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Long before the San Francisco band Negativeland and later the magazine Adbusters branded the term ‘cultural jamming’, networks of artists such as the Fluxus and Situationist (post-Situationist International) have been visually and intellectually questioning, interfering, and disrupting the ebb and flow of social order and construction.
The Denver Punk scene had members who wanted to create a space and/or a reality outside and beyond mainstream culture. Several people I’ve been in communication with often express that their utopian idea of punk is to completely separate themselves from society. Many have adopted hermit and maverick-like lifestyles and fundamentally adhere to the concept that reality is rooted in self-creation.
One of the by-products resulting as the Denver scene split was a grassroots group of artists and musicians who blended sensations, philosophy, and visual art with sound. The music went beyond the simple hashtag of industrial and experimental. It set in place the foundations of post-postmodernism and visual culture. The members within this developing community had punk sensibilities and was inching itself deeper underground flirting in the esoteric and occult.
My introduction into this subgenre came about my junior year in high school. I had friends that were into bands like Psychic TV and listen to what I would call orchestrated noise. I was curious. I would tagalong with my friend Ken who would drop acid and go to Human head Transplant and K.I.A. (Kulture Information Access) shows in the midst of Denver’s skid row. Witnessing acts of what I would deem hypnotic, tribal, and otherworldly was initially bewildering. Until them, the extent of my rebellion was running around circles slamming into other punks while bands onstage ranted about Reagan and reinforcing punk and hardcore’s conformist brand of anarchy. What I experienced in lower downtown Denver at these art/industrial gatherings was individuals incorporating anarchy into an alternative way of living within the barren urban landscape the lined the outer edges of downtown.
What further propelled my interests in this developing subgenre was getting a copy of Pranks! from RE/Search Publications. The book documents practical jokes, happenings, subversive tactics, and such by Joe Coleman, Earth First, etc. These firsthand accounts were my introduction into culture jamming. My senses had been tuned to become aware of what was going on in Denver’s alternative art scene. I started to notice fliers that resembled propaganda statements on light poles around the city. The aesthetic of these sheets of paper were authoritative advising the viewer with instructions on how to act. The eye and lettering of the logo seemed to be laced with Masonic imagery and resembled that of a dollar bill. We Never Sleep was the collective responsible for producing these tongue and cheek impressions. Below, Paul Dickerson, one of the founding members of the group shares his thoughts and insights on how WNS came to be.
|Paul Dickerson and William Montague of WNS, press photo. Brush and ink drawing by Bob Rob Medina.|
Denver had an 85% vacancy rate?
There was an 85% vacancy rate in the buildings downtown during the early 80’s. They constructed these enormous high rises in hopes of creating an oil town à la Houston. Regrettably they had demolished most of the historic city center, which was a monumental crime. Denver was a ghost town in those days. There was no money here. There weren't a lot of possibilities. In some regard, this was a very advantageous atmosphere.
The punk scene and underground cultures the world over flourished in part because it was possible to do things without money. There was a feeling of community and everyone felt a sense of absolute freedom because, in my recollection, no one ever had a day job! We were all free to live out whatever it was we wanted to do, to forge interesting and meaningful events and artifacts. That was the very essence of the punk movement for me. There was an economic situation that existed that made it possible to live in an inner city and possible to create these autonomous microcosms. That was something that always interested me tremendously.
In working with in We Never Sleep, there seemed to be overt propaganda elements.
A lot of our work incorporated bombastic political-type propaganda. In hindsight, one can see how closely the punk scene was tied to the Cold War, at least aesthetically. This was an enormous component of the consciousness of the time… the zeitgeist… My interest in the punk movement in general was about subverting the reality paradigm. I saw in it a very real possibility to create a viable, authentic, and autonomous reality. It was perfectly logical to utilize the language of propaganda, simply because it was effective. That was one of the key ideas we were working with in We Never Sleep. It wasn't entirely ironic. There was a certain utility to that.
