Some Thoughts on Butterflies & the ensuing collapse of all
categories... From naivety to greater coherence
SOME THOUGHTS ON BUTTERFLY MIGRATION
In butterfly migration there is an instinctual sense of purpose. The key to migration is to understand that it is regulated largely by RHYTHM and SEQUENCE OF EVENTS, rather than by reason and foreknowledge.
The migrating butterfly keeps to one straight path. ...they have been seen flying through railway tunnels, through the windows of houses, through an afternoon of thick fog. ...beating their wings against walls trying to fly through rather than over them.
In migration butterflies 'know no fear' .Fear is suppressed. ...they may be stroked, and lifted onto one's finger. They have been seen flying 6" above the waves in mid-Atlantic; on the Rongbuk Glacier, 18000' up Mount Everest.
A swarm of Monarchs in New Jersey was described as 'almost past belief. ...millions is but feebly expressive'..miles of them is no exaggeration. They covered every twig in an area about 200 yards wide and over 2 miles long. The green landscape was changed to brown'.
In 1879 Painted Ladies flew northwards over Europe in such numbers 'as to cast a shadow on the ground'''. They have been seen from aeroplanes as great spiral nebulae, or as faint coloured gasses moving amongst the Cumulus''
Merill, an American astronomer, saw millions of Monarchs come into view of his telescope, clearly illuminated by the Moon.
The entomologist Skertchley observed the beginning of a migration in the Sudan in 1869. He saw the wiry grasses among the sand trembling though there was no breath of wind. With a closer look he saw that all the grasses were thickly hung with Painted Lady chrysalises - wriggling violently in the act of emerging. In half an hour they had dried their wings -and in a SPLIT SECOND the whole desert seemed to take to the air as a brown cloud and move away to the North East.
In 1887 swarms of Silver Y moths reached the sugar beet fields of Lincolnshire and Norfolk in such numbers that the sound of their wings was distinctly audible .''.Wind and rain once beat a huge flock of white butterflies (a snowstorm) into a lake in Upper Bavaria; later they were washed ashore in thousands, forming a white rim round the lake.
''Dead Camberwell Beauties a rare migratory species formed a purple tide at Seaton Carew, Co. Durham in Autumn 1827; they had been driven from the coast of Scandinavia by a storm.
In August 1911 Professor Oliver was visiting a small island of about 2 acres on Sutton Broad, Norfolk. As he approached he saw the whole island covered with fluttering white butterflies,all of them were caught on the sticky leaves of the Insectivorous plant, the Sundew. Each small plant had captured 4 to 7 butterflies; mostly they were still alive when Professor Oliver saw them. Several counts gave an average of about six million butterflies caught in this gigantic trap.
HABIT AND MYTH
In Australia the aborigines once depended on the seasonal mass flight of the Bogang to the caves of N S Wales as valuable food.
E B Ford in connection with mimicry and warning colouration in insects writes: 'I personally have made a habit which I recommend to other naturalists of eating specimens of each species which I study'.
The Javanese call migrating butterflies PILGRIMS''' In December 1883 there was a very great flight which the natives took to be the souls of the thousands of people who, in August of that year, had perished in the eruption of Krakatau.
Butterfly movements in Ceylon are said to be pilgrimages to the footprint of Buddha on top of the Hill of Sama Nalahanda''. The butterflies are said to go to the peak yellow, and return white - purged of their sins.
THE ENIGMA OF THE LARGE BLUE
For years entomologists were unable to rear the Large Blue. The caterpillar would feed on Wild Thyme, reach the third moult, wander aimlessly, and then die.
Purefoy happened to pull up some thyme in Cornwall and found a full grown Large Blue larvae in an ants nest. The secret was out. ...Immediately Purefoy devised an ant-hill out of a huge walnut shell which was placed on a pile of earth in a tin box. This was placed on a large platform surrounded by water to prevent the ants escaping. A Large Blue caterpillar was put near the nest. Soon a foraging ant showed great interest and began to caress the caterpillar which responded by producing a drop of sweet fluid from the back of its neck. An hour later the caterpillar hunched its back and the ant bestrode it and staggered away carrying the huge prize to its nest. Inside the guest turned carnivorous and commenced to eat the ant larvae. Purefoy, unable to restrain himself, opened the nest on Christmas Day to show his friends. The caterpillar was neatly suspended from the roof of the shell, where it pupated after the winter.
In May 1915 a male Large Blue emerged and dried its wings on top of the walnut.
A note on the cover: Period: 1900 to 1950 (from the original magazine)
Evreinov ' for reconstruction of the audience'/ de Chirico for his diatribes against 'modern art'/ Buffet (Bernard) - for his honesty / Aragon ' for throwing Maurice Martin du Gard's typewriter out of his window /Peret ' for spitting/ Morton (Jelly Roll) ' for snooker / Eisenstein ' for the early things/ Parker (Charlie) - for dying with laughter/ Sherman ' for eluding his followers/ Trotsky ' for Literature and Revolution/ Griffith for Intolerance/ Khlebnikov ' for his soup-lakes/ Duchamp (Marcel) ' for being Villon's brother/ Feks ' for factory for the eccentric actor/ Mayakovsky ' for not 'rummaging through yesterday's petrified crap'/ The rest for HEROISM and Jonathan Swift for today.
(Note 2004:Sherman never existed. We invented him as an amazing genius seeing people could be conned by anything.)
Notes on Icteric: Why the above? A litter bin of random notes from 2005
Icteric was a 'radical' arts magazine produced in Newcastle upon Tyne between 1966 and late 1967 representing the views of a small group of people holding somewhat similar views.
It was in retrospect a confused attempt - though brave for the time - to get to grips with a hidden history; that of the negation of art which throughout the 20th century had such profound though not generally recognised, consequences especially here in the UK. At that time we were faced here in the UK with a profoundly conservative cultural establishment (if not in pop music then certainly in the high arts) and any attempted re-evaluation amounted to heresy, fit only for the flames. The reproduction of one of the yellow covers illustrated here gives an idea of the iconic figures we revered in the mid 1960s. (Icteric meant jaundice as well as a cure for jaundice - hence the use of yellow and was a name picked at random out of a dictionary in the time-honoured Dadaist tradition). The exploding volcano is that of Andre Breton, the French surrealist (who, incidentally, was deeply interested in butterflies) because at the time his wide ranging thoughts seemed to us to knit together much that had previously been separated. Lettrism was then just a name and identified merely, at least in the English speaking world, with its artefact, concrete poetry. We knew nothing of Isou's post war theory of the rise and decay of form but, had we done so, would instantly have taken it on board. On another pinnacle there is the name Kasimir Malevich, the Russian constructivist, whose 'White on White', announcing the end of painting, fascinated us. It was to us a thing of ineffable beauty not because of how it looked but of what it implied compared to which the statements of American Abstract Expressionism like those of Rothko and Barnett Newman were mere wallpaper that enshrined rather than demolished the museum.
So Icteric was a kind of emancipatory ferment playing on the boundaries between art and life and in the process leading to the dissolution of artistic form particularly painting, sculpture, poetry, the novel and architecture. It didn't just stop with these traditional forms for as a group we were all journeying out of the enclosed world of art, 'the hysteria born within a studio' - as Tzara, the notable Dadaist had characterised it - or any other cultural setting, like staged performances, plays, concerts - jazz, rock, folk - toward an everyday world we dimly perceived had to be transformed.
It was, if you like, Isou avante la lettre. We also passionately sought to disinter as much of the buried past as we could, translating into English for the first time Jacques Vache's Letters of the War, put together just after the First World War by Andre Breton. This text, demanding we leave behind the ball and chain of art, became a founding document of surrealism. (Vache had a nihilistic disdain for the world, the war and the avant-garde and committed suicide as a joke. Amazingly he had first come to our attention when sitting our O levels and we had been much impressed by his habit of uprooting healthy plants and leaving sick ones be. At the time we had in our bedroom a cage full of Northern Eggar caterpillars we had collected on Fewston moors above Harrogate. But rather than kill them when they emerged we let them go, such was our growing horror of collecting. The beyond of art and the setting free of nature were unconsciously already present.
In the mid 1960s' we even attempted, we were travelling that fast, to read Hegel, because his name kept popping up in Surrealist texts. We had no idea Hegel was a much derided figure in the English philosophical establishment. We had all barely turned twenty.
We really weren't quite sure where we were going, though deep down we felt we were on the right track. Following on from the radical concepts behind Duchamp's ready mades we questioned the existence of artefacts. Art could be anything we said it was and we slowly began to think that Duchamp had betrayed his original promise. Despite moving to America to escape the stranglehold of European cultural elitism (and incidentally failing to see that America was destined to overtake Europe on that score) Duchamp continued, as Rimbaud said of Baudelaire 'to live in too artistic a milieu'. A master of irony and word play would Duchamp have savoured the irony of seeing his Urinal hailed as the most important single contribution to the evolution of modern art by cultural pundits (see The Guardian, December 2004). Unfortunately he would most likely have been flattered. The Urinal is now Tate Modern's altarpiece surrounded by a culturally beatified host of imitators. One wonders what effect a gesture like smashing the urinal would have in the media, on decrepit youth and the avant garde (rather arriere garde) of the cultural establishment. especially if accompanied by a coherent explanation. We are almost tempted, but the thought of the ensuing court case, accusations of cultural vandalism equivalent to the burning of the books, even a prison sentence and certainly a crippling fine for having destroyed a priceless work of art when the aim of the original piece was to debunk any such pretensions, is enough to deter anyone.
Surprisingly, some of the articles in the Icteric magazine are not entirely without merit. The piece on butterflies is one of them. It is not quite accurate to describe the Icteric text on butterflies as a natural ready made. One cannot help but marvel at some of the descriptions. The ready mades were simply chosen at random: aesthetics never came in to it. And if we now admire The Bottle Rack as a fine piece of design, as does Banham in his Theory and Design in the first Machine Age that was not Duchamp's intention, even if later he did go on to say that the only works of art that America had produced were its plumbing and bridges. In fact the piece on butterflies owes more to someone like Rodchenko, (a contemporary of Malevich) particularly his factographs. It is neither art nor science but rather awe before breathtaking natural spectacles rendered even more poignant forty years later by their gradual disappearance. And we were conscious; even then, the spectacles we described had virtually gone.
We had some inkling of how deeply we had been influenced by romanticism and the English nature tradition. Butterflies had, after all, been a youthful passion predating by a couple of years a passion for delta blues men and women and we well remember 'setting' dead specimens to the sound of Bessie Smith, Pinetop Smith, Earl Hines and so on (see Street One & Codlings on www.dialecticalbutterflies.com). The article on butterflies was also an attempt to recapture our childhood enthusiasm for butterflies, yet coming when it did it was brim full of an awareness of the break up of poetic form and diction harking back to the 19th century French poet Stephane Mallarme and even earlier. We wanted to communicate an intensity of lived experience poetry was unable to provide. We wanted the authenticity of real life. And we wanted, like the surrealists, 'to relive with intensity the best moments of childhood.' This phrase was never far from our lips and we gave it, and others, a renewed lease of life by reproducing them and plastering Newcastle with stickers. The Surrealists in some of the most remarkable texts of the 20th Century were to ask 'Is suicide a solution?' So we repeated the experiment and like the earlier investigation got disappointing replies and unsurprisingly received nothing like Artaud's who rejected the question by refraining it as 'an anterior form of suicide' meaning that we have all committed suicide already.
