Let the Mice In: Art, music, improvisation and language as a virus
The artist Stefan Brüggemann, who lives in Mexico City and London, labors in the mines of language. For more than 20 years, his painting, sculpture and installation work have revolved around the meaning and mystery of human communication, fragments of which he seeks out and saves obsessively, repurposing them into visual experience. In a 2003 conversation, Brüggemann told the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, ‘Sometimes I tear things out of magazines, or I might be at the theater or a friend’s house and see something there that might be useful. Then I put these cuttings on blank pages in my studio. I think it’s an obsession that is based on a need for information. Perhaps it is very superficial information, but it is information all the same.’
Iggy Pop, the punk pioneer, has spoken often of his lyrical debt to renegade postmodern writers like William S. Burroughs, who ripped into the surface of language to expose its underlying mechanisms of power and control. Last fall, Brüggemann, 44, and Pop, 72, came together for the first time in Miami, where Pop lives, for the purpose of an unusual recording session in which Pop lent his sepulchral baritone to pieces of text from Brüggemann’s work, giving voice to the works by reading them aloud; portions of the recordings were then played in the exhibition space for Brüggemann’s show ‘Hyper-Palimpsest’ at Hauser & Wirth, London (February 27–April 27, 2019). From September 4 through September 29, 2019, as part of the Centre Pompidou’s third annual Extra! literary festival in Paris, the collaboration between Brüggemann and Pop will resonate once more, in a version to accompany the exhibition of a monumental new Brüggemann painting, Headlines and Last Lines in the Movies (Guernica), a two-sided text-based work designed to the same specifications as Picasso’s masterpiece, on display along with another piece composed of posters affixed directly to the museum’s walls. Pop recently appeared in Jim Jarmusch’s new zombie-movie homage, The Dead Don’t Die (as an undead version of himself). In October, Penguin Random House will publish ’Til Wrong Feels Right, a collection of his lyrics, along with essays, notes and rare photographs. His most recent tour, through Europe and Australia, wrapped up in July 2019. Mathieu Copeland: Iggy, your energy and your voice were perfect for the reading of Stefan’s statements, which were, in some ways, inspired and informed by what you’ve done with lyrics. Iggy Pop: I enjoyed reading the material. I didn’t dwell on it, but I came to understand it by the time we started. So after that, there’s not much you can do except to get over that museum feeling, if you know what I mean. Stefan Brüggemann: Exactly!
IP: That’s always a problem. MC: Indeed, why do we expect silence in a museum? SB: It’s like going into a church—you have to be silent and only whisper. IP: There’s also always the classic gallery hostess who’s placed at the front of the gallery to intimidate you and make you speak really quietly. Your balls shiver up into your neck if your voice rises an octave. SB: [Laughs] Do you enjoy going to art exhibitions? IP: I do. Some of them. In the ’70s, I used to hang out at the National Portrait Gallery in London. In those days, I could walk in and be the only person. There was a time in the late ’80s, early ’90s, when I could go into a contemporary art, modern art or an Old Master exhibition at Sotheby’s or Christie’s and, again, I would be the only one in the room. I could have my nose two feet from a Renoir, all alone. It was so interesting to see the way that commerce came into how they placed things. I remember the day that they finally let Basquiat into one of the contemporary exhibitions, but they put him at the top of the stairwell, not in the room. As you walked up, you saw him, but he wasn’t in the room. Andy was in the room.
‘[I use] the last lines of dramatic films and the headlines from the day’s newspaper. For me, the work is about how society is being shaped unconsciously, how those statements influence us … Even if we try to be free and opinionated, we are already being so manipulated.’—Stefan Brüggemann
SB: Did you ever meet Basquiat? IP: I only met him once. I was at dinner with David Bowie and a large group of people—some of them record-business people—in a restaurant in a penthouse overlooking Central Park, called Nirvana. We sat down, and I had the menu, and suddenly this large dark figure lurched over my shoulder and poured a large amount of marijuana onto my plate and didn’t say anything. It was about, like, half a kilo. And then he left! SB: It was your salad! MC: An offering to the gods.
