Modern Spectacle

Port catches up with creative polymath JP Pryor to discuss shared cultural touch-points, consumer capitalism and the joy of writing


“A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself…This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”

– Abraham Maslow

JP Pryor is a renaissance man for the 21st Century – part poet, post-punk, journalist, creative director, philosopher, filmmaker and musician. For all the fields he has turned his hand to, writing is the thread that runs through them all. Acting as Dazed’s Arts and Culture editor for a number of years, Pryor has also written for Flaunt, TANK, AnOther, and most recently, is the cultural director of Mortimer House in London’s Fitzrovia. There, in addition to overseeing the Art Deco private members club and workspace based on psychoanalyst Abraham Maslow’s theory of self-actualisation, he runs the newly launched publishing arm The Notebook, featuring interviews with and essays from photographer Miles Aldridge, poet Robert Montgomery and actor and film maker Greta Bellamacina, among others. His debut novel Spectacles might well contain one of the best blurb recommendations I’ve ever read: “a Kafka-on-viagra-esque vision of a universe perverted and impotent to change, interspersed with measured Keatsian romanticism – open nerves drenched in tears”.

He is a mischievous, wry and measured subject, adept at answering questions because he is the one normally asking them, having interviewed cultural icons such as David Lynch, Howard Marks and Werner Herzog. Together over coffee, we tumbled down a rabbit hole that covered purposeless capitalism, technological alienation and the joy of interviews.

Photography Easton Schirra

The phrase ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’, is a potentially outdated adage. Do you think it’s necessary to be a polymath in today’s creative industry – are you?

Everything I do creatively, at the core of it, is writing. It comes from communication, the written word. If you’re trying to create a character or brand or identity, language is the first and most important place to go. It comes before visual identity. I’ve become more zen, or at ease with the fact that all the different pathways I’ve followed have coalesced into an acceptance of that. I’m most interested in people and the exchange of ideas. Even with my commercial projects, there is an element of bringing some subversive cultural element into it. Previously, you could punctuate culture. To actually inspire people, you have to punctuate or get into the mainstream. That was probably more plausible ten years ago, but now, how do you actually cut through the noise these days?

We live in a heavily media-saturated environment

We have all these micro cultures and sub strata’s of culture – there is no real mainstream now. If you took the Bill Grundy Sex Pistol’s moment in the 70s, where they called him a dirty old fucker – that classic bit of TV – the only reason that galvanised an entire movement was because millions and millions of people had a shared cultural moment when they saw it. The message or anti-establishment stance – glib as it may have been – had the opportunity to resonate with lots of young people. It’s almost impossible to do that now. If you look at entertainment culture, you don’t have shared cultural touch-points anymore and I don’t know what the long-term effect of that will be on society.

What role has technology had in this?

One of the biggest side effects of a social media culture is the flattening of all information so there’s no hierarchy to what you’re receiving. Without curated information it’s just a sea of data. The enhanced individual of the near future, is already being guided by cookies into certain echo chambers or things we’re told we like or don’t like. There’s no accidental discovery, or very little, anymore. Which is propaganda by any other name. In this era of consumer capitalism in overdrive, there’s something absurd about the pursuit of profit. I’m by no means the first to say this, but the notion of an unending need for ‘growth’ is implausible and impossible to sustain. What’s going to stop this gargantuan appetite for more and more and more? I find it very tricky to get my head round it. It’s a purposeless purpose.

We’ve become disassociated with the act of making or understanding how things work. We’ve been able to silo and separate the means of labour to grow quickly but to the expense of really understanding. People have essentially become more and more isolated units of consumption. Everything is also going through a cipher of smartphone culture so now we have a generation having less sex than any previous to them. Smartphones might be disrupting intimacy because we no longer have three channels forcing us to confront each other’s physicality, responding to physiological urges. We’re getting our dopamine hits in an isolated bubble now

Photography Easton Schirra

This is something my generation struggles with – we have to fill moments constantly, we’re terrified of dead time, waiting, being with ourselves

My generation, people in their 40s, we’re carrying this density of the era before the digital natives, over. Just the appreciation of the moment or simply being, without feeling like it has to be art directed into some digestible piece of information that has to be uploaded into the digital sphere, is very weird.

These are weird times. I’m not sure whether every generation goes through this luddite cycle, but nothing has come close to this technological intrusion or revolution, has it?

There hasn’t. The only thing you could point at was the Walkman in the 80, zombies walking around with their own soundtracks!

Disruption, like innovation, fast became a byword for anything particularly new. How would you personally define it, or do you have any practical examples of disruption done well?

It’s difficult in the advertising or media sphere. Disruption is still valid though. The Nike advert with Colin Kaepernick – those sorts of things are politically disruptive, so there’s definitely still room for it. There was a great quote from Alan Moore about the revival of the tv show Twin Peaks though – “if everything is weird, nothing is weird.” You could say the same about disruption in the world of media. If there are no traditional parameters you’re working within, how can you disrupt them? Trump and Brexit – we’re living at a time of complete political disruption – the whole thing is turning on its fucking head, goal posts being shifted. In the long term, we may see the changing of the rules of the old guard may be a necessary tangle. Once these words become glib buzzwords though, they do lose real meaning, but you can still pinpoint disruptive acts within society.

