Herring’s Eye: Richard Herring

This is an excerpt from my interview with Richard Herring. The interview can be read in its entirety in Issue Ten of New Escapologist.

New Escapologist: Does it trouble you that the sun will explode one day and swallow up the evidence that humanity was ever here?

Richard Herring: In my latest show I discuss my hope that I will be fossilised. I want to become the last remnant of humanity and to be put in a museum by evolved cockroaches. I also hope the evolved cockroach museum will in turn be fossilised and discovered by an alien archaeologist who will take my fossilised fossil to a faraway planet where I’ll become the only surviving relic from our galaxy. So as long as that happens I don’t care.

I think by doing the death show I have realised the redundancy of trying to achieve immortality through work or life. All of us will be eventually forgotten—most of us within a half century of our life—but it doesn’t matter as we’ll be gone. Living your life as best you can and enjoying it as much as is possible in the ridiculous circumstances is all that matters. So I am glad that eventually humanity will be wiped from existence and forgotten. It makes being alive now all the more precious.

NE: Why does recognition of our place in the universe lead to comedy?

RH: I think there is much comedy to be made from the self-importance of humanity, as a species and as individuals, especially when placed against any understanding of our insignificance in terms of space and time. In Meaning of Life I discuss how ridiculous someone from UKIP talking about immigrants must appear to any god or alien who understands the scale of the Universe. Having allegiance to one tiny speck of a tiny planet—not even having the vision to be proud of being from the entire tiny planet—and being furious about immigrants even though his ancestors were living in Africa two seconds ago, and five seconds ago they were fish. Our pomposity is at the heart of much comedy. The human race has had to learn to accept that the earth is not the centre of the Universe, nor is our Sun, and we don’t have a God-given right to do what we want with the planet. We are an off shoot of evolution, not the end of it.

Of course if the Universe is infinite it turns out we really are the centre of the Universe, but so is every single point in the Universe.

NE: What do your visits to Pompeii make you think about in terms of life, death and legacy?

RH: I think we live our lives as if the basic structure of our civilisation is secure. Pompeii shows you how everything can be turned upside down in a matter of minutes. This is a lesson of history in general, but Pompeii is a great example. It also shows us how time changes the way we view an event. I often think how weird it would be for the people of Pompeii to know that their homes and their deaths would be turned into a tourist attraction. Once you start thinking like this, it’s hard not to stop looking at the modern world and wondering what will survive and how the people of the future will view it. What bits of my daily rubbish or possessions will end up in museums? What will be here in 2000 years’ time? It’s impossible to imagine but it’s fun to try, and once again it gives you a little window into your own insignificance in historical terms. Nothing is permanent and everything will fall. Our gods will not be the gods of the future. It seems odd to me that religious people can dismiss old religions without realising that their own will one day be similarly redundant. But it’s true of political ideologies and culture and everything. Our lives are both precious and worthless: insignificant in the long term but completely significant to us. I love these dichotomies.

NE: Do you have plans to ensure your own legacy?

RH: Well, there’s my fossil plan. I’m also trying to get the external meatus renamed in my honour. It’s the aperture at the end of the penis and given all my cock-based work it would seem a fitting testament to my life. Schoolboys used to call it the “Jap’s eye”, which is obviously inappropriate, so I am trying to encourage people to rename it the Herring’s Eye. If it takes off, every time one winks at you you’ll think of me.

NE: What can we expect from your new Meaning of Life shows?

RH: An over-ambitious man discovering his limitations. For me it’s like writing an Edinburgh show every month for six months in a row and then basically filming the first preview. But I’m hoping we can make it look as good as possible despite limitations of time and budget. As I do with my Fringe shows I will be looking at some big subjects with a mixture of childishness and erudition and trying to make people think about stuff that we take for granted or don’t think about at all. The first show is about creation and so I look at religious and scientific views about the birth of the Universe and point out the inadequacies of both. But each show is also going to have a guest who is an expert who will have to field my stupid questions, but also will be given a chance to impart some actual information. I also have a brilliant animator called Chay Hawes working on some opening titles and probably a sketch for each show. It’s as much about showing what’s possible to do alone, without broadcasters or any other interference, as it is about trying to put together a funny show. It is costing me a fair amount of money to put together, but I think that it’s worth it for the experiment alone. And I think there’s a good chance that the shows will be able to compete with TV output, in comedy terms if not quite in slickness and production values. It’s very hard to get an auteured show on TV these days and producers are more interested in creating their own formats and then casting the comics and actors. To be able to do exactly what I want—to spend ten minutes deconstructing the first page of the Bible or whatever—is a fantastic freedom.

I am trying to make them all new material, but this might prove impossible given how much I am trying to do in such a short time. I am touring at the same time and trying to write some scripts that I might get paid for.
Ultimately I hope to discover the meaning of life. You don’t get that with Paddy McGuinness.

Go here to read about New Escapologist magazine (and buy Issue 10 for the whole version of this interview).
Go here to subscribe to Richard Herring’s Meaning of Life.

Pants on fire: eleven crises witnessed by Momus

Originally published in CACTUS

“Every lie creates a parallel world. The world in which it is true”.

