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THE ART OF LEGITIMATION: The ongoing transformation of the avant-garde from countercultural force to dominant institution. Stewart Home interviewed by Simon Ford

Stewart Home's activities and fields of interest have long defied categorisation. In addition to the role of prime propagandist for the Neoist Cultural Conspiracy, he is a novelist, musician, performance artist, more recently an occultist and according to at least one source, 'an ego-maniac on a world historical scale'; in short, a multi-faceted avant-gardist phenomenon. After three years of high-profile inactivity (Art Strike 1990-1993), he has exploded back onto an otherwise lack-lustre cultural scene. Home's interest in the historicisation of the avant-garde ties in with my own research into the processes of legitimation. As a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, I have primary experience of this contentious field. Just how does a group such as Fluxus go from side-show to critical domination of a period? Museums and critics obviously have a role to play but the movements themselves are far from passive in this process. With Home's close connections to Neoism and that movement's seemingly inevitable breakthrough into what could be termed its 'historical phase', he was an obvious person to talk to about these issues.

How do you feel about the Art Strike, looking back on it now?

I'm both pleased and frustrated with the reaction to the Art Strike. One of the reasons for doing the Art Strike was to draw attention to the ways in which information about culture circulates. Rather than giving a theoretical description of how this process operates, I set up a practical demonstration of meme drift. There were odd bits of media coverage for the Strike right the way through the three years in which it took place. People were still coming across it for the first time and to them it was new and news. During the Strike, I wasn't doing any press or publicity, so information about it just bubbled up from the underground. Now that I'm doing interviews again, people want to talk to me about the Art Strike and for me, that can be boring because I want to move on. I said most of what I still had to say on the subject during the talk I gave at the Victoria and Albert Museum in January '93. So it can be frustrating when people ask basic questions about the Strike. I'd rather not talk about the Strike unless doing so will accelerate the debate that surrounds it and my other work. I think other people deeply involved with the Strike feel this way too. Lloyd Dunn, for example, had a piece published in a US regional arts magazine called Tractor, summing up his thoughts on the Strike. John Berndt, tENTATIVELY a cONVENIENCE and Al Ackerman are threatening to produce documents in response to, and perhaps partially refuting, my V&A talk. This could be a foretaste of what I'd like to see happen. That is, people looking at all the material generated by the Strike and then making a serious attempt to deal with the issues raised. Actually getting hold of all the graphics and texts connected to the Art Strike is quite a task in itself because there is such a profusion of material.

The Art Strike was such an extreme thing to do. Have you ended your involvement with art completely? Or will you make any more artefacts and performances?

The Art Strike was the final wrap on all the avant-garde work I was doing during the eighties. It was the last piece of packaging placed around my post-Neoist activities before I left it to the art world to deal with my past. I'm not planning to do any further art work but I can't prevent other people interpreting my current activities as being somehow connected to the avant-garde. For example, I've set up a group called the Neoist Alliance which has nothing to do with the old Neoist Network. We've held gatherings to celebrate the founding of the Illuminati and we've picketed a Stockhausen concert in Brighton. I don't see these as art type events but I can't prevent other people from doing so. For example, the arts magazine Hybrid covered the demonstration against Stockhausen in its review section. I'm not complaining about that, the reviewer turned up to do a piece about a composer the Neoist Alliance detests and because we were there, ended up ignoring the music and writing about us instead. However, if you examine the coverage we got from Festival Radio and the Brighton and Hove Leader, you'll see that the local media treated our demonstration as a protest rather than a piece of performance art.

Isn't there a flaw in your argument here? The Neoist Alliance appears to be a conspiratorial group and you've recently been writing about the connections between avant-garde movements and secret societies. Doesn't this give critics a good reason to interpret your current activities as being art based?

