone who wanted to carry it through. In the nineties when I wrote Slow Death, and even recently, I have championed the notion of 'Proletarian Post-Modernism', which was a way of broadening matters out, and drawing in among other things trash film (trash that is, if this is a suitable form of description for productions as diverse as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Persona). So we might rephrase your question in the following terms: can the academy recuperate laughter? Or rather, by providing a means by which those operating within the acadaemy but critical of it, might smuggle something radically humorous (or at least human) into overly rarified institutions, am I not providing them with an opportunity to subvert the academy from within? Or to put it another way, Neoism functions best when it is used to generate questions rather than provide answers.

BOLT: In retrospect the 80s comes over as a period characterised by the return to power of different conservative or neo-liberal political projects like Reagan, Thatcher and Kohl, in a Marxist jargon we could call it a counter-revolutionary move after the experiments of the 60s and 70s: May’68, the different student movements, the feminist movement, punk, Autonomia, etc. Much of the art produced in the 80s seemed very ambivalent towards this historical development: on the one hand you had the return to painting (in different version from Art & Language through the Italian painters to Schnabel in the States) and sculpture (Gormley, etc)), in the middle you had the so-called post-modern appropriation art of Sherman, Prince and Levine and on the other hand you had activities like ACT UP, Group Material and different community based projects that focused on specific political problems. Where does Neoism fit into this picture?

HOME: I don’t entirely agree with your respective characterisations of the sixties and eighties. In many ways what Reagan, Thatcher, Kohl etc, represented was a continuation of the dominant strand of libertarianism within the sixties counterculture. A lot of what passed as leftist in the sixties was in fact extremely right-wing. The yippies, for example, were completely gung ho about going and exploiting people from outside the overdeveloped world, and you only have to read what Abbie Hoffman in Steal This Book has to say about stocking up on American consumer goods to resell in Mexico to realise what exploitative scum these people actually were. What much of the sixties counterculture was about was so called 'free trade' (or more accurately neo-imperialism), which was why 'hipsters' were attracted to so called 'guerilla capitalism' in the form of drug dealing, or in the case of a perhaps not surprisingly large number of 'hippie chicks' prostitution. All of anarchism could be found in their conception of living differently in this world, and while many of those from this milieu tried to disguise their real positions with some incoherent Marxist jargon (most usually of a Maoist, or at least a Bolshevik stripe, so even the source for this rhetoric was counterrevolutionary), they were at base anarcho-capitalists. Thatcherism and Reaganism were a continuation of this, and while the largely rhetorical opposition of many eighties conservatives to a free trade in drugs was blatantly hypocritical, they understood that keeping certain substances illegal was the best way to maximise both profits and their at times deleterious effects on the working class. Likewise if one is to take the feminist movment en bloc, and while remembering that there was much that was useful within it, it remains nevertheless highly ambivalent, with large sections of it caught up in bourgeois puritanism over sex and pornography. Punk, it should go without saying, is even more problematic.
The institution of art is, of course, the cultural arm of the bourgeoisie, so while many artists may want to 'appear' 'critical', the majority feel highly ambivalent about dealing seriously with political issues (and this was as true in the sixties as it was in the eighties) since doing so not only potentially jeopardised their careers if art collectors disliked their political posing, they also ran the risk of further exposing themselves as the reactionary poodles they'd always been. Of course, the understanding of the average artist is so deformed that it is unlikely that they were consciously capable of comprehending or articulating this, but most would have grasped the consequences intuitively. That said, many of those who involved themselves with Neoism were as intellectually confused and challenged as the average gallery artist, but the Neoists taken en bloc were 'genuine' cultural fuck-offs with little to no interest in making money from selling art. This is why there is no real Neoist painting to speak of; although obviously there are odd paintings ranging from the deliberately atrocious and self-consciously worthless garbage produced by Istvan Kantor under the rubric of'‘blood paintings' to Pete Horobin's far more competent, albeit very occasional, canvases. If you look at Neoism prior to my involvement, it was totally divorced from ideas of post-modern appropriation (my notion of plagiarism operated slightly differently, more like 'situationist' detournement), and so up to 1984 it tended to be grounded in classically avant-garde and romantic notions of originality and participation. Something the more infantile of the Neoists stressed, most notably Istvan Kantor, was the need for a total revolution (although very few of us could conflate the terms revolution and tantrum as seamlessly as Kantor). In contrast, while one could feel a certain sympathy for some of the work done by the groups campaigning on single issues, precisely because of their acceptance of such canalisation they needed to overflow the boundaries they'd set up for themselves in order to become revolutionary. The naivety of Neoism, particularly early on, was its strength.
Neoism was a continuation through an almost self-conscious degeneration of the more radical currents that flowed out of fluxus in particular, but filtered through mail art and punk. It was this anarchronistic quality, this absurd belief in the revolutionary potentialities of an underground art, that made Neoism cultural dynamite. The Neoists remained ahead of the pack, avant-garde, a damp squib the world wasn't yet ready for, precisely because they were on the one hand completely anarchronistic, but on the other rushing to embrace newer mediums such as video and computers. Mail art, and in particularly Neoism which emerged from mail art but with a sharper focus, was an important precursor to the web. Likewise it is important to remember that it was the French Canadian Neoists who were the first to make and spread computer viruses on a large scale, Precisely because the Neoists reversed so recklessly into the future, they were able to drag in their wake some otherwise forgotten (in the art world at least) subversive potentialities from the past, including a belief in totality and the dematerialisation of the art object, and even in some cases in the death of art. Neoism doesn't fit into your picture of the eighties art world, it belongs to absolute elsewhere, the utopia of learning about life by fucking death in the gall bladder. It has more in common with the cultural anti-productions of the sixties or even the twenties, than with the eighties art world.

