sub genius : trust your heroes?

by Art Chantry (

back in the early 1980’s, the church of the sub-genius was just as “out there” and just as scary fucking dangerous as survival research laboratories. what SRL was doing to technology, the church of the sub-genius was doing to organized religion. they took all the tools and and all the ideas and all the techniques of their chosen realm and simply took them into their own illogical and culturally threatening endpoints. both groups sort of self-obliterated into obsession and self-destructive visions of glory.

---AC:. the underground world treated me pretty much the same way for decades. i felt like i worked as an idea catalyst straddling a fence between two tribes in a class war.

i first encountered the church of the sub-genius through dennis p. eichhorn at The Rocket (a magazine we both worked at). denny was one of those oddly physically fearless big guys who was open to exploring just about anything that piqued his interest. sitting down and having a friendly chat with denny was to go on an glorious journey of experience and storytelling the likes of which i have been able to rarely match (only about a half dozen other people i’ve known have ever come close to denny’s stories). he lead an epic life.

denny really loved the sub-genius concept. he immediately contacted those guys and became buddies with several of them. one of them (david meyer – aka “the pope of new york”) even moved up here to the crackpot northwest (i used to have lunch with they guy in the old OK Hotel and talk about how much we loved the beach boys. go figger.) denny immediately wrote articles for the rocket about them and began figuring out a way to get the sub-genius to conduct a ‘slackfest’ up in seattle. it got sort of annoying finding little clipped out “bob” heads seruptitiously pasted into the page layouts on our drawing boards. sometimes they’d even sneak into the actual published magazine. denny liked pranking.

this poster is for the “devival” held in the HUB ballroom on the UW campus (co-sponsored by the rocket) in about 1985 or so. i can’t remember, but this may have been the event where ‘bob’ was assassinated. or maybe he was resurrected and ascension occurred. i forget, really. it was a blur of mayhem. i wound up joining the church of the sub-genius and kept a copy of my official certificate of member ship and devotion framed on my office wall for years. it looked VERY official.

eventually, members got bored with it. books about them were published and they became almost mainstream. ‘bob’ heads began to appear everywhere to the point that they lost their original meaning. one by one, the various sub-genius dudes (the pope, janor hypercleats, pastor buck naked, etc.) moved on and left it all in the hands of the originator, ivan stang. as i remember it, what seems to happen is that the mighty rev. stang began to take his dented creation a little too seriously and it actually started on the path to trying to become a REAL serious religion. at least stang seemed to be trying to protect and power grab anything connected with the sub-genius as his personal property to financially exploit.

the whole idea of the sub-genius was to create a false religion inside the cultural mindset and then hopefully watch it become something else as it grew and evolved. in the beginning, the absurdist image of ‘bob’ (clipped out of an old ’50’s advert) was even sent out for free, reproduced in little 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of paper to be cut out and used where you could “spread the word.” they encouraged everybody interested to add to the mythology and help to create a larger religious canon of parables, iconography and events. and it worked really great. but things began to change.

a friend of mine got in touch with me one day from new york, where he worked at a big old publishing house. it seemed that the lawyers at this big publishing house wanted to borrow anything i had on the church of the sub-genius. since my pal knew i was into it for a time, he referred them to me. i actually sent those sleazy lawyers all my materials (old newsletters, books, clippings, stuff like that. just generally available published stuff that they were too stupid to locate themselves.)

it seems that this publisher hired a young freelancer to design a book cover for a small run book project (i seem to remember it was some sort of scholarly tome). the designer put together a collage of faces to create a rather beautiful cover collage of a crowd. it sorta looked like the cover of sgt.pepper, only more punky. smack in the middle of the crowd was a ‘bob’ head. and the mighty rev. ivan stang of the church of the sub-genius was suing the publishing house for copyright infringement. ridiculous, eh? true.

i personally thought it was a little sleazy and abusive of the sub-genius to take possession of what was essentially a stolen image and sue somebody for using it after decades of encouraging everybody to use it any way they want. it just reeked of digging into ‘deep pockets’ for personal gain. so, i had no misgivings about sending my materials to those sleazy lawyer types at the publishing house. they could easily defend themselves against their greedy money-grubbing complaint by examining the his

of the group. it think was the right thing to do (you may disagree, and it’s ok).

ultimately, the lawyers did the lawyerly chickenshit thing and settled out of court for a huge amount of money. the poor little designer was professionally ruined (simply for following the rules of the the sub-genius foundation itself) and stang got a shitload of free money out of “the corporate monster”. sounds perfect, right? justice? except all the folks who got nailed were innocent and the guy who was pulling the cheesy unethical (and very profitable) move was the underground cred hero. so it goes.

one thing I’ve learned the hard way is that nobody is honest out there. even those people who appear to be underground superheroes and vigilant fighters for our freedoms are quite capable of screwing you big time. i’ve seen so many sleazy moves by guys big and small, good and bad, that the generalities get harder and harder to rely on. i DO hold fast that corporations will cheat you at the drop of a hat (even with no hat drop.) they have divisions of lawyers and accountants whose sole job it is to figure out how to NOT pay their bills. but, i learned the hardest of ways possible to not trust your heroes, either. boy, i could tell you some ripe horror stories out folks you might think are gods.

the best part of this story is that the sleazy lawyers at the big publishing house managed to actually LOSE the materials they borrowed from me. seems they sent it to the mailroom, where the even sleazier mailroom guys (you know, people like us) stole them outright. so, my pal who worked there told me to fill out a claims form and to name a price. i did. i ended up getting reimbursed buy the publishers for several thousand dollars!

who are the good guys? who are the bad guys? who got screwed? the guilty? the heroes? the innocent? the evil? it’s a mess. but, somehow i came out with a couple grand.

but, frankly, i’d much rather have those books back, however. damn those slackers in the mail room! we’re all thieves given the opportunity.


back in the late 80’s (or so), i was asked to participate in the organizing committee for the bi-annual design conference of the AIGA (held in chicago that year). i came loaded for bear and walked in to the conference room with huge meeting table surrounded by all these really famous design names (steve heller, ivan chermeyeff, ralph caplan, michel cronan, etc.). it was scary. but, i presented all these books about ed roth and von dutch and SRL and the subgenus and NSK on and on. i wanted these people to (at least) consider asking these outsiders to actually participate in the big event. everybody looked at me like a freak show and began talking, “do you think we could ask milton to do something again this year?” it was pathetic. everybody ignored me except for ivan chermayeff. he was furiously looking at my books and writing down addresses like crazy. i’ll never forget glancing at the legendary ivan chermayeff himself, holding the open sub-genius book, madly writing down the contact addresses. hilarious image….

… yeah, that was maybe the first time the elitist suffocated aspects of ‘fine’ design culture’ really slapped me up alongside the face with dead fish. after many years of pounding my head against that world, i finally had to walk away….

…when i finally attend that same conference (that i supposedly helped ‘plan’) i participated in a panel discussion and got resoundingly BOOO’d when i said i often did work for free for non profit organizations. it got real creepy real fast….

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