English poetry has always excelled in natural descriptions, surpassing all other rivals whether German, French and Italian. We have only to think of Chaucer, Spencer, Shakespeare, the Metaphysical Poets and then the Romantics. However with the Romantics nature begins to come into its own and starts to leap from the page. Most of the great romantics begin to take unprecedented liberty with form, anticipating by a 100 years the revolution of modern art. And even in an orthodox poet like Keats the signs are there a plenty ' 'a flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme'/ 'heard melodies are sweet but those unheard are sweeter'/ 'her book a churchyard tomb' (an observation Mallarme would have just loved!). We could say that this aspect has never been properly appreciated but that would be wrong: it has never even begun to be appreciated. And it was only after our ignominious flight from Newcastle that we began to appreciate this fact of overwhelming importance. (It is given a more comprehensive, though by no means exhaustive, treatment elsewhere on the website). In a way we were seeking to realize our own native romantic tradition and were its true heirs and not the piffling nonsense that has passed, with the odd exception, as 'poetry' since the death of Shelley and Byron. But we had no idea that this was the case for we had no one to guide or advise us. In this venture we were as alone as could be and disparaged on every side as 'mad' then 'bad' and finally 'dangerous', such was the wall of incomprehension. We were bound to be eventually broken by it, just as we were quickly radicalised through clashing constantly with it and getting nowhere.
In those far-off days the word ecology was hardly used at all. Yet it was the natural, more than anything else that obsessed us. We spoke of 'trembling nature'. And from that starting point we wished to reinvent the city, to bring nature into its heart and into people's living rooms, not as potted plants but as outrage. It was to be nature in excess, wild, exuberant, uncontrollable 'kinetic nature' and not one tailored to the mundanities of patio gardens. Down with polite horticulture, Newcastle was going to be the place of the new Amazonia. Seeing we lived right next to the north east coalfield we wanted to deposit a giant colliery spoil heap in the town centre. We wanted collapsing gardens, trees that raced along roads. Our cellar was converted into a lake by first banking it up with earth and then filling it with water. We loved it when cities flooded and waterfalls would cascade down the steps of newly constructed Arndale centres and living room floors gave way to reveal streams with easy chairs and dining room suites perched by the sides of these new embankments. This was decor with a difference.
We greatly admired the sacks of coal which Duchamp hung from the ceiling of the second surrealist exhibition. We were even more impressed when we found out a coal burning brazier that had been installed in the exhibition had singed the bottom of a couple of sacks which had then broken open, scattering coal everywhere.* One of us had a lorry load of sand delivered which was then deposited around the bed to create an interior desert in which to sleep and wake in. And, to one side, there was a Perspex cage in which thousands of flies were breeding on rotting meat. We lived what Damien Hirst sought only to exhibit. And the thought of making money out of it was the last thing in our head, which is the only thing in Hirst's.
For one of our experiments we reared a couple of dozen Privet Hawk caterpillars which were purchased from a butterfly farm. Eventually they pupated and, seeing we had long given up killing insects, let them go when these large, beautiful moths emerged. It was the humane thing to do and releases weren't the problem they are today. In fact a few years previously someone had taken it upon themselves to restore the Marbled White to the North Downs and today we are all very glad of it. Imagine our surprise when in the 1990s on looking at the distribution map of the Privet Hawk we noticed a small dot where Newcastle is and miles from the nearest location. Had we been responsible for inadvertently introducing the Privet Hawk in to Newcastle?
Even then our approach was fundamentally different to that of Hirst. We wanted to free up and then collaborate with nature not murder and then display it. The French for a still life is nature morte and the fact that Hirst wanted dead nature shows he has not broken with the artistic tradition at all in this respect, and also in many others. Instead of using an old butterfly collection which we did when we attached some butterflies to a pair of shoes (see the above photo from Icteric which even then was a tired update of e.g. an artefact like Meret Oppenheim's Fur covered Cup and Spoon), Hirst actually pulled the wings off recently killed Blue Morpho butterflies and then stuck them down as a decorative addition to his fashionable Pharmacy restaurant in Notting Hill. And the Shark, commissioned by the Saatchi's in the early 1990s, and which launched him on his money grubbing, brand name plc of a career he is now so proud of, was originally meant to be a Great White Shark. Days before he was due to bag one, it was placed on the endangered species list and Hurst had to make do instead with a Tiger Shark. It has just been sold for '6 000,000. A lifer in Wormwood Scrubs a few years back threatened, once outside, he was going 'to do' Hirst. If he should make good his promise we would suggest that afterwards he pickle Hurst in a tank of formaldehyde and then put him on display. Nothing in Hirst's life would then become him like the exhibiting of it. Rather too good for the Turner Prize however. In 2004 the winner of the abominable Turner racket, Jeremy Deller - and slightly more interesting than the usual prize winners- produced a film on Texas called Memory Bucket which ends up with a 10 minute sequence of millions of bats flying from the mouth of a cave into the night sky. It was nothing in comparison to Some Remarks on Butterflies.
Icteric was a brief moment in an altogether much bigger creative unfolding taking place all over the world from the mid 1960s onwards. A year and a half later in 1967 we were ambushed, almost unawares, by the far greater coherence of the International Lettrists and Situationists and their theoretical and practical contributions. Once confronted with these critiques we knew instantly this was what we had been groping towards all along in the dim twilight which was then Britain ' and in which nowadays there is even less of a flicker. With pitiless disdain we cast Icteric aside, and thought no more of it, ashamed of our juvenilia. Years later we were to be reminded of it when , in the late 1990s, we were told back copies of the magazine were fetching astonishingly high prices ' some said '1000 - though we can't believe it, and, what's more to the point, not even interested. One of us had also done a series of photo montages illustrating surrealist suggestions for altering Paris. They were done solely for money to go in an exhibition put together by R Hunt, one of the founders of Icteric, called 'Poetry must be made by all'. In the 21st century we were to find out the exhibition, which we then thought was evading the real issues, had acquired an iconic status even receiving a mention in Jappe's unimpassioned, somewhat academic, book on Guy Debord.
Otherwise we made no money whatsoever out of these avant garde experiments. In fact not only were we worse off economically but a target of ridicule. And to be sure, to give the opposition its due, they were only signposts and faintly ludicrous ones at that, toward a more lucid negation, as this ever more monstrous world appeared to totter.
In disgrace and calumnied as self-destructive idiots, and spat on from virtually all sides we were forced to leave Newcastle. And only if we were prepared to recant and return to the good old ways would the derision cease. But that would be tantamount to suicide so we 'chose' to be cast into oblivion instead and become the unmentionables. However, as so often happens in history, though we had been debarred in a manner of speaking from ever entering the city, in a manner of speaking the city also fell to us. But what we got instead was not the Newcastle Commune which one of our stickers had called for (Prepare now for the Newcastle Commune) but Newcastle, City of Culture and with growing embarrassment it began to be apparent to us that the origins of Newcastle's transformation, by realising a trajectory we had so vehemently rejected, lay partially in Icteric. It is indeed ironic to note how the converted Baltic Flour Mills on the banks of the Tyne is ranked second to Tate Modern (itself a former power station on the Thames embankment) as the 'modern art' venue. After our departure the art school and art scene in and around Newcastle University lapsed into a time warp from which it never awoke - as did every other art school and scene after 1968 and nor could they ever. Meanwhile the number of programs devoted to the role art schools played in Britain's 'creative renewal' in the 1960s grows and always neglects, deliberately or through sheer ignorance, to mention how they also nurtured a radicalism that exploded in 1968. And the currents present in Newcastle art school from the early 1960s onwards were the most coherent manifestation by far. In fact Newcastle never even gets a mention in these programs ' and if it ever does it is only in relation to Bryan Ferry who we lived next door to and had nothing but contempt for. It is as if they were a forerunner of the Cool Britannia business ethos, the sickly sweet, clueless Gallagher brothers and so on, though there was enough of that also.
And so the likes of Icteric became centre stage but even in their present manifestation are a world away from what we meant then and light years away from the only logically possible direction that was to immediately follow on. This particular apology for art history we are not proud to be part of, is closely linked to the world of advertising and corporate sponsors and unfailingly promoted by the media, particularly by The Guardian, The Independent and Channel 4 TV all of whom find it 'challenging'. The pathetic Jon Snow the Channel 4 newscaster is forever asking 'but is it art' but we doubt if he would get the joke if someone was to intervene and ask of a scene of total destruction, like the bombing of an Iraqi hospital, 'but is it art'?
In fact our critique in its more fully worked out form - and post Icteric - 30 or so years later found its way into the geography dept of the university via a belated repeat of psycho geography now out of historical context. A viciously reinstated Newcastle art scene was by then so cut-off from theory and reality that it hadn't the foggiest idea of its past never mind knowing what psycho geography meant. Nonetheless, in this city where anti-art as an essential part of a modern revolutionary critique was once proclaimed loudly, the simple realisation that art is nothing but a consumer appendage or that popular culture is now inseparable from advertising in an utterly commoditised social life far more dire than in the late 1960s has again been reaffirmed.
(Footnote: That coal was central to Newcastle, worked as it were, behind our backs. Alongside the proposals for moving giant spoil heaps into the centre of Newcastle we had made small scale environments/installations of pit spoil heaps with model locomotives running through them surrounded by fake smoke ' another reinvention of childhood. It was a momentary phase in acquiring greater coherence. The explosion of the late 1960s with its profound anti-art drift saw miners from the local north east pits beginning to turn up curious yet attracted to the ensuing ever-widening subversion).
David & Stuart Wise. Winter 2004
Further Notes on Icteric
For decades afterwards we tended to treat the formative years in Newcastle as an embarrassment, a period in our lives we would prefer to forget. At best it was a necessary waste of time leading ineluctably to a much bigger picture expressed far more fully in May 1968 in France. However it is now painfully apparent there was nothing ineluctable about it and only now is it possible to reconstruct bit by bit the stages of this process and pose the essential question why then and not now, especially since what we were doing in Newcastle prior to 1967 has come to occupy center stage in the 'art' world. Unlocking these memories has not proved easy, especially as they have lain dormant for well over 36 years.
And so it is with the 8th/9th century Chinese 'poet', Han Shan. Purchasing a copy of Arthur Whalley's 'Chinese Poems' in a second hand shop for £1.50p, I re-read Han Shan in the very same book I had first encountered him. It was though I had last read him yesterday. Some lines had become imprinted on my memory which even then I felt were prophetic 'Even my own wife turned against me'. Ah yes, how true that would shortly turn out to be. 'Slip slap goes the wind in my face': of all the lines this is the one I most remember ' no poetic genius was required to write such a line for anyone could have written it.
Though of course we read Han Shan in translation, the literal descriptions eschewing practically all metaphor and metre seemed to point beyond poetry. We thought the same was true of the Japanese writer, Basho, especially the incident wherein he recounts trying to sell his snow covered hat. It seemed to us to subvert the conventions of the market because it was the snow rather than the hat that was important. But even so we felt uneasy about making it into a marketable commodity though we couldn`t then specify precisely why. The point, surely, was to awaken people to the beauty and possibilities of snow, not to make a living out of it
Han Shan's name is forever identified with the Cold Mountain, his chosen place of exile. Though the Cold Mountain was a place it was also a state of mind and it was the surface facticity that so attracted me indicating it was possible to imbue a bare fact with beauty and significance even in so drear a place as the Cold Mountain with its perpetual snows and fogs.. It was but a short step from this to investing a fact with social significance as to whether it enhanced our lives or not. By late 1967 this would be the overriding requirement: reborn people in a reborn world of 'facts' in which the government of people gives way to the administration of things, a state of affairs which has yet to exist. And it was the tireless nature lover J.J. Rouseau who was the first to succinctly formulate it thus - the anarchist tinged Rousseau and not the etatiste Rousseau. Though most people attribute this formulation to Engels he had in fact lifted it from Rousseau but in doing so gave it a far greater coherence.
