Look to the future. Learn from the past. Live in the present – A Conversation with Jamie Reid
Many thanks to John Marchant of Isis Gallery for sharing the following images and interview with artist Jamie Reid…
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 seems 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, Reclaim 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 calendar – the Eightfold Year.*
We convened east of Knighton, Powys on the Welsh borders, at a spot fiercely contested 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 Haile Selassie!
“The root and inspiration and acknowledgement of the esoteric spirituality contained in the work comes from the ancient past and the distant future but is based in the immediate here and now.
It is indebted to those from the base root, the true guardians of the planet – the peasants.
Those of the earth
The rain and sun
The wind and stars
The seas the rivers
The valley the mountain tops
Mother Nature’s citizens, those who tilled and toiled and understood the meaning of being.
Who loved the planet’s smallest intimacies and its universal magnitude and used it for the good of all. The Mothers of Invention.” Jamie Reid 2007
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 straight into hours of painting, they merge and nature and our part within it.
IM: I think you still have to explain what you think a lot of your painting work is about, because people can’t get their head around it.
REID: I read an awful lot of Jung when I was 17 to 19. That was the same time I was into R.D. Laing. They intertwine with each other. It really is at the heart of my spiritual beliefs: love and respect for Laing and David Cooper and all that. Funnily enough that was all around that squatting scene.
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: Alfred Watkins says that the people who laid out the Old Straight Tracks attained a supernatural aura because they had a knowledge that other people didn’t. Isn’t it natural for people to want someone to look up to?
REID: As soon as you get pyramidical hierarchies the whole thing becomes corrupt. We’ve never lived in an age where people trust each other less. I can remember in Croydon, specifically in the early 1970’s when we were doing Suburban Press which was far from being elitist and was very involved with the working class in that area – that was the first time ever we didn’t have our doors open so it all started going then – but the whole Craig and Bentley thing really fucked Croydon. (Ed. the innocent and mentally ill Christopher Craig was hanged after his accomplice, the under-age Craig Bentley, killed PC Sidney Miles during a botched robbery in Croydon). Then the police wouldn’t go there. Croydon was very different then.
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 Aldermaston marches at an early age.
IM: Your mother had problems with your Great Uncle George. She sounds like she was quite an iconoclast herself.
REID: She was brought up in a Naturist environment and her dad wrote a book called ‘In The Heart of Democracy’ so they were all involved with the socialist movement of the time. It was the death of the whole fifty year epoch of Victorianism. There was a massive interest in change both politically and spiritually, which is the thing that fascinated me about the Druid order. There was a great belief in access to freedom of knowledge, education, the whole alternative movement in medicine and health, and health foods but they were as likely to be on trade union and suffragette rallies as to be doing rituals at Stonehenge. It was all part and parcel, which is something I’ve really tried to continue myself.
IM: Do you think this was a direct response to the Second World War?
REID: Well the war drew a curtain on everything. It was the most massive blood sacrifice in the history of mankind. I’ll have to stop painting – I can’t paint and talk at the same time.
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 break 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: I’ve thought that the whole idea of an artist is to be expansive, like an explorer going forward. Not stuck in a rut. 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: You recently found out that MI6 had you down as a traitor.
REID: They were thinking of doing us for treason at the time of the Queen’s jubilee and God Save the Queen and all that.
IM: Is that encouraging?
REID: I dunno. I think it’s a family tradition. My brother was tried for treason when he was part of Spies For Peace and the Committee of One Hundred. See? Blame your parents!
IM: When you finish the Eightfold year cycle of work…what are you going to do next?
REID: I’d like to do more work like I did in the Strongroom. One of the things I’ve always wanted to do is to do a lot of landscape sculpture and create gardens. I spent five years doing landscape gardening when I was younger. I’d like to create places in which people can stay which act as resource centres. I’d like to apply what I’ve done in the Strongroom to all sorts of situations, it could be a hospital…obviously there’s a whole element to what I do that has that capacity to heal people.
IM: Colour magic?
REID: Yeah. I don’t think we know fuck all about colour and its potential. I don’t think we know fuck all about sound. I think we’re incredibly ignorant, however sophisticated we think our technology is. Actually, in a laborious way, technology hints at things we’ve lost the ability to see for ourselves. To me that was most well articulated by a Scottish engineer called Professor Alexander Thom who was a great expert on Stonehenge; he came to Stonehenge not through drugs or hippie-dom or New Age but through being an engineer and being fascinated with its structure. I remember him in a documentary – it was the time when Yale University had spent two years studying Stonehenge to say “Oh yes, it’s a cosmic timeclock”. He was asked how on earth could these people could’ve built something like this without calculus. Fuck calculus. They were so in tune with the landscape, they were so in tune with the stars and their movements and the sun and the moon that they just knew. We had to spend thousand of years of calculus to come to these conclusions.
IM: I remember you saying that computers were going to bring in a whole age of…
REID: Backache and blindness.
IM: No, you said there would be a new age of psychic connection between people.
REID: I’ve probably got more cynical since I said that.
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 pre-ordained functions, particularly in the workplace. I’ve always tried to encourage people to think about that and do something about it.
Ragged Kingdom: The Incomplete Works of Jamie Reid is at Galleria Civica di Modena September 12th 2014 to January 6th 2015
* These are the eight festivals which divide the Wheel Of The Year. Each has it’s own Druidic celebration, with occurences approximately every six weeks. These include solstices, equinoxes, and the four major points in the turning of the Wheel, (Autumn, Winter, Spring, & Summer).
Recommended reading –
Up They Rise – The Incomplete Works of Jamie Reid by Jamie Reid and Jon Savage (Faber and Faber 1987)
The Old Straight Track by Alfred Watkins (Abacus 1974)
The Wing of Madness : The Life and Work of R.D. Laing by Daniel Burston (Harvard University Press 1998)