MONDO MITOMANE 1994-96
Notes on multiple name mythopoiesis as the cutting edge of psychogeography
by Luther Blissett
"From mysterious beginnings at some dimly remembered festival, Wally has since become a hippie martyr, a conspiracy theory, a name for a stupid person, and a commercial cartoon series for children. We look forward to equally bizarre developments for Luther Blissett."
Nigel Ayers, "Where's Wally?", in Transgressions # 2/3, August 1996
This piece aims at summarizing the incredibly bizarre developments of the "Luther Blissett" multiple name. It focuses on Italy and the "heroic" period 1994-96, when the name made its turbulent way into culture and the popular media. The name is now known, mentioned and adopted in various countries, yet Italy was the site of the first battles.
To tell the truth, it is not easy for English language readers to taste the flavour of such a phenomenon, since the language barrier prevents them from approaching the most of the texts and publications, let alone the press coverage. Would a British, Canadian or U.S. publisher be interested, I'd be happy to translate and edit some crucial documentation for an anthology. Otherwise, I have no intention to do such an exhausting work for free.
This article is but a chaotic overlook, a vortex of free associations. From beginnings whose mysteriousness keep fuelling a plenty of mythologies, Luther Blissett has since become a "youth subculture" trend, a psychogeographical role game, a collective phantom which journalists mention whenever they report an urban myth (the standard question which kicks off the articles is: "Is this story true or is it made up by Luther Blissett?"), and, dulcis in fundo, a cultural terrorist whose reputation has become an autonomous literary genre, a sort of Hong Kong "heroic bloodshed" movie with rumours instead of bullets, a lot of lap dissolves and dolly-outs, and perhaps Chow Yun Fat starring as Blissett.
1. A nameless, uprooted hero
It is necessary to begin by the latter aspect, i.e. a literature which involves a series of rumours, and endlessly re-tells the fake origins of the Luther Blissett project (for example, many people have been told that the project was launched by a Californian performance artist called Coleman Healy, which actually is the name of a serial killer in James Ellroy's The Big Nowhere!).
There is a plenty of versions: the most popular one, which even took the form of a book, traces the origins back to Ray Johnson, the "father of mail art" whose unexplicable suicide kicks off the first chapter of Blissett's Mind Invaders (Castelvecchi, 1995).
Other currents that "experts" deem as "forerunners" of the project are Neoism and "post-Situationism", but the media use to give distorted accounts of them: they often call "Neoism" the output of Stewart Home and Karen Eliot before and after the Art Strike 1990-93. As to "post-Situationism", such a term means nothing.
The version that I prefer is centred on Diego Gabutti and (in)directly links Luther Blissett to spaghetti-western movies.
Diego Gabutti, a former Bordiguist who writes for a Milanese newspaper, is a "fifth column" of the project, that is one of the journalists who directly take part in Blissett's scams. He was a close friend of Sergio Leone. After attending the shooting of "Once Upon A Time in America", he covered Leone's method of myth-making in a sort of diary entitled C'era una volta in America (Rizzoli, 1984).
The birth of the spaghetti-western phenomen resembles that of the Luther Blissett project: in "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964) Leone brilliantly plagiarised Kurosawa's "Yojimbo", revivifying some key mythologies and western archetypes from an extranged point of view (Walter Hill did a further work on mythology by detourning the same plot in "Last Man Standing", 1996).
In the version directed by Kurosawa, the protagonist has no name and simply refers to himself as "Yojimbo", which means "30 years old". In "A Fistful of Dollars", the same character has no name at all. In "Last Man Standing", he introduces himself as "John Smith", i.e. anybody. A nameless, uprooted hero comes to town, infiltrates two opposite gangs and destroys them by spreading rumours, telling lies, pulling tricks. Three-sided football.
According to the legend Gabutti, who had been pondering this myth for years, eventually suggested some comrades to put it into practice. Owing to this rumour, he entered the LB's pantheon as one of the "imaginary founders".
