PETER HILL'S MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY IDEAS

Peter Hill

The Albury Wodonga Superfiction 1993

Collaboration Peter Hill and J.J. Voss (Photographer)

Peter Hill interviewed by Jonnie Gimlet in....

The Rise and Rise of the Heroic Amateur

(the unedited transcript)

Jonnie Gimlet: How the devil are you?

Peter Hill: Pretty chipper, thank you.

Gimlet: So what's all this about a novel then?

Hill: The Art Fair Murders. It's a novel and an installation. What I call a superfiction.

Gimlet: And you want to auction it for (US) $500,000?

Hill: That's a bit of a furphy. A wry comment on The Information by Martin Amis and the fuss made over his (US) $750,000 advance and the fuss not made over whoever wrote The Horse Whisperers and his (US) $3,000,000 advance .

Gimlet: Sailing a bit close to the old meta-fiction winds there, aren't we?

Hill: Not at all. Meta-fictions are too inward-looking for me. They represent a closed system. Superfictions are open systems which cross boundaries. What makes this project a superfiction is its marriage to a completley different discipline - the visual arts. But to talk about that we need to talk about Heroic Amateurism.

Gimlet: You've lost me pal.

Hill: In part it has to do with 19th century notions of "the amateur". The idea that someone with enthusiasm and love for a subject could, over a lifetime, make a greater contribution than the jaded professional. There is also the idea that someone coming afresh to a discipline can bring new insights to it. In a very real sense heroic amateurism is the theory that underpins Superfictions . And Superfictions occur when an artist joins two or more discrete disciplines together into a single art work.

Gimlet: Kinda like cultural cross-dressing?

Hill: If you like.

Gimlet: Oh I do, I do.

Hill: The problem, or the fun, starts when you are a professional in one area and a complete amateur in another - but fuelled by ambition.

Gimlet: Ah dinnae understand, Jimmy.

Hill: Okay, I come at all this from the standpoint of being a visual artist. Superfictions 1 back in 1986 joined the world of the visual arts with the world of museum politics - although I am not a museologist - and the result of that was The Museum of Contemporary Ideas, notionally on Park Avenue, New York. It was supposed to be the biggest new contemporary space in the world and had its billionaire benefactors in Alice and Abner "Bucky" Cameron. Superfictions 2 joined the visual arts with the politics of the commercial art fair and when...

Gimlet: Let me stop you there pal. Remember, this interview's for an up-market style magazine with low-brow, but moneyed, readers. It will probably sit between an article on Manhattan cigar lounges and a destination piece about eco-tourism in Tasmania. Now, the fuck's a commercial art fair? That's what our readers are asking at this moment unless they haven't already flicked on to the latest profile of Noel Gallagher and the disintegration of Oasis.

Hill: Sorry pal. Art fairs are totally commercial events. Cologne is the oldest dating from 1967. Basel is the largest. There are at least a dozen major ones around the world, and many more small ones. They take place in vast trades halls , sandwiched between boat shows and ideal home shows. Bit like the Frankfurt Book Fair which is probably more your territory.

Gimlet: I'm with you my boy. We're talking about money oiling the greasy pole of commerce. Am I right?

Hill: Exactly. With Superfictions 2 I started building art fair installations inside museums. I was able to contrast museum politics with art fair politics. The commercialisation of art versus the rigour of curation.

Gimlet: So what are the differences?

Hill: Art fairs are totally anarchic and driven by money. A painting sells and you take it down, replace it with another. In a museum, the same painting may cover the same piece of wall for months or decades. There is a great uneveness about art fairs, but that is why they are full of surprises. Most museum curators hate them, but they always visit them. So many deals are done there. If it is the Chicago or Cologne art fair then every gallery in town puts on its best show of the season and there might be over eighty private views or vernissages on the same night. I remember being in Cologne in 1989 when Kieffer first showed his lead aeroplanes at Michael...

Gimlet: Getting a bit technical here pal. Don't want to lose the general reader. What about The Art Fair Murders?

Hill: That's Superfictions 4. I stayed with the art fair theme but joined it to the world of so-called literary fiction. The idea is to build 24 installations around the world in 24 cities - roughly one a month for two years. Twelve will be in cities with real art fairs - Los Angeles, Madrid, Hong Kong, Melbourne, and twelve will be in cities without art fairs - Berlin, Auckland, Barcelona, Glasgow etc. I am hoping some of the former will be installed inside the real fairs. I'm interested in notions of trompe l'oeil and camouflage. The book will be launched at each venue and there will be a reading and signing accompanied by a slide show.

