Istvan Kantor with Daniel Baird
Since moving to Canada in 1977, Hungarian-born artist Istvan Kantor has created an enormous and controversial body of work which has encompassed mail art, sculpture, installation, noise music, both individual and collective performance, and video. His famous Blood X interventions have earned him the distinction of being banned from such elite museums as the National Gallery of Canada and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Kantor was one of the 2004 recipients of the Governor’s General Award, the most prestigious award in Canada for achievement in the visual arts. His most recent work, the feature length video “Lebensraum/ Lifespace—Spectacle of Noise,” will premier on June 12 at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. I met up with Istvan Kantor at his studio in Toronto, and then we moved on to a bar called The Communist’s Daughter. -Daniel Baird
Daniel Baird (Rail): You grew up in Budapest and studied medicine at the university, but at that time you were also starting to work seriously as an artist, performing at the Young Artists’ Club and elsewhere. What sort of work were you making?
Istvan Kantor: I did almost everything, from junk art to visual poetry. I sang Hungarian folk songs, staged happenings, wrote lyrics for rock bands, and also played in different bands. Malevich, Alfred Jarry, Jack Kerouac, Che Guevara, Duchamp, and John Lennon were equally important for me. I spent most of my time in decadent bars and pubs writing manifestos, planning world revolutions and most of all waiting for a miracle to come. As a result I dropped out of university. I was involved in a group called Drazse Express. It could be described as an experimental, spontaneous music group, but the focus was less on the music and more on the action. We broke all the rules and produced nonsense musical performances in which everyone played an instrument they didn’t know how to play, creating a convulsive cacophony, some kind of anti-music that was nothing but complete noise. We called it siphon-music. We were influenced by the early avant-garde movements, especially by dada and futurism, and we were extremely critical towards everything. At that time, in the dictatorial culture of the early seventies, this was a very unique experience. Retrospectively I see it as pre-Neoist subvertainment. Most of my friends were involved in it. One of our methods was to go to a club where a band was playing and introduce ourselves as a young band and ask if we could play during the intermission. Obviously nobody had anything against it since we were not asking for money, we only wanted to share the stage and the instruments. So when they let us go on stage, at that moment we untuned all the instruments very fast and turned the amps up to maximum volume. The noise surprised everyone and it took them a while to understand what was going on. Then the organizers usually turned off the electricity and ran up on stage to stop us. We were kicked out and banned from the place forever. But after a while, doing it over and over again at different places we got recognized for being an anti-music orchestra and we were eventually invited to perform. That was the end of it.
Rail: You met the eccentric American mail artist David Zack at the Young Artists Club at some point in 1976, and he had a huge impact on your life.
Kantor: David Zack was one of the early mail art heroes who devoted his whole life to correspondence art or mail art. He was one of the first to write an important article on mail art in Art in America. He was American, but he was also a Canadian since he married a Canadian woman and they lived in Regina, Canada. He came to Hungary in 1976, in the early spring when he was still living in Regina. I met him at the Young Artists’ Club at the opening of his exhibition. Zack was an underground figure who absolutely rejected all the institutional ideas concerning art: he was the one who stuck with living it and corresponding all the time and he didn’t think in terms of gallery exhibitions. The exhibition in Hungary was really an exceptional thing. It consisted of collages made of letters, child-like drawings, Xerox art, little booklets. I was amazed by his way of reproducing information, sending out that information and building up a network. Today it’s done on the Internet, but at that time it was by the postal system. Robert Filliou called it the Eternal Network. It was something I had never heard of before and I was immediately fascinated.
Rail: It wasn’t long after this that you left Hungary, and moved to Paris, where you lived as a street musician and continued making art. After a year in Paris, you moved to Montreal, which is in many ways where your career really began.