At one point Han Shan breaks off to doubt if what he has written can ever capture the lived reality of what he is experiencing. 'Down in the pool there is not really a moon, the only moon is in the sky above. I sing to you this piece of song but in the song there is no zen'. Even then the reference to zen made us wince for we associated the zen cult with the beat poets like Ginsberg and their abysmal fetishization of literature. I fact far from being libertarian zen was institutionalised in the Japanese military, no matter that Han Shan had made a different use of it. The Cold Mountain tract was nature writing with a difference because it also exacted a refusal of the world, the one not being possible without the other. The mysticism was also very low key, in fact hardly present at all and infinitely less so than in the deist Wordsworth who rejected becoming an anchorite even though he felt pulled by it seeking, if only briefly, unlike Han Shan, a collectivist resolution through a bourgeois democratic revolution in which even grasses ( in fact rather more so than people!) were to be accorded rights. Hidden within Wordsworth there is also a rejection of the world, but crucially a world defined by the division of labour and Adam Smith which Han Shan, imprisoned in the last analyses by the ageless immobility of Chinese society, and despite his rejection of it, could not possibly have anticipated. And so a growing part of Wordswort`s legacy is his huge influence on the nature conservation movement (made necessary by industrial capitalism) and even modern anchorites like Thoreau and Muir have had, by sheer force of example, a similar massive influence on the conservation movement whatever their initial desire to have done with the world and get permanently lost in nature. I recall reading in Newcastle in the late sixties Gary Snyder's re working of Han Shan in which he attempted to give it a contemporary appeal by situating it in modern day San Francisco. But by then I knew there was no realistic alternative within capitalism, that we were not free to take it or leave it and that the Yosemite National Park was no substitute for the Cold Mountain. And besides there is no way a person would be permitted to camp out on the granite outcrops for any length of time - the Park Rangers would see to that. Today the illusion there is an alternative way of life within capitalist parameters has, over the past 35 years, gone forever, but paradoxically we are all increasingly becoming media anchorites locked away within four walls, finding it evermore difficult to venture out and only able to dream of nature as projected on TV. It is more than possible that in the end the only nature there will be is a parallel nature of digitised imagery that virtualizes the 'electric (electomagnetic) butterflies' of Rimbaud`s ravings. I have vivid memories of throwing myself on the bed in despair in Eslington Tce. in Newcastle and wishing, at the end of art, I had a cinematic device I could press closely to my face that would transport over the hills and valleys of North Yorkshire as if I was in a plane. How easy that would now be. And to think I once considered it a temporary cure for that acute sense of loss that comes with the death of art once we are prevented from seizing the social totality.
Han Shan was also a Taoist and Lao Tzu's writings also attracted us. We saw a link between the readymades and a line of Lao Tzu's: 'Exhibit the uncarved block'. Now of course we would rightly query why exhibit it in the first place To my knowledge no one has asked this question, certainly not Joseph Needham in his scholarly volumes on Chinese science, though he did enlighten me on the subversive role Taoism played in Chinese society, nourishing scientific enquiry in opposition to the prevailing Confucianism. (Needham was a member of that interesting bunch of British scientists who were influenced by 'dialectical materialism' as a result of meeting delegations of soviet scientists in the late 1920s and early 1930s and by which time the revolution was well and truly over with. So their wider vision, at least in comparison to their counterparts today, was also cruelly deformed by soviet style state capitalism which not one of them ever saw through. Though Needham was able to write a chapter dealing with Coleridge as a biologist in his The Sceptical Biologist (1929) - which few, if any, scientist would today be capable of - he ended up becoming a sickening apologist for Mao) .
Paradoxically wedded to this love of surface appearances requiring little further alteration other than in the social relationships, was a desire to realize metaphor by making it a fact, for here extremes met. French symbolist poetry had a peculiar plasticity about it as though always reaching out beyond the page. To us Rimbaud was more pure description then fantasy so imagine our delight when we read that the French communards had during the Commune of 1871 uprooted the trees that lined the grande boulevards and replanted them with their roots in the air and branches in the ground. It was close enough to Rimbaud's 'havoc of avenues' and to us symbolist imagery was a thwarted effort, confined to paper, to remake the world which was only possible through collective action such as happened in the Commune of 1871. Accordingly one of us printed a sticker with the slogan 'Prepare now for the Newcastle Commune' where only a couple of years previously we had reprinted surrealist stickers. 'Imagination with all its force tends to become real'. We were more alive than ever to Breton`s superb combining of Marx and Rimbaud: 'Marx said change the world, Rimbaud said change life: to us these two mottos are one and the same'.
Living in Newcastle a place world famous for its coal mines, shipbuilding, and heavy industry we had all become very 'French' and blind to the hostility we were provoking. Reaction in Newcastle always packed a punch. During the general strike of 1926 the middle classes armed themselves and were prepared, like nowhere else in the country, to drown the strike in blood. We were also unawares that the region had generated a radical critique of some aspects of culture, particularly mass cinema, in the shape of Jack Common that compared well with anything on the continent. Common was also able to link his critique to his profound working class experience and his observations on how, at night, engineering problems would be jointly resolved in the kitchen with the aid of a piece of chalk on grate blackening are priceless. Making use of whatever was available and in terms of sheer improvisation this was way beyond the uninspiring technical drawing we were instructed in at school. Later I began to wonder if my enthusiasm for Russian Constructivism in the mid sixties in Newcastle had not, in some roundabout way, been influenced by this local tradition. We had, as children, attended the Timothy Hackworth school in Shildon in Co Durham and every morning passed the great locomotive engineer's very modest house and famous engineering works, which then looked about to fall down, it was in such a state of disrepair. If not engineering in particular, construction was certainly in our blood.
But meanwhile English speaking symbolism meant nothing to us. TS Eliot was simply deplorable and we wondered how he ever could be placed alongside Mallarme, Rimbaud and Valery as Edmund Wilson had done in his famous 1930 book on symbolism, Axel's Castle. I recall that Robin Page, a happener from Leeds who came to stay one night, had contemptuously tossed to one side a copy of Eliot's Four Quartets that he had noticed on the book shelf. He had no need to bother however, it was simply a leftover from our school days and I still pride myself not one volume of Eliot`s disgraces my shelves. And the same fate befell W B Yeats whom we also had been taught to appreciate at school and though I have never been able to read Yeats since, his collection of Irish fairy tales is in a different league to anything Eliot did and provides a stepping stone to Singe's sojourn with the Arran Islanders. In its own way this was an attempt to realize symbolism and comparable with the best on the continent and still something that lives within me.
But we felt very alone and in face of a hostile world were virtually inseparable, because we only had each other. We were faced on all sides with a terrifying wall of incomprehension for there was nothing in the immediate past and little in the last 100 years in this country that was leading up to what we were doing- not to mention the revolutionary critique that was to rapidly follow on as naturally, or so it appeared then, as day follows night!
I can still remember the thrill of delight when on first opening in 1968 Marcuse's Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical enquiry into Freu, he had included an intelligible, highly relevant, reference to Mallarme in the intro. Here at last was someone in the English speaking world able to give Mallarme his due, not as an obscure poet but as a profound critic of language and so much more beside - which Marcuse does not begin to bring out. One can search the whole of Raymond Williams for even an appreciative murmur regarding what Mallarme was really about. Typically Williams had treated the forms of art as a given and only the social relations into which art is inserted as changeable. So we had in the late 60s`impatiently thrown aside his Culture and Society 1780-1950 as largely irrelevant because it did not remotely grapple with the question of form and missing out therefore on an essential, totally overlooked aspect, of the great romantics he venerates
Around the same time Roland Barthes Writing Degree Zero appeared in an English translation which also contained a reference to Mallarme.The book lay on the floor beside my bed in Newcastle for several weeks. I avidly read the little book because there was nothing at all comparable, simply on account of its modernity, by English speaking critics. And yet it lacked directness, deftly evading, at every twist and turn, saying too much that was leading. Only now am I able to see it as an academic rationalization of aesthetic lettrism ' and a stupid one at that - by a fink of the first water who professed to represent the movement more fully because of his wide ranging historical knowledge, which most of the more sincere lettrists just did not possess. But even so it is still more on the ball than a book I liberated in the 1990s by an English author Gordon Millan, Prof of French Studies in the University of Strathclyde on Mallarme entitled Mallarme: a throw of the dice. It is so vacuous I think I should be compensated for the effort it took to liberate it. How anyone can, after all these years, write a book on Mallarme in which the emerging anti-poet Mallarme is absent, is beyond me and only demonstrates yet again how empty universities really are and how backward Britain still is. The blurb on the cover provides a measure of the book's unrepetant orthodoxy: "defender of Manet and other impressionists, supporter of Zola and Rodin, Mallarme is now regarded is now regarded as one of the key figures of modernism." I had a right to expect better but it did show how isolated we really were in Newcastle all those years ago. The wonder is we have lived to tell the tale
I remember coming back from a pub one night and turning the corner into Eslington Tce. I noticed a child holding up a spool of magnetic tape(cassettes had yet to be invented) that was steaming in the wind. I was enchanted by his absorption and thought only a revolution will save him from having to grow up. 'The child abdicates his ecstasy' wrote Mallarme and his difficult poem entitled, fittingly, Prose:for des Esseintes (the character in Huysmans proto anti-novel Against Nature - and the only novel Mallarme ever really liked) is, I'm convinced, about that, though he could not bring himself to say so directly in his 'poem', which is wreathed in impenetrable obscurity. However it certainly seems to be about the need to take action, otherwise beauty will remain forever hidden by gladioli that have become too large, screening us, because of their overpowering presence, from true beauty. (Mallarme used the example of a simple flower to describe what he wanted from language, which Marcuse quotes in his above mentioned introduction). However we were fascinated by Mallarme for another reason. And that was because of his emphasis upon silence, which connected with our interest in John Cage. That a poet should be obsessed with silence was every bit as contradictory as a musician's obsession with silence yet one of a kind as we shall later see.
How we came to move beyond music, the precise steps that led up to it, escapes me somewhat. But I do remember that sometime after 1966 I became lucidly deaf to music and entered the world of pure sound from which I was never able to fully go back from, today more than ever, just like a growing number of other people in search of a theory as to why they can't. There had been precedents in the avante garde of the 20th Century beginning with Luigi Russolo's noise machines, Tzara's exhortation to musicians to smash their instruments, Satie and so on. We had even made a point of interviewing John Cage when he came to London and were particularly impressed by his opposition to the Vietnam war, which was then only just beginning to be an issue in Europe. In the interview he gave, and which we reproduced in Icteric, he said America was after the tin and tungsten in S.E. Asia which certainly was not the real reason America became embroiled in Vietnam. This literal interpretation of Lenin's Imperialism showed how limited Cage was on the broader questions, aside from the fact he never really turned his back on music, remaining a performer, 'a musician of hollow nothingness', to the end of his life. In fact, no musician qua musician has ever been able to arrive at a profound critique of the social totality, despite tendencies in that direction.
