I’ve never been much of a collector. I prefer to travel light. Besides, most of the books that turned out important to me as a student or artist were library books, borrowed for lack of money to buy copies of my own. Other important books belonged to friends, or were lent to friends and never returned and yet others were donated to a charity bookshop when I moved house a couple of years ago. In this short list I have limited myself to those books that have been in my possession for a long time and have somehow survived the ravages of time. –Ben Schot
Ryam school diary 1966-67, with adjustments by Ben Schot
1 Ryam school diary 1966-67
This publication didn’t so much inspire me as provoke me to vandalize it. Ryam school diaries tried to appeal to secondary school kids with pictures of bands and movie stars in the 1960s, but we thought they were downright corny. And ugly. We hated them. So what kids our age did all over The Netherlands, was cut pictures of their favorite bands from music magazines and paste those over the pictures in our diaries. Page after page. As many as possible. A friend of mine, Frank Verhage, had started the craze in our first form and I followed suit. Frank was a cool and lovable guy, a real music buff: well-informed about the latest releases and subscribed to more than one music magazine. As a result, his personalized diary had grown so fat by the middle of the school year that it exploded. Stuffed with pictures of The Who, The Beatles, The Stones, Pink Floyd, Q65, The Monkees, The Small Faces and many others, mine burst at the seams not long after. For some reason I kept this school diary all the time and when I took up publishing many years later, I liked to think of this keepsake from 1966-67 as the first book I put together. I only parted with it when it was included in the city archives of the town where I grew up a couple of years ago. As a document of the 1960s. Ha, how about that, Frank? That must have cracked you up in rock & roll Valhalla like your own school diary did more than fifty years ago.
H.P. Lovecraft – Het Gefluister in de Duisternis
2 H.P. Lovecraft – Het Gefluister in de Duisternis
The ownership signature and date that I left on the first page of this book say 26 July 1969. I was 15 at the time and having a summer holiday. I don’t remember buying this particular book but it must have been in one of the touristy shops under the dunes of the isle of Schouwen-Duiveland, where my parents spent each summer in a trailer. The Lovecraft compilation ‘Het Gefluister in de Duisternis’ had been published the previous year as one of the ‘Zwarte Beertjes’, a series of cheap Dutch paperbacks published by Bruna, Utrecht. The books were very popular and ranged from Ian Fleming novels and Georges Simenon detectives to science fiction by Moorcock and Asimov, and compilations of Edgar Allan Poe tales. All in Dutch. I must have read dozens of them in the 1960s and early 1970s. I don’t remember much of the Lovecraft tales of ‘Het Gefluister in de Duisternis’ themselves but I do recall the fear they sparked. My nerves were on edge the summer of 1969 anyhow. It was a period of violent conflicts at home. Of love and friendships lost. Of an inevitable breakdown. In the daytime I wandered across the dune region and hung out at an amusement hall, at night I hardly slept at all. Yes, Lovecraft’s book sparked impalpable fears of the supernatural but the horrors were very real that summer. Cthulhu = pussy.
Albert Camus – Dagboek
3. Albert Camus – Dagboek
The first time I read an Albert Camus book was in café ‘De Vlinder’ in the country town of Zierikzee in the early 1970s. ‘De Vlinder’ (The Butterfly) was a countercultural café run by Bob and Mimi de Rooij, a married couple from Rotterdam, and was home to socialists, pacifists, artists, musicians and local freaks like me for a couple of years. Camus’s ‘Myth of Sisyphus’ was on the reading table of that café, next to ‘underground’ magazines such as ‘Aloha’ and ‘Suck’, the first European sex paper. A powerful brew for a kid my age. ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ inspired me to buy other books by Camus from one of the bookshops in town: Dutch translations of ‘L’Exil et le Royaume’, ‘L’Homme revolté’, ‘L’Étranger’, ‘La Chute’ and ‘Carnets’, a selection of journal notes from the period 1935-1951. The ownership signature and date in the latter mention 1974 as the year of purchase. That was the year ‘De Vlinder’ changed hands, never to return as a countercultural café, and I was at home, studying English language and literature while awaiting the outcome of the procedure that pacifist conscientious objectors to military service had to go through in those days. I internalized Camus’s concepts of exile and rejecting nihilism in that period and cherished the fragmentary notes in his ‘Dagboek’ like crumbs of bread leading me out of the woods of alienation: ’The red light district is called “Truth Street” here. The rate is three francs’. I kept my copy of Camus’s ‘Dagboek’ ever since, took it on journeys sometimes and kept it at hand in my first studio in the early 1980s. It was there that it got stained by the tar that I used in drawings and collages at the time. Tar, the smell of which reminded me of the quay in Zierikzee where I used to live when I bought the book and the black water of the harbour was teeming with nihilist sirens at night.
