Punk Bashing Time

Andrew Stevens interviewed me for Creases Like Knives, 16 September 2017:

Punk Bashing Time: An Interview with Andrew Gallix

It was no less than Garry Bushell himself who wrote of ‘dreading well-meaning graduates with crops and tailor-made crombies’ in Sounds when he met with the teenaged members of ‘Skins Against the Nazis’ in 1978. Stevo had a few less hang-ups about meeting a fully-fledged Professor at the Sorbonne in Paris to go over his new book Punk Is Dead (Zero Books), which in part deals with aspects of skinhead’s troubled history among punk.

But then Andrew Gallix, who also edits the eclectic and punked-up webzine 3:AM, was a little more gracious and even-handed than some of the book’s other contributors when it came to recounting his own experiences.

You begin by taking issue with claims in “certain punk memoirs, [that] the streets of London, in 1977, were thronging with skinheads”?

Well, I was thinking specifically of Viv Albertine’s memoir — possibly the best punk memoir ever published and a truly excellent book in its own right. The dates, however, are not always totally accurate, which, to be fair, is hardly surprising given the breakneck speed of change in those days. Besides, it’s a personal memoir not a history book. I’ve just spotted an anecdote that supposedly took place in 1976 although Johnny Rotten is said to be listening to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot — an album that only came out the following year. Either the date is wrong or he was listening to another record.

In a chapter devoted to the Roxy club circa 77, Viv mentions night buses being ‘full of skinheads and drunks’, which is highly unlikely. Sham 69 started getting a strong following at the fag-end of the summer of 1977 — they were on the cover of the August-September issue of Sniffin’ Glue following the release of their first single. There was indeed already a smattering of skinheads in their midst, but it was so small they had no real visibility at the time. Teddy boys, definitely — they were all over the place. As I write in the book, I can’t recall ever seeing a skinhead in the flesh before 1978, save for intriguing pictures of Skrewdriver in the music press.

In 78-79 there were also quite a few punks with skinhead-style crops, so there was a lot of overlapping and ambiguity. The guttersnipe hanging out of the open platform at the back of a double-decker in the ads for ‘Clash City Rockers’ (1978) is clearly meant to be a punky urchin, with ‘CLASH’ stencilled on his trousers, but he also has a very short haircut that makes him look a bit like a skinhead. He’s a good example of this hybrid style that reflected a radicalisation of punk in the face of commercialisation and due to an influx of working-class punters on the scene. Paul Simonon himself sported braces and a proper skinhead crop, complete with a shaved parting, at some point in 78.

One of the ideas I develop in Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night is that punk was haunted by its lost beginning. If I may quote myself quoting the Cockney Rejects, ‘Punk’s year-zero mentality (like all other attempts to start again from scratch) was haunted by a yearning to return to some original, prelapsarian state — back in the garage, when the cult still had no name, before they killed the fucking thing. Being born again is just that: being born again. Being borne back’. The radicalisation of the movement that led to the skinhead revival is, in my opinion, part of this quest for authenticity. Steve Jones, Paul Cook, Simonon and Weller had all been little skinheads or suedeheads.

I believe there’s another passage in Viv Albertine’s book where she talks about Mick Jones and herself being attacked by a gang of skinheads after a gig on the White Riot tour. I’ve just flicked through the book to check, but alas couldn’t find it. Once more, however, I suspect the date is wrong.

All this is very anal, of course, but I can’t help thinking historical accuracy is important; that the devil is in the (lack of) detail. Maybe it’s because it’s also my own past we’re dealing with here. Yesterday, on Soho Radio, someone was talking about seeing mohicaned punks on the King’s Road in 1977 — another common anachronism which annoys me no end.

But there’s plenty of accounts which claim that skinhead ‘came back’ at the Roxy in 1977?

It’s extremely difficult to say for sure when punk started and ended, but one possible cut-off point is the closure of the original Roxy club in April 1977. I believe Sham only played the real Roxy once, supporting Generation X — that is, Andy Czezowski, Susan Carrington and Barry Jones’ Roxy. I may be wrong, but in any event, they were totally unknown at the time and the whole skinhead thing only really started taking off at the Vortex and at the Roxy Mark 2, when the club reopened under new management, immediately becoming a parody of its previous incarnation.

The atmosphere on the punk scene grew much darker following the ‘summer of hate’, as the NME called it at the time, which had been the movement’s high-water mark. Things started going awry over the autumn and winter, culminating in the Pistols’ acrimonious split in January 1978. These are the bad days when the streets were ‘paved with blood,’ as Paul Weller sang: ‘I’m stranded on the Vortex floor / My head’s been kicked in and blood’s started to pour’.

How old were you when all this was happening? You make reference to boys around your way kitted out in skinhead clobber and the ‘prepubescent, second-generation skinheads in a black-and-white photo spread — doubtless compiled by Garry Bushell — from around 1979’.

Yes, there were little skinheads everywhere! That was in 1979, and I was 14. Skinheads were ubiquitous for a while, and not only in London, of course. Up and down the country. It was absolutely massive, not a fringe thing. Weetabix even had commercials with cartoon skinhead characters: ‘If you know what’s good for you, ok’.

What about in Paris? Who were the ‘once dodgy skinheads’ you mention in your chapter?

I’ve written two chapters somewhat tangentially linked to the Parisian punk scene. One of them is devoted to L.U.V., a fascinating all-girl phantom band; the other focuses on the Bazooka art collective. I wish I could have covered more aspects of French punk. Hopefully in a future book.

The whole skinhead phenomenon was largely lost in translation abroad. What, in an English context, referred back to London working-class culture immediately took on a more sinister, neo-Nazi complexion on the Continent. To be honest, the French skinhead scene had no redeeming features whatsoever. It produced very few bands and they were all beyond crap — initially, Parisian skins followed La Souris Déglinguée, who were not themselves skinheads.

The very first French skins may not have been racist, but they were only interested in fighting. Many of them went on to become drug addicts. The following wave, however, was almost exclusively made up of glue-sniffing fascist nutters. There were also far-left skinheads, calling themselves redskins, whose sole purpose in life was to beat up far-right skinheads. To all intents and purposes, they were the mirror image of their enemies, on whose existence their righteous identity as anti-fascists was entirely predicated.

Those I refer to in that quote are Farid and his gang: la bande à Farid. They were the most interesting on account of being the first and having, paradoxically enough, an Arab leader. As French skinheads, they had a kind of exotic cachet. There hadn’t been any in France the first time round — I understand Australia was the only foreign country to have had an indigenous scene in those days. Most of the members of Farid’s gang hailed from Colombes, a nondescript Parisian suburb. Hanging out in and around Les Halles, they thrived on gratuitous violence, relishing the fear they generated throughout the capital. I remember travelling around Paris, in 1980-81, and wherever we went fellow punks would tell us to watch out because Farid was about. He seemed to be everywhere at the same time!