So begins the The Book of Scotlands: a novel of speculative vignettes, each chapter introducing a different version of Scotland. Among their number is the Scotland in which money is abolished, the Scotland in which ten or more children per family is compulsory, and the Scotland in which a giant goose roosts upon the country before eventually flying away, leaving a sense of loss in its wake. Some of these worlds are satires of our own, while others are whimsical and Rabelaisian flights of fancy. We are left to imagine the crises faced by these worlds when branching off from our own so spectacularly.

The writer of The Book of Scotlands is Nick Currie, better known as Momus: a monocular Scottish pop musician, performance artist, kulturkritik, futurist, and author. He has lived in Montreal, New York City, Berlin, Paris, Toyko and has recently made Osaka his home.

Momus is nothing if not prolific. To know his work is to know him. At the time of writing, he has twenty-two studio albums to his name, has written three well-received novels and published hundreds of insightful essays both in the mainstream media and on his blog. In addition to news and retrospectives on Momus’ career, the blog (Click Opera, 2004-2010) explored such subjects as our slow and steady adoption of alternative energy resources, the differences between an American- and an Asian-dominated world, and whether his pet rabbit’s personality remained intact after his unavoidable spaying.

A tag cloud for Momus would look something like this: identity, authority, perversion, time travel, fetishism, philosophy, Japan, internationalism, Berlin, Bowie, the avant-garde. He is known for his unorthodox fashion sense: baggy pants, aprons, a wig, Cold War-era eyeglasses and—most immediately striking—a patch over his right eye. His most-frequently cited remark perverts Warhol and anticipates the mass adoption of web-based social media: “in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen people”.

Momus has been, if not a pioneer, then certainly an early-adopter and hearty embracer of social media and information technology in general. He produced a wave of synth-folk music in the 90s and his live music performances aren’t so much concerts as multimedia events. Online, Momus is seldom dumbstruck: even after the conclusion of Click Opera, he has maintained a regularly-updated Tumblr blog, packed with his own digital photographs and streaming video clips; and his Facebook and Twitter feeds are forever ablaze with ideas. He is certainly a futurist and, through his books, has become a cartographer of parallel universes. He has also unleashed a new performance creation upon the world in the form of the Unreliable Tour Guide. In this guise, Momus drags tourists and art lovers around museums and galleries, telling them satires, half-truths and lies about the venue and exhibits. Above all, Momus considers himself a storytelling enterprise and is a devil for asking ‘what if?’

I chatted with Momus (by high-tech and transpacific means, naturally) and asked him about eleven different flavours of crisis.

Mid-Life Crisis: How are you liking your sixth decade on the Earth? Have you endured/enjoyed a mid-life crisis? If so, how have you used it?

Martin Amis said that after 50 there’s a “thickening out” of life: “There is now an enormous and unsuspected presence within your being”. He didn’t say what that presence is, but I guess he meant death. That’s definitely coming through as a presence in my new songs, but death has always been a presence in my songs. My midlife crises (I’ve had a few) tend to come in the form of affairs with women much younger than me. They generally turn out badly, but the resulting songs are good. That’s the thing about being a songwriter: even when you lose, you win.

Identity Crisis. Did Momus come fully-formed into the world or did you develop your artist identity gradually? What moment do you consider to be Momus’ birthday?

Momus was born in 1985. I needed an identity to use on Mike Alway’s newly-formed él Records. Momus did already have a ready-formed identity, in the sense that he was a minor Greek god of cynicism and mockery who was kicked off Mount Olympus. I’ve kept fairly faithful to the obscurity, astringency and outsiderdom of the original Momus, I think.

Existential Crisis. You have lived in different cities in different countries. Do you change personally with your surroundings or do they help to confirm your identity?

Taking on a new city is like taking on a new romantic partner: you’re attracted because of affinities, but there’s definitely going to be some negotiation and some alteration if you want to get on. It’s a nice feeling to know that you’re going to be changed in ways that you trust, ways that are limited and pre-approved. But you never quite know what the result will be. Who knew that moving to Paris would get me obsessed with America, and with computers? Or that my New York idyll would be cut short by a Saudi Arabian called Osama? Here in Osaka I’m surprised to find myself haunting the slums and dressing like the dossers there. I suppose what these things tell you is that place is only one factor: time is pretty important too, in the form of your own age and in the form of history.

Fashion Crisis: When will people stop wearing jeans? What are you wearing in the alternative reality where aprons and baggy hose are in vogue?

Jeans are clothes that make sense in the context of American 20th century dominance. If the 21st century becomes predominantly Asian, as seems likely, that signifier will get fuzzy. American hard power will linger on a few decades as American soft power (nostalgia, cultural influence) but fizzle by mid-century, I think. So I’d be looking to see different trousers taking over by about 2050. I’ll be 90. As for your parallel universe question, in that parallel universe I’m wearing an apron with a trompe l’oeil pair of jeans printed on it.

Artistic Crisis. What do you feel most contributed to your transition from pop music to literature?

Well, I haven’t transitioned. I’m still making music — I’m making a new album right now — but I now publish books as well. I use the Momus name for both my books and my records because I see it all as part of the same storytelling enterprise. I was always a “singing author” (literal translation of the Italian term cantautore, songwriter).

Energy Crisis. Are you optimistic about our gradual move towards sustainable energy resources? Moreover, do you think the west will ever embrace kuruma banare and, like Japan, become a post-car society?