Jacques Lacan – The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis
4. Jacques Lacan – The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis
During the period in the 1970s that I was doing English language and literature at home and awaiting the outcome of the procedure for conscientious objectors, I studied works by Freud and Nietzsche alongside those by Albert Camus. The Nietzsche-Freud-Camus triangle proved fruitful for me as an artist and has lost none of its power since. Years later, after I had finished art school, I bought a paperback edition of Jacques Lacan’s ‘Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis’, but apart from the section where the eye and the gaze are discussed, the contents of the book remained obscure to me. I believe in psychoanalysis as a means of laying bare the inner workings of our psyche and culture, but most of Lacan’s work is beyond my reach. Still, I kept the book. And yes, every now and then I look up a thing or two in it. But each time I reach for the book I can’t help thinking that Lacan’s theories are outdone and outsmarted by the reproduction of Hans Holbein The Younger’s ‘Ambassadors’ on the cover. ‘The Ambassadors’, with its skull painted in anamorphic perspective in the foreground as a subtle and fleeting ‘memento mori’. A skull visible only to passers-by and invisible to those focusing on the noblemen and their riches in the painting. Death, as Lacan tells us in so many words, truly is King.
Wolfgang Wickler – Mimikry
5. Wolfgang Wickler – Mimikry
In his ‘Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis’ Lacan compares art to mimicry in nature. If I remember correctly, Lacan states that the biological function of mimicry in nature, in which one species imitates another, can be summed up as either ‘camouflage’, ‘intimidation’, ‘travesty’, or combinations of those. I thought that was a fascinating concept, worth looking into and possibly worth exploring in my own work. After having put Lacan aside in the mid-1990s, I bought an antiquarian copy of zoologist Wolfgang Wickler’s ‘Mimikry’ (first published in 1968) and believe I devoured the book in a single night. Insects with false heads on their hind parts, a praying mantis that looks like a flower, male bees that are more attracted to the fake female bees that some orchids present to view than real females, cuckoo eggs that surreptitiously fool their hosts… mind-blowing stuff. One of the cases of mimicry described by Wickler drew my attention in particular and when I found out that a VHS tape of this phenomenon could be ordered from a scientific institute in Göttingen, Germany, I bought a copy and subsequently screened it during a talk about my work in one of Rotterdam’s art institutes. The video showed how a parasite, a worm, that lives in the intestines of birds follows an unusual cycle of asexual reproduction. Once the eggs of the worm have been defecated by the bird, some of them are consumed on the ground by snails that feed on bird shit. Inside those snails’ bodies the eggs develop into sporocysts, sacks of larvae, which work their way up to the snails’ eye-stalks. And once there, the sacks start pulsating and look so much like live worms that the eye-stalks are often snapped off and eaten by predatory birds. Inside the digestive systems of those birds the cycle starts all over again. It’s a cruel and perverse universe. And art, sweet art, can only lick Mother Nature’s boots.
First published on Cary Loren’s website The Book Beat.
Interview by John Wisniewski
John Wisniewski: When did your career in art begin, Ben?
Ben Schot: I wanted to go to art school when I was in the final years of secondary school. My art teacher was Ad Braat, a local sculptor who liked my drawings and advised me to enroll in art school. Once I had made up my mind to follow his advice, he prepared me for the entrance exam of art schools with a couple of private lessons in the summer of 1971. I still have one of the many drawings that I did in that summer. I was 17 at the time. Braat’s enthusiasm and his expressionist, alcohol-fueled views were inspiring and liberating. They loosened me up and made me feel a bit more confident about my work, but his teachings weren’t much of a preparation for art school, which for the greater part consisted of formal and technical trainings in those days. I failed the entrance exam that year, and the next, and then was drafted for military service in 1973. Other sources of inspiration in 1970-71 were a school trip to a large Dali exhibition at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam and the scene around a countercultural café that Bob and Mimi de Rooij, a married couple from Rotterdam, had started in the small country town where I lived. Bob and Mimi were also at the heart of a club that screened films by Godard, Fellini, Bellocchio and many others in the school auditorium. For a couple of years those films and the café were wild orchids in the dunes of cultural life on the island where I grew up.
