Interview: Marie Arleth Skov
Punk as a movement was borrowing and stealing concepts from Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, but doing so in a very conscious way—punks were making these concepts their own. What has not been looked into quite as much is the link to art movements like Pop Art, Neo-Dada, and Fluxus which are of course closer in time to punk in that transition from the 1960s to the 1970s.
From the very beginning punk has been as much a visual art movement as an aural one, an early example being Vivien Westwood’s associated clothing bearing a bricolage of historical symbols and phrases (1). Despite its claims to binning musical history and starting afresh punk had its musical roots in earlier rock from Iggy Pop to Hawkwind, likewise its visual art drew on past art movements and artists. Designer of early Sex Pistols’ covers for ‘God Save the Queen’ and the album Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols, Jamie Reid, drew on the collage/photo montage techniques of Dadaist Hannah Hoch and the appropriation and detournement practices of the Letterists and Situationists. Likewise Crass visual artist Gee Vaucher also drew on the techniques of Hoch and anti-Nazi artist John Heartfield (2). The DIY aesthetic of punk zines like Sniffin’ Glue evidenced the dynamic process of design and production rather than attempting to obscure them, incidentally echoing ideas around the non capitalist object in Russian Constructivism/Productivism (3). This appropriation and redeploying of cultural and art history continued in post punk visuals with Peter Saville and Malcolm Garrett raiding Pioneers of Modern Typography by Herbert Spencer (4).
Marie Arleth Skov is a Danish art historian living in Berlin. She works at the Kunstbibliothek at Kulturforum, where most recently she co-curated the exhibition Claudia Skoda. Dressed to Thrill (2021) together with Britta Bommert. Much of her work is at the intersection of art, sexuality, and music, with a historical focus on surrealism and the punk movement of the 1970s-1980s. She has written several articles, including for Punk & Post-Punk, the RIHA Journal and Spunkt Art Now and book chapters on punk and art in the edited collections Radical Dreams: Surrealism, Counterculture, Resistance (Penn State University Press, 2022) and A Cultural History of the Avant-Garde in the Nordic Countries 1975 and After (Brill, 2022). In Spring 2023 her book, Punk Art History: Artworks from the European No Future Generation, will be published by Intellect Books in collaboration with the Punk Scholars Network (5).
Alerted and intrigued by the interplay of avant garde visual art movements and punk/post punk ever since going to a Q & A with Test Dept where they cited Russian Constructivism as a major influence and also through reading Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus, where he joins the dots between Dada, the Situationists and punk (6), I contacted Marie for an interview to find out more about punk art and the themes explored in Punk Art History: Artworks from the European No Future Generation. She kindly agreed.
E&D: A book on European Punk Art History sounds really interesting! How did your interest in the overlap of punk and visual art – or punk being expressed through visual art – come about?
Marie: Thank you, it is really interesting! So, since I was a teenager in Copenhagen in the 1990s, I have loved the punk style and punk music. I was into grunge and many of those bands were referencing punk, so that led me on, for example to Black Flag and the artwork of Raymond Pettibon. There is also a Danish punk poet, Michael Strunge, whom I loved growing up. Language, I think, is very important in punk. Then, when I was 19 years old, I moved to Berlin, where I studied art history—and, over time, it became obvious to me just how much punk was connected to art, especially radical and avant-garde art movements of the twentieth century! However, the research I could find was quite superficial: many coffee-table books or exhibitions that did not really go into depth with these connections. So, I set out to do just that!
E&D: Would it be fair to say you view punk as a grass roots, DIY, artistic expression of progressive politics or is that missing some important aspects?
Marie: Good question. Punk is notoriously ambiguous: There is a side to punk that is dark and hedonistic and negative; there is another side that is more like you describe – creative, DIY, politically engaged. Especially the very first years of punk were born out of “NO FUTURE”, a dance on the volcano, poetic, shocking, destructive, often deliberately nonsensical, and antithetical. It was a moment in time. A brief moment in time. I mean, Crass wrote “Punk Is Dead” already in 1978. But it was like “Punk is dead. Long live Punk!”—a myriad of different ways to embody punk came out of that.