It’s all there in the word “sustainable”. This is not really a matter of choice. The only variable is whether we embrace sustainable energy through wise foresight or after a series of crises. Right now, here in Japan, we’re in the middle of exactly such a crisis, with Fukushima. Let’s see how it turns out. As for cars, my feeling is that cars will turn into train carriages. Computers are doing more and more in cars; eventually they’ll take over all the driving functions. Increasing car numbers will lead to congestion, but computer control will allow cars to travel bumper-to-bumper, even at high speed. Eventually the cars will link up, and sliding doors and corridors will be installed. This will allow services (snacks, meals, drinks, batteries, massage) to enter cars, which are currently woefully bereft of them. The trainization of cars will come more quickly in societies (like Japan) where citizens trust each other.

Industrial Crisis. What are the current challenges facing the worlds of pop music and print?

I’m totally bored by the technicalities of this question — how copyrights and payments are administered in a rapidly-changing world, blah blah blah. What interests me is the kind of music and writing people make even if they aren’t going to be paid a dime for it. Especially in the incredible world where these people have a device which gives them instant worldwide publication, which is our world right now. Of course, it may be that the answer is that a de-professionalized media is one that produces mostly inconsequential work. In which case we’re back to square one: how to keep professionals in the picture by making sure they get paid. I actually think Apple is quite clever, and that the Apple Store is a good model if we want to keep copyright alive. But I also rather like the cowboy world of Piratebay. I’m happy for both those things to exist.

Global Financial Crisis. As a sort of futurist and a cartographer of alternative worlds, do you think we will come out of this recession differently to how we went into it?

I think way too much is made of really tiny incremental changes. Is there growth in the growth, is there shrinkage in the growth? Who cares. What matters more is stuff like Gini — the rate of overall equality in a society. A lot more attention should be paid to distribution of existing wealth, rather than percentile changes in growth rates. Overall, I think the scenario for nations like the US, UK, Germany and Japan is what I’ve called “aftergold”: how to control shrinkage — and expectations — in such a way that happiness and fulfillment take over from growth and wealth as the dominant values. At a certain basic income level (about $20,000) our basic material needs are taken care of. Income increases beyond that don’t really increase happiness significantly. It’s up to us to decide what’s important to us, and find the optimal point between work and fulfillment. This requires quite a bit of self-knowledge and self-control, though.

Crisis in Japan. Japan sometimes seems defined by terrible events: the bombs, the earthquakes and the 1995 gas attacks. You may even refer to this in your upcoming book, The Book of Japans. What do you anticipate will be the lasting effect of recent events (the natural disasters but also the way they have been dealt with by the authorities) upon the Japanese popular consciousness?

Japan has been having earthquakes and tsunamis for thousands of years: this stuff is already built into the cultural DNA. It’s led to a certain detachment from material things; nobody has a venerable old family house here, they rebuild totally every twenty or thirty years. It’s led to the outlandish scenarios in manga and monster movies. It dovetails with the detachment built into Buddhism. The Japanese are incredibly stoical. I was amazed by videos of the March quake, how calm the Japanese were as it happened, just holding onto valuables and waiting for the shaking to stop. It was the foreigners who fled: they call them “flyjin” — the gaijin who flew.

Crisis in objectivity. What is a crisis for the unreliable tour guide?

Well, being an unreliable tour guide has made me very aware of the power of spin. Even the word “crisis” is spin. I could give you a tour of a crisis and show how it was a totally benign natural evolution, planned for in every detail.

What crises would you most like to see in the world? What needs shaking up?

We need to move from American modes to Asian modes, and from capitalist modes to communist modes. And we need to stop using fossil fuels, and fighting wars because of them.

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Renaissance Man: in conversation with Paul Bourgault

Originally published in Side Street Review

Paul Bourgault is a visual artist in Montreal. He usually works in collage and paints. Among his most recurring themes are those of Catholic and Renaissance iconography, and he often uses vibrant colour and sensuous imagery on his large canvases.

It is a privilege to visit Paul’s studio. Seven months previously, I’d been present at the opening of his exhibition Grande Consecration des Utopies Approximatives at Montreal’s Maison de la culture Frontenac and I’d seen a further collection of his works at the Toronto International Art Fair. On both occasions, his work had struck a chord with me, perhaps because of its imposing presence but perhaps because it reminds me of the closest thing I’ve ever had to a spiritual experience, absorbed in the splendor of Renaissance art in Vatican City. I have a lot of respect for the works of Paul Bourgault and so being in his studio and paying witness to so many works in progress is both an honor and disconcerting. The dozen or so canvases propped up around the room are incomplete but each is unmistakably a Bourgault. Seeing them, I think, is like bearing witness to half-formed stars in the depths of a nebula.

The studio is a small space on the upper floor of a tall building. There’s a city law preventing architecture from exceeding the height of Mount Royal, so the view from Paul’s window is a rare opportunity. The island’s snow-covered east side stretches out before us: the domes and spires of Mile End and Roger Tallibert’s organic-modernist Olympic Stadium on the horizon. A wall of Paul’s studio displays a quote from a motivational speaker called Les Brown: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars”. I suspect this was left behind by the studio’s previous occupant. Paul doesn’t strike me as aggressively ambitious: the act of creation is the important thing to Bourgault.

Paul welcomes me into the studio. After a tour of the canvases closest to completion (and one wholly incomplete, untitled piece that marks his pending transition from mixed media to pure painting), we crack open a couple of beers and our conversation begins.

