Istvan Kantor is a Toronto-based artist famous for his outrageous blood spatter performances and setting things on fire. The Hungarian-born artist has visited many cities, spreading the idea of Neoism – a subculture for experimental arts- throughout the world. According to Kantor, “Neoism is nothing more but a name,” and as an umbrella term, it contains many dynamic and ostentatious works of art by a growing body of artists. Three decades after the inception of Neoism, Kantor is still going strong, continuing to shock us with his daring performances and ideas under the name ‘Monty Cantsin.’ This is his story.
In the afternoon of May 22, 1979 Kantor sat down on a chair in front of McGill University with a sign that read “Neoism.” “I called it the Neoist chair,” he says. That day, he quickly gained attention as a young artist starting something new. What would become the ever-evolving, anti-authoritarian art movement was born. The arts were changing from the hippie movement to the punk and new wave scene, and everything around him was in revolt. It was a rebellious time and the Cold War was leaving an apocalyptic feel in the air. It gave way for something innovative and transformative: Neoism.
The idea that stemmed from a chair and a single artist quickly spread internationally. Through the Mail Art movement – a correspondance movement through which information and people were brought together to form the Neoist group – a core band of multi-media artists started performing and creating music throughout Montreal. As a way of direct communication, Neoist Apartment Festivals were launched (a week spent at a member’s house with days of artistic activities and nights of mischief.) “Refusal, destruction, and anger characterized the work,” recounts Kantor.
The band broke from institutions and wanted no control from the art system, opening Neoist centres, agencies, and embassies. It became a network of friends spreading the idea and presenting their artistic works, with a single rule: every work dedicated to Neoism had to be signed under the name of Monty Cantsin. This was the persona under which each performer and artist were to embrace as the representative of their work, and the leader of Neoism. It was an idea that accepted all types of art work, much more encompassing than the likes of Dadaism or Surrealism.
In 1984, in full swing at an apartment festival in London, artist Stewart Home came into the picture. What followed was a Neoist crisis, separating Kantor’s followers from those who took on the Home philosophy. Home brought in rules and turned Neoism into a historical movement just like all the other artistic linear movements, which differed from Kantor’s inclusive idea. “So there was fighting, mostly intellectual,” explains Kantor. He says they broke communication and separated, with Home publishing a book calling himself the founder, and according to Kantor, “bringing in fake history.” Nonetheless, Neoism went on. Festivals in Eastern Europe brought in many new artists and ideas; digital information sharing changed the way of communication and the network grew; Thailand and Japan joined the wave in the early 2000’s. The movement continues to grow to new proportions.
Parallel to Neoism, Kantor has been running his own interventions against boxed-in, boring pieces of art and things we’ve already seen. As a medical student, he became facinated with blood early on and quickly grew interested in its value in the art world. Kantor started experimenting by creating Blood Xs and other forms of blood art on canvasses, t-shirts and walls, collecting his blood in viles. “I predicted that within 5 years my blood would be sold for $1,000,000 for one millileter,” Kantor says. That didn’t happen. The first time he sold a flask of blood was in 1984 for a mere $10. However, throughout the years, many objects included in the Blood Campaign have sold for $1,000 or $2,000. The closest Kantor ever came to his original prediction was being charged with $10,000,000 in damages for a few blood drips splattered on Picasso’s Girl With A Mirror.
“I never ask for permission. I do it secretly so that they don’t stop me before I do it,” Kantor confides. Completed at the Museum of Modern Art in 1988, his guerilla blood intervention where he splashes blood between two very important works of art on the white wall proved to be a true spectacle. It drew much media attention to Kantor and Neoism, and thankfully, because the blood was easily washed off with some warm water, the charges were lowered to a second degree misdemeanour, resulting in a $1,000 fine and a ban from the museum. Kantor paid the fine by organizing a concert in Montreal. Similar Blood Campaigns have also resulted in him being banned from the AGO and Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. “It gave me a chance to spread the idea of Neoism throughout the world,” justifies Kantor.
He now spends his time organizing the Neoist archives and working on projects with his musical group, Red Armband. He started the band about 10 years ago, which has since gone through many different formations and performers. The two key artists are currently Kantor and Lewis Kaye, along with two new members, Karl Mohr and Kirsten Webb. Kantor likes to call their creations “improvisational electro crap,” using samplers, synthesizers, and laptops for experimental means. As for the future? Kantor says that there is no past, present, or future– that time is like throwing a bunch of cut up movie frames into the air and looking at them all at the same time. “We all live at 6 o’clock,” he affirms.