“Let’s just gather the motherfucking artefacts”: A conversation with archivist Johan Kugelberg

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Meet punk’s very own “pyromaniac of taste.”

He’s been sworn in to Afrika Bambaata’s Zulu Nation, held first edition copies of Shakespeare’s Folio and Dante’s Divine Comedy, been cold-called by Lou Reed, and had Pharoah Sanders play his 50th birthday.

Less than an hour into our meeting and he’s already reeled off quotes from Philip K. Dick, Guy Debord, William Gibson and Raoul Vaneigem, expressed an untempered passion for punk, hip-hop, the Renaissance, classical thought, radical pamphleteers of the English Civil war, theories of aestheticism and compared 2nd century tracts to Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Butthole Surfers and Derrick May.

It’s a conversation that ducks and weaves like a Coltrane solo – pushing the edges of the form without ever breaking out completely. Like the great avant-garde soloists, Kugelberg paints bold arcs and teases out new forms using the vocabulary of his elders.

Just as comfortable hob-nobbing in the Bodleian Library as he is bopping around the projects in the Bronx, this self-confessed “fucking gullible, six foot four, goofy, Swedish, over-educated, middle class douche” is leading the way in preserving the 20th century’s most important peripheral movements.

Founding the world’s first hip-hop archive at Cornell University and based out of his NYC gallery HQ Boo-Hooray, Kugelberg gathers stories with the same firebrand self-starter enthusiasm as the first wave punks who sought to tear them down.

With his latest project God Save Sex Pistols with Jon Savage and Glenn Terry published recently (in a practically bullet-proof silicon casing that may ensure it does survive as long as Dante’s opus), we caught up with – or at least attempted to keep up with Johan Kugelberg in London as he tore his way through a library of 20th century thought.

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You may be an archivist now, but did you collect things when you were a child?

I did, but I didn’t collect it with that sort of systematic craziness, and I might still not. It might have something more to do with what I learned much later, which is what Philip K Dick described as “Histriocity”, when certain objects vibrate with the place and times that they were created within and it’s that which really triggers the imagination.

I don’t think I really collected until punk came along, and when punk came along, we were all so broke, if you bought fanzines or 45s or badges you could only get one of every twenty that you wanted. It was a communication tool between friends, where we would lend 45s to each other, make mixtapes and trade zines…

I think that my collecting has always been driven more by enthusiasm than by connoisseurship. And I actually think that that’s a holy war that’s going on in our time, the battle between enthusiasts and connoisseurs, where enthusiasts are like pyromaniacs of taste, who just want to set things ablaze and have other people warm their hands on those flames of creativity. Connoisseurship is much more about keeping it to yourself, it’s more like a hermeneutic way of collecting.

A discourse that’s very true in the world of record collecting too…

Connoisseurship can be great, because it can lead to absolutely obsessive compulsive genius scholarship, but the flip side of it is that it is a very lonely game and it’s also a game you can never win. Debord explains this really well in The Society Of The Spectacle as the difference between information and dialogue. And any book that I do or exhibition or archive that I work on, I want to ensure that there’s a dialogue between that archive and anybody, whether you’re a retired engine driver who knows everything about Scott Walker or a twelve year old kid who heard ‘Joanna’ on the radio. The level of connection to the work actually matters.

So it’s more about creating something that engenders an emotional connection, rather than owning an object for the object’s sake?

For me, I don’t really need to own the stuff. I’m delighted for it to pass through my hands and for me to try and communicate with it, but then I would be much happier having something sit in a university library or a museum or in some kind of archive.

A lot of the culture that we work with at Boo-Hooray is culture on the margins, and the 20th century is so chaotic and so difficult to understand that a lot of the clues about who we are and who we will become actually exist at the margin, because that’s where edges overlap and new ideas germinate.

So in that sense I think when we’re at our best we’re safe-keeping cultural narratives of everyday life, because I would say the history of a hundred nameless 1965 British RnB groups is more interesting than the history of the Rolling Stones, because it’s that thing about everyday life and everyday culture.

To celebrate the impulse rather than the end result?

If you look at the Pistols book I’ve done, we are trying to make it open-ended and trying to make it clear that this is a cultural narrative that hasn’t crystalized yet. There is only what William Gibson describes as this “rolling ball of code” and this rolling ball of code hasn’t stopped snowballing yet. The people who are inspired by it might not be able to identify the code, it’s just the impulse that it sets off.

In that sense, I think what punk did and what the legacy of punk in two hundred years from now is the diminishment of distance between the self-starter impulse and its execution. If you’re fifteen and you want to play bass in a band and suddenly you’re like “I’m playing bass in a band,” or I want a vegetarian option for lunch, “I’m making an vegetarian option and bringing it in for lunch…” That execution of the impulse, no fucking doubt, is the legacy of punk.

Regardless of the context in which it takes place?

Exactly! If I’m cornered, I think that Crass are much more important than the Sex Pistols, but if cornered I will also say that what the Pistols set in motion will never stop, for this very reason, and that is utterly fascinating. And Johnny Rotten is no doubt a major British man of letters. He will be remembered in the Samuel Johnson, Ian Dury, George Orwell canon. He will, I swear to god! I went into a time machine and saw the future! Steve Jones is a majestic musician, Paul Cook is like the funkiest white drummer of his age, Glen Matlock is an unbelievable style man.

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So punk will endure as an art form with its own canon?

I trained as a historian so as I try to understand how cultural narratives unfold through time, and it’s not clear yet, what any of this means. With hippie, I think the Grateful Dead are going to be forgotten and people might know who Jimi Hendrix is, but the Pantone chart went from 40 colours to 300 colours because of LSD, and that you and I and everyone we know can go and get organic food and dietary supplements in their cornershop is insane. And that’s the seismic societal change that occurred.

Usually when one is inside a paradigm shift, one can not identify the next paradigm or the previous paradigm and punk is still sitting inside that paradigm shift.

Was punk to some extent is the angry reaction to the failed promise of the hippie-era to empower people in the face of the establishment?

You can say anger, you can say nihilism, but also inside of that is an extraordinarily powerful impulse towards societal change and societal change of course, as Raoul Vaneigem points out, simultaneously occurs on two levels, the macro and the micro. And as William Gibson pointed out in the afterword to the punk aesthetics book I did, maybe punk was the last macro tribe.

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I suppose you see that in the movements which followed like post-punk and glam rock, where it’s more about personal identity politics?

Yeah. It’s identity politics and it’s micro tribes. I think that where this can make us happiest, because it is a success story, it is where hip-hop simultaneously functions and a global empowerment grass roots community culture and mainstream swill at the same time. And that’s a categorical win. That Kanye and Jay Z are hip-hop, at the same time that you have b-boys and b-girls and people designing their own clothes and beats and breaks and graffiti in every town in the world with at least 20,000 people in it. Whether you’re in Chile or South Korea or Norwich. It’s actually going down in real time.

And these are the marginal spaces it seems like you’re most interested in?

I’d say if I have any over-bridging themes of how I work, it is the DIY and self-started impulse and how that has been nurtured and supported in different stratas of society, different times, different geographical locales.

Are you a more systematic connoisseur or a firebrand enthusiast?

I think I would be better for academia if I was a systematic connoisseur but I get swept away by crazed enthusiasm too often. When me and my archivists are doing field work, when we’re out excavating an attic or a basement or a storage space, one of the terms we have is ‘Stop Having Fun!’ because when you start going “Woah, what is this?!” you have to remember you don’t have time for that now. That’s comes later.

The Cornell Hip-Hop Collection is the perfect example because when I founded it, I founded it with about 10,000 objects and now it has 250,000 objects, so you need a starting point to build on.

How do you go about starting an archive like that?

