Luther Blissett, a legend of the global ignorence
"I always said,"
affirmed the art critic, David Bourdon ,
when he first heard of Ray Johnson's suicide, "that without the impediment
of Ray's personality there'd be a lot of interest in the work".
The 67 year-old
mail artist jumped off a bridge in Sag Harbor in New York State on January
13th, 1995. The representatives of the official art world had never
doubted the importance of the artist, considered to be the father of
mail art, but were unable to establish contact with him - because of
his strong aversion to the commercial art world, gallery owners, and
generally, professional arts organizers. They could breathe a deep sigh
of relief: he was no longer there to create confusion. Others - specifically
the members of the large mail network organized around him - found the
most charming characteristics of his personality in the natural way
he made connections and his requests to his partners to contribute to
an open artefact. But other contradictions in his life diversified the
art scene, wreaking havoc on art historians reliant on simple equations.
Everybody knew him as a communicative, even loquacious, person, he was
brilliant at small talk, he hadn't heard of discretion, but his death
revealed that the details of his personal life had been shrouded in
secrecy, even from his closest friends. If we choose to enumerate the
elements of his method of creation, his character, and biography all
which contributed to the development of the Johnson legend during his
lifetime, one paradox would certainly have to be mentioned: on the one
hand, he avoided, at all costs, public appearances, on the other hand,
he was obsessively preoccupied with where and how many times his name
appeared in print. While he pioneered a perfectly functional alternative
communication network, albeit manipulative - though creative and with
good intentions - his work excluded expropriation, even though he circulated
it with "add and return" instructions, it was always he who directed
and controlled the events.
One can find the
key to these contradictions in his fundamental convictions that defined
his lifestyle, personality, and work: he fought against even the slightest
allusion to originality and accomplishment. That explains equivocally
his fascination with collage techniques and the attention he paid to
the accidental telltale words, his initiative to establish the mail
art network, his patronage of seances at NYCS
(New York Correspondence School). He was attracted to all that was defined
by chance and the unforeseen. He was repulsed by the final, the conclusive,
and the localized.
After all, we
must conclude that Bourdon's comment - that Ray Johnson, through his
suicide, ceased to impede the dissemination of his own work - was precipitate.
His legend continues to spread even after his death and makes difficult,
- possibly even more so than while he was alive - positioning
his work as art, dealing with it as such, and selling it.
mysterious circumstances of Johnson's death
generated speculation among his friends and the police. Friends who
knew that he was careful with hidden relationships, symbols, and numerology,
didn't fail to notice that Ray, aged 67 (6+7=13), arrived at a hotel
on Friday, the 13th of January, checked into room 247 (2+4+7=13), and
prepared his suicide for 7:15 am. Most likely, it was an art event.
His only work where chance and diversity had no role to play. Some artist
friends recalled that a few days earlier, Johnson had called and told
them excitedly that he was working on his greatest performance.
The police investigated
the case on a more prosaic level, though they did notice some unusual,
perhaps even thrilling, details in the mysterious case. They found irritating
clues in Johnson's house, (a postcard mailed on the 13th in
Los Angeles -
signed by Johnson, an airplane ticket for the 13th, and a handwritten
note with the address of a hotel in Mexico), from which they concluded
that suicide was not probable, instead, they suspected homicide. Another
piece of evidence supported their conclusion: though it was well-known
that Johnson led a frugal existence and had never appreciated creature
comforts, $400,000 was found in his bank account... for Luther Blissett.
to become a myth in this life," said Tibor Hajas, "death cannot harm
it in this case." And truly, when Ray Johnson was involved, his death
only intensified the augmentation of his myth. The mysterious circumstances
of his death and the discoveries of the artist's secret personal life
then obscured even further his already vague image.
One of the discoveries
was that he was in contact with a certain Luther
Blissett, an anonymous person in the art world, who didn't belong
to the famous people appreciated by Ray. This in itself is not suspicious,
Johnson had communicated and exchanged letters with common people, an
interesting name always tweaked his curiosity. But the enormous amount
of money found in Blissett's name made the police deduce an accomplice
relationship, they discovered that Blissett was a homosexual and drug
of the story is a best-selling book published in November of 1995, by
the Rome-based Castevecchi Edizioni. The name of the book is Mind Invaders.