Next door to us in Newcastle, lived Brian Ferry. We regarded him as a good-looking dipstick and not much else - in fact, our attitude bordered on contempt because of his assiduous cultivation of the 'in crowd'.
Sometime in 1967 I started to share my flat in Newcastle with Gordan, a mathematician who was studying for a PhD. He was a member of Solidarity, a spin off from Socialisme ou Barbarie in France. We first got to know Gordon because of his irreverent denunciations of Trotskyites (who had a large presence on Tyneside - in fact Mr Newcastle himself, Dan Smith, had been one in his youth) at meetings called to oppose the Vietnam War.
We were fully in accord with Gordon's anti-Leninist stance, and eagerly read the pamphlets that Solidarity put out, many of an archival nature like those on the anti Bolshevik uprising in Krondstat in 1921 by Ida Mett and Alexandra Kollontai but which were useful in helping demolish the hold of Leninism. However wanting as we did by then a total revolution, mathematics was not exempt from entering the field of human praxis and we would have heated and frequently drunken discussions with each other.
For far more than old style workers' democracy was involved here and looking back this was an encounter that never yielded the fruits it promised like so much else then. Through Gordon I first came to know of Kurt Godel (the Austro-American mathematician) and Gordon would spend his days feeding the punch cards he had prepared at home into the main frame computer at Newcastle University. Though our discussion appeared to border on complete craziness, looking back I now think they were far from crazy and possessed a sort of inspirational lunacy and bizarre logic. They were taking place within an anti Bolshevik, libertarian perspective and therefore anything was possible had things been allowed to develop. I knew enough by then to know that Hegel, though smart enough to give mathematics its due, treated mathematics as a quantitative sum that could not brook contradiction. Though rigorous within its own terms it was finally only a part of a far more profound, dialectical, logic. For reality was essentially contradictory and the resolution of contradiction was what drove history forward. Hence for Hegel and Marx, dialectical logic became the only valid element in the whole of existing logic. I was also opposed to mathematics from a psychoanalytical viewpoint because I was then immersed in reading revolutionary interpretations of Freud. In psychoanalytical theory numbers and anality are one of a kind, mathematics originally being the sublimate of far more basic outpourings. Anality was also identified with sadistic fantasies of control and however barmy my pronouncements on the subject then were, few would deny that mathematics nowadays is more in control than ever through the binary notation on which digital technology is built. Gordon certainly did look at these revolutionary interpretations of Freud but whether it caused him to waver in his regard for mathematics as above history, I cannot say. In fact he interpreted the question of de-sublimation as more and better sex and like many others at that time opted for Reich. And when Solidarity finally did come to deal with psychoanalysis it was through the eyes of Reich and at the neglect of the far wider, explosive and disturbing question of repressed Eros.
All these years later I now realize that Gordon was studying the mathematical basis of computing and that had I enquired further I would have found that his line of study would lead directly to the creation of modern programming and the internet. I wish now I had been less adamant and had asked him more about Godel for I now know that Godel had anticipated the coding mechanisms of modern day computers by stating in the 1930s that mathematical systems contain paradoxes: systems could be logically coherent but judged from an external frame of reference can code for downright madness. Though it isn't strictly analogous to what Godel had in mind, Adobe's 'Photoshop' strikes me as just that. And at bottom this sums up how most people feel about computers, as if they are being tricked in to becoming part of a parallel reality, which they eventually will succumb to.
Gordon was also a classical music fan and at times I had to shut my ears to the sounds coming from his room. So in my proselytising, life and death, zeal I thought it right to acquaint him with the history of avant-garde noise makers from Satie through to John Cage for Gordon maintained there was a profound relationship between mathematics and music. However to me I no longer knew what was meant by music and the question which to me then hung over its existence has become over time a full stop to a growing number of people. In fact I felt utterly compelled to undermine the assumptions behind this long-standing postulate. Since then I have often pondered on Max Planck and Einstein playing classical compositions together on piano and violin, Heisenburg playing Bach on the church organ high above the caves on the outskirts of Dresden in which he was engaged on developing the A-bomb or Roger Penrose incessantly listening to Mozart as he pondered the mathematics of a singularity at the heart of a black hole. Did their 'revolutionary' physics and maths preclude every other kind of music excepting that of classical music?
What Happened in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. (from a Critical, Hidden History of King Mob)
The mid-nineteen sixties and Icteric. Re-evaluation of a dissident European past. Russin nihilism. Recuperated artistic dada and revolutionary Dada. The forgotten revolutionary aspects of Surrealism. Conflict with the Tyneside poets. Closing down an Art School. Meetings with Black Mask in New York.
King Mob was initially a coming together in London of the then constituted English section of the SI ' beginning somewhat to fall apart - and an ex-group, together with some other like-minded individuals, around the often confusedly anti -art magazine, Icteric, from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. (Icteric, let it be said was spuriously anti-art but we weren't to know that with such clarity at the time). Let us first deal here with the Newcastle experience, as it has never been documented before.
Icteric, founded in the mid 1960s was, more or less, a name chosen at random from a dictionary and therefore in that somewhat time-honoured tradition of modern art emanating from Dada. It meant jaundice and a cure for jaundice at the same time ' which everybody felt at its very inauspicious inauguration, was appropriate. Simply put, everybody present was pissed-off with art in an institution or gallery, wearied and jaundiced about it if you like, and looking for something rather more turbulent and effective. Icteric's central aim and quite resonantly put at the time, was the coming together (fusion) of art and life and was mainly the brainchild of Ron Hunt who was the librarian at the Dept of Fine Art at Newcastle University. Ron Hunt had been appointed to the post at the instigation of pop artist Richard Hamilton who taught at the university and who, ironically, around the same time, acquainted Don N. Smith with the theoretical journals of the French Situationists. Hamilton though, for some time had abandoned all semblance of radical critique pretty much falling into a benign, left social democracy, coolly and uncritically encompassing consumerist icons. A cool take was to be the essential in overcoming all adversity! In fact, it was a variant of the same terrible English inability to grasp most essential breakthroughs in perception and form which so marked the 20th century and much of the latter half of the 19th Century. Despite penetrating social critiques like that of William Morris and George Orwell everything else was always to be done in such a seamlessly nice way and ever so watered-down.
Considering this was taking place in England (and in a relative back water at that) covering an avalanche of omissions, repressions and outright hostility, Ron Hunt bravely at the time, delved into the history of modern art and began to put the record straight beginning to place all the long lost and forgotten (on purpose) radical experiments into the beginning of some coherent trajectory whose outcome at the time we were all rather fuzzy about but which was slowly but surely becoming clearer each day. Icteric became, more or less, the fulcrum of this unfolding - enlightening primarily ourselves - before any concern for anybody else. Basically, it was motivated by getting hold of anything that wasn't stultifying 'English' in the conformist sense we found so unappealing. We went back and re-evaluated the Russian nihilists of the mid 19th century like Dobrolyubov and Pisarev who's Destruction of Aesthetics hit a chord. We liked the hardness of their comments: 'Shakespeare or a pair of boots' etc. Pisarev had said of himself he 'would rather be a Russian shoemaker than a Russian Raphael'. In a sense though it was their rebellion we liked even though it brought prison and calumny upon themselves. Pisarev's: 'Denial is a hard, tedious and deadly task' meant something as we eagerly read Lampert's Sons Against Fathers in preparation - unbeknown to ourselves at the time - of our own revolt of sons (and now daughters!) against fathers! Could we go along with it to the letter? Hardly, but it was another of the necessary ingredients which later was truly to go somewhere. Finally though and perhaps inevitably, we found the concepts of the Russian nihilists too severely utilitarian for our liking. True, it was utilitarianism bordering on the apocalyptic but that didn't really fit in with our growing rejection, or rather, that suppression and realisation of art we were searching for despite been none too clear about this at the time. It wasn't just an either/or question. It wasn't just a question of the hungry and dispossessed for whom culture was a luxury they could ill afford. In fact, concern for the poor didn't even come in to it. We were arriving at the simple, though very dialectical, recognition that culture within its own frame of reference no longer possessed the slightest quality and the subsequent emptiness beckoned towards the creation of something entirely different. The conclusion that this meant inescapably the destruction of the commodity economy, social revolution and the creation of an entirely new world we didn't immediately perceive but it did mean that a blow by blow repeat of Russian nihilism was irrelevant and quite beside the point. After all during the lifetime of the Russian nihilists, great art particularly in the form of the Russian novel was at its height. However, Tolstoy's final rejection of the role of novelist was more in tune with Pisarev's essentially moral rejection - and incidentally illustrating the powerful impact of the nihilists on Russian society - than in the prepatory self-destruct of the novel's form as undertaken by the much younger Marcel Proust around the same time. A destruction which was to be continued and carried on to the final chaos of Joyce's, Finnegan's Wake. Slowly but surely we were getting some sense of this though always in a pretty chaotic way.
We mustn't though be too simplistic here about Pisarev's views. He wanted to see the emergence of a 'non-cultural' scientific culture neither invented nor abstracted which could only be represented, 'in actual living phenomena'. As Lampert was to put it: 'It was to be a culture which reflected man's changing and unimpeded vision of the universe, free especially from all the burdens of the past, and with none of the hot air of exalted places. It's 'temples' would be 'the workshops of human thought' It would eschew the artist as a sacred monomaniac, misunderstood and misinterpreted and ensure his status as simply a human being, endowed with a special gift of articulation and free from somnolence and escapism. His business would be roughly, to articulate on behalf of the inarticulate, to express for those who are unable to express themselves what is conducive to their growth as human persons and 'thinking proletarians'. He would be a spokesman for others and the despair of aesthetes yearning for elegant elaboration'. Whilst the language of some of the above is too loose and imprecise for our times, a little later, around 1966, we couldn't help but make something of a connection between this and Dziga Vertov when first viewing his 1920's film Man with a Movie Camera and reading about the concepts behind Kino-Eye and the factograph. But more about that later'
The first Icteric magazine contained a translation by Anne Ryder of some of Jacques Vache's Lettres de Guerre and the first such translations in English to have appeared (the rest of the letters were to appear in further editions of Icteric). In a way Vache's letters set the tone for what was to follow. It meant, down with gallery art and, from now on, let's look at those historical figures whom attempted to negate art in the far-off days of Dada, Surrealism and Russian Constructivism. The painters and poets of these movements were quickly pushed aside and downgraded for their orthodox, though, in their time, radical representations. We were only interested in these people if their activities, pointed towards the beginnings of the real transcendence of art. Finally we preferred the real negation. For us, the future lay in Arthur Craven, the boxer - the supposed nephew of Oscar Wilde - and the vitriolic producer of Maintenant, Vache (again) and Rimbaud at the moment he quit poetry. (Little did we know at the time that Breton criticised him for this seeing his subsequent activities, like gunrunning were so dubious). It was their negation of art that meant everything to us. We really responded with an ever growing deep sympathy for the best of Cravan's comments like; 'You must absolutely get through your head that art is for the bourgeois, and by bourgeois I mean: a monsieur without imagination'' and' 'Soon you won't see anyone but artists in the street and the only thing you'll find no end of trouble in finding is a man' (Remembering this great comment by 1972 a comment was placed in a diary: 'It's taken this long for 'soon' to become reality'. Thirty years after 1972 it was to have an even more astounding truth). We also really liked some of the early Surrealist experiments like the meeting at the relatively unknown church of St Julien de la Pauvre on the left bank of the Seine and the early kind of practical psychic-automatism drifts of the Surrealist walks proceeding from a point based on where a pin had been stuck into a map at random. We weren't so foolish, naive or headstrong as to not consider that some of these random drifts nearly pushed some of these protagonists into suicide. Then there were those supposedly brutal Surrealist slogans like; 'leave your children in the woods set off on the roads' etc which we really got off on. We also admired some of the imaginative environmental projects of the Russian Constructivists around 1920, particularly Klebnikov's soup lakes and the proposed slow flying white on white squares schemes proposed by Malevich etc. Indeed, Icteric made a replica of Malevich's coffin that was exhibited in some exhibition some years later which Jappe was to praise for its 'excellent iconography' in the bibliography of his book on Debord in 1993 (?). We were interested in the concept of the factograph and bearing El Lissitsky in mind, it seemed like the starting point of an anti-literary presentation. Cinema wasn't spared either as we dismissed the entertainment industry preferring Dziga Vertov's films of the early 20s and the first collaborations between Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, particularly Le Chien Andalou and L'Age D'Or in the 1930s.We readily accepted that cinema as provocation had come to an end at this point when rioting greeted the latter's first screenings. Had anything like this happened since? We wanted to do likewise simply unaware of more recent and precise statements of the Lettrist anti-film particularly Howlings in Favour of De Sade and which had provoked public outrage but we were only to learn about these events some three years later.
