SMILE MAGAZINE: Collective Identities And The Mechanics Of Historicisation
by Stephen Perkins
Between March and August, 1992, the National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, presented a display entitled "SMILE: A Magazine of Multiple Origins." This display consisted of 25 issues, from the approximately 150 that were published during Smile magazine's 'heroic years' 1984-89. Emanating from Europe, North America and Australia, Smile was an 'open' publishing project that was collectively realized by over 30 editors who each published their own periodical titled Smile.
The display, organized by Simon Ford, a curator at the National Art Library, represents Smile's first official institutional recognition, as well as its formal entry into the academy's archives. In the introduction to the accompanying booklet, titled "Smile Classified," Ford addresses Smile's publishing model, "Smile magazine is based on a unique proposition: anyone can produce one! This, the object in your hand is a Smile magazine," and further on, he notes its apparent resistance to the normative structures of the library & museum, "To a certain extent to dissect, classify, attribute, date, and authorize are anti-smile activities."(1)
This paper investigates the origins of Smile, some of the strategies activated through it, the relationship of its initiator, Stewart Home, to the avant-garde movement Neoism, and the apparent paradox of an artists' periodical that was simultaneously constructed in opposition to, and for its future assimilation by, institutionalized culture.
Smile magazine's history is inextricably linked to the international Neoist Cultural Conspiracy and the English writer and cultural critic, Stewart Home. First published in 1984, Smile was the organ of Home's one-person movement, the Generation Positive. By the third issue (later that same year), Home had come into contact with the Canadian based Neoist movement, and recognizing that both were virtually identical, adopted the term 'Neoism' for his activities. Home would continue publishing Smile until the eleventh issue in 1989, just before he commenced participation in the Art Strike, 1990-1993.
The received myth of Neoism's beginnings takes place with the initial 1976 encounter in Budapest between David Zack (an American writer and correspondence artist), and István Kántor (a Hungarian medical student and aspiring pop singer). During their conversations Zack outlined his proposal for the creation of an 'open popstar,' who's name would be Monty Cantsin. A year later Kántor emigrated to Montreal and subsequently visited Zack, who was living in Portland, Oregon. This visit confirmed Kántor's new identity as Monty Cantsin 'open popstar,' and soon after returning to Montreal he formed the Neoist movement. Although Kántor is the individual most closely identified with the Monty Cantsin name, the open popstar idea was premised upon the 'multiple name' concept, that is, multiple people using the same name. By utilizing the Monty Cantsin name, anyone could participate in expanding the collective identity of Monty Cantsin, save themselves the time and effort involved in establishing a name, and further the cause of Neoism.
Defining Neoism or indeed 'classifying' it, is a predictably difficult affair. Quite literally, Neoism means "New-Ism," which establishes its modernist/avant-garde lineage, positions it as something that is always in the process of becoming, and establishes its refusal to commit to any specific formal means through which to achieve its ends. One Neoist has described it as "a movement to create the illusion that there's a movement called Neoism." (2) Kántor, when pressed for a definition of Neoism in 1993, replied that:
“I have thousands of definitions but none of them are good for anything, and perhaps always the newest one is the best.” [author’s italics] (3)
On the beginnings of Neoism, Kántor replied;
“The birth of neoism took place as follows: there was a name, and I said 'let's give it a try,' and whatever comes out will be called neoism.” (4)
Contrary to Neoism's etymological basis in 'newness' is it's refusal to generate new objects or ideas. Neoism's strategy is one of appropriating previously extant activities and ideas as it's own. Kántor elaborates on this signature characteristic of Neoism;
“It uses 'ready-made' ideas. It does not necessarily have to invent a form. But the form that has already been used can be re-used by Neoism and turned into something else. If you look at the principles of Neoism actually you can immediately see that inventions are old and boring. The Neoists don't want to invent things, the Neoists want to apply things better than anyone else. Originality, uniqueness and the term 'new' are not what's important anymore. What is important is that we completely recycle all the ideas that already exist, as if somebody had recycled the whole of the 20th century.” (5)
Stewart Home in Moscow, 1979