When the Specials played a gig at the Pavillon Baltard, on 14 March 1980, the French skins were all wearing Onion Johnny black berets to distinguish themselves from their English counterparts. Before the gig, they beat up a mate of mine and stole the white tie I had lent him. During the Specials’ set there was a massive brawl, like in a western, between the French and English skins. You can guess who started the trouble.

Violence is something of a motif throughout the book, for instance both Bob Short and Tony Drayton cite regular skinhead violence against punk squatters (‘gangs of skinheads who would rape and beat at will’). Tony even went so far as to include a manifesto against Oi! and skins in Kill Your Pet Puppy! Did that surprise you?

It didn’t surprise me at all, because violence on the streets was a fact of life back then. If you were a punk, you attracted random abuse and aggression all the time. In 1977, it was teddy boys, football hooligans or outraged members of the general public. I remember seeing blokes stepping off Routemasters on the King’s Road to punch a passing punk, then jumping back on. One of the most famous incidents, of course, was when Rotten was razored by vigilantes. That was part of a widespread anti-punk backlash in the wake of ‘God Save the Queen’. Before that punk violence had been largely symbolic: from the Silver Jubilee onwards, it became literal.

Thereafter, it was usually members of some rival youth cult you had to worry about. The early 80s were very tribal, and there was trouble on all fronts, but skinheads were obviously the worst of the lot. After 1982, almost all the gigs you went to involved some degree of violence at some stage — it just went with the territory. On one occasion, I was walking down Putney Hill with my then girlfriend, when we noticed hordes of skinheads ahead of us on the other side of the road. We were on our way to a gig by anarcho-punk band Conflict — and so were they. Sensibly, we decided to beat a hasty retreat as it would have been a bloodbath. I actually stopped going to gigs for a number of years because it just was not worth the hassle any more.

In all fairness, that adrenalin rush that kicked in as soon as you left home was intoxicating. Boredom may have been a buzzword, but there was never a dull moment: punk really was a revolution of everyday life. After a few years, of course, it started taking its toll.

Around 1985, and still with the same girlfriend, I came face to face with another large gang of menacing-looking skinheads, this time in Brighton. The only way to avoid them would have been to turn round and flee, but I feared they would come running after us, so we walked on petrified. As we got closer I noticed that some of them were holding hands. Nobody had told me that the skinhead look had been subsumed into gay subculture.


Indeed, I noticed David Wilkinson levered in a mention of Nicky Crane’s double life in his chapter on ambivalence of queer in punk. Richard Cabut, who co-edited the book, suggests in his ‘Punk Positive’ chapter’s many dismissals of ‘glue-swamped’ Oi! by ‘lobots’ that by the early 80s skinhead (as one of three ‘tribes’) had become ‘mindlessness wrapped in a dull, grey, lazy uniform of bitterness’. You yourself give the Cockney Rejects more credit, though, i.e. splinter groups capturing original unity.

Yes, I liked Sham 69 and then some of the early Oi bands — Cockney Rejects in particular. The first Oi compilation was really great. The musical boundaries were actually very porous in spite of all the tribalism: mods would listen to punk bands, for instance, and vice-versa. By 1980-81 I was more into the Ants and the anarcho side of things, but I was interested in everything that came in the wake of the initial punk explosion. As I said earlier, the skinhead revival was essentially a response to punk’s commercialisation, as was the mod revival. If I may quote another extract from the book:

Every splinter group that joined the ranks of the punk diaspora (Oi!, the mod revival, 2-Tone, no wave, cold wave, post-punk, goth, early new romanticism, anarcho-punk, positive punk, psychobilly, hardcore etc.) was a renewed attempt to recapture an original unity, which the emergence of these very splinter groups made impossible. As Paul Gorman put it in a recent documentary, ‘People began to play with, and tease out, the strands which were therein, and it was so rich, and so full of content, that one strand could lead to a whole movement.’ When Garry Bushell claims that the Rejects were ‘the reality of punk mythology’ — which is precisely what Mark Perry had previously said apropos of Sham 69 — he is referring to a very restrictive, lumpen version of punk that excludes most of the early bands bar the Clash. (Even within the Clash, only Joe ‘Citizen Smith’ Strummer ever really subscribed to this view.) Many Blitz Kids felt that it was their scene — which was not only contemporaneous with Oi! but also its inverted mirror image — that captured the true spirit of the early movement. Each new wave of bands sought out this point of origin: punk prior to its negation by language, when it was still in the process of becoming. The moment when memory’s exile would come to an end and literally take place.

Finally, is punk really dead? And did modernity kill every night?

The original title we wanted was Modernity Killed Every Night, but the publisher probably found it a little obscure, so I suggested a series of alternatives. Eventually we settled on Punk is Dead, with the original as subtitle.

Punk is Dead works on several levels. It’s a reference to the early Crass song, which is fitting as Penny Rimbaud has contributed a piece to the book, and an oblique response to the Exploited’s ‘Punk’s Not Dead’ — which, of course, was a response to Crass in the first place. I remember Jordan, around 1980-81, pointing out that the ‘Punk’s Not Dead’ slogan was an admission of defeat. I believe this was in The Face magazine.

In fact, when punk was alive and kicking, no one used the word ‘punk’ apart from journalists who had to call it something. Using it was very uncool. In the book I argue that ‘punk died (or at least that something started dying or was lost) as soon as it ceased being a cult with no name — or with several possible names, which comes to the same thing’:

Punk — in its initial, pre-linguistic incarnation, when the blank in ‘Blank Generation’ had not yet been filled in by that ‘bloody word’ [Jonh Ingham] — was the potentiality of punk. It escaped definition, could never be pinned down, as it was constantly in the process of becoming. Punk was a movement towards itself, made up of people who disliked movements and kept pulling in opposite directions.

So the whole question of onomastics is an important one, in my view. It is related to the controversial issue of punk’s birth and death. Borges claimed that writers create their own precursors. In the same way, there is a punk spirit that people now recognise in individuals or movements that predate (and indeed postdate) punk. In this book, we wanted to highlight the socio-historical specificity of the British punk scene of the late 70s and early 80s. Punk’s influence is everywhere today, but for a whole variety of reasons it’s not the same thing as the real thing.