I understand you were originally trained in film. Was it a challenging transition to go from film to painting?

When I started college in the mid-eighties, the art scene in Montreal—at least the art scene I knew—was not very open to certain types of painting or draftsmanship. It was more conceptual and installation[-driven]. I’m not saying it was the right decision, but it doesn’t take much when you’re young to intimidate you. Maybe I would go into studying art if I were to do it all over again but, you know, that’s impossible. I loved film but I was always more of a draftsman or a painter than a film expert or a film maker, so film was like an escape route. Also, I had very little interest in school, so film was interesting. It was one of those decisions of picking something that you’d like to do instead of making a smart decision with a specific goal.

Film brought me into working in sets. I was a scenic artist; a set painter in film, opera sets, television and television advertising. One thing I learned here was how to be efficient. When I do my own paintings—like any artist—a lot of my emotions and my vision of the world goes into it. When you’re a set painter, you’re almost like a painting machine, so while you have to reflect on the task, you don’t have to reflect on whatever the film maker is trying to convey. You only see pieces of it. You’re told ‘paint this barn’. You’re stuck with how to do it so there’s a lot of problem solving but you’re not asked to make decisions per se. So that was extremely useful. I did that for about ten or fifteen years at least.

So film gave you a kind of work ethic.

Yes! If you go on a film set, we agree that film is a true art form. As is painting, architecture, dance: there’s no doubt about it – that film is a true art form. Of course, there’s a lot of preparation that goes into it, but when the film crew is working, no one stops to look at their belly button. This is costing us ten-thousand dollars a minute, guys, let’s go! So I did learn that. I’m not always as good as I should be or as disciplined, but I do have a strong work ethic. I think that film might have given me the attitude that you can be a creator and be on the ball. Creating doesn’t mean sitting down and waiting for stuff to happen.

To what extent is your work autobiography? Do you bring much from your heritage or your family background or your own emotional landscape?

It’s mostly autobiographical. Mostly in an emotional, spiritual and philosophical way. I’m quite sure that we have old memories stored into us. I don’t know how it works. I’m not a neurosurgeon or an expert but my gut feeling is that we have some sort of very long-term memories stored away somewhere in our brains: cultural memories. Because we’re all mixed, it comes from everywhere. Most of my heritage is French, but the French were conquered by the Norsemen by the Germanic tribes and so on.

And we all go back to Africa ultimately.

Yeah, that’s it. I do believe that. Another thing is being here in Québec where the Catholic religion had quite a strong presence. My mother was probably of the first generation, as an adult, to get rid of it as an overbearing presence. I don’t think that the church in itself is that awful but I think there is a problem when it’s overbearing. There’s a lot of reference to Renaissance painting in my work. I think the main reason is that I simply love those paintings and the work that went into making them, but also there’s a link in there to the Catholic church in Québec. So there’s this dual interest. Some of those [Renaissance] paintings are just so stunning. They still shock me when I go to museums. To complement your question, I think all of my paintings are to a large extent autobiographical. I don’t know that it shows or that it should show, but they’re all based on ideas or doubts or fears or experiences or points of view that are personal. Why is there so much information flying all over my paintings? Our minds are always at work, always stimulating and being stimulated, buzzing. Life never stops, the atoms and the planets turn. Physics and mathematics were one of the few things I liked at school. We don’t think about it because it would be burdensome to do so, but right now there are five billion people thinking, moving, talking, fighting, being born, dying. The cosmos is spinning in every which direction. Everything is in constant motion. I like that idea, that everything is alive, that there’s a force in everything and that it’s always moving.

Something I get from some of your paintings is this idea about excess and abstinence simultaneously. I’m thinking of your exhibition, ‘Carnival at Lent’ specifically.

One thing that Chinese painting has taught me is that the empty space in a painting is just as important as the rest of it. When Chinese painters do their work, they look at the lines [but also] the space between the lines. Life is all about oppositions. In that sense, my work [contains] what I believe about life. You live, you die, there’s space between things and there are oppositions between desires, like carnival and lent. What would be one without the other? If you’re doing carnival three-hundred-and-sixty-five days a year, it would lose its meaning. Getting pissed and dancing all night would become just a normal day. I don’t think it would be interesting or possible to do it six hundred days in a row.

So the whole universe is vibrating with opposites.

Yes, absolutely. And that’s an important part of what motivates my work; the idea of—the way your phrased it—that vibration, the emptiness. The universe is kind of participating in my creation. It applies to everyone but I think some people are more conscious of it or have accepted it.

You are bilingual and spent a long time in Ontario as well as Québec. I don’t know, but I imagine, there might be Francophone and Anglophone cultures of art in Québec. Is that true? And if it is true, do you feel that you exist between them or that you have one foot in both worlds or do you feel like a true third thing?

To a certain extent, every artist is out of it [and] working on his own. As far as the language goes, because it’s a super-touchy question, I’m going to answer like a politician. But real seriously, with globalisation and the Internet, we’re all connected. You can see in real-time, the paintings at an opening in Saigon. I’m not saying there are no differences but there are so many crossover practices now. If there’s a difference between a French scene and an English scene, it might be more in relation to human friendship. If you go to an English school, you have those friends and most of those friends will speak English. I’m not sure that it affects the art. We’re all mixed. It’s not like there’s a big wall between us with the French world here and the English world there. I think it’s more of a social networking difference more than an art difference.

