When I sat down with my flatmates to watch the BBC documentary ‘I Am Mutoid’, there was instantly an understanding in the room that we were watching something vital. That we must watch closely and try to learn a thing or two. I have since thought about why, and concluded that in that room, and amongst my generation at large, I feel this suffocating desire for a big change, something revolutionary. We are frustrated with the existing condition and feel severely disempowered by the endless reels of heart-sinking news and the well-worn paths laid out before us. Therefore Joe Rush and his band of Mutoids’ philosophy of living in constant evolution loudly resonated in our awaiting ears. Joe Rush founded the Mutoid Waste Company in the early 1980s, a travelling tribe of underground artists and performers with their origins in the new age British travellers scene. Joe himself is a metal artist, having the technical skill to carve a perfect animal figure but choosing instead to make all his work from scrap metal, therefore ‘designing within chaos’.
Joe tells me that the Mutoids themselves were “born out of chaos”, just after the birth of Thatcherism and during the rise of neoliberalism. They began as squatters in an area of West London then called ‘Frestonia’, now more widely known as Latimer Road, where Joe says he had a basic plan for what he wanted to create using “two trucks and six people”. However, this plan “went right out the window” after they were firebombed in the middle of the night, at this point realising they needed cover and to band together with the other squatters occupying the area. It was a “chaotic cross-section” of people and everybody “had their different take on it and added something to it”. So began this thrilling ride, described as “part street theatre, part art show and part traveling circus”.
My first instinct is to ask Joe for advice. What would you say to someone who, in this modern day, feels the desire to mutate? He picks up on my caveat immediately and says that while people look at the things they did and say “oh yeah you could do that then, you can’t do that now”, “the thing is that you couldn’t really do that then either”. Their vehicles were unlicensed, they faced vicious attacks and at one of their shows “the police come in the walls with sledgehammers and we haven’t stopped”. He tells me that the chosen method of the Mutoids was to be “so loud and out there that they couldn’t really deal with you”, a concept exemplified in their post-apocalyptic psychedelic styling and spectacular, often ritualistic performances. Ironically, Joe says the Mutoids are now “admired for the things that made us the enemy in our own country”. I note that this is something that has recurred throughout history in Britain, outsiders and revolutionaries being reviled by those in authority until enough time has passed for them to be safely seen as an element of culture, rather than as a threat. Joe’s essential advice to those of us who desire to mutate and break away from the rather harrowing life expected of us; career, housing market, family, security, etc. is “don’t ever believe that it’s not possible because you don’t know what’s possible until you try”. These are words we often hear from those giving encouragement to our ambitions, but coming from the mouth of someone who has truly done the impossible they garner a new, more sagacious meaning.
In order to follow Joe’s advice we must implement change, an essential aspect of the Mutoid philosophy. “Life is constant change, whether you like it or not […] everything is different all the time”, therefore we ourselves must be constantly evolving with it. “One change will lead to another change” and”‘to other questions” and soon you are “following a path of all these decisions and these different cross-roads”. Joe says that the first change you decide to make does not have to be entirely transformative at once. For them it was the decision to live life on wheels in trucks and vans, which then led to the question of where those wheels could be situated, and so on. I am hugely comforted by this concept of a rolling mutation, one that is never complete and where each step opens you up to new experience, never leaving you feeling stuck. It is at odds with the insularity of Britain, but if we choose to reject this slant and instead adopt Joe’s philosophy then all we need is to be in the right place at the right time once, and the only way for that to happen is to be there in the first place.
For Joe the sense of a rolling road began at a young age. His father was an artist, who “broke the ground” for the Mutoids by breaking away from his own lower-middle-class family, buying an old gypsy cart to take his young children travelling on the Romney marshes. In terms of his practice, he created his own way of making sculpture and painting, all of which made a sign-post for Joe saying “these things are possible”. When I ask Joe how he feels about the landscape now he tells me that he is very much a city boy, loving “the grimy underbellies of major capital cities” and when he is in the countryside he likes to be there “with thousands of people and sound systems”. However, he tells me that he thinks of himself as a road artist; “I love the roads of connection, I love the feeling of driving these roads, of seeing that stuff passing”. This I relate to entirely, the great joy of seeing nature flitting across the vehicle windows as you journey through. Joe’s words also make me think about the brilliance of the process, appreciating journey over final destination. When it comes to artistic creation, ambition and inner and outer transformation, it can be too easy to attempt to “paint the result” and then become frustrated or disheartened by the lack of instant results. Rather, if you were to think like a road artist, you should revere the process and therefore discover what connections can be made on the way that you may have otherwise missed.
Everything must come from somewhere and so I ask Joe who has influenced him in the way that he now influences many others. “The hippies at Stone Henge”, “punk rockers”, but then he pauses, “I’ll tell you what it is”. He says that there is a quote by Albert Einstein which states that while everything we do is social and everything we have comes from society; the way we write, the way we dress, etc., that “change of the whole society is made by individuals who are moving things forward by not doing things in the conventional way”. Although daunting, this is the crux of the Mutoids’ philosophy and it does offer solace. The idea that by truly walking your own path you can have an affect on others to do the same is an incredibly powerful one, as it gives agency to the individual. In this current age, when there is so much to fight for yet so many barriers stopping us from believing that another way is possible, the power to effect change needs to be instilled within each common man.
I ask Joe whether he thinks the mutate mindset could be used to aid the damage we are inflicting on the planet and he says that he would hope so. He says that we should consider ourselves lucky to have had the choice to make “mutational changes” rather than having them forced on us “by the environment and by war and famine” as billions of others do around the world. Now the damage has reached a point where, for the sake of not only ourselves but all those we share this space with, we are all going to have to mutate in order to survive. Finally, I ask him whether he believes that there is a place in this current world of restriction and surveillance for the nomadic spirit. Joe says that this is “the history of humanity”, all the way from the pastoral travellers. That festivals were their meeting places over the summer season, where they would “get together, swap jokes, the boys marry the girls and the horses are traded”. These are people who “walk lightly on the land”, uninterested in war or ownership, people who have been “fenced in and forced onto transit camps and reservations”. But Joe says that this is why it is “essential now that we have that spirit”. We must continue to implement change on ourselves and our ways of living, continue to discover what is possible and not be discouraged by forces we deem to be bigger than ourselves. “The more things can get pressurised, the more you do need that travelling spirit”, and if you are unhappy somewhere – be that physical or other – then”‘travel light and fast and travel the way you do feel happy”.
‘I Am Mutoid’ is available to watch on BBC iPlayer