How Slapshot Inspired a Cultural Revolution (Part One): An Interview with the Wu Ming Foundation

About a month ago, I received an empassioned e-mail, a fan letter of sorts, about Convergence Culture from someone calling himself Wu Ming 1. Being named Henry Jenkins III and having a son named Henry Jenkins IV, I wasn’t thrown by the whole name and number thing, but I was fascinated by his description of the commonalities between the world I described in the book and “the things we’ve been doing and theorizing for more than twelve years, albeit with a more radical/activist edge (multitudinous authorship, crossmedia storytelling, world making, identity games, RPG guerrilla warfare, old/new media collision, copyleft-oriented practices, media hoaxes and so on).”

It turns out that Wu Ming 1 was one of the leaders of the Luther Blissett movement and now was part of a writing collective that has published such collaboratively authored novels as

Q and 54.

The more I have dug into the Luther Blissett movement and the Wu Ming Foundation, the more fascinating it has all become. They have been experimenting with various forms of grassroots convergence for political and artistic purposes for some time now and have apparently had a much greater impact across Europe than they have so far had in the United States. Here’s part of what Wikipedia has to tell us about the movement:

Luther Blissett is a multi-use name, an “open reputation” informally adopted and shared by hundreds of artists and social activists all over Europe since Summer 1994….For reasons that remain unknown, the name was borrowed from a 1980′s British soccer player of Afro-Caribbean origins. In Italy, between 1994 and 1999, the so-called Luther Blissett Project (an organized network within the open community sharing the “Luther Blissett” identity) became an extremely popular phenomenon, managing to create a legend, the reputation of a folk hero. This Robin Hood of the information age waged a guerrilla warfare on the cultural industry, ran unorthodox solidarity campaigns for victims of censorship and repression and – above all – played elaborate media pranks as a form of art, always claiming responsibility and explaining what bugs they had exploited to plant a fake story. Blissett was active also in other countries, especially in Spain and Germany. December 1999 marked the end of the LBP’s Five Year Plan. All the “veterans” committed a symbolic Seppuku. The end of the LBP did not entail the end of the name, which keeps re-emerging in the cultural debate and is still a popular byline on the web.

Wu Ming 1 shared with me the following Youtube link which includes some discussion of their movement and its relationship to the British footballer. It includes an apperance from the “real” Luther Blissett, i.e. the soccer player who was the first black man to score a goal for a British team., who reads some rather experimental prose taken from one of the group’s novels.

And here’s the group’s official website.

Fascinated by our ongoing correspondence about such topics as fan fiction and ARGS, all suggesting that this European avant garde movement was also deeply immersed in popular culture, I asked Wu1 (we are now on first name and number basis) if he would answer some questions for my readers. I am going to run the extensive interview with Wu Ming 1 and Wu Ming 2 in two installments.

HJ3: You talked about the Luther Blissett movement as “grassroots mythmaking,” comparing it with fan fiction and contrasting it with the Culture Jamming movement. What do you see as the value of grassroots mythmaking?

WM1. While there’s a tendency to use “myths” as a fancy synonym of “lies”, I’d like to stick to a more precise definition. To put it very simply, myths are stories that keep communities alive and together. We couldn’t interact with each other without the bonds we create by swapping stories, and myths are stories with the strongest symbolic value, stories that hint at the mysteries of how we all came to be here, how we’re managing to get along in some way, and what the future looks like.

Myths are not weird stuff from an ancient past, they keep changing shape and context, and they always belong to the present day, they tell us about us here & now. Even the most rational of people recognize the power of myths in their life. As Joseph Campbell once pointed out, if you look at any professor at play in a bowling alley, and “watch him twist and turn after the ball has left his hand, to bring it over to the standing pins”, you’ll see that he’s trying to summon supernatural powers, the same we find in myths and folk tales populated by demons, witches, magicians, gods etc.

Moreover, myths have a very important function: they can incite abused people into fighting back, as stories of injustice and rebellion, repression and resistance, are handed down from one generation to the next. For example, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are both historical and mythical figures, they’re the beloved martyrs, the guys who dared to stand up and tell the truth and payed dearly for this. On the other hand, myths persuade suffering people to endure their situation and hope for a settling of scores, as in the myth of the Final Judgment, when the last shall be first, or the myth of revolution, when the poor shall take over and eat the rich.

In the early/mid Nineties the “Luther Blissett” collective identity was created and adopted by an informal network of people (artists, hackers, and activists) interested in using the power of myths, and moving beyond agit-prop “counter-information”. In Bologna, my circle of friends shared an obsession with the eternal return of such archetypal figures as folk heroes and tricksters. We spent our days exploring pop culture, studying the language of the Mexican Zapatistas, collecting stories of media hoaxes and communication guerrilla warfare since the 1920′s (Berlin Dada stuff, futuristic soirées etc.), obsessively re-watching one particular movie, Slapshot by George Roy Hill, starring Paul Newman as hockey player Reggie Dunlop. We liked Reggie Dunlop very much, he was the perfect trickster, the Anansi of African legends, the Coyote of Native American legends, Ulysses manipulating the cyclop’s mind.

What if we could build our own “Reggie Dunlop”, a “trickster with a thousand faces”, a golem made of the clay of three rivers — the agit-prop tradition, folk mythology, and pop culture? What if we started a completely new role play game, using all the media platforms available at the time to spread the legend of a new folk hero, a hero fueled-up by collective intelligence? (BTW, we’d read Pierre Lévy’s books, WM4′s father ran a small publishing house and had just published a translation of Les Technologies de l’intelligence, he was Lévy’s first Italian publisher, and we met the guy in Bologna a couple of times).

We were in touch with many people in Italy and abroad — thanks to BBS networks like FidoNet, the mail art network, and the national scene of occupied social centers. We spread the word and it all happened very quickly. In a few months, hundreds of people were using the “Luther Blissett” name and the new golem was getting a lot of coverage by baffled journalists.

Yes, there was a disruptive element, a confrontational stance, something that made us cousins of “culture jammers”, “subvertisers”, or theorists like the Critical Art Ensemble etc., but there was an important difference. Adbusters-type disturbance was all right, screwing up corporate propaganda is probably a necessary phase to go through: make parodies of advertisements, criticize consumerism, those are certainly good deeds… However, Luther Blissett also had a more positive attitude, the main purpose was to create a community around Blissett’s myth. Pranks, media stunts, and culture jamming were more the means to spread the myth than the ends of the project. The most important aspect of our activities was not sabotage, but the way sabotage increased Blissett’s mythical status.

It was an amazing upheaval, so many people writing, acting, performing under the same pseudonym, coordinating their efforts in some way without the need to know each other, by sending each other messages in bottles. It was an open, informal community. Fake news and media hoaxes served the purpose of making our very presence on the media landscape legendary, so that ever more people joined us and adopted the name. “Culture jamming” was just a subordinate part of the project: the practical exploration of a grassroots, interactive mythology was the most important thing.


HJ3: The Wikipedia describes the movement as an “open reputation,” implying that the name Luther Blissett was open to being appropriated and used by hundreds of different participants. Can you explain this concept of an “open reputation” and what does it suggest about the nature of authorship in contemporary culture?

WM2. “Open reputation” means that the different participants in the “Multiple Name” game were not shreds of a schizophrenic conflict of personalities, they were all facets of one identity. Every time you used the name “Luther Blissett”, you were doing more than adhering to a project: you were becoming Luther Blissett, you were Luther Blissett.

On planet Tlon, the famous fictional world invented by Jorge Luis Borges, “books are rarely signed, nor does the concept of plagiarism exist… It has been decided that all books are the work of a single author who is timeless and anonymous.” It isn’t by chance that, according to one of Tlon’s philosophical schools, “All men who speak a line of Shakespeare are William Shakespeare.”

I think that Luther Blissett was an experiment in practical philosophy. Luther faced the belief in the Author as an individual genius with telling a moral fable on how creativity really works. We believe that any author is a collective author.

Several years ago, the world of literature was informed that Raymond Carver wasn’t really Raymond Carver. Carver’s original drafts were much longer than the published versions. All the exceeding parts were cut out by his editor, Gordon Lish. Carver’s endings were actually Lish’s endings.

I’ve got a question: what if Mr. Lish weren’t an editor, but just a friend of Carver’s? Let’s imagine that Gordon Lish was a post office clerk living across the street from Carver. One night Carver rings Lish’s doorbell and says: “Let’s go to the bar and have a beer, I need your opinion about the story I’m writing”. Carver reads the short story to Lish, and the latter says: “It’s good, but it drags on for too long. Why not cut the last paragraph? That would make a sharper ending, wouldn’t it?” Carver goes home and follow Lish’s advice. We the readers will never know about that conversation. Nothing strange happens. Carver is still Carver, and we’re going to talk about Carver’s sharp endings, not Lish’s.

