Harriet Welch

projects manager



An interview with the writer and lecturer Ken Hollings about his expansive practice and his understanding of writing as communication design.
[Interview February 2019, W12 London]

Ken Hollings's work spans colossal dimensions - which renders him completely un-categorisable - yet he chooses to describe himself in one word - writer. His empirical approach to his practice is clear from his background focusing on experimental literature during his studies and his early involvement in Biting Tongues - the Factory Records signed post-punk band - as an lyricist. It is also evident through his years spent editing Hubert Selby and John Cage at Marion Boyars publishers on Brewer Street in Soho during the 80’s. His writing for multimedia formats such as operas and video installations further continues his trajectory. Along with his early 00’s ‘history as fantasy’ novel based on the beginnings of the Iraq war ‘Destroy All Monsters’ which both create further stumbling blocks for anyone trying to pigeonhole Hollings. His more recent writing moves across medias in a similar non-hierarchical way - radio programmes, lectures, articles and his own exploratory books all take equal precedence. His radio series for Resonance FM was converted into two books ‘Welcome to Mars’. The stellar series of lectures which he gave to Graphic Design students at Central Saint Martins has also become a book published by Strange Attractor Press; ‘The Bright Labyrinth’ in which Hollings explores his concept of ‘the digital regime’. In-between there has been pieces for art publications about subjects as niche as Elvis’s sweat, an abundance of articles for Wire magazine, a highly successful series on Marshall McLuhan for BBC Radio 3 and the release of his latest book in ‘The Space Oracle’. Hollings's sixth book ‘Inferno : The Trash Project’ focuses on rubbish and the tendrils it leaves behind in our lives and will be released later this year as the first of a series of three. I leave our conversation feeling blissfully overwhelmed by Hollings's boundless enthusiasm for ideas that sit at the fringes of our culture and I am curious to know more.


As a young teenager Hollings stumbled upon a ‘day-glo’ edition of William Burroughs The Soft Machine with optical art style typography in a spinning wire rack in a corner shop on the outskirts of Manchester. Arriving to writing through an early preoccupation with literature, Hollings mentions he opened the book, only to skim the first few lines and then take it straight home and read it - ‘It changed my life, I have just never been the same since’ he says of the first part of the Nova trilogy. This early foray into exploratory literature was the first step to Hollings becoming fully immersed in language and poetry.


Hollings's sprawling interests range from ‘cheap science fiction to astronomy to technology to culture to trashy B movies to decadent art’ and throughout our conversation I realise that the writer’s interests are not contained. They are a liquid mosaic - constantly in motion and changing their form, shape and undefined boundaries. Hollings mentions his preoccupations 'seem to form something like a constellation; like there is coherence in the way that a spiral galaxy has coherence and there is also an expansiveness there'. The devotion to literature stems from a strong belief that poetry is a 'fundamental necessity' in life, but that as a society we 'calcify the experience' by the way that we understand it. Drawing from sources as varied as comic books, sci-fi films, newspaper headlines and advertising Hollings's study of language zooms in and out - from micro to macro. This examination of language and writers that Hollings admired led him to consider one of the enduring problems for a writer. Voice; what is it and how do you develop it?'There is this sense that you get towards something that is uniquely yours and I was never really sure what that was in terms of voice. Style, technique, process I understood, but voice eluded me until I realised that for me, subject matter is voice. The things that you choose to present to the world, in a way that says this excites me, this interests me, this fascinates me, this inspires me, that is the voice. And [for me that is] the more wide ranging fringes of our culture, because that is where I feel most comfortable. This investigative approach to a far-reaching range of subject matter forms the backdrop to Hollings's extensive writing practice.


This approach was formulated through studying a Modern English undergraduate degree and then Comparative Literature as a Masters. Manchester University offered Holling’s a phD place, which he turned down and less than six months later he was part of Biting Tongues. Hollings remembers his time in Biting Tonguesas formative and ‘inevitable for its time’. Rock music - as he notes for want of a better word - was a finishing school for Hollings in the early 80’s and a ‘powerful platform’. The disjointed nature of Biting Tongues has played into Hollings's experimental approach. Whilst the other band members lived in Manchester - Hollings was based in London taking the train up to the North West for gigs and recordings. Bandmate Graham Massey - who he remembers lived with a constructed shrine to Frank Sinatra built out of empty Kent cigarette packets and Pepsi cans - would send tapes in the post with timing notes of where they wanted the lyrics to be and Hollings would then start creating assemblages of language. Often this process would start with wandering around Soho listening to the tapes, followed by recording sections of slowly tuning through the FM radio, transcribing the spoken parts. This then evolved into creating transparent grids which he would lay over books to see which words and phrases had been underlined; applying the same grids to different books and chapters to create compositions of text. Listening back to the music, Hollings is ‘staggered by how extreme a lot of experiments with the text were’.


