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.