Would it be a misunderstanding if your work was somewhat perceived as cultural jamming? More or less your work was subverting culture and basically jamming the norm, social conformity.
By definition, that was absolutely what we were doing. It’s difficult to understand – or remember - one’s youthful motives. Memory is a faulty and idiosyncratic faculty, but my strongest impressions of that era are tied to how vibrant it seemed to have all these interesting possibilities to re-create the social landscape. That was really exciting. The American punk movement is judged historically as an overtly political exercise against the Reagan-era foreboding. People were really pissed off and scared. We were sick of the dreary pop culture. It was all very ugly and uninspiring. There was a deep-seated psychological need to change the ENTIRE ENTERPRISE. Sure, there were strong political elements, but I was never particularly interested in that sort of "Fuck you Ronald Reagan" sentiment. To be honest, I completely agreed, but at the same time I remember thinking that all terribly counterproductive. We took an entirely different approach, which was to just create an entirely new arena with an entirely new set of reference points... where it was possible to have agency over your affairs. That's a very radical, dangerous idea. That was the essence of punk rock.
Did you feel with the images and aesthetics you put out there was threatening to the status quo?
Yes and no. There was clearly an antagonistic element to some of it. There was also quite a lot of humor that most people overlooked. For me, I never felt like it was something purely antagonistic. There always had to be a component of humor. At the same time, there was decidedly less of a sense of irony about things than you see now. I don't really have my finger on the pulse 21st century youth culture, but it seems so thoroughly steeped in irony that that it’s difficult to discern any sort of meaningful message. I'm not 100% sure the kids engaged in it are able to make a distinction of where the irony begins or ends. I feel grateful to have come of age when there was some voice of dissent, and God knows that was so desperately needed at the time. Every time I see Tom Headbanger, we invariably stay up into the wee hours of the morning discussing this. One of the things that he always mentions is that at that, at the turn of the century, we went into a dark period of two very real wars, eight years of a Republican administration under George W. Bush, terror attacks, and much more frightening social ills than we saw under Reagan, and yet NOTHING happened in youth culture.
Yeah, there was little response to it?
That’s sort of frightening. So many interesting things were spawned in the late 70’s and early 80’s… vibrant, living, tactile things. The following decades gave us MySpace and Facebook. It seems like a really anemic reaction to a terribly disconcerting and sorrowful period of human history.
It reminds me of song Kinky Sex Makes the World Go ‘Round by the Dead Kennedys. Distract people and get them to think about other things...like the line in the song, "Don't worry about those demonstrators, just pump up your drug supply..." So now, you have this drug called Facebook where people can indulge and be consumed by their narcissistic nature. Even if you think about dissent or protesting, the media has fixed images into your conscious of authority figures like the military and police beating you down and quashing any sort of resistance. The system has made it so that citizens are intimidated to question without expecting some sort of repercussions.
Yes, precisely. There was a term coined for that in ancient Rome called Bread and Circuses. Give the populace bread and circuses and they will not notice the ills of the empire. At the same time, I'm not particularly interested in using this arena to criticize the new millennium youth culture. As I admitted earlier, it's not something I really have a good sense of now. My only hope is that whatever it is going on beneath the surface is somehow meaningful and transformative to young people who need some sort of an outlet. Every generation has an obligation to itself and the world to establish a cultural condition that will facilitate a shift in consciousness. If we fail at this, then we have nothing left. Again, I don't see it and I think it's frightening. I hope I'm wrong. I'd love to be wrong in this instance. There is certainly no exception to that.
What was your role and background in helping to creating underground culture?