Once I had refused to do military service and had to go through the long procedure for conscientious objectors to be officially recognised, I started studying English at home awaiting the outcome of the procedure. I was recognised as a pacifist conscientious objector in 1976 or 1977 and then had to do alternative military service – the longest possible time the authorities could hold you. All in all the procedure and service took some 5 years. Not long after having been relieved from alternative service I obtained a teaching degree in English and together with Joleen, my then girlfriend, left the island in the south-west of The Netherlands, where we had lived until then. Joleen entered the art school of Utrecht and I took a job as an English teacher at a secondary school in Gouda in 1979. After having taught English for a year and a half there, I became restless. The desire to be trained as an artist flared up again. I quit my job and took classes to prepare once more for the entrance exam of art schools. This time I was admitted to the Royal Academy of Arts in the Hague. That was in 1981. I was 27 at the time. I did art school in The Hague for two and a half years and then switched to the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam, where I lived. I graduated there in 1986.
John Wisniewski: when were your first exhibitions?
Ben Schot: My first group shows were in 1986 and 1987 in Rotterdam, not long after I had graduated from art school. Then, in 1988, I showed a couple of large drawings in combination with sculptures by Eric van Solm, another starting artist, at CBK, the Arts Centre of Rotterdam, and in 1990 I did my first solo exhibition at Galerie van Kranendonk, The Hague.
John Wisniewski: Could you tell us the story of how sea urchin books began?
Ben Schot: Already at art school I looked for ways to combine texts, drawings, photos and found images. Books are perfect for combinations like that. In those days I sometimes put together primitive hand made ‘books’, loose sheets of paper crudely taped or saddle-stitched together. I made those for private use, unique copies as a sort of notebook or sketchbook. Then, after I had left art school, came a couple of xeroxed and saddle-stitched editions in runs of 5 or 10 copies, which I handed out to friends and colleagues. And then, with the help of subsidies and grants, followed offset printed artists’ books in runs of some 500 copies, which I published under an imaginary imprint. When I came across an Edgar Allan Poe tale that was set in Rotterdam and had some money left from a grant, I decided to publish it under the imprint ‘Sea Urchin’, which was a reference to my youth in Zeeland, where my father made a living as a fisherman, and to Jean Painlevé’s surrealist film ‘Oursins’. The Edgar Allan Poe tale was published in 2000-2001. I had no idea what it meant to run a publishing house or what to expect, but to my surprise the book was well-received and sold reasonably well. The next year I published two books: Dutch translations of a scatological tale by Serge Gainsbourg, an old hero of mine, and of ‘Les Champs magnétiques’ by André Breton and Philippe Soupault, experiments in automatic writing that marked the beginning of Surrealism. For those translations I hired Jan Pieter van der Sterre, a respected Dutch translator, who taught me a couple of things about producing books, distributing them and getting them reviewed. The two books were well-received and especially the Breton/Soupault edition was widely reviewed in national newspapers. I used individual grants that I received as a visual artist from what is now called the Mondriaan Fund to produce more books in the next five years, such as Henri Michaux and Pier Paolo Pasolini translations. The director of the Fund at the time was Lex ter Braak, who was very sympathetic towards Sea Urchin, and didn’t seem to mind subsidies intended for visual art being used for literature. So, it’s fair to say that Sea Urchin began as a side product, as a logical extension of my practice as a visual artist.
John Wisniewski: What may inspire you to create, Ben?
Ben Schot: That’s a difficult question. I don’t really know. It also depends on what I’m working on: making books is a different process from drawing or writing. True, making books the way I do now, hand made editions of 15 copies, each with a hand drawn cover, comes close to drawing. I even like to think of them as drawings in the guise of books. And both products require concentrated manual work, thinking with your hands and eyes. But before I reach that point in making books there has been the process of selecting and designing texts or poems. In that selection process I have always consciously followed historical lines in literature that interest and inspire me. For instance the influence of Edgar Allan Poe on the European avant-garde. Or Nietzsche’s influence. Or both Nietzsche’s and Poe’s: now there’s a powerful brew that will take you places.
And then drawing… I’ve always liked drawing, even as a kid. I think for me as a kid it was a way of getting out of here, of opening another world. I had a lot to get away from where I grew up. It was also a way of expressing myself at the time. I remember on one occasion drawing a sort of mourning card when I was a kid after our cat had been run over by a garbage truck. As a way of expressing grief. But strong emotions like that don’t normally inspire me to start drawing nowadays. Maybe a kind of inner tension does. A subconscious inner conflict that builds up and needs the process of drawing to be sublimated, much like a dream. I don’t know. Usually the destruction of an older drawing or using a rejected drawing for the start of a new one is part of that process. I guess my drawings are fuelled by both destructive and creative impulses. Bastard babies that stare at you. Daddy?