I’m not a big part of any crowd. I mean, I go to openings and I have artist friends but I’m not really into some specific theme. It’s not, like, a scene.

Do you have any thoughts about government funding of the arts? It’s obviously good in that arts have to happen and we shouldn’t be starving as artists, but also, do you feel there’s a problem with being sanctioned?

Out of principle, I think that financing for the arts is a very good thing. We live in a social democracy and taxes should be invested in a general manner. Of course, education and health is Number One, but we all pay taxes and I think its good that artists can get a little pat on the back. Receiving a grant is good for you because it gives you time to work, time to stop worrying for a few months. It gives you a form of recognition, which is great, but making art is like a quest; you should never wait for someone to sanction you as an important motivation. I apply for grants and I think it’s smart to do so, but what wakes me up in the morning and what brings me [to the studio] every day has nothing to do with being sanctioned.

Tell me a little about your ‘Chasse-démons’ painting. It’s a personal favourite.

It’s a talisman. Everyone has demons: personal hurts and broken parts from adapting to society, from childhood, from disappointments we have about life. We all have some open scars. Maybe some people are more sensitive about these, so I had this idea of painting something that could help you chase away these demons. But I also painted it for myself. I figured maybe some day a man or a woman could say ‘yeah, I could use one of those talismans’.

I was reading a lot about the Bohemians recently. About Nineteenth Century Bohemians. They’d often keep a skull around the place, and it was like a talisman against becoming bourgeois. It’s like a constant reminder of death, that one day you’re going to be a skull in the Earth.

That’s very interesting. It’s a Memento-Mori. I collect art a bit. I only have small works, but usually, the work that I buy are Memento-Mori. For me, and this is strictly personal, art has to do important things for you. There’s no reason it can’t be beautiful but if all art were beautiful it would be useless. In my own work, there are often little details of skulls, bones, trash and stuff that looks like dead animals, and there are dead birds. I don’t want anyone to be ‘oh wow, dead birds’ because I like my work to be beautiful, colourful, sensuous, vibrant, but I like that in almost every piece there’s a little Memento-Mori: just a little something to remind you that you’re passing through. You’re just passing through. I think that life is beautiful. To have a little reminder of death is very important but only if you enjoy life. Dancing is great, food is great, sex is great, friendships are great, the sunset is beautiful. I enjoy life, but as you were saying about the Bohemians, to always keep a little something, like a little wink that says ‘don’t forget’.

Well, it’s what encourages you to live vigorously. Knowing that this is it.

Yeah! And it’s like the opposites of the universe, as we were saying earlier on. If we had eternal life and we know it, boy, we’d be fucking bored. We’d only be playing cards or something like that, you know.

Are there other artists whose work you draw from?

Many. And I’ve noticed as the years go by that I’m more and more open-minded. I was not as open-minded when I was a young adult. Of course there are many strong influences, like painters of the Renaissance, Rubens, Rembrandt , the use of colour in Vincent van Gogh’s work has inspired me a lot. Colour has a hell of a lot of importance in my work. For me, colour is like an emotion, it’s like energy, it’s like life. I don’t mean ‘red is this, yellow is that’, but the interaction of colour is a really magical aspect of painting.

But yes, Rembrandt especially. I’m not nostalgic, but I like old painting because it’s kind of out of time. I like to think that my work might also be somewhat out of time. I mean, you can’t truly become out of one’s own time, but I like not to voluntarily push it into it. You know what I mean by that? This might be a bad example, but I use a computer and I find lots of things about it useful so I’m living in my time. But I’ve never had a Twitter account and I never will have Facebook. It’s going too far. I can understand why some people want to use those tools, but for me, I like to keep a safe distance. You can tell that my paintings are being painted ‘now’, but I like to think they are happening out of time a bit as well. The references are hopefully a little timeless.

As a self-taught painter, I learnt what I know about art history and art by reading and going to museums. I go to the library a lot. When you’ve absorbed so much information, you’re in a sense influenced by all of that. You have favourites but it all just becomes part of you over time.

I saw a documentary recently at the [Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal] about Warhol’s protegee, Jean-Michel Basquiat and, in it, he said a lovely thing. He was asked how he is influenced by other people and he said “it’s someone else’s idea going through my new mind”. Going through my new mind. Isn’t that perfect?

Painters have always had affiliation: ideas that are inherited from father to son. If you look at the history of art, I think everything has been done through affiliation because every artist is inspired by and inspires his contemporaries and his friends. The Basquiat thing is very interesting and true because painters nourish other painters. You look at Bosch and Picasso and you mix and match and something weird comes out and you sprinkle something else onto it. I’m inspired by many, many painters so it’s hard to pinpoint now.

[One of your art dealers] told me that you now want to do more painting without using collage?

It’s a shift. Every work leads you to another work, like communicating vessels. Sometimes you make drastic decisions but generally you carry stuff with you. You bring maybe ninety percent of the last work into the new work. I’m trying to paint myself out of collage and I’m finding it a gradual process. A thing about art is that I have to avoid being comfortable. If I’m too comfortable and safe in what I’m doing, it doesn’t stimulate me. You can’t cut all the bridges: you can’t one day say ‘I’ll never paint like this again’ and paint like someone else. You can’t run away from yourself. A singer doesn’t change his voice in five minutes. It is done over years. But collage helped me feel a certain danger, a certain risk, to do things I wasn’t comfortable with. But now it’s turning into a comfort zone. I’m starting, with painting, to get myself out of that zone.