However, all this growing lucidity was jumbled up within Icteric together with a hotchpotch of modern art repeats, what Duchamp was to characterise around the same time as the 'double- barrel effect', a point we noted at the time though we reacted with dismay when we heard Duchamp was making multiple editions of his old ready-mades for sale, no doubt aping Andy Warhol's activities just down the street from him in Manhattan. We felt it was a sellout, which of course, it was. Though for all of us painting and sculpture, novels and poetry were out and finished nonetheless some environmental constructions were deemed OK, those that were somewhat akin to artifacts that would have been more or less at home in those international Surrealist exhibitions of the 1930s and 1940s. Not necessarily the most spectacularly weird but things like the full coal sack hung from the ceiling of one of them. We particularly liked the fact that the sack accidentally bust open and all its mucky contents were scattered over the floor. Maybe our special liking for the latter had something to do with living in Newcastle and the presence of the northeast miners - who's to say? It was only a year or two later that we were also to realise the futility of the latter, the more we developed a critique of the commodity. Icteric produced anti-sociological questionnaires some of which were Surrealist repeats. 'Why not commit suicide'was one of them and people were invited to fill them in. The responses were arid and, perhaps not surprisingly even worse than what Breton had hoped for decades earlier. There was no budding Artaud around replying to the original questionnaire like: 'I am unhappy like a man who has lost the best part of himself'..who has committed suicide already'. But did you want a budding Artaud when you knew of individuals ' even in this relatively optimistic period ' who'd had enough and slashed their wrists in the bath anyway? You shuddered and with no answers giving any eureka we concentrated on producing stickers again tending to be repetitious of the past such as 'Surrealism Is The Communism of Genius' but seeing this was Newcastle in the mid 60s and not Paris in the 30s it really wasn't going to make much headway.
Happenings, or rather at least some of them, were embraced although that didn't stop us taking the piss out of a Merce Cunningham performance of his supposed 'free expression' dancers in London (much to the annoyance of some of the audience particularly when hearing Yorkshire accents ' confirming perhaps the loutishness - of the provocateurs?) and putting on a nonsensical piano rendition performed by Trevor Winkfield mocking John Cage and taking delight in the fact that some idiots took it seriously. In fact we were mocking ourselves too as we had taken Cage and Cornelius Cardew seriously just a year previously and had even interviewed Cage in Icteric! Silence and the transcendence of music did really impact upon us though but we were left wondering about the process of its overcoming ' and still are for that matter. Little did we realise how all half-negation can be capitalised and how avante garde sounds a la John Cage were to be turned into the music of Enrico Morioni as backdrop to the Spaghetti Westerns, that last gasp necessary ingredient that helped give the zing to the last consequent Westerns. We read with interest about the auto-destructive activities of Metzger and Latham's book burnings disliking the fact that the latter were turned into objet d'arte to be hung on walls. We also pointed out - to everybody's disbelief-that these acts of auto-destruction influenced The Who ( the performance ritual of guitar smashing) smashing up your instruments as a substitute for a real smashing up. Being clued in, we also quoted Tzara's dictum from a half century ago 'musicians smash your instruments, let blind men take the stage'. As if to give a point to this we rather pointlessly repeated Tzara's ROAR which just meant inviting everybody you could to turn up in a Newcastle city car park and ROAR your head off. Maybe a couple of 100 or so did just that. Jean Jacques Lebel, the French happener, around the same time wrote a long article for Icteric which though tending to extol his happening nonsense at the time was somewhat lucid about Artaud and very anti police. Unbeknown to us, about the same time Don Smith and Rene Vienet, after a night drinking, went round to his apartment and thoroughly slagged him off for his confusions about art and general lack of coherent critique. Jean Jacques just stood there ' more or less apologetically. Although years later Don felt rather bad about this, it obviously had a good effect on Jean Jacques, as he rapidly then developed a much more lucid and subversive take on society and of course was one of the French contingent who were to tear down the fences at the Isle of Wight pop festival in 1971. A bald attack can certainly be good at times in pulling people across who are hovering on the brink in any case. A final comment upon Icteric's contents reveals a complete though, for the time, well-intentioned muddle. A quasi-scientific document on butterfly oddities and recollections of rapturous displays of these delightful insects was also published and in terms of the detritus of modernism, was one of the better things in the magazines. The same might be said of a text on the amazing activities of slugs, which fell between a kind of factograph and natural science. The fact is though if Icteric had appeared 20 years later it would have been instantly capitalised by the right wing Saatchi Brothers end of culture emporium. As it was we were heading in completely the opposite direction.
We were also coming from jazz, the other corner stone of our end of culture orientation particularly a passion for be-bop and its aftermath. However, even on this front were becoming perplexed. Something was happening to jazz - it was beginning to fall apart and as much as we really desired to go along with John Coltrane's latest developments we were flummoxed albeit, trying to pretend we weren't. We were in fact beginning to relate the trajectory of jazz to the crises besetting the totality of modern art.
As if to underline this in an Ornette Coleman/Don Cherry concert in Newcastle in 1966 we climbed on the stage and put up in big letters, ICTERIC behind the performers. Interestingly, nobody objected and the jazzmen showed no interest whatsoever. Truth to tell, by then, we felt our statement (our Ad perhaps) was better than the free form jazz itself simply because we knew we'd become engaged on a free form quest ourselves perhaps far more searching than the free form jazz itself which we also dimly recognized was kind of heading in the same direction though not with the same clarity. (Later, we equated the ghetto uprisings in the United States as its real creative outcome having surpassed the musical form).
Had it only been three years previously that a bunch of us in Newcastle had sat in awe in front of John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, MaCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, opened mouth at its transcendental brilliance knowing full well we were listening to something fantastic though even then - with a kind of premonition and a sad feeling in the gut - knowing somehow it wasn't going to be repeated because real history was beginning to say something else far more pertinent and which the last days of jazz was straining to discover to. (How one can have sense of such things in the offing perhaps we'll never know). There was though a very enjoyable conclusion to this earlier moment. We and our friends ' as per usual ' sat through Coltrane's rendition of God Save the Queen which was then an obligatory formality all entertainment paid lip service to. One of us, David Young, loudly proclaimed to the stage and audience alike: 'that it was the best God Save the Queen he'd ever sat through.
The times were a'changing fast and the activities around Icteric were more and more moving towards total subversion. In no way could the group hold together and tensions within became palpable the more that risks were taken. In any case the group even when playing with the art/anti-art dichotomy had provoked outright hostility from the cultural establishment in Newcastle who were so conservatively brain-dead they couldn't even see where their own cultural future lay. Instead of intelligently patronizing or co-opting or even simply realising there was nothing overtly anti the system here (it was too confused for that) they came down upon it forcibly and stupidly - none so much when an article was published in a rag called The Northerner in 1966. It's perhaps worth quoting a few extracts from it''
"It was becoming increasingly obvious to a few people that there was no longer any valid reason to make sculpture or paintings. Looking at the current art magazines revealed a uniform dullness: nothing seemed to shine anywhere. The real was so much more interesting than the simulated and offered so many more possibilities' which was how it began. It was meant to be intentionally provocative, encompassing a kind of put-on blatant philistinism The opening sentence was followed by an attack on all art from Rembrandt, through Degas to Rodin in the spirit of Dada - a movement which was praised along with the most subversive anti-art aspects of Surrealism and Russian Constructivism using ample quotes which ironically belied the 'philistinism': Painting is a pharmaceutical product for idiots'(Francis Picabia) 'art is nonsense' (Jacques Vache) and 'the high images have fallen'(Andre Breton)etc.
"What we did as a group (Icteric) was merely to recognise this and to notice that in the last 25 years there has been a shabby attempt at restoration. After the rejection of aesthetics by Constructivism and Surrealism, Cubism (which Picabia called a 'cathedral of shit') was reaffirmed with abstract expressionism.'
'What artists do now is merely capitalise on a stage in development and not carry it off one quarter as well. For instance, Neo-Dada which is supposed to relate to Dada when it's patently obvious that, say, a painter like Roy Lichtenstein relates more to Matisse than say, Duchamp. There is the same saleable gallery product, the same lovely 'well applied paint', and the same viewing distance from the 'canvas' ' even using a canvas! Incredibly conservative. Is Lichtenstein a salon painter ' the 1960s Bougereau ? (a French academician in the late 19th century). Is he even as good' ,
'Are not Rheinhardt's and Stella's paintings about the death of painting? Painting about Malevich's 'deserts of vast eternity'? As Nietzche said: 'The desert grows woe to him that bears the desert unto himself'. Malevich rejected the love of the desert and ended by making Suprematist designs for his coffin. Will Stella do likewise? It is distressing to see pictures that were done in an iconoclastic spirit now interpreted as how to make pictures.'
''If all there is in front of us is a future of style, style, style, we must still attempt to recreate this (fundamental fury) that motivated Surrealism, Dada and Constructivism ' and that re-creation must not be a style neither. Perhaps we can start by burying Surrealism, Dada and Constructivism, by recognising that they were in turn second class revolutionary movements'.
In a way this was all very pointed stuff for the ignorant times of the mid-60s and in a very ignorant country in comparison to France and though working in the dark without knowledge of the International Lettrists or Situationists, nonetheless it was on the right path towards liberation preparing the ground, readying us to be able to hear and inwardly digest correctly the more lucid grasp which had been taking place elsewhere, even though also not at all well known in its place of birth. In saying this though, the short text on Icteric was finally confused and inconsistent and these passages quoted above were the best parts.
