I’ll Be Your Mirror: Andy Warhol’s Writing Degree (Less Than) Zero

This appeared in 3:AM Magazine on 24 May 2008:

I’ll Be Your Mirror: Andy Warhol’s Writing Degree (Less Than) Zero

Life and books entertain complex and sometimes paradoxical relations. Authors routinely explain that the lie of fiction is a roundabout way of grasping the truth of fact. Although I suspect this to be the majority view, it is by no means the only one.

Take the Aesthetic Movement’s struggle for artistic self-determination (symbolised by Des Esseintes‘ rejection of nature). Wilde famously wrote that “Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life” and so it was with literature: fiction came to be seen as an alternative to, rather than a reflection of, living — an activity best left to servants according to one of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam‘s characters.

Attempts have also been made at a life-literature merger. Here, you can usually expect macho posturing, violent deaths and spontaneous prose that disappears up its own ars rhetorica — sometimes all three. A prime example is that of the hardcore Dadaists who tried to do away with the “revolting dualism of real and described life” (Boris Poplavsky) by turning themselves into works of art before committing suicide to prove that they were 4 Real, like.

There is a third way; one that chimes with our spectacular times: the literary takeover bid. This trend goes back to the beautifully-barmy magna opera which — from Coleridge‘s omnium-gatherum to Mallarmé‘s “Grand Oeuvre” and beyond — aspired to shoehorn the whole of Creation between the covers of a book. In 1974, Georges Perec wrote down everything he saw from his café table in a bid to record “what happens when nothing happens”. B. S. Johnson was guided by the equally hubristic ambition to include what he called the “enormity of life” in a novel. The infamous “FUCK ALL THIS LYING” diatribe at the end of Albert Angelo, which shatters the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief, is nothing short of an anti-fiction manifesto: “telling stories is telling lies and I want to tell the truth”.

Jonathan Coe has convincingly argued that Johnson’s “pursuit of literary naturalism” — “his perverse desire to reduce the novel to the status of real life” — was one of the factors that contributed to his suicide. “Go into one of the cafés in Islington and turn on your tape recorder and record people’s conversations,” he advises him posthumously, “Then come home and transcribe them and keep doing that until you’ve got two or three hundred pages. There you will have your ‘authentic’ naturalism and you know as well as I do that there is not a single person in the world who would want to read it. It would be unreadable.” This “‘authentic’ naturalism” was implemented in 1968 (four years after the publication of Albert Angelo) by Andy Warhol.

‘Renaissance Man’ is an overused cliché, but Warhol fits the bill perfectly. He was a painter, illustrator, designer, photographer, filmmaker, producer, journalist, editor, anchorman, model and many other things besides. In her latest book — Warhol Spirit — Cécile Guilbert argues, somewhat more contentiously, that he was also a serious writer.

warholspirit.jpg

She highlights his influence on Bret Easton Ellis by juxtaposing an extract from American Psycho with a social column penned by Warhol in 1973. The similarities are so obvious — same tonal blankness, compulsive name-dropping and seemingly endless lists of designer goods — that no commentary is necessary. (Fittingly, the film adaptation of American Psycho was directed by Mary Harron whose previous movie had been I Shot Andy Warhol.)

Warhol’s name has cropped up time and again — silkscreen-print-fashion — in reviews of Ellis’s work, but never before had the connection been so clearly established. Except by Ellis himself, that is. One of the characters in Glamorama — his most Warholian novel to date — is mocked because she only owns two books: the Bible plus The Andy Warhol Diaries (“and the Bible was a gift”). The inference is that the Diaries only appeal to illiterate hipsters, but the juxtaposition with scripture is just as significant. The Pope of Pop presides over the celebrity culture and branded environment Glamorama is steeped in, but his all-pervasive presence runs the paradoxical risk of being taken for granted or even overlooked. When Victor, the protagonist, quotes one of Warhol’s epigrams (“Baby, Andy once said that beauty is a sign of intelligence”), it is immediately disproved by his girlfriend’s admission that she has no idea who he is (“Andy who?”). The fact that she could have walked straight out of the Factory or the Chelsea Hotel adds a nice touch of dramatic irony.

The two men met at a launch party for Less Than Zero in 1985. Warhol had not read Ellis’s debut, but was much taken with its title (a nod to Elvis Costello) that resonated with his own rhetoric. Cécile Guilbert zeroes in on the quasi-Zen minimalism of his interview performances. She sees Warhol as a Candide-like figure rather than the usual sub-Wildean ironist: a mystical idiot savant whose very passivity turns him into a mirror (to quote Nico and Lou Reed) or (more appropriately as we shall see) a tape recorder. In POPism, his memoir, Warhol claimed that the words he uttered during interviews always seemed to be “coming from someplace else, someplace behind [him]”. This oracular ventriloquism raises fundamental issues of authorship as does his approach to the novel.

warhol_brillo.jpg

a, A Novel — Warhol’s answer to Ulysses — is the verbatim transcription of a series of taped conversations between the author and actor Ondine. The typescripts (courtesy of four typists including Velvet Underground drummer Mo Tucker who excised all swear words) were themselves faithfully reproduced down to the last typo and abbreviation.

There is a stark contrast between this obsessive all-inclusiveness and the terseness of the truncated title. Guilbert points out that Warhol had contemplated calling his novel “Cock”, but finally plumped for a which just happens to be the missing vowel from his real surname (Warhola). One could argue that this “symbolic castration” also refers to the surgical removal (through the absence of editing) of the author’s authority.

Andy Warhol was a prescient writer if not a great one. With a, he deliberately set out to produce a “bad” novel — an experiment which announces the avant-pulp of people like Stewart Home. His hands-off approach provided a nice take on Barthes“Death of the Author” (an almost literal one given the Valerie Solanas incident which had just taken place). He can also be credited with taking the objectivity of the nouveau roman to its logical conclusion. Perhaps more significantly, he anticipated that the truth of fiction would be ditched in favour of the fictionalization of truth (and invented reality TV in the process).

Warhol is not usually thought of as a writer and in a way he was not one at all since his books were either dictated or transcribed from recordings. From this point of view, he was part of a curiously old-fashioned tradition that predates the Gutenberg Galaxy.

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France’s Pre-Banksy Art Provocateurs

This appeared in the Guardian (Art & Architecture blog) on 14 May 2008:

France’s Pre-Banksy Art Provocateurs

At the time of punk, a ‘commando’ unit of French creative guerrillas spearheaded a movement that was the forerunner of today’s spray-stencil street culture

Bazooka
Dominique Fury flanked by two of the Banshees wearing her T-shirts

Imagine Jamie Reid stealing the Sex Pistols’ thunder or Linder Sterling upstaging the Buzzcocks: this is pretty much what happened in France at the end of the 70s. The Jeunes Gens Mödernes (“Mödern Young Things”) exhibition, curated by Jean-François Sanz at the Galerie du Jour in Paris, showcases most aspects of local post-punk culture from badges to paintings through record sleeves, fanzines, photographs, videos and films. A totemic synthesizer, an old-school keyboard and a couple of guitars propped up against diminutive amps take pride of place at the centre of the main room. Cigarette butts have been studiously littered around the pretend stage for added authenticity. This installation of sorts embodies the ghost of gigs past, but it also draws attention to the deafening sound of silence. Visiting agnès b’s labyrinthine gallery is not dissimilar to attending a concert wearing earplugs or watching television on mute — and, frankly, it is all the better for it.

With a few notable exceptions, Gallic punk was derivative and devoid of any real social resonance. Singing about anarchy in front of a handful of socialites on loan from the neighbouring gay clubs was unlikely to threaten the status quo. This is probably why the extraordinary creative energies unleashed in New York and London were channelled, most effectively, into the edgiest fringes of the French art world.

Bazooka, who appeared in 1975, were arguably the greatest punk artists this side of Jamie Reid (Malcolm McLaren once described them as “influential”). They are mainly known in Britain for designing the cover of Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces, but they first shot to infamy during the summer of 1977 when they were invited to (dis)grace the pages of Libération. This led to a series of nocturnal art attacks which consisted in adding increasingly provocative artwork and comments on every inch of space available. Sometimes they even went as far as doctoring the content of articles or changing the layout. They always did this at the 11th hour — just before the paper went to press — so that nobody could foil their subversive plans. “All hail the graphic dictatorship,” trumpeted one of Bazooka‘s most famous slogans, reflecting their fascination with Suprematism (Lissitzky), Constructivism (Rodchenko) and totalitarian propaganda. The aim was to wind up the leftist “war veterans” of May 1968 and their hippie fellow-travellers who made up the bulk of Libé‘s staff and readership. In this they succeeded only too well. Lawsuits were filed and tempers flared. Olivia Clavel was soundly slapped by a female photographer whose work she had butchered; Kiki Picasso (Christian Chapiron) and Loulou Picasso (Jean-Louis Dupré) were both beaten up for their provocative flirtations with fascist iconography. Tensions ran so high that the editor eventually gave Bazooka their own monthly magazine (1978) to avoid a full-blown rebellion within his daily.

At the time, the members of this “graphic commando” were all living together in a large flat which was part Warholian Factory, part Bauhaus-style powerhouse. Fuelled by drugs, they worked day and night while musicians drifted in and out. There is a famous picture showing Dominique Fury flanked by a pair of Banshees sporting T-shirts she had just produced (pictured above). Speed and (especially) acid led to a Stakhanovist output ranging from countless record sleeves to the credits of TV programmes via an issue of NME. The switch to heroin soon slowed them down and heralded the group’s demise in 1980.