There is also a series of boring conspiracy theories by which some inept leftists and pro-situs try to slander the "founders" of the project. According to them, Luther Blissett is either an attempt at infiltrating the "Movement" with far-right theories and positions (because of the Avant-Bard and the détournement of Celtic imagery) or a gang of skillful recuperators who undersell "antagonism" to class enemies. It goes without saying that these rumours, far from doing any harm, ended by playing into Blissett's hands.[...]
On this side of the Alps nobody knows that Luther Blissett was devised as an uncontrollable golem by the so-called Transmaniacs, a Bologna-based collective of pranksters coming from the ultra-Left (cf. "Transmaniacs", in "Transgressions" #1, p.59). The previous experiments with multiple names and "open contexts" had warned them to avoid any "over-identification" either with groups or singles. Thanks to gossip and rumours which started circulating in the summer '94 (e.g. "Harry Kipper" as the first artist to adopt the name etc.), the Transmaniacs managed to make the LB project completely anonymous, indeed, impersonal. In the process, they disappeared in a way which reminds us of the self-suppression of the proletariat (Just kidding!).
Time was clearly ripe for such an experiment: it took only a few months to get media coverage on a national level, owing to a prank pulled by the Associazione Psicogeografica di Bologna on a famous TV show. As all the rumours of the previous months fell out, people all across the country were made aware that anybody could use the name of the "cultural terrorist" as a bluff-your-way guide to sabotage. Several people adopted the name and started contacting journalists telling the tallest stories about the origins of the name and its worldwide diffusion. From then on, the name became a persistent urban myth. But why has Italy been so receptive?
In Italy there's no distinction between "serious" newspapers and trashy tabloids, because politics, crime news and gossip blend in one integrated spectacle, an eternal Watergate-like improvised comedy. Likewise, peculiar events in Italian history blurred the distinctions between "serious culture" and "popular culture" long before the debate on Post-modernism, Trash culture & c.
Since 1945, conforming to the Gramscian strategy of cultural hegemony, the Partito Comunista placed the right men in such "right places" as cinema, academic circles and publishing houses. These people loosely followed the policy of the party 'til 1968, when some of them backed the new class struggle as engagés intellectuals (that is to say, as recuperators).
During the 1960's, cultural studies partially emancipated from elitist snobbery after the publication of Umberto Eco's Apocalittici e integrati, which investigated the way intellectuals would look at mass culture products (comics, TV etc.).
In the following decade, the PCI definitively sided with the state: social-democracy chose not to fill the empty spaces of "youth culture" and "alternative" behaviours, which became land of conquest for radicals.
The 1977 students' movement roused interest in "counterculture": punk and the world of zines became subjects of media investigation and cultural studies. At the same time, the military repression of the movement forced many comrades to go "underground" in the media and cultural institutions.
When Berlusconi's right-wing coalition won the election of 1994, a bunch of post-fascist "intellectuals" charged Italian culture with "leftism" ever since the Liberation, and shouted their desire for revenge. A few months later, after the fall of Berlusconi, they ended up in the trashcan of history again. Those morons were not that wrong, but this does not mean that intellectuals were subversive: to put it down simply, Hegemony (a concept that had been demolished by the failure of the traditional workers' movement and the bankrupt of the left-wing) paved the way for specific forms of recuperation, e.g. the co-optation and integration of radicals into the academic world.
What hegemony? And what recuperation? Is "recuperation" a dead end street? I don't think so, it certainly has pros and cons, different aspects, a sequence of lap dissolves between different worlds.
"Luther Blissett" started as an experiment with recuperation and the rotting corpse of Hegemony. The Transmaniacs wanted to make pop culture a guinea pig, wake up the "sleepers" in the media and inoculate the collective imagery with the legend of a RobinHood-like character.
The experiment went beyond any expectation, "Luther Blissett" increased its popularity playing in advance with the mythopoietic potential of the media, and became a psychogeographical role game played by a "multiple single", the Homo Gemeinwesen (J. Camatte).
