Essay
Wrong is the new right

This article appears, in edited form, in the November 2003 issue of Vice magazine.

I'm talking to the editor of Vice about their Misconceptions issue. 'Jesse, you've got to do a thing about how wrong is the new right,' I say. 'Because if we don't give ourselves the right to get things wrong, there's no way we'll get anything right. We'll just repeat the way things were once right, but aren't any longer.'

Jesse likes the idea. 'Can you call me Monday?' he says.

*

I'm talking to John Coltrane. Correction: I'm on hold, waiting for John Coltrane's people to put him on the line. I want to read back to him this great line I've heard he said: 'There's no such thing as an error, it's only the next great new idea coming through.' I want to ask him some questions about that.

'Mr Coltrane, have you awarded yourself the right to be wrong? Mr Coltrane, how do you increase the chance of accidents at work? Mr Coltrane, if you could go back in time and make one great mistake you failed to make at the time, what would it be?' But I'm stuck on hold, with this very un-Coltrane-like classical muzak playing.

Eventually someone comes on and says 'Can you call back Monday?'

(Later I discover that John Coltrane died in 1967. Shit!)

*

I'm speaking to magnificent zany old hippy Daevid Allen, who came to Paris from Australia in the 60s, steeped himself in Pataphysics, then founded Gong, the 'flying teapot' band whose records were all set on the Planet Gong. At least I think I'm speaking to Daevid. The line is pretty hazy. Maybe the telephone got plugged right into Gaia, maybe I'm hearing the Invisible Opera Company of Tibet tuning up the spheres. It's pretty trippy,man.

When the line clears up I'll be asking Daevid why he named his new band University of Errors. Is he suggesting that errors teach us more than getting things right? Is this a reference to the College of Pataphysics? Does David have a degree in Advanced Wrongness?

Eventually, through the cosmic jive, I hear a voice. 'Can you call back Monday?' it asks.

*

So I've looked up the College of Pataphysics in the Yellow Pages. I'm quite surprised it's in there. They even have a quarter page display ad. Under the heading 'College of Pataphysics (established 1949)' it reads:

'Pataphysics, according to its founder Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), is the science of imaginary solutions. Pataphysics is by its very nature the science of the indefinable, the science of exceptions, anomalies, and the particular.'

Then there's a list of famous graduates: Raymond Queneau, Julio Cortazar, Marcel Duchamp, and the Marx brothers. Excited, I dial the number. Put me down for a three semester course in Advanced Anomaly! But there's just a recording. 'Don't be the victim of a terrible seaweed accident,' it says. 'Leave your message after the tone.'

I decide to call back Monday.

*

I'm trying to get through to the Mistakers. These guys I knew in New York back in 2000. A kind of art gang. Harmony Korine, Brian Degraw, Little Ricky who did T shirts, Thuy and Miho from preppy clothes label United Bamboo. They all had these devil's fork tattoos on their hands. They signed up to some kind of Mistaker Manifesto which commited them to making as many mistakes as possible in the shortest possible time. Harmony even started a film called 'Fighting Harm' which was just him going into bars and insulting guys bigger than him until they started punching him. It was such a big and good mistake that he got badly hurt and abandoned the film.

Must've dialled the wrong number. Some guy going 'Lotus Cafe, take your order?'

*

I'm speaking to Charles Thomson at Stuckism International, an art gallery on Charlotte Road in London's East End. I'm framing a few questions about the Stuckist Manifesto he wrote with Billy Childish in 1999. Did they really get their name when Tracey Emin -- the art slag from Margate -- shouted at Billy Childish -- the goatee geezer out of Thee Headcoatees -- that he was 'stuck, stuck, stuck' in his work? And did Childish really turn that taunt into a virtue of some kind when he started Stuckism? Does the Stuckist really, as the manifesto says, understand 'the futility of all striving'? Is the Stuckist, unlike the successful professional conceptual artist with his 'dead sheep and found underpants' (ooh, bitch!) really 'unencumbered by the need to be seen as infallible' and 'not afraid to fail'? Is the Stuckist really an amateur whose duty is 'to always be wrong'?

Charles says those are pretty valid and relevant questions and he'll get back to me on Monday.