Nevertheless, as previously mentioned, this brief text created a furore among Newcastle's cultural establishment. Some even called for legal sanctions particularly as it had come on the heels of a declamation proclaiming support for the floods in the Italian city of Florence in 1966, when the river Arno burst its banks and had devastated (or for us had 'transformed') the art treasures of that Renaissance city. No one came to our support and their was a loud silence from those - to be oh so famous - Tyneside Poets emanating from the somewhat avante gardism of Basil Bunting's writings - around Tom Picard and the Morden Tower collective, who'd proudly brought Allen Ginsberg to the cold Newcastle nights. They really didn't like that assault on poetry. How dare we when surrounded by philistinism and straights in any case! In return we thought they were bollocks without a critique! Looking back perhaps one could say that such things were a kind of crude even vulgar though necessary provocation of traditional artistic values, Nowadays though, when we survive in a situation where the nihilism of post modernism in its re-development/ commodification mania encompassing memories, willfully trashes these self same objets d'art and where 'higher values' are seamlessly flattened out in the pure value of money from anything and everything, such stances just don't have the same effect. Everything is equivalent and Damien Hirst is the equal of Michaelangelo etc.
We were cutting through crap as well as floundering. We were real at the same time as the media - in a general sense - was taking us. Maybe here it's best to quote from a diary jotting of 1972 as it also recounts something of which we were feeling at the time. 'The overt recuperation of the Happening though was already well underway as it headed towards the mainstream as utilised in - HELP - the first film by the Beatles. They also laughed at Neo-dada art objects - wire sculptures etc. New media techniques of montage and quick splicing were developed as a form of hip youth cum-class-aggression against an ossified English ruling elite ' but all set firmly within a capitalist order.' At the same time, around 1966, re-reading Harold Rosenberg's, The Tradition Of The New - a book mainly about American Abstract Expressionism - suddenly the best of his comments came into focus as we noted an undertow which Rosenberg didn't dare clearly express. The Tradition of The New was better than the art commodities described - in particular beginning to notice that neo-Dadaist products were 'the relics of subversion' and 'a ritualised vanguardism'. This was just what we wanted to hear and by then we had the wit to distance ourselves by then from his ultimately laudatory appraisal of Abstract Expressionism. A little later, in the same diary ' looking at it again after all these years (!) - there follows something else and which still doesn't make complete sense ' though getting somewhere: ' The gestural, post abstract expressionist activity, wasn't enough without a better comprehension of the breakdown of everyday life. Taken as a one-dimensional, post artistic, it also couldn't immediately comprehend the sheer totality of present day nihilism which does mean a greater comprehension of work, sex, personal relationships and the family, as well as the mirage of all important consumer identifications'.
Around this time, Ron Hunt arranged an exhibition in Newcastle called Descent into the Street which despite the contradiction between the title and the situation and which we were aware of, clarified things further for us as it was a compilation of past acts in the first 40 or so years of the 20th century where art was pushed historically behind us preparing the way for a greater general, communal creativity. It contained pointers towards the negation and supercession of art although we were still fuzzy about where the path of supercession lay. In a sense the exhibition was the explanation of that history, if a little confused at times like bringing in examples of Maoist calisthenics etc. A little later Ron heard about the activities (from some marginal art magazine) about the activities of Black Mask in New York who'd made an intervention at some cultural meeting in a plush art gallery shouting 'burn the museums baby', 'art is dead', 'Museum closed' etc. Exhilarated he told us and none too soon as we were in trouble! One of us (Johnny Myers) had just padlocked and chained up the entrance to the university art school preventing any student or teacher from entering and on which was placed a notice in big black letters: 'Art School Closed Forever'. Moreover, just before that, he'd sprinkled gunpowder in a long trail down the interior steps and through the corridors of the sculpture school and was going to light it before getting stopped by horrified students who grassed him up. Soon letters were sent out to New York and we got replies immediately: 'brothers/sisters come and join us'! So two of us (Dave Wise and Anne Ryder) went from Newcastle To New York and in the summer of 1967 engaged in some of the activities of Black Mask (one which resulted in being held up by the police at an H. Rap Brown meeting) and/or simply enjoying their company and writing one or two things, particularly a completely over the top blood thirsty manifesto on which was placed the names of some of those who'd gathered around the now defunct Icteric. Having by then heard of the Situationists in New York Ben Morea gave us the personal addresses and telephone numbers of those individuals who resided in London whom we duly contacted on our return to England.
The following paragraphs and much later In the Hidden History of King Mob also relate to Newcastle.
There was much overlap between on-going activity in London and what was happening in Newcastle. At this point it's worth going into a few details about subsequent events in Newcastle simply because nobody has done so as some of what took place was quite remarkable. The Icteric period had waned and a more direct response was called for. After 'closing the Art School forever' Johnny Myers had erupted in a meeting of leftists against the Vietnam war shouting out, 'we've got to make a Ho Chi Minh Trail out of Northumberland St' (the main drag in Newcastle). It wasn't that the guy was a leftist, he merely wanted to experience a crazy and exhiliarating mayhem of unexpected eruption down the city's main thoroughfare. True, in his shouting it would have been better if Johnny had been more ironic about references to Ho Chi Minh perhaps bringing in something of Bunuel's L'Age D'or, as that was his intended effect. It never materialised as a mass event but a little later, on a hot sunny midday, Johnny took all his clothes off and walked down Northumberland St. He was arrested, banged up in Durham jail and later sectioned.
In response to this new mood, by 1967 many of us were quite willing to throw away many treasured possessions like art books, even ones you regularly looked at like Goya's etchings, jazz records ' even a revered collection of Charlie Parker among which was Bird Symbols, basic craftsman's tools etc. It was a case of giving them to anybody who might want them. It was an attitude of 'let everything slip from your grasp' which possibly might smell of private property. It was however, taking place before a general historical time had been seized when it would be possible for everybody to let go of commodities precisely because commodity relations, the wages system and money would be in the process of self-liquidation. Coming up with such common sense objections at the time wouldn't have met with much of a response as truly a force was rising within us and within so many other dispersed and disparate individuals that it was impossible to resist. We knew we were calling the shots and things must crumble before us'
First though it's worth making a few points here about that process which ultimately leads towards the abolition of money. In the late 19th century and some of the early years of the 20th century it was reasonably common among a minority of workers, perhaps as a naive afterthought, to nod in the direction of the abolition of wage labour. Eventually, it was inscribed on some of the logos of the various union outfits (e.g. the National Union of Railwaymen) and in the statutes of say, the Irish TGWU. That didn't mean the object was pursued - quite the contrary - but it had to be mentioned occasionally as a kind of litany. If anything most of the impetus went into a form of nationalisation whereby many things would then become free particularly bus and train travel and the health services. Many millions of workers in Britain around the time of the second inter-Imperialist world war subscribed to these illusions about nationalisation so in that sense the notion of a world free from monetary exchange remained a powerful living force, if very misguided, on how it could be achieved. After 20 years of nationalisation by the mid-60s most people knew this hadn't worked out they way the scriptures had suggested cynically shrugging off the hopes they might have had in following such a path. Such a lacunae though, almost like nature, abhorred a vacumn. As the shades of darkness fell the owl of Minerva took another course as it flew towards a money-less future. The momentum transposed itself as it became more personal though nonetheless still collective at the same time often presenting itself as just who was into money and who wasn't. of course the latter were rated! If you'd come from the well-off it was a matter of spending money generously on others and not saving it, or else using it to fund projects. Essentially just get rid of! On a more general level there was the street hippy lingo directed against 'bread heads' within their own ranks. It was powerful and scathing. Though the abolition of money and wage labour wasn't proclaimed as such as a revolutionary banner it was palpably there in the atmosphere. Some individuals even refused to touch money for a number of years in. Disdaining to sign on the dole, remarkably, they often succeeded. Many people had respect for them. and though always in a tiny minority they nonetheless were admired for their ideological persistence, even though the emphasis here has to be placed on ideological and in that sense not too dissimilar to the old slogans. All of this had virtually disappeared by the mid 1970s merely lingering on here and there. A true monetary hell then set in when the only need and even eternal verity in society became money itself. True we all know about this but we didn't sufficiently grasp just how out of kilter this 'new' mood was with the changing but incessant undertow of the previous 130 years or so. Truly, a concerted reaction was trying harder than ever to abolish the becoming of history. Today, we have the abolition of money alright but in the sense of vast teeming millions on the outskirts of Mexico Cities everywhere plunged into the capitalist nightmare of commodity relations without a peso ever passing through their hands. Certainly, we do need more perceptive, in depth, theorising about the abolition of money - of just how do we get from here to there?
Other things weren't so dramatic but there was a drift here too. The Alfred Street theatre project was set up by Ron Hunt and some friends (shades of Alfred Jarry?) together with the paraphanalia of exaggerated costumes that had characterised this form from Futurism through Dada to the days of agit prop after the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Alfred Street theatre figured fairly prominently in a quite ferocious on-going rent strike in Elswick, a run down suburb flanking river bank heavy industry in the west end of Newcastle which later, in 1992 became the focus of bitter rioting between youths and police. The Alfred Street theatre like all other street theatre, didn't leave the terrain of art behind nor did it encapsulate a much more lucid trajectory - the shock tactic - inherited from the best traditions of modern art. Even though taking place in the streets with non professional actors, it relied upon the passive spectator/ performer dichotomy - a dichotomy that had to be vanquished. Later in the 1970s, a film company, Z Films, based in Newcastle and following on from this somewhat Meyerhold axis produced some docu-fiction social realist films with a mixture of actors and non-actors on aspects of Tyneside life (Launch etc) which were completely without any consequence. Ron Hunt though in the late 60s was strung out between street theatre and active intervention. He somehow acquired a copy of a super 8 home movie of the Motherfuckers 'garbage for garbage' protest when, during a New York street cleaners' strike, they collected together rubbish from the streets of the Lower East Side and dumped it on the high culture Rockefeller Plaza. Ron really liked this intervention. It was certainly one of the best actions of the Motherfuckers and considerably more to the point than their super-militant histrionics which always invited jail and a far too arbitrary media attention which they hoped would produce a copy-cat effect or would add recruits to their small but fancied, Durrutti-like, guerrilla image.
Some of the same people though who were engaged with Alfred Street theatre also simultaneously took part in some excellent interventions. A Surrealist weekend conference with various speakers held in Durham during the heady year of 1968 was wrecked. One of us pissed all over the stage at the same time wildly proclaiming to a 220 plus audience the failures of Surrealism. Obviously the harangue relied heavily on Situationist critique. In response, Patrick Hughes, the Surrealist painter exploded in outrage later claiming we'd destroyed the Surrealist movement in Britain. If only! A few years later and Patrick Hughes continued on his way only this time via a TV series that was painful for its dull conformity and no different from the typical English Surrealist product found regularly in the cultural market place from the 1930s onwards. Ron Hunt objected to this disruption saying you had to give people the chance of finding out about Surrealism, particularly as now, in the shape of the magazine, Transformation a greater emphasis was been placed on its revolutionary kernel. OK but the mag only went as far as praising Cohn-Bendit ('Cohn-Bendit we need you here') neglecting any deeper critique and was retarded in comparison to Maurice Brinton's fairly commendable effort for Solidarity. In any case, as it transpired even this emphasis on the revolutionary kernel of Surrealism in England would be rapidly abandoned.
