The return of the UK’s foremost art-pop pranksters: a live blog (Day 1)

As far as shape-shifting creative duos go, the KLF were up there – shaking things up before you even caught up with what they did last. But, after a 23-year hiatus, they’re showing that they are old dogs with a whole bunch of new tricks.

The KLF, also known as The Justified Ancients of Mumu, stole sounds from the Beatles and Abba, sneaked illegal rave culture on Top of the Pops, coined the phrase ‘stadium house’ and most notably – hijacked the 1992 Brit awards as a symbol of massacre-suicide for the entire music industry. They used and abused music and money as contestable art objects, and anticipated the work of Damien Hirst and Banksy.

Our resident writer Seb Tiley has managed to shapeshift his way into their creative utopia, where ticketholders are less the passive, adoring watchers, but actually ‘volunteers’ of the 3-day event. Stay tuned for his day-by-day record of the chaos that will ensue. [Catch part 1 here]

Part 2: ‘Why burn a million pounds?’

Tuesday morning. I have a raging fever. I think I’m speaking to someone but I’m not saying anything and I’m alone. Not a great start…

Having purchased some pretty hardcore medicine, I boarded the 6-hour coach to Liverpool. Scrolling through Twitter to try and see what was going on, there were various signs and instructions leaflets that people were posting from the venues they were using for the event. All of them rather cryptic.

“Do all hostel rooms smell the same? They do. Of course they do,” I pondered quietly to myself upon my arrival, trying not to wake the slumbering bodies strewn across the bunks. Having felt quietly triumphant at my revelation (I was still in fever-mode), I decided to head down to the Dead Perch Lounge where the main hub of the event is. Turning right onto a grubby lane just outside of Chinatown, I was greeted by this van.

Inside, I immediately found the merchandise table (lovingly created by Dead Perch Merch). I was supplied with a ‘Menu’ which left me with more questions than answers. The first page has a series of… instructions? ‘Extra creases, folds, tears [on the screenprinted posters] are special and come at no extra cost’ it reads. ‘There will be no hierarchy as to what the screen print is on: a throwaway cup will be honoured as highly as first edition poster and vice versa’, it goes on to usefully explain. All merch was priced at £20.23 (of course) and there were 2 intriguing items that will only become available after the event….

Thoroughly confused, and slightly unnerved by all this madness, I decided that the best thing for me to do would be to go to the bar. Having never been to Liverpool before, it only seemed proper to make the pilgrimage to the Cavern - and, despite how much of a tourist destination it is now, it was quite powerful being there. I also really like the Beatles. Having had probably one too many beers (the cheapest I found was £1.60) I headed back to the hostel room to gear myself up for the book stamping.

The event was announced alongside the announcement of a book they were publishing, called ‘2023’, and to kick the event off, they decided to have a book ‘stamping’ rather than a conventional signing. At 23 seconds past midnight on the 23rd August, exactly 23 years after they burnt a million pounds, the ‘Justified Ancients’ would be appearing in their ‘Ice Kream Van’ at the News From Nowhere book shop.

I wandered over and was greeted by probably around 200 people in the queue - this number quickly grew to around 500 or so. Bit mad. I dashed off to grab a bag of cans for the queue, and almost immediately we heard a wonky police siren coming down the road. It was their bloody police car or, as they named it, ‘Ford Timelord’, who is also credited on the ‘Doctorin’ the Tardis’ single (which I mentioned in the previous article). But they still hadn’t arrived.

Then, at the stroke of midnight, we heard the warped warble of some very old ice cream van chimes. And, creaking it’s way down the road, caught behind two very slow moving taxis, and being heckled at by some drunk teenage girls, the Ice Kream Van arrived, with Jimmy Cauty at the wheel and Bill Drummond in the passenger seat of the battered old Ukrainian van. They went into the bookshop and the stamping began.

I was stunned by the adulation these two merry pranksters received from people. There were t-shirts everywhere, all sorts of wild and whacky costumes, people making their own merchandise for the event. Everyone had their own story about them, either something they did together or individually. People had helped them with previous projects or dropped an E in a field in Chelmsford back in ‘89 whilst listening to them. There were people from Sweden, Australia, Sacramento, Japan and Denmark, all here for one reason. I was possibly the only person who didn’t have some sort of previous connection to the group in attendance.