With that one I was fairly connoisseur-esque and fairly systematic. I had the best nickname uptown in the Bronx: I was known as the ATM. It was like “Oh yeah, I found a stack of old flyers and I’m going to go down to the ATM and get some cash for the weekend.” And the important thing about that is that they came to me first. So that meant that me as a curator could identify the components that could build this archive.

How did you establish yourself as the ATM?

By being a fucking gullible, six foot four, goofy, Swedish, over-educated, middle class douche bopping around in the projects and talking to people, communicating with them, declaring my intent and then following up on that intent.

The biggest honour that’s been bestowed on me was that in 2007, Afrika Bambaataa swore me in as Brother Johan in Zulu Nation. That’s it, you can’t top that! He gave a beautiful speech, I get choked up taking about it, that was fucking sweet.

Incredible! But the archive is also an invaluable resource in understanding a movement that was developing too quickly to think about preserving its own ephemera.

I started with hip-hop because no-one else was doing it. There were unbelievable books and a couple of interesting anthologies and embryonic websites, but when I started I got a little bit of that moral panic of enough not having been done at the point when people were starting to die, or throw this stuff in dumpsters.

With my past in the music business I’ve heard horror stories of Fela Kuti stuff that went missing, John Coltrane archives that were thrown away, the terrible story of what happened to the Paramount Records archive. There’s numerous instances like that, so in my pip-squeak way I wanted to prevent the same thing happening to hip-hop, because as an enthusiast, as a historian and as a music fan there is no more important art form in the second half of the twentieth century. You can talk about pop art and abstract expressionism until you turn pink, I don’t care, hip-hop is the defining cultural force of that age, no doubt. I love punk rock, I grew up with punk, but it’s no hip-hop.

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Going back to punk, in 2016 there was a big tendency to draw a line in the sand and look back at “40 years of punk”.

That’s because the dudes aren’t dead yet and where they collected Riot City 45s or whether they were at a legendary Clash gig, they’re obviously attempting to create meaning of their place in time and that is obviously how history gets tainted by nostalgia. Of course decades are social constructs. What is are the ’60s? What are the ’70s? Does any of this really mean anything other than resources where dialogue and communication actually start? Punk anniversaries I think are meaningless.

And if Joe [Corre] wanted to set fire to his collection he should do so without telling anybody or rather, he should have just sold it all and donated all the money to charity without telling anybody.

To be honest, if a nostalgic jubilee leads to somebody not throwing away 800 punk fanzines that were in an attic in Birmingham, I am fucking stoked. And that means that the ends are justified by the means.

So the incineration of these artefacts, whichever way you look at it, is a very destructive act.

I have an anecdote to that which is slightly related. I did a big book on the Velvet Underground about 7 or 8 years ago and I worked with members of the Velvets, I did a book tour with Lou Reed and he was actually always really kind and lovely to me and also a totally astute cultural observer. Once in a blue moon Lou would call up and would be like “Johan, I just burnt one of my notebooks, what do you think of that?’ and I would be like, “Well, that’s kind of fucked up because that belongs in a museum Daddy-O.” But his point was as an artist, he didn’t want anybody to see process. He only wanted people to see the end result. And the person who taught him that was Delmore Schwartz, who also didn’t want anyone to see the process of him as a writer a poet and a thinker.

So maybe Joe’s act is like an auto-destruct Dada act and maybe everything we try to impose on Joe is none of our fucking business because he is dealing with his own demons and something which would be an absolutely overbearing cultural legacy?

Both my father and my grandfather were in the Olympics and I’m somewhat athletic, but I was not in the fucking Olympics.

What did they do?

My grandfather was a sprinter and my dad was in military decathlon. So this is totally rad, but if you would give that super-steroids and boosts that 100,000 times and drop that on my shoulders, maybe that’s the kind of weight that Joe experiences by being Malcolm [McLaren]’s kid.