2. Seditious rallies
"Radio Blissett" was broadcasted in Bologna from autumn '94 to springtime '96, by the Associazione Psicogeografica di Bologna, whose members are all named "Luther Blissett". It was a night psychogeographical show on two local left-wing radio stations (Radio K Centrale and Radio Città del Capo). It implied the interaction of the audience. An article which described the show appeared on the frontpage of one of the most important newspapers, "La Stampa", on February 3rd 1995. It was written by "participant observation" of the reporter, who had adopted the multiple name and taken part to the night drift. Here is an extract:
THE "RADIO BLISSETT" ASSAULT
by Gabriele Romagnoli
BOLOGNA. It is midnight twenty-eight, Luther lays on the table a city map and puts down a black permanent marker. One minute later the guys and girls leave the basement and drive away. He greets them, makes sure that the phone lines work, chooses the first record and waits. At half past midnight he switches on the microphone and says:
- It's wednesday night again on RCdC, and this is Luther Blissett talking to you one more time. The Luther Blissett patrols are already running adrift, the psychogeographical trip is beginning. Gimme your emotions so that I can make it, make me change my courses, make me draw a route which I've never imagined, follow me now. Let me take you down in the subways, let me lead you all along the streets, let's open up the districts so that they cease to be our prisons, help me doing violence to this city to prevent the city from doing violence to us.
His voice flies over the roofs of the drowsy Bologna. Now the city is not dreaming, eating, studying, dancing: it's listening. Students from other towns crouch down in their high-rent hovels, listening. Garage bands lay the instruments down and have a drink, listening. Girls and boys ride over their bikes listening the program by headphones, so that they can reach the places which Luther is pointing out They all listen to that voice saying:
- Here calls the first drifting patrol...Where are you now?
From the other end, a voice answers:
- We're in the Fiera District, one of the navels of Bologna...Actually we're near the towers planned by architect Kenzo Tange, and I can see the future rolling by, I realize what this zone shall become according to the Benevolo project, with many tapis roulants between the buildings and people walking on them, people who no longer control their own steps and don't want to look at their feet, so they look at those cathedrals standing out against the sky...
From the studio Luther replies:
- Why don't you light a bonfire in the square and surround it with bills as if you were workers holding a demo to block the yards? Why don't you give off psychic power to stop the decay of this territory?
It is said that actions of this kind succeed, at least sometimes. Last week Luther led a "psychic attack" against the Ricardo Bofill's project for a new railway station, and now he proudly reports the blaze of the plastic model in the Bofill's study. He marks with two circles the station and the Fiera District, then joins them: the trip has really begun. The rest of the drift is an interaction between the suggestions from the studio and the ones by the audiece. Luther says:
- Let's explore the subways. - then a 76-years-old hydraulic engineer calls. After he's been explaining for twenty minutes how to move underground, some patrols re-emerge. A patrol is near Piazza Maggiore, thus a listener invites them to shout Luther's name backwards. When the choir starts chanting "Ttessilbrehtul!", all the exiles on main street join it, they are almost thirty. Later, a feverish girl calls and tells Luther she needs aspirin, so a patrol buys the medicine and brings it to her. Then the patrols consign 12 pizzas to an American teacher who is giving a house party, and a few psychogeographers stay there 'til 2 am while Luther is sending the survivors to a new mission:
- Describe the city lights district by district. - and the car party divides. One calls:
- Bolognina district, nothing more than a dormitory, no signboards, no open windows, only blue TV halos behind the glasses.
- Navile, only banks, signboards of banks, banks everywhere.
- They're trying to turn us off, they're keeping the city dark, despoling her of all life, banishing the whores...Last year there were 140 prostitutes on the boulevards, now they've been driven away, there are only 60 of them, the moral majority is crowing over this victory, the infection is defeated, the city is clean, Not In My Backyards please...So why don't you sing a serenade to the last Nigerian girl? It isn't necessary that she understands the lyrics. You can also let her listen to the radio, I'm gonna select something Afro".
He draws a line till Porta Saragozza. The figure is getting entangled, it looks like an 8-tipped star.
- You see - he tells me - Every week we and the listeners/drifters shift the city limits and change its image [...].