*

We talk for another hour or two about work ethics, stand-up comedy, long-distance walking, Canada, physics and space, while the unfinished pieces around us – the embryonic stars in the nebula – vibrate with potential energy. Paul Bourgault’s channeling of primal, atomic, and universal forces is the very reason for these paintings’ existing ‘out of time’. While human beings may benefit from a Memento Mori, these ideas remain eternally untouched by the currents of time.

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The Rebel Dollar: Joseph Heath

Originally published in Side Street Review

As an artist, if I find myself thinking about economics, it is usually disparagingly. I’m not alone. For years, artists have rebelled against economics through parody in paintings, music, stand-up comedy and Turner Prize-nominated installation pieces.

Unfortunately, if we want to comment upon economics intelligently in our work, we have to know something about it. We can’t simply hate Capitalism because we sometimes have trouble paying the rent or because we have a vague idea that it’s bad for people in Africa. To hate something intelligently, we need better data than that.

An excellent guide for artists—and people who dislike finance generally—are the books of Joseph Heath. Joseph is a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto and writes popular publications on the subject of money. His most recent book is called Filthy Lucre: economics for people who hate capitalism. I meet Joseph to discuss the complex relationship between artists and money.

“The latest book,” he tells me, “is remedial economics for people on the left. Like me, many people got turned off by their first-year economics class and decided that the whole thing was right-wing ideology and didn’t have to pay attention to it. It happens disproportionately on the left, so we’re often weaker in economics than the right. In the first half of the book, there’s a lot of economic theory that actually undermines classic right-wing positions. In the second half, I show there are things said on the left that don’t make sense from an economic perspective.”

Like many academics now writing for popular consumption, Joseph strikes me as a highly accessible fellow: a man steeped in theory but able to discuss it with the layperson. What took Joseph from academic philosophy to accessible consumerism and economics?

“Consumerism is already a topic in philosophy. Philosophy has some elaborate ideas about consumerism. Sadly, a lot of these are based on fallacies about economics, such as the over-production fallacy: the idea that mass-production has generated an overwhelming surplus of goods and so we resort to marketing. Alas, it’s a fallacy because ultimately in Capitalism—despite the illusion created by money— goods are exchanged for other goods. It’s possible for there to be too many shoes or shares but impossible to be too many goods in general. Based on this fallacy, philosophers have thrown up elaborate theories on how the advertising industry manipulates people’s desires, makes them consume more and generates an homogeneity of desires. Lots of theories but it’s all based on an ignorance of economics.”

Another of Joseph’s books, The Rebel Sell concludes that counter-cultural movements have failed and that there’s no real friction between the counter-culture and the accepted mainstream. The rebellious fringes may actually feed Capitalism:

“Rebellion was advertised in the late fifties and early sixties as having revolutionary consequences with respect to the political and economic system. The book points out that [the counter-culture] didn’t deliver on any of those problems. Rather than being a revolutionary transformation of consciousness, it was just consumerism. Take the sexual revolution: people thought it was going to undermine Capitalism because, in the post-Freudian view, instinctive repression was required to get workers to show up at the factory and this was incompatible with sexual freedom. The sexual revolution was going to lead to a wild freedom in society that would make factories and the tyranny of the clock impossible. If you look at [the psychoanalyst,] Wilhelm Reich, you can see this theme prominently: that the sexual revolution was supposed to undermine the entire political and economic system. Looking back with forty years of hindsight and wisdom, the major consequence of the sexual revolution was [the feeding of] the pornography industry. It’s a classic example of counter-cultural rebellion failing to result in the collapse of the system and in fact feeding into the desire to consume more and more. People thought ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’ was was going to be revolutionary in the way that, say, Marxism was revolutionary. They thought that it was going to emancipate people and fundamentally change things, that war would become impossible. To point out the obvious, it didn’t pan out that way. What’s striking is that everybody has recognised the total failure of these ideals but we’ve not rejected the underlying theory: that the political-economic system is a big machine and culture is the software, so by reprogramming the software you could fundamentally change the way the whole machine functioned. You still see it in contemporary cultural politics and art theory. It’s just that nobody has the radical pretensions for it that people had in the sixties.”

This strikes me as devastatingly defeatist but I’ve always been a dreamer. If the sexual revolution and rock ‘n’ roll—genuinely radical cultural forces—had resulted in the opposite of what was intended, what chance do small-time artists have in a world jaded by artistic rebellion? Should we hand in our pallets and brushes for white collars? Is there anywhere left for artists to rebel against money?

“A journalist recently wanted to interview me about Lady Gaga. Basically, he wanted to know whether the violent imagery in the Alejandro video meant the collapse of Western civilisation. I was like, ‘Jesus Christ, were you born yesterday?’ We live in a society that survived the Rolling Stones! The Stones were drug-using Satanists. The Stones and The Doors were the real deal, right? People thought it was mind-blowingly radical, that music industry would never be the same, that it was going to be Earth-shattering. But it didn’t quite work out. When I came along in the seventies, the Rolling Stones were already neutered. Already they were a joke in terms of rebellion. When punk came along people thought ‘Oh my God, this is the real deal now’, and its gone on and on. By now rebellion is such an empty gesture and so obviously a marketing gimmick, it’s astounding that anyone could think any kind of cultural event could have any significance on anything political or economic.”