Is there any sense that archiving is an attempt to preserve some kind of truth? Truth is a hot topic right now in public discourse after all…

I have sat on panels where people will criticise the cultural imperialism of someone defining what is “true” in a particular cultural narrative. The counterpoint I have against that is let’s just gather the motherfucking artefacts, preserve them and then 100 academics with 100 laptops can argue about it for 100 years. I just fucking hate when stuff gets lost.

So archives are basically just collections of things that didn’t get lost?

Say you and I are sitting around talking about Italian Renaissance painters. We’ll have a strong cup of coffee and name 5 or 10 and talk about what they meant and who they were. Someone who is an expert of Italian Renaissance painters can maybe name 70 or 80 painters, what they did and who they were. The estimate of how many active painters there were during the Renaissance in Italy is 18,000, so then you see how cultural attrition works. Of course if a kid in the year 2274 has a copy of England’s Dreaming and has a copy of our Sex Pistols coffee table book and a couple of other things then at least they get a starting point for what that meant.

And one of my private obsessions is radical thought during the English Civil War and if I get smart enough in this life I’m going to write about it but the jury’s out.

The Levellers and the Diggers?

Yeah, dude, so much! The reason that we know almost anything about them is that the Bodleian Library at Oxford has the world’s greatest collection of original tracts, broadsides and pamphlets because the fucking Bodleian librarian in real-time collected these as they unfolded. They still understood the historical significance enough to collect it.

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In that vein, what do you think of Zero Freitas, the Brazilian businessman hell bent on buying all the records in the world?

I’m totally all for it. Original vinyl pressings of any kind of music are no longer just the sound in the grooves, they’re also the gathering of the metadata, the packaging and the context of the publication. I teach records when I teach post-war book arts at Rare Book School and a record is a publication, it is something that contains metadata beyond the sound recording. And all of that deserves archiving. Bless him, I think it’s kick-ass.

And what about digital archiving?

Digital archiving is so full of holes right now and we’re in the middle of this paradigm shift so we can’t identify the next or the previous paradigm. It is really important that it happens, but most buddies of mine who are hardcore historians all think the same thing that the problem is the device and the battery and the plug and the sockets.They think that sooner or later there will be a gap in our knowledge of history.

Just the number of screens we have in our lives is an indication of us living in an age of transitional technology. That means we don’t yet know how digital narratives are going to be preserved. And I would think the age of transitional technology started in the middle of the 19th century, post the industrial revolution; several types of train track, different types of telegraphs, different types of turntables, telephone systems and so on. This spanned the 20th century in its entirety and I will bet you $4 that it will span the entirety of the next century too. We simply don’t know and there might be a situation where enormous amounts of born-digital knowledge is going to be gone.

DC Hardcore!

A photo posted by Johan Kugelberg (@johankugelberg) on

That feels pretty grim, particularly for someone working in digital media. And therefore also for hopes of preserving the legacy this interview…

I’m unbelievable grateful about what’s been preserved in punk and hip-hop, and in a “secret life of Johan” tip, I am so into classical Greek and classical Roman authors. That’s my favourite shit. I studied that in college but that was more out of obligation. Now that I’m older I’m passionate and fascinated by it and I’m so grateful for what has actually survived. And I know that enormous amounts of material got lost, but what I’m hitting now is going to last more than a lifetime.

Did you ever look at The Learned Banqueteers? It’s a 10 volume Classical Library set of dinner party gossip from the 2nd century, and if your mind has not been fundamentally blown by Alejandro Jodorowsky or the Butthole Surfers or Derrick May, this is a well worthy spot to have your mind blown. It’s here that you get that reverberation of the lives and mores of every day people and how we’re not all that different. This is more important now than ever before.

Lead image: Dr. Lila Wolfe

All Sex Pistols archive images: © GOD SAVE SEX PISTOLS edited by Johan Kugelberg with Jon Savage and Glenn Terry, published by Rizzoli, special edition released by Anthology Editions.