A Smell of Sulphur in the Wind, A Smell of Money Underground: Bill Drummond on How to be an Artist
by anna battista
"Hello, I'm here to tell you a story, to seek your advice and try to sell you some stuff. My story begins in 1970 when I was 17, when I had finished school and, after the summer, I had to start a course at art college," Bill Drummond tells his story to the people gathered in one of the galleries of the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Glasgow, "Every Friday afternoon mum went to the fish market and one day she bought fish off a fishmonger and, for some reason, he made her an offer. The offer was would my mother send two of her children, my sister and I, to Iceland? Mind you, in those days he didn't mean Iceland the supermarket, he meant the country. The fishmonger claimed he drove every morning to Grangemouth where he bought fresh fish off Icelandic trollers. The trollers spent two or three weeks our there in the North Sea to catch fish, then they came to Scotland to sell it. The fishmonger said he would arrange for me and my sister to get a lift on a troller so that we could explore Iceland. My sister decided it would be a good idea and I accepted my sister's decision. Two weeks later we were in the back of the fishmonger's van going to the port. We got there, he started chatting away to these Icelandic people and two hours later we were on one of these trollers going to the North Sea. Five days later we pulled into a little village on the docks of Iceland. My sister decided that we should go to Reykjavik and we went there. We camped outside the national stadium, spent a couple of days there and then she decided that we should go to Akureyri, Iceland's second town. We got there, but then my sister had another idea: trying to cross Iceland from top to bottom, though the country is totally empty and you could only explore its coasts. According to the map we had, there were trails and pathways that crossed the country, so we got food and stuff like that and off we went. After three days into the journey I wanted to give up, but my sister didn't want to hear anything about that. After five days into the journey, my sister was the one who wanted to give up while I wanted to go on. In the end we both gave up. But I can't live with this sense of failure." Drummond concludes looking defeated. People smile and eagerly wait for the rest of the story.
Ex-Big in Japan member together with Holly Johnson and Ian Broudie, founder of the Zoo label, instrumental in launching the careers of Teardrop Explodes and Echo and The Bunnymen, member of The Jamms (Justified Ancients of Mu Mu) with Jimmy Cauty and later of legendary dance act KLF again together with Cauty, Bill Drummond has recently launched his latest project, touring Great Britain to tell his fans the story of how he bought a Richard Long work of art and got fed up with it and to promote his latest book, How To be An Artist (Penkiln Burn). In his life Drummond seems to have been everything: a musician, an artist and a writer. "I've never thought of myself as any of those things," he states, when I meet him at the CCA a day after his performance. The exhibition related to his latest book is still on and people are walking around the gallery admiring the original photographs that were later included in How To Be An Artist. "I don't know if I'll get photographs out of my system," Drummond says about the pictures exhibited, taken with his children's camera, "Before I started taking pictures two years ago, I never thought I'd ever take photographs and I was never interested in being a photographer, I just wanted to take snaps and put them into the book. The ones included in How To Be An Artist came out quite well, I'm actually pleased with them."
Though Drummond had never released a book including his own photographs, he had already published books. In 1996 Bill Drummond and Zodiac Mindwarp's Mark Manning published a book called Bad Wisdom (Penguin), the crazy report about their journey to the North Pole. The authors promised Bad Wisdom was only the first of a trilogy of books that would have featured other deranged adventures. A Bible of Dreams, a collection of images by Manning with a biographical introduction and commentary by Bill Drummond had come out before Bad Wisdom. The book, published by The Curfew Press, Drummond and Manning's publishing company based in The Curfew Tower, in Northern Ireland, became famous for having been published in a limited hand-printed edition of 200 numbered copies, bound in goatskin and with a calf-leather spine.
In 1998, Drummond published pocket books entitled Annual Report to the Mavericks, Writers and Film Festival and From the Shores of Lake Placid and other stories (both Penkiln Burn). During the same year, the classic KLF book The Manual, teaching eager musicians how to get a number one hit "the easy way", was reprinted in a different format. Two years after, the KLF hit "Fuck The Millennium", released in 1997, was still fashionable, helping fans to get through the 'millennium crisis', while 45 (Little, Brown), Drummond's autobiography, was published. "I suppose 45 is my best selling book because it is more mainstream," Drummond claims, "For what regards Bad Wisdom, well, we never planned to publish it with Penguin. Originally we wanted to have only one hand-written copy of the book and we would have made it available to people at the Curfew Tower. So, if people wanted to read it, they would have had to come there, but Mark Manning's partner who edited our two stories together for Bad Wisdom, persuaded us that we should have made this book, which was a totally stupid and arrogant book, as available as possible. Penguin is as available as possible and at the time there was somebody at Penguin who really liked the book, so they signed it. Then, once it was signed to them, that person left the company and nobody else there was really interested in it, they just thought this was a book by a couple of ex-popstars and they didn't think of it in any other way."