*

I'm not having much phone luck today, so I go out and walk around downtown Berlin. So, vibe! Who should I bump into but Ali Smith, the Scottish novelist? We sit down at a street table and I ask her some questions.

Ali, do you try to engender accidents in your work? Do you try to change your habits to make what you're writing seem 'wrong' to you? 'Cos I'm writing a thing for Vice, and I've got a big investment in wrong being the new right.

Ali Smith: I am fascinated by accidents and the relationship of meaning to accident. The relationship of what seems like chance to what seems like meaning. That sense of the random, which is of course never random, because that's how our lives are made up, because they make narrative backwards. But if they made narrative first -- which of course would always feel wrong, because how could you tell that it was narrative? -- then maybe we would change our ways of understanding things.

Me: I'm confused. What do you mean, if we made narrative first?

Ali Smith: Okay, here we are, I met you, we're sitting in this street, some people are walking past, there's a narrative, there are several narratives going on. If we could be aware of all the narratives that are going on rather than the one we think is 'the right narrative' then anything could happen, any shapes could happen, any story could happen.

*

Maybe it's the 30 year old Laphroaig whiskey we've been downing, but I'm suddenly quite excited by this idea of following all the little 'wrong' narratives rather than the one big 'right' one. Maybe I'll do that in my piece for Vice! It's drift, isn't it? It's what the Situationists called 'derive'! You can do that on the street, you just follow your nose until you're in a gloomy area with a bunch of cranes and some seagulls and a greasy cafe. But who cares that it's a dank nowhere, you got here thanks to 'derive' and 'psychogeography' and that makes it fashionable as fuck.

Paging Guy Debord, dead frenchman, Situationist, father of psychogeography, grandfather of punk marketing! White courtesy telephone please.

*

So I'm drifting through the city and I stumble across an art opening. It's a Christine Hill show called Style Manual. Christine has illustrated a bunch of her prejudices on bits of paper, pages from a ring binder, and hung them on the wall. As you look at them, it becomes clear that she's making her own personal Style Manual, like the ones they have at corporations like the New York Times or UPS. Style manuals are books (or 'bibles') containing rules which, to employees, become a kind of corporate ten commandments. Thou shalt always use purple and orange Futura on a gray ground. Thou shalt never answer the phone without repeating the company slogan.

Christine Hill is there in person. She's smiling a lot and she's hot. I figure she'll have some interesting things to say. Because this style manual thing is all about etiquette. It's about designating a whole bunch of things 'right' and a whole other bunch of things 'wrong'. I flick on my tape recorder and approach.

Me: Christine, I'm interested in this style manual idea, and also this very retro style you're using. Is there some nostalgia for a time when everybody knew what was wrong and what was right?

Christine Hill: For me definitely. I definitely feel nostalgia. It's not like trying to stay in one place but some things, especially visually, once they got to a certain point of design I wish they would stop being improved. Like the UPS logo -- it was great, it didn't need improving. Corporate logos keep getting rounder and rounder. For me it was always helpful to know what is okay, what is not, and have it all kind of noted in a style manual.

Me: But things get right and then they're so right they're dead. And you have to tear up the style manual and start again. But you're not tearing up the style manual...

Christine Hill: Well, first I have to write it! But I get to write it, so that's the whole thing. I'm not tearing up the one that has been given to me. I'm getting to decide what it is.

Me: But you're agreeing with a lot of real people out there who have their own style manuals, like the New York Times style manual, which I see over there.

Christine Hill (getting gossipy): I've heard some great things about the Abercrombie and Fitch style manual. It's supposedly so top secret that I would almost have to go get a job there just to read what that thing is. Hey, this is for Vice, right? I love the Dos and Don'ts! (Points to her black polka dot skirt.) Obviously today I would be a 'do'!

Me: Do the Vice Dos and Don'ts seem to you like a contemporary style manual of sorts? Are they trying to shift the definition of what we think of as 'right and wrong' when it comes to style?

Christine Hill: What's in and what's out are pretty subjective. The whole idea of having a style manual at all as some corporate thing is important. But I wouldn't say that I'm for limitation, that only the things here are valid.

We talk for a while about why the FedEx logo is so vile, then I take her photo and drift out of the room. Wow, she was a definite 'do'.