At this point in the conversation, I remember a 2002 Adam Curtis documentary called Century of the Self. It mentioned something called the ‘torches of liberty contingent’: a 1929 women’s liberation movement in which hundreds of women marched on New York, brandishing cigarettes. There had been a perception in America that women shouldn’t smoke and so this was a hugely equalising demonstration. Equalising? Certainly. But the real effect was the doubling of cigarette sales. Tobacco companies got richer in the name of personal liberation. Are there other cases in which the corporation has exploited our senses of justice and rebellion?

“Sure. There’s the idea that Capitalism has to increase consumer desire to get rid of a surplus of mass-produced goods. Everyone is somehow threatened into wanting the same house, the same car, the same clothes and so forth. So the idea arose that by rebelling against mainstream tastes, you’re throwing a cog in the works of the industrial system. By refusing to live in the classic suburban home, by cutting your hair a certain way—all the standard counter-cultural gestures—you are exacerbating the crisis in Capitalism. This is the idea of the rebel consumer: that by smoking or getting tattoos or colouring your hair purple, you were striking a blow against the system. The consequence, however, is quite the opposite because rebellion becomes a positional good. The latest rebel style is extremely cool and attracts imitators. The people who want to rebel have to constantly search for the newest, latest thing. This generates competitive consumption and the quest for cool or the quest for rebellion winds up generating consumer desire. Rather than striking a blow against the system it actually ends up promoting consumerism. There’s the idea that rebel styles get co-opted by the system. But the co-option is completely an illusion. All that happens is once-exclusive things become popular. Once people start finding out and jumping on the band-waggon, it generates a snob effect whereby everyone has to get off the band-waggon. What looks like co-option is actually competitive consumption among individuals. But remember: none of this matters at all from an economic or political standpoint. Think of the fifty years of revolutionary rock ‘n’ roll, crap pop or whatever: it’s amazing that the system never collapses, but its because all this stuff is totally irrelevant.”

So what can counter-culture can hope for? Is there any point to being a part of a counter-cultural movement now? “No. I don’t think so. By now, the rebel gesture is so empty and so vacuous. Younger people don’t actually believe any of that. It’s just all been done so many times and the radicality got pushed to the point where there’s nowhere further to go. By the end of the twentieth century, radical music was politically exhausted. The most radical gestures are made already. I think best example is Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music: the band started out revolutionary and underground, but when a bunch of frat boys started listening to it, the band immediately became mainstream. To maintain their underground credibility, they make another album of less-accessible music in order to lose fans and maintain cachet. You make your music more unlistenable as a way of restoring its exclusivity: you sell people an album of screeching noise. Like, that’s as revolutionary as it gets! And some people actually listen to it! It’s all a matter of exclusivity. I’ve sat through contemporary dance performances that were absolutely inaccessible and when people start to walk out, you can see the look of absolute satisfaction on everybody else. It’s just straight-up snobbery, right? It’s like distancing yourself from the great unwashed, from the people with mainstream tastes who lack true aesthetic judgement”.

Guilty, I explain that my favourite record is Captain Beefheart’s highly-inaccessible Trout Mask Replica: an album recorded under cult-like conditions with highly avant-garde results. I also remember how pleased I was when The Simpsons creator, Matt Groening announced it was also his favourite album. Me and Groening: two pretentious peas in a radical pod.

“When The Rebel Sell came out, a lot of old hippies were extremely upset by it, a lot of people our age—Generation X—reacted to it with ‘Oh, that’s really helpful. It’s something I kinda thought but never articulated,’ but anyone younger was like ‘Dude, tell me something I don’t know’. For anyone post-Internet, this is totally obvious. Stuff on the Internet gets co-opted overnight. It used to be that information moved very slowly. You could have a six-month lead before other found out [about the hip, new thing]. Growing up, a girl I knew would visit New York to check out [the nightclub,] CBGB. She would come back with a band t-shirt and she’d have the [scoop] on what was going on. This allowed us young punks to be cool for about a year because of the long lag. There was no MTV, radio stations didn’t play this stuff and albums were hauled around in trucks. Nobody could find out what was going on at CBGB, so if you got someone with inside intel, you were cool for ages before the ordinary folks found out about it. I used to feel that I was a member of an alternative culture and there was an essential difference between us and the mainstream. I realised later on that it was just a consequence of time lag: the delay in transmission of cultural information. Now, if someone puts something on YouTube, ten-thousand people are imitating it the next day. That’s why no young person was surprised by [the message of The Rebel Sell]. They’ve already realised it: there’s no such thing as alternative music. It took me a long time to figure out! I bought the whole thing, hook, line and sinker.”

So the standard rebel arguments are often just garden-variety inherited wisdom, which doesn’t need to be proliferated through art.

