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Cultural Assailant

From East London to Zona Leste, in 2004, Stewart Home visited São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. What follows is a recorded journey through the avenidas of São Paulo, translated for the first time.

Stewart Home with Álvaro, Barcinski and Paulão of radio station Brasil 2000, São Paulo.

Diego Assis for Folha de São Paulo
Translation by Zan Stevens (and Andrew Stevens)

Appearing between the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, influenced by the main avant-gardes of the 20th century, Neoism has as one of its main characteristics the use of plagiarism and multiple author names.

“We affirm that plagiarism is the true modern artistic method. Plagiarism is the artistic crime against property. It is theft, and, in western society, the theft is a political act.” says one of the movement’s manifestos, recycling the détournement of Guy Debord.

One of the main methods of the artists of this lineage consists of the self-appropriation of its own history of art to create a new meaning for what is considered a dead past. Between the members of Neoism — or their collective identities — includes names like John Berndt, Luther Blissett, Monty Cantsin, tENTATIVELY cONVENIENCE and Karen Eliot, the latter being one of the best-known pseudonyms of Stewart Home himself.

Musician, video-maker, novelist, journalist, critic and, ultimately, artist, Stewart Home (or Karen Eliot, Monty Cantsin, Luther Blissett, you choose) is a direct product of English punk in the late 1970s.

The idea that anyone could form a band, the DIY maxim which prevailed during that era, Home added the idea that “anyone can become an artist”. “Basically, if you know the cultural power that what you do is art then that becomes art.” explains Home. “There are two ways to make it as an artist: one is to knock on the door of a commercial art gallery and ask them to invest in you, to put you in group shows, give you solo exhibitions, pay critics to write about your work, while you concentrate on producing objects to sell. The other is the back door through the library and the archive, the longer, slower but surer route taken by the avant-garde, which always historicised itself and only after this ever found critical admirers from outside its immediate circle.”


Being familiar with Italian left-wing texts, as well as Dutch and German Communists, he decided to “try” his theory by promoting a truthful assault on dominant culture, becoming part of a movement that in his own words was a “prefix and a suffix without context”, Neoism. It is necessary to be harder against the state without losing humour:

“The aim is to create a situation where everyone can realise all aspects of their humanity, that is emotionally, physically, intellectually; what Marx calls species being; and for me humour is also an integral part of this, the revolution will be fun or it will not be at all.”

In this way through his magazine Smile, he enabled the propagation of Neoist manifestos, Apartment Festivals, and mainly his Art Strike, the idea that deliberately “stole” from Gustav Metzger and suggested to the artistic community of London that they cease producing art for a period of three years between 1990 and 1993.

Even then, the impact was limited — Home himself says today that he didn’t believe that the cessation was to take place — it had remained as part of his own “oeuvre”, his own texts that criticised or defended the proposal in underground publications at the time.

His writings are now published in Brazil by Conrad Publishing, which, in 1999, had already published his best-known book, The Assault on Culture, a critical summary of the principal 20th-century avant-gardes which helped to influence Neoism.

Its reputation is that, with over 15,000 editions sold in England, it is considered Home’s “best-seller”, and is regarded as the bible for a diverse range of young artists and anti-globalisation activists. “There are people who tell me that some dissertations of masters’ students, usually art students, are hardcore plagiarisms of my texts. They probably have better things to do than to worry about writing silly dissertations.” he argues.

Cunt“, his most recent novel, is also be published by Pressa publishing, translated by Graziela Kunsch. The novel, constructed from plagiarism and repetition of sex scenes, tells the story of a man searching for the first 1,000 women of his sex life.

To quote one of the slogans of the Neoists that “the dead weight of history oppresses with more efficiency than the most of reactionary of politicians could even imagine in their dreams of bureaucratic perfection”, we tried to confront the radical Stewart Home with contemporary São Paulo architecture such as the Tomie Ohtake Institute.

