Interview with Dutch artist/publisher Ben Schot (Sea Urchin), specializes in avant-garde and counterculture

"A soundtrack to the Beat Generation: put Allen Ginsberg in a steamy juke joint deep in the Delta in the 1950s, surrounded by Afro-American sharecroppers. Everybody gets drunk, everybody gets stoned, everybody gets naked."

Ben Schot: Avant-garde Beside The Sea

Ben Schot (1953) is a visual artist, writer, publisher and teacher from Rotterdam. Schot grew up in a small town on the isle of Schouwen-Duiveland in Zeeland, where his father made a living as a fisherman. After having studied English and having completed his alternative military service as a conscientious objector, Schot attended the art schools of The Hague and Rotterdam in the 1980s. Schot's activities cover various disciplines and techniques: drawings, audio works, installation art, and performances. As a writer Schot has published articles and fiction in various magazines. In 2000 Schot founded his small press Sea Urchin Editions to publish works from the avant-garde and counterculture, such as works by Henri Michaux, Pier Paolo Pasolini, André Breton, Bill Levy and Georg Trakl. Through Sea Urchin Editions Schot also distributes the editions and releases of fellow-artists, friends and other small presses and labels.

Some of the projects that Schot has put together are ‘Oulipo’ (1997), ‘Shells’ (1997), a project on the museum as an institute at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, ‘Submerge’ (1997) on the films of surrealist-biologist Jean Painlevé, ‘Towers Open Fire’ (1998) on the films of William S. Burroughs, and ‘I rip you, you rip me’ (1998, in collaboration with Ronald Cornelissen) on the radical and psychedelic counterculture of Detroit in the late sixties, early seventies. In 2006 Schot put together an exhibition of material from the archives of the Dutch underground press Cold Turkey Press for Historical Museum of Rotterdam. Two years later he organized the utopian/dystopian project ‘Kingdom Come’ for the Dutch art institute TENT. On several occasions Schot performed live with Dutch electro-acoustic group Kapotte Muziek. He was awarded the Pendrecht Cultuurprijs by Chris Dercon, then director of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam in 2003.

Interview by Michael Limnios   Photos by Ben Schot Archive/All rights reserved

How did the thought behind Sea Urchin start? What characterizes the philosophy and mission of the press?

I started making artists’ books at art school and continued to do so – on a very small scale – in the 1980s and 1990s, at first they were xeroxed editions of 5 or 10 copies, later larger offset printed artists’ books. The books were combinations of texts, drawings, photos and found images. I used fictitious imprints to publish those. When I came across a tale by Edgar Allan Poe that was set in Rotterdam, I published it under a new imprint: Sea Urchin Editions in 2000. I chose the name Sea Urchin as a reference to my youth in Zeeland, where my father made a living as a fisherman and as an homage to Jean Painlevé’s ‘Oursins’, which is a hallucinatory, surrealist film about sea urchins. 

Sea Urchin doesn’t really have a philosophy or mission, but it focuses on works from the counterculture, avantgarde and their predecessors. It’s a long historical line of rebellion, subversion and perversion that I’m interested in. I feel at home there. As a 13-year-old kid I watched The Who smash their instruments on TV and saw Dutch Provos undermining authority and provoking the police into actions that exposed them as fascistoid pigs. Everything was in uproar and up in the air in those days.  The mid-1960s were electrifying days, especially for a kid my age, who had his own personal rebellion to deal with at home.                        (Photo: Ben Schot, 1972

In the early 1970s (I was 17-18 years old by then) I used to hang out in an alternative café that people from Rotterdam had started in the small countrytown where I lived. They created a meeting place for pacifists, socialists, communists, anarchists, artists, musicians, and local freaks like me, showed art and screened films by Godard, Pasolini, Antonioni and many others. In that café you could find Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus lying on the table next to European underground magazines such as ‘Suck’ and you could listen to the latest music high on hashish or tripping on acid. The café, film screenings, music, literature and people there were a great source of inspiration. So was a school trip to a big Dali exhibition in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam in 1970.  It blew my mind and helped me decide to become an artist. Only later did I understand that The Who’s destruction of their instruments was inspired by Gustav Metzger’s auto-destructive art, that the Provo happenings were connected to the Situationists, that the Bonzo Dog Band took inspiration from the Dadaists, that the cut-ups that Burroughs and Gysin claimed to have discovered were in fact an old dadaist technique, and that there were all sorts of links between the music, films, art and literature that I loved and the historical avant-garde and their 19th-century predecessors. Those historical lines continue to fascinate me to this day and it’s that fascination that lies at the heart of Sea Urchin. I still discover something new almost every day.

