Tag Archives: punk

Open Source Art

“By combining grids with everyday materials – milk crates, twine, plastic cups and stickers – in public space, the works embodied an ‘open-source’ ethic, building on others’ designs and showing, rather than hiding, how they were made. Like open-source software and the open nature of the early internet, these artworks displayed their source code, inviting the viewer to copy and remake them.” (Off the Grid, p.23)

Thank you, Lachlan McDowall, for putting forward this concept because it explains much of 20th-century art. The trajectory of twentieth-century art history, starting with the Dadaist readymades, found objects, collages, chance art and cut-up poetry, shows an increase in open-source art. And it continued with Mail Art’s use of stickers, stamps and other open-source techniques. And Punk music with its open source code on the legendary t-shirt showing guitar tablature and words: “this is D, G, A now go out and form a band”. Or, to use McDowell’s examples, street artists like Invader or Sunfigo.

Open-source art, like open-source code, is where the code is evident in the product or readily accessible and free to use. It is not a technique that has to be taught and practised. The formula for cut-up poetry was first explained in 1920 by Tristan Tzara in his “Dada Manifesto on Feeble Love and Bitter Love”. And cut-up poetry has influenced William Burroughs, David Bowie, and many others.

For there are enormous numbers of people participating in art in the 20th century doing open-source art. For it is an anarchist manifesto of propaganda by deed empowering others to participate. Open-source art is democratic as it is art by the people, art anyone can do. Why is this important? For it is a source of freedom, liberation and the pursuit of happiness, my friend. It is important because everyone can enjoy it and participate, regardless of their social status, age and ability. This utopian aspect is why many Dada and Surrealist art codes, like collage, are now used in primary school art classes.

Yet open-source art is often very unpopular; angry cries of “this is not art!” Many would be voted out if there was a popular vote on what art was. Well-known works of open-source art such as Duchamp’s Fountain or Cage’s 4’33” are frequently held up as objects for derision because they destroy art’s position of superiority. That art requires skill to preserve it for the wealthy who can afford to pay for the time.

Open-source art doesn’t require a talent for the media or training in prescribed skills, and its critics miss the point by decrying the lack of skill involved. They ignore the mental effort in creating an open source code, the elegance in coding, and the artist’s character. We must not forget that in explaining cut-up poetry, Tzara noted, “the poem will resemble you”, ironically equating personal identity with random actions. The identity of the poet or artist of open-source is more evident than the studied, trained and mediated actions of a traditional painter. Like gifts, the gift and identity of the giver are forever entangled; for something to be a gift, it has to have been given by someone. Just as a battle axe blade signed by notorious stand-over man Chopper Read means something different from one I signed.


The Assault on Culture

On re-reading Stewart Homes The Assault on Culture (Aporia Press & Unpopular Books, 1988, London).

Maybe I should have been reading Grail Marcus Lipstick Traces instead as it is better written and covers the same trajectory as Homes does in The Assault on Culture. Homes follows the history of the various post-war utopian art movements: Cobra, Lettriste, College du Pataphysics, Nuclear Art, the International Movement for the Imaginist Bauhaus, Situationists, Fluxus, Auto-Destructiove Art, Dutch Provos, Kommune 1, Motherfuckers, Yippies, White Panthers, Mail Art, Punk, Neoism, up to Class War in 1985.

Situationalist slogan stenciled in Melbourne, 2010

Homes published his shorter book a year before Marcus – it is shorter and physically lighter than Marcus’s tome. There are other physical differences between the two books – there are no illustrations in Homes, no soundtrack CD – just a densely written history.

Homes declares in the preface that he is writing for the insiders first and others second – Marcus is clearly writing for the others. Also in the preface Homes scorns Andre Breton’s interest in mysticism and magic whereas Marcus brings magic, heretics and, even, God into his preface. Although Homes can’t ignore the historical connections with Lollards and Anabaptists, he didn’t have to worry, the tradition can be traced further back to the completely non-mystical Cynics of Ancient Greece – Diogenes pissing and throwing plucked chickens like the punks – so we don’t have bring religion or magic into it.

Homes might be able to ignore the mysticism but he couldn’t ignore the music and it is the music that provided a focus for Marcus. The music of the Sex Pistols is the beginning and the end for Marcus. So Marcus leaves out Neoism, Mail Art, Fluxus and other groups.

This history could be continued with groups like Negativeland, Survival Research Labs and the Church of the SubGenius and the street art movement. Home’s careful distinction between groups and movements becomes clearer with these examples; Negativeland is clearly a group with a few members whereas street art is a movement with thousands of participating artists.

Paris, Melbourne

Why include street art with these utopian political art practices? It is a hard case to prove, as there are thousands of disparate artists involved with no leaders writing street art manifesto to quote but the trace elements (to use Marcus’s metaphor) are there. From the Letterist International street art has the love of letters and the continuation of an urban exploration and reinvention. The linage between political stencils and street art stencils is clear from Crass and other punk bands. And some street art is an opposition to the contemporary gallery art.

“Down with the abstract, long live the ephemeral” – a Situationalist slogan from 1968 that could be the slogan of street art.

Phoenix, Less Ephemeral More Ephemeral, Melbourne

Poetry of Proper Nouns

The act of naming is an on going process where we are all poets in a communal enterprise that stretches back thousands of years. The act of naming is the secular baptisms of the everyday. The declaration of a new name is a form of poetry – the reduction of poetry to a proper noun – the Dadaists and the Lettristes wanted to take the reduction of poetry further to single letters and phonemes.

It is a type of poetry consisting of only a few letters, a couple of words yet so much can be generated with a proper noun – sounds, mystical observations, wit, evocation, even satire. A name can refer to other names to evoke historic or metaphoric meaning or simply be a pleasing play of sounds. There is the religious mystery of names, or the philosophical problem of how a referent connects to the referred; a proper noun a name generates an image in the mind.

Lench’s blockbuster since buffed

“Language is a virus from outer space and saying your name is better than seeing your face.” – Wm Burroughs

The act of self-naming by a person, a group, a band, a crew  –creating on a new name as a new identity the nom de plume, nom de guerre, a tag (nom de rue) is different from the poetry of the common names given to plants and animals or to the nicknames given to people. It is an autonomous self-conscious action consequently often far more artistic because it is not bound by official titles or the dictates of the masses.

Self-naming entered art at that the moment of modern magic when the word “Dada” was selected at random from an encyclopaedia. And the Dadaists were equally busy reinventing themselves making an art of creating new identities: Jan Hertzfeld became John Hartfield, Marcel Duchamp became Richard Mutt and then Rrose Selavy and Arthur Craven was an invented identity by Fabian Lloyd. There was another point in the 1960s when there was a change of band names from straight names to poetic names. And then a point in the late 1970s when musicians adopted names that no-one could mistake for their real names: Johnny Rotten and the rest.

The story of how the name developed is a standard question for reporters. Endless articles have been written about band names – Blah Blog, a Melbourne blogger comments on the poetry of band names in Arthouse line-ups. It appears to be such a trivial issue but it raises a profound philosophical question of names and identity – the new name subverts the authority of the state or the mass to name things.

From the names of the gangs of New York City, to avant-garde art groups, bands, punks, street artists and taggers the poetry self-naming exists in defiance of the paternal right to name. Auto-baptism is the poetry of ontological anarchy.

“They say of God, ‘Names name thee not’. That holds good of me: no concept expresses me nothing that is designate as my essence exhausts me; they are only names.” – Max Stirner The Ego and His Own

Gathering Intelligence @ Brunswick Arts

“Gathering Intelligence” is a group show at Brunswick Arts “aimed at showcasing the recent works of a selection of emerging artists from around the Brunswick area.” (curator’s website statement) On a warm Friday summer evening I bicycle down to Lt. Breeze St. to attend the exhibition opening and gather intelligence on local artists.

I buy a beer at the gallery bar – the gallery is partially funded by bar sales at openings. There is the usual exhibition crowd of young women, friends of the artists and artist’s parents. I start to make notes on the A4 photocopied “catalogue and pricing” list. The prices are all very reasonable; under $200 for most works that are for sale (a few are NFS – not for sale).

The exhibition is the usual contemporary art mix of video, manipulated photos, painting, and sculpture with some quirky drawings by Serena Susnjar. Susnjar draws deliberately kitsch celebrity portraits with naff titles like: “Arnie is so confident in speeches”. Illustrations like these are a change from all the formal and otherwise empty art, so they are now a regular feature of group exhibitions. I wonder why there is so much use of solarization in the photographs of both Julie Forster and Kalinda Vary (actually Kalinda Vary’s aren’t photographs but drawings – see the comments). I’m not impressed with Polly Stanton and Adele Smith’s videos even though they both reminds me slightly of the work of David Lynch. I think that Rylie J. Thomas painting’s should be larger because they look too timid. Then there is punk work of Chris Smith, a series of photocopied band posters and two framed assemblages of readymades – “Sick Blowfly with Ointment and Gauze” and “Slowly Undressing Razor with Comb”.

After surveying the exhibition I decide to talk to Chris Smith. I find him standing outside with the rest of the smokers. Chris Smith used to play guitar in various little punk bands. Although I didn’t know of any of the bands I had played at some of the same venues – the Punters Club and the Tote. We talk about his art, catharsis, photocopying band posters and the differences between analogue and digital photocopiers. Chris misses the old analogue photocopiers and the cheap analogue tricks you could do with them.

The sound installation was being set up as I was leaving. Brunswick Arts has long had an interest in sound, both art installations and the occasional performance by bands. Breeze St. has all these new apartment blocks – I wonder how many of the new inhabitants will discover this little artist-run gallery in their shadow.

John Cale “When Past and Future Collide”

John Cale “When Past and Future Collide” was part of the Melbourne Festival 2010. John Cale + Band + Orchestra Victoria performed Paris 1919 live (not that I am familiar with that album) and a few other songs.

Many rock musicians like to play with orchestras, it fills out the sound and makes them look sophisticated and/or rehabilitated. But John Cale is different because he can write for an orchestra and all those years studying with the British composer Cornelius Cardew, means that this is not some trite, conventional orchestration. (“When I was studying composition I was completely unaware that the Rolling Stones were playing in some nearby pub. Instead, I met Cornelius Cardew, who opened up to me the world of the London base of the Fluxus movement…” John Cale, Autobiography). The orchestration was excellent and the combination of the string section with the electric guitar was exceptional. There was a very big string section (to be expected from John Cale, who plays the viola), no woodwind and a small brass section consisting of two French horns, a trumpet and trombone player who played an excellent gutsy part in one song. It wasn’t just John Cale and songs with complete orchestration. After the intermission he did return to playing more rocking numbers with just the band.

I’m a fan of John Cale and I played his parts in a Velvet Underground tribute band that I was in with Ron Rude, Frank Borg and others back in the 1990s. I have seen him in concert before; John Cale performances are always cathartic (cathartic I must note is a medicine that causes the emptying of the bowels). There is something cathartic about a great musician playing Jonathon Richmond’s “Picasso” at the State Theatre and repeatedly singing: “Nobody called Pablo Picasso an arsehole”. Maybe I needed the therapy after this week but that’s another story.

John Cale is the dictionary definition of punk – look up The Complete Oxford English Dictionary. A quote from NME: “John Cale was the first punk”, or some such phrase, is the example of how the word ‘punk’ is used (don’t quote me on this in your school work, look up the dictionary for yourself). John Cale was still looking like a punk, even though he was wearing a coat and tie, with peroxide blond hair with a large pink patch on one side.

The concert was like a collision between past and future. There was an intermission, unheard of in rock’n’roll (“We can play one long set or two sort sets” Lou Reed – Velvet Underground Live 69) but there were two encores (strange in the world of classical music but typical of a rock concert). The stage manager brought out a big bouquet of flowers to John Cale at the start of the second encore. I would have liked the lead guitarist and conductor shake hands, like the tradition of the lead violin and conductor shaking hands, to complete this collision between past and future traditions. The final encore was Chorale from Sabotage Live – a beautiful song that proved, even at the end of the concert, that age hasn’t weakened Cale’s fine Welsh singing voice.

The audience spanned all generations from the very young to people that made me feel young. Such is the attraction of this punk. I was glad to be among them.


The Goods vs Bad Rebels

Stencil artist John Koleszar asked me polemically at the Melbourne Stencil Festival, “Why are there so few stencil artist in the big galleries?” and then mentioned some exhibition in a US public gallery where the artist had displayed no skill, technique or imagination.

Stencil artists reject of the mainstream contemporary art institutions (galleries and art schools). Banksy even played pranks on them. The typical stencil artist has a commercial art background. There is a lot of pride in the street art world for skill and technical ability. Koleszar’s own experience as a commercial printer provided many of the technical concepts, like registration marks, necessary for stencil art.

Banksy is not an art school drop out. Ha Ha was a security guard before he was a street artist. Street art, unlike punks, have few art school connections and was, therefore alienated from the art institutions both personally and geographically. Unlike punk, street artists were not trained in the current art theories and so did not provide a reflection of them in their work.

Punks were inspired by Gustav Metzger’s destructive art and other modern art.  Early The Clash performed in Pollock inspired paint splattered overalls. Punk’s do-it-yourself no skills required attitude was the culmination of generations of modern artists seeking inspiration in the primitive, the child-like and the street. And punk created another generation of artists, like Judy Watson, who aspired to bad painting and art that looked crude and unskilled.

Street art and stencil art is, in part, a reaction against punk; even if Malcolm McLaren had a hand in marketing both the Sex Pistols and Buffalo Gals. There are so many contrasts between punk and hip-hop: aesthetic, social and commercial.

Although some street artists have successfully bridged the gap between the street and art galleries most do not attempt this. About half of street artists are anonymous even to their peers; Russell Howze said that he was only able to credit about half of the artists whose work appears in his book Stencil Nation. Even successful street artists will use alternative methods of selling their art (e.g. internet sales) and, alternative products and multi-level marketing (e.g. t-shirts, limited editions vinyl toys and original art). And the major art galleries are institutionally unused to dealing with alternate marketing and prefer to look at art school graduates exhibiting at established commercial galleries.

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