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Bill Drummond comes to Brum

By guest writer Tony Appleby

Posted March 22, 2014
bill drummond on the rotunda
The horn at dawn: Bill gives Brum a wake-up call. © Tony Appleby

He co-founded the KLF. He burnt a million quid. And now he's kicking off a 12-year world art tour in the West Midlands. Tony Appleby meets up with Bill Drummond for the R&H.

Bill Drummond kicked off his troubadourian tour of the world this past March 14 in Birmingham by entering the city, via canal, on board a raft he had crafted from his own bed.

With him were 400 daffodils which he later handed out at random to pedestrians in the city centre.

Later on, the artist declared, he would be walking the length of the Stratford Road from Solihull to Birmingham whilst banging a drum and then hauling himself to the roof of the Rotunda – Birmingham's iconic cylindrical tower block – to blow a horn.

If there were a louder and more explicit manner in which to herald his arrival to the city without attracting the attention of the police, then I cannot imagine what it might be.

At 60 years old, Bill has embarked upon a showcase of his recent work that plans to take him to 12 cities in 12 different countries around the world in 12 years.

In each of these cities he will hold an exhibition entitled The 25 Paintings, which will include, amongst other things, paintings, posters, maps, photographs, sculptures, knitting and 60-second films.

Spending three months in each city, Bill will continue his practice by including activities such as raft building, shoe shining, making cake circles and soup lines, celebrating the legacy of his choral project The17, hiding in cafés and looking in windows.

Doubtless the list of activities will grow and grow as and when Bill's inspiration calls for it.

As the years go by and the tour evolves, it may well become the largest travelling carnival of art ever seen.

So far he is booked into Germany, China, America, Syria and India, but it is in Birmingham that he begins this marathon, with an exhibition at Digbeth's Eastside Projects.

He chose Birmingham, he says, because he always had a fascination for the place, with its Mobius-stripping Spaghetti Junction and tower-block skyline, but he'd never been in for a proper look.

Upon entering the space at Eastside Projects we see his 25 Paintings, some of which are mounted precariously in the form of a house of cards; his posters of Notices and Scores; and maps of the country pasted up from road atlases, upon which he has drawn the soup lines, rookery threads and twinned places that make up some of his projects.

There is his raft/bed on which he arrived and a workbench scattered with tools, books and cans of Drummond's International Grey paint – his own formula.

And he has his wardrobe for the trip – 12 pairs of Levi's 501 jeans, some already worn, some that may not be pulled on for a decade, plus a kilt, neatly arranged on a rail.

Also noticeably present are three large cuboid piles of books, each pile containing 1,000 copies of either The 25 Paintings Catalogue, Man Makes Bed or Man Shines Shoes.

This stack of new writing, measuring at least one metre in height by one and a half metres square, represents a limited-edition offer that, once sold off, will be gone forever.

At each stop along his tour, new books will be written for the visitors to that particular exhibition.

Coming in at between £16 ($26.40) to £20, with a discount offer on the purchase of all three books at once, those cubes themselves represent between £40,000 to £52,000 worth of stock.

On the opening evening of the show, Bill clambered up onto the desk to address his first of no doubt many thousands if not millions of visitors over the next 12 years.

He courteously thanked curator Gavin Wade of Eastside Projects and the crew for putting the exhibition together; provided a warning that he wouldn't be held responsible if some anarchic guest tumbled into the house-of-cards paintings and injured themselves beneath them; pitched a modest desire that we should not forget to buy his books; and also asked that we give him our attention "for the rest of our lives".

This self-confident switch between joyful charm, self-promotion and genuine sincerity is a trait that I would observe again and again as I spent the next few hours in his company.

bed raft and paintings
Pictures at an exhibition: Note Bill's bed/raft to the left. © Tony Appleby

After introducing myself, I asked whether I could accompany him during his performance of The Man Who Bangs His Drum, which was scheduled to take place at 23:00 that evening.

The work involves him walking the length of the Stratford Road from Solihull to Birmingham whilst all the while banging a large drum.

I was personally intrigued to observe what the denizens of Sparkhill – a predominantly Indian/Bangladeshi/Asian area of the city – would make of this large white man in his full-length leather coat, marching and beating out a rhythm through their neighbourhood as they tried to sleep.

He was happy for me to come along, interested in where I lived and, after exchanging numbers, he offered to pick me up later after he'd had a balti.

This gave me a few hours to kill so I went drinking, ending up in a pub called the Bear somewhere along the Stratford Road and the only pub for a square mile in that part of the city.