How have the counterculture people influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Like all European kids my age I was born in the post-traumatic landscape of material and moral devastation caused by the second world war. I grew up in a small town on an island in the southwest of The Netherlands, an isolated community until the mid-1960s. The island had not only suffered from the war but also from a flood in 1953, which had taken place nine months before I was born. My playground, the quarter around the corner from our house, looked like a wasteland. It was partly washed away, partly torn down or condemned and partly still inhabited. People were taciturn and locked into their own affairs and secrets. My primary school was an authoritarian and cheerless place. The 1950s were a bleak period. The island an oubliette.

I’ve written before that the first glimpse of a way out, of hope and fun, reached me through my sister, who is ten years older than I. She brought home a taste of rock ‘n’ roll in the late-1950s, early-1960s: Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, The Everly Brothers, crackling starched petticoats, greased pompadours and fox-tailed mopeds, parties, dances. I loved the energy of the music, the sense of danger it aroused and the way it rebelled against our parents’ generation and their stifling mores. Then in the early to mid-1960s came The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, The Animals. I loved them all, but The Who best. I felt a rush of adrenaline when I watched Pete Townshend and Keith Moon smash their instruments on TV and saw the Amsterdam Provos battle with the police around the same time. I had my own rebellion to deal with at home. I understood what these guys were about.

"Photo: Zierikzee's quarter where I grew up, around the corner from my childhood home, early 1970s."
Provo was the first truly countercultural movement that influenced me. They were only active for a couple of years (1965-67), but in that short period they opened up new perspectives, developed alternative ways of life, made inventions, and exposed the establishment as rigid, fascistoid, colonial and outdated. They combined subversion with an irrepressible DIY mentality. A mix of guts, intelligence, creativity and playfulness that I admired as a kid and still admire now. Provo was a powerful cocktail. It changed Dutch society for good. In those days the island where I lived was geographically opening up too: dams and bridges were being constructed in the wake of the 1953 flood. My secondary school was a state school. Part of the staff belonged to the older generation but another part consisted of young, leftist teachers who had come down to the island in search of alternative ways of life away from the Dutch urban areas. They brought a fresh mentality to the island. So did newly arrived artists, musicians, drop-outs and political activists, some of whom had ties to countercultural movements such as the Amsterdam ‘Kabouters’ - Provo’s follow-up - and their alternative ‘Oranje Vrijstaat’ (Orange Free State).

Oranje Vrijstaat was a visionary concept developed by sociology students Ruud Vermeer and Wouter van der Graaf. Their alternative state declared the official state of The Netherlands obsolete and its Government and Parliament defunct. Oranje Vrijstaat simply annexed the existing infrastructure and declared venues, stores, cafés (including the one I used to haunt), even entire towns their own: Amsterdam, The Hague, Vlissingen, Middelburg, all Oranje Vrijstaat towns. In his proclamation of Oranje Vrijstaat in 1970 former Provo Roel van Duijn explained that a new society grows from an old society like a mushroom on a rotting tree-trunk. He had a slow but irreversible organic revolution in mind. I thought that was a brilliant concept, inspiring and workable, but I lost my interest in politics a couple of years later. I turned to arts and literature and took inspiration from Nietzsche, Freud, Camus, and the Dadaists instead.

When I left the island in the late-1970s, the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s had been swallowed by the Western consumer societies everywhere. It was all over. The very movements that had exposed and turned away from consumerism had fallen prey to it. They dissolved in the gastric acid of consumption. In The Netherlands the squat movement was the final heartburn. The Coronation Day riots in Amsterdam of 1980 (photo) were the last time the Dutch counterculture came together and flared up in grand style during a day of violence aimed at Dutch Royalty, the Amsterdam city council, the Government, and the police. Provo’s spirit was all over town that day and dispersed in clouds of teargas and streams of adrenaline.