Not necessarily! Although I'm now interested in connecting the Situationists to secret societies, this largely reflects my obsession with historification and how we understand the past. In this country, the initial reception of the Situationists in the very early sixties was art based. There were discussions and film screenings at the ICA and some coverage in the TLS special devoted to the avant-garde. After that, for 30 years the SI had no discernible presence within British cultural institutions. The group didn't generate any press interest in Britain during the mid-sixties, they were more or less ignored beyond very sporadic coverage in the underground press. Later, the SI were interpreted as a completely political movement by the borderline anarchists who took up their cause. When I first came across the Situationists, they were presented to me as political theorists. According to the assorted ex-public school 'radicals' I encountered in the late seventies, the Situationis ts had produced the ultimate critique of capitalism. To adopt a peculiarly apt religious phraseology, the SI had 'the answer', their texts were a leftist substitute for the Bible. I asked a few pro-situs to tell me what they meant by terms such as 'spectacle' and they either couldn't or wouldn't explain them. I was told I had to read Society of the Spectacle and The Revolution of Everyday Life. The whole attitude towards the Situationists was a kind of secular Protestantism. When I actually got around to looking through some of the texts, I could see that it was possible to make non-political interpretations of the SI as a group. I went for the artistic line, which at the time was the second most obvious way in which to categorise Situationism. There are, of course, other ways of understanding the group. I was struck by the possibility of an occult interpretation of the SI while reading Nesta Webster's Secret Societies and Subversive Movements. She was actually deali!ng with eighteenth-century freemasons but to me it read like a description of the Situationist International. When I then went and looked at some Situationist texts, they were liberally peppered with secret society references. I'd missed these on previous readings because until recently, I was very dismissive of the occult. I'm more than happy to admit that the Neoist Alliance sprang from the same soil as the Rosicrucians and that this provides a link between my current activities and the Situationist tradition. All I'm doing here is connecting the Neoist Alliance and the SI through the occult, this has nothing to do with Situationism as an art movement. Obviously, I'm not in a position to prevent other people from reinterpreting my recent activities in an art context. I can't control every interpretation of what I do. But I wouldn't see this as a flaw in my thinking.

The way the art world operates seems to have many parallels with secret societies, particularly the activities of avant-garde movements such as Surrealism.

Yes, according to the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Cocteau was head of the Priory of Sion.

Are there any connections between the Futurists and Italian Freemasons?

I haven't investigated that at all. I've only been looking into these things since the beginning of the year, which hardly presents enough time to do a serious investigation. Likewise, I don't read Italian, so I wouldn't be the best person to investigate that particular area. In any case, I'm more interested in post-war groups.

The Neoist Alliance is just one area of your practice, could you describe how you use various media to communicate your ideas?

What's crucial to me is the reception of what I'm doing, I'm interested in how people react to it, how they interact with it. Obviously, there are a number of key ideas but how these are put across varies according to the medium I'm using. When I was doing installations in the eighties, one of the things that made them pertinent was actually dealing with the gallery as a space and not only in an ideological sense. The fact that I was dealing with a physical space was just as important to me. Obviously, there's a vast difference between a gallery and a hole in the road and this meant there were a lot of ideological issues that had to be dealt with. Among other things, I had to engage with the gallery both as a site of cultural validation and an integral part of the art system. Along with books and essays, the gallery occupies a key position in the process of art historicisation. However, I was also interested in physically messing things up, shining lights in the audience's eyes and generally littering the space. Likewise, I wanted to show that anyone could bullshit their way through the cultural system, that you don't need any specialist training to con money from the British Council. Obviously, a lot of my work took place in what can be described as cyber-space. An example of this would be the attack I launched on traditional notions of identity and creativity by getting several hundred people to use the name Karen Eliot. While critics may or may not want to interpret this project through the prism of post-modernism, and thereby conclude that what I was doing was totally in tune with the times, my main interest was fucking things up.

The Neoist movement was in a sense a parody of an avant-garde group in that it never had one coherent programme, there were multiple programmes, with a tremendous number of references. How do you see Neoism fitting into the so called progression of post-war avant-garde movements, assuming that it does and if so, how was this or is this to be achieved?

I think a lot of it comes down to what you think the Neoist group was doing. Historifying something means simplifying the elements involved so that they fit a schematic pattern. Taking the Neoists, you've got people like Greil Marcus coming along and saying that Neoism is complete garbage - which is of course true - but Marcus is, as usual, missing the point. The opinions of rival critics are what problematises the process of historification for the various individuals engaged in this cultural practice. Obviously, you've got to sift through the available material and sort out what you want. Neoism, for example, could be interpreted as a modernist movement by privileging the work of Pete Horobin. The whole Data Cell project treated art as more or less a process of administration. In many ways, Horobin's activities ran parallel to - but also parody - the process of historification. He was using rubber stamps and files to document his life as an artist during the ten years from 1980 to 1990, at a time when most businesses had moved on to using computers. The Data project was very bureaucratic and as such appears to be a piece of classic modernism, as long as one resists the temptation to view it as a post-modern pastiche of nostalgia. I think the younger Neoists, John Berndt and myself - Graf Haufen to an extent although his practice was less intellectualised - can be viewed as being completely in tune with the post-modern art of the eighties. However, you can just as easily interpret Neoism as an avant-garde transgression of the modernist/post-modernist project. For the time being, I'd rather leave it to the critics to work out for themselves what Neoism was about. Then, if I don't like what's being said, I'll put some of my own interpretations into the public domain. I'm here to create problems for art historians but before I get into working on this in any big way, the critics will have to do some preliminary work on the raw material.

