Though you are probably best known for your music, I
understand from your CV that you were in the 'New Contemporaries' show in
1977. Were you a visual visual artist then, or were you already into sound
and electronic music at that stage?
Mostly visual back then, though Iíd done quite a lot of experimenting with
soundtracks for films and slide shows.
Where did you go to art college, what was it
like, and what were you into art-wise at that stage?
Because grants were available, I think art school attracted a wider (and
often crazier) cross section of the population back in the old days.
Straight out of school in the early 70s I did an Art & Design Foundation
course at Chesterfield for two years. I enjoyed it because each study
block lasted only 3 weeks and then you were doing something different. I
never learned to draw or paint, but looking back I could do that kind of
thing anyway. I gravitated towards technology Ė derived bizarreness,
assemblage art and experimental film, anything radical that went beep and
had flashing lights, there was also a strong Fortean side to what I did,
which has persisted.
Chesterfield had a good light-sound studio where I experimented with
quadraphonic sound and multiple slide presentations. Iíd always try and
get something subversive or at least something kinky looking in there.
Something to mess with peopleís heads.
Contemporaries was a national show for studentsí work. At the time I got
showed I was nominally doing a BA in Sculpture in Bath, but the pieces I
entered werenít really sculpture. One floor piece was made up of dozens of
plastic bags sellotaped together into a blocky human outline. Inside these
were a yearís worth of personal mail, two peopleís
hair and tiny fragments from a super 8 film.
The other piece was made up of multi-coloured screen prints which
reproduced text and images from old childrenís encyclopaedias, Sunday
magazines, the Queen and a little bit of pornography. What I did was
multi-media assemblage, using the material that was about me and playing
with the ideas of knowledge, of display and really taking the piss out of
serious art. A lot of what I did were complex and time-based environmental
pieces that you walked into, it wasnít called installation art in those
days, I was attempting some sort of total art, something very
1977 was the Silver
Jubilee year which was, for many, the year of punk. Around about that
time, as I recall, a number of other genres emerged including e.g.'industrial
music', which was often electronic, linked to Brian Eno,
and a kind of precursor to ambient house.
Yes, this was very much a crossover, a break down of barriers: anti-art,
non-music, so it attracted a lot of artschool types.
The beauty of punk back then was it wasnít an homogenised scene. Reggae,
especially dub, got played a lot. The DIY idea really got going and for
about 10 years it was quite possible to self-release very non- commercial
and experimental records and there were independent distribution channels
and a small but keen world wide audience who would buy them. This also
meant that there were channels open for self published zines, too. So,
this seemed a far more attractive option than chasing up galleries, or
applying for arts council grants, or getting into teaching, whatever
artists did back then.
How did that relate
to the music industry as such?
There is a commercial music scene producing entertainment to brainwash the
masses and there is a non-commercial scene with different priorities. Many
people in the underground scene were very career-driven and were using it
as a leg-up into a commercial world, but we live in a capitalist society
and you have to get an income from somewhere.
The trick is to find your way through a corrupt system while preserving a
bit of integrity.
Politti - amongst others - went on an interesting journey from one music
world to the other did n't they?
What were you
listening to at the time?
I have always been listening out for new sounds, what I liked about John
Peel was the variety of material he would broadcast. I also got deeply
into traditional music, there was an ethnographic section in my local
music library which I would always be digging into. When I lived in
Brixton, Iíd often end up in late-night shebeens where Iíd absorb a lot
of dub as well as the other intoxicants on offer. The reason I got into
electronic-based music is Iím not a great musician, but I like to listen.
So if I can set up a machine to play what I want to hear, thatís great.
did Nocturnal Emissions form?
Out of boredom and frustration mostly. It grew from improvisation sessions
a group of between two and four of us did in
this house we squatted in south London. I wouldnít say these were very
good, but they were unusual and I thought somebody somewhere might find
I copied up cassettes with photocopy inserts and sold small batches of to
Rough Trade. I sent them out to anyone I could think of. This was audio,
not visual art, but I sent them out to mail art people. One of the copies
I sold to Rough Trade found its way to Japan where Masimo Akita of Merzbow
reviewed it for a magazine.
With no business training whatever we saved up some cash from agency work
and made our first LP and began playing live. As we never made any attempt
to get popular, I made a point of recording all our live shows and
releasing them on cassette to give a sense of occasion. Our timing was
impeccable, one of the first gigs we did was in what the called the ďfront
lineĒ in Brixton while a major riot was going on outside. We had strong
ideas about music as a device of social control and experimented with
infra and ultra-sound (which made for problems cutting the first LP) and
tape cut-ups, (the sampler wasnít invented back then) information
overload, and subliminals. An overall very paranoic and manic kind of
sound. Our performance were live sound collages, as we pieced together
more equipment we used super 8, 16mm film cut-ups and slides and later
video projections along with the performance. We attracted an underground
following in Germany etc.
Nocturnal Emissions a group or a collective, or was it always just you
recording and performing alone?
For a while two of us made a full-time living from this and we worked with
up to five or six members, but I was always at the core of it. Itís a
group identity because I donít believe in a consistent individual
identity. I saw the records and cassettes as ďmultiplesĒ in a Fluxus
sense. We produced collages and text pieces and manifestoes, using
photocopy as that was the most direct and accessible media.
We produced collages and text pieces & manifestos which we sent out to
anyone who showed any interest. Back when we started there was no outlet
for experimental/personal cinema but the context of as live music
performance we could screen the material in unconventional venues. Iím a
firm believer in a breakdown in categories and I simply just donít do pure
art. There was no You Tube.
I worked with juxtaposition and collage, the idea is deprogramming. It was
important not to get bogged down in genre, but to use any means necessary.
Am I right that you toured the world, and what
were the highlights of that period?
Not the entire world, most of Europe and some Eastern cities in North
America is all. We got loads of US publicity and nationally syndicated
radio coverage from just doing a few very small concerts. I think I could
easily have made a living there, but I wouldnít want to live there. Lots
of odd things happened - at one stage we were approached by Motown!
Did you get to meet or work with many interesting
of interesting people. Maybe not many famous people.
Iíd met Captain Beefheart before I got started on this lark, which is
going one better than Bono who only talked to him on the phone. Our videos
were published in the US by some of William Burroughsí crew. We worked
with Geff Ruston aka John Balance of Coil really early on. Graeme Revell
of SPK who is now a Hollywood composer Ė Shwarzenegger films etc, and
Brian Williams who is also doing soundtrack work there.
Tibet, Stapleton, Touch, Neubauten, Vittore Baroni, Max Headroom. We
recorded with the guy who does the breakbeats for the KLF whose name Iíve
forget. Of group members, my brother Danny who did techy stuff has been
the most popular Danny in Google searches for a couple of years now,
Stanza who played drums for us is now a very productive new media artist,
Fiona Harrold who did vocals is now a ďself-improvementĒ writer.
Did you maintain an
interest in visual art eg through video or graphic design during this
Yes we did our own packaging designs and made videos. We put out mini
collage radio programmes on cassette.
What sort of thing were you doing? How did it look?
We made things that were very simple and direct, we were keen that design
didnít get in the way of the substance of our work. We stuck to very basic
typography and weíd use messy cut n paste - or simple classical layouts
with a conceptual art look.
Our videos, funnily enough, though the werenít intended as art, were
screened at the Tate, ICA and the Arts Council included them in one of the
first big tours of video art. The were very different to the New Romantic
type work being produced at that time by the likes of Cerith Wyn Evans and
Derek Jarman. We pioneered an approach that was very DIY and rough at the
edges, as we had no access to professional studio equipment - we were
working with domestic video using crash edits. Everything was so much
harder to do back then.
When did you move to Cornwall, was there any reason for coming here,
and how has is worked out for you?
I moved here in 1993, I always wanted to live here and I thought if
David Kemp, Paul Spooner and the Aphex Twin were down here then it must be
conducive. I love the environment and the people here, but.....it can be
hard sometimes!!.... The logistics are terrible. On the plus side, the net
has helped a lot.
2003 I understand you designed placards and T-shirts denouncing Tony Blair
and George Bush as war criminals. These have subsequently appeared in
anti-war demos all over the world. Do you want to expand on this project a
how images spread once you get them on the web. I was very much involved
with local Cornish groups opposing the invasion of Iraq. Though Iíve been
on loads of demos Iíve never been on so many as I did that year. Weapons
inspection at RAF St Mawgan was one of the highlights, as well as kids
walking out of school in protest against the war.
Getting involved in that kind of thing makes your can use your art skills
in a way that is far more meaningful. It great when things youíve made for
a demo shows up on the TV news, itís a more interesting (and easier) way
of getting your work seen than showing it to a ready-made audience in a
gallery. Though of course it comes through the filter of media distortion.
What you need for demos is plenty of eye-catching placards, so that was
one of the things I busied myself with. I did a design of George Bush War
Criminal and made these available for free download so that anyone in the
world could use it, 2 years later opened my newspaper to find a photo of
Diego Maradona wearing it on a T-Shirt!!
This was on the front cover of newspapers all around the world,
including the US, so I like to think that Bush might have seen it. Itís
good to get focussed on action even though you know, after years of
campaigning, that politicians tend to respond to big business and the
corporate interests behind the press rather than people in the street.
something amazing about the idea that an artist in Cornwall can make an
image that can travel so directly across international boundaries and
time-lines. Have you used art in such a political way before?
I think politics is always in my art somewhere, though itís not always so
The point of doing art is to cut through the way these activities are
separated from everyday life. What I produce is a result of all of that,
and trying to make some kind of sense of it.
You say politics is always in your art, but can music ever be truly
Sometimes itís very deliberate, sometimes itís just a result of
circumstances. I do see what I do as part of a cultural campaign, and I do
think (like old feminists) that the personal has a political dimension.
Because I canít help questioning the nature of reality and what it means
to be human in what I do.
The idea of Ďartí has only been around 200 years and is a very reactionary
class-based idea. However, it can also be a way of establishing moments of
possibility, or suggestions of potential that upset the profit-orientated
system. I have noticed that most of my output is marked by a blurring of
category boundaries, production by any means necessary, use of open
networks for distribution. Itís different from entertainment.
Iím interested in the history of people who have challenged this art/life
thing and attempted to become more fully human through doing their art
(whatever form it takes). I think that all art is political, whether
intentionally so or not, the way its organised, produced and consumed can
be a very effective (if often very insignificant) way of upsetting
consensus reality. It may be something to do with the self-organising side
Music is often more political than art, as it brings people together
across barriers of language, race and background. I donít think art has to
be directly propagandist to be political. Totalitarian regimes are
threatened by art, and seek to suppress it. Economically liberal regimes
turn artists into just another commodity.
You have worked with
Stewart Home on projects in the past. Stewart is known as a writer and an
expert on Situationism, amongst other things (I am a proud owner of his
book The Assault on Culture'). How do you know him?
I canít quite remember, think he must have been a friend of a friend in
the early 80s, I know copies of ĎSmileí used to turn up in the post.
A magazine he founded
in the 80s, right?
Yes. Iíve been in regular contact with Stewart for over 20 years now,
since we helped organise the Festival of Plagiarism in London. When he
published íAssault on Cultureí it was uncannily similar to something Iíd
written myself for an art school essay, but never published.
are you sympathetic to the ideas of the Situationists?
This is a tricky one, as I am very aware that the SI are often invoked
these days to promote very bland and unimaginative art. Art that seems to
reinforce a very bureaucratic and conformist mentality. In the 70s and 80s
the SI were better known in the margins of ultra-leftist politics than in
art, and youíd be more likely to come across their work in an anarchist
bookshop than a library.
Nowadays they seem to be a hit with academics. Itís very fashionable in
art circles to invoke the Situationists without having the slightest idea
of what they were on about, or their historical context in Paris in the
mid 20th century.
Itís little wonder, as their writing is hard to read, and badly translated
so it can often mean whatever you want it to mean. There were very
different strands of opinion within the S.I.. I donít particularly like
Debord, but he had moments of lucidity: the idea of detournement, that is
taking an everyday element of popular culture and turning it around to
find its subversive potential. He was also quite clear about recuperation,
where a subversive idea is turned around to bolster the ideology of the
dominant system. The dominant system is now using reference to the S.I. to
promote a boring kind of art, (reflecting the changes from a manufacturing
to a service economy).
The best thing about the SI was they were very critical of the body of
ideas they were surrounded with. Not so much art as commodity, but human
life as a commodity and acting as a fully functioning four dimensional
human being. They were also very clear about how entertainment is used for
Itís not that they were artless, but they opposed art that commodified
Can psychogeography (a situationist idea) only be
applied in an urban setting, as this has how it has tended to be used? To
me it would seem interesting to think through what it might mean in a
Psychogeography emerged as an urban phenomenon as a critique of what
modernist town planners were doing to a city environments, specifically
European cities in the 1950s.
I think what the psychogeo missed was engaging with the binary oppositions
of urban and rural spaces, and the meaning of those oppositions. That is,
the impact of capitalism on all social spaces, the way enclosure and
ownership of the natural environment and its resources is a very political
issue, worldwide. And that access to open space is critical.
But what interests me is how rural space is perceived as negative space,
the space between places. Hence the metaphor of space travel and a
geomantic system borrowed from dowsing and mediumistic art, overlaid with
gritty realism. I think artists like Richard Long concentrated on a
romanticised timelessness, but the rural landscape is not timeless. We see
it through modern camera lenses. It contains traces of earlier occupancy
which propels us backwards and forwards in time.
In a very simple form psychogeo is an approach to the urban environment
which seeks to engage with ďmagicalĒ experience, a kind of dreamtime, in
the sense that it breaks through the norms of capitalist exploitation of
space. The idea of rambling, of free association taken off the page and
into the real world, emerged as a reaction to the homogenisation of urban
spaces. Iím a rural dweller who engages with information systems.
The idea of autonomous rambling emerged as a reaction to
I find its good to explore whatís perceived as non-space by Debord. I like
the way abstract information systems can connect in new ways with physical
objects. Not just social networking, but physical interaction with the
recently you have been making interactive sculptures and installations
including the 'Desiring Machines' (pictures above) - the title a reference
to Deleuze and GuattariÖ
It is presently difficult to escape the influence of Deleuze and Guattari
on new media art theory. In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari identify
Ďbricolageí as the characteristic of schizophrenic production. The authors
created their book by a bricolage process, yet as a philosopher and
psychoanalyst they were not themselves diagnosed as being mentally ill.
What they were doing was to apply surrealist literary techniques such as
bricolage to the field of philosophy.
In contrast to Deleuze and Guattari, I feel it is very wrong to medicalise
an effective method of production. The fear of appearing mentally ill acts
as a powerful means of social repression and so may often deter people
from using bricolage techniques.
So much art is about the creation of desire, the manipulation of desire
(and fear) is what advertising is all about. D& G suggest that the
hedonistic urges of humans as Ďdesiring machinesí can actually have
liberatory potential. The idea with these machines is they not only use a
system of conventional sensors to produce sound and light, they also
contain elements drawn from fringe sciences, like radionics, Ouija boards,
and dianetics, and you can never tell what elements of human stimulus they
are responding to, whether itís sensory or extra-sensory.
They are partly creating sound and light patterns by themselves as partly
reacting to quite ordinary measurable stimulus such as light and heat etc
and operate as complex systems, similar to very simple forms of organic
life. I saw this as potential art form, as it moves between electronics
and something on the edges of belief.
And a sculpture called 'The Planetarium must be
built' (below right) based on your book 'Bodmin Moor Zodiac'. Can you
the Bodmin Moor Zodiac project?
Itís an in-depth psychogeographical investigation of the imaginative
potential of a rural space. Its something that hasnít been done before.
And Iíve been exploring different ways of presenting the material. In The
Planetarium, I used a restricted space that it was impossible to enter,
enclosed by a silver dome and full of consumer electronics, used in a
exaggerated way to emphasize their illusion-producingness.
In shamanic terms, the rural space is an Otherworld, and our contact with
the Otherworld gives us something to bring back into everyday experience.
The moor exists as a kind of negative space as opposed to urban space and
it also necessitates a borrowing of metaphors from space travel and
sounds like a fascinating project that probably deserves a separate
interview or feature at some point...perhaps I can get back to you on that
www.nigelayers.com for more info