In 2007 I left university. Before founding Beatdom and fleeing Scotland I was suffering a bit of an identity crisis: I defined myself as a student, and yet for the first time in my memory I was about to leave education. I was about to head off into the big bad world and so I went mad. My brain worked too much and made little sense. I wrote thousands of words every day, painted pictures and played guitar on stage – despite having no real talent for any of these things. I was just desperate, I suppose, to find my place in the world.
That first paragraph assumes that the answer to the question posed in the title is me. I am Rodney Munch.
That’s not necessarily true, as you will see. I have called myself Rodney Munch for various reasons at various times, but so have other people. Presumably, there is someone out there who was given this unfortunate title at birth.
There’s a book I wrote back in 2007. The book shares the same title as this essay: Who is Rodney Munch? It’s a non-fiction story that chronicles a short period in my life that was too ridiculous to pass off as fiction, too amazing to forget.
It begins and ends in my local art school – Dundee’s Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design. Although I was a literature student, I spent a lot of my time in the there, drinking and smoking with the art students and having pretentious debates about things I probably didn’t understand.
It was one of these debates that started it all.
We were discussing revolution and someone argued that revolution works best within the confines of democracy – that changing societal norms and power structures is achieved most effectively without bringing down the whole system and starting from scratch.
At some drunken moment this morphed into a debate about art, rather than government or civil liberties. Someone, and it might have been me, complained that an artist needs to come from within the art establishment to be discovered, and that this is unjust. Artists within the establishment will be accepted because what they make is “art”, regardless of how shitty it is.
A ludicrous argument, but one that is typical around student bars. Change “art” for just about anything and you’ll hear a familiar debate.
The idea soon snowballed into a plan:
Assemble a team of completely untrained artists.
Produce a number of pieces of intentionally shitty art.
Smuggle it into an art gallery.
Watch the art critics fawn over the “art”.
Fortunately, Dundee’s art school degree show is one of the biggest in the UK and takes around 10,000 visitors every May. Being friends with so many of the students would make it possible to sneak exhibits in, and expose the fraudulent non-art to the art world.
The result was a week of fun: Drinking and painting, producing deliberately crap art by making it as obtuse as possible. All the time I made notes and wrote the book, chronicling not only the painting, but the nightlife and banter that surrounded what was becoming quite an exciting project.
The project in my mind also changed to become a study of the nature of art. Our work was ridiculous but some people were beginning to take it seriously. I entered the art school as a journalist and began interviewing the real artists, talking to them about their projects – which had taken years of planning and effort – and comparing their methods and ideas to our own.
The main idea was simple: Would the art world experts be able to tell the difference between our deliberately crap art, and the stuff that represented the culmination of years of study?
The name Rodney Munch has been strangely absent from this essay. That’s because it went unused until the morning of the grand opening of the degree show. This followed a week of painting and a week of scouting the art school galleries for suitable spots and investigating security.
It was that rainy morning when three of us gathered to carry twelve giant oil paintings across the city, when we decided on the name. We’d already made twelve official-looking plaques to accompany the paintings. We just needed a name.
The previous night I’d watched an old episode of Beavis and Butthead, and laughed at their use of the name Rod Munch – a crude oral sex gag.
And so that was the name that accompanied each of the paintings as we made our way across the city, and the name that came to adorn the official plaques we had forged to lend legitimacy to the displays.
We had no intention of stealing limelight from the actual art students, for whom this show was the culmination of four years of study and hard work. We just wanted to occupy the unused space, to trick the experts.
And so, after sneaking into the gallery with the back door code and smuggling the canvases past security, our paintings were placed on radiators, in urinals, on the roof… All pretentious, eye-catching locations. But the best was placed on a window in the main staircase. Where ten thousand passers-by would be forced to see it and judge.
That’s when the fun began.
“Who is this hooligan, Rodney Munch?!?!” bellowed ‘Chris’ – head of security at the art school. It was my own painting of William S. Burroughs that was first caught. I foolishly placed it outside the security office and they noticed immediately. Security guards began charging around the school, tearing down anything by the “hooligan” Rodney Munch. Our official-looking name plaques, designed to lend the paintings some sense of legitimacy, made their job easy.
My co-conspirators fled and returned hours later with different clothes and shaved heads, but I stayed and watched… trying to be a real journalist.
Only four of the paintings remained until the exhibition started. Two of them remained for the first week. One remained for an entire year.
That was the painting that adorned the main staircase.
The one that ten thousand visitors passed.
Rodney Munch outlived the entire degree show.
‘Chris’ burned all of Rodney Munch’s artwork in a dumpster out back of the art school and for weeks people talked about the mysterious guerrilla artist. Fingers were mostly pointed at me, but I tried to explain: Rodney Munch was never a person, it was a group. It was an idea. Rodney Munch was a silly, immature rite of passage for a bunch of wannabe intellectuals struggling to find themselves before being cast into the real world.