In 1974 Malcolm McLaren contemplated using ‘Modernity Killed Every Night’ as the name of his boutique. In the end he opted for SEX, but the slogan was sprayed on one of the walls inside the shop. It came from a letter Jacques Vaché sent to André Breton during the First World War:

Despite his bovine-sounding name, Vaché (1895-1919) was a dandified anglophile, who enjoyed walking the streets dressed as a loose woman or a Napoleonic soldier. Choosing to be an actor rather than a puppet, he subverted army life, by — as he put it — deserting within himself. There, in that Switzerland of the mind, he would pretend that his superiors were under his orders, or that he was fighting for the other side. It was gun in hand, sporting an English pilot’s uniform, and threatening to shoot at random, that Vaché interrupted the premiere of Guillaume Apollinaire’s The Breasts of Tirésias (1917) on account of its arty-farty production. Apollinaire had coined the word ‘surrealist’ to describe his play, but it was Vaché’s radical brand of criticism that embodied the true spirit of the forthcoming movement. A couple of years later, he died of an opium overdose, which may have been an accident, but is commonly regarded as a defiant parting shot to everyone and everything — the ultimate artistic statement. For André Breton — who befriended him during the war and always claimed that he was the true originator of Surrealism — Vaché was poetry incarnate. After listing his early literary influences — Rimbaud, Jarry, Apollinaire, Nouveau, Lautréamont — he added, ‘but it is Jacques Vaché to whom I owe the most.’ His stroke of genius, Breton maintained, was ‘to have produced nothing.’

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The World Without Me

This piece appeared in Necessary Fiction on 15 January 2014:
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The World Without Me

He dives out of the water on to a lilo: finds himself mounting Mrs Robinson. Her eyes are closed. Her lips ajar. In this shot, Mrs Robinson reminds me of a pietà. Benjamin reminds me of an airborne penguin, exiting the ocean, and landing on its breast. Her breasts, in this instance, as well as his. His on hers — missionary position. Just before, Benjamin is seen doing the breaststroke underwater; swimming for dear life towards the safety of the lilo, as though pursued by some phantom shark (the lilo, of course, is the shark). Although the soundtrack is Simon & Garfunkel’s wistful “April Come She Will,” a post-1975 spectator cannot but hear the ominous two-note theme from Jaws underneath. It grows louder in the mind’s ear, rising to the surface with all the inevitability of tragedy. Benjamin falls as much as he leaps; flops down on his lilo-lady like one who has just been shot, or struck by lightning. Baudelaire likens the swain panting over his sweetheart to a dying man lovingly caressing his own gravestone — a couplet from “Hymn to Beauty” that is slightly misquoted in Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. Mrs Robinson is indeed the airbag that causes the crash; the womtomb on which Benjamin (like that other Robinson) is marooned. The couple’s loveless affair is an accident that has been waiting to happen ever since Elaine — Mrs Robinson’s daughter, with whom Benjamin is destined to elope — was conceived in the back of a Ford. A Ford featured in J. G. Ballard’s Crashed Cars exhibition, held in a London gallery three years before the publication of his famous novel (Crash, 1973). The future sprouts fin tales. In the beginning, of course, was Marinetti’s car crash: “We thought it was dead, my good shark, but I woke it with a single caress of its powerful back, and it was revived running as fast as it could on its fins” (“The Futurist Manifesto,” 1909). Here, one thinks of Warhol’s series of silkscreened car crashes, Mrs Robinson having abandoned her arts degree due to her pregnancy.

Soon Benjamin will need to escape, choose some course of action. He is on a collision course with Elaine, the accident that has already happened. In the meantime, he is a castaway adrift upon shimmering amniotic fluid. A young man without qualities, in trunks and sunglasses, cradling a can of beer on his belly — Bartleby Californian-stylee. I like him best when he just goes with the flow; that is, when he goes nowhere. The camera lingers longingly on the texture of the ripples. Sunny constellations twinkle on the celestial water’s surface. Benjamin, recumbent on his lilo, fades out as the ever-morphing abstract of light reflections fades in.

The foregrounding of the background — putting the setting centre stage — is perhaps what cinema does best. In a movie, the world simply is whatever meaning the director attempts to project upon it. Neither meaningful nor meaningless, it is there and there it is. End of story. Reality reimposes itself, in all its awesome weirdness, through its sheer presence, or at least the ghost of its presence. Alain Robbe-Grillet (a filmmaker as well as a nouveau romancier) highlights the way in which cinema unwittingly subverts the narcotic of narrative; the auteur’s reassuring reordering of chaos:

In the initial [traditional] novel, the objects and gestures forming the very fabric of the plot disappeared completely, leaving behind only their signification: the empty chair became only absence or expectation, the hand placed on the shoulder became a sign of friendliness, the bars on the window became only the impossibility of leaving. …But in the cinema, one sees the chair, the movement of the hand, the shape of the bars. What they signify remains obvious, but instead of monopolizing our attention, it becomes something added, even something in excess, because what affects us, what persists in our memory, what appears as essential and irreducible to vague intellectual concepts are the gestures themselves, the objects, the movements, and the outlines, to which the image has suddenly (and unintentionally) restored their reality.

I want to write like Benjamin Braddock, from air mattress to pneumatic bliss in one impossible match on action.

Here is a passage from “Celesteville’s Burning” where I fail to do so:

When the ink ran out of her biro, Zanzibar produced a pencil from his inside pocket with a little flourish. ‘Men,’ he said, ‘alwez ave two penceuls.’ He almost winked, but thought better of it. ‘Women,’ she said a little later, sitting on his face, wearing nothing but her high-heeled boots, ‘always have two pairs of lips.’ She almost added Try these on for size, big boy, but thought better of it too.

I want to write like Benjamin Braddock, my words shipwrecked on the body they have been lured to. Eyes closed; lips ajar.

In an older short story — “Sweet Fanny Adams” — the protagonist happens upon a young woman in a railway station, and senses, instantly, that he has found his sense of loss:

Although he had never actually seen her before, he recognised her at once, and once he had recognised her, he realised he would never see her again. After all, not being there was what she was all about; it was the essence of her being, her being Fanny Adams and all that.
As he walked towards the bench where she was sitting pretty, Adam missed her already. Missed her bad.
‘How do you do?’
‘How do I do what? The imperfect stranger looked up from her slim, calf-bound volume and flashed him a baking-soda smile, all cocky like.

When my father took me to see The Graduate in the mid-70s, I was seized by a strange nostalgia for a homeland I had never known. In this sun-dappled “status symbol land” where charcoal is “burning everywhere” — as The Monkees sang on “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” released in 1967, the same year as the movie — I recognised my own sense of loss. The prelapsarian beach scenes in Jaws put me in similarly melancholy mood: all those healthy, happy families, and their dogs, enjoying spring break without (Roy Scheider excepted) a care in the world. Of course, a great white was about to blacken the mood somewhat, but I would experience this attack as the reenactment of an earlier trauma. The shark had already got me. Perhaps the shark has got us all, always-already.

A bespectacled woman wearing a hideous floral swimsuit and a floppy yellow hat detaches herself from the crowd massed at the edge of the sea. Like a Benjamin Britten character, she ventures into the water, calls out her son’s name, catches sight of his shredded lilo floating in a pale pool of blood. Her hat is a brighter shade of yellow than the lilo.

I reference this scene, albeit obliquely, in “Fifty Shades of Grey Matter”:

Valentin was lurking at the far end of the grand ballroom. He tried to picture himself à rebours, as though he were another, but failed to make the imaginative leap. A blinding flash of bald patch — the kind he occasionally glimpsed on surveillance monitors — was all he could conjure up: Friedrich’s Wanderer with rampant alopecia. He squinted at the polished floorboards, and slowly looked up as the world unfolded, leaving him behind. He was James Stewart in Vertigo; Roy Scheider in Jaws. He was the threshold he could never cross. At the far end of the grand ballroom Valentin was lurking.