*

So I'm stalking Klaus Biesenbach, the guy who curates all the best art shows I see at PS1, the ICA, Kunst-Werke -- my favourite galleries in (darling!) New York, London and Berlin. I want to ask him about a piece he chose for Video Acts, the single channel 1970s video art show I just saw in London. In it, Vito Acconci is sitting at a table talking to the camera. 'I need to imagine you're touching my cock, I need to imagine your hands are exploring my crotch and caressing my balls,' he's saying. It's fucking embarrassing to watch, because you just see this guy and imagine him wanking under the table while he's describing 'you' doing all that stuff to him. But then again, the rawness and wrongness of that makes Acconci seem very vulnerable. And his need for 'you' to watch him and feel his shame and see him belittled makes you like him.

Klaus isn't vulnerable. He's busy. Hedi Slimane is doing a book launch. 'Why don't you call me on Monday?' he says.

*

I'm Friendstering with Scanner, 'artist who listens to the world then plays it back'. Scanner is one of those smart laptop guys with a big shaved dome head that bobs around behind a Powerbook. He's probably read Kim Cascone's essay 'The Aesthetics of Failure', which says that glitch is a form of music based on amplifying rather than minimizing mistakes. He probably knows that John Cage said that noise inevitably turns into harmony if you repeat it enough (and with recording technology, you can).

So I'm asking Scanner about being wrong.

Me: Has something you've created struck others -- because of its sheer originality -- as 'wrong' when they first saw it?

Scanner: Morally wrong for certain. Early recordings of scanned phone calls were deemed outrageous and intruding on private space especially by journalists writing for tabloids. Now media entertainment is saturated by a desire to endlessly watch and listen to others.

Me: Tell me about a happy accident or deliberate error that made you stronger or broke you through an impasse?

Scanner: I lost an entire album through a horrific system crash in my computer only to discover that the remnants offered something completely new, corrupted, distorted and potentially useless that I later went on to exploit at length.

Me: If you could go back in time and make one mistake you failed to make when you had the chance, what would it be?

Scanner: I wish I'd known that scratching a record could be profitable. All those years of carefully handling vinyl and gently nudging the stylus across. Goodness, I really missed out there!

Me: Which artist or creator made your favourite mistake, and what is it?

Scanner: Andy Kaufman, the late American comedian, made the mistake of inviting his entire audience to a warehouse to offer them milk and cookies, only to discover afterwards that it cost more than the financial rewards of the show itself.

*

I've listened to Scanner and I'm playing him back. That Andy Kaufman thing reminds me of two of my favourite mistakes. Both made by New Order on their 'Blue Monday' 12".

One, Peter Saville's dye-cut lozenge sleeve cost so much to manufacture that Factory Records actually lost two pence for every copy of the record they sold. A total marketing mistake. But a great sleeve. And two, that funky bit where the drum machine stops, rears up, shows the whites of its eyes, whinnies, and does this completely irrelevant kick drum part. Stephen Morris said that was totally a mistake because they'd just bought the drum machine and didn't know how to program it yet. But they liked it and decided to leave it in. Then a bunch of other bands copied the mistake, because it was the best thing in the record. Then the mistake became a new orthodoxy and you had to have it in your Electroclash record or be a folk singer. The wrong became so much the new right that it came full circle and went back to being wrong again.

Now the thing to be is a folk singer.

*

'Panthers broke into the temple,' wrote Franz Kafka, 'and drank the holy wine. They did the same thing the following year, and so on. Eventually it was incorporated into the ceremony.'

At that point I guess a self-respecting panther would do something a bit more fresh, like helping old ladies cross the street.

*

I'm talking to Igor Stravinsky. He's calling me (collect) on a really bad line, from 1913. He's furious that a crowd of Parisians has just greeted his new work 'The Rite of Spring' with boos and whistles. I ask him to call back back on Monday. This call is costing me a bomb.

*

Apparently Wassily Kandinsky called while I was out. His message is a bit garbled, but it seems to be about how he came into his studio one day and saw a landscape he'd done propped on its side, failed to recognize it, and saw instead this incredible improvisation made of pure colour and form. The message ends '...and that's how I invented abstract art. By accident! Put that in Vice!'

*

I call my mom and ask her if I was planned or a mistake. And if I was a mistake, does that make me any less valid, you know, as a person?

'I'm a bit busy right now,' says my mom, 'can you call back on Monday?'


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