The counterculture was a lot of fun while it lasted and a couple of its movements, Provo in the first place, were bright flashes that showed me a way out. They helped me position myself and shape my life. Valuable things I learned from the counterculture are to think independently and fearlessly. And also to make sure you control not only your own channels of publication but also those of distribution. I kept that in mind when I started Sea Urchin. Communication may be a lot easier now than it was in the old days and printing techniques cheaper and more accessible, but books, pamphlets, LPs and cassettes still have to be packed and shipped from one place to another. I like to think of Sea Urchin not only as a press or offshoot of my artist’s practice, but also as a small distribution centre, no more than a node, in a network of friends and contacts. When you’re in touch with a couple of friends who function as nodes in a network too, you can reach a lot of people. Before you know it, you’ll have a mini Free State.

I’ve never been much of a traveller. The counterculture has not inspired me to make any other journeys than those inside my own mind and soul. There’s always a door there.

How do you describe Ben Schot’s artwork? What experiences have triggered your ideas most frequently?

I have always liked drawing and I still think of myself as primarily a draughtsman. It is the most natural art discipline for me. But I certainly couldn’t make drawings on on a daily basis like some artists do. Or make series of thematically or stylistically consistent drawings. I’m too restless for that. Consistency, style and strict concepts are boring slave masters. I have to free myself from them (and never stop ridding myself of them, because they will always creep up on you rattling their cosy balls and chains). For that reason I believe my work always contains a destructive element.  That is certainly true of my drawings, which frequently start with the destruction of an older drawing or picking up a drawing I had rejected earlier. Destruction or embracing rejected works is often my first step in the process of drawing. That’s something I learnt from Krijn Giezen, a Dutch artist who used to be one of my teachers in art school. And… you have to let chance in. That’s something I learnt not only from Krijn Giezen but also from the dadaists, surrealists, Dutch Provos and improvisational musicians. You have to let chance in somehow. The whole idea is to open up your work to something you DON’T control.

I like vandalic techniques too. They are a very refreshing kind of violence and perversion. Vandalism is a subversive and powerful tool in exposing false images. Kids use it instinctively. But it can be applied more consciously too, of course. I started Dämmer Magazine in 2008 as an experiment in classic vandalic techniques. I still do a Dämmer cover every now and then: whenever I feel the need to react to a political, social or cultural issue, which is not as often as I used to. Some people love them, others hate them. They’re all done fast. Vandalism works best when it’s done before the esthetic and ethic cops have the chance to arrive.

Drawing comes naturally but making books too. Making books and starting Sea Urchin was a logical extension of my artist’s practice and it still is. My work is not all about violence and destruction, of course. I think of beauty as a very powerful force too. I’m a sucker for beauty. It’s a way of getting out of here. Maybe that’s what triggers my ideas most of all: finding the exit and a doorway out of here.

"For the postwar generation that I was part of the term ‘underground’ had all sorts of associations with the resistance groups of World War II. It had a romantic and heroic ring to it. It provided partisan credibility." 

How important was music in your life? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

Music has been important to me since the late 1950s-early 1960s. Before that there were only boring Dutch pop songs on the radio, even more boring hymns in church, and the soporific Mantovani LP that my mother used to play at home. They were all REPRESSIVE kinds of music, either meant to make you consume, calm you down, or bore you for eternity. But then my sister, who is ten years older than I, brought home a taste of rock ‘n’ roll: Elvis, Little Richard, Bill Haley, greaser friends, petticoats, parties, dances. I couldn’t quite identify with that music – I was just a kid and this was music for horny young adults - but I understood and loved the energy, the excitement and the sense of DANGER that it aroused. The first pieces of music that I could really identify with were songs by The Beatles. Shortly after that The Stones, The Kinks, The Who. That must have been 1963-1965. That music made me feel part of a generation of kids who felt the same way I did, a new generation that was about to kick out the boring old one and shake off their repressive yoke. It told us something was in the air. Something good. Something dangerous.

My friends and I listened to music whenever we could in the second half of the 1960s. Radio stations tuned in on kids my age, who were a booming market, and we bought our own singles and LPs if we could afford them. I remember hearing ‘Wild Thing’ by The Troggs when it came out on the radio in 1966 and thinking to myself: ‘that’s the most exciting piece of music I’ve ever heard ’. Then came The Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd ( I smoked my first joint listening to Pink Floyd’s first album), Soft Machine, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, Hawkwind, the works (although a lot of great psychedelic music never reached us in those days. Not where I was living). We smoked hash and dropped acid listening to Pink Floyd’s ‘Umma Gumma’, Hawkwind’s first album, and Dr. John’s ‘Gris-Gris’.  They propelled us into other worlds.  And that was exactly where we wanted to be.

I’ve been exposed and open to all sorts of music since then. I still listen to psychedelic music and (punk) rock but prefer free jazz nowadays. I listen to electronic music, noise, anything except classical music that I find hard to get into. I know artists who couldn’t work with music playing in their studio but I would find it hard to work without it (except when I’m writing; that’s the only time when I can’t bear music). Music is an energy, a vehicle, a spaceship to another world as Sun Ra would put it. Either that or a healthy punch in the kisser to knock some sense into you.

"So what does underground literature look or sound like nowadays? I know what it used to be but couldn’t tell what it is nowadays. Jihadist rants? Charlie Hebdo? Mein Kampf? And does being underground make them good literature? I don’t think so. ‘Underground’... Personally, I’d like to stay above ground as long as possible and wait a while before pushing up the daisies." (Photo: Ben Schot, 1973)

What has been the relationship between music, literature, visual art (..and comics) in your life?

Well, I think I have already answered most of that question, at least as far as music and visual art are concerned. Comics have never really been my thing. I mean, of course I used to read comics as a kid (I even wrote letters to Donald Duck and got replies too) and, yes certainly, later I would laugh my head off at the comics that you would find in ‘underground’ magazines in the 1960s and 1970s: Robert Crumb, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Wolinski, Reiser, Herman Brood, etc., but I was not really into them and I don’t remember ever having collected comic books or zines.

I liked to read boys’ adventure books as a young kid and was into SF, horror and detectives as a 14 to 15-year-old: Michael Moorcock, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Havank, Ian Fleming. At secondary school I was introduced to modern Dutch literature and some English, French and German literature, but I’m afraid most of it was wasted on me at the time. My Dutch literature teacher was a reasonably well-known Dutch poet, inspiring to most pupils but not to me. His flaunting poetry and forcing it down pupils’ throats turned me off completely. We didn’t like each other. I remember having written a short SF story as an interpretation of one of his assignments when I was some 16 years old. He returned it to me with a low grade and the remark that it must have sprung from a ‘really sick and disturbed mind’. I was lost on him and most of his teachings were lost on me. I preferred listening to my English teacher, a pockmarked former sea-faring sailor who drank heavily, smoked cigarettes in the classroom and wrote Beatles lyrics on the blackboard for his students to translate and analyse. I didn’t get into serious literature until I had left secondary school.

After I had graduated from secondary school I wanted to enter art school, but I wasn’t admitted and then was drafted for military service. I refused to do that service. I started studying English Language & Literature at home during the extremely long procedure you had to go through as a conscientious objector in those days. They gave you the hardest and longest possible time if you refused military service. I read a lot in those years, not only old and modern English literature but also Camus, Sartre, Nietzsche, Freud and Dutch literature, which I was finally able to enjoy. Literature has been a source of inspiration since then. After I had finished my alternative military service (all in all the procedure had taken some five years) and had been admitted to art school, literature and theoretical writings were an important stimulus in my development as a visual artist, more so than music. They still are. Words fire the imagination and looking into the mechanisms of language means laying bare the inner workings of our psyche and culture. Let’s not forget that the surrealists were primarily a literary movement, so were the lettrists and situationists. The counterculture and avant-garde were to a large extent shaped by words and cracking open language. I’ve always been more into prose than into poetry, though, but that’s just a matter of taste.

"Sea Urchin doesn’t really have a philosophy or mission, but it focuses on works from the counterculture, avantgarde and their predecessors. It’s a long historical line of rebellion, subversion and perversion that I’m interested in. I feel at home there." (Covers of the Gustav Sack - Paralysis (15 copies, 2017) and Ed Sanders - Broom Poem (edition of 30, 2017)

You have come to know great personalities. Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

True, I’ve met some great people over the years but I don’t really know if you can call those meetings - or the acquaintances and friendships that have evolved from some of those - ‘important’. Time will tell. And then, of course, there are people not very well-known or not known at all, who have been very important in my life. Being great and being important are not synonymous. My girls, Anneke and Puck, are important to me. And, yes, I’m fortunate to have a couple of generous and inspiring friends. I’m a rich man.

What did you learn about yourself from the counterculture and what does underground literature mean to you?

The ‘counterculture’ is a term invented by the academic Theodore Roszak to categorize various subcultures, civil rights and anti-war movements of the late 1960s. I don’t think I heard the term until much later. Anyway, the late 1960s-early 1970s were an era that coincided with my puberty and adolescence. I had a lot to rebel against and get away from at home. As a result of that I gravitated naturally towards various exponents of the ‘counterculture’: music, drugs, pacifism, art, literature. Other exponents didn’t appeal to me at all: orientalism, mysticism, back to nature stuff. Nor did I get very deeply into politics - even though I was a conscientious objector to military service. But I was certainly attracted to the rebellious and subversive aspects of what Roszak labelled ‘counterculture’.

I don’t think the counterculture itself taught me much, but its failure certainly did. The counterculture was only fresh for a couple of years. Then it collapsed under its own weight due to internal rot and fermenting complacency in its construction. Its downfall taught me a lot about the mechanisms and strategies of consumer societies, about repressive tolerance, about commodification, about selling out. The counterculture was eaten, digested and shat back into our faces by the consumer societies. It was weak. I learnt a lot more from Dada and Freud. To my mind those have remained vital forces: I still draw inspiration from them. Revolt, anarchism and the subconscious: powerful food for any countercultural pupa. Fat moth meat to be grilled in the light.  (Photo: Ben, 1985)

For the postwar generation that I was part of the term ‘underground’ had all sorts of associations with the resistance groups of World War II. It had a romantic and heroic ring to it. It provided partisan credibility. The term ‘underground’ was already dubious in the 1960s and 1970s, but is even more so today. It’s become a label, a hallmark that helps market and sell commodities. I feel we should restore some of the original power to the term and do justice to those people and works that are or were really underground. John Sinclair did time in prison for what he wrote, said and thought, so did Timothy Leary (whatever you may think of him). There were Black Panthers, The Weather Underground, The German RAF. All underground. John Cleland wrote ‘Fanny Hill’ in prison and was re-imprisoned after its publication. There were Robert Desnos and De Sade, Czech Charter 77 writers, all part of a long line of true ‘underground’ writers all over the world who posed a threat to the establishment serious enough to have them put away. Because you don’t go underground voluntarily; you are FORCED underground because what you do is against the law. If you want to call yourself underground you‘d better start writing and publishing as if you are already being drawn and quartered by invisible horses.

So what does underground literature look or sound like nowadays? I know what it used to be but couldn’t tell what it is nowadays. Jihadist rants? Charlie Hebdo? Mein Kampf? And does being underground make them good literature? I don’t think so. ‘Underground’... Personally, I’d like to stay above ground as long as possible and wait a while before pushing up the daisies.

What do you miss most nowadays from the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future?

There is very little I miss from the past. On the whole I’m happy where I am now. But sometimes I miss the landscapes from my youth: the dunes, the sea, the dikes, the wind and the skies, the smell of honeysuckle, the call of an oystercatcher. They are all imprinted in my soul. Sometimes I drive south to the island where I grew up to feed my soul on the landscapes there for a day and then drive back to Rotterdam.  I couldn’t live on the island any more but I’m glad I can still go there every now and then and get in touch with my roots.

I’m not the most optimistic guy when it comes to mankind, so my hopes of a better world are pretty slim. I’ve always been more of a survivor than an idealist to begin with and what ideals I had when I was young have evaporated in the course of time.  Unless we get rid of the caste of usurers and warmongers that keep the planet in a stranglehold, nothing is going to change. It will take a lot of force to kick them out. They hold the trumps and have the guns.

But I do believe in art, music, literature, beauty, love and imagination. Mankind is at its best there and manages every now and then to build sublime vehicles that have the power to transport you away from here, even to transcend death. If there is hope for mankind then surely we should look for it in those areas. To another world, brothers and sisters!

What is the impact of avant-garde ART (literature, music, visual art) to the socio-cultural implications?                                   (Ben's drawing, #945)

What matters in any avant-garde movement is the radicalism of its ideas and art. Radicalism and the will to destroy the old order. ‘Avant-garde’ is a military term. It is a bayonet in your guts, a foreign object in your perception of the world that you will have to wrap your mind and flesh around if you want to reach a higher plane. Every avant-gardist is to a certain extent self-sacrificial for a higher good. There has to be something to fight for. Vanguards and armies need ideologies or beliefs to fuel them. The historical avant-garde could draw from either left-wing or right-wing ideologies, but was always radically opposed to the existing order and wanted to bring it down. What ideology or higher good do we have in the West nowadays to inspire a vanguard of artists, writers and musicians like that? I don’t see any. And if I did, I would be suspicious of it. What’s more, there is no army left to follow in the vanguard’s footsteps. Provo already concluded in the 1960s that the working class could no longer be considered a revolutionary potential. Together with the bourgeoisie, their historical enemy, workers had turned into consumers. The class struggle was over. What was once a revolutionary potential finds itself now, even more so than in Provo’s days, snugly trapped in materialism and debt. Consumers have no desire to be liberated or set in motion. The Western avant-garde lost its social and cultural function with the dwindling of the 20th-century ideologies. I think in individualized societies like ours the only hope nowadays lies in true geniuses and visionaries. Solitary flames that light the way. A vanguard of madmen.

Why are the blues and jazz connected with the Beats and what characterizes the soundtrack of the Beat generation?

That’s a difficult question, all the more since I don’t know enough about either the blues, jazz or the Beats. Like most people my age, the blues first reached me through covers of blues songs by European sixties bands: The Stones, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, Q65, Cuby & The Blizzards. Willie Dixon was a name you came across when you read the credits to some of their songs, but I had no idea who he was until much later. John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters records you would find at friends’ places, but they usually belonged to the father or an older brother. We listened to other stuff. We were too young for the Blues. Only when the Blues came to us wrapped in sexy, young white men instead of old black guys did it appeal to us in the 1960s and 1970s. We were in the middle of a generational conflict. I only began to fully appreciate the Blues when I heard John Lee Hooker’s ‘I’m Going Upstairs’ and that was, I think, in the mid-seventies. The Blues is an acquired taste, it has to grow on you, like wild lichen that comes with age. Now I listen to the Blues a lot. And there’s so much great music available and so much still to be discovered. The Blues. ‘How long you been dead?’ (Bukka White).

Jazz also reached me through white bands like Soft Machine and the Dutch band Supersister, who I used to hang out with when they came down to the island where I lived. They sort of opened up that field of music for me as a kid. I remember seeing Sun Ra and The Archestra on Dutch TV in the early 1970s and being blown away by their performances. Rotterdam still had a couple of good jazz venues when I moved there. I went there every now and then but it wasn’t really my scene. Cary Loren pointed out to me a whole spectrum of ecstatic jazz. Now I’m mostly into free jazz, but am also discovering other forms of jazz.

How’s this for a soundtrack to the Beat Generation: put Allen Ginsberg in a steamy juke joint deep in the Delta in the 1950s, surrounded by Afro-American sharecroppers. Everybody gets drunk, everybody gets stoned, everybody gets naked. The local band begins to play. Everybody dances. Ginsberg trips out and fires rounds of free verse on the spot. Then Burroughs, impeccably dressed, opens the door.