It’s sometimes uncomfortable when a brand acts like they stand for something beyond profit, or co-opt a cause, but then again, maybe there are positive consequences?

It’s posturing to a degree, for sure, but there may also be an element of them stepping up to the mantle because some of these corporate bodies are worth more GDP than certain countries. If we are living under corporate overlords, they’re going to have a political voice regardless. Cynically you would say it’s still false, only there to sell x product. The true rebellion at the moment I suppose, is to switch off, unplug and withhold your engagement.

Photography Easton Schirra

When & why did you join Mortimer House?

I started working at Mortimer House from the beginning after meeting the founder, Guy Ivesha. I began working on the communications after he said he wanted to create a space based on the hierarchy of needs by Maslow. The building is intended to have an ‘unplugging atmosphere’, even though lots of people work here in their computers. We have lots of interesting people here, Dr Stephanie Kuku, for example, is currently working on an app that offers affordable healthcare.

I’ve worked in Fitzrovia myself for the past five years, it’s an interesting and peaceful place to be

It’s always been a no man’s land, strangely empty part of London. Very quiet. When I initially started working here, I wanted to celebrate the literary history of the area, inviting people like Clare Conville from Conville & Walsh, a well-respected publisher, to run a book club. I brought in people like Stoddart Martin to run a poetry speakeasy, Joy Lo Dico from the Financial Times does her Trouble club here. All of these things are very much about the exchange of ideas. I’m extremely happy and lucky to be working here. It’s nice to have a place that brings people together, that feels down-to-earth and unpretentious. 

How hard is it to build an offline or online community?

It’s easier to build an offline community because an online community is so often fraudulent. Instagram is a misnomer, it’s the greatest trick the devil ever pulled. It’s definitely the Emperor’s New Clothes. Even if you’re Bella Hadid, most of those gazillion followers are bots. What does it mean? What’s the fucking point of it, really? There are huge bot farms creating fake profiles. It’s much more meaningful to create an offline community, because if you physically meet and talk with people, you have all the nuance of the physicality of being, you have rapport. To maintain it is hard, but bringing people together in real-time, it’s quite rewarding. It’s more honest, more immediate, more compassionate.

What have been some of your most illuminating interviews via The Notebook?

It’s a young publication, but the idea of people talking about things not necessarily their discipline, but things that inspire them, is a nice angle. The artist Charlotte Colbert was very interesting – she talked about her meeting with the Kogi tribe in Colombia and how they have a radically different view of reality. They’re a remote, isolated tribe and have an almost aboriginal dream-time view of things. Another example would be Tamara Arbib, the founder of Rebel Kitchen. Her focus was ayahuasca and plant medicines, the mycelial web of tissue that interconnects all living beings. Most interviews I’ve done over the years have been focused on the subject’s conception of what being human is, their own definition. Whether it’s beauty or compassion or grace. Being an interviewer, that’s what really drives me, there’s an element of seeking and collecting these perspectives, pooling so many different opinions. It sounds naff to say, but it expands your mind, broaden your horizons.

It also makes for great dinner chat because you’re relatively well-schooled in a number of different things at surface, shallow level. But it does lead you down these avenues where you get lost and uncover a subject you previously knew nothing about

You always need to keep learning in order to truly feel alive, rather than be static. In my career, I’ve been part of a world in transition, in which you no longer join a company and remain there for 30 years, unchanged. My working life is pretty multi-faceted, so I’m always juggling a lot of different balls.

Would you describe your work as inter- or multi-disciplinary?

To a degree. It all comes back to the core of writing though. I’m very visually stimulated so I like to create visual work and produce occasional short films. The Generation OS13 film I did with Michael Oswald was a great experience. We created an Adam Curtis-esque documentary that had Billy Childish and Saul Williams in it, all about the banking crisis. I’ve also always loved music – my band The Sirens of Titan have an album coming out soon, produced by the wonderful Luke Buttery. 

Do you find yourself, like me, distracted by ten different projects at a time, cursing yourself for being a magpie?

That affliction is a double edged sword – I definitely have that though. I follow different routes at different times. I spent three years studying acting, a lot of time in my early 20s playing in rock n roll bands and the writing and editing came later, creative direction after that. It’s nearly ten years since I wrote my novel Spectacles and it’s time for me to write another novel, but you just have to allow things to happen when they happen.

Where did Spectacles come from?

I had a happy childhood but my best friend suffered a great deal, so much so that he came to live with my family. Around the time my mother passed away, someone else close to us had a breakdown and ended up sectioned, which did not end well. Also, my high-achieving girlfriend at the time had anorexia nervosa, so, there was a lot of darkness around me. I saw a lot of self-harm growing up, despite growing up as a lower-middle class kid in North London. I definitely got side-tracked by some wrong turns very early on and I’ve always had a fascination with the cruelty and dark side of the human animal. I’m curious about how awful and vindictive and manipulative people can be. How violent we can be to one another. We must be operating at a very low frequency for all of these things to be happening in the world. Some of the things that happen on this planet are completely beyond comprehension. I guess I’m fired by the idea of catharsis and redemption. If there’s some light that can come though at the end of the violence, that fascinates me.