After twenty years of chance meetings with the work of Bill Drummond, Getintothis’ Gary Aster reflects on the Peoples Pyramid, Toxteth Day of The Dead and Myth-Making in Merseyside.
The best bands you ever see at a festival are the ones you didn’t plan to see and you’ve never heard before. The twenty quid note found in the pocket of a coat you haven’t worn in a while is worth more than the one you already know you’ve got in your wallet. Nothing beats discovery.
I’ve been having chance, unexpected encounters with the work, words, and wisdom of Bill Drummond for some twenty years or more. His work has a habit of making sudden, unforeseen appearances. It’s suddenly there, in a place where I wasn’t looking for it, didn’t expect to find it and just chanced upon it.
These unexpected encounters have happened often enough for me to suppose that they are an intentional aspect or characteristic feature of Drummond’s work. They leave behind the lasting impression of a moment of discovery. And this happened again last week, which is what prompted me to write this piece, but it’s something I’ve been pondering on for a while.
Sometime in the pre-internet, mid to late ‘90s just before everything changed, I was strolling along School Lane in Liverpool. The area has been spruced up quite a bit since then, but at that time there was a long, crumbling fence of wooden boards which was a favourite spot for illicit bill posters to paste up adverts for upcoming gigs and so forth.
And on this particular day, the entire length of it had been covered with a series of large white posters, filled with plain black text. It was evident that each poster was a different page from a book, and that they had been displayed in order from left to right.
So I read a few lines of the nearest poster and recognised the writing almost immediately. It was the work of Bill Drummond, ostensibly telling the story of his time in Liverpool as manager of the Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen, but really giving an account of the genesis of a modern mythology.
I looked around and no one else seemed to be paying it any heed. Then I slowly walked along its entire length and read the whole thing, feeling rather self-conscious as I did, but Drummond has the knack of telling a good tale and I was irresistibly drawn in by it.
I don’t remember why I was in Liverpool city centre on that day, probably because I wanted to buy a book or a record. Whatever the reason I intended to be there, I have long since forgotten, but the experience of discovering Drummond’s text and reading it for the first time has stayed with me.
I liked the impermanence of the posters. Soon, parts of the story would inevitably begin to disappear as newer, more conventional bill posters were pasted over it. Afterward, whenever I was in Liverpool city centre I would be sure to pass School Lane just to check on its gradual deterioration. Faint traces of it could still be glimpsed, here and there, almost a year on. Twenty years later, of course, all physical traces of it are long gone, but it still lingers in my imagination.
Is this art, I wondered at the time. If it is art, then where exactly is the art? Is it in the words or in the fact of their display, presumably without anyone’s permission? Or is it in the ‘performance’ of Drummond pasting up the posters himself, or simply in the concept of it all?
Surely there needs to be some tangible, durable object – a painting or a sculpture, say – for it to count as ‘proper’ art. This is just going to vanish sooner or later. I came to the conclusion that it was art because I thought of it as such, and that I shouldn’t concern myself with what any of the gatekeepers of the art world might think of it.
Later I learned that it was Drummond’s contribution to an exhibition then being held at the Bluecoat Gallery, but it was obviously outside the gallery space, in the open air and exposed to the elements. It seemed that this exile was intentional – part of its aesthetic; part of the work – as was its impermanence. There would be no lasting, physical trace of it; nothing for a dealer to sell or a collector to buy.
Divorced from any context, it was just there. I liked the availability and the incongruity of it. If I’m honest, I suppose I also liked the exclusivity of it too, in that it seemed rather like a secret sign or a Masonic handshake. I imagined the curiosity, confusion or indifference of passers-by. I wanted to catch the eye of someone else who, like me, appreciated it. In the hour or so I spent with it, no one else did.
When I finished reading it I felt compelled to go and visit a nearby manhole cover which, because of what I had just read, had suddenly taken on strange, mystical associations. The mundane and overlooked now seemed almost magical. I’m a rational man. I know it’s just a manhole cover.
Yet still to this day, each time I happen to pass by it I’m drawn to stare at it and wonder. This experience seemed to set a precedent for how I continued to encounter Drummond’s work in the months and years that followed. Soon after, I found myself in the city centre again and in need of a cup of tea. At that time, there was an interesting combination of a bike shop and a café open near the Bombed-out church. Whilst ordering my cuppa in there I unexpectedly found more of Drummond’s work.
Glancing down at the counter I noticed a small pile of pamphlets with the catchy title ‘Brutality, Religion and a Dance Beat’, telling another tale which paid tribute to the late Roger Eagle, something of a Liverpool music scene legend. I assumed Drummond must have visited recently and just left them there for people to discover.
I learned that this assumption was correct some months later whilst browsing in nearby radical bookshop News From Nowhere. In the section featuring recently published work, a new book by Drummond was on display entitled ‘How To Be An Artist’. Of course, I eagerly snapped up a copy and later read within that Drummond had indeed visited the café / bike shop. I’ve found several more pamphlets in this way over the years, in various site-specific locations appropriate to the text.