In many ways Bazooka provided a blueprint for the post-punk art collectives which followed in their wake. They celebrated everything modern in a knowing retro-futurist manner that was, in fact, typically postmodern; they rejected the traditional highbrow-lowbrow dichotomy, shunned museums and attacked the cultural establishment.

The Musulmans Fumants (a reference to Chester Himes), co-founded in 1980 by Tristam Dequatremare (former lead singer with punk combo Guilty Razors), preferred to exhibit their works in nightclubs rather than traditional galleries. They were instrumental in reviving figurative painting and launching the international careers of Robert Combas and Hervé Di Rosa who spearheaded the successful Figuration Libre movement (1981).

The Frères Ripoulin (1984) were the Musulmans Fumants’ partners in artistic crimes. They included Nina Childress, who graduated from art-punk band Lucrate Milk, as well as Claude Closky and Pierre Huyghe who went on to find fame and fortune.

Jean Faucheur, their theoretician, believed that the streets were the new art schools at a time when graffiti art had hardly reared its head. The Ripoulins were “affichistes”: they painted their works on posters which were then pasted on strategically-placed advertising hoardings. All these groups were linked to Basquiat, Haring and the whole Lower East Side scene across the Atlantic, but they are also very much the forefathers of the current Street Art movement.

Jeunes Gens Modernes in Paris

This was published by Dazed Digital (Dazed & Confused‘s website) on 24 April 2008:

Jeunes Gens Modernes in Paris

The opening of the Jeunes Gens Mödernes exhibition offered a whole generation a sense of closure. Quite literally, in the case of the hundreds of people who, unable to get in, transformed Rue Quincampoix into an impromptu al fresco carnival — a gathering of the tribes. Once-dodgy skinheads rubbed shoulders with effete dandies under the eyes of mohicaned whippersnappers who could have been (and indeed often were) their offspring.

At times, it felt a bit like having a chinwag with a grizzled Dorian Gray in front of his youthful likeness. Most of the faces on the Parisian post-punk scene were out in force, simultaneously plastered on the walls of the labyrinthine gallery and getting plastered in the cobbled courtyard. Weather-beaten but unbowed. Still high from 1001 nights at Le Palace or Le Rose Bonbon. Happy to have lived to tell the tale.

The “Jeunes Gens Mödernes” (“Mödern Young Things”) tag first cropped up in an issue of Actuel back in 1980. It referred specifically to a small coterie of hipsters revolving around rarefied bands like Artefact, Modern Guy or Suicide Romeo and nightclubs with the strictest of door policies. Here, curator Jean-François Sanz has given the expression a more comprehensive definition to include most aspects of Gallic post-punk culture between 1978 and 1983.

Like Spain’s La Movida or New York’s No Wave (largely inspired by Frenchman Michel Esteban), this was indeed far more than just a musical movement. It was a fully-fledged cultural revolution bent — sometimes outrageously so — on redefining fin-de-siècle modernity.

“Modern” (or “novö” to use Yves Adrien’s coinage with its trademark umlaut) was a ubiquitous buzzword in the wake of punk’s year zero. With hindsight, however, it is quite obvious that this phenomenon bears all the hallmarks of postmodernism — from its recycling of the major 20th century avant-gardes to its space-age retro-futurism.

Philippe Morillon, one of the emblematic artists of that era, explains that “it is at the very point when things disappear that we cling on to them”. He belongs to a generation which jettisoned the traditional highbrow/lowbrow dichotomy and shunned museums altogether. Newspapers, T-shirts or record sleeves were the Bazooka collective’s media of choice; the Musulmans Fumants showcased their works in nightclubs while the Frères Ripoulin turned to billboards. As for Morillon, he worked for advertising agencies.

The exhibition’s achronological bric-à-brac organisation is in keeping with the eclectic, iconoclastic spirit of the Jeunes Gens Mödernes themselves. Paintings, badges, films, fanzines, photographs, installations and videos all take pride of place in deliberately haphazard-fashion: this, after all, was the first truly multimedia movement.

If Jean-François Sanz eschews value judgements, his is not a hands-off approach — much to the chagrin of those who feel excluded. Former Guilty Razors frontman Tristam Dequatremare is perplexed at the absence of the Musulmans Fumants — the group he co-founded — despite being instrumental in reviving figurative painting and launching the international careers of Robert Combas and Hervé Di Rosa. Dominique Fury, who lobbied for their inclusion, believes the curator assembled works which all express a certain “existential frailty” she associates with the essence of adolescence. This is why he opted for the tortured genius of Bazooka, say, over the joie de vivre of the Musulmans Fumants for whom the 80s were one big party.