Surrealism in these islands had always been a very tepid affair eschewing the real nitty gritty of the movement ' the disruptions, (the Saint Pol Roux banquet et al) the manifestoes, the wild experiment - despite the fact that Surrealism even in France always tended to re-instate art after engaging in provocative acts. Under the conservative guidance of Roland Penrose, Surrealism in England was always a precious arty movement producing nothing significant. It never remotely broke the hold of a dominating artistic culture powered essentially by an Eng Lit ideology firmly caste in a long gone and once glorious past which could never be repeated. It never questioned the boundaries of art and it's politics never made any imaginative leap basically inclining towards leftist social democratic and Communist party sympathies. They stood on the same platform as Clement Atlee, the future post second world war, Labour Party PM extolling Picasso's Guernica and Ceri Richard's Surrealist poster campaign supporting the Spainish revolution that never went beyond a No Pasaran, Popular Front stance. Surrealism in England was, unfortunately, merely a means of displaying a wearisome juxtaposition of images - coming from some kind of delving into the subconscious - in order to change a little the subject matter of traditional and outmoded categories like painting, sculpture, novels and poetry. It tended to reinforce a tradition of benign whimsy which was all too common basically unable to shock anything apart from some right wing daily newspapers even then, avidly looking for copy. Surrealism made no impact on Britain precisely because it was already its greatest success story. We mean by this, that cornball and popular concept which sees Surrealism as really nothing more than placing disparate objects side by side to create some kind of frisson, a technique which was about to be taken up with increasing alacrity by advertising. Nowadays, these same techniques are accelerating ever faster with computer generated digitalised images. Although English Surrealists met and often struck up on-going friendships with some of the best French Surrealists, you are constantly amazed at how little ' if any ' of the real meat of Surrealist drift rubbed off on them. Some, like Nancy Cunard, even had close personal and sexual relationships What on earth did they talk about ' merely dreams and art? Surely though it proves the profound grip reaction in England had over even its more tempestuous personalities? Even that slightly more interesting part of English Surrealism - say the collaboration between the psychoanalyst Grace Pailthorpe and the painter, Rueben Mednikoff - lent towards the reformist impulse at the Portman Clinic of civilising the criminal or the insane through changed therapy. It certainly turned out to be instrumental in the now ubiquitous art therapy treatment cum tranquilizers which now fills you with so many predictable groans. Vaneigem's comment in his book on Surrealism is pertinent: 'the contempt which the Surrealists heaped on torturers in white coats did not inoculate them against a temptation to co-opt attitudes usually treated clinically for purely artistic purposes'. In fact John Lyle launched the 1960s English Surrealist magazine Transformation with an exhibition of the 'art' of the mad in an Exeter art gallery. For those later who were to fall foul of the psychiatric police and who'd developed a critique of art to be forced to paint and draw in the loony bin was quite an insult!
Like English Surrealism, English whimsy - of which it was a part - could also never embrace revolutionary violence against culture, ossified rituals, or some aspects of politics like Surrealism had done in France. In England it tended to fit in too neatly with its well-known eccentric image, e.g. the 'wild nature crank' picked out for vicious ridicule in Blast, the Vorticist paper around 1913. Although English absurdity and whimsy had brought forth very penetrating and remarkable things particularly in the late 19th century in the humour and profound fantasy of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll it rapidly lost its real cutting edge.. Since then the same vein has kept resurfacing in more and more popular forms from the Goons radio shows to the Monty Python prime time TV shows. Indeed, the leftover English Surrealists in the 1950s commented - perhaps with a certain jealousy upon the mass appeal of the Goons - obviously impressed and wanting similar fame themselves. On a broader level, English Surrealism was more an expression of a current which produced those Heath Robinson whimsical sketches of fantastic machines than any pushing through of artistic negation like happened with the origins of Surrealism in France. At a later date, towards the end of the 1960s, Monty Python was able to divert and spectacularise the serious and subversive intent behind a revitalised and more all-rounded concept of play as a weapon against capitalism and the State into up-dated comic relief at peak viewing times. It was clever recuperation. For all its pitching at English foibles - the piss takes on the upper class accent, the army (often the breeding ground for mad cap pranks anyway -and where The Goons were spawned) etc, English absurdity always ends up supporting the status quo and the revolutionary transformation of everyday life is the last thing within its ken. In a sense though some of the British trad jazz scene had prepared the opening via the blues singer George Melly plus the mass market, surrealist packaging of Dick Lester's films. No wonder Melly, Spike Milligan and John Lennon have been called; 'the unofficial trinity of British surrealism'.
More than this though -and the real point - which should have been emphasised in the Durham intervention against Surrealism was that the annals of English Surrealism in the 1930s reads like a litany of almost everybody who was to become part of the main stay of the cultural establishment by the late 1960s, from Henry Moore, to (Sir) Herbert Read, to William Coldstream etc. Those who like Read, became academic cultural critics added nothing of value even though in the 1930s Read's motto had been: 'To hell with culture'. It's the usual familiar tale of modern times. Latter day Surrealist influenced individuals in France who became academics like Georges Bataille and Henri Lefebrvre really did contribute something in that ever widening momentum of a theory of negative becoming more total in scope. Where would the notion of potlatch be without Bataille; a notion emphasising riotous, festive destruction and where would the anti-specialism of everyday life ' the terrain of total revolution - be without Lefebvre? Instead, we had Herbert Read's The Meaning of Art. A joke indeed if the implications weren't to be so dismal. It meant in this climate always coming up against a solid brick wall of incomprehension. Nothing much has changed since in that respect'''If only some of this had been communicated in a more enduring form at Durham. Interestingly, a guy called Anthony Earnshaw tried to be conciliatory during the bust-up. Indeed we still feel some affection towards him because he was a misfit not working at the time in some cultural capacity but variously employed as crane driver, engineering fitter and lathe turner. He'd evolved his own kind of Surrealist walks in West Yorkshire boarding trains, descending at will and roaming thus for hours. Alas, only to abandon his negativity as slowly but surely he became an Art School lecturer allowing him finally to devote himself full time to art.
Other interventions took place. At the time there was this spate of right wing lecturers who seemed to enjoy giving talks at various university venues throughout the country knowing they were going to get disrupted by left wing Dave Sparts (a Private Eye, lock'jawed, spoof Trotskyist invention) who were going to call them racist, anti working class etc, which of course they were but that was hardly the real point.In Newcastle, the Sparts were shoved out of the heckling limelight against a racist, right wing Tory MP, Patrick.Wall by a vociferous cabal hollering 'beans, beans, beans' at the top of their voices.(see previous comment on page 15). In short, it was a playful detourning of an advertising jingle. Nonsense for nonsense if you like and a rather more appropriate way of dealing with right wing ideologues. At least it was enjoyable and a rather more infectious way of sparking off the beginnings of some real communication.
Perhaps the most significant intervention though was that against The Mothers of Invention at the City Hall, Newcastle when a bunch of protagonists got up from the audience and shouted 'Up against the wall Mothers' to which Frank Zappa replied: 'Surely, you mean Up Against the Wall Motherfucker'. The response was quickly shouted back: 'No, no, no, we mean up against the wall, Mothers'. Both big audience and performing band were perplexed and neither knew what was going. Just exactly what was being said in this intervention? There was also the in-joke side too despite the seriousness of intent. Just who in Newcastle City Hall in this relatively out of the way place, in this, if you like, brusquely un-hip town in the boon docks would have heard of the Motherfuckers apart from Frank Zappa, his band and the protagonists? Most likely nobody. Those who stood up and shouted from the audience knew Zappa was one of the hippest dudes of the pop spectacle and Up against the wall, Mothers' would probably fall on the audiences deaf, unknowing ears. They were right. Zappa did, after all, have some notion of a crazy negation if probably not much more. Remember, through his commercial power and influence, Zappa was able to fix it so that Wild Man Fisher, the very amusing paranoid schizophrenic anti-music musician and who couldn't play a note on that guitar permanently glued to his hand, was given a recording session. Some of this complexity could have been suggested in a leaflet. Often there's nothing like some simple honesty. And the leaflet could have been scattered throughout the audience in the old time-honoured way. Explanations like this are needed also because people otherwise are left in the dark most likely considering it to be the splutterings of malcontents having some personal grief against this particular pop group. This just wasn't the case but in the near future it was just such damaged responses which were to become more common spilling over into some kind of psychotic identification like Mark Chapman's killing of John Lennon in New York City in 1980. In fact as early as 1972, a 'yob' - according to the media - called Billy Howells really hurt Zappa when he was performing at the Finsbury Park Empire in London. The alternatve/libertarian leftist press still very active at that time, never commented upon the event, even though Howell's got six months in jail. The attack wasn't probably too enlightened but some kind of explanation might have been revealing. You never know it might have contrasted nicely with a coherent leaflet from the Newcastle intervention and given it an extra dimension in terms of a lucid contrast. Though most people don't understand such leaflets, one or two do and seeding starts from there and maybe in this dry desert one day, after rain, flowers will bloom. Moreover, such subversive challenges have to be clearly delineated - simply so they don't get confused with the prevalent, often eroto-maniacal, obsessive assaults on stars - in that combination of adoration-cum-hate. For sure, the latter maybe demonstrates some damaged kind of praxis but it lacks the necessary real enlightenment.
Obviously what was basically been contested here, like in the other nonsense interventions, was the passive audience/performer relationship particularly as the pop concerts in the 60s were moving on from club venue and City Halls to the giant pop festival and were in this respect, spectacles of gigantic reification we often compared with Chinese Maoist calisthenics. Some of us at the time even felt them to be some what akin to fundamentalist religious revivalist meetings in their role of pacification of rebel activity. Whilst undoubtedly true, it also did mean that we'd unwittingly blocked our ears to the last moments of great popular music from the Doobie Brothers to the sheer magnificence of Jimi Hendrix who as a musician trying to escape the boundaries of music, was quite the equal of Charlie Parker, Bud Powell or Django Rheinhardt.
A little later though and we had no real simpatico with the trouble which began to erupt at the huge rock festivals. Sure we thought it was OK but recognised that it failed to address the real problem of spectacular separation. Though welcoming the tearing down of security fences at the Isle of Wight rock festival, we had serious reservations knowing that even if they made the concert a completely free event, the formal focus, the essential reification, had to be the real core of contestation which the Zappa intervention hit squarely on the head. The pop musicians were meant to disintegrate, to commit suicide, to end the music. In essence we preferred that photo from an American Life mag from the riots in Detroit in 1967 where a black guy with his back to the camera is seen walking out of a looted store carrying a double bass. Scribbled underneath, Debord had commented; ' negro carrying a musical instrument after assassinating Mozart'.