Gimlet: Getting a bit ambitious aren't we?

Hill: Well that brings us back to Heroic Amateurism . It is marked by the ability to go in to a new area at the highest possible level, in my case literary fiction and...

Gimlet: And risk falling flat on your face...

Hill: Since you put it that way...exactly.

Gimlet: Tell me. What's your favourite painting?

Hill: El Greco's View of Toledo. I also like anything by Jessica Stockholder. Res Ingold's pretty neat, but then we're moving away from painting.

Gimlet: What about music? You got any favourite sounds?

Hill: Since you ask, music does have a walk-on role in The Art Fair Murders. One character Zoran is heavily into the late sixties underground scene. Not progressive shite like Jethro Tull or Mott the Hoople but everything from The Grateful Dead south. Dave van Ronk, Quicksilver Messenger Service, early Beefheart, Glen Phillips, Gong, The Edgar Broughton Band, Love...

Gimlet: I remember Love.

Hill: Used to share a house with Hendrix. The Velvet Underground may have written the most famous song about heroin addiction but Love wrote the best one - the best anti-heroin song. "No one cares for me - signed DC."

Gimlet: Yeah, Don Conka.

Hill: Rest of the band got arrested when he overdosed. Charged with his murder.

Gimlet: So musically you're telling me The Art Fair Murders is in a sixties time warp.

Hill: No way. That's all Zoran. Jacko, on the other hand - he's a taxi driver - he's from the punk generation, and Lucy Diamond is straight down the line Brit-pack nineties. Jacko's big hero is Elvis Costello. He often boasts of having been at the first punk gig at London's 100 Club when he was only fourteen. Hitched down from Glasgow to see The Damned supporting the Sex Pistols. Returned a few months later to see them with the Buzzcocks and the Vibrators.

Gimlet: And what about Lucy?

Hill: Lucy's a child of her time, and that time is 1995. She's really into Alma Magretta and has a huge poster of Rino on the ceiling above her bed. But she's also got time for East 17 and Tony Mortimer, Chemical Brothers, Mo'Wax, Daddy G and Nine Inch Nails. On a good day she'll even listen to Van Morrison. She dreams of getting out of Aberdeen and spending every night at The Good Mixer in Camden and taking her summer holidays in Manchester.

Gimlet: Tell me, Pedro old chum, how serious are you about all this?

Hill: There is a serious and an an absurd side to all of it.

Gimlet: But absurdity is pretty fucking serious these days isn't it? What about the hoax man? What do you say to those who accuse you of just being a trickster?

Hill: I deny it entirely. The whole project plays off notions of populism and elitism. The element of "the hoax" exists like a veneer. It is there to draw in the popular audience.

Gimlet: And is there anything under that veneer? I'm sure some would say there isn't.

Hill: I am offended by this (spluttering into his caffe latte). Of course there is. The serious side of the project comes from the philosophy of science. The plastic nature of the project allows these same ideas to be translated in to the creative arts and in to organisational structures. It is a travesty of all that I hold dear to suggest that below the veneer is merely the void.

Gimlet: That's cool. Rave on...

Hill: From Popper we get notions of falsificationism and their supremacy over verificationism. The idea that we can only approach the truth. What is true and what is false? That is what this project asks. And if we learn anything from it it is that we must become ever more sophisticated in our judgement of what indeed is true and what is false. It is what Popper called sophisticated methodological falsificationism. Then from Thomas Kuhn we get the notion of the paradigm change. And let me tell you something (leans forward, jabbing a finger) the computer scientist Margaret Masterman has documented 23 distinct ways in which Kuhn in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions has used the term "paradigm change". Superfictions records the mechanics of paradigm change in late 20th century life. Beyond that is Feyerabend with his anarchic theory of knowledge, body-swerving us through the defences of Imre Lakatos and Alan Chalmers...

Gimlet: I think we just lost half our audience here. You know they've flipped back to the Up-front section looking at new mobile phones and modems that let you talk on the net like making international phone calls for free. Why don't I ask you about the novel and how you went about writing that?

Hill (wiping his brow): Okay. After choosing a deliberately cliched title The Art Fair Murders I decided to write it in reverse.

Gimlet: Like back to front?

Hill: Exactly. I started by writing the sort of blurb a publisher puts on the back of an airport novel - even before they've got any out-of-context hype from the critics to put there. It began something like: "Twelve bizarre murders in twelve cities around the world, each in a different month of the same year - 1989. What could possibly link them?..." and so it went on. Towards the end it gave the web-site for my Museum of Contemporary Ideas and called for expressions of interest in an internet auction with bids starting at (US) $500,000. As soon as I wrote the first chapter - which was in June of 1995 - I scanned it on to the web.

