The Socialite Manifesto

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I wrote a short presentation of Christiana Spens‘s The Socialite Manifesto for the Spring 2009 issue of Flux magazine (issue 68, p. 92):

From her publicity shots, Christiana Spens stares out at you with the faraway look of innocence lost. This 21-year-old Cambridge student is the precocious golden girl of our gilded age. Christiana launched her writing career at fifteen when she began filing copy for various arts and music magazines. “The deadlines gave me discipline, the music gave me dialogue and the art gave me ideals — so I was all set to start.” Last year, she published her debut novel which established her reputation as the poet laureate of elegantly-wasted Sloanedom. Reminiscent of Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh and Bret Easton Ellis, The Wrecking Ball zeroes in on the existential nightmare at the heart of the consumer dream — a theme that is also central to her latest project.

The Socialite Manifesto — which we showcase in the following pages — is clearly more graphic than novel. “My parents both write art books, so I grew up surrounded by picture books of every kind,” Christiana explains. “In a way, visual books are more natural to me than straightforward novels.” She was also inspired by a recent exhibition of collaborations between French writers and artists as well as a felicitous bout of writer’s block. “I started painting properly again when I had writer’s block in the spring. Painting seemed a more direct and sensual way to express myself, and gave me an elation writing didn’t. I swing from one to the other though. When one brings me down, the other brings me up.”

The Socialite Manifesto is meant to be the diary of one Ivana Denisovich whose name is an obvious nod to Solzhenitsyn. “I was interested in how there are all these Russian oligarchs around who have so much money it’s vulgar — and that that came out of communism. Where Ivan Denisovich was trapped by the Soviet regime, Ivana is trapped in the gilded frame of capitalism.” The writing is kept to a minimum to ensure that Ivana remains largely a blank canvas. “I was thinking of all the visual icons, like models and actresses, who never have anything to say but are stars because everyone projects their fantasies on them. I wanted my main character to be everyone’s personal fantasy, so to do that I couldn’t make her speak too much. If she started talking you might not want her anymore.” Christiana Spens subverts the traditional division between author and reader by inviting us to colour in the artwork and fill in some of the diary entries thus transforming the book into a truly collaborative experience. As for the eponymous Socialite Manifesto, there is not one — “just blank pages and a feeling that something isn’t quite right.”

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Degeneration X

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This appeared in the winter 2008/2009 edition of Flux magazine (issue 67, pp. 66-67):

Degeneration X

Shooting up and getting high to plumb the lowest depths with Tony O’Neill

Suffering from unspeakable withdrawal symptoms, a junkie bashes herself in the face with a book — repeatedly. Tony O’Neill does not mention the title, but a copy of Down and Out on Murder Mile, the hard-hitting sequel to his celebrated debut, would be most apposite. “My books are meant to read as immersive experiences,” he says. “You are dragged into the toilet stall and feel the needle going in.” This time round, however, the in-your-face squalor is shot through with the whitest flashes of transcendence. Whereas Digging the Vein showed the author “digging a big hole” for himself, Murder Mile relates how he crawled out of it.

There are cult writers, and then there is Tony O’Neill: the junkie’s junkie. This is a man who used to chase the dragon with the zeal of St George — even his dealer tried to persuade him to quit on one occasion.

O’Neill was born in 1978, on the wrong side of the track marks, as it were. He describes Blackburn as a “dying-on-its-arse old cotton town” where — according to one of his poems — those who fail to escape “pray for cancer or a speeding truck”. O’Neill legged it on the tail end of Britpop, playing keyboards with the likes of Kenickie and Marc Almond (he describes a later stint with dope fiends the Brian Jonestown Massacre as “Exile on Main Street, on a budget”). After his music career fizzled out, he relocated to the States and plunged headlong into the dark underbelly of Tinseltown, soon acquiring a serious habit and a couple of ill-suited wives. This dramatic period provided most of the material for his first novel, Digging the Vein, which he wrote while on the methadone programme described in his second.

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Although Down and Out on Murder Mile is billed as “semi-autobiographical fiction,” it seems to be based so faithfully on the author’s past that one wonders what is really fictitious about it. “My first and main reason for not labelling the book as autobiography is really simple,” he explains. “Who the hell would want to read my autobiography?”

Just as Morrissey grew into the kind of icon that graced the sleeves of his early records, O’Neill has become a biography waiting to be written. And inevitably, some readers are attracted to his work, not so much for its intrinsic value, but because the author has descended to the underworld Orpheus-style, and lived to tell the tale. But O’Neill (who mocks the idea that “drugs are a shortcut to any kind of insight” and is loath to ever become a “professional ex-addict”) knows that “you’d better bring something more to the table than your track marks and some missing teeth” if you are to become a proper author. “When I sit down to write, I don’t think that people will be fascinated by my story because of my personal history. I hope that the telling of it will fascinate them”. That said, he recalls attempting to compose a novel when he was 16 and realising that he had no story to tell. “Maybe for other people it’s different, but for me life had to knock several rounds of shit out of me before I knew what I wanted to say”.

More than its prededecessor, Murder Mile is what the Germans would call a Künstlerroman — a novel that is a portrait of the young artist. It chronicles its own genesis, but never in a tricksy, postmodern fashion.

The opening sentence hits a low point (“The first time I met Susan she overdosed on a combination of Valium and Ecstasy”) and then it goes downhill for most of the way. Despite the seediness and hardship, the narrator’s loveless, and largely sexless, marriage to Susan — the aforementioned book basher — is quite romantic, in a Sid-and-Nancy kind of fashion. Here, drugs stand in for the love potion of so many traditional love stories, and there’s the obligatory coupling of Eros and Thanatos, the “unspoken agreement that [they] would eventually die together”. Witnessing this junkie couple in freefall, shooting up and getting high to plumb the lowest depths, is often as exhilarating as a rollercoaster ride, at least on paper. “There’s something really romantic about death and self-destruction when you’re at a certain point in your life,” admits O’Neill. This death wish was underpinned by a kind of nihilistic hedonism coupled with a wide-eyed rejection of compromise and mediocrity. “Our lives are ultimately meaningless, so why not pass the time pleasurably? Heroin fed into that excessive, idealistic part of me: if I can feel this good for one moment, then I should be able to feel this good every moment of every day. Of course it can’t be, but I feel that there is some intellectual justification in saying that a life spent in the futile pursuit of some kind of transcendence is a life better spent than if you accept that it will never be as perfect as you hoped.” Drugs and sex offer fleeting intimations of immortality, but only unconditional love provides a way out. “Would I be dead if I hadn’t met Vanessa when I did?” wonders O’Neill. “In all honesty, the chances are yes. There certainly wouldn’t be any books.”

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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).