I missed out on the nascent Denver punk scene. I move here in 1984 a few months after Kennedy's folded. I had for some years in the late 1970's/1980’s lived in a small, grim industrial city that was part of the greater Detroit area. That was the beginning of the end for Detroit and most of the American manufacturing base, so the social posture in those places was very much allied with the ideas and aesthetics of the early Industrial music culture, which was heavily influenced by neo-Fluxus and neo-Situationist artists and groups like Throbbing Gristle and Monte Cazazza. This was very much my cultural background, so the “punk” phenomenon was sort of an abstraction to me. There was a legendary radio DJ in Detroit called the Electrifying Mojo who did a midnight radio show. I remember as a very young person hearing the Kraftwerk records he'd often play. That was something that really changed the way I listened to music. I can distinctly remember thinking that this was the kind of music I always wanted to hear. This was the thing that I was waiting for and it resonated very deeply with me. There was also a small community of people who used to run a record store called Full Moon. They had a band called Hunting Lodge that sounded like some grotesque, beautiful nightmare. They would sit around the store chain smoking, reading William S. Burroughs novels and putting off these nefarious vibes. I liked them a lot. In 1984 I moved to Denver and by some really strange twist of circumstances ended up living at Christian's Warehouse. I was actually living there at the time it was raided by the FBI and Postal Inspector. The place was raided on a bomb/terrorism charge. I don't need to elaborate on that, I think it was pretty well anthologized in the media at the time. One of my distinct memories of that time was a general sense of paranoia. It certainly rearranged my already jaundiced sensibilities when the FBI shows up one night and kicks the doors down. It was, after all, 1984 (Laughter). There was something in the collective conscious of almost expecting those sorts of things to happen. I witnessed people being mugged, beaten and murdered. There was a lot of violence in Denver in those days.
I met a gentleman named of Mark Metz who was squatting in a bank safe. Not a lot of people realize this, but there is an extensive network of tunnels built beneath the state capitol that connect to a number of buildings in Capitol Hill that were speakeasies, brothels, etc. The real utility of those tunnels was to shuttle political leaders back and forth between these places of ill repute without being seen on the streets. Within that network of tunnels there were some safes, these beautiful 19th century bank vaults. Mark was squatting on one of them and I thought this was extraordinary. I always admired his resourcefulness. We ended up becoming friends. For whatever reason, he moved out of the vaults and we ended up living together at an apartment building on Lafayette Street called the Leonard. It was a bizarre commune of artists, misfits, junkies, and occultists of varying persuasions. It was the closest thing Denver had to a real commune. We Never Sleep was born there in early 1985. As I mentioned before, we were influenced by the Fluxus and mail art movements, so the initial idea was to form a collective to organize these sorts of renegade art exhibitions. We organized an erotic art exhibit. The theme was very loose. I don’t think we had a fucking clue what we were doing. The only requirement was that everything had to come through the mail. So we solicited pieces from people all over the world… Europe, Canada, Japan and all over the United States. We initiated contact with G.X. Jupitter-Larsen, who is still quite active to this day. He had a project called The Haters, who ended up coming to Denver to play at this event. He ended up staying here. Our lives and work became hopelessly intertwined for the next 10 years. We lived, worked, and traveled the world together. The Haters performances in Denver during that era are somewhat legendary. Often times they ended in full-scale riots. In some instances there were private events done in vacant areas near what is now the baseball stadium that involved arson and things of that nature, I mean torching semi-trucks and destroying passenger buses and things like that. I was thinking about it recently and it is certainly nothing you could ever dream about getting away with now. There were never proper club spaces. I never thought of that as a challenge, in a way you had to do these things in unconventional places. Everyone knows about the junkyard shows and the things at the Packinghouse. On some sort of conceptual level these things were really interesting, but at that time there wasn't much cognizance of what that meant conceptually. We just didn't have that much choice in the matter. It wasn't like some nightclub was going to ask us to come and do these things. Those events are all so mythological now, in part because they unfolded in such unusual venues, but that was all just a matter of necessity at the time. There weren't really other places where we could do those things. That in itself seems really extraordinary 30 years later. At the time it seemed like the most normal thing imaginable.
30 years ago we were wired to find and carve out a space, to make things happen on our own terms. Nowadays there’s the expectation of everything going through all sorts of proper channels and filling out endless paperwork for ideas, events to be approved. That to me is frustrating and quite frankly, illogical.
You couldn’t really carve out space anymore if you wanted to. Everything has become so expensive and replete with top-heavy regulations and such. I have never had much respect for rules. The ability to do these things in the first place was based on the idea of cheap rent, abandoned landscapes, a lot of imagination and resourcefulness. That really doesn't exist anymore. The economic situation has destroyed all of these communities, which is tragic. Going back to the narrative of Mark Metz and I working in such a framework, we befriended the people from Survival Research Laboratories: Mark Pauline, Matt Heckert and Eric Werner. They were extremely kind to us. We went to San Francisco to work with them. Metz ended up moving there and working with them for many years. The spirit in which they worked and how they how they appropriated spaces and material to build machines… those guys were masters of that. These things are nearly impossible to do in this day and age.
In thinking about seeing robots and machines at events like Coachella. Gatherings like Burning Man have almost become a commodity. It’s more a spectacle and not so underground or threatening anymore. We’ve almost become desensitized by anything spectacular these days. Sensations enter and exit our conscious at such a rapid rate that meaning is sometimes lost and or ignored.
There was a sociologist I once read who used pop culture models to illustrate that the length of time it takes for a radical idea or phenomenon to be absorbed into mainstream is becoming shorter and shorter. He was citing examples of Jazz music in the 1930's, which was so dangerous because of all the racial divisions of the time. The bastard child of that was rock and roll and then punk… Hip Hop… The time it takes for radical music to end up as a jingle in a Burger King commercial is becoming shorter and shorter. Look at the tattooing/body modification trend... how commonplace that’s all become. It’s almost as if there is a built-in self-destruct mechanism to deflate and SELL the danger at a shopping mall before it can actually cause any real damage to the status quo.
In college almost 25 years ago, I took an art history class with upcoming art historian, Patrick Frank. He seemed like he was into ideas and concepts that challenged the norm, so I made him of mix tape of music I though he should listen to. He lectured about how Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch made radical art in their days. These artists couldn't even exhibit their work because mainstream culture wasn’t conditioned for it. The irony is now you can buy a punching bag of Munch's The Scream or a Van Gogh wall calendar for your office. I was once audited by the IRS and had to drive from San Diego to Santa Ana to discuss my tax returns. The only two pieces of color I spotted on the walls in the entire building were a White Man Can't Jump poster and Van Gogh calendar. A couple of years ago Patrick took me to the Art In The Streets exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. I think our sentiment was that street art was over. It wasn't radical anymore. For God's sake, it is in a museum now.
It's funny that you mention that, you're not the only person to tell me that about visiting that show in L.A. There was an exhibition here in Denver at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) a couple of years ago based around this San Francisco artist named Bruce Conner. There were several rooms in the exhibit focused on different media. One of those rooms was completely filled with these crude punk rock fliers. It was so bizarre seeing that in a museum setting. I have to admit: I felt a pang of pride because, if nothing else, it was finally being recognized as a graphic tradition. It was strange and you’d agree; that stuff was, by very strict design, produced for light posts on a street corner. There was something a little unnerving and ironic seeing it in a museum watched over by security guards… the same people who were scraping them off the light posts 30 years ago are now guarding them in a museum. (Laughter)
It was like a Duchamp moment.
I'm sure Duchamp would have whole-heartedly approved.
I think the work we were doing went largely unrecognized in Denver. We started to focus our energy on things that we could accomplish in Europe. We were very well connected there. One of the things I was really proud of was smuggling a box full of cassette tapes from the We never Sleep label into Eastern Europe during the revolution. I ended up staying in Budapest for a time and was the first westerner invited on to the National Hungarian radio during the time of the revolutions. They did a showcase of the WNS label. It was tremendous honor. We started doing pirate radio broadcasts all over Eastern Europe. I was interested in pirate media, especially in this post revolution landscape. All anyone knew was that the old laws were no longer valid, so there was an enormous vacuum that I was more than happy to exist in while I could. It was an exciting place to be. This was before the Internet, so radio was a very important media. There were a few years that we focused on that. That was very much in line with what we had always set out to do, and the atmosphere there lent itself perfectly. It was an exciting place to be.
Did you ever work or collaborate with Kelly Cowan or Big John. Other artist performance, visual, music?
Sure. I mean, after Mark left for San Francisco, WNS functioned for a long time as a collective, which was populated at various times by many different people. In its later incarnation, when we started focusing more on the label aspect, William Montague became an equal partner. We worked a lot with Crash Worship. They were very close friends of ours who would stay at our compound on South Lincoln Street for extended periods. I met Kelly in 1982 on a bus in Michigan. We all lived together when they formed HHT in 1985 or so. It was all very incestuous. I mentioned our relationship with SRL. I met Monte Cazazza through them. We released some of the soundtrack material that he and Matt Hecket did for their early performances. We also had very close working relationships with a group of artists from the Monochome Bleu camp in Austria. We worked with Zoviet France, Jello Biafra (who was always very supportive), Greater Than One, and Helios Creed of Chrome, to name a few…
What did you want people to get out of the material you posted on light poles and walls. Depending on the reaction, was it like a secret handshake to connect with others who might be ideal candidates for your tribe?
I’m not sure that I ever wanted much of anything, except not to be thrown in jail! For us, I think it was always interesting to create something challenging and let it take on a life of its own. Sometimes people would react violently. I remember a time when Metz and I hitchhiked to Vancouver, B.C. to live for a summer. We made these particularly offensive posters using a page from some hardcore gay leather magazine that we found in a gutter which we juxtaposed with a recruiting placard for the Rhodesian mercenary army that read: BE A MAN AMONG MEN. It was a brilliant piece, really, one of our best. It was during the 1986 World’s Fair Expo, and we went into the city center and literally glued them on ever-square centimeter of empty wall space with a heavy epoxy. We would stand back and watch people furiously trying to remove them. It created such a scandal. I sadly don’t own copies of those things.
I see that you are interested in Joseph Beuys. I had a conversation about him with gallery curator over a dozen years ago and discussed the concept of creating your own reality. He was under the impression that's what Beuys did.
He was a hugely important figure. Lee Newman and Michael Wells of Greater Than One introduced me to his work shortly before his death in 1985 or so. He articulated the egalitarian spirit of Punk movement. There was a vigorous spiritual quality to what he did, as well… something that I think rested at the heart of the punk ethos… the establishment of an alternative reality as a means of personal and social transformation. Again, these are radical, dangerous ideas. He once said: I am interested in the creativity of the criminal mind because I recognize in it the existence of a special condition of creative madness…creativity without morals fired only by the energy of freedom and the rejection of all codes and laws. For freedom rejects the dictated roles of the law and of the imposed order and for this reason is isolated. I liked that a lot, and thought it a perfect sentiment to describe the spirit in which a lot of the punk ideas were spawned.
You mentioned that you are a Freemason, how was that a natural progression from the work you did in the past?
That’s an interesting question. As radical – and at times self-destructive and chaotic as our work was – there was a strong undercurrent of hope in all of it. The central allegory of Freemasonry is the building of the Temple, which represents the perfected self. I know that such a mystical sort of ideal might not be so readily apparent in the anatomy of the Punk movement, but there are a lot of strong parallels. Punk was a means of self-actualization whereby one could effectively transcend the mundane. It also provided some very useful working tools that a lot of its practitioners employed to build something of a better world. That’s a core Masonic concept. I also believe that in spite of the violence, the drugs, and the misguided angst that ultimately destroyed many of the punks, that the world was made a more beautiful, interesting and more tolerant place. That’s something that I hoped to achieve in both arenas, and that’s the place where I see those two practices intersecting.