E&D: Do you have a working definition of punk art? I was reading an article in the Guardian this morning about a Ukrainian photographer, Boris Mikhailov, in it was the observation by Aron Morel that “I see Boris as a kind of proto-punk…He has this instinctively independent attitude and way of looking at things as well as a resolutely DIY approach. The poetic possibilities of the lo-fi aesthetic are much more interesting to him than our received notions of formal craft and beauty.” (7) Independence, DIY, lo-fi aesthetic, would they be hallmarks of punk art?
Marie: A definition of punk art would be ludicrous. Being undefinable is intrinsic to punk. But of course, we can make out core characteristics, DIY being one of them. For my book, I interviewed artists, who were involved with the punk movement in the 1970s and 1980s, and the autonomy, which doing-it-yourself brings, was key to all of them. Punk is very much an attitude, a way of seeing things, even a way of living. That attitude is more significant than a specific aesthetic. In that way, “punk art” is like “feminist art”—the visual manifestations can vary, but the underlying stance stays. What I also try to do in the book is make out specific topics that are significant in punk art: the childish, the trashy, themes of failure, fatalism as well as resistance strategies, punk propaganda, punk travesty. All of these put together give us an idea of punk art.
E&D: In your essays you explore the position of punk visual art in relation to social-economic context and wider art history. You wrote a piece on ‘Surrealism and Punk’ focusing on COUM Transmissions/Throbbing Gristle (8). What historic art movements have had the most impact on punk and punk art?
Marie: I argue that punk is an expression of a kind of fin-de-siecle, decadent and dying modernism, at the end of the long 20th century. Punk as a movement was borrowing and stealing concepts from Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, but doing so in a very conscious way—punks were making these concepts their own. What has not been looked into quite as much is the link to art movements like Pop Art, Neo-Dada, and Fluxus which are of course closer in time to punk in that transition from the 1960s to the 1970s. Likewise, the contemporaneous art scene, specifically Body Art and Performance Art in the 1970s, intersect with what is going on at the same time in the punk movement.
E&D: In ‘Between surrealism and politics: An exploration of subversive body arts in 1980s East German underground cinema’, Schulz comments that ‘the cinematic underground was influenced by the wider punk scene in the GDR and vice versa. Not only were artists such as Cornelia Schleime and Gabriele Stotzer punk musicians themselves, the experimental cinema and the general punk scene shared the same subversive underground space’ (9). Were those overlaps a common occurrence in your research into European punk art?
Marie: Yes! Of course, in East Germany, because alternative spaces were so limited, these overlaps might have been even more pronounced. But it is an evident feature in all of the cases I have been working with, too: Making music, film, art, fashion, theater, writing poetry, making zines, all of these are intertwined. That DIY and de-skilled punk ethos also mean you can just give different fields a go. In my research, I very often found artists making music and musicians making art, cinemas used as art spaces, clothing stores used as concert venues, and so on.
E&D: In ‘The Copenhagen Punk Years – Art with No Future?’ you observe that the punks and the art scene that aligned itself with punk sensibilities, like Unge Vilde, had an ambivalent relationship with the avant-garde, influenced by it but, due to a NO FUTURE mindset, objecting to its perceived elitism and vision of social progress (10). Can you tell us more about those tensions?
Marie: Actually, there was a small group of punks in Copenhagen who called themselves the “rear-guard” in opposition to the “avant-garde” label—this was a counter reaction to the avant-gardist mantra of progress, of “leading the way”. Punks would rather identify with those last in line. This anti-avant-garde stance in European punk has several facets: As a NO FUTURE movement, punks perceived Western societies not to be moving forwards, but rather to being in downfall—and this was rather celebrated with glee, than found to be regrettable. The criticism of the avant-garde always craving the new, as a mirrored image of consumer society always craving something new, was another aspect, which had for example also been formulated in political critical theory of the 1960s. At the same time, it was obvious that punks were indeed implementing many avant-gardist strategies and artists associated with punk were heavily quoting modern art, but they were aware of the musealization of formerly radical movements. So, they were attempting to avoid becoming just another ism, trying to avoid that artworld game of subversive artistic movements being at first misunderstood, scandalized, and then at the end always coopted.
E&D: You also identify continuities of form between punk rock as music and the visual art of Unge Vilde..?
Marie: Yes, so I was working with this notion that sometimes, art is punk and sometimes, punk is art. One of the easiest ways of showing the first case—art that is punk—are these correspondences in form, like the so-called ‘bad painting’ or neo-expressive painting in the early 1980s, among others the Unge Vilde, the Danish ‘young wild ones’ named after the German Junge Wilde. Many of these young painters were trying to recreate the immediacy, the rawness, the urgency of punk rock in their painting, so they used cheap materials, untreated cotton instead of canvas, latex paint instead of oil. They made no sketches, painted without restraint, quickly, carelessly, with paint splatters, crude brushstrokes, and in kitschy colors. The canvases were mostly very large, giving the act of painting this physical quality. So, there are continuities there. But I often end up finding those cases that are about punk content, rather than form, even more interesting…
E&D: In the fascinating essay ‘The 1979 American Punk Art dispute’ you compared and contrasted American and Dutch punk of the late 1970s through the conflict around an exhibition mounted in Amsterdam and how that highlighted their different influences, attitudes and backgrounds; one apolitical, influenced by Pop Art and Warhol and the other coming out of the anarchist, squatter movement and influenced by the Provos and CoBrA art movements. But you point out that running alongside those differences there were also similarities, a DIY approach, an enthusiasm for street graffiti, a desire for ‘artistic’ and ‘personal freedom’ (11). Have these struggles over self definition continued to be a contested area for punk art? In your opinion are both takes valid?
Marie: Well, thank you that you liked it! The case of the American Punk Art exhibition coming from New York to Amsterdam in 1979 is fascinating, because it highlights so many of those conflicts that are at the heart of punk culture. And also, as you say, what is nonetheless common ground. Punk in general became more political in Europe, and in Amsterdam especially, punk was deeply intertwined with the squatter movement and a social art and counterculture tradition. The curators of American Punk Art were just looking for trouble, provoking, teasing, having fun with the sensationalist media. But the artwork they put together in the show was much deeper than that, so a big part of that culture clash was really about communication. To try to answer your question, I think there are many ways to do things, then as now, so yes, for sure both valid takes.
E&D: You have a book coming out in Spring 2023, Punk Art History: Artworks from the European No Future Generation, can you tell us a little about it? What themes and ideas are you exploring in it?
Marie: In the book, I examine punk as an art movement. A large part of my research was personal interviews with artists and research in their private archives, as well as in public archives. And then the art historical analysis of artworks: paintings, drawings, bricolages, collages, booklets, posters, zines, installations, sculptures, Super 8 films, documentation of performances and happenings, body art, and street art. Many of these are depicted in the book too, I have over 100 images in it! I also discuss the display of those artworks; the American Punk Art exhibition in Amsterdam in 1979 you just mentioned, as well as the PROSTITUTION exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1976, and Die Große Untergangsshow (Engl: The Grand Downfall Show) in West Berlin in 1981. I have synthesized all of that material into ten thematic chapters in Punk Art History, so for example ‘SEX’ is one chapter, which dives into topics of S&M, the role of the Marquis de Sade, libertarianism and pornography in art history, queer punk art, punk feminism, sex as a vehicle for revolution, and so on. Another example is the chapter ‘Work vs. Play’ which is about dilettantism and the refusal to work, which was an essential concept from the Surrealists and Lettrists through the Situationists to punk, where it got mixed with a very real backdrop of youth unemployment. The book will be published in the Global Punk series, which is a collaboration between Intellect Books and the Punk Scholars Network—so many great titles in that series—so I am quite proud of that!
E&D: How did you decide what to include/exclude as ‘Punk Art’?
Marie: Oh man, again good question. That was not easy! Early on, I decided to limit the book to the late 1970s to early 1980s. I also had a special focus on artists groups, because to a certain degree they are like the artworld equivalent to the band. And I wanted to go outside of that very familiar US-UK axis, but I also wanted to write what I know about, so I ended up with London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Berlin. You’re just bound to leave out stuff you would like to include! It was an exploration, an inductive process: Looking at artworks by protagonists who were connected to the punk scene, or identified with the punk movement, interviewing them, if possible, and then curating their work into these key topoi. I wasn’t trying to establish ‘punk art’ as a term, by the way, that is not my reason to write the book. I was interested in finding out just what punk had to do with art, and with art history. A whole lot!
E&D: Did you find that UK or American punk art had been influential in mainland Europe, or (as in the Dutch example) did different national/regional scenes create their own culturally specific versions due to art histories and contemporary circumstances?
Marie: Both. I worked with the thesis that punk manifested differently, but consistently in different cultural spheres. Punk was very regional, even local, in that way: to each scene its own kind of punk, and thus its own kind of punk art. So, punk in Amsterdam was different than in Rotterdam, Copenhagen different than Aarhus, Berlin different than Düsseldorf. Nonetheless, there are crucial continuities, like DIY, autonomy, certain themes, styles. Both US and UK punk were hugely influential all over mainland Europe, but even so, Berlin had a special connection to New York in the 1980s, whereas Amsterdam leaned more towards the UK.
E&D: How did punk art take shape in West Germany , for example?
Marie: With regard to punk and art, there were two places that were especially important in West Germany in the late 1970s and early 1980s: Düsseldorf and West Berlin. In Düsseldorf, there was the Ratinger Hof, which was this pub, where artists and punks crossed paths, and the scenes mixed. Like, Joseph Beuys meets Tote Hosen. West Berlin, meanwhile, was a unique space at this time: it was so cut-off from everything, lying in the middle of the GDR, due to its special political status, you could avoid military conscription there, and legendarily there was no curfew. So West Berlin became this habitat for conscientious objectors, students, Turkish migrant workers, war widows, and underground artists. All in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. That shaped how punk sounded and looked in West Berlin. Throughout the FRG, to generalize a bit, punk arrived with a slight delay, so before the movement really broke through, it was already mixed up in Neue Deutsche Welle. In German punk—whether film, music, or art—the German language was often used to convey something at once awkward and realistic and harsh-sounding; a counterreaction to the international, glamorous, sleek ABBA-style-English.
E&D: Were there any surprising discoveries or did you reach any unforeseen conclusions when you were researching!?
Marie: I guess it should not have surprised me, but it kind of did anyway: The Sex Pistols were the main frame of reference for artists too, and unequivocally so. From Andy Warhol to Die Tödliche Doris (Engl: The Deadly Doris) to the Kipper Kids to COUM Transmissions to, twenty years later, the so-called YBAs (Young British Artists). Not that everybody loved the Sex Pistols (that would be weird), but they stirred. They pierced right into that place between sensationalism and hurt, excess and apocalypse, pop and art, sex and poetry, innocence and cynicism. One of the last segments in the book is called ‘Broken heroes, aces of failure’. I think that is what they were, and that speaks to all punks, whether artists or musicians or filmmakers or street kids.
Punk Art History: Artworks from the European No Future Generation can be preordered here.
Book design by Russ Bestley.
Bestley, R. (2016) ‘Big A Little A: The Graphic Language of Anarchy in Mike Dines and Matthew Worley (eds) The Aesthetics of Our Anger, (Minor Composition: Colchester, New York Port Watson).
Solomons, D. (2016) ‘A Blue Tomato and a Packet of Gauloises’ in Mike Dines and Matthew Worley (eds) The Aesthetics of Our Anger, (Minor Composition: Colchester, New York Port Watson).
Kiaer, C. (2005) Imagine No Possessions. The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism, (The MIT Press:Cambridge, MA, USA)
K-Punk, (2009) Interview: Peter Saville https://www.factmag.com/2009/01/01/interview-peter-saville/
Marcus, G. (2011) Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Faber and Faber, London.
O’Hagan, Sean (2022) ‘Photographer Boris Mikhailov’s Ukrainian Diary: ‘He is a kind of proto-punk’, theguardian.com
Skov, Marie Arleth (2022) ‘Surrealism and Punk: The Case of COUM Transmissions’ in Radical Dreams: Surrealism, Counterculture, Resistance, eds Elliott H. King and Abigail Susik, (Penn State University Press: Pennsylvania) Courtesy of the author.
Schulz, Cynthia (2022) ‘Between surrealism and politics: An exploration of subversive body arts in 1980s East German underground cinema’, Punk & Post-Punk 11.2, (Intellect Books: Bristol).
Skov, Marie Arleth (2022) ‘The Copenhagen Punk Years – Art with No Future?’ in A Cultural History of the Avant-Garde in the Nordic Countries Since 1975, eds Benedikt Hjartarson, Tania Ørum, Camilla Skovbjerg Paldam, and Laura Luise Schultz (Brill: Leiden, Netherlands), Courtesy of the author.
Skov, Marie Arleth (2020) ‘The 1979 American Punk Art dispute: Visions of punk art between sensationalism, street art and social practice’, Punk & Post-Punk 9.3, (Intellect Books: Bristol). Courtesy of the author.