Kantor: Compared to Paris, Montreal was a desolate land. For me it was a perfect place to restart my life. To begin my life I did lots of typical immigrant jobs like cleaning offices and washing dishes. For a few months I worked in a plastic factory as machine operator. That was my first experience with hard-core capitalist exploitation. I turned it into art. I took it seriously as a readymade performance art piece and all the workers became part of it. When the foreman was not watching, I took pictures of the machines and the workers. I also kept notes. I renamed the place the Plastic Brain Factory and populated it with semi-fictional robotic characters. Among my co-workers were John Cage, Duchamp, Beuys, and Marton Kosznovszki. This was the only way for me to deal with the situation. We produced stupid toys and household items. Time to time the machines had to be emptied out by spilling the hot plastic on the floor. This resulted in very colorful, brain-looking waste items. I collected them and considered them my art works. The machines, the big cardboard boxes for the products, the stamps on the boxes, all these visuals in the factory were very inspiring for me. Also the monotonous activity, the repetitious movements and the noise of the machines.
Rail: Soon you were in Portland, Oregon to work with David Zack.
Kantor: David lived a nomadic lifestyle due to his continuous financial difficulties. He often had to escape from his creditors. He usually just packed his family in a van and drove off, leaving his debts behind. He had five children and lived in a completely chaotic situation. He invented the Unpaid Bills Collage Festival, which was basically a party to get drunk and glue unpaid gas and electricity bills to large pieces of cardboard. By that time, in June 1978, he was living in Portland, Oregon. Before going he had already proposed to me to become Monty Cantsin, so in Portland I introduced myself as Monty Cantsin. From the very moment of my arrival I was completely involved in the Monty Cantsin Open Pop Star project, doing everything in the name of Monty Cantsin. David figured that Monty Cantsin was an open pop star and everyone can do everything in the name of Monty Cantsin, and if we are all using it, and everyone will be Monty Cantsin, then everyone will profit from it, and we will all be immortal superstars.
Rail: It was not longer after you return to Montreal that you initiated Neoism. How did that come about?
Kantor: I always say that I got trained at the Portland Academy. Basically it meant that I spent lots of time with David improvising songs, visiting friends, drinking wine and smoking joints, sitting in Dr. Blaster Al Ackerman’s kitchen, hanging out at the Earth Tavern or at the Long Goodbye lounge with Musicmaster, Jerry Sims, Alan Lloyd, Tim Harvey, John Shirley, the Neoboys, Steve Minor, and telling people that they were all Monty Cantsins. I plugged myself completely into the Portland art community that was very active in the late seventies. I stayed with the Zacks in an old house, in a very poor neighborhood of mostly black people. I went through Zack’s mail-art archives, played music at the Smegma House, performed at NWAW (Northwest Artists Workshop) and at lots of other venues. But we didn’t use the term Neoism until later, in early 1979. I returned to Montreal in November1978 and I took a job as janitor. I got in touch with Vehicule Art, a local artists-run organization, and proposed a mail art event that was called Brain In the Mail. The opening of the Brain In the Mail show took place on February 14, 1979 and mostly it is considered to be the beginning of Neoism. Even though I came up with the name only a couple of months later and typed the word Neoism for the first time on a Smith-Corona typewriter on May 1, 1979, in Apt. 215, at 1100 McGregor Street, to be really exact. Since I began this Monty Cantsin act and started developing the Monty Cantsin Open Pop Star idea, I felt there was a need for something else to extend the Monty Cantsin concept. Therefore I proposed Neoism. I came up with this name because it didn’t really mean anything.
Rail: So Neoism mocks the whole idea of a movement; it’s a kind of anti-movement.
Kantor: I wasn’t sure what I wanted, I really wasn’t sure, but I wanted it immediately. I wanted to do something but I wasn’t sure what it was. Neoism was only a name. I didn’t have any manifesto—I did write a one-sentence manifesto that said that “Neoism has no manifesto.” Though I had no idea of what Neoism was, on May 22, 1979, which was Election Day, I decided to take Neoism to the street. I made a Neoist chair, it was just a regular folding chair with a Neoism sign attached to it, and I sat on this chair in downtown Montreal at the corner of McGill Avenue and Sherbrooke Street. I waited for something to happen. I invited people to sit on the chair. Because it was Election Day, people were curious if it was part of a political campaign. They wanted to know what was Neoism. I tried not to say anything that could have sounded like a clear definition. That wasn’t hard since I didn’t have any.