The transition from a noise band to editing wasn’t overnight. In fact, Hollings had been employed as an editor at Soho based publisher Marion Boyars during the time he was part of Biting Tongues. Editing writers such as John Cage, Jean Cocteau and Hubert Selby and playing gigs in Manchester in the evening - catching the first train back to London - to be at his desk on Brewer Street by 10am. ‘I realise I was far more immersed in a useful way in literature, than I was in music’ Hollings acknowledges. He references that there was a point that he decided he ‘wasn’t original enough for music, I would almost like to sound like someone else if I were doing music, […] that is a point you can’t go any further. If you are sitting there, thinking I wish I had recorded that song, or I wish that was mine’. Hollings realised that within his written practice he didn’t have the same concerns, he admits ‘there is a few things I wish I had the experience of writing, but I wouldn’t want to claim authorship to any of them’. The writers Hollings admires - such as Burroughs - have made an indelible impression upon him. He remembers sitting with the manuscript of The Soft Machine at Boyar’s office. He recounts discovering the original papers - cut up and written on so many different typewriters and machines and ribbons that there were barely two the same. The paper stock was varying, pages were cut in half and the submission was in a delicately handwritten pencil labelled manilla folder. Hollings remembers that the variety of the text encouraged him and that the process of editing at Marion Boyar’s also taught him ‘an awful lot about structure, coherence and hierarchy, what is important in a text. I learnt a lot from taking other peoples texts apart and then putting them back together again.’


Hollings see’s coherence, as despite the inherent disjointed elements, everything was happening concurrently. It was the ‘fragmenting, the cutting down through text to the point where it just becomes sound poetry and fragments’ which developed his practice. It made him appreciate the autonomous nature of language and also its materiality. He mentions he was working on a ‘microscopic’ level for Biting Tongues and started to wonder how to apply this thought process to larger texts. Criticism, theory, analysis, almost-fiction and interview-portraiture became a stepping stone into writing his own books. There were elements from Biting Tongues that remained; Hollings admired the ‘dour and austere, almost militant way of going about things, so that extended into the text’. Hollings has a strong belief that literature should infiltrate all areas of daily life; that it should not be confined to the format of reading and defined by small publishing - despite his very serious appreciation of what independent publishers are doing today. This desire to explore formats outside of print has manifested itself in his collaborations with fine artists, photographers, film makers and composers who were looking for a text ‘specialist’. This formed around the concept of ‘making the text available in different ways’ by experimenting with platforms. This, he mentions, helped him to understand ‘more and more about what a text could do’. Which, in turn, lead to his conclusion that literature, for him, isn’t about form or precedent but what the text ‘needs to do and developing a very fundamental practical approach [to that]’. This was a ‘big breakthrough […]: that writing is a form of communication design and once you realise that; all the rest just sort of falls away and you find yourself in this much more experimental protean world, where you can experiment with hybrid texts, I find it incredibly liberating’.


Hollings acknowledges that we are ‘constantly moving between an oral and scripted tradition when we use language’. This idea of constant shift is very present in his thought process. The Bright Labyrinthstarted as a lectures series and was therefore part of the oral tradition, which he then worked into a scripted text format for the development of his book. Hollings was completely focusing on the scripted form until around 15-20 years ago, when he started to see spoken word as a ‘completely new way of working’. It was this broadening in Hollings’s practice which accounts for his current position; that Q&A’s, panel, interviews, radio programmes, lecture series and seminars are all part of his expansive approach. Moving through and across these boundaries is something the writer seems hyper aware of. In his lecture series; he explains he is often still grappling with the ideas he is presenting, therefore it is something immediate and ‘here and now’. The concept of performative spoken word remains strong in Hollings’s mind - perhaps going back to his days in Biting Tongues - a colleague once observed ‘you didn’t give that lecture you danced it!’. Although Hollings acknowledges that ‘you aren’t there to perform but there is […] something going on - these ideas are alive […] sometimes that is transmitted to the audience and they get it and we have the most wonderful conversations afterwards and sometimes people just walk away’. With the spoken tradition, such as his Bright Labyrinth series of lectures Hollings is unendingly enthusiastic about the exploratory nature of the spoken word, he concludes that : ‘You can go broad stroke, you can be expansive…you can have a whole constellation just in your hands, in the way you gesture, the way you use your voice. But you can’t do that [in the same way] on the page.’


