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By Eddie Gibb (05 November, 1995, Sunday Times (Scotland tabloid))
IT IS just two years (sic) since a pair of men calling themselves the K Foundation arrived on Jura to burn Pounds 1m in newly printed Pounds 50 notes. The cash was quickly reduced to ash but the embers of controversy they sparked have continued to smoulder. Now the K Foundation have returned to Scotland in the hope of igniting another row about the meaning, if there is one, of such an expensive gesture.
The K Foundation refuses to explain itself so it is hard to ascertain the motives of the two members, Skye-born (sic) Bill Drummond and his long-time collaborator Jimmy Cauty. But in choosing Glasgow as the stage for this series of surprise events, they have hit on a city where art and money dance an uncomfortable tango. In the late 1980s, Glasgow decided to supplement what remained of its ravaged industrial sector with a service economy based on the selling of culture and lifestyle. This notion was rewarded when Glasgow was declared European City of Culture for 1990. However, despite strenuous attempts to make art accessible to Glasgow's poorer communities, there remained a suspicion that this froth of activity mattered little to people whose closest experience of culture was the mould climbing their walls. The debate goes on still. Jean MacFadden, former council leader, recently warned that Glasgow, with its fashionable wine bars and Merchant City warehouse conversions, was in danger of creating an elitist "cappucino culture".
If you are prepared to believe that the burning of Pounds 1m in cash has any cultural significance at all then this unease about the way money relates to art, and art relates to ordinary people, seems to be at the heart of the K Foundation's stunt. After the National Galleries of Scotland were involved in the Pounds 7.6m purchase of the Three Graces, a work by a dead Italian sculptor, while internationally acclaimed contemporary Scottish artists like Christine Borland remain unrepresented in publicly-owned collections, it is perhaps not such a bad time to question the relationship between art and money. Depending on your perspective, the K Foundation are either making a serious contribution to this debate or they are just jokers with large wallets and a dubious sense of humour. Drummond and Cauty say they are not even sure themselves why they did it. THEIR attempt to provoke a response to the Jura bonfire, a video called Watch The K Foundation Burn a Million Quid, is being screened at various locations around the city this weekend, ending with a public event on Glasgow Green today for Guy Fawke's night. Each location appears to have been selected to represent an aspect of Scottish cultural identity, from crime to football to art. The link is money, and with each one, the K Foundation has shown an instinct for finding Scottish culture's ticklish underbelly. But the question remains is anybody laughing?
Showing the film at yesterday's Celtic and Rangers matches perhaps suggests the K Foundation are aware of football's centrality in Glaswegian affections. But the power of money creates tensions which run below the surface of football in the city. Rangers particularly have been accused of pricing themselves out of the reach of their traditional working class fan base, as season ticket holders and corporate sponsorship finance the club's European ambitions. Celtic fans, meanwhile, feel the Pounds 17.5m spent on a new stadium would have more useful buying new players.
The K Foundation originally planned to show the film in Barlinnie prison, but permission was withdrawn. "It wasn't considered to be appropriate," a Scottish Prison Service spokesman said on Friday. "A lot of the prisoners in Barlinnie are charged with the theft of just a few pounds. This wasn't the sort of message we would want to give them." It is easy to imagine tears of frustration trickling down hardened, grizzled cheeks as a jailful of cons watched Pounds 1m go up in smoke.
With National Lottery fever gripping the country, the K Foundation's bonfire of the insanities has extra resonance. Scots buy more tickets per head than anywhere else in Britain. According to market research, 73% of Scots want to be millionaires. Drummond says he "hasn't bothered" to buy a ticket, while Cauty admits to playing once "for the buzz" (He did not win).
But who are the K Foundation, and why did they have all that money to burn? Drummond and Cauty claim the Pounds 1m was the after-tax profits from their erstwhile career as pop stars. As the KLF (Kopyright Liberation Front), they had a string of hits, although their biggest seller was released under the alias of The Timelords, with the single Doctorin' the Tardis reaching number one in 1988. Shortly afterwards, Drummond and Cauty published a satirical guide to recording a chart-topping hit which suggested the song had been a cynical attempt to manipulate public taste, to achieve the highest prize by pandering to the lowest common denominator. Then in 1992, the KLF abandoned the music industry and decided to disrupt the business of art instead. SINCE the pair awarded Pounds 40,000 to Richael Whiteread, the 1993 Turner prize winner, for being Britain's "worst artist", the K Foundation has taunted the art establishment with its inability to agree on a working definition of art. "What is art?" remains a great unanswered question, and the K Foundation seems determined to provoke an answer from somebody. Is art in the eye of the beholder, or is it defined by whoever is holding the cash? Could burning a Pounds 1m be described as art? Drummond and Cauty staunchly avoid making this claim and attempts to question their motive are usually met with more questions. If a price can be put on sincerity, the pair have paid it, with interest. But what are they so sincere about?
The K Foundation's weekend of pranks started at the Stirling's Library near Glasgow's George Square, which is currently being converted into a gallery to display the city's modern art collection. After galleries director Julian Spalding told The Sunday Times last week that the K Foundation had made a "valid point: a lot of modern art is about making money", the pair decided to call his bluff. Teams of workmen are adapting the stately interior of the building for its new purpose. The gallery screening was timed to coincide with the workmen's lunchbreak. As images of Pounds 50 notes being consumed in the flames flickered onto the screen a group gathered round, incredulous. "You didn't actually burn a million quid?" asked one. "We set fire to Pounds 1m of our own money," Drummond replied. "We've been accused of a lot of things and we've come here to find out why we did it." "Why did you do it?," asked a workmen called Monty. "Why do you think we did it?,"countered Drummond. "That's not an answer," replied Monty.
Most of the workmen seemed unfazed by the K Foundation's gesture. "I respect them for what they did because they're just ordinary guys," said joiner William McCormick. "I can see where they're coming from they had this ambition and they did it." THE duo said their Jura trip did not bankrupt them totally but they will not be buying any Mediterranean villas in the near future. It is ironic that setting Pounds 1m alight actually cost them Pounds 1,400,000. As a successful band they paid top-rate tax. Cash burning is rarely considered a viable business expense, although perhaps a good accountant might know a few loopholes. Half an hour into the screening of the film, which it must be said is not the most riveting viewing, the workmen began to drift away. The consensus was that the K Foundation may be "saft in the heid", but that it was up to them what they did with the money. Only one workman took a different view. "They could have given it to charity," he says. "A million could have saved a lot of lives."
Despite sounding like the adminstrators of some mysterious trust fund, Drummond and Cauty both said they were not a charity. "People immediately say: `You should have given it to me,"' said Drummond later. Cauty continued: "It wasn't that we didn't want the money the point was that we actually wanted to burn it."
In contrast to the straightforward questions from the workmen, a guerrilla screening of the film at the CCA, the left-field cultural centre on Sauchiehall Street, prompted a rather more ambiguous response. The K Foundation made an unscheduled appearance, setting up their gear without permission. This sort of art attack seemed in the spirit of the CCA's aims but, strangely, the audience were more hostile. "To me this is just a classic shock tactic," said one woman. "They're not telling me anything new." As the projector was packed away, gallery publicist Chris Lord seemed flattered the K Foundation had shown up. "We're broadly supportive of some of their aims," he said. Later the same evening, Cautey made a rare slip from the party line during an interview on Sub City, an underground radio station broadcasting across Glasgow. "If you've got an artwork, you have a responsibility to show it," he said, before correcting himself. "I don't mean it is a work of art we don't know." Does appearing in an art gallery make one an artist? Yes, if having a stab at pub karaoke makes one a singer. Artists over the last century have deliberately broadened the parameters of their craft as the patronage system that once supported them died off. Can't afford a 12ft by 12ft portrait of your country estate? Well, how about a sensitively-arranged pile of bricks instead. Artists are wage slaves too, changing their product to fit the market.
So there is a certain hypocrisy to those who crow about the commercialisation of this supposedly sacred pursuit, especially their claims that art floats in its own realm, heedless to the vulgarities of everyday life. But what could be more heedless than two men in a remote boathouse performing an act they cannot properly explain, leaving the rest of us to wander in a hall of mirrors in which motive and meaning become hopelessly distorted. The K Foundation may not have changed or challenged much but they have certainly provoked thousands to question and analyse the power of money and the responsibilities of those who possess it. And what could be more artistic than that?
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