"Bad Wisdom is now reprinted by Creation Books, which also publishes other books by Mark Manning. Mark and I recorded a soundtrack album to go with the book a while back, but we never released it. When we first recorded it, we thought of releasing it as a fictitious band, with real musicians playing the music we had written, but after we did it, I felt that there would have been a sort of pressure, especially for me, since this might have been considered as a new KLF thing and I didn't want it to be judged in that way and I decided to let time pass before putting it out. So I think we might be releasing it as a CD with the Creation edition of the book. We did the journey for the second book, about the trip to Congo in 1997, and Mark Manning finished his half of that book two years ago and I have yet to finish mine. It's going to be a huge book," Drummond says, opening his arms. "But maybe I'll edit it to this size," he adds, closing his arms and with his hands forming an average-sized invisible book. Then he continues, "We're going to do a limited edition of this book, like we did for A Bible of Dreams. It will be called Bad Wisdom Part II - The Wild Highway. It will look exactly like A Bible of Dreams and it will have the same spine as A Bible of Dreams. We were supposed to do Bad Wisdom in that edition but we never did it, anyway Bad Wisdom Part II will be available in paperback as well. Of all the books I did, I particularly like the pocket size of the reprinted edition of The Manual. The original is the original, yes, but the reprint looks nice." We start talking about the Bad Wisdom trilogy again and I remind him that for the third journey they wanted to go to the moon. "It was Gimpo's idea," Drummond says, blaming one of his trustful collaborators, "I guess it will take some time to go to the moon anyway."
"In 1981, and this is the other part of the story, I was involved in music and went down to London every two weeks. I sometimes wondered around and I had the habit of drawing shapes and of following them. One day I got to this L- shaped lane where there was an art gallery. I got in and there was a thing on the wall that captured my imagination and had a strong impact on me because it wasn't urban, it was a piece of art done outdoor and it was a piece by Richard Long. In the late '80s, early '90s I got success and with success I got a lot of money. I had never been particularly interested in things one can do with cash after paying the rent, paying for groceries, going on holiday with kids and that kind of stuff. I had never tried to grow up a healthy coke habit or such things that you do with money that comes from that sort of success. Come 1995, I wanted to buy myself a present, I wanted a reward and I decided to get myself a Richard Long, all mine, my own Richard Long! I went back to the gallery that represented Long and asked about any work by Richard Long connected with Scotland to have a connection between the work of art and the place where I came from. They hadn't any, but told me they had some stuff Long did about Iceland and asked me if I would care to see it. They had Long's text work and his photograph work all done on this walk he had done from the top to the bottom of Iceland. He had followed the same route me and my sister had attempted to do and he had achieved this in 1994. He had got to this place portrayed in a piece called "A Smell of Sulphur in the Wind" which I recognised: it was the exact place where my sister and me gave up. So I thought that piece was the one for me. At this point I didn't know how much these things cost, I had no idea, I had never been in the business of buying art before, I was in a situation in which I could have afforded to spend £1000 or £5000 on such stuff. I asked how much the thing cost and the gallery guy told me $20,000. The first thing I thought was 'I'm in London why the price is in dollars?' and I asked this to the guy who explained me the prices of the international art market were in American, German or Japanese currencies, this happened before the Euro of course. The guy worked out that the price in pounds was £13,000 or could have been £14,000, I can't remember exactly. Anyway, I wrote a check to the guy and he didn't even ask for my details, he just accepted it. I wasn't dressed much differently from how I'm dressed now," Drummond indicates his paint stained t-shirt and trousers and battered boots, "I was wearing my beaten Barbour and I had cow shit on my boots, so I assume the guy must have taken me from a country gentleman! He accepted the check and wrapped the Richard Long for me and I walked out in the street getting to the tube station with a fucking Richard Long under my arm. I went back home and put the piece on my bedroom wall and there it stayed."
Apart from doing great music, the KLF also did crazy things like burning one million pounds on a Scottish island. Their music was amazing and their art obsessive and absolutely deranged. It's completely understandable why their fans missed them. "I still collaborate with Jimmy Cauty," Drummond nods, "But I don't want to go back to music now. If I did, it wouldn't be for quite a long time and if I ever do it, it won't be the kind of music that I was doing with KLF because people only ever make good music for a short period in their lives and everybody who's been a fan of certain bands knows this."