I don’t think of myself as a writer but I write on a regular basis for Sea Urchin and I used to write articles for magazines in the past. Those texts require a lot of research, thinking and phrasing, work behind the computer. I don’t always feel like that. The inspiration for those texts is down-to-earth: you tackle a subject and try to communicate it in the best possible way. I hate translating prose but translating poetry can be a truly inspiring, challenging and rewarding process. Some poems scream to be translated, other resist, you have to find out and look for diamonds in liquified fat.
John Wisniewski: could you tell us about upcoming editions At sea urchin?
Ben Schot: Dreams! Dreams!
John Wisniewski: have you met many great poets, while operating sea urchin editions?
Ben Schot: No, not many. I was told they live on Mount Olympus, but I’m afraid of heights and allergic to laurel. But seriously, of all the well-known and lesser known artists, musicians and poets I have met and worked with since I started Sea Urchin, a couple stand out. Mike Kelley was a great artist: a keen, original and subversive mind. It was a real pleasure having smoked a pipe or two with Hugh Hopper; what a gentle and beautiful soul he was. Having met Mick Farren backstage at the same venue in London where he tragically collapsed a year later, was unforgettable. And having seen William Levy on a regular basis in the final years of his life was a true privilege. They were all great, each in his own way. But they’re gone now. Their spirits embedded and preserved in their works. I will only mention the dead here. The living, dear friends and colleagues, have voices of their own.
Source: AMFM Magazine
Interview with Dutch artist/publisher Ben Schot (Sea Urchin), specializes in avant-garde and counterculture
By Michalis Limnios | February 11, 2015
“A soundtrack to the Beat Generation: put Allen Ginsberg in a steamy juke joint deep in the Delta in the 1950s, surrounded by Afro-American sharecroppers. Everybody gets drunk, everybody gets stoned, everybody gets naked.”
Ben Schot: Avant-garde Beside The Sea
Ben Schot works as an artist, a publisher, and a teacher, and is based in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. His publishing house, SEA URCHIN editions, specializes in works of the historical avant-garde and the counterculture. Sea Urchin publishes both Dutch and English works. Sea Urchin also distributes the editions of a number of other independent publishers and labels from various parts of the world. From 1981 to 1986 Schot was trained as an artist at the art schools of Rotterdam and The Hague. His activities cover various disciplines and techniques: drawings, audio and video works, installation art, and performances. As a writer Schot publishes articles and fiction in various magazines. In 2000 Schot founded the publishing house Sea Urchin Editions which publishes works from the avant-garde and counterculture, such as works by Henri Michaux, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Serge Gainsbourg, Vivian Stanshall & Ki Longfellow, and André Breton. In 2001 Ben Schot produced a free Dutch translation of Cary Loren’s Songs for Holland. Together with Martine Vosmaer Schot translated into Dutch a compilation of Henri Michaux’s hallucinatory prose, which was published by Sea Urchin Editions as Beroofd door de ruimte in 2004. On various occasions Schot gave lectures and presentations on Sun Ra, on whom he wrote an article as well. In 2003 Schot was awarded the Pendrecht Cultuurprijs by Chris Dercon, then director of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.
Some of the projects that Schot put together are Oulipo (1997) about the French literary movement of the same name, Shells (1997), a project on the museum as an institute at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Rotterdam, Submerge (1997) on the films of surrealist-biologist Jean Painlevé, Towers Open Fire (1998) on the films of William S. Burroughs, and I rip you, you rip me (1998, in collaboration with Ronald Cornelissen) on the radical and psychedelic counterculture of Detroit in the late sixties, early seventies. As a member of the revolutionary collective The Buggers he staged a Missed Encounter between former Provo leader Roel van Duijn and former chairman of the White Panther Party John Sinclair in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam in 2005. As part of the event Hugh Hopper, Mark Hewins, and Frank van der Kooy were invited by Schot to do a concert at the auditorium of the museum. In 2006 Schot put together an exhibition of material from the archives of the Dutch underground press Cold Turkey Press for the Historical Museum of Rotterdam. In 2008 Schot organized the project Kingdom Come about the notion utopia for the Dutch art institute TENT. The project consisted of an exhibition in which various artists, publishers, and thinkers were invited to react to the concept utopia, a book fair for independent publishers, a discussion with Roel van Duijn, and a performance of the Japanese musicians Yoshida Tatsuya of the band Ruins (band) and Kawabata Makoto of Acid Mothers Temple. On several occasions Schot performed with Dutch electro-acoustic group Kapotte Muziek.
Interview by Michael Limnios Photos by Ben Schot Archive/All rights reserved
How did the thought behind Sea Urchin start? What characterizes the philosophy and mission of the press?
I started making artists’ books at art school and continued to do so – on a very small scale – in the 1980s and 1990s, at first they were xeroxed editions of 5 or 10 copies, later larger offset printed artists’ books. The books were combinations of texts, drawings, photos and found images. I used fictitious imprints to publish those. When I came across a tale by Edgar Allan Poe that was set in Rotterdam, I published it under a new imprint: Sea Urchin Editions in 2000. I chose the name Sea Urchin as a reference to my youth in Zeeland, where my father made a living as a fisherman and as an homage to Jean Painlevé’s ‘Oursins’, which is a hallucinatory, surrealist film about sea urchins.
Sea Urchin doesn’t really have a philosophy or mission, but it focuses on works from the counterculture, avantgarde and their predecessors. It’s a long historical line of rebellion, subversion and perversion that I’m interested in. I feel at home there. As a 13-year-old kid I watched The Who smash their instruments on TV and saw Dutch Provos undermining authority and provoking the police into actions that exposed them as fascistoid pigs. Everything was in uproar and up in the air in those days. The mid-1960s were electrifying days, especially for a kid my age, who had his own personal rebellion to deal with at home.
In the early 1970s (I was 17-18 years old by then) I used to hang out in an alternative café that people from Rotterdam had started in the small countrytown where I lived. They created a meeting place for pacifists, socialists, communists, anarchists, artists, musicians, and local freaks like me, showed art and screened films by Godard, Pasolini, Antonioni and many others. In that café you could find Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus lying on the table next to European underground magazines such as ‘Suck’ and you could listen to the latest music high on hashish or tripping on acid. The café, film screenings, music, literature and people there were a great source of inspiration. So was a school trip to a big Dali exhibition in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam in 1970. It blew my mind and helped me decide to become an artist. Only later did I understand that The Who’s destruction of their instruments was inspired by Gustav Metzger’s auto-destructive art, that the Provo happenings were connected to the Situationists, that the Bonzo Dog Band took inspiration from the Dadaists, that the cut-ups that Burroughs and Gysin claimed to have discovered were in fact an old dadaist technique, and that there were all sorts of links between the music, films, art and literature that I loved and the historical avant-garde and their 19th-century predecessors. Those historical lines continue to fascinate me to this day and it’s that fascination that lies at the heart of Sea Urchin. I still discover something new almost every day.
How do you describe Ben Schot’s artwork? What experiences have triggered your ideas most frequently?
I have always liked drawing and I still think of myself as primarily a draughtsman. It is the most natural art discipline for me. But I certainly couldn’t make drawings on on a daily basis like some artists do. Or make series of thematically or stylistically consistent drawings. I’m too restless for that. Consistency, style and strict concepts are boring slave masters. I have to free myself from them (and never stop ridding myself of them, because they will always creep up on you rattling their cosy balls and chains). For that reason I believe my work always contains a destructive element. That is certainly true of my drawings, which frequently start with the destruction of an older drawing or picking up a drawing I had rejected earlier. Destruction or embracing rejected works is often my first step in the process of drawing. That’s something I learnt from Krijn Giezen, a Dutch artist who used to be one of my teachers in art school. And… you have to let chance in. That’s something I learnt not only from Krijn Giezen but also from the dadaists, surrealists, Dutch Provos and improvisational musicians. You have to let chance in somehow. The whole idea is to open up your work to something you DON’T control.
I like vandalic techniques too. They are a very refreshing kind of violence and perversion. Vandalism is a subversive and powerful tool in exposing false images. Kids use it instinctively. But it can be applied more consciously too, of course. I started Dämmer Magazine in 2008 as an experiment in classic vandalic techniques. I still do a Dämmer cover every now and then: whenever I feel the need to react to a political, social or cultural issue, which is not as often as I used to. Some people love them, others hate them. They’re all done fast. Vandalism works best when it’s done before the esthetic and ethic cops have the chance to arrive.
Drawing comes naturally but making books too. Making books and starting Sea Urchin was a logical extension of my artist’s practice and it still is. My work is not all about violence and destruction, of course. I think of beauty as a very powerful force too. I’m a sucker for beauty. It’s a way of getting out of here. Maybe that’s what triggers my ideas most of all: finding the exit and a doorway out of here.
“For the postwar generation that I was part of the term ‘underground’ had all sorts of associations with the resistance groups of World War II. It had a romantic and heroic ring to it. It provided partisan credibility.”
How important was music in your life? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?
Music has been important to me since the late 1950s-early 1960s. Before that there were only boring Dutch pop songs on the radio, even more boring hymns in church, and the soporific Mantovani LP that my mother used to play at home. They were all REPRESSIVE kinds of music, either meant to make you consume, calm you down, or bore you for eternity. But then my sister, who is ten years older than I, brought home a taste of rock ‘n’ roll: Elvis, Little Richard, Bill Haley, greaser friends, petticoats, parties, dances. I couldn’t quite identify with that music – I was just a kid and this was music for horny young adults – but I understood and loved the energy, the excitement and the sense of DANGER that it aroused. The first pieces of music that I could really identify with were songs by The Beatles. Shortly after that The Stones, The Kinks, The Who. That must have been 1963-1965. That music made me feel part of a generation of kids who felt the same way I did, a new generation that was about to kick out the boring old one and shake off their repressive yoke. It told us something was in the air. Something good. Something dangerous.
My friends and I listened to music whenever we could in the second half of the 1960s. Radio stations tuned in on kids my age, who were a booming market, and we bought our own singles and LPs if we could afford them. I remember hearing ‘Wild Thing’ by The Troggs when it came out on the radio in 1966 and thinking to myself: ‘that’s the most exciting piece of music I’ve ever heard ‘. Then came The Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd ( I smoked my first joint listening to Pink Floyd’s first album), Soft Machine, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, Hawkwind, the works (although a lot of great psychedelic music never reached us in those days. Not where I was living). We smoked hash and dropped acid listening to Pink Floyd’s ‘Umma Gumma’, Hawkwind’s first album, and Dr. John’s ‘Gris-Gris’. They propelled us into other worlds. And that was exactly where we wanted to be.
I’ve been exposed and open to all sorts of music since then. I still listen to psychedelic music and (punk) rock but prefer free jazz nowadays. I listen to electronic music, noise, anything except classical music that I find hard to get into. I know artists who couldn’t work with music playing in their studio but I would find it hard to work without it (except when I’m writing; that’s the only time when I can’t bear music). Music is an energy, a vehicle, a spaceship to another world as Sun Ra would put it. Either that or a healthy punch in the kisser to knock some sense into you.
“So what does underground literature look or sound like nowadays? I know what it used to be but couldn’t tell what it is nowadays. Jihadist rants? Charlie Hebdo? Mein Kampf? And does being underground make them good literature? I don’t think so. ‘Underground’… Personally, I’d like to stay above ground as long as possible and wait a while before pushing up the daisies.”
What has been the relationship between music, literature, visual art (..and comics) in your life?
Well, I think I have already answered most of that question, at least as far as music and visual art are concerned. Comics have never really been my thing. I mean, of course I used to read comics as a kid (I even wrote letters to Donald Duck and got replies too) and, yes certainly, later I would laugh my head off at the comics that you would find in ‘underground’ magazines in the 1960s and 1970s: Robert Crumb, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Wolinski, Reiser, Herman Brood, etc., but I was not really into them and I don’t remember ever having collected comic books or zines.
I liked to read boys’ adventure books as a young kid and was into SF, horror and detectives as a 14 to 15-year-old: Michael Moorcock, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Havank, Ian Fleming. At secondary school I was introduced to modern Dutch literature and some English, French and German literature, but I’m afraid most of it was wasted on me at the time. My Dutch literature teacher was a reasonably well-known Dutch poet, inspiring to most pupils but not to me. His flaunting poetry and forcing it down pupils’ throats turned me off completely. We didn’t like each other. I remember having written a short SF story as an interpretation of one of his assignments when I was some 16 years old. He returned it to me with a low grade and the remark that it must have sprung from a ‘really sick and disturbed mind’. I was lost on him and most of his teachings were lost on me. I preferred listening to my English teacher, a pockmarked former sea-faring sailor who drank heavily, smoked cigarettes in the classroom and wrote Beatles lyrics on the blackboard for his students to translate and analyse. I didn’t get into serious literature until I had left secondary school.
After I had graduated from secondary school I wanted to enter art school, but I wasn’t admitted and then was drafted for military service. I refused to do that service. I started studying English Language & Literature at home during the extremely long procedure you had to go through as a conscientious objector in those days. They gave you the hardest and longest possible time if you refused military service. I read a lot in those years, not only old and modern English literature but also Camus, Sartre, Nietzsche, Freud and Dutch literature, which I was finally able to enjoy. Literature has been a source of inspiration since then. After I had finished my alternative military service (all in all the procedure had taken some five years) and had been admitted to art school, literature and theoretical writings were an important stimulus in my development as a visual artist, more so than music. They still are. Words fire the imagination and looking into the mechanisms of language means laying bare the inner workings of our psyche and culture. Let’s not forget that the surrealists were primarily a literary movement, so were the lettrists and situationists. The counterculture and avant-garde were to a large extent shaped by words and cracking open language. I’ve always been more into prose than into poetry, though, but that’s just a matter of taste.
“Sea Urchin doesn’t really have a philosophy or mission, but it focuses on works from the counterculture, avantgarde and their predecessors. It’s a long historical line of rebellion, subversion and perversion that I’m interested in. I feel at home there.”
You have come to know great personalities. Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?
True, I’ve met some great people over the years but I don’t really know if you can call those meetings – or the acquaintances and friendships that have evolved from some of those – ‘important’. Time will tell. And then, of course, there are people not very well-known or not known at all, who have been very important in my life. Being great and being important are not synonymous. My girls, Anneke and Puck, are important to me. And, yes, I’m fortunate to have a couple of generous and inspiring friends. I’m a rich man.
What did you learn about yourself from the counterculture and what does underground literature mean to you?
The ‘counterculture’ is a term invented by the academic Theodore Roszak to categorize various subcultures, civil rights and anti-war movements of the late 1960s. I don’t think I heard the term until much later. Anyway, the late 1960s-early 1970s were an era that coincided with my puberty and adolescence. I had a lot to rebel against and get away from at home. As a result of that I gravitated naturally towards various exponents of the ‘counterculture’: music, drugs, pacifism, art, literature. Other exponents didn’t appeal to me at all: orientalism, mysticism, back to nature stuff. Nor did I get very deep into politics – even though I was a conscientious objector to military service. But I was certainly attracted to the rebellious and subversive aspects of what Roszak labelled ‘counterculture’.
I don’t think the counterculture itself taught me much, but its failure certainly did. The counterculture was only fresh for a couple of years. Then it collapsed under its own weight due to internal rot and fermenting complacency in its construction. Its downfall taught me a lot about the mechanisms and strategies of consumer societies, about repressive tolerance, about commodification, about selling out. The counterculture was eaten, digested and shat back into our faces by the consumer societies. It was weak. I learnt a lot more from Dada and Freud. To my mind those have remained vital forces: I still draw inspiration from them. Revolt, anarchism and the subconscious: powerful food for any countercultural pupa. Fat moth meat to be grilled in the light.
For the postwar generation that I was part of the term ‘underground’ had all sorts of associations with the resistance groups of World War II. It had a romantic and heroic ring to it. It provided partisan credibility. The term ‘underground’ was already dubious in the 1960s and 1970s, but is even more so today. It’s become a label, a hallmark that helps market and sell commodities. I feel we should restore some of the original power to the term and do justice to those people and works that are or were really underground. John Sinclair did time in prison for what he wrote, said and thought, so did Timothy Leary (whatever you may think of him). There were Black Panthers, The Weather Underground, The German RAF. All underground. John Cleland wrote ‘Fanny Hill’ in prison and was re-imprisoned after its publication. There were Robert Desnos and De Sade, Czech Charter 77 writers, all part of a long line of true ‘underground’ writers all over the world who posed a threat to the establishment serious enough to have them put away. Because you don’t go underground voluntarily; you are FORCED underground because what you do is against the law. If you want to call yourself underground you‘d better start writing and publishing as if you are already being drawn and quartered by invisible horses.
So what does underground literature look or sound like nowadays? I know what it used to be but couldn’t tell what it is nowadays. Jihadist rants? Charlie Hebdo? Mein Kampf? And does being underground make them good literature? I don’t think so. ‘Underground’… Personally, I’d like to stay above ground as long as possible and wait a while before pushing up the daisies.
What do you miss most nowadays from the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future?
There is very little I miss from the past. On the whole I’m happy where I am now. But sometimes I miss the landscapes from my youth: the dunes, the sea, the dikes, the wind and the skies, the smell of honeysuckle, the call of an oystercatcher. They are all imprinted in my soul. Sometimes I drive south to the island where I grew up to feed my soul on the landscapes there for a day and then drive back to Rotterdam. I couldn’t live on the island any more but I’m glad I can still go there every now and then and get in touch with my roots.
I’m not the most optimistic guy when it comes to mankind, so my hopes of a better world are pretty slim. I’ve always been more of a survivor than an idealist to begin with and what ideals I had when I was young have evaporated in the course of time. Unless we get rid of the caste of usurers and warmongers that keep the planet in a stranglehold, nothing is going to change. It will take a lot of force to kick them out. They hold the trumps and have the guns.
But I do believe in art, music, literature, beauty, love and imagination. Mankind is at its best there and manages every now and then to build sublime vehicles that have the power to transport you away from here, even to transcend death. If there is hope for mankind then surely we should look for it in those areas. To another world, brothers and sisters!
“I have always liked drawing and I still think of myself as primarily a draughtsman. It is the most natural art discipline for me. But I certainly couldn’t make drawings on on a daily basis like some artists do. Or make series of thematically or stylistically consistent drawings.”
Why are the blues and jazz connected with the Beats and what characterizes the soundtrack of the Beat generation?
That’s a difficult question, all the more since I don’t know enough about either the blues, jazz or the Beats. Like most people my age, the blues first reached me through covers of blues songs by European sixties bands: The Stones, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, Q65, Cuby & The Blizzards. Willie Dixon was a name you came across when you read the credits to some of their songs, but I had no idea who he was until much later. John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters records you would find at friends’ places, but they usually belonged to the father or an older brother. We listened to other stuff. We were too young for the Blues. Only when the Blues came to us wrapped in sexy, young white men instead of old black guys did it appeal to us in the 1960s and 1970s. We were in the middle of a generational conflict. I only began to fully appreciate the Blues when I heard John Lee Hooker’s ‘I’m Going Upstairs’ and that was, I think, in the mid-seventies. The Blues is an acquired taste, it has to grow on you, like wild lichen that comes with age. Now I listen to the Blues a lot. And there’s so much great music available and so much still to be discovered. The Blues. ‘How long you been dead?’ (Bukka White).
Jazz also reached me through white bands like Soft Machine and the Dutch band Supersister, who I used to hang out with when they came down to the island where I lived. They sort of opened up that field of music for me as a kid. I remember seeing Sun Ra and The Archestra on Dutch TV in the early 1970s and being blown away by their performances. Rotterdam still had a couple of good jazz venues when I moved there. I went there every now and then but it wasn’t really my scene. Cary Loren pointed out to me a whole spectrum of ecstatic jazz. Now I’m mostly into free jazz, but am also discovering other forms of jazz.
How’s this for a soundtrack to the Beat Generation: put Allen Ginsberg in a steamy juke joint deep in the Delta in the 1950s, surrounded by Afro-American sharecroppers. Everybody gets drunk, everybody gets stoned, everybody gets naked. The local band begins to play. Everybody dances. Ginsberg trips out and fires rounds of free verse on the spot. Then Burroughs, impeccably dressed, opens the door.
“There is very little I miss from the past. On the whole I’m happy where I am now. But sometimes I miss the landscapes from my youth: the dunes, the sea, the dikes, the wind and the skies, the smell of honeysuckle, the call of an oystercatcher. They are all imprinted in my soul.”
Which is the moment that you change your life most? Which has been the most interesting period in your life?
The summer of 1969: A thunderstorm is about to break. The sky is Napels yellow and black. All is lost. All is erased. Even the memory of this day.
If you could change one thing in the world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
This question is truly daunting in its magnitude. Every change that comes to mind seems to have more disadvantages than advantages. And answering it is too big a responsibility for me. I’ll have to talk to my lawyer first.
What is the best advice ever given you?
The best piece of advice I ever got was not to share my memories without due warning.
Where would you really want to go with a time machine and what books, records, etc. would you put in?
I’m not much of a traveler but when I do travel I like to do it as light as possible. No books, no records, thank you. I’ve been carrying those around too often as a publisher. Because of curiosity I’d like to take a peek in the relatively near future, let’s say 100 years from now. I’m not sure that would be a time I look forward going to, though. But it would teach us a thing or two. It’s a romantic notion but I think that I would like to roam the 19th and 20th century leisurely on the H.G. Wells Xpress, making stops at will. I wouldn’t go anywhere without a return ticket, though.
Original article by Michalis Limnios on Blues@Greece