About this time I took a short cut to get to Lime Street Station and saw an unusual piece of graffiti. ‘Dead White Man’ it proclaimed. I had no idea what it meant, and half-jokingly remarked to my long-suffering partner that it reminded me of the sort of thing that Bill Drummond might do.
Although I was aware of Drummond’s then active website, the Penkiln Burn (named after a stretch of water which ran through his childhood home town of Newton Stewart), I was an infrequent visitor. As such, I generally missed announcements alerting readers to new work and activities by Drummond. In this way, I continued to make chance, unexpected discoveries which I would later confirm to be Drummond’s work (if it was in doubt) by checking the website.
When Liverpool was awarded the coveted Capital of Culture status (over a decade ago now) I was in the city centre once more, this time on my way to visit the Tate. It seemed that everywhere I turned I was greeted by a poster, freshly pasted-up, challenging Liverpool, amongst other things, to do ”something only Liverpool could do”.
When I reached the Tate I headed for the loo before going to see whatever I was there to see, which again, I don’t recall. But on the wall outside the gents (exiled from the main gallery spaces) was yet another of these posters. I recognised the design as, of course, the work of Bill Drummond. Incidentally, the impermanence of these posters was thwarted. One of them must have been salvaged for posterity and is now on display in the Museum of Liverpool Life.
More recently but still some years ago, as my partner and I were again in the vicinity of the Bombed-out church, I spotted a tall chap brandishing a street-sweeper’s broom with an extra wide brush. He was coming towards us with a purposeful stride and even bid us a cheery “good afternoon” as he walked by. “D’you know, I think that was Bill Drummond” says I. “Don’t be stupid. It was just a street sweeper” replied my other half. “No, really. I’m certain of it” I insisted. She gave me a look but then concurred in a tone of voice I’ve become accustomed to which generally means, “I’m agreeing with you, but only because I don’t want to discuss this any further.”
Of course, it was Drummond doing his Lone Sweeper thing, as the Penkiln Burn website later confirmed. In addition to the now familiar unexpected and impermanent aspects of this work, there was an unreal quality to it. It just seemed like such an unlikely thing to happen – both mundane and out of the ordinary at the same time. I was intrigued to know why Bill Drummond was sweeping the streets of Liverpool. Presumably in pursuit of his art. But how can brushing up be considered art?
On another occasion, I was heading up Bold Street and glanced at the front window display of News From Nowhere. It consisted of a large, neat stack of several hundred blue and yellow hardback books, which was described to me as an incomplete sculpture that would be completed when all the books had been sold. 100 was its title and its author, of course, was Bill Drummond.
I live not too far away from the old Runcorn Bridge. This had recently been improved by the appearance of another piece of graffiti which I knew to be Drummond’s work the moment I saw it. “Imagine Waking Up Tomorrow and All Music Has Disappeared” it declared – a phrase familiar to me from Drummond’s book ‘The 17 and his experimental choir of the same name. I also knew he was in the habit of painting this phrase onto bridges. I was unaware he’d kindly added it to the Runcorn Bridge and was surprised to see it.
What was also striking about this graffiti was its location. It was on one of the foundation plinths of the bridge, and therefore unseen by the many thousands driving over it in either direction. In fact, it could really only be seen by those in the vicinity of the Mersey View pub. Some five years later just the faintest traces of it are still visible, but people remember it. Few seem to be aware of its origins though, and the amount of effort that must have gone into getting it there in the first place is what is generally remarked upon.
Sometime later I acquired a few more of Drummond’s pamphlets, some dating back over a decade. One of them,‘My Day In Court’, described a brush with the law for writing the words ‘Dead White Man’ on a city centre wall not too far from Lime Street Station.
Like that first pamphlet I had found years before, I learned that this almost forgotten and mysterious graffiti was intended as a tribute to the late Roger Eagle. It is interesting to note, in light of more recent activities, that here is Drummond, almost two decades earlier, using his art to honour the dead in unusual ways in Liverpool. The pamphlet also made vague references to a mysterious “monument”…
And so it continued. It would perhaps be tedious to recount all these unexpected encounters so I’ll just pull a few strands of thought together and move on. One of the things I like about all these examples is the accessibility and availability of them. These aren’t works that are shut safely behind gallery doors, there to be seen only by the sort of people who visit galleries. They are publicly displayed and on some level, they are comprehensible to anyone. They challenge our perception of what art can be, how it is made and where it is to be found.
But I especially liked the fact that they just seemed to turn up unexpectedly and divorced from any particular context. The impermanence of the works also appealed. Each one offered a brief, open window of opportunity – a limited time frame during which they could be experienced before vanishing forever leaving no physical trace. Planned obsolescence seemed to be an intentional part of their design. They belonged to a specific time, place or occasion. Afterward, they existed only in the imagination of those who experienced them. This is the stuff that myths are made of.
