Jimmy Cauty: Sustained Resistance
Jimmy Cauty once burnt a million quid.
He’s not supposed to talk about it, though – there’s a 23-year moratorium that bans him from talking about anything related to the incident, or about the art group he and Bill Drummond, his partner in seminal radical rave outfit the KLF, formed after they spectacularly quit pop music. The K Foundation, as they were known, announced that “the KLF have left the music business”, leaving behind only a dead sheep outside the 1992 BRIT awards after party.
After deleting their back catalogue, they spent about three years ridding themselves of their KLF earnings in various extravagant ways, finally deciding to sign the aforementioned moratorium. The K Foundation was put to bed.
Despite its duration, Cauty’s career is quite difficult to parse. It has occupied a distinctly non-linear timeframe – there’s
a schizophrenic edge to projects, an indifference to any sort of fealty towards discipline or medium. It seems, from the outside, to be motivated entirely by ideas. There’s not so much a sense of process or practice as of action: an idea is conceived and then executed. Only then comes the question: what to do with it?
I’m interviewing Cauty about the upcoming tour of his latest work, The Aftermath Dislocation Principle (ADP), but he can’t be reached by phone, as he’s currently based on the largest of the Cook Islands, Rarotonga. Instead, we exchange emails. It’s challenging to think of questions that don’t explicitly relate to anything that falls within the moratorium, a challenge that goes a long way towards justifying the need for it.
Try as I might, I can’t shake the fact that Cauty and Bill Drummond once withdrew a million pounds in cash, took it to the Scottish island of Jura, and burned it all up in an abandoned stone house. Perhaps it’s a sad reflection on my personal relationship to money and value – my own inability to detach capital from life – but the scale of it, and the corresponding rejection of society and of what we value that it represents, hangs heavy as I try to think of another question.
I ask what, from his career, he’s especially proud of. “I don’t look back with pride – plenty of time for that during the last 22 seconds of my life,” he writes. “Although the KLF Wikipedia entry is impressive by any standards.” It is – the relentless, aggressive mayhem that defined their presence as a band and which continued into the K Foundation, expressing itself through direct actions that sometimes pointed at clear targets, sometimes nowhere, and sometimes inwards, is candescent even through that stark webpage.
Since those works, Cauty has mellowed in form, if not content. The soon-to-be-touring ADP, previously on show in London and at Banksy’s Dismaland, is a huge scale model representing a square mile of scorched urban earth. It depicts a city gone to seed, the proffered narrative telling us about an undefined upheaval, a riot with no articulated catalyst and an odd outcome. The only people left populating the dystopian ruin are the police – the rioters nowhere to be seen. In the absence of civilians to perform disobedience it falls to the constabulary. They paint graffiti, or scratch their heads.
The ADP’s genesis lies in his Riot in a Jam Jar series, itself inspired by the 2011 London riots. In these, he used his tiny scale models to capture incidents of vandalism and yobbery safely, imprisoning these moments like model ships, commodifying and disenfranchising them into curios. He has also customised police riot shields with the acid house
smiley face, launched a billboard campaign supplemented with collectable stamps that drew unflattering parallels between the Iraq War and Disney, and been litigated against by Royal Mail for making a set of stamps featuring the Queen in a gas mask.
In the early days, Cauty operated within a network of junk symbols, mysticism, and nonsense ritual. Actions that had real, potent power were performed alongside others that were meaningless. In this confusion, Cauty was dangerous – he couldn’t be dismissed but he couldn’t be lauded. Nonsense was his camouflage.
His anti-establishment position was, he says, intuitive. “I don’t try to analyse the reasons why I push against the corporate world, I just do – I can’t help it. When I was young the headmaster was the enemy, then it was the police, then it was other things.” Similarly, the cooption of symbols – like the recurring, pseudo-mystical number 23 – was almost opportunistic. “In the past symbols, logos, corporate and cultural trademarks and so on were just out there to use as raw material.”
Nowadays, that doesn’t feel like enough. Logos, consumer products and the semiotics of advertising are so entrenched in our cultural awareness that they’ve lost their potency as a tool to make a political statement. The democratisation of the image has also shifted the value of visual currency – an increasingly high level of visual literacy surely means a more sophisticated palate. The net effect is that it has become easy to write off political art – as typified by Banksy, that is – as a bit kitsch.
Cauty doesn’t agree. When I ask whether he agrees with the cynical eye-rolling that accompanies most arty discussions about Banksy, Cauty calls him “a giant” and asserts that “the sooner the art world figures that one out and stops crying, the better.”
"I don’t know why I push against the corporate world, I just do. When I was young the headmaster was the enemy, then it was the police, then it was other things”
But, at the same time, Cauty has moved on from overt criticism – a move that seems to stem from disillusionment. “There was a time, when I made Operation Magic Kingdom, that I wanted to poke Disney in the eye repeatedly, just to annoy them. They didn’t respond, and at that point I realised the corporate world loves it when artists engage with them – even on a negative level – as it keeps them in the public eye.”
He expresses a similar kind of resigned displeasure towards another cornerstone of contemporary living: the internet. Cauty has, in the past, made a habit of destroying pieces of work. The money burning, for example, but also his and Drummond’s attempt to destroy all documentation of the event itself (which, in the end, was thwarted). He is drawn to destruction, he says, “because things have a natural short life, or decay time. Their meanings can be lost over time, and they just become background noise.” The internet has made retrospective self-curation impossible, as “nothing is allowed to fade into memory – every mistake you make is up there forever.”
Cauty places great importance on ideas occupying their right time. This is the logic he says drives the cycle of creation and, often, destruction. It’s difficult to work out if this is true, or if in fact the destruction of work instead represents a type of megalomania – an unwillingness to accept the artist’s creative death, as their ideas are transmitted into – and morphed by – the consumer’s consciousness.
Either way, these twin concerns – the supremacy of the corporation, and the permanence of the internet – must both inform ways of making, and of protesting. Maybe it’s the awareness of this that distinguishes the Aftermath Dislocation Principle.
On paper, in the anarchic rhetoric of the press release, the sprawling diorama could be dismissed as a straight, and boringly simple, attack – a ‘fuck you’ to the government corporation’s on-the-ground enforcers. In fact, its internal narrative – the descent of the coppers into disaffection and lawlessness – is Ballardian and powerful.
There is a trailer for the work online. It joins the dots, forms a neat circle. Its soundtrack is the apocalyptic, doomy, prog-house nightmare that introduces the BBC News at Ten every weeknight. It’s not a leap to suggest that the KLF’s early bangers can be heard haunting auntie’s nightly call to worry.
When I ask Cauty about the depoliticisation of young artists, and the fact that political art seems to be the proviso of people, like him, whose political awareness was shaped by unions, civil disobedience and police violence, instead of whatever we’ve been given, he replies, “I have heard quite a few people my age say they made their best work while Thatcher was in power.”
With the ADP, Cauty has pushed through the shallow and overly simplistic protest-art-statements that we’re usually fed. In observing rather than attacking, he has made something difficult: protest art that is neither sanctimonious nor simplistic, but rather draws us in and takes us to the heart of things. And perhaps it’ll catch on – as he suggests, “if Trump is elected, maybe we can all get back to making our best work again.”