Rail: What other sorts of activities were associated with Neoism?
Kantor: The apartment festivals, for example. They were usually weeklong events taking place in the apartments of Neoist conspirators. For a while we pulled out all Neoist activities from institutional places and only performed in our own apartments. Once you joined Neoism you didn’t just sell your soul to Neoism, but your living space, your “Lebensraum,” became part of the network as well. Later the apartment concept was extended to the entire city so activities could take place anywhere, in the streets, in clubs, on the beach, up on the roofs. We also introduced the training camp concept that was somewhat the same idea of living together but more focused on the philosophical aspects of doing things, like cooking, eating, having discussions, working in the garden, exercising, having sex, invading public places, dancing with flaming irons, making Neoist altars, and so on.
Rail: You have become well known for your Blood Campaign, which includes surprise Blood X gifts to museums. When did the Blood Campaign start?
Kantor: I started the Blood Campaign in 1979. Its aim was to finance Neoism by selling my blood as an art object. Taking blood from my arm became a regular component of my performances. I did my first Blood X intervention at the Musee d’Art Contemporain in Montreal in 1985. I did it in connection with the twentieth anniversary of the museum. I did it so fast that the guards didn’t see anything; nobody saw it, except for my three collaborators, who took pictures with candid cameras and recorded the sounds. I could have just walked away, but I didn’t want to and I actually told one of the sleepy security guards what had happened and showed him the Blood X on the wall. I told him that I wanted to talk to the director of the museum because my Blood X, entitled “Cadeau” (Gift), was a present for the twentieth anniversary of the museum. First the head of security came with his entourage and they wanted to escort me to an office, but I insisted on staying there and waiting for the director of the museum to come. The director finally came and he actually knew about me and about my blood performances. He said he could have arranged an official performance if I had called before. I explained that it was a surprise intervention and as such it had to be done under unofficial conditions because that was the nature of the work. I gave him a letter of donation together with documentation about the Blood Campaign.
Rail: Could you describe the kind of thought and preparation that goes into these works?
Kantor: A Blood X piece that immediately gets cleaned up after its making is the ultimate work of art: the object is eliminated but the message survives. I carefully choose my targets according to the ideas I want to express through the “donation.” It’s a serious and very complex work with a highly ironical overtone. I do my splash usually in between two works of art on the empty white museum wall. Inevitably some blood will always go on the works. My intervention creates an instant crisis. The Blood X marks the nerve center of this crisis around which circulates the reaction of the museum officials and the media, people’s opinion, the reality of laws, politics, spirituality, sexuality; and they interact with each other in a kinetic pattern. My X is always site specific and designed as an in-situ piece produced between two selected works. The execution is the crucial part of it. Consider the fact that you don’t want to get arrested too early before you can complete the piece. You have to do it in a way that they don’t see it immediately or don’t discover it too fast; you have to really choose the right place in the museum where you can do it without the disturbance of the museum guards.
When I did the MOMA piece I went to the museum a couple of times just to see how the guards were walking around and to look for a place where it was quiet. I chose that Picasso room because I knew that it was far from the security offices, so I knew that it would take a long time for them to get there. I calculated how much time I really needed to make my Blood X and to read my manifesto as well; I knew that it could take at least three to five minutes to do the whole thing. Also there is the preparation of the blood. I can’t just go to the museum and cut my veins. I collect the blood in tubes before going to the museum. I do it myself or hire a nurse or doctor to do it, and I document the moment of the taking of the blood, which becomes a very important part of the work. I also write a manifesto in relation to the background of my action and a letter of donation describing details of the work. It has a title and it’s always dedicated to some specific event or something I’m involved with. In the case of the Museum of Modern Art, it was dedicated to the people who had been beaten up by the police during the Tompkins Square Park riot. I chose Rauschenberg in Koln because he actually used the gesture of vandalism in his work and his famous “Erased DeKooning” drawing was part of the exhibition—I did my blood splash right next to it.
Rail: In the early 1990s, after a period living and working in New York, you moved to Toronto and began working with filing cabinets and robotic technologies.
Istvan Kantor as Chairman Mao.
Kantor: New York was low-tech and blood-music. I worked with scrap metal junk and explored the megaphone as a noise instrument. I made a Super8 movie “Anti-Credo” about the Rivington School that focuses on the construction and destruction of the Rivington Sculpture Garden. I declared myself “self-appointed leader of the people of the Lower East Side” and accompanied by a ghetto blaster, I performed Neoist propaganda songs and speeches basically everywhere, in the streets, in clubs, galleries, including the Gas Station, No Se No, Sculpture Garden, “A” Space, Chameleon, Pyramid, ABC No Rio, 128 Rivington, Franklin Furnace, P.S. 122, Limelight, Tunnel, Crystal Palace, Stockwell Gallery, Tompkins Square Park, under the Williamsburg Bridge, Lizard’s Tail, Knitting Factory, CBGB’s Gallery, Gen Ken’s Generator, Roulette, Gargoyle Mechanique, WEBO, Clocktower…I put out two albums of my songs and also produced the legendary Lower East Side noise-band Demo-Moe’s album Demolish N.Y.C. I made recordings with East Village Diva Angela Idealism, scrap metal percussionist D.J.Steve, sound artist Gen Ken, event promoter and Bodyarchive director Matty Jankowsky, and many others. The 1988 Neoist Apartment Festival took place in the Lower East Side and brought together the local scene extended with conspirators from Baltimore, Toronto, Montreal. Gentrification forced me to leave New York and I followed my girlfriend to Toronto where my three children Jericho, Babylon, and Nineveh were born in the early nineties.
My obsession with the filing cabinet started in Toronto. I found a lateral filing cabinet in the freight elevator and I pulled it into my studio. There are certain moments in life when you suddenly realize that something is important: these are the great moments of discovery. I overlooked the file cabinet for many years and didn’t pay any attention to its monolithic sculptural design, mechanical construction, kinetic function, acoustic space, strong bureaucratic metaphor, heavy authoritarian dimensions…Suddenly I realized that the file cabinet was the object I had been waiting for for a long time because it was so representative of many of my theoretical and practical ideas. The filing cabinet as office monument, as technological furniture, component in a system of information machinery, fascinated me. As a hardware of information storage it’s connected to the whole technological system. Cabinets are extended with computers and connected to the Internet. Each time someone opens and closes filing cabinet drawers, someone else will respond to it by doing the same thing, opening and closing cabinet drawers.
Rail: Your early kinetic file cabinet sculptures were very simple machines. Your more recent ones explore robotics and high-tech computer control.
Kantor: When I looked at that abandoned file cabinet at the freight elevator I became almost ecstatic. From then on, I incorporated the file cabinet in my performances. First I used the cabinet as a noise making percussion instrument. I slammed the drawers back and forth; I employed pelvic strokes to create mechanical motions. I used contact mikes to amplify the noise and samplers to make short rhythmic noise-loops. The sound I created with the cabinets was very mechanical machine beat. Turning the cabinet into a kinetic sculpture was a natural result of my exploration. I thought of all these machines as basically noise-making instruments. I did a large performance called “Accumulations” with my mechanical cabinets and a group of performers at the Music Gallery in 1996, where I used all the machines I had made up until then. It included my motorized “Slammers” (1993/95) that were tilting the cabinets so the drawers moved back and forth controlled by gravity. Some of the motors are faster, some are slower; each machine produces a different beat and a different sound because the different cabinets are from slightly different material, so each has its own character. I also incorporated other types of work like the “Robot Platform” (1991) that is a hydraulic machine that spins around and shakes the performer standing on it.
After the Music Gallery show I decided that I had to create more technologically advanced pieces and I came up with the idea of “Executive Machinery” (1996). “Executive Machinery” is composed of two vertical filing cabinets that are extended by pneumatic cylinders opening and closing the cabinet drawers. The cylinders are controlled by valves that are controlled by midi and a digital software called MAX. So it is quite a beautifully made and well-adjusted piece that I could control with a computer. Each drawer was controlled individually, and I could change the speed of the opening and closing of the cabinets, change the noise they were making and their rhythm, sometimes only one drawer was moving, sometimes all of them, so there was lots of variation.
Rail: Over the past few years, many of your performances and videos have been in collaboration with what you call The Machine Sex Action Group.
Kantor: My way of working has always been very site specific, depending on where I lived, in which city and what were the possibilities. When I moved out from my office space on Richmond Street West to the East End, to a completely different area, then I started a different period of work that was still an exploration of the filing cabinets, the filing cabinets continued to evolve into different aspects, but I was more interested in involving more people and exploring the machine like function of the human body. I think that after all the exploration of the machine as sculptural element I wanted to return to performers and find ways to explore the machine like elements in body movements and try to connect these performers with the already existing machines. I can’t say when exactly I formed the Machine Sex Action Group. I was working on a new video with a large group of performers. It was a piece called “Broadcast” (2000). It has a very simple narrative about a group of people invading abandoned buildings and transmitting messages through their bodies. I was working on that piece, doing all the performances and looking for the sexual aspects of the machine like movements—how they can be incorporated into some kind of social activities, and how these people who are basically urban guerrillas moving around and taking over abandoned buildings become part of a whole system of machinery that is alienated from society. They are basically subverting the larger system of communication. Through working on this piece I created a group and after I finished the video, I wanted to continue working with them as performers, focusing on the live performance aspect. So the next piece was “Axiom/e” (2001) which was the first real Machine Sex Action Group production. Like in “Broadcast” there are certain kinds of sexual gestures and machine like movements. Everybody’s identity is covered by masks, so everybody looks almost the same, and that already gives them a kind of robotic identity. We don’t know who they are, they don’t function as regular people. For MSAG I designed all the body-attachments, extensions, prosthetics, and other performance accessories.
Rail: Where were you performing with MSAG? All over Canada?
Kantor: No, we performed only a couple of times in Toronto and in Montreal. MSAG has been seen more on videotape at media art at festivals in other countries. I also traveled to Europe and presented the work of MSAG through selected videos and solo performances. In my solo pieces I mostly controlled the machines on stage, like in Executive Machinery and Integral Units, and I was also collecting sounds, I was being the manipulator with a couple of other people on computers. I was part of it also as a performer, fucking the filing cabinets and controlling things on the screen and going up on the Robot Platform and doing my movements. So as a performer I was involved in sound and performances and interacting with the machines. I also involved the audience and the audience became part of the performance. They were able to do the same thing, like there were several interfaces they could be involved with to control the images on the screen or control the machines on the stage. Most Machine Sex Action Group performances took place here in Toronto, but there were not too many, they are more known from the videos than live performances. It is very difficult to do live performances, because in video you shoot from three to five minutes and then you take a break and start again, set it up in a different way, and three minutes is quite a lot given the repetitious type of editing I am using. Meanwhile when you do it live it is different thing. The performers can’t repeat the same thing over and over, because it’s physically impossible and also it would be totally boring, so you have to find some way of setting it up so that it looks like a system of machines but at the same time there is some break for the performers. The biggest piece we created was “010100—The Great Robotic Machinery Rebellion” at the Rhubarb Festival in 2003. We basically did that piece every day for one week and it was difficult since it was a sixty-minute piece and is physically very hard, full of rhythmic orgasmic convulsions all the time. We all ended up completely burned out and bruised all over.