Posted: July 6, 2011
interviewed by Chris Richards, june 2011.
Everyone I know who has met Margaret Killjoy, has nothing but wonderful things to say. Also known as Magpie, Margaret is a writer, zine publisher, editor, musician, activist, nomad, and beyond! I am particularly excited about this interview because Margaret’s book Mythmakers & Lawbreakers is a very similar project that i learned about after starting The Art of Dismantling. If you enjoy reading interviews, its a great book to check out. Enjoy!
Can you give us a brief explanation of who you are and what you do?
Sure. My name is Margaret Killjoy, and I’m an anarchist, a nomad, and a… I guess I would say a cultural creator. I work on a lot of different projects, probably too many to really do any of them as well as I should. As an activist, most of my experience is in forest defense and direct action environmentalism, Earth First! type stuff, but I’ve been involved in anti-capitalist and anti-fascist organizing and will continue to be.
As a creator, I do a lot of writing, editing, print design, photography, and music. I work with anarchist zine publishers Strangers In A Tangled Wilderness, and I started SteamPunk Magazine a number of years back. My current magazine, which I edit with the help of an international collective, is Graceless: A Journal of the Radical Gothic. I write stories and books: my first fiction novel, What Lies Beneath The Clock Tower, is actually coming out from Combustion Books next month, and I wrote/edited a book of interviews about anarchist fiction called Mythmakers & Lawbreakers that came out from AK Press in 2009.
Musically, I’m most proud of my work as the gothic breakcore project Nomadic War Machine, a solo project of political noise.
What Goals do you have with your art and its impact on the world?
I’m pretty upfront about what I’m hoping to do with my life: I want to live in an anarchist society, and I want to help influence people to behave and understand things from an anti-state and anti-capitalist perspective.
This is actually a question that I asked all the authors I interviews in Mythmakers, the question of what it is we can hope to accomplish. And what I took from the process of editing that book is that what we can hope to do is influence culture, to raise awareness about issues and about other ways of looking at the world. Art and culture are terrible ways to force people to behave certain ways, but really good at influencing them.
I think about Fraggle Rock. I didn’t think much about it as a kid, I just enjoyed watching it. But going back and looking at it now, the lessons of that show are amazing. Everyone is free, no one is in charge, things should be given freely, there should be no kings.
What I hope is that we can embrace, promote, and create cultures of sharing and egalitarianism and encourage themes of resistance to oppression. I hope that that can have an impact.
To say that culture is important and activism (or direct resistance) isn’t would be an obvious mistake, but to claim the other way around is bullshit too. There’s a false dichotomy that a lot of people in radical circles promote, that culture doesn’t matter, that you can’t have any influence, that all that matters is the struggle. But we need both.
That said, when I talk about political art… like my friend likes to say, politics is no excuse for bad art.
Ideally, what experience or impact would a reader take away from your writing?
My book that’s coming out in June, What Lies Beneath The Clock Tower, it’s a choose-your-own-adventure book. It’s meant to be entertaining. There are political themes woven throughout it, and the whole thing sets up the protagonist to wade into the anti-colonial struggle of goblins against the imperialist gnomes. My writing can stray into some pretty dark places, and I like to undermine and critique every point of view, including the radical ones, but it’s mostly meant to be fun.
And that’s I guess the point. We all need to relax sometimes. We all watch movies or read comic books or novels, we all tell stories and play games. If we’re going to consume culture, why not consume culture that’s not so antithetical to everything we believe? I’m not saying “don’t watch hollywood movies” but why can’t we make our own movies too, that tell the stories we’d like to see, of people we can identify with? God knows I can’t identify with the Joe Everyman character that seems to be the protagonist of every american film.
What experience or impact would an audience take away from a live performance of your music?
Music is something different, particularly the live performance of music. Music is about casting a spell, about putting people into altered headspaces. It’s a bit like leading a ceremony, maybe.
