From New York No Wave to Italian Autonomia: an Interview With Sylvère Lotringer

Conducted by Juliette Premmereur* on March 11, 2013.

Sylvère Lotringer is a literary critic and cultural theorist. Born in 1938 in Paris, France, he is a younger contemporary of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio and Michel Foucault, and is best known for bringing French theory into American literary, cultural and architectural avant-garde movements through his work with Semiotext(e), a journal he founded with a group of Columbia University graduate students in 1974.

After producing three scholarly issues on the epistemology of semiotics, Lotringer and his group staged the provocative “Schizo-Culture” conference on “Madness and Prisons” in 1975 at Columbia University, where more than 2,000 attendees witnessed showdowns between Michel Foucault, conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche, Félix Guattari, feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson, Ronald D. Laing and others.

In 1979 he traveled to Italy to meet with the members of Autonomia, a cultural, post-Marxist left wing political movement composed equally of intellectuals, workers, and unemployed youth. Upon his return, he published an issue of Semiotext(e) dedicated to Autonomia, with accounts by the leaders and theorists of the Autonomist movement: Antonio Negri, Mario Tronti, Franco Piperno, Oreste Scalzone, Paolo Virno, Sergio Bologna, and Franco Berardi among others. The book remains the only testimony and contemporaneous analysis that exists of the most innovative post-’68 radical movement in the West.

I asked Sylvere if he would discuss his personal history and reasons for his involvement with the Autonomists after reading the recently republished “Autonomia” issue of Semiotext(e). We discussed the enigmatic figure of Diego Cortez, the curator of New York New Wave, a 1979 exhibition at PS1 that, for the first time, showed many No Wave artists in an institutional setting and presented the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Our conversation developed from Autonomia and Diego into the No Wave art, music, and nightlife culture of New York in the 1970s, suggesting a relationship between the European Autonomist movements and the cotemporaneous New York downtown scene.

________

It all started with the Nova Convention in 1978. Focusing on the American avant-garde in music, film, and literature, the convention really was a celebration of legendary beat writer William S. Burroughs. Burroughs was considered a “has-been” in America at the time and didn’t even have a publisher. The homage turned into a huge event and took over the entire downtown for several days. No Wave films, performances, concerts, and talks by Patti Smith, Frank Zappa, Laurie Anderson, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Anton Wilson, Timothy Leary, and Burroughs took place at the Entermedia Theater on 2nd avenue and 12th street, at Irving Plaza, and at NYU. Burroughs had always been popular with the alternative scene and New York’s “no-wave” punk generation, but the event earned him a wider recognition. It was after this convention that I moved into a raw loft with Diego in the Fashion District.

Diego, an artist and curator, was a rather shady character at the time, but also the king of downtown. He was apparently living off the air and through his own ingenuity. He knew everyone, was close to all the bands, hung out with Arto Lindsay and John Lurie, and also got involved with the graffiti scene launched by Austrian artist Stephan Einz at Fashion Moda in the Bronx at the time. Diego was glamorous and by far the most dominant figure in the club scene. With Lydia Lunch, he coined the term No Wave.

We moved together to 37th Street in 1979 and shortly after I left for Italy to document the Autonomia movement. In the fall of 1977, together with Félix Guattari and his group, I had participated in the huge demonstrations of youth and unemployed that shook all of Italy. Two years later the leaders of the movement were arrested and accused of being the shadow heads of the Red Brigades. I decided to publicize their plight in America in a special Autonomia issue of Semiotext(e). I put it together with my friend Christian Marazzi, a young economist, who had then fled from Italy to New York like many young Italian autonomists. 

The current interest in Autonomia coming from United States and the art world is very recent, beginning in 2001 when Negri published Empire. I had originally tried to introduce Autonomia to the Americans left in 1980 but no one wanted to hear about it. It was too hard for both the world of art and politics to understand at the time. I first tried to organize seminars about the Autonomia movement with Telos magazine, a New Left academic publication focused on the Frankfurt School. But they were very uneasy about an issue allegedly involving terrorists and when the issue was published they ignored it.

No Wave happened in downtown New York the same year, 1979, as the Autonomia arrests in Italy. With the “Autonomia” issue, I also wanted to dispel the glamour that European terrorists had in New York at the time—the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof group in Germany. Lucy Lippard wrote an article in Artforum complaining about the glamorization of violence in punk art. Their raw aesthetics, in their own way, resonated with the terror unleashed in Europe. No Wave was a neo-punk answer to the New Wave that started in the early 1970 in places like CBGB, Max’s Kansas City and in the Lower East Side. Acid Rock was the preeminent music at the time, a kind of pre-punk rock with Television, the Talking Heads, Patti Smith and the Ramones, which triggered the punk wave during a tour in England at the end of the 70s. By that time it was centered on The Mudd Club, which was owned by the painter Ross Bleckner and co-directed by Steve Mass, Diego Cortez and downtown rock star Lydia Lunch.

It was in this club that whole scene met every night, artists, downtown filmmakers, musicians… But really it was so loud that no one could ever talk with each other. Just dancing tamong this crowd was meaningful enough. We all knew each other and the was a sense of togetherness.

The Soho art world then was very small and made up of no more than 120 artists and a few galleries. They were living in raw lofts around The Kitchen on Broome Street, which introduced video in New York. Artists then resisted commercialism in every possible way. Only when they were touring in Europe did they get some attention. They were living in precarious conditions, but they didn’t mind it then. They were making up a tight and self-supportive community and we didn’t much care for outside recognition.

Semiotext(e) had no money to publish the “Autonomia” issue, so Diego organized an art auction at Anina Nosei gallery, an Italian gallery on Prince Street in Soho that also happened to represent Michel Basquiat at the time. Diego was his friend and “curator.” He didn’t know much about the politics of Autonomia and told the daughter of an Italian general whom he met at a party at Anina Nosei’s (Basquiat’s gallerist) what the auction was for. She immediately told Anina that she would put her in jail for that next time she would be in Italy if she held the auction or anything of the sort. As a result, she cancelled the auction and returned the works to Diego, who sold them instead.

The “Autonomia” issue was made directly after “Schizo-Culture.” Kathryn Bigelow, who was Richard Serra’s intern, showed him the mockup of the new issue and he said that he didn’t like it. Richard Serra was prominent in the art world and everyone in the design team got very upset.

Autonomia: Post-Political Politics originally published by Semiotext(e) in 1980, New York. Edited by Sylvere Lotringer and Christian Marazzi.

Autonomia: Post-Political Politics originally published by Semiotext(e) in 1980, New York. Edited by Sylvere Lotringer and Christian Marazzi.

But it didn’t last for long. One week later Serra admitted that his first reaction had to do with the fact that other artists like Phil Glass and Steve Reich were interviewed for the issue, and not him. And he actually liked the issue, which had a very “high punk conceptual” feel. The following issue, “Italy: Autonomia: Post-Political Politics,” designed by Diego Cortez, was more conceptual since it re-appropriated the layout of a manual in Biology published by the MIT Press. It looked very clinical, in contrast to its highly political, neo-terrorist content. The idea once more was to give political credibility to the autonomists. The issue looked like a manual meant to be taught in class, and this is what actually happened some twenty-five years later. It has become very popular now both in the art world and among American radicals.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s New York was finally rescued from bankruptcy thanks to a five-year plan that allowed banks to finance New York renewal and deliver loans for real estate. The context quickly changed and New York soon became a financial capital and a showcase for the entire world. Artists who had been occupying huge downtown lofts with cheap rents had to relinquish them. Our 5,000 square feet loft in the Fashion District, for which we paid $300 a month suddenly went up to $2,500 and we had to give it up. Uptown and downtown, until then separate, started mixing at night in the clubs. The Soho group of artists lost its centrality with expressionist art proliferating in the East Village and fashionable shops replacing rough lofts. The No Wave, neo-punk scene with a lively production of no-budget films didn’t last for much longer. Art galleries multiplied and being an artist became an enviable, parent-subsidized profession.

Diego had also been part of Colab, a collective of young artists founded in 1977, with the film documentarist Charles Ahearn and his wife, the painter Jane Dickson, introducing hip hop and graffiti to the New York scene. Seth Tillet and Diego Cortez organized on E. 4th Street a concert of No Wave rock music, which, for the first time, mixed young punk artists from the East Village and conceptual artists from Soho. Jane Dickson was also instrumental in organizing the Times Square Show in 1980, an anti-commercial, open exhibition of Colab artists on 42nd Street, in the heart of the New York porn district. A few months earlier they organized in a vacant building the timely The Real Estate Show in response to the harsh economic realities facing tenants in New York. The art galleries were suddenly booming, and so did the art auctions. The East Village art scene became very fashionable and the media helped it peter out in the span of two years, ending in 1985.

Semiotext(e) has been part of the downtown art and music scene after the resounding “Schizo-Culture” conference at Columbia University in 1975, where I tried to connect the (then unknown) French theorists Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Michel Foucault to the New York art and music scene—John Cage, William Burroughs, Richard Foreman. But the encounter was marred by many incidents and political provocations and it took another 10 to 15 years before French Theory actually penetrated American culture.

Semiotext(e)’s “Schizo-Culture” issue is being re-issued in a “box” together with the transcriptions of the original conference and a detailed account of the events. The issue first came out in 1978, in the middle of the Nova Convention that Semiotext(e) organized around writer William Burroughs, with the entire underground American artistic scene, from Patti Smith to Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary and Frank Zappa, Blondie and Sid Vicious participated. It was the very last time that so many artists from the American counter-cultural world had a chance to meet.

*Juliette Premmereur is a second-year student in Columbia University’s MA in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies program and is currently writing her thesis on 1970’s No Wave. She studied under Sylvère Lotringer as an undergraduate student of Barnard College.