Sunday, 23 June 2013

Gimpo's M25 25-Hour Spin

Once a year, at the weekend closest to the Spring Equinox, Gimpo - best known to KLF watchers as the man who filmed the money burning - drives around the M25 for 25 hours. His aim is to do this for 25 years.

He's done 17 years so far.

Gimpo - photo by Iron Man Records

This week I was interviewed by Bristol filmmakers Dominic Wade and Rob Wickings, who are making a documentary called End Point of a Circle about this mighty endeavour. There's an early taste of it here, but it won't be finished for another eight years, after the 25th M25 Spin. (A 25-minute version should appear at the Portobello Film Festival at the end of August, and include interviews with Iain Sinclair and Bill Drummond.)

Dennis the Cat not happy that Rob and Dom filmed the interview in his garden.

Gimpo's M25 spin and Iain Sinclair's later book London Orbital were influences which fed into my book The Brandy of the Damned, in a which three people drive around the coast of Britain in a van for confused and uncertain reasons. Their most logical argument for embarking on the journey is that all the good quests have been done, but it is still better to undertake a stupid quest than no quest at all. I still think there is a lot of truth in that.

Gimpo's argument is that what he is doing is art. Normally this sets alarm bells ringing for me and reminds me of Julian Cope's perennial advice: "Never fall for the art trip!" But I have no trouble seeing what Gimpo is doing as art. It's outsider art, of course, but it's still a damn sight more interesting than anything Damien Hirst will ever do.

Here's why I say that: Driving around the M25 is shit. Sure, it's a necessary evil, but it's a grim, unpleasant way to spend hours of your life. It is part of most peoples lives, certainly in the south of this country. For that reason it should be a valid subject for artists to do something with, but making something transcendent out of M25 traffic seems to be beyond them. The only way to do so is through the sheer pigheaded determination of Gimpo, who committed to spending 25 years of his life on this project. This heroic dedication to seeing a commitment through to the end is noble and very human, and for me elevates the whole endeavour.

25 years is a long time. There's lots of things you could achieve in that time, so you have to assume that a nagging voice of doubt occasionally gets in Gimpo's ear and suggests that there are better things he could be doing with his life. Yet he keeps going.

I have total faith in him, I feel certain that he will see it though to the end. Gimpo is an ex-squaddie who served in the Falklands, and I like to think that he's still out on patrol, year in and year out, circling London and protecting it in his own way. I trust in him because I want to trust in people, and by sticking to his commitment he is showing that people can be trusted. This is, I think, a far more valuable and rewarding reaction than anything I have ever got from a Damien Hirst.

More power to him, long may he roll. Rather him than me, of course, but it's good to know that as the years pass he is still out there seeing it through. If he wants to call what he is doing art, then that's good enough for me. Here's a film of this year's spin:

More details at

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The NSA and Biographers

When I was researching my Timothy Leary biography in 2005, I had access to Leary's archive. This is now being meticulously cared for by the New York Public Library, but it was then in this nondescript lock up somewhere north of Santa Cruz.

This is what was inside:

There was a lot of stuff there - letters, manuscripts, legal documents, tapes, videos, computer disks, you name it. You could spend years going through it all - as the New York Public Library have now discovered. I saw part of Ken Campbell's archive recently and it was much the same.

All this got me thinking about the recent whistleblowing on the NSAs blanket surveillance and storage of our digital lives. What would it be like being a biographer in the future, when your subject's entire digital footprint is preserved and available? How would you go about writing a life of someone when you had every email they had every written and received, every social media update, their browsing history, a GPS record of their every movement from their phone, every photo taken of them, details of everything they've bought, even the names and duration of every porn video they watched? As should be clear by now, our digital landlords are financially dependent on storing all this stuff, and there is little reason to believe that it will remain private.

It's too much, it really is. Biography would move from being a psychological problem and become a signal-to-noise problem. You'd need teams of people to even think about going through all that methodically. No, what you would do is search it for key words - you'd search for the juicy stuff. And with that much data, you'd find it. You'd find exactly what you wanted to find.

As I discuss in the KLF book, increasing the amount of data available should in theory create clarity, but in practise it tends to do the opposite. Instead, it creates more and more alternative stories that you can pull from the same data set. Supporting evidence will be found to support and entrench misunderstandings, errors and confused context. In-jokes and sarcasm between friends become evidence of bitter enmity. Greetings and terms of affection which were, historically, in common use become evidence of infidelity or tragic yearning (just ask Shakespeare). The filter bubble problem will be magnified. Biographies already reveal more about their author and their prejudices than their subject, in particular with regards to what they omit. That will become much more apparent.

Politically motivated biographers will be in hog heaven. George Orwell will seem even more prophetic. Saints can be turned into sinners, and vice versa. And will be, repeatedly.

I'm biased here: I write about the past. This all sounds great to me. The fact that it will help people grasp just how arbitrary our perspectives on others are is, to my thinking, a bonus. But how would our subjects and their families react to this? What would you think of people going through your existing digital life because, a few months from now, you accidentally do something brilliant and become massively famous? Or if not you, your spouse or children?

All that is part of the conversation we need to be having now. History's view of how that conversation develops, of course, will depend on who chooses to research it.