Watching the world go by from a pavement cafe is a highly civilised activity, one we should all indulge in more often, I think. Its main drawback, however, is that we cannot abstract ourselves from the world we are observing. Like Valentin, we are the threshold we can never cross. There is a strand within modern literature that yearns for an experience of reality that would be untainted by human thought, language, and subjectivity. My hunch is that movies get closest to achieving this. As Stanley Cavell argues in The World Viewed, cinema provides access to a “world complete without me”:

A world complete without me which is present to me is the world of my immortality. This is an importance of film — and a danger. It takes my life as my haunting of the world.

Marcello Mastroianni always struck me as a character in search of a movie he had stumbled out of by accident. We used to live on the same street, Marcello and I, and we both frequented the same cafe. It was called Le Mandarin in those days; now Le Mondrian. We were both creatures of habit, always sitting in the exact same spot. We never spoke, not in so many words, but he often silently acknowledged my presence, gratifying me with a glance or a half-smile as he walked past my table. After all, we were often the only customers there. No sooner had the venerable actor been served than a strange performance, straight out of commedia dell’arte, would begin. One of the waiters stood at the entrance, on the lookout for Mastroianni’s partner, film director Anna Maria Tatò. When she finally loomed into view — often accompanied by a retinue of well-heeled Italian friends — the waiter gave a discreet signal to his colleagues, who would whisk away the actor’s glass and ashtray. Another waiter would spray a few squirts of air freshener to ensure that Marcello’s missus did not suspect that he was still a heavy smoker, while yet another produced a fresh cup of coffee to ensure that she did not suspect he was still a heavy drinker. One of Mastroianni’s friends once applauded the garçons’ performance, shouting “Bravo! Bravo!” (in Italian) just as Mrs Tatò walked in, right on cue.

Simon de La Brosse was working as a waiter in Montmartre, when he was discovered by Eric Rohmer, who cast him in Pauline at the Beach (1983). I knew him a little. We attended the same school for a couple of years; lived in the same neighbourhood. It was shortly after he had told me about Rohmer that I noticed how all the girls watched him longingly that time he played volleyball at school. It could have been basketball, come to think of it now, but I am fairly sure that he was sporting similar shorts to those he would wear in Pauline — blue with white stripes down the side. Only they may have been red or orange, and unstriped. Definitely unstriped. He went on to become one of French cinema’s rising hearthrobs in the 80s and early 90s, playing, for instance, alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg in The Little Thief, or Sandrine Bonnaire in The Innocents. Although he was cast in major films by the likes of André Téchiné and Olivier Assayas, it is difficult not to reinterpret Simon’s career in light of how it ended. Here are three examples:

1. In Garçon!, starring Yves Montand, Simon plays the part of a waiter in a brasserie, as though he were doomed to return to his day job. He is frequently on screen, but those appearances are so brief that he is gone by the time you recognise him. To add insult to injury, he does not utter a single word throughout.

2. Simon was given a few lines in Betty Blue. They were not very good ones, however, and the entire scene was cut from the film when it was released in 1986 (although it was reinstated in the 1991 version).

3. One of my favourite clips of Simon is a silent screen test shot at the Cannes Film Festival. The fact that we even know at what time of day filming took place (11.45 am on 16 May 1986) is particularly poignant. Here he makes the most of his theatrical training and miming talents, as well as his immense charm. He reminds me of a matinee idol, or a dashing early-20th century aviator; perhaps one who soared too high, ending up in another dimension. Simon seems to be talking to us from behind a thick glass partition, which renders his words inaudible. His career nose-dived in the 1990s. In 1998 he took his life somewhere else. Sometimes, I fancy I can almost hear him on the other side of the pane.

What seems natural in a movie is precisely what does not come naturally in real life. The on-screen character is usually pure being: she seems to coincide perfectly with herself. The experience of being an off-screen human being, however, is essentially one of non-coincidence. As Giorgio Agamben puts it, “The human being is the being that is lacking to itself and that consists solely in this lack and in the errancy it opens”. You walk out of a western feeling like a cowboy, but the swagger soon wears off, and self-consciousness returns. This self-consciousness is the consciousness of the “gap between me and myself” Fernando Pessoa speaks about. I suspect Simon de La Brosse struggled with the paradox, shared by many actors, of only feeling truly alive when he was not playing his own part. Tom McCarthy reflects upon all this in his first novel, Remainder:

The other thing that struck me as we watched the film was how perfect De Niro was. Every move he made, each gesture was perfect, seamless. Whether it was lighting up a cigarette or opening a fridge door or just walking down the street: he seemed to execute the action perfectly, to live it, to merge with it until he was it and it was him and there was nothing in between.

In real life you can only find yourself by losing yourself, and there is no happy end. This may be what Simon is mouthing through the pane.

At one point in Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, the narrator confesses, “I felt like a character in The Passenger, a movie I had never seen”. Well, I frequently feel like a character in Mauvais Sang, a movie I have never seen (although that did not prevent me from mentioning it in one of my stories). In 1986, when Leos Carax’s film came out, there was a massive student strike in France. We occupied the Sorbonne for the first (and last) time since May 1968, and almost brought the right-wing government to its knees. I remember a couple of girls playing “White Riot” on a little cassette recorder during the occupation, and thinking that this moment was The Clash’s raison d’être. Joe Strummer would have been so proud of us. The voltigeurs — a police motorcycle unit created in the wake of the 1968 student uprising — was deployed in order to transform a peaceful movement (that was largely supported by the general public) into a violent one, thus triggering a cycle of disorder and repression. Behind the driver sat a truncheon-toting thug whose mission was to hit anything that moved. On one occasion, I looked on in disbelief as they beat up a couple of harmless old-age pensioners who were probably walking home after a night out at the pictures.

On another, I narrowly escaped the voltigeurs by hiding under a roadworks hut. When I got home, in the wee hours, I switched on the radio and learned that a fellow student had been killed only a cobblestone’s throw from my hideout. Some of the screams I had heard may have been his. After the strike, a group of us launched a student magazine called Le Temps révolu. We chose the title by opening Zarathustra at random until we found something we liked the sound of. Editorial meetings were held at a Greek student’s flat. He was called Costas, and had fled his homeland in order to escape military service. According to rumours, he had been a kind of Cohn-Bendit figure back in Greece. All in all, we produced two issues, which we sold half-heartedly outside our university. In the first one — by far the best — a girl called Myriam had written an intriguing review of Mauvais Sang — a film which, for me, came to embody the spirit of 86, despite having never seen it. Or perhaps it was for that very reason. Myriam (if that is indeed her name) was one of at least two girlfriends Costas was sleeping with, although not (as far as I know) simultaneously. I have absolutely no idea what the other one was called, but I can vaguely conjure up her tomboyish features. The last time I bumped into Myriam and Costas, they were scrutinising pictures from Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise outside an arthouse cinema — possibly the same one those pensioners had left before being assaulted by the police. Costas: if you are reading this, I still have your copy of Bourdieu’s Distinction that you lent me almost three decades ago.