BOLT: What was the connection between the Neoist activities and the Art Strike?

HOME: The Art Strike was a means of articulating some of the more radical aspects of Neoist practice, but at the same time self-consciously articulating aspects of a critique that up to that point had largely remained unspoken; thus it was also a means of negating Neoism. Most of those involved with the Art Strike (for example Steve Perkins, Aaron Noble, Scott McLeod, Tony Lowes) had not been involved with Neoism. The obvious exceptions were me - but I’d broken with Neoism, and announced the Art Strike immediately afterwards – and John Berndt (whose involvement in both Neoism and the Art Strike is more ambiguous). The Art Strike was among other things a means of virally infecting Neoism, it speeded up the death of the movement (and I wanted to kill it so that newer, younger, more radically iconoclastic and ironic pseudo-avant-gardes might emerge in and through its wake; i.e. the avant-garde practice of living out one's own death), while simultaneously ensuring that retrospectively Neoism would be (mis)read through the prism of my own activities. I came to Neoism with an interest in fusing situationist legacies (among other things, but also Auto-Destructive Art) with that of fluxus; prior to this there was little interest in the situationists among the Neoists, the lineage up to my involvement clearly came through mail art and fluxus, from were it flowed back into the avant-gardes of the earlier part of the twentieth-century, most obviously futurism and dada, with a dash of surrealism added for good measure.

BOLT: In the foreword to the Polish edition of The Assault on Culture you mention different projects that could be seen as continuations of the projects that you write about. Looking back what projects and activities would you include if you were to write an 'updated' version of the book?

HOME: I think my problem with that book now is the disjunction between the chapters dealing with the situationists and fluxus. Once could tie these things together more tightly by looking more closely at both the 2nd Situationist International, and dealing extensively with Alex Trocchi's Project Sigma. That said, I am well aware that the former all too often ended up degenerating into anarchism, while Trocchi's cultural activities were ultimately eclipsed by his drug scamming. Today I think I would ignore Class War, a movement that continued to degenerate to the point where its decomposition might be likened to the collapse of time and space inside a black hole, and instead concentrate on some of the projects that emerged in the 90s and which very self-consciously fused different (post) avant-garde practices in a deliberately ironic manner; viz Manchester Area Psychogeographic, Workshop for a Non-Linear Architecture, Luther Blissett Project etc.

BOLT: Could you please explain the different splits that occurred in the Neoist Network and also talk a bit about the Neoist Alliance? In retrospect the Neoist Alliance seems more connected to different 90s projects like AAA, London Psychogeographical Association, Decadent Action, etc than to the Neoism of the 80s? The use of occult references seems more massive in the later projects than in the first round of Neoist activities.

HOME: Different people split at different times from the Neoist Network. For example, Peter Below sometime before me, but all that really happened with him was he fell out with Istvan Kantor. Mostly it wasn't even a case of splits, it was more entropic, people simply drifted apart, gave up, moved on to something else (for example Graf Haufen became a successful businessman in Berlin, running the Videodrome stores that rented and sold cult films). Since I was trying to ironise the avant-garde, my own split was overly self-conscious and ridiculous. So in 1985 I broke with Neoism (or at least Istvan Kantor, I remained on good terms with most of the other Neoists, and worked closely with Pete Horobin and to a lesser extent John Berndt). After 1986 the Neoist Network simply became less active, it just came to a natural end. Some people might place the date for this end a bit later, after all there was a so called Millionth Apartment Festival in New York, covered by C. Carr in the Village Voice. But relations between participants in Neoism loosened of their own accord, or else interactions were less frequently carried out under the rubric of Neoism. Naturally, Istvan Kantor carried on using the name, but there was no longer any real network or sense of community, so whatever half-life Neoism retained as an active current consisted principally of nostalgia. Those who took part in the recent resurrections of the Neoist Apartment Festival in Germany and Hungary were self-evidently old men who have yet to move on from the follies of their youth. It is best to leave 'active' Neoism to these buffoons, since they excel at dragging Neoism through the mud, and while they have a dirty and unfulfilling job, someone has to do it in order to repel the semi-sophisticated breed of art historian, and thereby prevent the 'movement' being misrepresented as some sort of monolith.

The Neoist Alliance by way of contrast was a rather more self-conscious joke, a deliberate choice of name that sounded like the old Neoism but had nothing to do with it. This was when a lot of people were putting together 'groups' in London that only really had one member – which was our way of dealing with the question of organisation within the revolutionary communist movement (something that actually still requires proper, as opposed to this merely humorous, resolution). So everyone would have their own group, and we'd each join in whatever activities the other groups were engaged with if we felt in sympathy with them. We were drawing on the legacy of the occult within the avant-garde (most obviously in surrealism), not only to ironise both 'discourses', but simultaneously to make our activities and those of certain precursors unattractive to academic hacks. Many of those who work in universities, and particularly those (and there are many) who are intellectually and practically incompetent, find the occult intolerable, so putting it to use to banish the avant-garde was our way of creating unacceptable theories, discourses and activities. The Neoist Alliance was simply a project of mine active in the mid to late nineties which sowed discord and spread confusion. Beyond the fact that I was a 'former' Neoist, it had no connection to the old Neoist Network of the eighties.

An email interview for a Danish publication that looks like it was done around 2005 (really I should keep better records).

Above copied from:


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