How to Fuck (With) the Media? and it sold out in just two months, and
immediately went into reprint. The publication was a part of the Luther
Blissett-project, and among those who launched it, we find Ray Johnson.
The police detective on the case connected the $400,000 with the financing
of the book, and as the subject of the book denied the utility of the
media and operated with subversion, he concluded that Johnson's death
could have been in the interest of the CIA. The police assumptions began
with a hypothesis among private detectives and friends, the wildest
of theories suggesting some sort of CIA-Masonic conspiracy aimed at
killing Johnson. However, the book was published despite Ray's death,
and the identity of Luther Blissett remains unclear. This, and the explicit
directive of the book, warning the manipulated reader that they were
expected to re-manipulate others and create new LB-Figures in order
to generate sensational disorder and chaos, summoning thousands of phantoms.
In the spirit
of Luther Blissett (often ascribed to Ray Johnson), there were sabotages,
performances, video screenings, pyschogeographical explorations, all
creating a commotion worthy of Ray Johnson. The legend escalated and
reached America , where at the Sociometry Fair 96' in San Diego there
was a "Luther Blissett Display." But almost everywhere we find traces
of the Blissett-legend (virtual performances in Albania, strange graffiti
in Baltimore, as well as many art exhibitions).
A Spanish artist who, of course, adopted the name Luther Blissett, tried
to research the source of the legend, and to delimit its authentic pith.
He learned from Johnson's friends that a few years earlier, the artist
had received a press cutting which mentioned him from an Italian correspondent
Maggi). On the reverse side, he found a blurb on the national soccer
league, containing the sentence "Even Luther Blissett couldn't have
scored such a goal!" The Spanish artist relates that Luther Blissett
was a British soccer player who retired in the late 80's. He used to
play in the Watford Soccer Club, whose owner and president was... Elton
John. In 1983, he got signed on to the Milan Soccer Club, and hence,
moved to Italy. But he never got used to the league, and one year later,
the club sent him back to the UK. He's remembered as the proverbial
washout. In a short letter to Vittore Baroni, Johnson dropped the line "By the way, who is Luther Blissett?"
remembered the calamitous footballer and started laughing.
In a letter, he
shifted the question to Stewart
Home of the Neoist
After having aknowledged
that the reputation of Blissett was better in England than in Italy
(in the 1982-83 championship he scored 27 goals), Stewart Home, with
his fellows of the London Psychogeographical Association, went to Greenwich
for a psychogeographical "drift". There
the group found Blissett street. In the following days the LPA discovered
that is was named after the Reverend George Blissett, a Victorian do-gooder.
The Luther Blissett story spread in London as a harmless, funny episode
and wound its way back to Italy as an infectious multiple plot. That's
all the Spanish artist found out. But we must keep in mind the warning
of the book financed by Ray Johnson: in matters of Luther Blissett there
is nobody you can trust.
The fact is, that
already during Johnson's life (probably from 1994, though some sources
quote 1983) there was - like the different artists clubs - a Luther
Blissett Association, possibly founded by him, which pinpointed the
manipulation of public opinion and the practical demonstration of the
manipulative methods of the media. In the book published after his death,
there are a surprising number of ideas presenting Johnson's strategy
of communication and his way of thinking. It seems to be more than just
a coincidence that the request of the book complies with a Vittore Baroni
directive "Create your works of Ray Johnson and let them freely mix
with the original ones. Let's keep alive and visible the legends of
virtual Rays.... scare the shit out of the exploiters of posthumous
glory." Acknowledging all of this, we
must admit that Johnson's fellow artists undertook the lion's share
in the spread of the Blissett-Legend.
We could say that
the Ray Johnson-legend survives after the artist's death in Luther Blissett.
The list of actions, projects, performances, bluffs, books and bands
using this name is very long and refers to events varying in genre,
objective, and quality . This could be
a kind of respectful commemoration of the artist, whose method was based
on the collage, at its most eclectic: the combining of the elite and
the popular, the mixing of different kinds of information from various
sources, and the overlapping genres. Nonetheless, this cluster of heterogeneous
works, ideas, and organizations share the recognition that communication
is mediated and that the manipulated and selective (though necessary)
transmissions threaten society and art. This knowledge originates from
Ray Johnson. The forthcoming episodes of the Luther Blissett-legend
and their refutation, interpretation and selection is liable for the
way new informations infiltrate, gain meaning, or are lost in the mind.