I cannot say when I first visited New York. I can only say, for sure, when I visited it again. Again for the first time. That was in August 1981. My immediate impression was akin to the one I had had while watching The Graduate or Jaws: a sense of a homecoming to a place that was alien to me. On every street corner, a feeling of déjà vu. Travelling to this Unreal City from Europe felt like travelling forward into the future (TV on tap! Bars and restaurants open all night!) but also backward into one’s past. We were the first generation to have been brought up in front of the television, suckled on American movies and series. I grimaced at Peter Falk when I spotted him in a Greenwich Village restaurant — to keep up the punk front — but deep down I was very impressed indeed. Initially, we followed the tourist trail, always on the lookout for signs of local punk activity. We caught The Stimulators playing at CBGB’s after seeing an ad in a copy of The Village Voice we read on the ferry back from Liberty Island. Their drummer — a very intense little skinhead called Harley Flanagan, who could not have been older than 14 — filled us in on the New York scene, and gave us a few tips as to where to go, over a game of pinball. If Benjamin and Elaine in The Graduate had produced a son straight away, I reckon he would have looked a lot like this diminutive skinhead. He would have attended boisterous gigs by the Circle Jerks (a Californian band I discovered on that New York trip) where I picture him moshing to “Beverley Hills”:

Beverly Hills, Century city
Everything’s so nice and pretty
All the people look the same
Don’t they know they’re so damn lame.

There is a striking blankness, a radical affectlessness to Benjamin and Mrs Robinson’s demeanour and character; a vacancy to their mating rituals, that hark back to existentialism but point to punk. Even when Benjamin claims to be “taking it easy,” there is an angst-ridden edginess — a white suburban nihilism — to his professed aloofness. The early street and drive-in scenes may be teeming with strategically-placed beatnik hipsters; the attitude, however (in the first part of the movie at least), is pure punk.

Back in New York, we were soon immersed in the burgeoning hardcore scene — slam dancing, the A7 club in the East Village, hanging out with H.R. from the Bad Brains — which embraced us on account of our quaint London accents, as well as our look which pretty much outpunked anyone else in town at the time.

We had decided to leave our cameras at home in order to experience the city fully — to merge with it rather than remain on the outside looking in (or up at the skyscrapers). As a result, we have no record of all the adventures we lived through, all the wonderful characters we met, and our increasingly hazy memories are constantly being rewritten. Paradoxically, there must be dozens of pictures of us knocking about as people kept taking our picture on the street. At first we kept count, but within a few days we were already in the hundreds, so gave up.

It is difficult to express how thrilled I was whenever I discovered an outdoor basketball court that seemed to have come straight out of West Side Story. The more it resembled a film set, the more realistic it felt. A year earlier, I had gone to see that movie almost ten times in the space of a few weeks. Leaving the cinema was an exile. West Side Story inhabited me, and New York felt like I had moved in at last.

We cried on the day we had to go back, and resolved to return soon; for good this time. The plan was to sell hot dogs and be free. Life, however, got in the way.

The second time I visited New York was in 1999. It no longer felt like travelling into the future, and I was unable to find my way back to the past.

I once was an extra in an episode of a French TV series starring a bunch of ropey old luvvies. This must have been around 1982. They were shooting a scene that was supposed to take place in a punk club, so they rounded up a few local punks at the Bains Douches to make it look authentic. All we were meant to do was sit, hang, or dance around. And act punk. I mainly sat, when I was not skulking in some dark (dank?) corner. For some reason, the producers had also hired a handful of young actors dressed in what they believed to be punk attire. In reality, they resembled tabloid caricatures of what some part-time punks may have vaguely looked like down at The Roxy a good five years earlier. By 1982, it was all studded leather jackets and outsize multicoloured mohicans. Nina Childress and Helno, who were both members of Lucrate Milk, really stood out. Nina is now a painter. Helno, who went on to find fame with Les Négresses Vertes, is now a corpse.

The atmosphere soon became so tense that the production team almost called it a day. Each time the punked-up extras were called in for a retake, they were ambushed in an increasingly enthusiastic mosh pit. It felt like smashing The Spectacle. In the end, we were paid (200 francs each if memory serves) and asked to leave. We could not, though, because a gang of skinheads was waiting for us outside. They wanted to smash The Spectacle too, and we were it. I caught the episode, by chance, when it was broadcast a few months later. I believe you can spot my bleached spiky hair on occasion, but overall I had done a pretty good job of remaining invisible.

Someone should compile all the exterior scenes in movies where a “real” passerby turns round to look at the camera, thus shattering the illusion of authenticity. In “The Sign of Three,” which was on television last week, there is a brief sequence during which Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson (Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman) cross the bridge over the lake in St James’s Park. On the left-hand side, a redhead in a skirt suit can be seen walking away from them; from us. She holds a Burberry-style raincoat in one arm, a briefcase in the other, and embodies everything that can never be put into words. I defy anyone — irrespective of gender or sexual preference — to watch this extract without zeroing on her. Naturally, I assumed that she was an extra with a walk-on, or rather walk-away, part, but on second viewing I noticed that she turns round when the camera is sufficiently remote. As she does so, she is subtly pixelated, so that she remains anonymous, and therefore part of the background, the tapestry of London commuter life. What is the status of this lady who is the secret subject of this segment? What is the status of all those passersby who do not pass by as they should? And what is the status of all those who do act as they are expected to — as though a film were not in the process of being shot? “I’m living in this movie, but it doesn’t move me,” as Howard Devoto sang in a Mickey Mouse voice on Buzzcocks’ “Boredom”. Are such unwitting extras — the anonymous people you cannot look up on Wikipedia — truly part of the work (cinema’s effet de réel), or are they merely interlopers? My contention is that they are the element of chance Marcel Duchamp invited into his work, but which only ever turned up unbidden (when the two panels of The Large Glass were accidentally, but artfully, shattered, for instance).

One of the iconic scenes in Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie (1966) sees Gilda (Julia Foster) running through a market and a side-street strewn with urchins. Its sleek lightness of touch vaguely recalls the Nouvelle Vague, but this sentimental working-class tableau is too reminiscent of cinéma vérité to be truly spontaneous. The children, who may well have lived in the Victorian houses that line the street, have clearly been strategically placed; their games choreographed. Just before, as Gilda catches a double decker en route to Alfie’s, three schoolkids can be spotted through the window walking towards a bus stop. They have nothing to do with the film, but are still part of it. Its living part perhaps. Whenever I watch that brief clip, there they are, back in 1966, walking to the bus stop after school. For ever going home.