When you were involved with the Neoists Network, you were obviously aware of what documentation future critics or historians might need in order to perceive this group as historically significant. So you had to go through all the motions of being a proper avant-garde group such as producing manifestos and periodicals, even having internal power struggles.

The power struggles were real enough and I won! When I hooked up with the Neoists, I thought certain aspects of the movement were undeveloped. For example, there wasn't enough text. This was one of the things I wanted to introduce in vast quantities. When I first came across the group, it had existed for several years and the people involved were engaged in a very diverse range of activities. There didn't appear to be any central core to what was going on, Neoism was simply a mass of contradictions. Thus I was able to systematise the group's ideology and slant it in a way that suited me. This was simultaneously accepted as necessary and resented by the people who were involved at the time and even individuals - such as John Berndt - who joined later on, partially as a result of how I'd transformed the group.

Another thing I considered necessary to make Neoism historically viable, was a direct link to Situationism. The early Neoist group had an over linear paternity deriving from a progression through Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Fluxus and Mail Art. The group lacked any significant input from post-war avant-garde movements such as the SI and Auto-Destructive Art. Although my understanding of the situationists at that time was not particularly sophisticated because I hadn't read a very representative selection of their writings, I happily chucked bits and pieces plagiarised from their texts into the Neoist manifestos I was concocting. I wanted to transplant the Situationist obsession with text into the Neoist Network because having come out of the Fluxus/Mail Art trajectory, the importance of writing within the avant-garde tradition had been partially lost among my comrades. As a result, the Neoists were in danger of losing their avant-garde identity and becoming just another part of the underground. While its members were madly documenting events, the Neoist Network relied chiefly on visual records and there'd been a failure to grasp the central role written reports played in the process of historicisation. Likewise, for purely economic reasons, a good deal of the documentation the Neoists did produce was substandard in terms of art discourse. Before meeting up with Pete Horobin, I'd never used video or Super 8. At the time of my involvement with Neoism, I wasn't aware of the quality that was required for broadcasting and mass distribution of film and video. A lot of early Neoist documentation fails in terms of high cultural discourse because of its low quality. On the whole, early Neoist attempts at film and video production were abysmal! As I've already said, this was largely due to lack of money. When I was making Super 8 films with Horobin, we were both on the dole, so we'd use out of date film stock that we bought on the cheap from Jessops in Finchley Road.

When I think of a group such as Fluxus, I can picture the photograph in the Silverman collection of the Flux-Shop filled with product. I have seen very little that the Neoists actually produced other than documentation. Does this put a question mark against their possible consideration as an 'important' art movement? Admittedly this factor has not hurt the SI but then even minor Situationists appear more intellectually sophisticated than Neoists such as Istvan Kantor! Is there Neoist material I don't know about?

There are plenty of Neoist works that you don't know about and I assume I'm ignorant of a good many too. Fuck knows how many hundreds of hours of audio works there must be! Likewise, I'm not sure how much text the French-Canadians produced because I've only been able to get my hands on a few fragments of this material. Allegedly, there is considerably more, although I suspect that a lot of this stuff was produced in their post-Neoist phase when they were operating as the Society For The Preservation Of The Future. Obviously, it is problematic to ascribe precise dates to the existence of the Neoist Cultural Conspiracy. As a rough guide, I would describe the period 1977 to 1986 as the Neoist decade. Dave Zack, Al Ackerman and Maris Kundzin fermented the Neoist project at the Portland Academy between 1977 and 1979. Then the virus was transplanted to Montreal, where it went critical and spread world-wide. Between 1980 and 1986, there was at least one Neoist Apartment Festival a year, then a two year gap with no collective actions before the so called Millionth Apartment Festival in New York. There have been no collective manifestations under the aegis of Neoism since 1988, so I think it is fair to assume that as an organised movement, the Neoist Network is dead and buried. Geza Perneczky dealt tolerably well with the question of intellectual sophistication in the chapter on Neoism in his book A Halo. As regards a lack of product, I really don't think this is a problem as far as the historical importance of Neoism is concerned. Actually, when I've stayed with individuals such as Pete Horobin, tENTATIVELY a cONVENIENCE, Stiletto and Graf Haufen, I've always been amazed at the profusion of Neoist materials they possess. Even if lack of product was a problem, the work could always be faked up as it was needed! However, as far as I'm concerned, this all rather misses the point. I think that Neoism's relationship to the Plagiarist and Art Strike movements is si!milar to the role the Lettriste Internationale played with regard to the historically more important Situationist International. Ultimately, Neoism is interesting as a relatively insignificant precursor to a set of far more substantial activities.