It is important to emphasize that Johnson's work always conformed, but
only to this principle. When he sent recirculated mail to his friends,
just as when he mutilated his collages, when he organized the NYCS,
when he had phone conversations with strangers, when made a list of
underwear, and when he painted the bathtubs of famous people. Our mind,
apart from the important relevant information, is full of insignificant,
sometimes annoying thoughts, images, like those represented by pop art.
Ray Johnson is
merited with materializing constant movement, change, and the limiting
or broadening of consciousness in his work. His pioneering of an alternative
communication channel is an effect of his ambition to substantiate with
his every gesture, writing, or drawing, the conscious reflection of
the moment. "The New York Correspondence School has no history, only
a present," He once said, and this affirmation can be applied to all
the work in his ever changing oeuvre.
If we are little
bit responsive to hidden relationships, paying in this way a tribute
of admiration to the spirit of the artist, we find it logical that the
hotbed of the Blissett-legend is the Internet, which is considered by
many to be inspired by Johnson. There are two reasons why the Internet
is suitable to spread a legend associated with Ray. On the one hand,
the almost emblematic relation between mail art and the network. Anybody
can freely transmit any information on the Internet without moral, material,
or physical barriers- partly because of a lack of legal control of the
net. In this way the net erases the lines between elite and popular
culture, challenging originality and seeking cheap solutions, and through
this picks up the mail art tradition.
On the other hand,
cyberspace, this no man's land, offers great opportunities - beyond
the illusion of globality - to confront the short lived glitter of the
moment and of knowledge. The Internet is considered by some, a Ray Johnson
The Internet legend
commemorating Ray through all the transformation, reproduction, disprovement,
expropriation seems to retract Ray Johnson. The new chapters of the
Luther Blissett-Legend - although Ray's friends tried - consecutively
to bring it back to the original meaning, deal almost exclusively with
moral questions of art, imposed by the new medium of communication:
originality and reproduction. We should remember that these were the
fundamental questions of Johnson's life work, too. The philosophical
questions realized through delusion, the often repeated story, the original
and the copy, the duplicate were all a part of the ideological background
of the Johnson oeuvre. Critics have the opinion that the value of an
art work is decided by its context. Is there any better context, virtual
memorial, any better way to pay respect to the artist who, despite the
fact that his name came to equate mail art, tried all his life, and
even in his death, to escape from the dead words of art history?
(English translation by Anna Bálint, 1997)
The critic, based in New York, and the author of the books Warhol (Abrams
Edition. NY. 1989) and Designating the Earth (Abrams Edition. NY. 1995),
and wrote about Johnson in the catalog of his exhibition in Roslyn Harbour(Ray
Johnson Collages. Valentine / Snakes / Movie Stars) and in the September
1964 issue of Art Forum (An Interview with nosnhoJ yaR), and in the
November 1969 issue of Art International (Notes on a Letterhead).
The January 13th edition of the Spanish P.O. Box
mail art magazine publishes selections of the immense Blissett legend.
For Further details see the March 1996 issue of Vittore Baroni's Arte
Postale, the March 1996 issue of Panorama from Bologna, the anthology
Toto, Peppino e la guerra psichica (AAA edizioni. Viareggio. Udine),
number 9 of the Luther Blissett Quarterly (Grafton Publishing House),
the book of Giuseppe Genna entitled Net.generation (Oscar Mondadori.
Casa Editrice di Segrate.1996), and the dispute about them in the A-Infos
Hyper Archive on the Internet. <>
The psychogeographic drift is a short trip by foot or on bike along
certain path through a city, aimed at following the changes provoked
by the architectural and urbanistic solutions in the conscience and
in the disposition. <>
Arte Postale! No. 59, Spring, 1995 <>
To mention only the most different ones: the name is assumed by the
Neoist group Monty Cantsin and its philosophy (See on the Internet Monty
Cantsin: The House of Seven of Nine Squares, Berlin), by a Bologna
phantom director, the music of his film was composed by the Forbici
de Manitu, a band connected to Vittore Baroni, by the Psychogeografic
Association organized around Radio Kappa of Bologna, the plan developing
the basis of football with three teams, by the bluff presented in RAI's
Chi l'ha visto? program, the psychological campaign against teh Biennale
of Venice (see more: in the bibliography) <>