[This essay was commissioned by Nicholas Rombes, who was Writer in Residence at Necessary Fiction in December 2013-January 2014. It was part of a series of fiction and non-fiction pieces on the theme of “movie writing”.]

London’s Outrage

Here is my first interview with Jon Savage. It appeared in 3:AM Magazine in June 2002:

London’s Outrage Andrew Gallix interviews Jon Savage

3:AM: You were about 23 when punk came along. When did you first hear about it and why did it appeal to you so much?

JS: Being a pop fan from the year dot: I was a teenager at the height of the mid-60s pop explosion. Wanting to rock and there being no rock. The countdown to punk was very simple: Nuggets (1972) and Hard Up Heroes (1973) rekindled interest in the hard, mutated sixties pop that you could buy in Rock On [Ted Carroll’s record shop] in 73-75 (ie Yardbirds, Kinks, Who, Them etc). Patti Smith’s Horses. Charles Shaar Murray’s article about the Ramones (November 75). The Ramones’ first album (April 76). Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel”.

3:AM: I believe you were training to become a solicitor in 1975: did punk save you from a life of tedium like bank clerk Mark Perry, for instance?

JS: Yes. It enabled me ultimately to quit the law and enter the media — another kind of hell but not that particular kind of hell.

3:AM: Unlike Mark Perry, you graduated from Cambridge University. Did your social/intellectual background prevent you from feeling totally integrated within the new scene or, on the contrary, did it help you better understand its numerous influences and appreciate it even more?

JS: Um, I would have to say that despite the influence that those three years of University might well have had on me, you would have to place 13 years of growing in Ealing, and another 8 of being a teenager in Kensington and wandering around central London. I’m a West Londoner and was acutely aware of my pop-saturated environment. So for me not to be fascinated by punk would have been stranger. Plus there is the emotional element (oh sorry, because I have a brain I’m not supposed to have any emotions) and I was totally pissed off, isolated and alienated, in 1976.

3:AM: Why did you pick up a pen rather than a guitar? Did you ever consider forming a band?

JS: No, because to be in a band, in 1977, was to go up and down the country in a van getting spat at. I don’t think so. Plus, I was working in the lawyers’ office at the time and so was unable. Steven Lavers and I had a concept band called Para — I was Para Noia and he was Para Normal — but that’s all it was. If I had been in the same situation 12 years later (like Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne) then I would have no doubt started tinkering around with samplers.

3:AM: When did you start your fanzine London’s Outrage? Were you directly influenced by Sniffin’ Glue? What were your favourite fanzines?

JS: London’s Outrage was done at the end of November 1976: went to see The Clash, saw The Sex Pistols, and did it in two days. I was highly influenced by Sniffin’ Glue, Who Put The Bomp, Bam Balam, and, on the visual side, Claude Pélieu and John Heartfield.

3:AM: Could you tell us about how you produced London’s Outrage, how it was distributed and how many copies you sold?

JS: 50 copies xeroxed. 1000 copies printed. Distributed through Rough Trade — the first one, I might add. All sold. London’s Outrage 2 (all photos and montage set in Notting Hill, Ladbroke Grave and Notting Dale) — only 50 copies xeroxed and sold.

3:AM: I was surprised to discover that Sniffin’ Glue actually had an office: did you also have a professional approach to your zine? Did you ever consider turning London’s Outrage into a more commercial proposition like Jamming, for instance?

JS: No. I always disliked Jamming because I hated The Jam and the whole point of fanzines was to construct a new verbal / visual language, not to ape the existing music media. I also thought Sniffin’ Glue lost its edge when it got ‘professional’. Plus I thought Danny Baker was an idiot, unlike Mark Perry for whom I have great respect.

3:AM: “Outrage” was a punk buzzword like “boredom” or “anarchy”, but why exactly did you call your fanzine London’s Outrage?

JS: It was already on the Sex Pistols’ flyer (for the Notre Dame Hall gig) that I converted for the front cover. Easy.

3:AM: In a TV programme a few years ago, you spoke of the influence of Sheperd’s Bush on the Sex Pistols and of Notting Hill / Ladbroke Grove on The Clash: what impact did London have on the punk scene?

JS: Well, it started in London, didn’t it? This is too wide a question. The answers are in England’s Dreaming. The one thing I would say was that London was so decrepit that 15-25 year olds could leave home and squat or find cheap flats. Obviously, this is no longer possible.

3:AM: What were the punk years like for you on a day-to-day basis? Did you hang out at Louise’s [where the Pistols and the Bromley Contingent used to hang out] in the early days?

JS: No.

3:AM: Were you a regular at The Roxy [London’s first exclusively punk club]?

JS: Yes.

3:AM: Did you shop in Sex, Seditionaries, Acme Attractions, Boy or Beaufort Market [all on London’s King’s Road]?

JS: Yes. In a way that was my introduction because I shopped in Acme and must have been to Sex before I heard the British punk groups. I didn’t shop in Boy because I thought it was naff. My friend Poly Styrene had a stall in Beaufort Market, so I used to hang out there.

3:AM: Who were your favourite bands? Do you still listen to some of them today?

JS: Ramones, Sex Pistols, early Television, early Clash, The Adverts, The Buzzcocks, The Saints, Wire, Penetration, The Slits, Siouxsie, Subway Sect, The Prefects, X-Ray Spex — the distaff side. Still listen to them today, not all the time, but I still like the energy, the humour and the strong emotions. I hated The Jam and The Stranglers: ghastly retro rubbish, old information. The point about punk was that everything should be new.

3:AM: In England’s Dreaming, you claim that punk’s gay roots were hidden as soon as the movement went overground: how important were those roots?

JS: As important as they are throughout the history of popular culture and artistic movements: damn near central. Many of punk’s original participants were gay, and much of the original aesthetic was also. There is much about this in England’s Dreaming. Gay involvement in pop culture is always downplayed, if not ignored, by scared and insecure het boys who can’t admit that much of what they love comes from queers. Well it does, so get used to it.

3:AM: How did you graduate from the world of fanzines to the weekly music press, Sounds, Melody Maker and later The Face?

JS: Quick pick up of anyone on the scene who had a brain in early 1977: in my case, thanks to Dave Fudger and Vivien Goldman. For the rest of it, read Paul Gorman’s In Their Own Write.

3:AM: How did you get on with other young, hip gunslinging punk rock critics like Tony Parsons, Julie Burchill, Caroline Coon, John Ingham or Jane Suck?

JS: This is the bitching question, right? Pass.

3:AM: Much of what you have written (on Joy Division, for instance, or the intro to The Manual) is punk-related: is it still very much an influence for you?

JS: Well, obviously. It’s not like I’m sitting here with spiked up hair or bondage strides, but I do not regret any aspect of my involvement with punk at all and despise those who, in order to achieve some illusory ‘adulthood’, deride their adolescent ideals. I think that successful adulthood depends on the integration of youthful ideals with mature experience of the world.

