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Bill Drummond: Situationism and using art to its heroic full potential

“Bill, don’t bother doing anything unless it is heroic!” – Ken Campbell

Bill Drummond is the walking, talking definition of an iconoclast. Going against the grain is his modus operandi, and fuelled by some Situationist sense of what art should be, he’s given us many genius moments over the years.

For many, Drummond and K Foundation partner Jimmy Cauty are just the two blokes who “burnt the million quid“, but they’re so much more than that. Their work is brimming with the kind of sentiment that Guy Debord would have loved, and, in many ways, it has shown us the futility of advanced capitalism and its dedication to objectifying experiences and commodity fetishism.

We could spend all day discussing the thought processes behind their work and the multitude of after-effects and controversy that the K Foundation’s burning of £1 million of cash in 1994 brought, but quite frankly, that topic is overdone. Footage and discourse are readily available, and it should be for you to make your own mind up about the significance of the event — or if it was even significant at all. 

Famously, Drummond started his life as an artist, and this would pervade every discipline he found himself occupying moving forward. After graduating from the Art and Design Academy in Liverpool during the 1970s, he decided that “art should use everything, be everywhere” and that he as an artist should “use whatever medium is to hand”. Showing this, he’s worked as a milkman, gardener and even on a trawler. 

In 1975, Drummond started working as a carpenter and scene painter at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool. The following year, he became the set designer for The Illuminatus Trilogy, a 12-hour performance which opened in late November 1976, helmed by Ken Campbell’s zany ‘Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool’. A success, the production transferred to the National Theatre and then The Roundhouse in London. Per an account by Campbell, Drummond became known as “the man who went for Araldite”. In the middle of the tour, he said he was “popping out” to get some glue but never returned. In 2014, he explained to The Guardian that his subsequent career would not have come into existence if it wasn’t for Campbell’s teachings and the advice that came with it: “Bill, don’t bother doing anything unless it is heroic!”

This dedication to the “heroic” would certainly seem to drive much of Drummond’s later work. Whether it be as a member of the punk band Big in Japan, co-founder of Zoo Records, or the producer of Echo & The Bunnymen, his artistic direction is an idiosyncratic dedication to his personal creative vision.

In the mid-1980s, Drummond worked in the mainstream music business as an A&R consultant for WEA. In July, on his ’33 1/3′ birthday, Drummond repented for his corporate dalliance and resigned via a “ringingly Quixotic press release”. A part of it read: “I will be 33.5 years old in September, a time for a revolution in my life. There is a mountain to climb the hard way, and I want to see the world from the top…” 

In a BBC Radio 1 interview in December 1990, Drummond recalled spending half a million pounds during his time at WEA on the band Brilliant, whom he thought would become massive, only for them to flop terribly. He said: “At that point, I thought ‘What am I doing this for?’ and I got out.” WEA chairman Rob Dickens remembered that Drummond was “obviously very sharp” and “he knew the business. But he was too radical to be happy inside a corporate structure. He was better off working as an outsider”. 

Drummond was still clearly reaching for the heroic during his stifling time at WEA, but after walking out on his job on New Year’s Day 1987, he would soon reach the top. As The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, he and Jimmy Cauty released their first single, the hip-hop inspired ‘All You Need Is Love’ in March 1987.

In May 1988, they then became The Timelords and released the hit ‘novelty’ single ‘Doctorin’ The Tardis’. Later that year, they became the KLF. The duo grew to monumental heights, and they released their magnum opus, The White Room, in 1991.

Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty in The KLF. (Credit: YouTube)

If you want to get the full measure of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty as artists, their actions at the 1992 Brit Awards are most reflective. Alongside the extreme metal band Extreme Noise Terror, they performed a grindcore version of their hit single ‘3 a.m. Eternal’. This stunned the head honchos of the music business who were in attendance, and it was brilliant.

At the start of the performance, Drummond announced, “This is television freedom”, a riff on “this is radio freedom” from the original version of the track. It could not get any more Situationist. He took a platform that was one of the main objects of the consumerist music business and turned it on its head, showing just how vacuous of an occasion it was. 

Drummond and Cauty didn’t stop there either; later that night, they dumped a dead sheep at the entrance of a venue that was hosting one of the award’s after-parties. Soon after, on May 14th, 1992, the duo announced their immediate retirement from music, alongside the deletion of their entire back catalogue. Teetering on the edge of the “abyss” at that point, Drummond needed to take a step back.

It wouldn’t last for long, though, and they reconvened in 1993 as the K Foundation, a foundation dedicated to the arts. Notably, they founded the K Foundation Art Award for the “worst artist of the year”. Again, this took Debord’s notion of the spectacle and confirmed it. This was Situationism to a tee. They took the consumption of commodities purporting to represent lived human experiences, and counteracted it, and showed modern visual art for what it is often guilty of being, hollow and weightless. 

Then came the money burning, but that’s for you to dig into. Since 1998, Drummond has operated as an artist under the moniker Penkiln Burn. It takes its name from the river in Scotland where he played and fished as a child.

In 1995, he bought A Smell of Sulphur in the Wind by Richard Long for $20,000. Drummond said that he “fell in love” with Long’s art because “it was art by walking and doing things on his walks”. This appeal to Drummond’s inner sense of what art should be soon dissipated, though. In 2000, he no longer felt he was “getting his money’s worth” from the photograph.

He wanted to sell it. He placed placards around the country but failed to find a buyer. In 2001, he decided to cut the photograph and mounting card into 20,000 pieces and sell them for $1 each. After recouping the funds, he plans to walk to the exact, remote spot where Long took the shot and bury the cash in a box beneath the stone circle. Then, he’ll take his own photograph of the site, take it home and frame it. It will hang in the same place in his bedroom where the original hung, and the photograph will be called The Smell of Money Underground. The thought process behind this is truly remarkable. 

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In 2002, during a controversial exhibition at the deconsecrated St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in Liverpool, Drummond contributed a guestbook which asked visitors the glaring question: ‘Is God a Cunt?‘. It came as one edition but was printed in six separate volumes, and four were stolen from the exhibition. £1000 was offered as a reward. Some time afterwards, Drummond said he would answer “no” to the question. 

He said: “God is responsible for all the things I love, the speckles on a brown trout; the sound of Angus Young’s guitar, the nape of my girlfriend’s neck, the song of the blackcap when he returns in Spring. I never blame God for all the shit, for the baby Rwandan slaughtered in a casual genocide, the ever-present wars, drudgery and misery that fills most of our lives.”

His Penkiln Burn projects have been varied. However, a few of the notable efforts have involved creating things and then disseminating them. He made the ‘Soup Line’, which he drew across a map from Belfast through to Nottingham. Anyone who lives on the ‘Soup Line’ can contact Drummond and ask him to come to their house and make soup for everyone. 

He’s also created ‘Cake Circles’ on maps. Encouraging others to follow suit, cakes are made and then delivered to people who live within a circle’s radius. A notice from 2005 read: “YOUR HOME IS SITUATED ON A CAKE CIRCLE. A PERSON MAY CALL AT YOUR HOME WITH A CAKE THEY HAVE BAKED FOR YOU, IN THE HOPE THAT YOU WILL ACCEPT IT.”

Drummond has also been known to build beds from timber in public, shoe-shining in Venice, and each spring, he gives away 40 bunches of daffodils to strangers on the streets of different cities.  

Totally dedicated to the heroism once stoked in him by Ken Campbell, throughout his career, Drummond has delivered. He utilises art everywhere and is scared of no medium. Often misunderstood, his artwork has an ethos running through it, and due to his adoption of different mediums, this has confused people. 

It should do the opposite. Drummond is a true Situationist and a true artist; by ascribing to some critical elements of Debord’s work, he has shown the futility of the modern era whilst also managing to use art to its fullest potential, for good. His work instils art with a weight that it is often missing. Maybe you could take some of his earlier work as misfires, but as Penkiln Burn, he’s truly flourished.

Watch How to Run a Record Label with Bill Drummond below.