This description is fit for the first series of the programme. The second one was more complex. The initial cues and clues for drifting were given by the local gossip columns and the crime news, then the urban explorers would go on by themselves. During the radio-dérives Luther Blissett would pass through areas of gentrification, crime, racist intolerance etc., meeting homonimous listeners in constant touch with the studio. S/he used to look for strange alignments of buildings, organise road-blocks, do performances, light bonfires, investigate garbage cans etc. The second series involved a potlatch (i.e. an exchange of bizarre gifts loosely related to the subject of the show) and even an actual size version of the famous Scotland Yard mystery board game, which Luther had obviously purged of any reference to the cops. Luther also drew his inspiration from the writings of the London Psychogeographical Association.
A critique of urbanism was usually expressed by such practical jokes as the "rendez-vous with nobody" (a specific form of which I described in "Ralph Rumney's Revenge", Transgressions #2/3) and the "psychic attack", a telekinetic guerrilla inspired by some actions of the Yippies and the Neoist Alliance. Acts of guerrilla-theatre took place on streets with heavy traffic, thanks to the Teatro Situazionautico "Luther Blissett", a crew of former Transmaniacs who are nuts on organising riots. Some of their performances were stopped by the police, tand they were also charged with "offence against decency".
Radio K Centrale was born of a split in Workers' Autonomy. It usually appeals to "fringe" people and ultra-left bores. Generally speaking, Radio Città del Capo appeals to the average leftist and/or "alternative" type. How could a psychogeographical programme broadcasted on those stations get so much media coverage on a national level? Simply by moving on the mythopoietical ground of the multiple name: every breath we took and every move we made would become part of the corpus of legends surrounding the concept.
In the springtime of 1995 some Roman psychogeographers started their local version of "Radio Blissett" on another leftist station, Radio Città Futura. Unlike the Bolognese programme, the Rome-based one was broadcasted on Saturday night, thus the events took place in more crowded places, either at illegal raves or in the eternal traffic jam of a big, violent city. Luther's actions and psychic attacks resulted in fascist aggressions, riots and psychogeographers under arrest.
On May 28th at 3:00 am about 70 people blocked the road in front of the Anagrafe di Stato [State Registry Office], handing out leaflets against proper nouns, then they started chanting OHM and led a collective psychic attack against the bourgeois concept of Identity.
On June 4th at the same hour, about 200 people gathered in front of the Ufficio Provinciale per il Lavoro e la Massima Occupazione [General Employment Agency], blocked the road and wrote on the walls such slogans as "NO MORE JOBS - WE ONLY WANT THE MONEY!", "WORK MAKES YOU DIE OF CANCER!", "SAY NO TO WAGEWORK!" etc. Then they led the psychic attack. A crew of the German television ZDF happened to be there and filmed the scene, which was broadcasted a few months later in the context of a report on Rome's night life.
On June 10th a Massive Psycho-Sexual Intercourse had to take place at 3:00 am in front of the Immacolata Concezione (the famous statue of the Virgin Mary). As one Luther Blissett was going to Piazza di Spagna, a bunch of nazi boneheads assaulted and nearly broke his head open. The cops who usually watch the Embassy of Spain dispersed the skins and took the comrade to the nearest hospital. At 3:45 nearly 30 people decided to have the intercourse, wrapped themselves up in a big cellophane sheet and began to kiss and caress each other. They were about to pass to a harder petting when the police came and stopped them.
On June 17th at 2:10 a listener called the studio and suggested to occupy and divert a night bus. Luther chose the line no.30 and exhorted the audience to gather at a bus stop in Piazza del Verano. At 2:55 Luther took possession of the bus with drums, confetti, drinks and ghetto blasters tuned in "Radio Blissett". The diverters bought only one ticket, because they all shared the same open identity, that of Luther Blissett. Joyful people, informed by the radio, came aboard at any stop. The driver was not as happy. Luther was in touch with the studio by a cellular phone. At 3:15 a police block forced the bus to stop in Piazza Ungheria. The feast-lovers descended and, 15 minutes later, occupied another bus on the line no.29. The cops stopped the bus again in via Guido d'Arezzo. Since the psychogeographers refused to surrender, they were assaulted by the cops and beaten with truncheons. Luther did not bear all that without reacting, and an officer was injured. At that point, a cop shot three times up in the air. The riot and the shoot-out were picked up by Luther's phone, heard in the studio and broadcasted. About 10 Luthers were taken to the police station, where they were charged with "seditious rally" and "outrage, resistance and aggression to public officer". They should be taken to court before the end of 1997 (Italian judicial proceedings are very slow).