IP: Somebody said [stage whispers], ‘That was Basquiat—he likes your music.’ I never spoke to him. I knew who he was. In those years, you’d see his stuff all over, his tag SAMO© and those statements that he wrote all over the streets, in Manhattan. SB: Did you relate to his art then? IP: I was painting in a similar vein in the ’70s, except not nearly as well. Basquiat is half Haitian. I started getting interested in Haitian art in the ’70s, and later, when I could, I started buying it. I’ve got a painting by Hector Hyppolite [1894–1948], three by Edouard Duval-Carrié [born 1954], and a lot by André Pierre [1914–2005], who was a Vodou priest. There is a lot of commonalty between the depths of what Hyppolite got, the spell of it, and Basquiat. Although Basquiat is bringing in Dubuffet and a whole lot of other influences that you can see. MC: André Breton was extremely appreciative of Hyppolite, whose work he discovered in 1945 in Port-au-Prince, on a trip with Wifredo Lam, the Cuban painter. The two of them began to buy his work. The infamous 1947 International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris featured several Hyppolite paintings. His work should be better known. IP: I got my Hyppolite from Geoffrey Holder, the Broadway dancer and actor. He was in that James Bond movie Live and Let Die, where he played a character based on the Baron Samedi, the Haitian spirit of the dead and guardian of cemeteries with, you know, the top hat and the bad teeth. Holder had a really nice collection that he sold when he got very old. I also got my three Duval-Carrié pieces from him. I got a lot of that stuff all at once, and then I got a few good things from Brion Gysin [the Canadian-English writer and artist best known for his development of the Cut-Up Method of chance word composition, a major influence on Burroughs]. MC: Did you know Gysin well? IP: He used to come snort coke with me from time to time. He was an old roué, but he would always bother to wear the blue blazer with the three gold buttons and the nice pair of khaki pants and comb his hair properly. I loved guys like that, who were totally relaxed around whores and drugs, around all types of behavior, and yet they would always behave properly, so to speak, and that put me at ease. MC: Did you discuss cut-ups or Gysin’s other writing techniques? IP: He didn’t really say much about that. But he gave me one of his books, called Brion Gysin Let the Mice In, that elaborated on the idea of just letting the words talk—and that language is a virus. SB: A contaminant! IP: There were so many unbelievable ideas. If you look in some of the old Burroughs books, in The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express, he delves into the Middle Eastern tradition of assassination. Which is basically how certain people operate now! For Burroughs, it was the figure of Hassan i Sabbah [c. 1050–1124 CE, founder of the breakaway Nizari Ismaili state in the mountains of Persia and Syria], who would tell young men, ‘If you go assassinate so and so for me, you’ll live in paradise and have a virgin and hashish every day.’ Burroughs also had this idea of do-it-yourself borders—like, ‘What is with this damned border shit anyway? All you do is you get a trailer and put it by the side of the road and have a couple of guys in it with machine guns, and you’ve got a border!’ And of course now, that’s come to pass in a lot of places. MC: The reason I was asking you about cut-ups is that you’ve often spoken about how, for a time, you were writing your lyrics with 25 words or less and about how you were influenced by speeches on TV and advertisements and— IP: Jingles! Jingles were really important! MC: I think there is a nice parallel to be made with Stefan’s very simple and to-the-point statements. IP: Yeah, I’ve thought about this. There is a similarity between Stefan’s text messages and how I title songs. I try to give the song a title that, in itself, can walk around and become its own little song without any of the music or words or anything. SB: That’s beautiful.