Gimlet: Get many responses?

Hill: Around the same time I put a small advertisement in to The London Review of Books saying much the same thing as the jacket blurb. Using The Willings Press Guide and The Writers and Artists Yearbook I also did a promotional mail-out to leading literary agents in London, New York, Tokyo, France, Germany, and Australia. Similar media kits were sent to a couple of hundred newspapers and magazines around the world ranging from The New York Times and The Independent to The Bangkok Nation , The Scotsman, and The Toronto Globe and Mail. Four packages went to each newspaper. One to the news desk, one to the literary editor, one to the computer pages and a fourth to the art critic.

Gimlet: Why go to all that trouble?

Hill: It was a way of testing the internet. The internet is the glue that holds my particular superfictions together. I am fascinated by systems and organisational structures. I love complexity. All these things come together in the most fabulous way on the internet. But I've found you need to use the net in tandem with other things such as the postal service and media advertising.

Gimlet: And then what happens?

Hill: Well after a while it gets totally beyond my control. Take the other day as a for instance. Just for the hell of it I typed "Alice and Abner "Bucky" Cameron" in to the Yahoo search engine, not expecting anything much to come up. To my surprise there were dozens of listings - things I'd written about them myself that I'd long forgotten about, such as their educational ship going down in the Bermuda Triangle and Alice's annual holidays in St Andrews Scotland where she summers during the golf season.

Gimlet: So what's your point?

Hill: The point is that people can enter the maze from a myriad of points and through no fault of their own suddenly find themselves inside The Art Fair Murders. If you want to find it quickly then just go to the museum's home page and it is listed at the top under "what's new". Click on that and away you go.

Gimlet: And what else is in there?

Hill: One of the biggest sections which I am constantly updating is The Encyclopaedia of Superfictions. Over the past decade I have tracked down close on one hundred artists or art teams who have created fictional worlds - very often oxymorons.

Gimlet: You're losing us again. General magazine remember...

Hill: SERVAAS in Amsterdam has his fictional world of fish. Res Ingold in Cologne has a fictional airline called Ingold Airlines which represents heroic amateurism taken to the grand level, as do the activities of The Seymour Likely Group - three Dutch artists who created a fictional American artist and exhibitied his work all over Europe. They even have a bar near Dam Square calledThe Seymoue Likely Lounge. Then there's Xu Bing in China, Rodney Glick in Australia, David Wilson's Museum of Jurassic Technology in California, and Juan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera in Spain.

Gimlet: And these are all characters in your novel?

Hill: No, no, no, they are all real artists who have created their own superfictions.

Gimlet: So tell me, who is your novel peopled by? And one more thing, why did you set it in 1989?

Hill: I chose 1989 as the year of revolutions - the Berlin Wall coming down, the Tienanmien incident as it is annoyingly referred to by the Chinese. But it was also just before the bubble burst in the contemporary art market. The rise of the secondary market, crazy prices at auction, the feeling that anything was possible. Everyone was doing deals. New galleries were opening every day. And more than anything else commercial art fairs were booming. They fostered a local art market and supported an international one. Some dealers even said they wouldn't mind if the general public were not admitted to the fairs as galleries were doing quite well selling to each other. One Warhol painting sold five times over to five different galleries at the 1989 Los Angeles art fair - the price going up each time you understand.

Gimlet: I'm with you. But tell me about the characters in your novel.

Hill: Ostensibly The Art Fair Murders is being written by a taxi driver in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1995. He sets his novel in 1989 for all the reasons I've just mentioned. He craves literary fame and hankers after a huge advance from a publisher.

Gimlet: This is beginning to sound familiar.

Hill: Indeed, he is the archetypal heroic amateur. You see, he went to art school in the early 80s, trained at Goldsmiths in London a year or two before Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread which pisses him off no end. He got a first class honours degree and went straight on to the dole. Then he gets a job as an art transporter.

Gimlet: Excuse me, an art transporter?

Hill: Yes, lifting and lugging art works on to vans. Mostly lifting but occasionally lugging. Bit like being a roadie without scores of groupies throwing themselves at you. Or that's what he thought in his more depressed moments. Driving the vans across Europe to art fairs. Once he even visited Australia and called in on Hong Kong on his way back.

Gimlet: So how come he ends up in Aberdeen?

Hill: Look, I'm not going to go through the whole fucking novel. Just take it from me he lost his job as an art transporter through the double dealing of his mate affectionately known as Wee Shitey. He ends up driving a cab in Aberdeen. He teams up with a guy called Zoran who is a published science fiction writer and for a brief period the two of them attend the Aberdeen Writers' Club. Wee Shitey, by the way, comes from Drumchapel.

Gimlet: Sounds like we are rapidly spiralling in to a plot within a plot.

Hill: I'll admit to that. The thing is Jacko our taxi driver, for that is his name, is surrounded by all the makings of a fine novel in his backyard of Aberdeen. Yet he wants to write a novel set in all sorts of exotic locations around the world - Los Angeles, Paris, Melbourne, Frankfurt, Hong Kong. His taxi is full of books on how to write a novel and back issues of The Writers Digest. Each chapter is headed by a quote from one of these books such as Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman and How to Write Crime Novels by Isobel Lambert. Each chapter of Jacko's book starts with a different national festival in a different city, as in "It was St Valentine's Day 1989 in Australia. All of the specialty shops at Melbourne's Tullamarine Airport were covered in pink hearts and offering free gift-wrapping in candy-striped paper. It was also the first day of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie." or later, and excuse me if I read this one (flicking through his notes and almost upsetting the Penfold's red balanced on the arm of his chair), "It was the 16th of June in Switzerland and the Basel Esperanto Society were celebrating Bloomsday by reciting Ulysses on the banks of the Rhine. It was nearing the end of a hot day and they sat in the shade of the Mittlere Rheinbrücke, one of six bridges spanning the river. Water-skiers, mostly Americans in town for the opening of the art fair later that evening, performed like gladiators along the stretch of water that separates Kleinbasel from Grossbasel."

Gimlet: Meanwhile, back in Aberdeen, what's happening there?

Hill: Well, all this great action that's crying out for a novel to be written around it. Aberdeen's a fine place. I lived there once myself, but it's real frontiers-ville. In the seventies and eighties the oil money came flooding in and with it a sea of American rig-builders and London salarymen. House prices went crazy shooting up and down with the cost of a barrel of crude. Social deprivation on the housing schemes was just unbelievable. The rise of Thatcher only made things worse. Whenever someone was laid off the rigs the first thing they did was to buy a taxi. You used to see dozens of them lined up around the city blocks. Hundreds of taxis. And that's where we find Jacko, sitting in his cab dreaming of novels and film scripts. Jacko's own story weaves in and out of The Art Fair Murders.

Gimlet: Can you tell us any of that story?

Hill: There's an anti-heroin sub-plot to the sub-plot. In fact the book begins with a quote from Richard Benson publisher of The Face magazine. It's taken from the editorial of his Christmas issue for 1995 which I came across while sheltering from a hurricane in Gladstone in sub-tropical Queensland. "Don't take heroin," he tells his readers, "enjoy your Christmas shopping, and try to buy your Mum something more imaginative than a basket of toiletries."

Gimlet: Very droll. And how does that fit in with the book?

Hill: Och you see there's a stand-off between two rival Aberdeen drug dealers known around the traps as Prozac Jack and Temazapan Stan. Jack is an American in his mid-forties who flew helicopters in Vietnam and later out to the North Sea rigs. He has a thing about teenage girls and after a short stay in Peterhead took to dealing as a way to survive. Prozac Jack is severely damaged. Stan, on the other hand, is a local lad with ambitions to own his own nightclub. For the moment he haunts "Jellies", the main nightclub on Union Street. They suffer each other in a silence of mutual co-existence until they fall out over a woman - or rather a school girl called Lucy Diamond. Her parents are aging hippies who named her after their favourite Beatles track from Seargent Peppers. Lucy can't listen to anything by the Beatles without flying in to a rage. She wants nothing more than to get out of Aberdeen and live in Manchester.

Gimlet: Don't we all.

Hill: Zoran, on the other hand, is a man of habit. Every morning he breakfasts at Sweaty Betty's; every evening he dines at the same Indian restaurant in the converted fire station in the city centre. By day he writes his science fiction novels which have brought him fame across the Balkans. Every hour, on the hour, he pours himself a nip of whisky. He is Jacko's confidante and mentor. He suffers from a nervous condition which stops him from travelling, but his imagination roams freely across the galaxies as gradually he peoples it with Serbo-Croatians and Bosnian wide boys.

Gimlet: Talking of roaming - I've got to shoot the crow. Lunch at the Groucho with Fluffy from The Triplet Twins. Lucky man, I know. I'll type this up over the next few days and get back to you next week with a few more questions.

Hill: Mind your head on the way...

Gimlet: Aargh! Shit.

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