A few days after, a commando of Roman psychogeographers adopting the multiple name staged the abduction of anthropologist Massimo Canevacci during one of his lectures at the university. They broke into the hall wearing balaklavas and pointing water pistols to the astonished students. Luther held Canevacci fast and read a pseudo-terrorist statement, then the teacher was dragged to the students' bar and forced to offer cups of coffee. Canevacci became curious of the anthropological implications of the prank when he found out that his students had not quitted the hall after the kidnapping: they had stupidly kept watching the empty desk, waiting for something.
In the autumn 1995 an episode of multiple name mythopoiesis resulted from an assault on David Bornigia in the Roman countryside. David Bornigia is the son and working partner of the most rich owner of night clubs and discos in the capital. In 1996 the rave-olutionary phenomenon had reached the apex of glory: ravers used to occupy deserted factories, which were quitted at dawn so that the cops would weigh all the pros and cons and decide not to disperse the dancing crowd. Raves began to appeal even upper-middle class types, doing legal clubs commercial damage. Bornigia Sr. became frontman of a campaign against the organisers of illegal parties, whom he described as "tax evaders" and "drug pushers". One night Bornigia Jr. and his wife returned to their country-house at about ten miles' distance from Rome. Bornigia stopped the car in the alley and get out in order to open the gate. Suddenly three men wearing black clothes and balaklavas jumped out of a bush and gave him a furious caning. Most likely it was an ordinary attempt at kidnapping him. The wife in the car shouted and hooted 'til the aggressors ran away. The day after Bornigia Sr. held a press conference and absurdly explained the assault as an act of retaliation by the ravers. Since Luther Blissett had frequently been linked to that scene, that innuendo turned into the legend that Blissett had beaten up Bornigia.
The Rome-based Luthers provided the project with many radical actions, thrilling mythologies and brilliant writings. Without their activities, "Luther Blissett" would have remained a monopoly of northern Italy. When they took the torch of psychic warfare, Bologna and Venetia Julia ceased to be the only forefronts. After that, like Kaiser Soze in Brian Synger's "The Usual Suspects", they disappeared.
3. To be continued
In the course of 1996 Luther Blissett got the widest circulation as a collective phantom. Since Transgressions is a "journal of urban exploration", I have avoided dealing with the manifold diffusion of the name by 'zine-making and self-publishing, mail art and networking culture, media pranks and bizarre politics, videomaking, music, litterature etc. I have also avoided going deep into Blissett's theoretical contribution to psychogeography, "guerrilla anthropology" and the radical critique of culture, let alone the gender and racial implications of a multiple identity context. What I have tried to do is simply giving good examples of how the manipulation of urban myths, rumours and conspiracy theories can be connected to the transgression of the geographies of daily life, by means of a multiple name concept. The radio proved to be the most useful media, and the Internet answered the need too.
Blissett's communication strategies happened to recall both the way some serial killers pass through the city scattering signs, staging enigmas, leaving code messages etc. and the way myths of rebels and outlaws like Robin Hood, Billy The Kid and the likes modified the social perception of sites and territories.
It cannot be a coincidental occurence that most of the people adopting the multiple name fanatically devour and quote crime & mystery stories (especially James Ellroy, a skillful manipulator of pop mythologies as well as a maniac re-mapper of urban spaces) and comics (Frank Miller being apparently the favourite author). However this may just be another rumour like the Gabutti-Leone connection.
The retroactive conspiracy is going on. The "collective phantom" is out there, stalking the im/material lands of the big anywhere. Soon Italy shall cease to be the omphalos of the project. While Britain was the country whose radical scene affected the early development of our semiotic guerrilla, I am looking forward to Germany as the next forefront for this kind of subversive pranking. However the Pacific Rim is the future, and it looks so bright that I gotta wear shades. That's where we should address our efforts.