Fury herself is omnipresent, both as a muse and an artist in her own right. She is an Ariadne’s thread weaving her magic between past and present — the glamorous embodiment of this scene’s enduring legacy. No wonder some 3,000 punters attended the opening which offered a whole generation — and us — a sense of closure.

Des Jeunes Gens Mödernes runs until 17 May at the Galerie du Jour agnès b, 44 Rue Quincampoix, 75004 Paris

Sexy Eiffel Towers

This appeared in the April-May 2008 issue of Flux magazine (issue 64, PP. 36-37)

Sexy Eiffel Towers

Don’t laugh, but France played a crucial part in shaping the punk rock template (and I’m not talking about that Belgian comedy act Plastic Bertrand). Richard Hell’s wasted look, spiky hair and blank ethos were modelled on the fin-de-siècle poètes maudits. The ideological and aesthetic underpinnings of the Pistols camp were largely culled from the (largely French) Situationists. When the movement was still anonymous, Malcolm McLaren favoured calling it “new wave” in homage to the nouvelle vague — a monicker that ended up describing punk’s more commercial fellow-travellers.

According to one school of thought, French punk even predated its British counterpart. In 1972, dandy rock critic Yves “Sweet Punk” Adrien penned a seminal article in which he praised the primal energy of bands like the Stooges, MC5 or Flamin’ Groovies and castigated the sonic self-abuse of so-called progressive musicians. This manifesto was the journalistic equivalent of Lenny Kaye’s massively influential Nuggets compilation, released the same year and available at L’Open Market, Marc Zermati’s legendary record shop. Not content with providing a blueprint for London’s Rough Trade, Zermati was also responsible for the very first punk label (Skydog Records, 1973) and festival (Mont de Marsan, 1976). Future Ze Records supremo Michel Esteban and his partner Lizzy Mercier Descloux (Chrissa in Go Now, Richard Hell’s novel) launched a rival emporium within gobbing distance, thus sealing Les Halles’ reputation as the epicentre of Gallic punk activity. Like Covent Garden (home to the Roxy Club), the area was undergoing extensive refurbishment. Zola’s gutted “Belly of Paris” was about to spew up a Ballardian shopping complex and a futuristic modern art museum that would provide an ideal, dystopian backdrop to the new subculture as well as to the exhibition which, for the first time, charts its legacy.

Des Jeunes Gens Mödernes (“Modern Young Things”), hosted by fashion designer agnès b.’s Galerie du Jour, covers the post-punk period between 1978 and 1983. The title alludes to a label coined by trendy magazine Actuel in 1980 to describe a short-lived local scene — revolving around nightclub Le Rose Bonbon and bands such as Suicide Romeo or Modern Guy — that was unashamedly incestuous and elitist. Curator Jean-François Sanz is eager to explain that the reference is simply an “excuse” to gauge the far wider cultural fallout from the 1977 explosion. Like New York’s No Wave, this was indeed a fully-fledged cultural revolution involving artists, writers, filmmakers and fashionistas as well as musicians.

Dominique Fury — once described as the Parisian Edie Sedgwick — embodied the restless creative spirit of the times. After leaving all-girl combo L. U. V., she joined the Bazooka collective (arguably the most influential punk artists this side of Jamie Reid) having been attracted by the “sheer intensity of their graphic production”. By 1980, she was producing her famous line of signed, one-off “geometric cold wave” T-shirts-cum-artworks for agnès b. and experimenting with industrial fabrics. Tristam Dequatremare, the former lead singer with Guilty Razors who likewise graduated to the art fraternity, sees this exhibition as a means of putting the record straight. “The revival of figurative painting started here in France,” he says, lamenting the fact that the likes of the Musulmans Fumants (the group to which he belonged) or the Frères Ripoulin (which included several members of art-punk outfit Lucrate Milk) have been airbrushed out of international contemporary art history.

The exhibition itself is complemented by a book, a double CD compilation as well as a documentary which reflect the movement’s inherently multimedia nature and exuberant originality. The album contains the cream of the local post-punk crop (Marquis de Sade, Taxi Girl, Elli & Jacno, Etienne Daho, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Marie et les Garçons…) but also a few covers by contemporary bands who take their inspiration from this period. This is a nice touch as one is left with a distinct sense of unfulfilled promise. The early cultural maelstrom gradually gave way to a more somber mood as the Socialist government’s policies failed and AIDS started taking its toll. As Fury puts it, “Death was disco-dancing beneath the plush red velvet of Le Palace nightclub”.

Des Jeunes Gens Mödernes runs from 3 April until 17 May at the Galerie du Jour agnès b. (44 Rue Quincampoix, 75004 Paris).