Mick Jones: Bringing Punk to Venice

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Mick Jones' Rock and Roll Public LibraryPhotography by Federico Ferrari

A corner of Venice transforms into a haven of 70s punk nostalgia as Mick Jones opens up his collection, and asks, "Is it art?"

In three small rooms off an alleyway running next to the Metropole hotel in Venice, a sprawl of agitprop literature, punk fanzines, and Boy’s Own comics, stacks of VHS movies, vinyl records, and books, stage outfits, posters, paintings and artworks all vie for attention, crammed across walls and hanging from ceilings.

In the midst of one of the art world’s premier events, The Rock and Roll Public Library offers a cartoon vista on pop culture collected over 40+ years by iconic musician and producer Mick Jones of The Clash. Featuring an old-school listening booth playing vinyl records from the 70s, and punk poet John Cooper Clarke’s viscerally blunt Evidently Chickentown etched onto a canvas, the library traces one of the most influential, imaginative and transformative periods of culture through the pop and punk ephemera that caught Jones’ eye.

We spoke to Mick about collecting, popping-up in Venice and the importance of showbiz.

On starting a collection…
"Well, I started as a kid, collecting comics and then being lucky enough to be in a band you get to go places, it's the best way to travel. You've got comradeship and you share your experiences. It's like being in the Navy. Well, actually it wasn't much like being in the Navy, being in the Gorillaz was like being in the Navy."

On coming to Venice…
"It's just chance, really, it's interesting because it's asking that question, ‘Is it art?’ I don't know. People seem to like it. The personal relationship of the viewer, how it also reminds them of things that are in their lives, all that engagement is really interesting. And putting it in a highbrow situation — there’s real rebellion in there, the agitprop stuff, not just rebellion for effect — is quite interesting. I don't know what people will think. Not very much, but some people will dig it and some people will just be wondering what's going on."

On his favourite pieces in the show…
"Lots of them have little stories attached to them. It's a lot of personal things. It's mixed up. It's like a personal, social, cultural, history of my life and times. I always look at it like a musical arrangement. The music's all around. The whole thing I see as part of that journey, almost like a documentation of the journey."

On how people engage with his collection …
"I’d like them to share it and learn from it in some way, because that’s the most important thing. I hope it's used in that way and not treated too much like relics. Have a sift through and engage with it. Use it to remember what it was like before, and how it's not like that now. Maybe it's different thinking now, but I’m trying to embrace as much as possible but at the same time still retain my integrity and soul. When punk started is closer to the end of the Second World War than we are today to punk. We played on bombsites when we were kids, seriously, you could still smell the war. So that's in there too. You get a feeling of that, of the past."

On the point of his library…
"It's to remind people of how great and fun things are, and it's got a serious point too. But it's mostly supposed to be fun. I always wanted to be in a group and I didn't want to be labelled. But it's like what you do is political. Everything is political in that way. We never aligned ourselves with any parties or anything like that. They tried to appropriate us into their thing but we were like listen mate, we just want to play a few songs and have a few laughs. But it's hard to have something to say and be entertaining, be an entertainer. I always wanted to be in show biz. I'll tell you this story, right. A guy goes to the doctors and he's got a terrible rash on his arm, really bad and they go, ‘What happened to you?’ And he goes, ‘Well, I work at the circus and one of my jobs is that every month I have to give the elephant an enema, right so I have to put it right up there…’ And the doctor goes, ‘Well that's it, isn't it? That's why. You'll have to think about changing your profession.’ And he goes, ‘What? And leave show business?!'"

The Rock and Roll Public Library is at Istituto Suanta Maria Della Pieta, Venice, until November 22.