"In 1998 the Bristol City Council decided to honour Bristol's son Richard Long by buying a piece for a local museum. A local magazine wanted me to interview Long or do a piece about him, but he didn't want to be interviewed, anyway not by a pop star. I decided to go to Bristol for some reason. I went there and came back home at night. My wife was sleeping, the children were sleeping and I went to my bedroom and looked at the Richard Long. I took it down to the kitchen and it was only then that I wondered why I had bought it, it meant nothing, it was just a piece of paper in a frame. I was aware that I had never looked at it. It was 1995 when I got it and now it was 1998, and everyday I got up in the morning, rushed away and never looked at it. That night I decided to get rid of it and sell it at $20,000. I was aware that the cost of the piece would have risen by then, but I liked the sound of it, it sounded sexy, it wasn't $17,000 nor $32,000, but $20,000. I wrote this in a story and send it to a magazine and they said they would have published it and would have liked to do a small exhibition to sell the work I had. I thought it would have been good, so I prepared for it buying these placards." Drummond shows his audience the red and white placards, "500 indestructible placards that said 'FOR SALE - A Smell of Sulphur in the Wind - Richard Long - $20,000' No address, no nothing. I just liked the idea that 99% of the population would have just seen the 'FOR SALE' placard and maybe somebody would have wondered why whatever was sold was sold in dollars. I got things ready for the Bristol exhibition and I also put one placard in a frame that was exactly the same size as my 'A Smell of Sulphur in the Wind'," Drummond shows the framed placard, "and I did another placard on which there was written 'A Smell of Money Underground'," Drummond shows the huge placard, "I decided that once I had sold the Richard Long at $20,000, I would put the money in a wooden box, get to Iceland, get to the stone circle where the Long thing was done, dig in the middle of the circle and bury the box. I would then take a picture, finish the walk my sister and I had started, go back home, print the picture in the same size as my Richard Long and hang it on my bedroom wall. We prepared the exhibition with the original Long piece, my text pieces and so on, all had been arranged and everything was ready, but I decided not to sell the picture. I had got 'A Walk Across England, a book by Richard Long, which had recently come out, a book commissioned by an American university about a walk from Devon to Suffolk he had done. I decided to do a journey starting in Southampton and crossing Scotland. Along the journey I would have tried to sell the piece. While on my journey I left the 500 placards along the motorway and took pictures of the placards on the various sites. I stopped every now and then to see if anybody would buy the Richard Long. Then put it again in my Land Rover and leave again."
"I did the journey in the year 2000, so I guess the vast majority of the 'For Sale' placards are now gone, if not all of them," Drummond claims, "Some of them remained there for months and months and months. I saw them for almost a year later, but I haven't seen any now. Obviously a lot of people thought it was a stupid idea to go to this length and get to Iceland to bury the money. I'm not aware of people thinking 'yes this is a great idea! I wish I had thought it!' Obviously, it isn't a great idea, there is no way that it is, but the process that I'm going through to manage to carry out the idea brings a lot of things up and that's the great thing about it!" he concludes. If it is easy to wonder why Drummond is going through all of this to sell this work of art, it is also easy to wonder why he now dislikes the work of art he bought with such enthusiasm. "A lot of people start being interested in being creative in their twenties and have a lot of good ideas, then they lose their intuitions and start repeating the original ideas they had. I guess this is what Richard Long might be accused of. I also think that a lot of people try to recapture what they felt, what they had in their twenties, instead of actually carry on and mature."
"I set on my journey in June 2000. The first stop was in Bristol where a friend of mine who did art at a Community Centre organised for me an event in which I could tell people what I was doing. My friend asked me if I would have sold the painting if he had had the money there. I said yes, but then I thought that if I sold the painting I couldn't have done the trip I had decided to do and I was so excited about. So I said 'Hang on, I want to be paid in dollars. You have to bring the cash to me and I have to count it before selling this piece. He didn't do it but said, 'Bill you're full of shit, you don't want to sell this piece, this is a total wank, you're just seeking attention.' I thought he was probably right. Anyway, I got out of there and went home, spent the night home and the next morning I went to my next stop, a café 6 miles from my house. I asked the owner's permission to do my sale. The clients were mainly women, cleaners off their shift. They sat down to listen to me, but they were mainly teasing me about the thing I was doing. I told them what I was going to do with the money and they said 'fine, sell it, but why don't you do something nice with the money, just like taking the kids to Disneyland or something like that?' And they also said' if you can't have a good time, then give the money to us and we'll go and enjoy it!' One of them sitting at the back then told me that she had at home a copy of a very famous black and white photograph of workers in Manhattan taken in the '20s or '30s and that she liked it a lot. I knew which photograph she was talking about and she added,' if Long's such a good artist why does nobody wants to buy it? Why aren't his works all over the place so that everybody can enjoy them, instead than just in your bedroom?' I really enjoyed that café, but that day I left in a haze of shame and never got back there. My next stop was Nottingham where a guy asked me what would have happened if somebody would have followed me in my trip to Iceland and stolen the money after I had buried I, a thing I hadn't actually thought about. Next stop was Hull."