3:AM: Where does your obsession with pop culture (from Picture Post Idols to house music through The Kinks) come from?

JS: Being a sentient being with quivering antennae in early sixties suburbia. The Beatles hit hard, and then I saw the Kinks on the telly in summer 1964 and couldn’t believe that boys could look like girls and make such an unholy racket. Compared to the other great option, sport, this mix of glamour and perceptual subversion was so much more attractive. Football: just a bunch of people in bad clothes running round in the rain, getting shouted at. I still loathe sport culture, not the sport. I was 10 in 1963, so the whole parade of sixties pop was unfurled before my greedy eyes. I couldn’t get enough of it.

3:AM: How did you come to write The Faber Book of Pop with Hanif Kureishi?

JS: His idea. A good one, as it happens.

3:AM: Did you like him as a writer?

JS: I liked Buddha, didn’t like Intimacy at all. Ultimately, we both want quite different things.

3:AM: Why do you think it took so long for punk to have an impact on British fiction?

JS: Because fiction always lags behind music. And because the literary ‘scene’ in England is SO vile. Example: when in 1975, I left university for the world, my guides were not Martin Amis or Ian McEwan, but Patti Smith and The Ramones. They told me all I needed to know, not the overhyped products of an incredibly small, and inward-looking clique.

3:AM: Who are your favourite contemporary British writers?

JS: I don’t think in these terms. All my reading is concentrated on my work which is at present located in the 1930s.

3:AM: How did the British Film Institute’s Never Mind the Jubilee punk season come about?

JS: I was asked by Hilary Smith (National Film Theatre Head) and I said yes. I knew most of the footage because of the research I’d done for England’s Dreaming and Arena’s Punk and the Pistols programme.

3:AM: What impact do you hope it will have? Punk is often seen retrospectively through the black and white photos of the music press: maybe these films will show how colourful it really was? It might also prove once and for all that there were no mohicans back in 77…

JS: Well that’s a start! I think seeing beyond the clichés presented by lame thirty/fortysomethings (example: Never Mind the Buzzcocks — a total travesty; another example, the super-straight Nick Hornby) is extremely important: punk was wild, outcast, vicious and protective at the same time. It wasn’t boring, and it wasn’t straight (I don’t mean this just in terms of sexuality, but in a perceptual sense). It did not, initially, reinforce the dominant values. So if you’re pissed off, you might pick up some tips. You might find a bunch of outcasts coming together curiously uplifting. There is, also, some great music there (and that’s where I came into all of this). Otherwise: punk is dead. It was 25 years ago: half an adult lifetime. Bye bye.

In the Void Room

Ralph Rugoff, “The 10 Best…Invisble Artworks,” The Observer 10 June 2012 (The New Review, p. 6)
From an infrared labyrinth to a cursed ball of air


[Invisible Labyrinth, by Jeppe Hein, 2005. Photograph: Anders Sune/Courtesy Johann König, Berlin and 303 Gallery, New York]

1 Invisible Labyrinth
Jeppe Hein, 2005

Hein transformed the empty space of an art gallery into Invisible Labyrinth, using infrared technology in an ingenious fashion. Hein’s artwork provides visitors with a pair of digital headphones that vibrate whenever they knock into one of the invisible walls of a maze. While it is deeply engaging to enter one of the work’s seven labyrinths, it is also fascinating to observe the uncanny spectacle of gallery-goers navigating indeterminable routes.

2 Proposed Underground Memorial and Tomb for President John F Kennedy
Claes Oldenburg, 1965

Before creating his colossal monuments to things like clothes pegs and matches, Oldenburg proposed various memorials. His Proposed Underground Memorial and Tomb for President John F Kennedy called for a huge, hollow casting, based on a photograph of the assassinated president, to be buried head-down in the ground. The statue’s size was identical to that of the Statue of Liberty, as if to suggest that Kennedy’s murder had turned the American dream on its head. Two decades after his proposal, the idea of evoking tragedy through absence became a major feature of commemorative projects for the Holocaust and civil violence.

3 Vertical Column of Accelerated Air
Michael Asher, 1966-7

[Michael Asher pictured in 1966 at his graduation at University of California, Irvine. Photograph: University of California, Irvine.]

Yves Klein’s Utopian plans for creating an architecture de l’air were cut short by his premature death in 1962. Taking a less grandiose approach to building with air, Asher used industrial blowers to create “walls”, “curtains”, and “columns” of accelerated air. He would place them in relation to architectural features in a gallery. Visitors would perceive a gentle and unexpected flow of air when walking through the exhibition space which would subtly alter their usual journey.

4 Untitled show
David Hammons, 1995

[David Hammons hiding behind a box. Photograph: Christopher Felver/Corbis.]

Over the past 50 years, a number of artists have developed furtive approaches to staging exhibitions. The most brilliant example was by African-American artist David Hammons, who held an untitled and unadvertised show in a New York shop that sold African and Asian artifacts. Not only were Hammons’s unlabelled sculptures displayed side by side with the traditional merchandise, but many of his pieces incorporated items from the shop. Playing with boundary issues and cultural camouflage, his artworks achieved their invisibility not by forgoing material form, but by immersing themselves amid the world’s cornucopia of things.

5 The Empty Museum
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, 2004

[Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s “The Empty Museum,” 2004. Photograph: Hermann Feldhaus.]

For the past three decades, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov have specialised in making “total installations”, many of which reimagine life in the former Soviet Union with a dark sense of absurdity. Their 2004 installation, The Empty Museum, replicates a room in a classical gallery, featuring a Bach soundtrack and deep red walls that are dramatically spot-lit. But where we might expect to find paintings on the walls, there are only pools of light. What has happened to the art? Haunted by absence, the Kabakovs’ eerily theatrical installation invites us to write our own script.

6 Double Torso
Andy Warhol, 1966

Warhol produced a few “pornographic” paintings in the mid-1960s using fluorescent inks that were only visible under ultraviolet light. Along with his film Blow Job (which shows only the face of a man on the receiving end of the eponymous sex act), his invisible canvases were provocations aimed at the harsh anti-pornography laws of the time, which tightly controlled what could or could not be seen. His interest in invisible media would pop up at several times in his career as if he were seeking an antidote to his own overexposure as a celebrity.

7 Untitled (A Curse)
Tom Friedman, 1992

[Untitled (A Curse) by Tom Friedman, 1992 Photograph: Image courtesy the artist and Harry Handelsman.]

In 1992, Friedman created Untitled (A Curse), which appears to be nothing more than a pedestal. But he had employed a professional witch to cast a curse on an 11-inch sphere, resting 11 inches over the pedestal. At the time he said he was thinking about “how one’s knowledge of the history behind something affects one’s thinking about that thing”. And once you read how it was made, Friedman’s pedestal becomes a loaded object that tests the roles that belief and imagination play in our encounters with art.

