Friday, October 14, 2011

Joe Orton's guerilla art

In a naughty bit of guerilla art or culture jamming some twenty odd years before the terms actually existed, the then unknown gay playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell, unsatisfied with the 'rubbishy' and tasteless books in their local Islington library (some things never change), defaced the library books by modifying the covers with new pictures and text – with surreal and hilarious results. The two were eventually caught in 1962 and ended up spending six months in jail for their crimes, which actually proved a blessing in disguise for Orton's writing:

'I tried writing before I went into the nick… but it was no good. Being in the nick brought detachment to my writing. I wasn't involved anymore. And suddenly it worked.'

Joe Orton went on to write his most famous plays, including The Ruffian on the Stair, Entertaining Mr Sloane and Loot, before being murdered by his ex-lover Halliwell in 1967. Orton was 34.

More recently, in 2006 Banksy defaced the CD covers and inserts of 500 of Paris Hilton's debut album, returning them to HMVs across the UK. Dangermouse remixed the album and renamed the songs with titles such as Why Am I Famous? Copies are now probably worth hundreds, if not thousands of pounds. And before you ask, yes, I still look at every Paris Hilton CD I see in a charity shop, just in case.

The term culture jamming, the anti-capitalist art of subverting mainstream institutions, was coined in 1984 and is usually thought of as defacing things on a much larger scale than books and CDs, such as billboards. Artists including Ron English, perhaps most famous for his Marilyn Monroe with Mickey Mouse breasts, and the Billboard Libertion Front are two of the more prominent proponents of the art, which tends to be quite amusing but achieves nothing at all.

How things change. When once Orton and Halliwell were classified as criminals for their actions, now the Islington Museum are showing an exhibition of their defaced covers. Malicious Damage: The crimes of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell in Islington runs from now until 12 January 2012 at Islington Museum, 245 St John Street, EC1. Admission free. Visitors are free to admire the defaced books but not emulate the technique.

I first heard about the exhibition at Feuilleton, who heard about it in the Guardian.

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