"There is very little I miss from the past. On the whole I’m happy where I am now. But sometimes I miss the landscapes from my youth: the dunes, the sea, the dikes, the wind and the skies, the smell of honeysuckle, the call of an oystercatcher. They are all imprinted in my soul." 

Which is the moment that you change your life most? Which has been the most interesting period in your life?

The summer of 1969: A thunderstorm is about to break. The sky is Napels yellow and black. All is lost. All is erased. Even the memory of this day.

If you could change one thing in the world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

This question is truly daunting in its magnitude. Every change that comes to mind seems to have more disadvantages than advantages. And answering it is too big a responsibility for me. I’ll have to talk to my lawyer first.

What is the best advice ever given you?

The best piece of advice I ever got was not to share my memories without due warning.

Why do you think that avant-garde music continues to generate such a devoted following?

I’m not sure there still is such a thing as avant-garde music. The historical avant-garde looked to the future. It was driven by a belief in progress. Present-day ‘avant-garde’ music all too often harks back to the historical avant-garde. It guises itself as a vanguard but is in fact the rearguard of an army long retreated and disarmed. The violent impact the works of composers like Luigi Russolo and John Cage had on their audiences simply can’t be repeated. That’s like sitting in an old bomb crater and shouting ‘boom’. I don’t know why present-day ‘avant-garde’ music has such a devoted following. It’s in music’s nature to bring people together and to have a good time. Nothing wrong with that. And if the audience feels even better if they think that what they’re listening to is avant-garde, that’s fine with me too. I’ll gladly join them for a good night out. There’s a lot of very good improvisational and experimental music about. But the historical avant-garde didn’t produce music to have a good time or generate feelings of togetherness. Music was a violent instrument in those days and served a higher goal. I don’t see or hear that nowadays. But who knows what the future may bring. Rat-a-tat-tat.

"Every change that comes to mind seems to have more disadvantages than advantages. And answering it is too big a responsibility for me. I’ll have to talk to my lawyer first." (Photo: destroyed 3-D drawing, a pile of paper waste in the corner of Ben's studio, 1984.)

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from the late great Jack Micheline?

I never met Micheline in person but I’ve heard a couple of stories from people who did that were hilarious. I’m not at liberty to repeat those stories here, though. And what touched me unexpectedly was Micheline’s 1958 poem ‘Everywhere I Go’: Everywhere I go is beauty / trees illuminated / street lights glowing in the darkness / I want to run up to strangers and kiss them / but there is too much noise / men kill each other / I'm sick and tired of seeing sad faces / stop that bastard machine / everyone is God and Holy / a spike is ripping at my throat / I smell a fragrance of a rose / everywhere I go is beauty.

I posted this poem on Facebook a couple of years ago and combined it with Ira Cohen’s brilliant 1982 portrait of Micheline in a straw cowboy hat in front of the mustachioed cowboy in a Marlboro cigarettes billboard. Toothless Micheline as the perversion of the American notions of masculinity, freedom and ruggedness. Everywhere I go is beauty.

What's the legacy of Sun Ra? If he was speaking seriously to us, what do you think he would tell us?

As I see it, Sun Ra’s legacy is his music and his writings. I have no idea what he would say if he was addressing us now. That’s far beyond me. But I’m pretty sure his message would be one of love. Then again, Sun Ra never felt at home on this planet, where according to him there has never been any other god than death. Sun Ra always stressed the need to leave planet Earth as fast as possible. And with his music he left us a ticket out of here. His music is a spaceship to another world. So travel Outer Spaceways Incorporated. Sun Ra’s waiting for you.

Where would you really want to go with a time machine and what books, records, etc. would you put in?

I’m not much of a traveler but when I do travel I like to do it as light as possible. No books, no records, thank you. I’ve been carrying those around too often as a publisher. Because of curiosity I’d like to take a peek in the relatively near future, let’s say 100 years from now. I’m not sure that would be a time I look forward going to, though. But it would teach us a thing or two. It’s a romantic notion but I think that I would like to roam the 19th and 20th century leisurely on the H.G. Wells Xpress, making stops at will. I wouldn’t go anywhere without a return ticket, though.

Sea Urchin - official website

 

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