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

Last time, I introduced readers to the Luther Blissett movement and to two of its principle architects, Wu Ming 1 and Wu Ming 2. Across the interview, they described how the group drew inspiration from Slapshot and Star Trek, not to mention Raymond Carver, Joseph Campbell and Jorge Luis Borges, They discussed a range of creative and expressive activities which included the writing of novels and manifestos as well as the staging of elaborate pranks designed to quell some of the moral panics being sparked by local media. They offered a perspective on culture which is one part avant garde theory and one part fan politics, categories which only rarely mix in the American context.

Today, we continue this interview with some more reflections on the ways Luther Blissett related to the emergence of digital culture, how they interacted with their readers, and how this emerged from their appreciation of popular culture.

The Luther Blissett movement has transmogified into the Wu Ming Foundation and the group has been publishing a range of genre-busting, collaboratively-authored novels, which are compared by critics who like them to the work of Umberto Eco and called by those who don’t, “novels for multitaskers.” To give you some taste of their work, here’s part of what Publisher’s Weekly has to say about 54:

The midlife crisis of Cary Grant, the founding of the KGB and the Neapolitan years of mafioso Lucky Luciano are just three of the plot lines woven into this dense, playful and always surprising literary behemoth set mostly in the year of the book’s title, at the height of the Cold War. Anchoring the tale with a relatively conventional narrative is a young Bolognese man named Robespierre (Pierre), who embarks on a transcontinental odyssey to find his father, Vittorio Capponi, a former Mussolini loyalist who left the Italian army to join the Communists in Yugoslavia. Meanwhile, Britain’s spy agency MI6 approaches Cary Grant (who’s in a career slump) with a bizarre proposal: the role of Yugoslavian leader Marshal Tito in a propaganda biopic. It seems impossible that the multitudinous names and story threads could converge, but, deliciously, they do–in Yugoslavia, where Grant meets Tito, Pierre finds his father, and Luciano’s driver Steve “Cement” Zollo tangles with the KGB, which is about to pull off a big hit. The latest joint effort (after the novel Q) from Wu Ming–a collective of five Italian intellectuals who named themselves “anonymous” in Mandarin–offers political commentary-cum-complicated escapism for the brainiac reader.

In some ways, the Luther Blissett movement and the Wu Ming Foundation novels might be seen as working in parallel with what critic Mark America has called “Avant-Pop,” a new aesthetic sensability which refuses to remain firmly within any given category of cultural production, choosing to play with the contents of popular culture in ways that reflect an avant garde sensibility. America writes:

The artists who create Avant-Pop art are the Children of Mass Media (even more than being the children of their parents who have much less influence over them)….Avant-Pop artists have had to resist the avant-garde sensibility that stubbornly denies the existence of a popular media culture and its dominant influence over the way we use our imaginations to process experience. At the same time, A-P artists have had to work hard at not becoming so enamored of the false consciousness of the Mass Media itself that they lose sight of their creative directives. The single most important creative directive of the new wave of Avant-Pop artists is to enter the mainstream culture as a parasite would sucking out all the bad blood that lies between the mainstream and the margin. By sucking on the contaminated bosom of mainstream culture, Avant-Pop artists are turning into Mutant Fictioneers, it’s true, but our goal is and always has been to face up to our monster deformation and to find wild and adventurous ways to love it for what it is….Our collective mission is to radically alter the Pop Culture’s focus by channeling a more popularized kind of dark, sexy, surreal, and subtly ironic gesturing that grows out of the work of many 20th century artists like Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Lenny Bruce, Raymond Federman, William Burroughs, William Gibson, Ronald Sukenick, Kathy Acker, the two Davids (Cronenberg and Lynch), art movements like Fluxus, Situationism, Lettrism and Neo-Hoodooism, and scores of rock bands including the Sex Pistols, Pere Ubu, Bongwater, Tackhead, The Breeders, Pussy Galore, Frank Zappa, Sonic Youth, Ministry, Jane’s Addiction, Tuxedo Moon and The Residents.

In what follows Wu Ming 1 and Wu Ming 2 offer their own perspective on the ways their project intersects both the historic avant garde and popular culture. I fully confess that I am much more a creature of popular culture than of the avant garde, yet I find myself really connecting with a lot of what they have to say about their poetics and politics here.


HJ3: You wrote, “A vast, transnational community of people surrounds us and interacts with our books in a creative way, we encourage all kinds of sharing, reappropriation, derivative works etc.” What can you tell me about your relationship to your readers and the forms of appropriative works they produce?