Now this was the start of what seems to be a common theme of these few days. Nothing is the same, everything is slightly different, and you just don’t know what you will get. I craftily managed to wangle my way into getting two copies of the book (incredibly naughty) and was warned by the stern lady at the counter that I would ‘have to explain yourself to Bill and Jimmy’. Not wishing to incur the wrath of two Dadaists, I rather regretted my double purchase.

“Sorry Bill” I slurred when it was my turn to get the books stamped.

“I have a friend who couldn’t be here tonight and he was desperate for a copy.”

“Well, why isn’t he here then?” retorted Bill, and swiftly stamped my books. Jimmy plastered the first page with his stamps, and off I trotted, somewhat bemused.

Heading back to the Dead Perch Lounge for more beer (until it ran out), I had a flick through the book. It looks like it’s going to be a bit of a wild read. Here is an extract -

It was here, comparing experiences with the other volunteers, that I found out that they had used several different stamp designs - thus making each copy pretty much unique. Which again, is a great little touch. I also got to have a little look at one of the preview copies that was sent out to a few people. Other than a 14 page preface and a two page outro, it is completely blank - the text had been ‘embargoed’ until tonight. However the page number for ‘11’ was still there… misprint? Or does it mean something? I now question everything and don’t trust anyone. It was time to go to bed.

Waking up feeling as if I had been dredged from the riverbed of the Mersey, I stumbled into the sparsely lit shower room and desperately tried to scrub some life into me. I staggered downstairs to a bad cup of tea and some wilted cornflakes, then, after slapping myself in the face for a bit, I hauled my sorry, hungover arse down to the Dead Perch Lounge to get my wristband sorted out. Whilst getting my wrist strapped in, I was asked about the questions posted at the start of this article. ‘Pick a number’ they said. Instinctively I said ‘1’ as I consider myself to be a passable guitarist, but on a second thought, I went for ‘5’ - make-up artist. Why the fuck not?

Strolling down through Chinatown towards the next location, an arts space called Constellations, for the job allocation, the sun came out and made me feel slightly less like death. I thought I’d gotten lost in an industrial estate until I found this sign.

Upon entering, I found a Londoner I had met in the queue the night before, and sipped slowly at a warm coke until we were summoned. In a sweltering room, a silver haired man with a magnificent beard told us what was going to happen.

“Welcome, volunteers. I am your officiator.”

“You’ve made it to Liverpool. You’ve made it to Constellations. You’ve committed to three days of volunteering for a situation you know nothing about. What are you, stupid? If you are confused, you will look back on this moment as one of clarity.”

Nothing had been particularly clear thus far. He went on to try and tell us about these ‘jobs’ and about how it was all going to work. The way they allocated the jobs was via the number you selected at the wristband exchange. It also transpired that we, the volunteers, would be the band Badger Kull performing on the Friday night.

The job titles were numerous, but included 4 bass players in the band, a series of guitarists, a ‘choir’ and hardcore fans of the band. Then it all went a bit leftfield, with ‘skull painter’, ‘great north puller’, ‘grave digger’, ‘van painter’, ‘tyre collector and roller’, ‘pop up and burn down book club’, ‘standard bearer’ and ‘cone repositioner’.

I was allocated ‘make-up artist’, at which point I discovered I had been the only one to choose that at the wristband exchange, so I had an awkward and sweaty shuffle up to the stage to get my instruction card.

Could I have made a massive mistake? I sure love painting, and people’s faces are really weird, but will my amateur skills be what they want? I left the job allocation for a stroll, occasionally seeing on twitter and facebook that people were grasping this Badger Kull thing by the horns. And it dawned on me. What a fucking brilliant idea. Orchestrate something going viral within a very small group and see what happens. Most people will have no idea about what is going on.

But for us 400, we know, and understand - well, to a certain extent anyway. The walls of Liverpool are slowly being covered in Badger Kull graffiti, social media is oozing with mentions and new groups - and it will leave most people asking, ‘what the fuck is going on?’.

After a doze and a cigarette with a girl from Louisiana, I suddenly felt my phone vibrate. In response to my tweet about being the make up artist, Becci had sent me a message.

“We need to meet up! I’m the stylist!” Finally, Someone I might be able to take orders from! We chatted over twitter for a bit about what she hoped to do and I met her on the way to the next part of the event. There was something enormously reassuring about meeting someone possibly as confused as I was.

Upon arrival at the next venue, the crowd outside had reached fever-pitch. Chants and screams of ‘Badger Kull’ rang out every few seconds, people had made ‘Badger Kull’ t-shirts and signs and there are now several ‘Badger Kull’ twitter and facebook pages. I was even papped by one of the guys who runs one of them, due to him being a ‘hardcore fan’ and me being the make-up artist.

The next part of the event was a debate entitled “why did the KLF burn a million quid?” Over the years, both Drummond and Cauty have attempted to answer this when asked without much success. Either that, or they didn’t really know why they did it. Instead, they arranged an array of panelists from various backgrounds to put forward their case, and we, the audience, would vote which one was right and that would be that. Unless there wasn’t a majority vote, in which case there would be another 23 year wait until the subject was raised again.

The panel consisted of Jeremy Deller, an artist, Ann Pettifor, an economist, Tom Hodgkinson, editor of arts magazine ‘The Idler’, Annabella Pollen, an art historian, and Clive Martin, a writer for Vice, representing the millennial viewpoint. They also had people linked to the group, such as Gimpo who filmed the money being burnt and Jim Reid, who was the only other person to see it happen and subsequently wrote a brilliant article about the whole thing.

Upon entry to the Black E, which was the first community arts centre in the UK, we were handed a pound coin. This was to be used to cast our votes. The officiator from the job allocation introduced us to what was happening, and it looked to be a cross between a debate, a lecture and a trial, with a table for 6 on one side, a massive screen in the middle (emblazoned with the word ‘WHY?’) and a single desk on the other side.

Deller kicked off proceedings, comparing their antics to contemporary archeology, a sort of ritualistic cleansing process to cure the ills of society (he even dropped in a reference to the mysteries of Avebury stone circle, probably my favourite stone circle). He saw it as them believing money was a burden and that it must be destroyed, cross referencing it to the actions of the Auto-Destructive art group of post-1945, who were purposefully destructive to try and detail the impending destruction of human society. He relates their anger and frustration to the electronic music at that time - when the KLF were making their records, electronic music had been inundated with superclubs and superstar DJs. They wanted to destroy this fallacy and to do that, they had to do something outrageous.

Pettifor took a route that started on the idea that money is nothing more than a promise to pay. This makes it inherently flawed, as there will always be an asset and a liability in the relationship of money. She saw the burning as the KLF making the bank the liability - they would be the ones paying for the currency coming out.

Hodgkinson started with various anecdotes about his relationship with the duo and how he had always been interested in what they were doing. So for him, he said it made sense that they would burn a million quid. By doing so, they are ridding themselves of temptation and gluttony, and following a similar route to Lucien Freud, who, apparently whenever he was paid, would go straight to the casino and gamble it all away so he would have to work again. When you have it, you want to get rid of it as quickly as possible.

Pollen introduced us to what is almost definitely a precursor to the concept of the KLF or the K Foundation. This was the semi-druidic, quasi nomadic group of people who called themselves the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift. Their ambitions were to bring world peace, and they slowly developed a myth about themselves, praising the letter ‘K’. They sort of combined cult rituals with avant garde aesthetics, similar to what the KLF did, and they also had ritualistic burnings of expensive objects just to show the uselessness of wealth and to try and build an alternate societal status.

Martin took the stance of the youngster, who spoke from experience as a young man. Using the recent scandals of dark web card details being sold, he rightfully said that the younger generations have no respect for the concept of money - with Apple pay, contactless cards, it now means nothing to us. It has developed into a sort of abstract tokenism that doesn’t actually go anywhere. Martin believed that the KLF predicted the decreasing meaning in the value and the concept of money by burning it, and that we are now witnessing their prediction come true.

Interestingly his point tied in with Jim Reid’s article, who also discussed his experience at the abandoned boathouse on Jura. Originally, the KLF wanted to tour around the world with a million quid nailed to a frame - as Drummond put it, “money goes instantly round the world, we wanted to take it by hand, we were celebrating the end of cash”

The witnesses then gave their side of the story, and after a short interval, the voting commenced. By this point I had had an ale too many, and definitely wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have done, so I actually missed out on who was right, but I thought the concept was really interesting. Drummond and Cauty turned up to hear the verdict as well. It was a fascinating discussion, and yes, it probably was a bad idea to do it and not give it to a charity. But maybe something like that, something as brash and as outrageous as throwing a million pounds onto a fire was in some way necessary.

After a long, not normal day, I decided to call it a night. Tomorrow is bound to get weird too.

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