Home was also interested in recycling previously used ideas, in particular, the idea of the avant-garde and the critique of the institution of art. In 1985 his impact on Neoism's history would take a decisive turn. After returning from the Ninth Neoist Festival in Ponte Nossa, Italy, he announced his split from Neoism in his "Open Letter to the Neoist network and the public at large;"
“My approach to art, life and politics has not changed, I simply feel it's no longer feasible for me to be a 'neoist.' Splits and schisms are essential to my conception of neoism and any public slanging match between an ex-neoist and the remaining members of the movement is worth twelve dozen great works of art. Ultimately what all neoists should aim for is an acrimonious split with the movement. To leave neoism is to realize it.” (6)
Home's paradigmatic avant-garde split with Neoism took place on a number of different levels. Frustrated over the Neoist strategy that deliberately obscured its own aims, Home wanted to introduce a clarity in its theoretical position and historical precedents. (7) To achieve the former he linked Neoism with Situationism and Fluxus, two post-WWII groups he felt constituted part of this century's 'utopian current,' and for the latter he made the historical connection explicit when he wrote that Neoism "is an illegible note that Tristan Tzara allowed to fall from his breast pocket prior to a performance at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916." (8) At the same time Home used the split to position himself as the architect of a rehabilitated Neoist 'avant-garde' that would be constructed in such a way that it could successfully be introduced into the historicisation process. A critical component in this strategy was his insight into the pivotal role that texts play in the construction of avant-garde movements. Homes states;
“When I hooked up with the Neoists, I thought certain aspects of the movement were underdeveloped. For example, there wasn’t enough text. This was one of the things I wanted to introduce in vast quantities...As a result [of this lack], the Neoists were in danger of losing their avant-garde identity and becoming just another part of the underground. While its members were madly documenting [their] events...there’d been a failure to grasp the central role that written reports played in the process of historicisation.” (9)
As a result, Home renewed his original call for the use of Smile as a multiple name in the context of periodical publishing and, in a direct challenge to Kántor, proposed the name Karen Eliot as a counter multiple name. With the implementation of these two strategies, Home cemented his split with Neoism, and through the promotion of Smile as an 'international magazine of multiple origins,' created a mechanism for the collective production of 'vast quantities' of printed matter.
It is clear that deeply imbedded in the history and development of Neoism is the strategy of multiple names and their use in the construction of collective identities. For David Zack, the initiator of the concept, it was a way "that people can share their art power." (10) For Kántor and Home, the collective strategy of multiple names resists the construction of the individual and of their subsequent control:
Kántor: “By giving the same name to different people we create a kind of confusion that makes control impossible—because everybody has the same name there is no control possible.” (11)
Home: “It is in Power's interest that each individual has a unique name, thus making them easily identifiable. Without these classifications Power cannot control because it cannot differentiate, divide and isolate.” (12)
Multiple names, through their very multiplicity, were seen by Neoists as resisting capitalism's construction and reification of the individual, and as proposing an alternative, non-hierarchical and collectively constructed identity. Implicit in this strategy of multiplicity is a critique of a string of related concepts, recognized by both Kántor and Home, that are linked to the construction of the 'individual' and valorized under capital, some of these are: genius, originality, artist/author/ producer, ownership and copyright.
While I recognize that these are important features of the multiple name concept and integral to Neoism's position (as well as being ripe for a postmodern analysis), I want, for the purposes of this paper, to concentrate on another aspect of multiple names. What I want to propose is that Home's active promotion of the use of multiple names (for individuals and periodicals), was another part of his 'avant-gardization' of Neoism, and that through this double application of the multiple name concept, he was able to influence how and in what manner, Neoism would be manifested, and equally importantly, how it would be documented.
My second point is that it was only through the activation of the multiple name concept and the establishment of collective identities that Neoism could be perceived as an avant-garde movement. Multiple names gave a collective form to the 'form-lessness' at the center of Neoism. Home's investment in this strategy is clear, if Neoism was not perceived as an avant-garde movement then his plans for its eventual historicisation would not take place.
One of the ostensible reasons for Home's split with the Neoists was his observation that István Kántor had become over-identified with Monty Cantsin and was therefore diminishing the revolutionary potential of this strategy. Kántor himself suggests that this critique was substantially correct in the following statements;
“Because I was the first person to become Monty Cantsin and I created the name Neoism, I was completely beholden by it, and I put all my life and energy into it.” (13)
“This Monty Cantsin job is one of the most difficult ones I ever got, and it is not easy to accomplish it and balance the fictive and real parts.” (14)
This 'over-identification' on Kántor's behalf gave Home added incentive to insert his own multiple name, Karen Eliot, into the Neoist context. For Home, multiple names were to be approached as 'open contexts,' as situations, rather than as 'jobs;
“Karen Eliot is a name which refers to an individual human being who can be anyone. The name is fixed, the people using it aren't. Anyone can become Karen Eliot simply by adopting the name, but they are only Karen Eliot for the period in which the name is used. Karen Eliot was materialized, rather than born, as an open context in the summer of '85. When one becomes Karen Eliot one's previous existence consists of the acts other people have undertaken using the name.” (15)
The Karen Eliot 'open context' generated a substantial amount of texts and actions in her name, as well as revitalizing the collective use of Monty Cantsin. It is interesting to note that although Home put forward Karen Eliot as an 'other' to Kántor's Monty Cantsin, there was no discussion on his behalf, or others, around issues of gender.
Home's original proposal in his own Smile #2 (1984), for the use of multiple names in the context of periodical publishing and his renewed promotion of it a year later in conjunction with his introduction of the Karen Eliot multiple name, must be seen as his one 'original' contribution to Neoism. As it turned out, the Smile collective publishing project was extremely successful with approximately 50 titles and an estimated 150 issues published across three continents. The accelerated activity undertaken during these years by cultural workers using the multiple name strategy established Smile as a printed matter environment that played a key role in activating and networking a decentralized community of participants. Home, by collapsing the use of both Monty Cantsin and Karen Eliot into one periodical, and through his own numerous published writings, established himself as a pivotal, and contested, theorist of Neoism. It is not incidental that after his break with Neoism, later issues of his own Smile (#8-11, 1985-89) were published with greater attention to design, in a larger A4 size and in substantially greater print runs than its contemporaries.
Home's insertion of himself into the Neoist movement and his restructuring of its theoretical and historical context illustrates one of his major investments in the movement—preparing Neoism for, and actively participating in, the process of its historicisation and its eventual assimilation into institutionalized culture. Central to this whole operation is the activating role he created for himself, "What's crucial to any avant-garde group is you have to have at least one theorist to try and formulate the whole thing as a movement." (16) It is in this context that Smile (particularly Home's), can be seen as one of the more significant artefacts to be produced by Neoism. The texts that Home published in his Smile, ranged from Neoist texts to his own fiction and poetry, to surveys of post-WWII art movements, cultural criticism, as well as promoting the two major projects that he was involved with from 1985 onwards—the Festivals of Plagiarism and the Art Strike 1990-1993. As a strategy for bringing together a wide variety of texts and, to a lesser extent, images generated by multiple Neoists, Smile magazine provided a broad umbrella for these collective activities.
One particular tactic that helped fill out the pages of many Smile magazines, was the use of 'positive plagiarism.' Implicit in the Neoist position and popularized by Home, this strategy enabled Neoists to creatively re-use each others' texts as well as found and ready-made texts, all the while amplifying and extending the printed matter basis of Neoism. It is also not surprising to discover that large amounts of Home's texts are to be found re-used throughout many other Smiles. As Home made clear in an earlier statement, he viewed the production of texts as integral to establishing Neoism's avant-garde credentials. While this is undeniably correct, it also reflects an activity that remains central to Home's own oeuvre, and that is his career as a writer and cultural critic. It is here that two rather interesting stands of Home's strategy intersect; the imperative to publish more texts and Home's own ambition to 'author' the movement. For, while Home had encouraged the production of texts by multiple 'anonymous' authors, he was, through his own growing publishing profile, able to construct himself as the 'author' of a revitalized Neoist movement, through a medium he clearly had an investment in, and in a form (Smile) that he had initiated and done so much to propagate.
