We welcome a very special guest writer – Art Historian and Author of ‘The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift: Intellectual Barbarians’, Annebella Pollen. On ‘Day 1’ of ‘Welcome To The Dark Ages’ a public hearing was held at The Black-E, Liverpool to find out ‘Why Did The K Foundation Burn A Million Quid?’ A panel of experts was formed to give their thoughts on the matter. Dr Annebella Pollen was one of the five individuals selected and was exceptionally well received by the attendees. Now, Annebella reflects on the event and shares her story with us.
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Art historian Annebella Pollen goes native with the KLF
It’s Friday 25 August and I’m in a warehouse nightclub in Liverpool at the stroke of midnight, hysterically cheering on Badger Kull, a band with only one song, who didn’t exist three days ago. I’m dressed in a hooded yellow plastic robe bearing symbols and slogans unfamiliar to the uninitiated, pock-marked with burn holes from the embers of a grand ritual pyre. My face is smeared with the sweaty remains of black and white skull paint. As I look around me, 400 others look the same. A man I barely know embraces me. Look! He says, We did all this!
Back track a couple of days… It’s Wednesday morning and I’m making some final tweaks to my notes for a panel event in the evening. I take part in public discussions all the time as an academic, but this event is a little different in form and content from most, and I’m feeling uneasy. Earlier in the summer, artist and writer Tom James had written out of the blue asking if I’d ever heard of the KLF. Well, yes. I’m certainly the right age. In my long-distant rave years I came up to What Time is Love and came down to Chill Out, but didn’t we all?
Back track a little further… I’d only met Tom once before, and briefly. He’d come to a talk I was giving at Whitechapel Gallery in London in early 2016. I was discussing the subject of my exhibition there, the quirky camping and campaign group of the 1920s, the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift. Specifically I was exploring their artistic influences and their artistic legacy in conversation with Judge Smith, the brilliant and barmy co-founder of prog rock band, Van Der Graaf Generator, and the co-author of a musical, Kibbo Kift: A Rock Show, in 1976. Tom spoke to me at the end, full of new-found enthusiasm for the curious campers, who share a post-apocalyptic tendency with his tongue-in-cheek survival guide, A Future Manual.
Tom suggested in his 2017 invite that I might be able to tell an interesting story that linked Kibbo Kift with KLF. I was fairly certain that there were no material connections between the two, but that wasn’t going to stop me. My Kibbo Kift research has already led to interesting intersections with new communities, from communes in the Oxfordshire countryside to Black Metallers in Oslo. The KLF connection seemed particularly tenuous, but I gave it a whirl.
As I immersed myself in all things Justified and Ancient, I found a number of persuasive parallels. The first and most striking was visual; both K groups conducted strange goings-on in stone circles and beneath pyramids, and paraded in robed rituals of mysterious purpose. These might be visual homonyms – things that look similar but have differing meanings – but there was much philosophical parity too. The application of ideas from avant-garde art and advertising to public messaging – even when the message was less than clear – meant that a similar tenor was sounded between the two organisations across time, and a sense of cultural rebirth and eschatological fervour was present in both groups. Most extraordinarily, this resulted in both cases in a fixation on money and its illusions.
I pieced these things together into a historical and mythical dialogue of words and images, and packed them in my bag to take north. I was still nervous, however. News sources were saying that 400 tickets for the three days of events had sold out in less than an hour, at £100 each. I pictured an audience of KLF uber-fans collectively stroking their chins at my counterfactual claims and impatiently correcting me with their infinitely superior knowledge of who had played on what B-side, and their meticulous memory of every last KLF utterance. That my presentation was wholly conjectural was confirmed by Tom on the way to the Black-E panel venue, when he told me that Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty hadn’t heard of Kibbo Kift until he had showed them my book a couple of months before.
I needn’t have worried. The spirit of playfulness was palpable on entering the venue on Wednesday night, and my economist, artist and journalist panel companions were in an equally amused mood. None of us, of course, knew why the K Foundation burned a million quid but each had cheerfully taken up the gauntlet. When I made my claim for a relationship between KK and KLF, there were sympathetic laughs, whoops and cheers. I ended:
These K-based shapeshifters are on a continuum, drawing on sometimes bewildering shamanic, retrofuturist and apocalyptic symbolism and ritual. They each seek answers deep in the past and future, outside everyday life, and beyond the rational. Through this lens, the burning of a million pounds by the K Foundation can be explained as a ceremonial annihilation of excess and a spectacular magick act, designed to disrupt the prevailing order, to expose the fiction of conventional economic value, and build alternative social status. The KK is dead! Long live the K!
The fate of the presentation was sealed with a bucket full of pound coins, miscellaneous small change and a token for the fairground at Pier Head. The KK / KLF historical mash-up won the public vote and I was happy to receive a nonchalant Whatever from Drummond and Cauty. The resonance of a K-continuum was reinforced by an eager crowd of people pressing affirming gifts into my hands, from G&T, a can of Red Stripe, business cards and invites, to a badge featuring the penny farthing from The Prisoner and the magic number 23.
I only intended to stay one night for the panel. I had work engagements the following days, and I wasn’t sure the rest of the event was for me. I’m intrigued by KLF but I’m not serious enough to be described as a fan. When I mentioned that I was going to leave, however, I was press-ganged to remain by a gaggle of new friends. I thought I would at least take a look at the following day’s activities, and ended up appointed one of the Page Holders of KLF’s new 2023 novel. I began to get further drawn into the strange new religion of DIY art-makers and performers, magicians and techies. I found myself singing an alternative Christmas Number One at the top of my lungs and gleefully staying on. Each day I planned to go home, but each day I added extra night to my hotel. Phoning my family, wearing a pointy hat crafted from a Tammy Wynette record sleeve, I explained: I’m not coming back. I’ve joined a cult!
As time rolled on, I became ever more impressed by the open-minded commitment and creative risk-taking of the Volunteers, and by the strange synchronicities building through myth, chance and willing. With every passing performance, I became ever more convinced of the K-parallels I had posited. On the final night’s procession, I walked most of the way to the pyramid pyre with Andrew Lee, the creator of the KLF Kartographic, and discovered that I was having excellent fun with the embodiment of the person I had most feared, the Ur-fan with encyclopaedic knowledge of the band in all its forms. His warm reception – along with everyone else I spoke to during the event – blew away the last of my preconceptions about KLF’s audience and my place within it. As I left the Invisible Wind Factory venue finale, I bumped into Jimmy Cauty. When I introduced myself, he asked if I’d seen the banners and totems of the final parade. I based them entirely on Kibbo Kift, he said.
My work here is done.
Annebella Pollen Panel Photo courtesy of: A. Lee
You can also read ‘The KLF are back – but are they any closer to answering that burning million pound question?’ by Annebella Pollen for The Conversation here.