I sat drinking pint after pint of Guinness and trying not to draw the attention of any of the smashed and shattered Irishmen lolling around the tables, swinging pool cues vaguely at the direction of the pool table and collapsing in heaps with their women on the swampy carpet.

As midnight came and went and the last sodden punters were woken up and ushered into taxicabs, I was beginning to fear that The Man Who Bangs His Drum wasn't going to appear.

However, Bill then phoned, full of apologies, and collected me from the pub.

When he finally strapped on his drum we had already driven to within a couple of miles of the city centre and it was only this short distance that he had left to cover.

I can only put this change of plan down to his tight schedule, but true to his mission he then proceeded through Sparkhill, serenading the disgruntled residents with his drum beat.

Along the way, we paused a couple of times for photo opportunities.

This was, after all, his first time in the city and if a few locals hollering from half-closed windows and bemused boy racers took exception to this introduction, the owners of a late-night grocery store were happy for him to pose amongst their smorgasbord of streetside produce, timpani mallets held aloft.

The following morning at 07:30 brought about his performance of The Man Who Blows His Horn and again I was eager to attend.

Along with artist Tracey Moberly, who was taking photographs of the piece, and Gavin Wade, I was allowed up onto the roof of the Rotunda building and afforded one of the most privileged views of the West Midlands I'm ever likely to get.

Bill himself clambered up onto a crane, ensuring he was at the highest vantage point available, and Tracey had to follow, muttering her own personal mantra – "North Pole, North Pole, North Pole" – in order to steady her nerves and her hands for the photos.

The horn in question was constructed from a traffic cone, highlighting a surprising poverty of material for a man who was once on the verge of purchasing his own submarine.

Once the note was sounded, to the oblivion of street sweepers and coffee-swigging shop-girls below, we politely made our way down and parted company, with Bill very graciously thanking me for my help.

Later that day the exhibition space was opened for the public and also for the presentation of a personal lecture to be delivered by Bill to the first person through the door.

This intimate gig was conducted with Bill sat at his workbench and the student seated opposite whilst a small audience gathered round to witness the lesson – Rooks Versus Crows.

In this piece, the artist talks about his observation of rooks and crows over the years, including a crow he has spotted outside the gallery in the past few days, and the differences in their behaviour – rooks being social and crows solitary.

He points out the pros and cons of both lifestyles before concluding with a question for the student.

The participant is then presented with two original artworks, a touching and also highly generous gesture considering that his A4-sized paintings are on sale for £1,000 each.

For the duration of his residency in Birmingham, Bill will continue a series of lectures, make beds, deliver cakes and clean people's windows – a panoply of intricate, careful, mindful and, some might say, humble activities.

It's a world away from the days in the late 80s when he could be found performing at illegal raves and throwing Scottish pound notes into the monging crowd.

Bill has been described variously as "professional controversialist", "madcap Scots genius" and most often by a title that surely rankles these days – "pop prankster".

It's a long time since he had anything to do with the world of pop music.

In fact, 22 years have passed since he and fellow avant-gardist Jimmy Cauty retired the KLF at the BRIT Awards by machine-gunning the audience and dumping a dead sheep carcass at the after party.

Entrances and exits are clearly Bill's forte.

Are we going to mention burning a million quid?

Yes, we are.

After the demise of the KLF, Bill and Jimmy formed the K Foundation and, as part of an artwork, they set fire to £1m in cash.

Journalists are now pathologically incapable of writing anything about Bill without bringing this event up, but for perfectly good reasons.

He himself has spoken of it as the act that will cast the longest shadow over his career and so any analysis of his subsequent work has to consider the burning in context.

Aside from that, the fact that he and Jimmy signed a pledge in 1995 not to talk about the issue for 23 years suggests temptingly that there is more to be said on the matter and, therefore, that certain things are being deliberately left unsaid in any current work.

jeans and a kilt
Spring collection: Bill likes his jeans. © Tony Appleby

Of course, trying to second-guess Bill is an exercise in futility.

The high-concept art of the KLF and the intertwined Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu (JAMMs) years was fuelled in the main by the duo's interest in the religious philosophy of Discordianism as it appears in The Illuminatus! Trilogy – a series of novels written in the 70s by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.

Discordianism refuses to be dogmatic in principle, teaching instead that we embrace contradiction, and the method employed for its dissemination is subversive humour.