To be sure the transcendence of art was particularly central to the developing revolutionary critique in Newcastle and was always given a sharp focus and there was a lot of hard headed and by then excellent historical knowledge about its unfolding trajectory particularly throughout the 20th century as the censored pieces of the jig saw were put together. The university art school turned into anti art ferment in response to this call to arms coming from the outside. Finally, sometime later during early 1969 persons unknown firebombed part of the art school at night and most of the Art History dept was gutted. It took some time for firefighters to put out the blaze. Although Newcastle university art school never experienced the sit-ins like Guildford or Hornsey College of Art in London, it did partake of the most radical critiques-in-action. In short, why occupy a place making mealy-mouthed reformist demands about different course content or inter-disciplinary studies ' which always produces some variant of the same old crap - when you can burn the place down? Though nobody was ever arrested for this exemplary act, we were basically accused as being the instigators. To this of course we still proudly plead guilty! A greater decision was made for us because of this action. There was now little hope of crawling back into safety shot jobs on the fringes of the art scene (i.e. art academia) or 'independent scholar' if you like. But it went further than that. The Special Branch had names and blacklists heavily functioned. It wasn't just employment of a professional nature. One of us was even denied employment cleaning out blast furnaces at a steel mill in Rowley Regis in the west Midlands Black Country, the manager seconded for hiring new hands saying he'd received a report listing trouble making at the London School of Economics! It was no more than what many experienced at the time as both the blacklists and the official denial of their existence mushroomed. As the years went by, you could have groveled to the powers that be and asked for forgiveness - as many did ' but think of the self-inflicted humiliation! In any case you'd never be really forgiven so why give them the pleasure of capitulation? We have only to recount the case on a more spectacular level of the Hornsey College of Art agitator, Kim Howells, himself influenced by King Mob, who cravenly some years later crawled up the Labour Party hierarchy became a Welsh MP and an ardent adherent of Blairism and free market ideologies yet got nowhere as his past continued to haunt him through periodic tabloid exposure. In his present position as Minister of Culture, Howells plays on his provocative past though by now his critique has lost all semblance of coherence and comes across like some cantankerous fuddy duddy.
If we'd had any hesitancy as to where we were headed, there's nothing like the political police to finally focus negative theory clearly for you. As the radical German play write, George Buchner said in the 1840s; 'The Darmstadt police were my muses'! Any immediate hope of making any kind of living in the cultural/educational field had been sealed off in any immediate sense - a survival venue you had messed around with, now and again, on a desultory few hours a week basis. Rarely though are things ever fixed immutably like that. Finally though it was nothing to bleat about as you really didn't want their fuck-crazy, mind-abusing jobs compromising clear thought in any case. Sure you could have groveled but unless you were prepared to eat shit denying everything you'd experienced and the truths ringing in your ears, then yes, baby, you were on the outside. If you'd done what was demanded, asked for forgiveness, ameliorated your words, scrambled your brain, then the world of lies and secure monetary compensation lay at your feet. There's always a choice to be made. Perhaps there was too much pride, perhaps past insults had been too much but there was finally something irreducible inside which said: NO.
What happened in Newcastle though sent shock waves throughout the city but like everywhere else where a revolutionary theory was posited, recuperation was its closest admirer. Two architectural students showed quite an interest only to use a few ill-digested ideas to update the crises in architecture as they cynically shaped a new architectural style producing the ghastly formal plagiarisms of post modernism. To be sure we'd applauded plagiarism but not in the sense of aesthetic additions and the updating of the role of architect! Nick Grimshaw and Terry Farrell were their names. There's no need here to say more about these couple of twerps. Sufficient to point out that Farrell two decades later designed the monstrous new M15 secret service building in Vauxhall, London and Grimshaw designed the Eurostar terminal at Waterloo station. The mini plethora of cartoon hand outs in Newcastle with new bubble-speak lines and captions also became a marketing idea for a new cartoon comic in the shape of VIS with its now well known notorious characters and launching very lucrative careers for its illustrators and producers.
Again what is most interesting is something that's really unknown. Some aspects of the Situationist critique particularly its provocative intervention captured the imaginative of young workers, particularly apprentices in the Tyneside shipyards. In the early 1970s, wildcat strikes mushroomed on the Tyne and the situation became barely controllable both for the bosses and union officials alike. Caught up with the notion of a 'Strasbourg of the factories' then current at the time some rather more clued-in individuals decided to concentrate on the waterfront but whether this had any effect or not isn't clear as what their activities were remain obscure. (What this refers to is the famous anti-student scandal at Strasbourg in 1966 which had such a massive impact in May '68 in France. In essence it was hoped there could be an even more profound follow-up with some kind of radical intervention in a big factory which would act as a beacon for others to follow) Nonetheless and whatever leaflets written by Tyneside apprentices it seems, appeared in wildcat strikes. They were about clobbering foremen, ignoring local union officials, and extolled wrecking machinery suggesting turning your lathe bench into a comfortable bed complete with extra tips on how to permanently dodge work while still getting paid etc. Finally it resulted in Jimmy Murray, area boss of the Boilermakers or Transport union, exploding on local Tyne Tees television condemning 'irresponsible Slituationlist (sic) leaflets' and waving a selection of them at the cameras whilst reading out choice phrases. Shock horror! In a way though, the Tyneside engineers had a long tradition of libertarian subversion. Jack Common had come from their ranks and his account of The Right to Get Drunk Strike in about 1912 was in a similar vein. Common was a member of the Independent Labour Party - one of the best of the old organisations ' and, which had quite a presence in County Durham around that time and among its members were many free-thinking libertarian workers who we remember with great affection from our childhood there. Initially Common had come from an engineering family background on the Tyne and was employed as a clerk. He was made redundant and experienced the harsh realities of the means tested dole in 1930s Newcastle. He then went south and ever after took more menial employment like unskilled assembly line work or caretaker jobs partially because he even felt some shame about white collar work he'd previously relied on for survival. Surprisingly, he even refused to become an engineering worker like his father.
In a way though revolt was returning to its roots. Had not Jack Common suggested in those excellent scraps of broad theoretical comment before he succumbed to the role of novelist that the best thing to do in a theatre was to go behind the curtains and look at the audience? Whilst not quite possessing the cutting edge of Vache's revolver pointed at the actors, it's not bad all the same. You cannot help but speculate that there was a subterranean continuity between notions like The Grand National Holiday (as that early form of the General Strike was once called on Tyneside), Jack Common and the events of the very early 70s in the shipyards. It wasn't only the engineering apprentices but young miners from the west Durham coalfield who began to turn up at the broad, informal Solidarity/Situationist axis in Newcastle no doubt attracted by the local publicity some of the interventions inevitably acquired and you wonder just what was this relationship between this and the thoughtful early writings of Dave Douglass, who was later, unfortunately to become such a wooden anarcho-syndicalist and TV hogging demagogue? The concrete backdrop to this were the first shop floor led wildcat strikes beginning to break out in the nearby coalfield.
Whatever. It was a fruitful pot pourri of good old time and modern influences that was also marked by a heavy class bitterness. Miners would turn up in Newcastle on a Saturday night hoping to bed some radical middle class young women and not averse to employing a bit of simplistic class demagoguery in order to achieve their ends.
The bug of the social apartheid still dogs Common in relation to George Orwell just like it does that other forgotten, brilliant engineer, Alfred Russell Wallace, the co 'founder with Charles Darwin of natural selection. Although we critically commented upon Orwell in the late 1960s, the fact is, even those of us who'd hailed from Newcastle hadn't even heard of Jack Common. Colin Hutchinson, a guy around the Newcastle agitation was the first to put together a well-produced booklet called Revolt in an Age of Plenty that was a selection of Common's critical writings. Sure we'd made some acid comments about Orwell especially his dumb take on Surrealism though liking many of his essays and thoroughly respecting the excellent Homage to Catalunya though noting his insistence on being termed a writer and his lack of comprehension regarding the decline of artistic form. As Don N Smith acutely said at the time it was just as well Orwell died when he did as his inadequacies would have meant he'd probably have ended up becoming a pathetic TV hack like Malcolm Muggeridge. If we'd known about Common at the time it would have been quite a revelation as his attempt to grasp the essence of rising modernity was far in advance of Orwell's and you can sense in some of his often convoluted expression, that he's trying to get into shape a theory which was nigh on Situationist. Be that as it may, in passing we note their dissimilar deaths. Orwell died in a University College Hospital bed surrounded by so-called literary lions like Stephen Spender, Muggeridge, Anthony Powell and BBC journalists, Common died as a labourer on a building site in Newport Pagnell, Bucks.
Jack Common was a different kettle of fish as he defied categorisation and couldn't be fitted into some neat specialist place on the bookshelves. He wasn't a Surrealist nor was he a Social Realist, though both left some kind of mark upon him. If he had been a Social Realist he would have been much more acceptable to the polyglot mix of the Establishment here particularly as social realism is acceptable to British leftist conservatism. Social realism was there well before the Angry Young Men writers which the early Situationists derided in the mid 50s precisely because they were writers and historically ignorant of the revolt against literary form (and which Jack Common had been more than vaguely aware of). Although social realism in the thirties had produced some haunting moments in the films say of Humphrey Jennings etc, as an increasingly denuded style, it was to remain a constant thereafter and to be much embraced by the new medium of television. In no way though did it disturb all those many time-honoured faceted and funded cultural roles beloved of the hierarchy here. Moreover, it was to serve as educator to all those aspiring cadres with high hopes of position in the new frontier posts of the State, whether as councillors, stress managers, social workers or even newly-fashioned crafty Leninists with their aspirations of leading the working classes. Social realism buttressed the emerging palliative concept of a basically PC community politics which nonetheless originally had its origins in the pacification programmes of the old British Colonial Office. In Newcastle, it found an expression in Z Films, a hip local outfit and previously mentioned, led by a cineaste creep called Murray Martin whose later claim to fame was a film based on the Meadow Well estate, which exploded in the early 1990s. He tried to capitalise on the riot in order to further his career nationally though nothing really came of it. Moreover, the underlying slant of all these films - itself also indicative of social realism - are within a leftist social democratic framework with the State as enlightened facilitator. The State, the State, always the State!
In a sense Jack Common was the epitome and most clearly articulated expression of an open-minded probing which was not un-common on Tyneside and parts of Co Durham. This subversive tendency lurked behind a quite pervasive official cultural yearning it was plainly at odds with. Although it could be said Newcastle Upon Tyne was an out of the way place the city nonetheless strived to achieve a major cultural image. City boss, T. Dan Smith in the 1960s banally wanted the city to be: 'A Florence of the north'. To even think you could build a 'Florence' just like that and set aside from its essential historical time and place was a priceless piece of philistine and bureaucratic absurdity, though with the demise of that nonsense Newcastle was to achieve a massive post-modernist impact by ironically ditching its grandiose Renaissance project by recuperating that life-enhancing experiment and more than embryonic subversion and turning it into its opposite. The city drew its sting forcing most of the instigators into exile proceeding to pave the way for a bankrupt modernity by massively promoting 'end of culture' culture in the forms of gigantic displays from the sculptor Antony Gormley's moronic Angel of the North to the new waterfront Baltic Exchange Flour Mill, the veritable temple of Saatchi & Saatchi vacuity.
Below: Photomontages by Stuart Wise (Newcastle, late 1960s) on the Surrealist suggestions for the transformation of Paris, "On the Irrational Embellishments of a City" in the 1933 issue Le surrealisme au service de la revolution. These were interesting proposals for their time although today they have lost their cutting edge as we are seeing more banal approximations of these schemes in the process of construction seemingly everywhere whilst actual social and environmental conditions are in free-fall.
"Should one preserve, move, modify the following" (No 1) The statue of Jeanne D'Arc no longer riding horse but pig. (No 2) The Obelisk to be removed to the entrance of an Abbotoir where it will be held by a woman's immense gloved hand.
(No 3) The Arc de Triomphe to be turned into a toilet for both sexes. (No 4) Notre Dame.The towers to be replaced by an enormous glass cruet, one of the bottles filled with blood and the other with sperm. The building will become a sexual school for virgins.
(No 6) The Saint-Jacques Tower. (No 7) (No 8) Replace it by a factory chimney being climbed by a nude woman.
For other articles on King Mob see the following: