Art & Photography

Johan Kugelberg

Betty Wood speaks to collector-turned-curator Johan Kugelberg about his Manhattan gallery Boo-Hooray, new collection of essays and why he champions ‘low’ culture

Book cover for Brad Pitt's Dog, by Johan Kugelberg
Book cover, Brad Pitt's Dog by Johan Kugelberg

Curator Johan Kugelberg has produced some of the most interesting popular culture collections of the last 50 years: his hip hop record collection was sold to Cornell University – making up their entire catalogue – and London’s Hayward gallery used his unprecedented collection of Paris 1968 posters as a staple of their recent exhibition. Kuelberg’s collections range from the rare to the bizarre and outlandish – here he talks to Betty Wood about his new collections of essays Brad Pitt’s Dog, as well as the thought process behind his ‘low brow’ tastes.

You started your career working in the music industry, have written books and also curate your own gallery in Manhattan, Boo-Hooray. How did you transition from the music industry – and collecting records – into the world of art?

Johan: The line between the two isn’t that precise: I don’t really feel like I’ve landed in either or. Boo-Hooray exhibits a lot of sub-culture narratives; sometimes the themes relate to music and counter-culture (as with the Crass show). With our Velvet Underground exhibition, their history brings strands of art and underground film into the narrative.

Which Boo-Hooray exhibition are you most proud of?

Johan: The Angus MacLise / Dreamweapon show was pretty great as it brought attention to an otherwise obscure artist, working across several different disciplines: music / calligraphy / poetry / publishing / film. (You can listen to Johan talking about Angus and the Dreamweapon exhibition here.)

You’re infamous for your attention to ‘low’ culture – where does this interest stem from?

Johah: I am pretty sure that the borders that used to exist between low and high disappeared because of pop art and its second cousin the internet. I think what we’ve got going on now is a dichotomy where the tension lies between the picturesque and the sublime…

What are you currently collecting?

Johan: I am extremely interested in ‘zines. I just donated a collection of 1300 punk fanzines to Cornell. I am also interested in the paper trail of experiments in communal


My criteria is pretty much finding a field that interests me that I think has been far from thoroughly explored. Future value is a fickle mistress; the moment one tries to identify these micro-historical strands from a fiscal point of view you are second-guessing a marketplace instead of identifying cultural worth.

Your book Born in the Bronx – exploring the early history of hip hop – was very successful, similarly so for your book on The Velvet Underground. What other music genres and bands have really caught your attention and enthusiasm?

Johan: I love the British DIY-culture that emerged in the wake of punk rock. I am a huge fan of (English punk band) Crass – they’re the loveliest people and as a collective, an entity that spread huge amounts of self-starter enthusiasm around the globe – the roots of techno music.

“The drawings of alien pancakes and bug-eyed monsters tend to distract (me) from the micro-historical narrative…”

You’re working on a project on UFOs and their position within popular American culture – can you tell us anything about that?

Johan: The splendid science-fiction author Jack Womack is an old friend of mine. His library of UFO-books is unsurpassed I think. We are cataloguing and archiving it his collection, which will result in a book and an exhibition. The stuff is jaw-droppingly interesting, as well as being crazy funny. The drawings of alien pancakes and bug-eyed monsters tend to distract (me) from the micro-historical narrative which through example shows how cultish belief systems germinate, get distributed, become self-referencing etc. It certainly mirrors Internet disinformation on a micro-scale.

Finally, your new book Brad Pitt’s Dog is due for publication in the UK on April 27th – it’s a collection of essays on topics championing underground culture, both high and low brow – which essay are you most proud of?

Johan: I think I am the most proud of having my book published by Zero Books! Their catalogue is absolutely killer, and any book of theirs that I have read has beenilluminating. They are doing something as difficult as providing serious (and in my case not so serious) intellectual discourse in a non-academic fashion.

As far as the book goes, I am happy with most of it. A favourite is the essay on the psycho-geography of record fairs. It can be read here.

Brad Pitt’s Dog is out through Zero Books from 27 April 2012. Boo-Hooray gallery’s new exhibition, Jacqueline De Jong’s Situationist Times, 1962-1967 runs 9 – 25 May 2012. More information here