Impressed with the modern forms and the purple frontage of Ruy Ohtake’s design, Home proclaims: “Capitalism has to address real issues — but it provides false solutions to them. I prefer beauty to bureaucratic lies, and what is this if not beautiful?”

His excitement abated when Home was told that the building was financed via R$10m from the Aché pharma-corp:

“I ask myself what is this company’s history? How much does it pollute our world? A company like this exists to make a profit, it isn’t a charity and this isn’t art it is a piece of propaganda. I’d have rather seen the money spent on this used to increase the wages of those this company employs.” he exclaims.

Away from any possible definition of monumental scale, well-hidden and lost in the walkways of the Avenida Paulista, a wooden crate was what most caught the English Neoist’s attention in his tour of the city. Left in place for weeks at the intersection of Minister Rocha Azevedo and Father João Manoel streets, the installation made by an anonymous artist simulating the captivity of a doll in chains and an array of graffiti inside, such as “corruption”, “massacre” and “kidnap”. But the exposure of the installation to rain and the public’s humour rendered what remained of the work was simply a wooden crate, now graffitied and “vandalised” by the public.

“It would have been fabulous to see this before it was partially destroyed. But that’s the way of the world; if you put art in the street it won’t last unless it’s something monumental, and if it’s constructed from a material and in a way that will ensure it will last then it’s just a totalitarian imposition on other people’s lives. Culture has to remake itself continually, go with the urban flow, single cultural artefacts shouldn’t permanently occupy space in a city.”

In the eighties, London was invaded by manifestos preaching the destruction of institutions of art sustained by capitalism. The work of the Neoists, the group updated the caustic humour of avant-gardes such as the Dadaists and the Surrealists for modern times.

While in São Paulo to give a talk regarding ‘1001 Ways to re-stage the death of the avant-garde’, Stewart Home, one of the exponents of this movement, accepted an invitation for a walk through the city’s artistic landmarks. Capitalist by definition?

“I don’t like this. It looks like it’s going to collapse.”, chides Home when examining the traditionalist ‘Monumento às Bandeiras’, of Victor Brecheret (1894-1955). When informed of the nationalist connotations of the pre-modernist monument, he exclaims: “It’s all overtly symbolic, trying to show a heroic message, but it’s so heavy that it can sink trying.”

A committed Communist — “but not a Bolshevik!” — Home didn’t swallow the power relations suggested by the monument that, theoretically, should show the union between the natives and colonisers. “Those guys on horses while the others are pushing the boat? That doesn’t work for me.”

Museum of Art of São Paulo

Our tour continues in the direction of the Avenida Paulista, the financial heart of the city, the most opulent capital of South America. An obligatory must-see is MASP (the Museum of Art of São Paulo), designed by Lina Bo Bardi (1914-1992) and founded by Assis Chateaubriand, the media magnate of São Paulo elite society during its industrial heyday.

“You can understand that the elite keep the best buildings for themselves”, he says. But, compared to the previous stops, it is this which chimes best with our accidental tourist’s idea of aesthetics: “This is modernism. You can see the elevation between the columns. I like these red columns and the idea of creating a public space under them.” he remarks, referring to the space in the building where hundreds of people visit its weekend antiquities market.

So, finally a good place for Home’s work to be shown? “Yes. I wouldn’t mind transporting the whole building to the centre of London, so I could live inside it! That would be great, wouldn’t it?” he laughs.

The Copan Building

After hours of intellectual torture for a genuine Neoist (“Life starts when history ends.” says one of his slogans), the tour finishes at another postcard location that, definitively, Home sees no problem to make his own: the Copan building, visualised by one of the most radical Brazilian artists and defenders of Communism, the architect Oscar Niemeyer:

“Fantastic! Those curves are great. This is how people should live in big cities. When you live in a block of flats, you can have interaction with your neighbours which doesn’t happen when you live in a house. Beautiful, isn’t it? I think that every building should be like this.”

And thus São Paulo spoke his own language.


Zan Stevens is editora of 3:AM Brasil and grew up in São Paulo.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 13th, 2007.