Hollings's experiments in media and writing have translated into his written work and therefore he has pursued his interest in experimental numbered structures of text on the printed page. Through the work of Nietzsche and John Cage he explored this idea of creating a ‘loose mosaic of pieces’. ‘It separates them off - and I like the fact that each aphorism is allowed to exist in it’s own silence so you have to reflect on it. It is a level of interpretation which isn’t actually within the text itself [..] almost something that is superimposed on top of the text’. This methodology suggests giving the reader more autonomy in how they comprehend the text - and ‘expands the way you can interact with it’. Therefore Destroy All Monsters is a book composed of 200 individual text files. The Bright Labyrinth was mapped with codes for following the trails of subjects throughout the book and The Space Oracle is divided into sixty numbered parts. Hollings's upcoming Inferno is based on the arrangement of the 34 cantos that make up Dante’s Inferno, part of what will be 100 numbered parts over three forthcoming books. This concept allows infinite routes through the text and allows the reader to discover their own path through his books.


When creating The Bright Labyrinth, Hollings wanted to create a book that could still be read in 10, 20 or 30 years time about what he christened ‘the digital regime’. He noticed at the time that a lot of publications surrounding the digital, were binary in their nature. There seemed to be nothing in between the positive or negative: ‘no attempt to take a step back and take the long view [..] the future does cast these enormous shadows into the past’'. Hollings mentions how quickly we forget once we move onto the next device or item. To illustrate this point, in The Bright Labyrinth Hollings wrote about the early 00’s phenomena 2nd life - whilst knowing at the time of writing that it was already ‘dead’ he illustrated just how quickly we have moved on. ‘But what have we learned?’ This approach was further demonstrated by him memorialising the Kendall Jenner Pepsi advert a year after it had faded into digital obscurity. ‘The more I examined it [the advert] and went back and sort of pieced through the debris the more I became aware of how insensitive it was’. He wanted his reader to be propelled to go back and examine the detritus lost in the digital ether, but realised the almost impossibility of this. ‘The thing that bothers me is I love the idea of the poor image and I love memes - they are really interesting methods of communication but my one concern is that they don’t stick. They don’t stay. And there is still something about the printed word and the script tradition, which I flip backwards and forwards across, […] that impedance, I still think it is useful and necessary to how we view the world.' Hollings contemplates the changing nature of publishing considering that historically the publishing house was in essence the ‘ante-room’ to the bookshop. The digital age has brought on a whole new era of publishing - one which allows for small houses such a Strange Attractorto succeed - a press that Hollings is ‘proud to be associated with’. The writer has a great admiration for what small presses are currently producing noting ‘all hail the small presses because that is where the truly great, original, innovative, interesting writing comes from’.


Hollings remembers when Jeff Bezos declared the book ‘the last bastion of analogue’. However he has a more pragmatic approach, ‘the book is not the last bastion of anything’ he sighs. Hollings is inspired by Marshall McLuhan’s theories applied to a modern world, the media theorist had a big influence on Hollings’s thinking - when he re-discovered the writer in the late 90’s after McLuhan had fallen out of favour for decades. 'Suddenly what he was saying about new and old media and this idea that old media are contained within new media, seemed to make a great deal of sense. And a very McLuhan-esque paradox seems to occur when things become digitised or the platform becomes digital, that quite often the analogue version doesn't disappear but as McLuhan predicted becomes art - it becomes content'.Hollings considers this return and fetishisation of nostalgic analogue mediums as foretold by the elusive Canadian theorist. In the music industry, vinyl and tape were thought to be obsolete before they became like 'limited edition prints'. Hollings considers that they are like 'lithographs now, people actually buy them and listen to the digital download but the vinyl gets put away and becomes a collectable item.' Hollings contemplates the way that CD’s are currently viewed as useless and dated, but considers that the CD had ‘such an impact on how we understand the history of music, […] so don’t rule the CD out at this point or any other medium’. This idea furthers McLuhan’s theory that as a medium becomes obsolete it has the potential to become an art form. Hollings believes McLuhan was so successful because ‘he absolutely represented what everybody wanted at the time’. Hollings reasons that this only ‘worked’ for McLuhan because he himself represented a kind of comforting representation of the past. ‘He is the equivalent of the pencil, or the pair of scissors or the clipboard on your toolbar on your computer - they are comforting. They are memories of the past. So McLuhan, the tweedy professor, the literary background, the Catholicism, the conservative politics, they all worked together, he was a reassuring presence. And so he was able to say the most outrageous things […] I think that is why he was sensitive to what was happening because he knew what was happening was displacing him.' As we finish our conversation surrounding the theories of McLuhan Hollings assures me that he is a ‘hair’s breadth away from banalities’ which I am sure to doubt as he dives into another tangent about the value of the printed word. That is the thing with Hollings; you couldn’t encapsulate him even if you tried.