By coupling this belief system with the experience and cynicism gained from 10 years working in the music industry, Bill and Jimmy were able to create a magnificently mythical and totally unpredictable act that was extremely successful both artistically and financially.

However, the quixotic nature of such an approach means that Bill's audience has ever since been unable to truly agree that the whole period is just that, a moment in time, and that he really has moved on.

The idea that his post-K work, such as No Music Day, The Smell of Money Underground, The17 and other activities under the Penkiln Burn umbrella, may be extensions or evolutions of the will that drove him to create the KLF lead some to consider him one of the best conceptual artists of our millennial age.

Those who use terms such as 'opportunist' and 'showman' with the strange intention of being critical fail to grasp the obvious notion that these attributes are part of his art.

As well as painting, performing and 'sculpting', Bill has produced over a dozen books, some of which detail his life and art, and some of which are his art.

Again critics suggest too quickly that his work exists merely to help him promote and sell his writings, as though the two cannot be concomitant.

I don't want to sound glib, but making money and losing money are surely two of the most defining aspects of our times and Bill has already made definitive statements on both.

The methods may have changed but Bill's message arguably remains the same – accept the contradiction, within the world, within yourself.

He has always been happy to point out and play with the inherent contrariness of the world, whether it was in his role as musician, where he observed the carefully manufactured 'authenticity' of pop culture and subverted it for his own ends, or in his role as artist, when he forced a baffled and terrified art establishment to question the values they place on a piece of work.

At this stage in his career, having already enjoyed stardom, he seems to be on a genuine mission to reach out to ordinary folk.

Many of his performances these days follow a kind of 'small is beautiful' ethos along the lines of that espoused by economist/philosopher EF Schumacher.

The works themselves may only be seen by a small handful of people, but for that reason they may impact more genuinely, more effectively.

It is almost as though he has embarked upon a process of gift-giving – the cakes, the soup, the daffodils, shoe shining, window cleaning – and this from a man who was once vilified by a stunned public for 'wasting' a million pounds that could have been given to 'good causes'.


Or his artistic expression of the nature of things – not black, not white but Drummond's International Grey.

I questioned him on some of his recent and seemingly incongruous statements – that art galleries should not be publicly funded, that they should not be free but charge admission; and that anyone can be an artist, regardless of status or talent.

"If anyone can be an artist, and thereby create art anywhere, why would people want to pay to enter a gallery?" I ask.

Bill considers, admitting "well, firstly I can't say I've thought it all through completely, but you see..." and goes on to point out that although galleries are currently free and paid for by the taxpayer for the enjoyment of everyone, it isn't everyone who comes.

It's only a small elite crowd of people who visit.

And so if this dedicated few are going to attend anyway, why not charge them – drawing analogy here with how much people are prepared to pay to watch a football game – and save the taxpayers money to be better spent elsewhere, for everybody?

It's a fair argument, particularly when you consider that at the same time as Bill is showing in Digbeth we have art establishment darling Grayson Perry with a three month exhibition at Birmingham's Museum and Art Gallery – also free.

Bill himself has declined a fee from Eastside Projects, with the intention of raising the money he wants from donations and sales – an example of his strong commitment not only to hard work but also to honest work.

He tells me he used to be a carpenter in his early 20's, and that it was "the only honest trade I have ever done", no doubt in comparison to his time in the music business and now the art world.

A couple of days after the abbreviated version of The Man Who Bangs His Drum he gets in touch to say he feels bad he didn't walk the whole distance and wants to go out on another night and complete the mission.

I prod him by asking half-jokingly, "Do you feel you've betrayed the piece or is it a case of protestant guilt?"

"No guilt," he replies.

"I just want to get the job done."

It is this commitment that proves he is far from being the prankster of lore.

He is brave and open enough to come right to your front door to perform his work yet neither aggressive nor so arrogant as to believe you will necessarily understand why he is standing there.

If you don't want his cake, you don't have to take it.

He won't be offended.

His pleasure is found in the space where he is not sure what yet may happen.

His small works of imagination seem designed to delight and to supercede the question of why.

They reveal both a wonderful joy in the strange destiny of life and a practical attempt to make the most of it.

I can see the next 12 years bringing about a wider appreciation of Bill's entire output, that we will be able to see everything from KLF superstardom to cleaning windows as a singular expression of one man's journey.

Look out for him over the next three months.

He may come knocking on your door.

See also Virtual Trouser burns a million quid, posted 12/4/12.

Tony Appleby
is a writer and industrial electrician from England. We think he's bloody ace.

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