WM2. Since the beginning of our career as professional storytellers we have exhorted our readers to get in touch with us and become a sort of collective “sixth member”, in constant osmosis with the original group. To be part of the Wu Ming’s “democratic republic of readers” does not mean to have a seat in the front row or a privileged access to our output. It means to take part, in a more or less direct manner, to a process of collective intelligence and creation that we usually compare with the relationship between community and storyteller in old folk culture.

It must be said that this co-operation does not take place only on the Internet, there are also many face-to-face moments, there’s warm physical participation, which we deem as absolutely necessary. We’re “on line” but we’re also “on the road”.

The Internet allowed us to skip intermediates such as the publishers’ press office and PR department, our presentation tours are completely self-organized. Being a group of five people, Wu Ming is almost ubiquitous, two or three delegations can discuss our work in different places simultaneously, hundreds of miles apart from each other. We go to places that are usually snubbed by mainstream authors, such as tiny bookshops, public libraries in small villages, squats, sometimes even private apartments – we literally deliver the presentation at home, if there’s a group of friends willing to get together one night and listen to what we have to say.

There’s constant interaction between us and the readers, they send us comments, suggestion, and criticism. The female characters in our novels have had a positive evolution thanks to the harsh critiques expressed by some female readers. Our newsletter, titled after general Vo Nguyen Giap, has about 10,000 subscribers and regularly features the readers’ feedback: reviews, comments, and pieces on various subjects. We don’t rely on any open forum or blog — we tried, but it took too much time to get rid of trolls. We prefer to receive a lot of stuff via e-mail, and make a quality selection.

Having said this, I think that the most explicit invitation to appropriate our work is the “copyleft notice” included in all our books, which can be copied, xeroxed, or downloaded straight from our website. We encourage people to use our works. Our novel Q was deconstructed and rewritten as a very original theatrical drama. 54 became the inspiration for an album by folk-rock band Yo Yo Mundi…

WM1… not to mention the use of our characters in role play games. I’ll say a few things about this later.

WM2. Even more explicitly, we have launched several collective writing projects. The first one was “I Shall Call You Russell”, and it bordered on the commonplace: we wrote the first chapter of a sci-fi novel, and anyone could write and send the following ones. The selection of chapters took place in public, on a temporary blog run by us. A jury selected the three best versions of any chapter, and people could vote their favorite one, which became the next chapter in the “official” (i.e. collectively approved) sequence, though all the other versions remained available as sources of inspiration, creating a web of plot “bifurcations” and “dead end streets”. There was no “official” last chapter, all the versions were published ex aequo.

The most important result of this experiment was the birth of another collective of novelists, Kai Zen (Japanese for “Constant improvement”). Kai Zen themselves have launched more and more projects like that, and their debut novel will be published in a few weeks by the biggest Italian publisher.

The second project was an experiment in “open source literature”, as in “open source software”. The main difference between storytelling and software programming is that almost everybody can work on the sourcecode of a story. The sourcecode of a story is the story itself. We wrote a short story titled “The Ballad of Corazza” and we put it on line. We asked readers to work on it, be it to change an adjective or rewrite a whole paragraph, or insert a new character. We received alternative versions of the story, do the revision accordingly, and make the result available.

After a couple of months, we released “The Ballad of Corazza 2.0″, which was a consistent synthesis of all suggested modifications. This version was also edited collectively until we had the (potentially) definitive text. The more open nature of this second project managed to stir creativity with greater effectiveness, as “The Ballad of Corazza” has become a graphic novel, a theatrical act (based upon one of the alternative versions), a two different reading performances, one of which with live musical accompaniment, and the score was the result of a similar “open source” process.

Last but absolutely not least, there’s the kind of interaction generated by the novels or short stories written by our readers, with no direct connection to our work. Back when we started, we publicly stated that we were willing to read unpublished stuff. Call it “talent scouting” if you like. Well, we received so much stuff (poetry, fiction, scripts, whatever) that we had to wave the white flag. We couldn’t possibly read all those novels and short stories, no way.

Our community’s collective wisdom solved the problem for us: fifteen Giap subscribers responded and volunteered for reading anything submitted by other readers. These people formed a collective on their own, iQuindici [TheFifteen, even if they are about thirty people now]. They have their own website and their own e-zine (Inciquid), they organize public readings of the best stuff they receive and select, and promote the adoption of open licenses (creative commons,copyleft, you-name-it) in the Italian publishing industry. Several new authors were “discovered” by publishers thanks to iQuindici.

HJ3: More recently you drew a comparison between your projects and ARGS. What similarities do you see? What might ARG designers and players learn by studying what you did a decade ago?

WM1 What you had was a huge number of people from different backgrounds and geographical areas, all interacting with each other in order to introduce ever new elements into a legend they were constructing in real time and telling all together. It is important to point out that these people didn’t know each other personally, some of them never met, never talked or wrote to each other, not even on the phone, not even via e-mail, for the whole duration of the project. I never met the majority of people who operated under the Luther Blissett pseudonym in other cities, not to mention people calling themselves Luther Blissett in other countries. Since the beginning, the Bolognese collective (which was more tight-knit than other informal groups springing out all over Italy) labeled itself “the only central committee whose aim is to lose control of the party”.

Yes, there was some sort of coordination between the different local groups, and a few things were explicitly prohibited: the Luther Blissett could not be used to spread racist, sexist or fascist material, and no Luther Blissett material could have a copyright. That’s all the “organization” we had.

Most of the time we ended up taking each other by surprise, we heard the news about a prank pulled by Blissett in Southern Italy and immediately claimed co-responsibility by playing a similar one or by giving a completely different motive for the prank! We enjoyed leaving clues for other Blissetts, and give wild interpretations of the clues left by them. In several cases the same hoaxes or actions were given different interpretations by different Blissett “coopeting” with each other. It was all grist to the mill, or as we say in Italy, “tutto fa brodo”, everything adds to the soup.

And it was transmedia storytelling taken to its extreme, clues were left on BBSs, websites, fanzines and other DIY media, pieces of mail art sent all around, restroom walls, Hertzian waves, and even classified ads on local newspapers. Sometimes we used Luther Blissett stickers in order to leave clues and give hints on how to take part in a hoax.

I think there are many similarities between what we did, RPGs, ARGs, and other storytelling games, in spite of the fact that our experience was and is very peculiar. These similarities were acknowledged many times by the communities playing RPGs in Italy. When our novel Q was published in 1999, some of the characters were immediately introduced into ongoing RPGs. More recently, in Pescara (Central Italy) dozens of people played an RPG inspired by one of our novels called Free Karma Food. It seems that our fiction is so multi-layered and “centrifugal” that it incites continuation on other platforms.

I really don’t know what the ARG community might learn by studying what we did. Certainly they might have fun reading about it.

HJ3: Typically avant garde work frames itself in opposition to popular culture. Yet it is clear that you are in some senses a fan of popular culture. How would you descrive your relationship to the entertainment texts which you draw upon in your work?

WM1. I grew up reading sci-fi pulp books, my room was choke-full of tons of Marvel and DC comics, as well as Italian comics which you probably never heard of. I spent days watching soccer matches, spaghetti westerns, Bruce Lee movies (or even worse/better, “Bruce Li” movies and other crap cashing in on Bruce Lee’s death), Star Trek (every afternoon on a local tv station), British series like Space 1999, and funky detective series like Baretta and Starsky & Hutch. I was a raving fan of Japanese anime, like every other kid I knew. In the late Seventies UFO Robot Grendizer, Great Mazinger and Steel Jeeg took Italian television by storm, episodes were watched by millions of kids. I always listened to all genres of popular music from Italian singer-songwriters to Frank Zappa to LA punk acts like the Germs of Black Flag, through to Tony Bennett and Brazilian Hip Hop. I used to play soccer games on my Commodore 64. I went to the movies as often as I could. I played table games like Monopoly and Scrabble.

In short, I started to expose my brain and body to all kinds of popular culture at a time when the Internet didn’t exist. I’ve always been in love with pop culture. All the other members of Wu Ming have similar backgrounds: sci-fi, comics, martial arts, rock’n'roll – two of them played in punk rock bands, one of which was fairly famous in the Italian underground. I think that if you don’t know pop culture, you don’t know your culture, thereby you don’t know the world around you. If you don’t know shit about pop culture, how can you be on the cutting edge of anything? If you don’t soil your hands with pop culture, if you snub and sneer at today’s participatory culture, you can’t be “avantgarde”, no matter how hard you try.

By the way, what does “avantgarde” mean? “Avantgarde” is French for “vanguard”, it is a military connoted term. “Avantgarde” means being at the front point of the battle. Too often, the avantgarde turn around and find out there’s no rearguard, nobody’s following them. That’s because they marched too fast, or in the wrong direction. This is the common problem of artistic and political vanguards. It didn’t happen to Luther Blissett because Luther Blissett was about spreading a disease, plus there was an “educational” aspect. Once a prank had been played successfully, we claimed responsibility and explained it in detail. Explain: that’s what the avantgarde never do, indeed, they enjoy being obscure, they mistake obscure for radical, they don’t want to give the people access to their work. They are enemies of the people. We never acted like that: the more people understand what we’re doing, the happier we are. From that point of view, we’re not exactly “avantgarde”.