LOOK TO THE FUTURE. LEARN FROM THE PAST. LIVE IN THE PRESENT.
John Marchant, Isis Gallery, UK
A conversation with Jamie Reid published in "The Idler Magazine 38: The green man", 2006
Some years ago while living in New York I was asked to collaborate with the British artist Jamie Reid in organizing a large survey of his work to date called Peace Is Tough. It soon became apparent that the full extent of his work was a very broad canon indeed, from the endlessly reproduced and rehashed sustained volley of cultural musket-fire with the Sex Pistols to extremely contemplative nature-induced watercolours reflective of his deep connection with the earth’s subtler movements. Of course at first there seemed to be stark contradictions here but as I started to look at the work and get to know Jamie it started to coalesce. As the work arrived, so did his crew from his adopted home town of Liverpool. I lost count of them all but they all pulled together to produce a show called Peace Is Tough in a raw space in Manhattan that became, for the next six weeks, a locus for the inquisitive, a refuge, performance venue, doss house and dream space. In the intervening years, I’ve had the pleasure to get to know Jamie a lot better. Spiritual descendent of post- Edwardian socialist reformer and Chief Druid George Watson MacGregor Reid, Jamie takes ancestral sighting points as disparate as William Blake, Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers, Thomas Paine, Wat Tyler and Simon de Montfort: in the words of Julian Cope, all “righteous, forward-thinking muthafuckers”. There is however a smokescreen around him that veils his persona and work. He gets ignored by the art world for being unmaleable and gets pigeon-holed by an increasingly nostalgic press who only want to feed on the corpse of P*#k ad infinitum. It sees a good time to clear things a little.
A quick primer: Born in 1947, Jamie Reid was a founding member of Croydon– based Situationist-inspired graphics unit Suburban Press and was responsible for graphics and layout for Christopher Gray’s Leaving the 20th Century. In late 1975 Malcolm McLaren asked him to work with the Sex Pistols, providing both image and political agenda. Following their demise, Jamie drifted through places and projects – Bow Wow Wow, Paris, performance work, the Brixton squat scene. In 1987 Up They Rise – the Incomplete Works of Jamie Reid was published by Faber and Faber – co-produced with music journalist Jon Savage it documented his influences and works to date. Following this breath for air, Reid got increasingly involved with various bands and protest movements - No Clause 28, the Legalise Cannabis Campaign, Reclain the Streets and Warchild to name a few. In 1989 he started a ten year commission to revisualise and reinvent the interior spaces of both the recording and resting spaces of the East London-based Strongroom Studios using ‘colour magic and sacred geometry’ to encourage creativity and calm. As a result of this he also spent five years as visual co-ordinator with the band Afro-Celt Sound System. Since 1997 the retrospective “Peace Is Tough” has opened in New York, Tokyo, Dublin, Athens, Glasgow and Liverpool, including collage, painting, photography and film. He is currently finishing a heroically-proportioned 600-700 piece project based on the Druidic calender the Eightfold Year. We convened east of Knighton, Powys on the Welsh borders, at a spot fiercely contended in the wars with the English. It was also in this area in 1921 that the antiquarian photographer Alfred Watkins had a revelation on the hidden connections within the British landscape that he later wrote about in the indispensable Old Straight Track – and subsequently visited by the Lion of Judah himself – Emperor Hailé Selassié! While we talk, Jamie takes out his trade tools and starts to paint.
IM: Jamie, you spend a lot of time now with your hands in the soil. Can you tell me about that?
REID: It is part and parcel... sowing, planting, growing, harvesting, nurturing. We are custodians of this planet... the Garden of Eden, paradise on earth. We have mostly done our best to fuck the planet up. My work is deeply affected by my time spent working the land. Organic growth is integral to it. I’ll spend hours gardening and then go staight into hoursof painting, they merge and intertwine with each other. It really is at the heart of my spiritual beliefs: love and respect for nature and our part within it.
IM: And what about about your belief system?
REID: Lapsed Druid! When you actually open things up to ordinary people – I mean ordinary people who would never fucking be bothered to go to an art gallery or museum – and I think quite rightly in lots of ways... I think magic has always existed to people of the land. They just knew – didn’t need loads of mumbo jumbo ritual, they just knew... because they fucking looked. And we can’t see anymore.
IM: Have you done any of your own research into ley-lines? What they are, what they mean?
RIED: Only by observing and looking and seeing. A few years ago I was doing a lot of geometrical paintings. I tend to do them and then find the source. I knew about sacred geometry but it wasn’t until I immersed myself in it that I realised what it was. In a way there was always that element of being self-taught. It’s just such a fundamental element in everything – from primitive to the Renaissance to anything you care to name. You can see it reveal itself in front of your eyes in the landscape. You just immerse yourself in it – it’s just a total experience where you completely lose yourself. It’s the same as I feel when I’m actually working because I do go into a complete trance – which is why I can’t talk and paint. It’s very intense. It’s very deep in.
IM: Were you ever a teenager?
REID: I can’t remember! Maybe I’ve never stopped being one. I think music’s probably the biggest influence, from early rock‘n’roll. Croydon was a really big centre of early Teddy Boys... and the whole Bill Haley thing had a massive effect. But I suppose more than anything the biggest influence was what was happening in jazz in America at the time.
IM: Where was it coming from? Through the radio or through friends?
REID: I was buying it as it was coming out. That would have been predominantly Mingus, Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman. To me it was like a whole peak of 20th Century culture. It’s never been surpassed. I also went to see a Pollock exhibition when I was about 16 without knowing anything about modern art and just found them like entering other worlds.
IM: You describe Pollock’s work as being like landscape painting.