"The most strained thing that happened to me on my journey was when I was talking in the café with the workers who had just finished their shift, it was not a strange thing for me, but it was strained. You know, I could deal with people who come from an art background, I could deal even with a woman who was confronting me in Bristol about the whole thing, suggesting what should have been done with the money, but I found most hard to deal with the women who had just come off their shift. Their whole lives are grinding." The night before Drummond has read some extracts of his How To Be An Artist describing his journey from Hull, where he exhibited to his audience another of his gadgets, a huge 'For Sale' carpet, to Glasgow. Depleted and tired, after arriving in Scotland to conclude his journey, Drummond looks at his Richard Long and decides to take some pictures of it with his kids' camera. While taking his pictures, Drummond suddenly realises there are some measures and dates written on the back of the Richard Long piece: 1994, photograph and text work, 32"X44", 81X104cm. During the night Drummond has the final idea, cutting up the work in twenty thousand pieces and selling them at $1 each. And that's what he's been doing touring around Great Britain, he's simply trying to sell pieces of his once beloved Richard Long to his audience. "I don't know how many pieces I have sold, it might be 2000 pieces", he shrugs, "but, to be honest, I don't know if what I'm doing has got any other value other than being slightly amusing. I was in Bristol before coming to Glasgow and the thing went very well there. When the people come along to my event they may be entertained for a while, but maybe then they go home and forget, so what I'm dong might have no lasting impression. Besides, I'm getting very little out of all the amount of work I'm doing now." Last night's event in Glasgow was particularly good: a lot of people queued up with £1 pound coins to buy pieces of Long's artwork. Gimpo was ready to change their pounds in dollar banknotes, then he asked them to choose two numbers from two different bags: the numbers acted as the X and Y coordinates of the work of art. Buyers were finally allowed to go to a table were Drummond was ready to cut for them tiny pieces of art, following the coordinates people had fished out of Gimpo's bags. The buyers were later redirected to a big white placard on which thousands of little blank squares formed the word "SOLD" and they were asked to fill with different colours a little piece of white space corresponding to the exact space where their tiny piece of the Richard Long had been cut out from the original work of art. When all the squares will be filled, the word "SOLD" will finally come to life.
Who knows what Richard Long thinks about Drummond's plan. "I met him!" Bill exclaims, "When I did the performance in Bristol he turned up and I had to do the whole performance with Richard Long sitting in front of me like that." Drummond sits uptight with a blank expression on his face, blank but clearly hiding hate, mimicking Long's reaction, "I think he was very very cynical beforehand and very very negative about it and while the queue of people buying things was diminishing, he was still sitting there looking at me. When the people were all gone, he came and sat beside me and confronted me. It was very difficult for me, but I also had a very good time. Honestly, in the international art world Long has a real reputation. All the big art galleries around the world, like the Tate Modern in London, will have Richard Long pieces."
Drummond will still be busy for a while cutting up his Richard Long. "I'm going home next week and I'll work home for a while, then I'll be back in Glasgow at the Young Offenders' Unit. Later on the same week I'll be at the psychiatric wing of a Edinburgh hospital and that same night I'll be at the Edinburgh College of Art and then at an art centre in Dundee. When I'm in a city I usually try to do two events in a day. I particularly like going to places where they have no idea who I am and what I've done in the past and they don't have any preconceived ideas about art and things like that. In this way I can just turn up and tell a story. That usually works better, there is usually a genuine response, the people come without any preconceptions about me. I couldn't do two events in a day in Glasgow because they put on a few days' exhibition here at the CCA with the photographs and the other stuff and I don't want to take the stuff out of the exhibition now. For the future I would also like to work on a few books. There have been two or three ideas for books that have been in my head for some time and I'm kind of working away through them. I also have a few short stories that I still haven't published and among them there's my favourite one called 'Buttercup'. But I know that the next book I will be work on, apart from the book in collaboration with Mark Manning, will be pictures and text, so I won't be writing novels. "
When the K Foundation burnt a million quid Bill Drummond said he wanted to see how far he could push things. That's probably what he's doing with the Richard Long artwork, but he's also having a great fun, apart from giving people the chance to touch, buy, own and cut a $20,000 work of art.
Special thanks to Nicola Battista for transmitting me his passion in all KLF/Bill Drummond stuff.