My music, perhaps unlike my fiction, is relentlessly political. Nomadic War Machine’s music, though lyricless, is about commitment to struggle against capitalism. There are samples in the music and a video projection behind me to reinforce this sort of thing.
I played a house show in Baltimore a few months back, and a drunk man approached me after the show. He told me that he’d had an epiphany during my performance, realized that he didn’t like what he was doing with his life, felt he had to do more, try harder.
I don’t know if he still felt that way in the morning, but I can only hope. Because I write music and perform it so that I can feel that way myself. To remind myself that I can do more, that I can try harder. That’s the spell I’m trying to cast.
What place does art & creativity have within building a resistance movement?
All I can say is: going to show with your comrades, played by your comrades, is more intense and beautiful than anything mainstream society has to offer us. Having your friend’s song stuck in your head is better than singing along to the radio. Celebrating each other’s creativity helps remind us that we’re going to create a better world or die trying.
But you need the struggle in order to find that kind of beauty. Once people have stopped organizing, stop protesting or fighting in the streets and forests, once people have just given in to the crushing system and just gone to hide in their subcultures, then our subcultures are really just hollow, and it crushes our souls.
How does art and creativity inform other types of activism, and vise versa?
Well, for all my talk about creating anarchist culture and spreading ideas through what we make, I’m not entirely certain we need to conflate art with activism. People try it all the time and I’m not sure I’ve ever been convinced. I do think good design, and graffiti and wheatpasting and things like that, can be important tools for activism. And I take photographs for environmentalist groups to use in their presentations. But this isn’t about “art,” it’s about using tools. You can play a show to raise money for a political cause, but the show isn’t the political action. It’s a tool.
Art, on the other hand, is cultural production that’s just being used to create culture, to create the culture we want to live in. But puppets don’t stop banks from destroying the world: the best they can do is help encourage people to go out and do it. But if all you do is make puppets to encourage other people to go out and solve problems, and you don’t take direct action yourself, then people will just see what you’ve done, puppet-making, and replicate that. And suddenly you’ve got a lot of puppets maybe saying really cool stuff but no one is stopping the motherfuckers that are hellbent on destroying everything beautiful in this world.
But one thing that’s good is that the skills you learn as an artist or whatever can also apply to your political projects. I spent this winter editing people’s english for their political projects when english wasn’t their first language. I can’t imagine how many posters and pamphlets I’ve designed for people, helping take some of their workload by doing what I’ve specialized in so that they can better go about fighting.
Do you feel that using your art for social and political purpose has been successful? Howso?
I’m friends with someone who became an anarchist because of SteamPunk Magazine. That means a lot to me. She was always smart and questioning and radical, but I think it helped show her that there were anarchists out there more like her and less like, well, the stereotype people have of anarchists.
I also did a good amount of organizing against Liquefied Natural Gas pipelines in Oregon, and I’m proud to say we won that fight. I don’t know how directly I helped it, and of that work, I don’t know what was more useful: our Earth First! stunts like blockading office buildings with dead trees, or the fairly extensive photography project I did around the issue to provide other groups with images to use in their propaganda.
Neither one hurt, I don’t think.
It’s really hard to gauge success. I’m not living in an anarchist society on a healing earth. I’m not even living where I want to be living because of fucking visas and bullshit like that.
And today in particular I’m not feeling particularly successful or really that this cultural stuff amounts to much, because there are fascists who are beating every non-white person they see all over the streets of Athens. And the only useful thing to do is to stop them, and here I am in NYC sending my book out to reviewers. It’s good to write books about stopping nazis but it’s even better to hit them with heavy things until they stop trying to kill immigrants.
Do you have advice for other artists looking to use their talent for political purposes?
Don’t conflate art and activism. Use the former as a tool in the service of the latter and use the latter to help inform the former.
Don’t just be an artist. Don’t just be an academic. I’m not trying to demean the importance of cultural work, but don’t forget that sometimes you just need to throw down.
To support Margaret Killjoy and check out the various projects, please visit these links: