JÉRÔME SANS: What is the power of words in a world driven by images ?
ROBERT MONTGOMERY: That’s interesting because when we speak of “a world driven by images” we immediately get into an idea of the Spectacle in the Situationist sense. When Guy Debord coined that term he meant, at least loosely, the world of images of advertising and capitalism, and he was absolutely conscious of the root of the word Spectacle being in Spectre (ghost). He was saying by that semiotic masterstroke [spectacle = advertising = ghost] that the images advertising creates of impossible desire will in the end begin to haunt us and torture us like ghosts. And he was saying that in 1967! Which is just fucking amazingly prescient. In that sense we are now deeply a whole generation in to a world driven by images, and haunted by ghosts. Words in that context could hopefully operate like a moment of pause. Of course, sociologically speaking, words do their best when they are given and received as poetry (which implies space for reflection). And on a more mundane level words are of course as suave a tool of advertising and the mass media and the spectacle as images are. I guess that’s why it’s important to try to preserve the function of words as poetry. Then they are an antidote. That’s especially why I like writing poetry and sticking it over advertising.
JÉRÔME SANS: The distortion and disruption of advertising messages in contemporary art take its roots back to Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer. Does your hacking of city advertising stand for a guerilla struggle for awareness ?
ROBERT MONTGOMERY: Jenny Holzer was my favourite artist in art school, and she probably still is. A guerrilla struggle for awareness is probably a very nice metaphor for poetry as a cultural project in the last hundred years. All the poetry I love is Modernist poetry. And what I love about the beginning of Modernist poetry is the poets had already seen the 20th century coming and already seen its magic and its tragedy in a way that the early modernist painters never did. If you take Zone by Apollinaire, which is 1908, and The Wasteland by TS Elliot which is 1922, in those two poems they’ve already seen the whole breadth of the magic and the tragedy of the 20th Century. For example Apollinaire said in Zone that in the 20th Century Christ would become an aeroplane- and that’s a genius metaphor when you think of how Cruciform the aeroplane is as an object and then think back at how the 20th Century became fixated by what we could call now the Pornography of Technology- which certainly led to nuclear war, which we had in the 20th Century, when we bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, how ever much we try to cover that shit up. He also said that what we are left with for poetry this century is advertising (and he’s not entirely negative about it actually because he’s a still a little bit of a Futurist you know). And I think that’s where Jenny Holzer comes in so beautifully to the discourse, much later in the century after public space has been so wholly taken over by advertising and shows its possible to bring another kind of voice into that public space, an almost poetic one.
JÉRÔME SANS: Would you say that your neon piece recalling Las Vegas materializes the necessary reunion of high and low culture to stimulate awareness today ?
ROBERT MONT GOMERY: Yeah you really can’t separate the two I don’t think if you live in this world. Actually I went to work at Dazed after I came out of 7 years of very academic art programs. After my MFA I did a great post-masters program in Houstonthe Core Program at the MFAH, its kind of like the Whitney Program but they give you more financial support. After that I was very comfortably living in America with a nice art dealer and nice reviews in Art in America, and my dealer would always sell maybe $40,000 a show and I’d get $20,000 and me and my dealer would go round to my collectors houses for dinner – nice American collectors, who I really liked as people, and I could have had a very comfortable life there, but I got a feeling I wasn’t engaging with mass culture or youth culture at all, and I needed to engage with that for the next part of my life- 25 to 35. So I came back home to Britain and started to work at Dazed because I believe in that project, and I kind of ran away from the art world for a while and waited until it would catch up with me. Which I guess it has now. I think you have to get your hands dirty with the low culture, because as much as you can you have to hijack the mass culture and smuggle in the hidden cargo of poetry. A bit like the way Patti Smith hasn’t minded getting her hands dirty with the whole tawdry culture of rock and roll because she is smuggling in high poetry on the rider. All my WORDS IN THE CITY AT NIGHT pieces (the poems stuck over advertising in the street), by the way, were done completely illegally apart form the ones you did when you were Director of Program at the BALTIC in Newcastle which were the first legal ones. I still expect to get arrested for them, the ones I did in London and New York I still expect MacDonalds or Clear Channel or whoever was buying or selling the ad space to pop up and sue me. It could still happen. The court cases could be really interesting. The Vegas sign is a very simple piece. Just after America and Britain started the illegal war in Iraq (which I believe Bush and Blair should one day be put on trial for in the Hague because it’s a vastly illegal war in terms of International Law) I had a dream I was driving into Vegas and the sign that used to say WELCOME TO FABULOUS LAS VEGAS NEVADA had changed and it said THE SLOW DISAPPEARANCE OF MEANING AND TRUTH, so I made that sign. What annoys me about the situation in my day-to-day life I think is the apathy to towards the war of the creative community- artists, fashion people, musicians- we go to all the hip art and fashion parties and its hard to find anyone who even cares about the war at all, everyone’s just drinking the free cocktails and doing drugs – and we just invaded a country that was entirely non-aggressive to us, which is as an action is just like Nazi Germany invading Poland.
JÉRÔME SANS: Your poems depict a society that has lost its faith in anything even in the blurring comfort, that has lost itself and that just lives blown by the rhythm of fake, over generated facts, what have we lost on the road to reach this state of lazyness ?
ROBERT MONTGOMERY: I think what we have lost is the sense of how magical we can be, and hand in hand with that we’ve stopped living as beautifully as we can live. We can blame The Spectacle or we can blame Capitalism, or our Governments, but ultimately that’s our responsibility.
JÉRÔME SANS: Guy Debord wrote “La société du spectacle”, what’s your vision on what’s actually a spectacle civilization ?
ROBERT MONTGOMERY: The genius of the Situationist project is that, unlike lets say traditional Marxists, they we were interested in exploring what Capitalism as a system of living does to the inside of us- the interior world, the subconscious mind, the child inside of us- and that links them back with an umbilical cord to the Surrealists who were also interested in exploring those things. What I finally think about the Spectacle of advertising and capitalism is that is hurts us on the inside. That we are all in some way damaged by it, because its not a natural way to live. I tried to say it in this one poem I did with you in Newcastle- “IN ITS MATURE PHASE, THE SPECTACLE WILL CREATE FAKE OBJECTS OF DESIRE SO SAUVE AND SO IMPOSSIBLE TO ATTAIN THAT YOU WILL HURT INSIDE AND NEVER KNOW WHERE THE HURT COMES FROM. AND IN ALL THE PICTURES NOW THE FAMOUS PEOPLE HAVE ALREADY BEGUN TO LOOK LOST AND LONELY” That’s probably the final testament to the Society of the Spectacle- that in the mature phase of the Spectacle even the famous people- the super models, the fashion designers, the pop stars, the Hollywood actors, will begin to hurt on the inside- because the images it projects of THEM are images even THEY can’t live as real! So their lives feel unreal. They see images of themselves on billboards and recognise nothing. I’ve talked with enough of them to know this to be true.
JÉRÔME SANS: Which attitudes would you retain from the Situationist or the Surrealist revolution ?
ROBERT MONTGOMERY: Absolutely all of them.
JÉRÔME SANS: Which idea incarnates best idealism for you?
ROBERT MONTGOMERY: A very simple statement circulated by the S.I. which also connects very much with Andre Breton and the Surrealists’ project – NOT THAT POETRY BE AT THE SERVICE OF THE REVOLUTION, BUT THAT THE REVOLUTION BE AT THE SERVICE OF POETRY!