Now I’ve got a few more questions: how many authors happen to talk with post office clerks? How many books are the result of conversations between authors and post office clerks? How many times an author gets an idea from a person she talks with? And is there something she can do about it? Can she confine herself to an ivory tower in order to save “her own voice”? In that case, except for a diary of her confinement, she’d have nothing to write about.

Storytellers must immerge their hands in the sea of stories, and accept the fact that they are just complexity reducers, “filters” between the mythosphere and the people. There’s no “originality” out of this, you can be “original” only in the way you filter and re-elaborate what you get from your community.

As a consequence, stories belong to everyone, private property of popular culture is a contradiction in terms. Stories should be free to circulate, fertilize brains, and enhance the open reputation of any author. That’s the reason why our books, as physical objects and containers of stories, have a price — so that we make a living out of writing them — , while as immaterial stories they can be freely reproduced, in an economy that’s based upon abundancy instead of scarcity: there can be no maximum amount of stories, the tank can be filled endlessly.

HJ3: I am tempted to describe the Luther Blissett movement as a fandom without an originating text. How did you go about creating a community around Luther Blissett? How might we compare and contrast what emerged here with a traditional fan community?

WM1. In a way, since every single action done by anybody under the pseudonym ended up expanding and enhancing Luther Blissett’s reputation as a hero, we may say that every action was “fan fiction”. Fan fiction delves into an originating set of texts (a TV series, a movie and its sequels etc.) in order to expand the lives of the characters and improve the fan’s experience. That’s what we did all the time.

In the context of the Luther Blissett Project, we even produced “proper”, explicit fan fiction — Star Trek fan fiction in particular, e.g. an interview with Capt. Jean-Luc Picard on some architectural absurdities in Bologna. The references to fandom and fan culture were frequent, we were all sci-fi and genre fiction fans (and my brother is an old-time Trekkie).

At the end of 1995 we published a book called Mind Invaders, whose first chapter was mainly devoted to discussing the mythopoetical language spoken by Tamarians in a famous episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, you know, phrases like: “Shaka, when the walls fell”, or “Sokath, his eyes uncovered”. Tamarian language provided us with a way of incorporating tradition into our activities. We often described the LBP as a “Picard and Dathon at El Adrel” kind of situation (i.e. working together for a common goal, even without knowing each other). We even broadcasted the whole episode (only the audio, of course) during our local radio show, “Radio Blissett”.

Once you’ve got a situation in which everybody can be the masked hero, it isn’t difficult to create a community around this concept. Here’s the ensuing virtuous circle: if a whole community takes responsibility for what single members say or do (think of the scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus when every captured slave says: “I am Spartacus!”), members will feel themselves surrounded with warmth and complicity, and will be driven to give their best to the project.

HJ3: Many of the best pranks associated with Luther Blissett seem to have been played upon traditional media — on television producers and print journalists primarily. How might we see what you did as reflecting the shifting relations between bottom-up grassroots media power and top-down corporate media power?

WM1. In the Italian press, from 1994 to 1999, “Luther Blissett” (whose advent coincided with the rise of the Web) became almost a synonym for “Internet activism” and net-culture. Traditional journalists felt both fascinated and threatened by this “new media” thing, it was growing so fast and they were totally unprepared, unable to understand. They couldn’t find words for such a complex social trend (an epoch-defining shift from top-down communication systems to horizontal networks and personal media!).

They could find words for Luther Blissett though, as the Sheriff of Nottingham could find words for Robin Hood. Luther Blissett was a person — well, sort of, I mean that he was an anthropomorphic figure, he literally embodied what was happening all around. I keep a ten-inches stack of press clippings in my apartment; leaf through it, and you’ll find all kinds of definitions for Blissett: “terrorista culturale”, “bandito dell’informazione”, “pirata informatico”, “guerrigliero digitale”…

In 1996-97 Italy and Europe were swept by a tide of moral panic and mass paranoia on the subject of pedophilia, all of a sudden the Internet was described as an evil place, far more dangerous than any other place, the wood where child abusers lurked from behind trees, waiting for Little Red Riding Hood. It didn’t matter that in Italy 91% of reported child abuses took place in the family and had nothing to do with computers: the Internet was the new folk devil. Traditional gatekeepers had the pretext for venting their anxiety for the Internet, and slandering those who dared do without them.