One point that I believe to be important, however, before we give up on rebellion, is that life without it is somehow hollow. Artists—whether musicians, film makers, performers or visual artists—have always gone against the grain or at least held up rebellion as a pretense for getting our blood pumping. There was never a song written about how the government have our best interests at heart and how the bankers do a great job. Without rebellion, sincere or otherwise, we’d never have seen The Wild Ones or Easy Rider or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We’d never have felt the love of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Bed In’. We’d have never experienced the punk phenomena of the Sex Pistols or Patti Smith or The Clash or The Fall; or felt the surge of naive adrenaline when absorbing the crimson ink of comic books by torchlight under the covers. Exposure to rebellious art will often leave the feeling of new neural pathways being cut, often painfully, through the brain and of new mental muscles being flexed. Something that disconcerts (the grotesque pornography of Jake and Dinos Chapman), challenges the way you perceive the world (Douglas Gordon’s ’24-hour psycho’ video installation) or rocks the boat of social norms (Mark Quinn’s ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’, the sculpture of a pregnant quadriplegic, which stood beautiful on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth in London) has surely more value than a work that simply confirms what you know (stand-up comedy by Michael McIntyre) or agrees with the status quo. If rebellion in art is an empty gesture and is ineffective against Capitalism, it is still the best way I know for art to feel like the result of independent thought and in favour of a beautiful, vigorous life, which goes against the grain.

It’s also important to remember that artistic rebellion doesn’t only go against Capitalism. Artists can rebel against unethical government policies, animal cruelty, environmental collapse, racism, poor public amenities and infringements upon our human rights: things that bring shame upon every one of us if they go unaddressed. It is not direct action but through rebellious art, we can generate a discourse around these things and heighten public awareness. Art can be the conscience required to temper the crimes of governments and individuals and the corporation. If an artist intelligently and opaquely rails against (for example) the war in Dafur or low standards of living closer to home in the US and Canada, it can be the spark required to ignite mass comprehension and ultimately mass action.

Personally, I wonder if the counterculture’s failure to derail or temper Capitalism is not a failing of rebellion intrinsically but that the counterculture has simply been rebelling in an unproductive fashion. Thanks to Joseph Heath’s observations, we now know that rebellion has backfired and lead to the stimulation of rebel desires and the identification of a rebel market. With this knowledge, perhaps artists should strive to create a non-marketable, non-profitable commodity and promote, through this, a form of anti-consumption. If art could successfully manufacture an anti-product: something which could neither be bought or sold with money and didn’t rely on further extraction of materials from the Earth, could we not exploit the rebel desire without the rebel dollar? Could we not appeal to people’s rebel instincts and desires for a better world without selling them the t-shirt? Can we not create a kind of ‘outwardly projected hunger strike’ to discourage the unnecessary consumption of material products? When will the truly minimalist home (ascetic as opposed to designer) become fashionable? When will empty space be perceived as the next luxury good? I think, if any rebellious artistic movement can affect Capitalism, it lies here. We now know that the acquisition of haircuts and records and magazines—what Heath described to me as “the standard rebel gestures”—only serves to fuel the system. If we want to properly throw a spanner into the works of Capitalism, we’ve got to pull our funding and stop consuming these empty symbols of a fake revolution. That is the message of this rebellious artist. Now, where’s my commission?

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Poly Styrene

Originally published at Verbicide

Legendary punk front woman Poly Styrene has cancer and is reportedly too weak for chemotherapy. Three months after diagnosis, however, she is promoting her new studio album, Generation Indigo, from a hospital bed while nurses administer a miracle drug called Herceptin. It is from this bed in a British coastal town (very near to Hastings pier, where she first saw the Sex Pistols perform and famously said, “I could do that”) that Ms. Styrene grants us a short but upbeat interview.

Alongside Laura Logic, Poly Styrene came to popular consciousness while fronting the iconic punk rock band X-Ray Spex. The only criticism that can be leveled upon this amazing group (important in the history of New Wave as well as pure punk) is that they didn’t produce enough work. Two archetypal studio albums and two live recordings have left fans desperate for more. Parallel to her work with the Spex, Poly has enjoyed a solo career, starting in 1980 with her album Translucence. Putting aside the heavy and grubby punk guitar of the Spex, her solo work tends to be gentler, jazzy, and inspired by her spiritual outlook — Poly was initiated into the Hare Krishna movement in 1983 and lived as a devotee in their temple for several years.

The latest installment to the Styrene canon is Generation Indigo and its first single, “Virtual Boyfriend.” “I just wanted to do something that was very current and that was about modern relationships,” Poly tells me in regards to the single. “There wasn’t a lot of thought. It channeled through me and just happened.” The narrative of the new single concerns technology and our relationship to it: “Human contact is necessary, and we need to be careful we don’t lose this and its importance.”

The new album is produced by Martin Glover, perhaps most famous as “Youth” from post-punk kings, Killing Joke. “It was a pleasant experience [working with him] and we got on. He works pretty fast and so do I, so the pace was familiar.” Poly Styrene is often cited as the original feminist punk icon. What are the challenges for feminism today?

“I don’t think there are any challenges anymore. Just the over-sexualization of women, but that’s quite small in reality. I’m in a hospital at the moment and all the nurses are women and they’re lovely. In the media they’re portrayed in a different way, but just like the nurses I’m talking about, the majority of women are out there being themselves. Women are quite caring and nurturing and that’s good. If that’s feminism then there should be more of it.”

I ask the question to which we’re all nonchalantly hoping for an affirmative. Will there be a future excursion for the X-Ray Spex or perhaps a release of older, unheard material? “I’m not sure at the moment, as I’m concentrating on this album and also on getting better. There are some early recordings that haven’t been out there yet… maybe one day in the future it will be released.”

I think Verbicide speaks on behalf of all the fans when we wish Poly a speedy recovery.

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