REID: It was just like fantasy worlds you could walk into and see what you liked. I loved the fact that they left themselves open to interpretation. And Blake. I was obsessed with the Blakes in the Tate. A lot of that I got through my father. There was always art and sport, and I was lucky enough to be really good at sport. As you know I was going to play professional football or cricket. I also used to go up to see Mingus and Sonny Rollins perform at Ronnie Scott’s and Soho then was a big influence – at the same time Zappa, Beefheart and all that – it was an amazing period. There was a great element of experimentation. It was all part of a great belief in change, but I was brought up politically. My parents were diehard socialists and were very much involved – as was my brother – in the anti-war movement, so I was dragged off to Aldermasten marches at an early age.
IM: 1968 was something of a watershed in the history of public protest – Paris burned in the belief that revolution was imminent, Martin Luther King was assassinated, the Tet Offensive began in Vietnam and medal winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists for the Black Panther movement at the Mexico Olympics. What was your experience of London in 1968?
REID: It was part of that whole R.D. Laing and Cooper period. Everyone was looking for alternatives. It was a period of fantastic possibilities and change. People really believed that you could actually change things, and politically, things couldn’t have become more repressed since then. We’ve become more and more under the thumb. We’ve lost our belief that people can effectively change anything. But on one level we’re going through a period of the most massive change that we’ve ever been through in the history of woman or man-kind. There is a quickening process – we’re experiencing everything that everyone’s ever been through over millennia in one generation. I think America is Rome and it will fall very fast. On an economic level it’s going to China and India isn’t it? I think everything might just break down. We’ll go back in to small states. China will beak up, India will break up, everywhere will break up into smaller units because people can only really survive in smaller units. I think they can only really appreciate what a wonderful planet... God, I sound like Louis Armstrong! It’s such a beautiful fucking place and we’re the custodians of it and fucking economics... is Babylon. People could be very happy with fuck all.
IM: Is this what connects the dots in your work – your wish to make people think that they can really enjoy this world?
REID: To a great degree, yeah. I suppose on one level there is that element in a majority of my stuff which tends to be around painting or photography or bits of filming that I’ve done. There’s an appreciation... a great element of beauty in it, just seeing the magnificence of things. And there’s obviously that other element – the political element – the punk collage, punk whatever you want to call it – agit-prop – which is making comment about the evilness of the powers that be. I don’t see any contradiction in the two but it’s something that I do suffer from as an artist, in terms of the people who run Culture. I don’t fit into one category. I would’ve thought that the whole idea of an artist is to be expansive, like an explorer going forward. Not stuck in a rut. When it comes to a CV of exhibitions I’ve done about a third of them aren’t recorded. I did an exhibition with Ralph Rumney that I think Stewart Home organized. There was also a thing I did around the time of the first Gulf War which I did with John Michel (1933- 2009) in Camden – an exhibition about peace where he had all this sacred geometry stuff. If we’re talking about influences John Michel is one. The man was like a modern day wizard. I love him because he was so benign. Such a lovely person.
IM: When did you first cross paths?
REID: Probably in the Sixties, with the pamphlets he did on sacred geometry and ley-lines. Obviously there’s the big connection from him to Watkins.
IM: So at last we get a mentor.
REID: A very gentle mentor.
IM: The London Psychogeographical Association had a section on their website about Druidry. What’s the connection?
REID: I think we touched on it earlier when we talked about the whole period of say, the Golden Dawn and the early Druid Order in Britain – it was as much politically bound as spiritually bound – it was part and parcel of the same thing. If you look at the early trade union movement it was as much spiritual as it was political – but those things have become less and less apparent.
IM: Beuys used ritual as the kick-off point for a lot of his work, parts of which are now holy relics of his rituals. What comes first for you? Do you use artwork in rituals or does the work come from ritual?
REID: They are totally intertwined and totally interdependent. The whole process of how I work is very ritualistic anyway, in many ways. Setting up, starting and just doing it – it’s very ritualistic but I do go into a state of trance.
IM: Where do you go?
REID: You go into an absolute void – making your mind absolutely blank. Just letting it flow through.
IM: Do you have realizations in that state?
REID: Well, the realizations manifest themselves in what you do and what the product is. It’s as much science as it is art – it goes into all sorts of situations. It’s the high end of chemistry, physics, mathematics – things astrological. But you have to go through a deep sense of void and purity to do it. It’s macrocosms, it’s microcosms, but it’s fundamentally there to make people feel uplifted. To make people feel good. Well, that side of my work is, but there is the other side – the overtly political side that’s purely to make comment on how fucking evil the powers that be are.
IM: In 2011 you created an almighty installation with a circle of eight full sized tipis in an old warehouse in North London, and the new show in Brighton has a tipi jammed into a Georgian drawing room. What does this structure represent for you?
REID: As a child I always wanted to be a Native American when playing cowboys and indians, and nurtured a great love for them. I have used tipis in numerous shows and at festivals. I like their association with being nomadic, they come and go with the seasons, they provide shelter and community. I also want them to represent a peaceful space, a place to dream and let the mind lift and expand. To spend some time in one of these structures, either by day or night, is so uplifting. They are also a sign of association and support of indigenous people everywhere. And now with my traveling show, RAGGED KINGDOM they will always feature, be it a large or small space. This has been exemplified with my collaborations with Navajo dancer Dennis Lee Rogers who provides a sense of ceremony and joy to our openings.
IM: Lastly, in the light of all you have done: Ne Travaillez Jamais – please discuss!
REID: Well, our culture is geared towards enslavement, for us to perform preordained functions, particularly in the workplace. I’ve always tried to encourage people to think about that and do something about it.