It’s possible that thoughts such as these unconsciously influenced my initial responses to Drummond’s most recent return visit to Liverpool when he and his creative partner Jimmy Cauty were back again for the inaugural Toxteth Day of the Dead. Although regrettably, I managed to miss most of this event, I wrote a piece outlining what I was able to gather about it from various eye-witnesses and participants, including Bill Drummond, who I quoted.
The event was billed as K2 Plant Hire Presents ‘Unexpected Item in Toxteth Town Hall’. The unexpected item in question turned out to be a pyramid constructed from shopping trolleys. Drummond and Cauty were here to oversee the first stage in the construction of their proposed People’s Pyramid.
The People’s Pyramid is to be built in Toxteth at an as-yet undecided location. It will consist entirely of rather special bricks. They’ve been designed specifically in order to house 23 grams of the ashes of a deceased person. The bricks can be bought for £99 each. Once their owners have died, the bricks will be re-fired one last time, with those ashes inside. Year after year as more brick-owners shuffle off this mortal coil, on Toxteth Day of the Dead, these re-fired bricks will be added to the pyramid’s foundation stone, and the People’s Pyramid will slowly rise.
In the pieces I’ve written about all this so far, it’s true that I’ve maintained a certain, understandable level of skepticism towards the idea, chiefly focussed on what at first appeared to be insurmountable practical considerations, but also on the grounds that £99 is a lot of money for a single brick and signed certificate, if that’s all that one is really buying.
A few days after my last piece was published, I had another unexpected encounter with Bill Drummond’s words, this time in the form of an email, which was a surprise because, although I’d had some contact with those working for Drummond and Cauty, I’d never communicated directly with Drummond himself before, and was hardly expecting him to get in touch with me now.
After exchanging a few pleasantries I realized he wanted to clarify and elaborate on our brief conversation in Toxteth Town Hall a few days before. And what he had to say went a good way towards addressing some of the concerns and reservations I had about the proposed People’s Pyramid.
So I replied asking if it was ok for me to quote a specific part of his email since it helpfully cleared up a few things and he agreed.
In my original piece, I quoted him using an analogy likening the certificate of Mumufication to a receipt, the logo on the bricks to those on Tesco carrier bags and the bricks themselves to trollies, or was it carrier bags..?
“The analogy that I was wanting to make was between one of the Bricks of Mu and a Tesco carrier bag (thus not a shopping trolley). An onlooker from a different time might watch someone go into a Tesco and twenty odd minutes later come back out clutching a plastic bag with the Tesco brand all over it. And if that onlooker from a different time were able to see the bank account of the person clutching the Tesco bag, might observe they are now twenty odd quid down due to a payment to Tesco.
This onlooker might deduce from this that the ‘clutcher’ had just spent the twenty odd quid on the bag they were clutching in their hands. The onlooker might assume that Tesco are in the business of selling these bags with their branded name on it. Of course we and the clutcher and Tesco’s and the bank would know that the twenty odd quid had been spent on the contents of the bag. In my head, the brick is no more than the Tesco branded carrier bag. And what you are paying for is everything else.
That everything else in the short term is having the brick fired with your cremated remains in it, which is not that simple an activity. The ongoing annual Toxteth Day of the Dead event, to honour your now fired cremated remains. The purchase of land with at least a one thousand year lease to build the pyramid on. And the upkeep of that said pyramid for the coming thousand years.
Thus one is not buying a brick, but signing up for MuMufication, which we hope includes what has been mentioned in the previous paragraph, but will also include all the debate and conversations and arguments and fears and doubt to follow for you, your family and friends.”
The People’s Pyramid is then, in some ways, a departure. Far from being unexpected (unlike the item in Toxteth Town Hall), it is long-awaited. Drummond and Cauty first revealed their plans for a People’s Pyramid over twenty years ago. We are told that it may take somewhere in the region of 300 years to complete. And it is the very antithesis of impermanence, as Drummond explains above. They hope that it will stand for a thousand years.
But there is continuity here as well. As Drummond’s analogy above makes clear, for those who sign up for Mumufication, the emphasis should not be on the physical object of the brick itself, which is likened to a mere carrier bag. The intangible aspects of it are seemingly of greater importance. To sign up is to take a leap of faith – to trust that certain things will happen after you have died and that the People’s Pyramid will be built.
For this tradition to flourish, (indeed, for it to qualify as a tradition at all) it must be taken-up by the people of Toxteth. To some extent that does seem to be happening.The establishment of an annual Toxteth Day of the Dead, with its new and evolving customs and traditions, also chimes with Drummond’s habit of producing work suited to a particular time, place and occasion.
And all of this too, is the stuff that myths are made of.
Photos by Getintothis’ Jane MacNeil