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Gee Vaucher, anarchist artist, Crass


On the twin occasion of a major retrospective of her work over 50 years and the surprising appearance yesterday of one of her pieces as the full front page of a national British newspaper, I thought I would share some of the short essay I have written about Gee Vaucher for the exhibition catalogue. It’s quite a week for this artist: Daily Mirror front page and a global viral image yesterday, and the exhibition opening this evening. My catalogue essay is entitled ‘Gee Vaucher’s punk painting as record sleeve’, and here I discuss her (in)famous inside poster image for the 1980 ‘Bloody revolutions’ single.  The other contributors are Vaucher herself, Penny Rimbaud, Patricia Allmer, John Sears, Rebecca Binns, Yuval Etgar, Martina Groß, and editor Stevphen Shukaitis.


The black and white streetscape is the now familiar one of contemporary urban dystopia—deprivation in the cracked walls and pavements, a badly boarded-up shop front, a glimpse of suburbia (house number 84, as in the year) where a uniformed officer is engaged in a violent struggle with a man, anarchist and pop graffiti on the walls, an advertising billboard with its image of female sexual promise. Competing slogans: ‘Underneath they’re all lovable’ from the lingerie ad, then Crass’s stencilled and logo’d challenge: ‘WHO DO THEY THINK THEY’RE FOOLING; YOU?’

Crass Pistols reworkingAs is the nature with much propaganda (OK, discuss….) there’s something a little obvious in the punk/world leader doubleness—a set of single-hit visual puns presented to the viewer with the expectation that a double-take will be generated, consensus temporarily disturbed. Juxtapose to deconstruct: Sid Vicious’s body with Queen Elizabeth’s head, guitarist Steve Jones headed up by Pope John Paul II, that sort of thing. But when you look at the figure on the right, it’s altogether more interesting, because politically complex. Blonde on blond: the radical right-wing Prime Minister’s head on Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten’s body. And vice versa.

It’s all in the hair! Dyed blonde on dyed blond. Two radicals moving in one space, each wrapped in a Union Jack while changing the nation. It was the political consensus of many early punks—and almost everyone on the left—that, unlike the Rotten figure here, Thatcher didn’t need to wear a DESTROY t-shirt, for she was the arch-destroyer. She had a safety-pin in her handbag. In this brilliant moment from Vaucher’s brush, Thatcher and Rotten are a united/twinned pair of blond/e bombshells, ‘potential H-bombs’. A troubling union—wonderfully provocative anarchist art. Shooting at both sides….

Crass were missionaries, from some other place (Epping, or the Sixties, maybe), and Vaucher with record cover art like The Feeding of the Five Thousand and ‘Bloody revolutions’, made punk a much more interesting, complex, contradictory culture, or belief. I mean, what was it Patti Smith said (apart from ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine’, which Crass also reworked)? ‘If you want to see where the world’s been, just look through some old album covers’. Sound visual historicising, that.

Gee Vaucher’s exhibition, Introspective, is at the Firstsite Gallery, Colchester, 12 November 2016-19 February 2017. Information here.

Academic Music protest Publication

4WORD: AN.OK4U2@32+1984

UEA Barn, Norwich, 1979

A new collection of essays about anarcho-punk has just been published by Minor Compositions, a series from Autonomedia: Mike Dines and Matt Worley, eds. The Aesthetic of Our Anger: Anarcho-Punk, Politics and Music (2016). The entire book is open access (i.e. freely available) here, but you can also read my short preface to the book by clicking the link below. This extract is taken from the preface (the original poster for the Norwich concert described is right. Yes, I still have it. I found it a year ago, folded neatly in the box set of Crass’s Christ: The Album, as we were packing up our house in preparation for moving south, to, well, back to Norwich after 30  years away. Note that Crass weren’t even advertised to be playing that night).

‘That first time in Norwich, Crass and Poison Girls were astonishing, not just to me, but to all the punks who knew about the gig and had turned up, the more so because the bands were so casual about it, wandering around the half-empty hall before and after playing, wanting us, waiting for us, to talk to them. They were out front drinking tea – I’d never ever seen bands doing that at the end of a gig before. Music was material to them, and they showed that; the performance was an object, clearly delineated, which they involved themselves in and then exited. Music happened for a while and then it didn’t happen. The bands extended the performance entirely and indefinitely, to include the pre- and post-show, the setting up of the PA, the draping of flags and banners and subsequent transformation of the hall, Crass in their problematically paramilitary black garb and red armbands, the sexy sexless women. Either way I was totally intimidated, and deeply attracted. Here were people doing exactly what I thought punk should do, be a force.’

This was me, an eighteen-year-old punk in 1979, having his anxieties that maybe punk wasn’t going to change the world (for the better) after all put on hold for a couple of more years. I’m uncertain how powerfully the sensation lasted. (Occasionally, yes, I can still express that sentence today as: I’m uncertain how powerfully the sensation has lasted.) It was the laying out and laying bare of ideals, culture and event presented in a total package that I fell for in that old barn that night. Nine or ten months later, the same bands played a small hall in Suffolk, a benefit gig for local peace groups. There were clashes in the sleepy market town between outsider punks and local bikers, and the bikers circulated around the hall brandishing chains waiting for lone punks to attack.

aesthetic-of-anger-front-cover‘Plenty of people in the crowd – me included – aren’t interested in this at all; we want to see the bands, experience the whole Crass & Poison Girls trip, that sensurround gig of music, TVs, banners, flags, uniforms, wrapped in an unpretentious delivery of the mundane. Disapproving comments are shared as we try to reassure one another, there are sneers at this new mods-and-rockers-style moment, this isn’t punk, we’re here for a pacifist benefit. The transformed church hall is made a site of extreme rhetoric and cultural production for two hours. But outside…’.

The open space of an anarcho-punk gig, where subcultural contestation and negotiation could sometimes take place, where self-determination and self-policing could take a while to work through, operated very poorly for me that night. Six bikers trapped me alone near the train station in the dark after the gig and taught me an unforgettable lesson about the limits of tolerance and freedom among British youth in the countryside. Welcome to anarcho-punk. Rival tribal rebel revels, indeed.

Click this link for the full preface, as well as the book cover and table of contents: mckay-4word-the-aesthetic-of-our-anger.