That’s when the Luther Blissett Project started to pull well-organized media pranks on such morbid subjects as pedophilia, the Internet, and satanic ritual abuse. We wanted to prove that that kind of sensational stories was picked up and printed with no fact-checking at all. Some panic-spreaders cut extremely sorry figures because of us. A few of them angrily commented that, by sidetracking the press, we were protecting actual pedophiles. An interesting logic: if there are no pedophiles, we’re going to invent them, and if someone proves that we invented them, we’ll accuse them of defending pedophiles… that didn’t exist in the first place!

In one particular case, Luther Blissett even conducted a grassroots counter-investigation in a criminal case in Bologna, where a bunch of heavy metal fans (they called themselves the “Children of Satan”) had become scapegoats for the local law authorities. They were arrested during a poorly-thought-out operation targeting alleged ritual abusers. No evidence at all, no reliable testimony, nothing. Of course they were savagely calumniated in the media, at least at the beginning, there was much talk about “secret websites for pedophiles” etc. Luther Blissett, by means of some carefully planned stunts, managed to instil in the public opinion reasonable doubts about the solidity of the case against those guys. In the end they were fully acquitted and indemnified by the state for eighteen months of unjust detention.

Slowly but steadily moral panic decreased and Luther Blissett switched to other tactics and targets (e.g. the highbrow art world and the Holy See), four of us focused on “Operation Dien Bien Q“, and the whole network prepared for the end of Blissett’s Five Year Plan.

As I look back, I understand that Luther Blissett pioneered the collision between old and new media, in a phase when the boundaries of old and new were sharper than they are now, and there were less intersections, only a few newspapers had an online edition, journalist didn’t have their own blogs, and file sharing was still far from being a mass phenomenon.

HJ3: How did the work of the Luther Blissett movement bridge between the online world and physical reality, taking the work of imagination and giving it some real world consequences?

WM2. Imagination has real world consequences if it reaches other people’s brains. Mass media were used by Luther Blissett as a privileged vehicle for this. On the most trivial level, TV and newspapers replaced Aristotle as the source of “truth” long ago. On the other hand, luckily, many people are capable of critical thinking, and false news can have a greater impact if they are exposed and explained, instead of remaining hidden under the big heap of information.

I’ll make two examples: at the beginning of 1994, even before Luther Blissett started his career, some of us coined the slogan: “You decide tomorrow’s scoop!” and put the concept into practice in the streets. Local newspapers are very penetrable, and their weakest point is the “Letters to the editor” page. We started to send letters to Bologna’s dailies, pretending to be horrified citizens who had found animal entrails on park benches, car windshields, child swings, and traffic signs. In two weeks, the news moved from letters to feature articles, headlines got bigger and bigger, and journalists found a name for this new phenomenon: “Horrorism”. Art critics and sociologists were asked about the meaning of this provocation. Then someone really left a big ox heart hanging from a tree, leaving people bewildered. Emulation was the only real world consequence… except for the teachings we got from the prank, which was a prelude to bigger things.

Two years later, we filled a schoolbag with alleged remnants of a satanic ceremony (black candles, two human shinbones, and a skull), then put it in a luggage locker at the Bologna railroad station. We anonymously sent the deposit receipt to a journalist who was particularly keen on spreading moral panic, along with a communiqué announcing the birth of a new anti-Satanist vigilante group. The story was that “we”, the vigilantes, had assaulted satanists during a black mass, we had beaten them and put them to flight, then we’d stolen that stuff and sent them to the journalist as evidence of our presence in town.

As WM1 said, this was part of our counter-information campaign on the case of the “Children of Satan”. However, it was a hot summer, and that particular journalist was on vacation. He went back to work after three weeks, found our letter, paid one month due of deposit taxes (about $150), found the skull and the other stuff, and the story made the frontpage, under a banner headline. He didn’t know that we had already claimed responsibility for the prank and explained our motives, on the pages of a local mag. This “preemptive confession” sounded like: “This guy’s going to find a schoolbag filled with crap and write a sensational piece about it. After all the lies he spread, at last he reaps as he sowed. We invented one story, but he invented many more”.

As a “real world consequence”, everything changed: the guy never wrote about the “Children of Satan” anymore, the other two Bologna daily papers started to question the solidity of the case. It was like a crash course in media education for an entire city. Until that moment, by using the tools of traditional counter-inquiries, we had gotten no results. The “homeopathic” effect of one single lie cured the illness better than the traditional media medicines usually administered to the public opinion.