In May 2004, Stewart Home visited Australia to present as artist in residence at The Centre for Ideas at the Victorian College of Arts. They were crazy times for Australia: The occupation of Iraq had started to go horribly wrong very publicly with bondage pix of prisoners being broadcast on the teatime news, and the right-wing Liberal government’s attacks on refugees, the poor, education, health, and anything else they hated were really kicking in. The censors had been working overtime too, with public artworks and X-rated movies in particular being given a real drubbing – that made the bondage pix seem even weirder. So all the ducks were in a row and Stewart came to visit for a fortnight. In that time, he gave five seminars, two lectures, made a movie, saw the little penguins, went up the Rialto, and still found time to buy like 60 cut-out trashola DVDs at four bucks a pop. The guy is a powerhouse. You wanna watch him.
Simon Strong: Recently, your work (your recent manuscripts and the film Eclipse) has centred around the sensational (using the word in a respectful way) events of your mother’s life and death, and your investigation of same. Would you tell us a little about the events? And the projects that have followed from your investigations?
Stewart Home: My mother Julia Callan-Thompson was an amazing woman. She came from a working class Irish family but was born and grew up in South Wales. She moved to London when she was 16 in 1960 and worked as a showgirl and hostess in places like Murray’s Cabaret Club (alongside Christine Keeler) and Churchill’s Club. She was also very involved in the beatnik scene and moved from Islington in north London to Notting Hill in west London towards the end of 1961, where she’d spend a lot of time getting stoned, listening to modern jazz and rapping about philosophical and spiritual ideas. In the basement of the house she had a flat in was the Trinidadian Russ Henderson who organised the first steel band on the streets of London and was instrumental in setting up the Notting Hill Carnival. There were a lot of interesting people about, including a lot of the early major players in the drug-smuggling scene of the ’60s/’70s. My mother knew Graham Plinston from well before he became the major importer of pot into the UK at the end of the ’60s, and also guys from the Moorland/Wilkinson crew who had the first big pot-smuggling operation into the UK until a yacht they were using to bring gear into England was busted off the south coast in 1967.
My mum was also going abroad a lot with money she saved from working as a hostess, and she made an awful lot of money doing this. She first went to Ibiza in 1962, and was into that whole proto-hippie scene hanging out a lot in Paris and Spain and Andorra from the early ’60s onwards. There was a lot of drug experimentation going on and shifts in musical and philosophical tastes reflecting the tranformation from beatnik into hippie. In the early sixties my mum was listening to the modern jazz of Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and Sonny Rollins. By the mid-’60s her groove was more of a folk thing – Davy Graham, Incredible String Band, Dylan; although she was also very fond of the Rolling Stones. My mum’s evolution inside the counterculture from beatnik to flower power to post-hippie burn-out wasn’t always for the better; by the ’70s she was listening to a lot of Santana and friendly with free festival regulars like the Global Village Trucking Company.
My mother started using heroin in the mid-’60s, and despite periods when she’d clean up, was a junkie for the rest of her life. She was also friendly with various literary figures: Bill Hopkins, an angry-young-man friend of Colin Wilson who published one somewhat notorious novel The Divine & The Decay; Colin MacInnes who wrote City Of Spades and Absolute Beginners was a close friend in the mid-’60s; and Terry Taylor who was the model for Mr Love in MacInnes’ Mr Love And Justice – and published one beatnik drug novel of his own, Baron’s Court, All Change – was a very close friend. My mother was also appearing as an extra in British films like Casino Royale [Val Guest, Ken Hughes, John Huston, Joseph McGrath and Robert Parrish, 1965], Accident [Joseph Losey, 1967], Becket [Peter Glenville, 1964] and Spy With A Cold Nose [Daniel Petrie, 1966] in the mid-’60s. She was trying to get a career in acting and modelling together, but despite doing Max Factor and Lux Soap press ads, this never really happened for her. She went off to India at the end of ’67 and was there until ’69. When she came back to London she was really strung out and very involved with the drug scene around the beat novelist Alex Trocchi and simultaneously the completely separate smack scene involving various people associated with the ultra-leftist activist group King Mob. Through her drug connections my mother was meeting all sorts of curious people including William Burroughs and former Situationist International member Charlie Radcliffe.
My mum had always been interested in religion and was very attracted to Subud in the sixties, so it isn’t that surprising that in 1972 she became a follower of Sri Guru Maharaj Ji and joined the Divine Light Mission. However she was still very much knocking about with Trocchi and involved in the London squatting movement, in the mid-’70s she even squatted in Tottenham Court Road close to the junction with Oxford Street, a prime West End location. In the ’70s my mum needed a lot of money for drugs, so while high class prostitution continued to provide her with an income as it had since the beginning of the ’60s, she was also involved in a lot of street crime (I understand she was an extremely good pickpocket among other things) and drug dealing.
There were always these two very distinct sides to my mum’s life, the spiritual and the druggie. The drug side was out of control for much of the 70s and in December 1979 she was found naked and dead on the bed of the one room flat in Notting Hill in which she appears to have been hiding from criminal connections. This was a basement flat and the door that led directly onto the street was open when my mum was found dead but the authorities choose to ignore this. The coroner involved was Paul “Hands Off” Knapman who later came in for a lot of criticism over his handling of the Marchioness disaster, and despite my mother’s known history of drug addiction no toxicology was performed on her body. Much of the information on the Coroner’s Report into my mum’s death is factually incorrect and a fraudulent document dating from five years before her death was used to draw the conclusion that she was not addicted to drugs when she died. This flies in the face of all the available evidence including the last entry in her diary which was with her in the flat when she died, and the testimony of the two people the authorities spoke to about her before drawing up this report. It really is all rather shocking.
Spending a couple of years researching my mother’s life had the side effect of enhancing my understanding of the ’60s and the counterculture – as well, of course, as telling me a lot about her – so a lot has come out of it. I’ve written a novel Tainted Love based on all this, which is written as if it is my mother’s autobiography composed in the last weeks of her life. It is not so much that I want to become my mother, I only really feel I can be myself when I am possessed by her or morph into her. Recently I got Chris Dorley Brown to take portraits of me imitating the poses thrown by my mother in a series of 1966 modelling portfolio photographs. We’re now morphing these together and the results are extraordinary since facially my mother and I are very alike, and given our differences in age (I’m now 20 years older than my mother was when the original photographs were taken) and different sex, it is surprising how similar our body shapes are. I also made the 41-minute film The Eclipse & Re-Emergence Of The Oedipus Complex while I was in Australia in May this year. In the film avant-garde techniques and the avant-garde obsession with death are interwoven with reflections on the life and death of my mother. Images of my mum working as a fashion model and club hostess during the ’60s are cut against an at times deliberately dissociated soundtrack that uses stories about her – including her involvement in the beatnik and hippie countercultures, heroin addiction and her quest for spiritual enlightment, but above all her mysterious death in 1979 – to explore the limits of documentary cinema. This is simultaneously an expression of love and loss and an attempt to draw out the ways in which the avant-garde Lettrist cinema of the early ’50s in France was commercialised in the later work of Godard, Marker and Resnais.
SS: You’re better known for your work in media other than film: fiction and cultural criticism, both performed and written, and also music. Can you provide a brief outline of your filmography?
SH: The first film I made was with a guy called Chris Wilson in the early ’80s. It was called Wet Dream and features me writhing about in a chair. Chris had one of those old Polaroid film cameras and he used to get a lot of young men round to his flat in Hampstead where he’d film them. I then did a few films with the Scottish artist Pete Horobin. I think the first was Tower Bridge Exchange. In this three-minute short I was doing super eight camera work as well as appearing in footage. I then shot a 20-minute silent Super-8 film of Pete Horobin pushing a pram – with a rubber rooster on the front and his camping gear where the baby should have been – around the highlands of Scotland, which was called Pram 84. There were various other shorts in the late-’80s including Refuse and Turn On, Tune In, Freak Out both made with Neil Aberdeen. In the mid-nineties I was doing stuff with pop video-makers Nick Abrahams and Mikey Thompson. We did promos for some of my books in pop video format including No Pity and Red London. In these I would appear in skinhead drag doing stuff like sucking yoghurt off the toes of one girl, and licking whipped cream out of the armpit of another girl. In the late ’90s I also made stuff like Ut Pictura Poesis, a 45-second short that attempted to do in condensed fashion what I felt Debord set out to achieve with his first feature film Screams In Favour Of De Sade (1952). I appear in this “blipvert” dressed in boxing gloves and a skirt and attempt to make the audience extremely self-conscious; the film concludes with the slogan – “long live revolutionary communism, long live the hermaphrodite international”. This got shown alongside the advertisements at independent cinemas in the UK, I understand it was seen by about half-a-million people.
I used a one week art residency at John Moores University in Liverpool in April 2002 to make three feature length films which emerged from my interest in montage and détournement. Has The Litigation Already Started? was a loose remake of Maurice Lemaitre’s 1951 work of expanded cinema Has The Film Already Started? mainly using copyright notices from DVDs which are made to dance before the audience’s eyes with elements from the 1922 Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau) cut in. Shortly after its release Nosferatu was suppressed by Bram Stoker’s widow for infringing her copyright on Dracula. The soundtrack to my film consists of both silence and different realisations of a piece I did called The Bethnal Green Variations: Turning Silence Into Noise (Cage Caged) (1999) which was created specifically to stimulate debate around the issues of plagiarism and copyright. The piece was realised on 31 July 1999 by placing a beat box programmed to repeat play Wayne Marshall’s version of John Cage’s “4’33’” (1952) on a windowsill of my flat on the Avebury Estate in Bethnal Green, east London. I had the window open so that the noises of the inner city drifted in (youths arguing and later a thunder storm), and I recorded the results with a Sony MZ-R50. “4’33’” is Cage’s silent piece for which the pianist sits at his instrument without playing a note. Rather than taking the little sound that was on the Wayne Marshall CD (silence being notoriously difficult to record) directly from it in digital form, I wanted to drown this out with the noises of the city. In a way I was invoking Cheap Imitation, the piece of deconstruction Cage did to bypass the extortionate fee demanded for use of Satie’s “Socrate”. I recorded 32 versions of “4’33’” being drowned out by urban noise with the intention of superimposing them over each other. In the event I’ve created different montages from this recording for the soundtrack of my film. Obviously, I performed this détournement on Cage and published my intention to commercially realise it (with a little help from the Arts Council of England) before the court case about the “plagiarism” of “4’33’” in autumn 2002 involving Wombles producer Mike Batt. The Cage estate claimed Batt had infringed their copyright because he’d included a minute of silence on a record he’d released. As well as my anti-realisation of “4’33’”, Has The Litigation Already Started? also incorporates the noise of the audience’s movements into its soundtrack à la Cage. That said, given that the first half of Has The Film Already Started? is silent, Lemaitre had quite intentionally done this before Cage; and rather more significantly in terms of the development of lettrist cinema, before Debord.
Screams in Favour of De Sade was an English language colour remake of Guy Debord’s iconoclastic classic from 1952. Like the original, my film has no images but whereas Debord’s consisted of black stock with silence and white light with dialogue in French, mine has black with silence and TV colour bars with dialogue in English. The original dialogue is not simply translated since in a number of places it has been rewritten. However, while Debord had five voices reading his script, I have one voice with an additional spoken indication of which voice is speaking The periods of blackness and silence in Debord’s film are strictly adhered to with the final 24 minutes being entirely black and silent. Although Debord offered no fully elaborated theoretical explanation for the production of Screams in Favour of De Sade, I believe his intention was to transform cinema in theatre, turning the audience into actors rather than treating them as passive spectators. If this is the case then it should matter little to viewers whether they watch Debord’s original or my remake, what’s important is what happens amongst the audience, not what is on screen – which in a classical gesture of avant-garde iconoclasm is essentially nothing.
The third film I remade I entitled The Golem although it was actually Sergei Eisenstein’s 1928 cinematic celebration of the Bolshevik revolution October with the intertitles taken out and replaced by those from Paul Wegener’s silent version of The Golem (1920). There are fewer intertitles in The Golem than October, which enabled me to use repetition to good effect. This piece was partially inspired by my liking for Rene Vienet’s Can Dialectic Break Bricks? (1973) in which a Hong Kong kung-fu film of the ’70s was redubbed to give the story a revolutionary spin. However, I’m also aware that Debord and Wolman in their 1956 essay “Methods Of Détournement” theorised the most effective forms of détournement as being those that showed their contempt for all existing forms of rationality and culture, whereas those that simply inverted pre-existing meanings – as is the case with Vienet’s détournement of an ethnic Manchu against Ming conflict, a staple plot device of Hong Kong cinema at the time, which he substitutes with a class war between proletarians and bureaucrats – are viewed as weak. So if my détournement of October is a homage to Vienet, it is simultaneously a critique of him – and even more obviously an attack upon the reactionary anti-working class politics of the Bolsheviks. A blazing rock soundtrack by Finnish punk act The Dolphins has been dubbed onto my reworking of October – although it was also my intention that at some screenings very different live realisations for the sound might be achieved; which is why I used a live rather than a studio recording of The Dolphins on the dubbed soundtrack.
These films have a tendency to mutate over time and get remade. I did an event at the Cube in Bristol earlier this year, an art cinema space where I did a lecture and showed a lot of my films. The curator had programmed too many films to fit into the night, so instead of actually screening my remake of Screams In Favour Of De Sade, I just played the soundtrack which only lasts about 12 minutes without the silences and flicked the lights on and off in the auditorium to cut down the time required. Since I felt the film was a lot funnier shortened in this way, I’ve also just done a 2004 remake of Screams where I played a degenerated video copy on a TV and held down the fast-forward button while filming the screen with a digital video camera. I then redubbed my English language soundtrack without the silences onto the digital footage. I made this first remake during the day and actually you can see the room reflected on the screen. I did another remake as Screams In Favour Of Neoism, this time at night and with more blackness around the screen, that’s a bit purer. I think Screams is a film that can be endlessly remade, so I also intend at some point to do a “screening” of it where the audience is split into five sections and each section is given a script with the part they should read, the lights will then be turned on and off and the audience cued to do an “expanded cinema” theatrical version of the film.
I’m also working on other stuff. I’ve just done a short called Invisible London that uses the flaws on the night vision mode of my cheap digital video camera to create a movie that is largely abstract. I’ve also made a 17-minute film called Urban Gorilla Goes East which dialectically explores the discontinuous relationship between pornography and full-blown polymorphous perversity. My plan with this one is either to never show it, or only to show it very occasionally and unannounced when no one is expecting to see it, so that the film will exist largely on the level of rumour. Since I’ve no desire to give a detailed description of its contents, anyone who cares to can speculate about what Urban Gorilla Goes East might contain and should base any criticism of it on their own fantasies. However, I would stress that the film does exist, and in several different edits, although I consider the 17-minute edit to be the definitive one.
SS: Would you draw a distinction between the recent longer films and the less ambitious work that precede them?
I think Eclipse is easily the best film I have made, so now I have to struggle to make something better. The distinctions one might draw between my films might work on a great many levels. Conceptually I think the films I made during my 2002 residency at John Moore’s University are superior to my shorter work with the exception of Eclipse, but the shorter work is more enjoyable to watch. I actually think we need more rather than less sensuousness and aesthetic delectation, so I’m not sure that I want to show the longer films much any more. I think it is enough for people to know about these films, they don’t really need to see them. Of the three made during the Liverpool residency, I view the remake of Screams as the best, but then my recent and shortened 2004 remake of that is even better. I think the work evolves, but just because you’re doing something new doesn’t mean you’re going forward, progression requires hard work. I guess I’d draw the biggest distinction between Eclipse and everything else, I think that’s where I’ve managed to take my formalistic and avant-garde concerns to another level because of the way they’re not just interwoven but inseparable from a superior (and in comparison to my earlier work unlikely) content.
SS: Do you feel that the move to film was inevitable? Do you regard this as a progression, evolution, distillation, or something else? Is this move a result of the exhaustion of the previous media that you have worked in?
SH: I’ve always liked film and I’ve always tried to work in a lot of different media: fiction and criticism, graphics, gallery installation, performance etc. These boundaries don’t hold up so well for me, they’re all artificial and what I do always ends up crossing them, and I think film often gives you the best of many worlds. I don’t think I’ve exhausted fiction or criticism but film enables me to do this another way. I’d hope the work in all areas is progressing, or at least mutating, and perhaps going backwards is the new going forwards. Things change all the time regardless of what we want, the point is to try and consciously shape these changes. I, of course, always want to be “elsewhere”.
SS: A recurring feature of your catalogue is the juxtaposition of the most rarified avant-garde with the populist. In the novels (and music) a populist form is used to present avant-garde ideas. But the films reverse this, in that they are apparently avant-garde and whilst the ideas may not be populist, they are certainly explored in such a way that they will be accessible to a wide audience. Can we take this reversal to assign an equivalence or ambivalence to the concepts of form and content?
SH: I can’t really separate form from content but I’m always working within certain financial limitations and these are more apparent in film. There is nothing worse than watching a film which is trying to put across a radical message and seeing it attempt to do this by imitating TV documentary conventions. I don’t have the money to compete with TV and cinema on their own terms, and I wouldn’t want to in any case since I don’t like Hollywood blockbusters or most of what’s on TV. One of the many problems with Hollywood and TV is that they are trying to gain the largest possible audience. But if you make something to appeal to as many people as possible the audience becomes abstracted and you’re not really pitching what you’re doing at anyone. Universal wo/man is always an abstraction. There might be enough in a Hollywood blockbuster to earn big box office receipts, but it also leaves everyone feeling dissatisfied because it never properly caters to anyone’s tastes or interests. When I make a film or write a book or whatever, I have a much smaller audience in mind and also I’m not just looking for a positive response. I actively want certain people to dislike what I do, since anyone who isn’t prepared to put some work in for themselves, to play a role in giving what I’ve done its meaning, is a bourgeois fuckwit and I’m not interested in pandering to their straitjacketed views.
SS: Your work in other media (with the exception of Whips and Furs) respect a conventional view of time. Propelling the user forward at a regular expectable speed for a regular expectable duration. We accept that this is a convention that enables the user to focus attention more easily on the concepts that are being subverted. We see the films departing from this self-imposed pattern and exploring unusual chronological conventions. What can we assume from this departure?
SH: Actually a number of my more recent anti-novels are non-linear in construction: Come Before Christ & Murder Love, 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess, Down & Out In Shoreditch & Hoxton. I think the thing was in the earlier fiction I was working with this kind of Baudrillardian notion of simulation, and that confused English literary critics if not the broader public. The “fiction” was emerging from an interest in the way surrealism and the nouveau roman (among other things) inscribed pulp prose into novels while using a non-linear structure. I thought one might “deconstruct” literature by simulating pulp plots as well as inscribing pulp prose into books informed by high modernism, which through insane amounts of repetition actually made everything unravel. I actually used to read pulp authors as if they were writing modernist literature; this is easy to do, instead of taking one book I’d take the entire output of a pulp hack so that the repetition of plots, characters, even sentences and whole paragraphs between titles transformed the work into high modernism once you’d learnt to ignore the arbitrary division into so called “separate” works. I then set out to collapse the effect of reading dozens of books in this way into the production of individual “anti-novels”. So with “fictions” like Pure Mania, Defiant Pose, Red London and Blow Job, I would have this endlessly repetitive sex and violence going on for page after page. In some of my fiction you got pretty much the same sex scene every other page and I was always trying to extend these pulp metaphors about genetics and other matters, so that when a character had an orgasm it would be the scrambling and unscrambling of genetic codes across the muscular structure of their bulk, a DNA encoded replay of the first star exploding etc. etc. This repetition worked in various ways, and it certainly saved me a lot of work since I only had to do about half the writing most people do to create a book, the rest was simple cut and paste. Likewise, I was of course aware that the philosopher of vitalism Henri Bergson claimed that repetition was the basis of all humour, so my books were side-splittingly funny as well as being works of post-modern “deconstruction” etc. etc.
After about five books I’d felt I’d exhausted this as a compositional technique and decided to construct some “anti-novels” that weren’t predicated on this simulation of narrative. Chronology can, of course, all to easily become a bore; simply one thing after another and perhaps your question on this score is not so much a departure as a return. At the end of the day what really interests me is smashing capitalism, and in the process realising our species being: so that I can be an egotist in the morning, a porn star in the afternoon and a critical critic at night. In other words I am to give expression to all the facets that make one human – reason, emotion, laughter, orgasms etc. Some days I might even fuck up this chronology by choosing to be a porn star in the evening and a critical critic first thing in the morning (that is if I can ever overcome my bohemian tendency to sleep late).
SS: Is it reasonable to assert that the move to more personal subject matter in the recent work signals another departure from the depersonalised content of your earlier work?
SH: What I was attempting to do with the earlier creations/destructions/deconstructions, that is pretty much everything up to the point where I become completely possessed by my (m)other, was produce a body of work in which every individual piece interacted with everything else in the corpus and was transformed and transfigured by it. Thus depending on which order you encountered my works, they would be “read” very differently. The novel about my mother Tainted Love and the film Eclipse do not function in this way, in part because I have become someone else, and thus for the time being they should not be viewed as being produced by the same author as the earlier work or as part of the same oeuvre. Of course, there is always of the possibility that they might become integrated with this other so called “earlier” work retrospectively, but this would require a dialectical move from thesis and antithesis to synthesis, something which has not to date taken place.
SS: And now, we come to the generic questions: what projects are you currently working on? What lines of longer term enquiry are being followed?
SH: I’m writing various essays that emerge from my interest in my mother’s life at the moment. I have various novels I wish to write but there is no rush to complete these; I have two novels awaiting publication Memphis Underground and Tainted Love, so I’m not in a hurry to start on another. I’ve also various short films I wish to make, one I’m currently thinking through would be called something like The Australian Rope Trick and would use tourist footage I shot around Melbourne with a commentary about the disappearance of the real history of the aborigines and their genocidal murder at the hands of British imperialists from the tourist image of the country. I’d compare this to the so called “Indian Rope Trick” and the accompanying hoax newspaper stories in which it was claimed boys were made to disappear at the top of ropes through the use of mass hypnosis, but that photographs of these alleged magic feats proved nothing had happened despite the belief of those present (including the photographers) that they had witnessed this stage trick. As to longer term projects and enquiries, my main aim is to completely reinvent myself yet again.
SS: What contemporary film-makers do you admire? Or regard as influences?
SH: There aren’t so many contemporary film-makers who I admire; I tend to like older modernist cinema Cocteau, Bergman, Eisenstein, as well as a lot of trash movie directors ranging from Jess Franco to Coffin Joe, Jean Rollin to Lucio Fulci.
SS: What’s your fave movie ever?
SH: This changes every time I’m asked the question but here and now let’s say Fulci’s A Cat In The Brain (1990).
SS: What were your impressions of Australia? And its culture? Do you have any plans to return?
SH: I had a really good time in Australia, I really enjoyed myself. The culture in Australia or rather Melbourne isn’t identical to that in the UK but appeared closer than anywhere else I’ve ever been in the world and this surprised me, since I didn’t think it would seem closer than say British Columbia in Canada. There are a lot of problems in the UK with racism but the way these were manifested in Australia proved radically different to Britain. I felt very privileged to be able to meet a number of Aboriginal activists including Gary Foley, who is both sharp and incredibly charismatic. Taking a broader perspective, it was a bit disconcerting to see the gap between Aboriginal activists and those from other communities in Australia being persecuted with ongoing racist attacks. Of course, I understand why so many Aboriginal activists adopt traditionalist positions, one often sees this when a community is under intense racist attack, but obviously this makes it harder to link up into a mass anti-racist movement involving all communities who suffer systematic discrimination. Establishing a broad movement is difficult in many places, but I was very struck by it as a problem for anti-racists in Australia, and a mass movement against racism is definitely needed. Despite my feelings of anger about the treatment of Aborigines and other minorities (I feel the same about racism around the world including the UK of course), I’d love to get back to Oz since I met a lot of great people, I’m just waiting for an invitation to do something so that the costs are covered!
For more information see the Stewart Home Society website.