Home's success was the entry of Smile, and by implication himself, into the academy. It remains to be seen however, whether the process of historicisation will confirm Home in his carefully constructed position, one which he quite succinctly summarized in a 1986 article, in which he stated, "Theorists start out as authors and end up as authorities." (17, 18)
1. Ford, Simon. Smile Classified (exhibition booklet). National Art Library, Victoria & Albert Museum: London, 1992, p. 1.
2. Convenience, Tentatively. History Begins Where Life Ends (pamphlet). Baltimore: Self-published, nd, p. 5. In this article Convenience credits this statement to John Berndt.
3. Pain, Paddy. "István Kántor," (interview), Kinokaze, #2, 1993, p. 17.
4. Perneczky, Geza. The Magazine Network, Soft Geometry: Koln, 1993, p. 157.
5. Pain, Paddy. "István Kántor," (interview), Kinokaze, #2, 1993, p. 18.
6. Home, Stewart. "Open letter to the neoist network and the public at large," Smile, #8, 1985, p. 1.
7. On Neoism’s obscurantism Homes writes: “In '84 after I met the Neoists...I just started reading more and more of the Situationist stuff...and thinking yes I want to put more of this kind of stuff into the group because it's too kind of loose and floppy and soft and István's saying I don't want to define what we're doing, anything can be Neoist, and this became slightly tedious...it wasn't like anything could be Neoist because it was a very specific thing but it was pretending it wasn't and it was refusing to explain it to people on any level, and also I think avant-garde groups have very limited lives...the whole thing was playing with trying to historicise things...most of the group had a very sort of ambiguous attitude about being taken into museums and I thought...what we have to do first of all is kill the movement because things don't get historicised until they are dead.” In, Pain, Paddy. "Stewart Home," (interview), Kinokaze, #2, 1993, p. 26.
8. Smile, #7, 1985, p. 4. Home outlines the aims of the 'utopian current' by stating that "the partisans of this tradition aim not just at the integration of art and life, but of all human activities. They have a critique of social separation and a concept of totality." In, Home, Stewart. The Assault on Culture: Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War. Aporia Press & Unpopular Books: London, 1988.
9. Home, Stewart. Neoism, Plagiarism & Praxis, AK Press: Endinburgh/San Francisco, 1995, p. 170.
10. Letter from David Zack to Grauf Haufen (1986) in: Cantsin, Monty. Neoism Now, Artcore Editions: Berlin, 1987, unpaginated.
11. Pain, Paddy. "István Kántor," (interview), Kinokaze, #2, 1993, p. 18.
12. Home, Stewart. Smile, 36, 1984, p. 4.
13. Pain, Paddy. "István Kántor," (interview), Kinokaze, #2, 1993, p. 19.
14. Kántor, István, in Smile, #23, nd., p. 9.
15. Home, Stewart, in Smile, #11, 1989, p. 1.
16. Pain, Paddy. "Stewart Home," (interview). Kinokaze, #2, 1993, p. 23.
17. Home, Stewart. "From Author to Authority," Smile, #9, 1986, p. 14.
18. Despite the traditionally academic stance that this paper takes, I feel it necessary to declare my own minimal involvement with the Neoist movement. I met Home during late summer of 1985 in London, and at this time he encouraged me to adopt the name Karen Eliot and to publish a magazine called Smile. While reluctant to give up my ‘individuality’ to a project I knew little about, I was nonetheless intrigued by his proposal. As a result of this encounter, and upon my return to the USA, I adopted the name Janet Janet for one part of my cultural activities. Between 1986-89 she published texts and visual works in a number of international artists’ periodicals, presented performances in the S.F. Bay Area and participated in group shows organized by the correspondence art network. From 1985-89 she published 14 issues of Schism magazine. The name Schism was chosen from Home’s reference to ‘splits and schisms’ in his 1985 “Open Letter to the Neoist network and the public at large,” published in this paper. As a result of these connections, as well as Schism’s oblique similarity to the word Smile, Schism is considered part of the Smile publishing project and was displayed in the National Art Library’s Smile show. Janet Janet ceased all activities at the beginning of the Art Strike in 1990.