You've talked about historification and have said that nobody has done any substantial work on Neoism, but you've written a history of the post-war avant-garde, The Assault On Culture. How did you feel about your writing on Neoism then and how would you rewrite it now?

The whole book would be very different if I wrote it again. However, what I have to say about Neoism wouldn't be substantially changed. What you have to understand about that book is that it's organised around the chapter on Neoism. The Neoist Network was what I was most interested in writing about, even if I appeared very dismissive of it. The stuff on the Situationists and Fluxus was simply a way of leading people into a discussion of Neoism. The preamble was necessary because at that time very few people would have been interested in reading a whole book about Neoism. If I wrote the book again today, it would be very different because there is now such a profusion of information about the Situationists and Fluxus. With the Situationists, I'd now place particular emphasis on the occult aspects of their activities. I think received interpretations of the avant-garde are very dull, so I'm forever getting this urge to fuck around with historification, to come up with new and perverse takes on culture. As regards the Fluxus material in The Assault On Culture, I'd be less inclined to change it because I don't think the individuals historifying the group have done their work properly. There's no sense of a grand narrative around Fluxus, the movement's history still appears very fragmented. Of course, the average critic would probably say this was good and reflected the work produced by the group. It means, however, that there's no real orthodoxy to kick against. The only thing people writing about Fluxus seem able to agree upon is that the group was somehow of vast importance.

Much work has been done on Gruppe Spur and Viennese Aktionism. The Lettriste Movement is still continuing. There is a mass of information on Isou (mostly written by himself and close associates) but his group has not really caught on like the SI or Fluxus. Do you think there is something to be said for remaining obscure and not really 'playing the game' too much if you want long term critical attention?

In a lot of ways, the SI didn't 'play the game' either. Like the Neoist, Plagiarist and Art Strike movements, the Situationists refused to go straight into galleries. Of course, there are always odd exceptions, such as Istvan Kantor, who has been completely compromised by the art system - but on the whole, the individuals associated with these movements have been playing a cat and mouse game with critics and historians. I've been concentrating on creating something that critics will find alluring, while individuals such as John Berndt and tENTATIVELY a cONVENIENCE have attempted to fuck this up. Of course, I wouldn't want the first critic who comes along to complete the historical packaging of my work. John A. Walker was sniffing about, showing some interest, but I slapped him down in the pages of Variant and that was the end of that - as you can see from his entries on Plagiarism and Neoism in the third edition of The Glossary Of Art, Architecture and Design Since 1945 . I' m not saying that I've planned every detail of the historicisation of the Neoist, Plagiarist and Art Strike movements. For example, I haven't decided that the ICA must hold a Plagiarist retrospective in 2018. However, I've put a lot of work into structuring these movements so that they can be historically assimilated in the way that I desire. In relation to this, there is certainly something to be said for obscurity because critics and historians like to feel that they've discovered something for themselves. There are reputations to be made from appearing to be the first individual to get into a particular area!

If you're not interested in writing the history of Neoism, do you expect it to happen?

It will happen, it's already happening, historification is an on going process and I'm busy illustrating how it works. At the moment, I'm writing a novel about the historicisation of Neoism because it's apt that this should occur in a fictional form before too many art historians set to work on it. The novel will also serve to draw critical attention to Neoism.

You make a distinction between underground and avant-garde activities. Do you see novels as more mainstream than gallery culture?

I don't think there is such a thing as mainstream culture, at least not anymore. To use a cliche, we live in a world of proliferating margins. Seriously though, over the past twenty years, we've witnessed an enormous amount of fragmentation going on in both 'serious' and popular culture. The distinction I make between the categories underground and avant-garde is based on the concept of theoretical rigour. Both categories view themselves as oppositional - although this is a claim that I, personally, tend to treat with suspicion - the difference is that the avant-garde is more intellectually vigorous than the underground. Because of this, it is also far more prone to sectarianism.

You've been described as a cult author. Do you see this part of your practice as just underground or do think your fiction is as critically rigorous as your other activities?

I think all modes of discourse tend towards the fictional. To use another cliche, discursive structures simultaneously enable one to speak and limit what can be said. The advantage of using the novel as a form is that it enables me to communicate with various constituencies which are not prepared to listen to the other voices I habitually adopt. But while I consciously rationalise the depiction of sex and violence in my narratives, I'm not interested in the so called 'novel of ideas'. I detest introspection, which is the predominant force shaping literary fiction. I look to genre works for vigour and inspiration. It's also important to me that my novels work as stories, if they didn't, I wouldn't trouble myself with this type of narrative.

In your two published novels, there are scenes which trash art galleries and administrators. Is this a particular obsession of yours? What is your relationship to the art world, how do you see yourself fitting into it?

With my fiction, there are certain recurring motifs, the destruction of art works is simply one of them. Others include scenes where one or more characters are under the influence of psychedelic drugs. In fact, the most common motifs are scenes of ritualised sex and violence. It's up to the reader to work out what's going on, if I wanted to give a literal explanation of my novels, I wouldn't bother writing works that openly proclaim their status as fiction! As to my relationship with the art world, well, I stand outside it but my work is a Trojan horse that will destroy the existing cultural apparatus once some critic is bold enough to attempt defusing this mimetic time bomb!

Seriously, it seems to me that you have a very detailed knowledge of the art world and that you could actually use this to forge a lucrative career for yourself. Would you ever consider doing this?

Yes, if I was able to do it on my own terms! The basic problem is that I enjoy fucking things up and this isn't how you're supposed to behave within the gallery system. Likewise, I've no real interest in forging an alternative art career that I subsidise from working full time at an art college. Doing something like that would make it very easy for the culture industry to swallow me whole and then exercise an enormous amount of control over my output. I want to be the invisible pilot at the centre of the popular storm, not some dupe afraid to rock the boat because my financial well-being depends on pleasing all the other buffoons toiling within the art system. I've stated elsewhere that 'serious culture' isn't consciously organised as a conspiracy against youth and vigour, but operates as such because 'good taste' dictates that successful artists stick to reproducing an already established ideal.

Do you think it is viable for us to be talking about an avant-garde in the 90s?

Yeah, definitely! I think the very existence of the London Psychogeographical Association proves the viability of the avant-garde in the 90s. Although I was only concerned with producing avant-garde material between 1982 and 1990, I don't think that prevents other individuals taking up the utopian project. While what principally concerns me now is aiding and abetting the historification of the eighties avant-garde, that doesn't stop interested parties taking up the torch passed down through Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Situationism, Fluxus, Neoism, Plagiarism and the Art Strike. One of the twists I added to the avant-garde tradition was to emphasise the process of packaging movements in preparation for their historification, This was always an important aspect of avant-garde activity. If it hadn't been, the SI wouldn't have bothered depositing vast amounts of material with museums and archives. My achievement was to demonstrate that rather than being recuperated by an all power!ful culture industry, avant-garde groups actively collude in the process of art historicisation. I'm sure the rising generation won't have any difficulty in topping this. After all, it wasn't difficult for me to break free from the taints of Fluxus and Situationism.

This ties in with what you've done with the Black Mask book. Rather than publish some new material of your own, you've reprinted little known work that in a way redresses some of the imbalance that's crept into the historicisation of the 60s avant-garde.

One of the points I'm interested in making is that there is no end to the process of historicisation. It's an on-going activity. Most people who've written about the relationship between the Situationists and punk have ignored the Black Mask group and if you're familiar with the relevant material, it makes what's been said on the subject look very silly indeed. Various individuals wanted to portray punk as 'musical Situationism' because the SI needed a stalking horse within popular culture to make them appear hugely influential and thus historically important. In a similar fashion, I'm increasing the viability of the Neoist, Plagiarist and Art Strike movements by citing them as an influence on the KLF and related pop music phenomena.

Aren't you in danger of becoming some kind of high cultural version of Malcolm McLaren's Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle?

If that happens, it will simply illustrate the point I made earlier about the limitations different modes of discourse impose upon what you can say. Although the idea that punk was a swindle perpetrated on the music industry is completely mythic and bears no relationship to what actually happened, it raises some interesting questions. If we go with the po-mo flow and forget about truth, one of the things we should be asking ourselves is in what ways do various myths promote or hinder social change. It's obvious that the present cultural system benefits a conservative clique, while simultaneously hindering meme mutation and the process of acceleration. For this reason, given the choice between supporting popular taste or defending 'serious culture', I would always take the former option. However, to do this is really to remain locked within the existing system. Having mastered the codes, I'm more interested in destroying the division between high and low brow and creating something new from the resulting wreckage. To conclude with a cliche, until we destroy everything there will only be ruins!

First published in Edinburgh Review 91 Spring 94

Stewart Home interviewed by Marko Pyhtil


Stewart Home in Melborune 2004

Stewart Home can talk for hours, and his favourite subject is himself...