8 Radiation Piece
Robert Barry, 1969

In the late 1960s, Barry began producing artworks using a range of immaterial media, including electromagnetism, radio waves and ultrasonic sound — forms of energy that, as he noted, “exist outside the narrow arbitrary limits of our own senses”. His Radiation Piece has a tiny amount of caesium-137, a radioactive isotope released into the atmosphere during nuclear tests and accidents. It has a “half life” of 30 years, but continues emitting energy forever (although in ever-decreasing quantities). For Barry, who found ideas of nothingness and the void to be extremely potent, radiation was a means of evoking something immeasurable and without limit — the sublime realm of the unseen.

9 The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility
Yves Klein, 1958

[In the Void Room (Raum der Leere) by Yves Klein, Museum Haus Lange, Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld, January 1961. Photograph: bpk/Charles Wilp, DACS London, 2012.]

In the history of invisible art, perhaps the most visible landmark remains Yves Klein’s 1958 exhibition at Galerie Iris Clert in Paris, The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility — an empty gallery, apart from a single cabinet, in which every surface had been painted white. Klein maintained that the space was saturated with a force field so tangible that some people were unable to enter the exhibition “as if an invisible wall prevented them”. Others may have been unable to enter because spectacular press coverage ensured huge queues of spectators searching for something to look at.

10 Untitled (Horse)
Bruno Jakob, 2003

[Untitled (Horse) by Bruno Jacob, 2003 Photograph: Courtesy the artist & Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich. Photo: collaboration with Peter Püntener.]

Swiss artist Jakob has devised several different means of making “invisible paintings”: painting on paper or canvas using water rather than pigment or exposing a lightly primed canvas — as if it were a psychically sensitive type of photographic paper — to the presence of a person or animal in order to capture some ethereal aspect of their existence. This photograph of the artist holding up a blank canvas towards a horse might seem like an absurd gag, yet at the same time it earnestly conjures an unseen connection between man and animal that no straightforward portrait could convey.

Invisible: Art About the Unseen, 1957-2012 is at the Hayward Gallery, London, from 12 June until 5 August.

****

Jonathan Jones, “Invisible: Art About the Unseen 1957-2012 — Review,” The Guardian 11 June 2012 (p. 5):

I accidentally scared a gallery technician witless while exploring the Hayward Gallery’s exhibition of invisible art. I was standing in a room of thick, velvety darkness. A technician pushed through the black curtains and became aware of someone else in the gloom. Apparently spooked, he asked: “Who’s that?”

It was a relief to see someone else scared, because The Ghost of James Lee Byars already had me seriously unnerved. This work of art consists of no more than its six-word title and a darkened room. Yet its atmosphere is palpable. Six words are enough to tell a hell of a ghost story, it turns out.

The American artist James Lee Byars conceived this freak-out in 1969. An enigmatic and morbid storyteller, he imagined his own death, not just in this work but in pieces with the resonant titles This is the Ghost of James Lee Byars Calling, and The Perfect Death of James Lee Byars.

Eventually, in reality, he died in Cairo in 1997. Judging by the terror it can inflict on Hayward contractors, I would guess the invisible image of Byars is creating quite a folklore behind the scenes.

Or perhaps they are dreading the critics. What, eight quid for a gallery full of invisible paintings? This exhibition courts tabloid headlines and bluff empirical sarcasm. It is, like Jerry Seinfeld’s sitcom, a show about nothing. But it succeeds because it is in on the joke, which it makes unexpectedly profound. Quite frankly, there is more art here, despite it being invisible, than in a lot of stuff galleries lure us to see.

There are indeed some invisible paintings in the show, white surfaces marked with materials that include “Brainwaves” by the Swiss artist Bruno Jakob. There is a drawing that fills a huge gallery and yet is almost impossible to find since the Taiwanese artist Lai Chih-Sheng has traced all the lines along floor tiles, corners of walls and fittings to make a drawing that is a near-invisible web-like echo of the place.

Yet the real heart of the exhibition is not so much in works that are barely there as in the thing they allude to, the unseen itself. As you put on a surreal buzzing headpiece to negotiate Jeppe Hein’s invisible maze or speculate on which gallery-goer may be the actor hired by Bethan Huws to behave just like a visitor, the notion of a world beyond appearances takes on a strange and powerful reality.

This exhibition is a seriously brilliant jest. It is a genuine history of an idea in art, a fascination with the immaterial and imperceivable that can be traced back to the audacious claims of Yves Klein in late 1950s Paris to create invisible atmospheres and “air architecture”, most famously in his 1958 exhibition of nothing, The Void. But it is also an absurd story. Carsten Holler exhibits an invisible car, one of a field of futuristic vehicles he designed for a utopian race. There is its starting place, painted on the gallery floor. But the supercar, called The Invisible, is for you to imagine.

The magic of the exhibition, its bizarre inversion of gallery-going, is that you do indeed imagine it. The car seems to be there. You don’t step on its starting block, in case you scratch the unseen paintwork.

Nearby is an empty white plinth. The air above it is cursed. The artist Tom Friedman got a witch to curse a zone hovering above the pedestal. As soon as you know this you do not want to put your hand into that evil space.

Why? Because nothing demands something of us. The human mind fills blanks with images and ideas; that is what a ghost story is, a way of filling darkness. This exhibition reveals that when artists, from Klein to Chris Burden, who hid himself on an elevated shelf in a gallery in 1975, started to deny that art had to be seen, they opened up a theatre for the imagination.

In the Hayward Gallery, the ghost of Byars haunts The Ghost of James Lee Byars. The visible world, as Plato pointed out, is a veil concealing truth.

****

Invisible, Hayward Gallery, London, 12 June-6 August 2012. From the South Bank Centre website:

Invisible Art brings together works from the past half century that explore ideas related to the invisible and the hidden. The exhibition includes work by some of the most important artists of our time as well as younger artists who have expanded on their legacy.

From the amusing to the philosophical, there are works you can observe and others you can take part in, such as Jeppe Hein’s Invisible Labyrinth. From Yves Klein’s utopian plans for an ‘architecture of air’ to Robert Barry’s Energy Field (AM 130 KHz) from 1968 — which encourages a heightened awareness of the physical context of the gallery — this exhibition spans diverse aesthetic practices and concerns.

Many of the works in Invisible seek to direct our attention towards the unwritten rules and conventions that shape our understanding of art. Other works invoke invisibility to underscore the limits of our perceptual capacities or to emphasize the role of our imagination in responding to works of art. Some use invisibility as a metaphor that relates to the suppression of information or the political disappearance and marginalization of social groups.

Artists in the exhibition include Art & Language, Robert Barry, Chris Burden, James Lee Byars, Maurizio Cattelan, Jay Chung, Song Dong, Tom Friedman, Carsten Höller, Tehching Hsieh, Bruno Jakob, Yves Klein, Lai Chih-Sheng, Glenn Ligon, Teresa Margolles, Gianni Motti, Roman Ondák, Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol.