The Albury Wodonga Superfiction 1993
Collaboration Peter Hill and J.J. Voss (Photographer)
- Ralph Rumney interviewed by Peter Hill and Alan Woods
A founder member of the Situationist International (who does not appear in the photographs taken in Cosio because he took them), Ralph Rumney was a painter who who gave up painting (and has returned to it), an artist who regards artists as generalists whose primary function is to question, he has had a career in which both possibilities have been lived through. The interview is one aspect of his art, as is his conversation, as are the derives on which one might find oneself in his company, as are his writings.
H and W: Tell us why you do not like the term “Situationism”?
RR: We said right at the beginning [of the Situationist International] at Cosio that we were against “isms”. We could be Situationists but there would never be any “Situationism”. I have maintained that principle all my life, I think it is important, very serious, that we did not want to create an Islam or something, we wanted to create individuals doing their thing without the context of a philosophy that became a religion, like Marxism, Stalinsim. [We] seven or eight people sat down at a café table in Cosio d’Arroscia, and tried to, and succeeded, in creating a movement that said art is about about politics, art is about changing the world, otherwise it is about nothing, it is not about producing artifacts, it’s about doing things. We were trying to say that we are involved in our society, in our culture, we feel that it is our duty, yes we were preachers, perhaps we were missionaries, it could be seen that way, what we were trying to do was, you know, make something budge a little bit, not to create another ism, which is an oppressive thing. I’m an anarchist, I can believe in anarchy, but I would never adhere to a movement that called itself Anarchism. If I can have a long dossier on me in Wiesbaden, the CIA centre, for thinking art is…I think that art isn’t just painting pictures, it’s talking, thinking, being here…I think what I’m doing now is a work of art, you know. This sort of activity has always been regarded as dangerous. I mean, Socrates was an artist, for that matter, and was compelled to drink poison…I prefer to drink wine…but what one does is a critique of the society in which one lives, which the governing orders find threatening in some way; that, curiously, is a way of defining art.
H and W: What was your dossier at Wiesbaden?
RR: The best c.v. of mine I ever saw was at Dover. I’d just had my first heart attack and I’d been in hospital in France; at Dover I got taken into a small room, and there was this man who said, we know all about you sir, so I said, well, that’s nice, I know nothing about you. What’s you name? he said [puts on firm interrogation voice]. We’ll ask the questions. And he started punching out out stuff on his computer, and suddenly a whole length of paper came spewing out of it, which I was able to some extent to read. Its source was Wiesbaden, I saw my name on it, and I could spot dating and accuracy about my life. Their problem was at the time international terrorism, and they must have thought that because people had quoted Situationist stuff that the Situationists were the people who had inspired the dissatisfaction with current regimes and that we had suggested that the way to deal with this was by kidnapping industrialists or blowing up aeroplanes or whatever. What we had said was much more about intellectual terrorism. If you use your mind you can scare people out of their foolishness often. But – Debord was accused of murdering [his publisher] Lebovici – none of us I think would raise his hand against another fellow citizen under any circumstances whatever – even a mugger, I think I would be more likely to accept the mugging than resist it.
H and W: You were a conscientious objector?
H and W: Which was also suspect?
RR: That was on it too…
H and W: Pacifist terrorist!
RR: There is this state terrorism, they’ve been watching you all the time. A friend of mine came to me on two occasions, the first time to report – it was after my wife died – he had heard something that could only have been heard on a phone tap. A few days later he said “I’ve been offered $10,000 to say certain things about you. I said, well you silly cunt, why didn’t you take the money and we could have shared it [laughter]. Stalin, Hitler, established their state arts. The beautiful thing about Mussolini is, he couldn’t be bothered.
H and W: Is that more fatal to the arts – eventually – indifference?
RR: I have never believed that it is essential to the artist that he should suffer for his art, or starve in a garret – we often do, it’s a miserable bloody business – I don’t think it is essential that we should be shooting poets on the street corners, though there are circumstances in which I would go and be shot rather than be silenced. I would not die for Rushdie’s book, but I would stand in front of him if an assassin – you know. The right to expression, the right to blaspheme, the right to casue offence to anybody is the potent right of the artist. If we take that away we’re in that dreadful little cave looking out…
This is the battle, the disaster, the paradox of being an artist, that if you are successful you are recuperated…when you cease to starve – and I have known this in my life – people use you, and the statements you think you are making are misinterpreted and this is a way in which people malign you…I can sit here now because I’m still a poor, struggling, striving, artist, and have rows with people about their cunts, which is an area of serious artistic endeavour as far as I’m concerned; but supposing I suddenly became very successful, then people won’t dare argue with me the way they did last night, they’d all bow down, and I’d be staying in the Cumberland [hotel] or something and this is dreadful, a great danger. You make something you sell, once you’ve sold it it’s in the public domain, anyone can have it, to a certain extent anyone can do what they want with it. Artists have suffered this through the ages.
I wnet against the grain because I went to Paris instead of New York. I just knew that the right thing was over there, not in New York, I would maintain to this day. There was this post-surrealist school that occurred in New York, but in Paris, in Milan, there were people like Fontana, Manzoni, Yves Klein, Christo; set against the New York school and I do not think I made the wrong choice.
H and W: In the late sixties you stopped painting…
RR: What happened was rather complex. My wife committed suicide. The children were at school in Paris, I had an apartment in Venice. I was working there, I had a lot of commissions, I was supporting the whole family. Being married to Peggy Guggenheim’s daughter was no bowl of cherries – four children, she [my wife] did not have any money, she had $300 a month, it went nowhere near what we had to produce. Peggy had me expelled from Venice, she destroyed my career, my working practice. [this is just my side of the story, my understanding of it; Peggy isn’t here to give her side]. Pegeen was so shattered by this – and she had made various other attempts on her life – and she made a further attempt the night I got back to Paris. I can think of about fifteen occasions when I saved her life. She had been suicidal for thirteen years before I knew her. On this occasion I was so exhausted – I’d been in a Venice police station for two days – I did not spot the signs, I failed to take any action, I did nothing to stop it, I didn’t even notice it was going on. Peggy immediately started civil proceedings against me for murder. I was under a kind of house arrest in Paris – I was allowed to go in and out of the house and so on, I was followed everywhere, my phone was tapped, I wasn’t allowed to get in contact with any of my earning activities which were all in Italy, so I starved, more or less. I used to have to go and see friends and say look, I’ve got minor priorities, I need the Herald Tribune every day, I need two packets of cigarettes, as a luxury some wine, and possibly a sandwich. I subsisted for a year like that.
At the same time, and for many years in order to support the family, I had lapsed into something that I was beginning to find despicable, which was producing marketable pictures. I was copying myself, I was being bullied by dealers and by collectors to go on doing the same thing. I don’t renounce or reject any of those pictures, but I was getting bored and I think that was, in fact, a very fortunate thing for me, because it was leading me towards the idea, which is also paradoxical, that art is in fact a concept, it’s an idea, it’s something you carry in your mind, in your being, in the way you behave, in what you are as a person; and that the artist is – something I had said many years before to Manzoni – art is shit – and he put it in tins, which I think is one of the loveliest things of the 20th Century – so that in a way when this break occurred, once I’d got free of this ignominy and this house arrest and tabloid press nonsense, and also the shock of the person I had loved most in my life dying – I got a job at French radio.
H and W: Why did you go back to painting?
RR: I thought I was never going to go back. I was living on a tiny Italian island near Tunis on forty pounds a month – and I could live there on that – and I met a young Neapolitan lawyer who came there for his holidays, and we got friendly, and he said why don’t you come and stay with me for a bit, and I said what am I going to do for money, and he said I’ll work it all out. So I go there and then he says, well, we are having this painting exhibition – in this town up behind Naples near Vesuvius – and I said, well I’m sorry, I’m not really into that, and then this Mafia thing came out, and he said you’ve got to do it and you’re going to win the prize, you know, the offer you can’t refuse…I said I’ve got no materials, I’ve got no brushes, I’ve got nothing. He said, alright, we’ll drive you into Naples, buy any materials you want. So I bought gold leaf, silver leaf, he got carpenters to do the panels. I had not done a picture for years. I produced about five pictures. They were hung in the streets of the town, except for one I did for his office of two elephants reflecting each other in gold and silver – he was called Hannibal – and as he predicted I won the prize of five hundred pounds. Since I’d been scraping out a perfectly happy living on forty pounds a month, five hundred pounds seemed like a fortune. I’d done something else. I’d said you’ve got to invite a Venetian friend down and make sure he wins a prize as well. And so he won the second prize. And he kept saying, why don’t you come to Venice, you haven’t been there since you were thrown out. So I thought, why the hell not. Let’s see if they dare try it on again. So I went back with him to Venice, whereupon he said he said he had a very large gas bill, could he borrow all my money, so I said of course, and then I was suddenly stuck in Venice. Then there was a charming young lady who invited me to come and live with her, and so I did. So there I was in Venice, thinking how the fuck am I going to earn a living? She bought a second hand Polaroid camera, and I started thinking about the significance of the Polaroid camera, and if you think about it one of the points is you can take all those photographs that you wouldn’t dare take round to the corner shop to have developed. So I started doing that, with her, with her friends, with people I met. Then I thought, why don’t I frame these things and sign them? In that work I was trying to demystify eroticism, or pornography. I was de-pornographying pornography. Women walk around with this thing between their legs, and they’re trained in this society to hide it, to keep it secret, and so on, and there is possibly some error in our society there. It’s extraordinarily explicit, especially the sculptures, you can see every pore on the skin. But I do not think they would provide sexual excitement in anyone. They’re certainly not intended to.
Timor mortis conturbat me. It really does. Dunbar was one of the great poets, and that line…I used one of his poems in a video about the Band Aid concert, In giving should discretion be. The only thing we can possibly be certain about in the future is that we are going to die. It causes me consternation, it disturbs me. I do not accept it very willingly. I shall not go into the dark quietly. That is going to happen, it’s fairly constantly present in my mind that I might not wake up tomorrow morning or that I might drop dead walking along the street or up the stairs. You go on trying to get on with what you want to do.
My reference as an artist is back to the original graffiti artists in the caverns. I feel closer to the people who write on tube trains. Altamira and graffiti in New York are more important than quite a lot of other things. I think the fact that someone feels obliged to make his mark, or leave his mark. There is this extraordinary pretentious thing about something that any artist does – it has always been said, Ovid said it – that one is trying to make one’s mark upon posterity as well, trying to leave a trace, a record, some sign that I have been here, and the man who covers his hand with red clay and sticks it on the wall, you know, red ochre and bang, in some dark underground tavern, and that is discovered three thousand years later, is making a very serious artistic statement. I was here. Yes, because death bothers me, I am trying to raise a flag in the future, saying I was here. I think the trick, as far as possible, is to be sort of anonymous within this society. You know, to sort of vanish.
Debord was against artists anyway, though the thing [the Situationist International] had been set up as a movement of artists trying to change the world. In a rather paradoxical way, partly by art and partly by a sort of denial of art. There is that paradox. I think I was the one who said at the founding meeting, that art is dead but we’ve nevertheless got to accept that this is the way we are now living. So we might as well go on doing it until we’re clever enough to invent new forms of art and alter this fact, and I still believe that to this day*
H and W: [The Situationist Conference in London, 1960] was at some place down in Whitechapel. Apparently everyone was told the name of the place but not the address, and they were all expected to arrive in London independently and find their way to it.
RR: Yes, then they met for about three days, I think, and Guy [Atkins] kept coming back and telling me very funny stories about what was going on.
H and W: Were you not on very good terms with Debord by then? [Rumney had been expelled by Debord, ostensibly for handing in his psychogeographical report on Venice a few days late. As a teenager he had been expelled from the Communist party over his position on the Korean war]
RR: Well, I wasn’t invited, I wasn’t a member. There was no reason for me to be there. Then they came up with a sort of statement at the end of it all, and Guy Atkins arranged for this to be read at the ICA. It was as much myself as Guy, because I had originally persuaded the ICA to show Debord’s film Hurlements en faveur de Sade. Which was a fairly amusing incident. I did a talk at the ICA. I didn’t actually see the film and I suppose I was being fairly stroppy with the ICA. I didn’t actually see the film, I’ve never seen it. I mean I’ve read the script and I thought it was going to be the most ghastly boring experience.
However, the ICA announced this thing and they got a full house for it. I mean the place was packed. And Guy Atkins said to me the day before, they need someone to translate it into English. I said, well you do it Guy. He said, no I can’t do it, you do it. So I said, I can’t do it, they’d have a fit. He said, no, no, Debord’s agreed. So I said, well alright, then I said, this is an extremely obfuscated piece of literature, it doesn’t really translate into English. Which is the case with many Situationist texts. I don’t know if you’ve noticed. You know, if you translate it literally, it doesn’t read.
So Guy said well, you know, use your imagination, write it in proper English. I said, no Debord’s going to have a fit. Guy said, no he won’t, he’s agreed for you to translate it and, anyway, Debord can’t speak English so he won’t know. So I thought what the hell and translated it. And it was quite a long job. I finished it about four in the afternoon, after having sat up al night at it. And I do not think in any way it modified any essential point they were trying to make. In fact I’m quite certain of that.
So then we turned up about six o’ clock, about an hour before the meeting was going to begin. All the Situationists were there in the bar and I handed over the translation to Debord, who had a look at it. And of course he couldn’t speak English so he didn’t know. Then he handed it to Jacqueline de Jong, who also cannot or could not at that time speak English, and she read it and after about four sentences said it was no good, it wasn’t literal and that the word order had been changed. I mean, literally the word order had been, not sentence order, but then, of course one changes word order in a translation. So then Debord said alright, it won’t do, you’ve got to go and do it again.
Well, by this time I was fairly amused by all this, so I said, alright I will, if people don’t mind waiting, it’ll take quite a while. And I went across to the ICA office, which was on the other side of Dover Street, in another building, and I sat down with a typewriter and I literally translated the thing word for word, which meant it didn’t make any sense. After about four hours I came back across the road – meanwhile this audience was waiting, believe it or not – and I turned up with this text and I said, well, it’s not English but it’s maybe what you want, and I’m not going to do it again. So Debord took one look at it and said, “C’est parfait!” whereupon he handed it to Wyckaert. Now Wyckaert is a Flemish speaker and he can’t, well I’m told he can speak English now, but he certainly couldn’t in those days. And he got up on the platform and he read the whole thing phonetically in Flemish pronunciation. So no one could understand what was going on at all.
The one piece that was fairly clear in it was Wyckaert saying towards the beginning, “Situationism does not exist”, that was about all one could follow. The other thing was everyone kept applauding very loudly, at completely inappropriate moments, when everybody felt like it. There were two rows of Situationists and Guy Atkins and myself, and one or two friends. Then one row in front of us, in fact it was the person sitting in front of Debord, got up and made some slightly cynical comment, saying this was all very interesting but he hadn’t understood a word of it and would someone please explain what “Situationism” was. And Debord heard this word “Situationism”, he latched onto “ism” and he got up and said, “If you’re only going to ask cuntish questions we’re leaving the room. Whereupon we all walked back to the pub downstairs.” *
H and W:
* paragraphs marked * from Interview with Tom Vague, first published in Vague #22