IP: That’s something I try to do more with the rock stuff. It usually has to connect to some feeling, some motivation I have. When I was young, I would often get them from Time magazine. Like ‘Search and Destroy,’ ‘Raw Power.’ I just nicked them out of Time and put them in a pure context without thinking about wars or anything. Something like ‘Cold Metal’ is more descriptive. SB: I have another body of work, called Headlines and Last Lines in the Movies, that I spray-paint on the wall, like handwriting. IP: The last line from a movie? SB: The last lines of dramatic films and the headlines from the day’s newspaper. For me, the work is about how society is being shaped unconsciously, how those statements influence us. And then how that noise becomes abstract. Even if we try to be free and opinionated, we are already being so manipulated. It’s a very existential work. For me, it is important as a way to get an imprint of our present, like what you’re saying—how you were a sponge, reacting to a context at a specific moment.
‘Somebody gave me a book on Artaud—it might have been Nico—that talked about the ideas behind the Theatre of Cruelty. I just kind of intuited it. I—this Midwestern kid barely out of my teens—took that ball and ran with it in my own direction.’—Iggy Pop
IP: In America, where there are big balls of activity and so much money and insecurity, as soon as anybody starts their day, they think of their own lives in headlines: ‘I Am Driving the Car!’ SB: It’s true. IP: I obviously do that when I work live. They asked John Wayne once, ‘You’re six foot four—why do you wear three-inch cowboy heels?’ [Impersonates Wayne] He said, ‘’Cause I want them to be thinking about John Wayne.’ So when I appear somewhere, the first message is ‘Here comes Iggy!’ ‘I am fucking Iggy!’ ‘Iggy, Iggy, Iggy!’ And at the end, it’s like, ‘You just saw Iggy.’ Unfortunately, that doesn’t leave room for a lot of other nice nuances, but you can get them in the door with it, hopefully. I think everybody is forced to scream a little bit, which is not always wonderful. Andy Warhol told me in 1970 that I should… [impersonates Warhol] ‘just buy a newspaper, and whatever it says in the newspaper, sing that, and that should be your record!’ MC: Such a beautiful idea. John Giorno’s first collection of poetry from 1964 [The American Book of the Dead] consisted of just that, appropriating texts from newspapers. He never sang them, though.
SB: There’s also this idea of immediacy. In capitalist society, we are constantly looking for a kind of present-future. Speculation is a part of that. It’s very difficult to stop that race, to stop chasing it. Did you ever have idealism about changing the world? IP: Who me, personally? No, never. Well, when I was around 12 years old, I believed all these wonderful things they told us about what America was supposed to mean, the freedom and these great things. On the other hand, I noticed that some people were always on top, and some people always at the bottom. When I started to get a little idealistic, and then Kennedy got shot, I thought, ‘Oh…’ SB: You thought, ‘I’d better be careful!’ IP: At the time, I actually thought that I might go into politics. I went to something in Michigan called Boys State. They have that in every state. It is a program where young men—young women were not invited at that time—who were interested in going into government would put together a mock government of the state for one day. I went, and we were lectured at by this professional, Irish, military, histrionic public speaker who was supposedly skilled in making young men feel that they had to be patriotic and fight and die for their country. He was so over-the-top. And I thought, ‘This is some bullshit.’ He turned me right off. For many years, I hardly even knew who the president was. I just didn’t want to know about that. SB: You obliterated it. IP: I just wanted to live my music life and be. SB: But the power of music reaches so many people. You have a lot of power in sending a message, especially to the youth. IP: It’s an interesting thought. When I started in rock, it was a fascinating challenge because nobody started out being any good at it, or sounding good. You just started out wanting to. At the same time, you also wanted people to accept and participate in what you were doing. It’s a very interesting puzzle for those first five or ten years as to how you’re going to make something that’s interesting and exciting and that you like, and yet for others to accept it, too. It’s a genuinely exciting challenge in and of itself. It takes time for all practitioners, and then finally maybe you get to something. SB: When you are producing content, there is a moment for it to make sense. And you are waiting until it makes sense. IP: That’s a good point. SB: You may do something when you are young that makes sense only when you are 50. IP: Especially to other people. SB: To others, and to you. IP: And your perspective changes. SB: It’s very interesting how we think that, chronologically, time travels in a straight line, yet it is more abstract. That is very challenging in producing content.
MC: Talking about the past, you often mentioned that Charlotte Moorman was an influence for you. IP: More the idea of what she did, when I heard about it. There it was: the bondage, the nudity, the confrontation of it and also the abstract nature of what it was. I heard that there was a woman playing the cello, nude, while a guy smashes a piano—that is a memorable image even when you haven’t seen it. And of course we know now that she wanted to be understood as an artist for much more than those images, but other artists would never let her into the boys’ club, which is what the art world mostly was then. SB: Resistance is always important to generate. IP: This is right. SB: You need resistance to push, challenge and fight. It creates energy. When everything is open, there is nothing to break into. IP: That’s true. There was a Japanese guru, George Ohsawa, who said that was what Jesus meant by saying love your enemy. Love your enemy because, by opposing you and threatening you, these are the people who are going to make you really creative and strong and keep you in check. That’s one step further than resistance. SB: Have you ever felt that way? IP: Oh yeah! My whole career. I still get it depending on where I am. If I play something that is more general public, I still get a little. Or if I go to L.A., they say: ‘We still remember what you did with the razor blades. We haven’t forgotten!’ [During a 1974 performance at Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco on the Sunset Strip, Pop infamously carved an ‘x’ into his chest, bloodying himself.] MC: You were pushing Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty in a direction he could have only dreamed about. IP: I didn’t know what he meant. Somebody gave me a book on Artaud—it might have been Nico—that talked about the ideas behind the Theatre of Cruelty. I just kind of intuited it. I—this Midwestern kid barely out of my teens—took that ball and ran with it in my own direction. I had noticed already that there were several popular assholes in my business, in rock ’n’ roll, and people seemed to like to be totally assholed by these assholes. So I thought, ‘Okay, this seems to be a theme. Let’s find a vein to open.’ It wasn’t really gonna work stabbing the audience, but I could stab myself a little bit ’cause my body’s mine. I thought that would be okay, but people didn’t think so. People were like, ‘What the fuck!?’ The sight of blood is a good stimulant for any crowd. I was aware of that early on. I don’t really try for that anymore.
MC: To what extent was an action like that planned? Or was it improvised? IP: What I’ve always done, since I started, was that for any performance, there had to be some form of blocking. You block the areas, and then you allow the rest to happen. Early on, that was about the music, too. We didn’t really have songs. We had riffs. We knew three or four riffs, so I would tell the guys, ‘Okay, you play riff one, and when I give a certain hand signal, switch to riff two, and after a certain signal, switch to riff three.’ So I knew it was going to go from this musical ambiance to this one to another one. There is your building block. I knew that I was going to be barefoot, wearing very little clothing, and when I started out, I was wearing white face makeup. Some nights I would use a boat emergency horn and blow it just to scare everybody; some nights I would use a megaphone; some nights I would bring a pie and throw it at the audience. Some nights I wouldn’t do any of those things. It just depended on the night. And I would have a name for each song in my head, but when I played the songs, I would improvise. I am pretty quick, mentally, with words. I would free form and just make up some rhymes. But now, I’m older and more calcified and more in the big time, so I know the set list—I always know the music and what order—and I block it out. In other words, if you see me do ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ three different nights over a five-year period, you’re going to notice that I work a certain amount of time all-stage. I go to the mic for the first verse and maybe part of the first chorus, and then you’ll see me work left, work right, work left, work right, work front, work back, and have some sort of idea where I want to be when I end it. And then within that, I just do what I feel like. SB: As an artist, I see not being trapped in a body of work and able to get out of it and back again as real freedom. When people recognize me for a certain body of work, I change and do something else. It’s like having a piece of plasticine that you are molding over and over again, and not just repeating the same form. It’s always an act of freedom. That freedom in art is a joy to see. IP: That’s one reason I’m doing this. I do rock stuff, but I also like to do voice-over, things that other people wrote. I recently released an EP [Teatime Dub Encounters] where I just improv with the electronic band Underworld. Some people like it, and other people, well…Americans are like: ‘You can’t get away with that shit! You didn’t even think about it!’ But the English like it. Because they like a good laugh.