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An Interview with Wu Ming, the Mysterious Collective of Anti-Establishment Writers

Talking about Italian politics, sci-fi communist utopias and Luther Blissett.

The Wu Ming collective. All Wu Ming images courtesy of Wu Ming.

Wu Ming is the nom de plume of a mysterious European quartet of anti-establishment writers. In Mandarin, their name means “anonymous” or “five people” (one of their members left in 2008), depending on how you pronounce it. Which is weird. What's weirder is that, when Wu Ming's five members first commenced their "guerrilla war on the culture industry" – alongside hundreds of other politicised art pranksters back in 1994 – they did so under the banner of "Luther Blissett". You wonder how often the former Watford and AC Milan striker thought of the people out there waging a "guerrilla war on the culture industry" in his name before they killed off the communal moniker in 1999. Was Blissett, as the collective suggested, an anarchist footballing saboteur, delivering bad performance after bad performance in a premeditated situationist attack on the spectacle of football itself? Or was he just a bit shit?


It's playful quandaries like this that the four remaining Wu Ming members continue to concern themselves with to this day. After the success of Luther Blissett's best-selling Q in 1999, the culture warrior diaspora of Wu Ming are trying to repeat that success with Altai, their 2009 novel and the latest to be translated into English.

I caught up with Wu Ming 1 (Roberto Bui) to talk about their history, their refusal to be photographed, Italian politics and sci-fi communist utopias.

The "official portrait" of the Wu Ming collective from 2001 to 2008.

VICE: Let’s start from the beginning. Why did you guys choose the name Luther Blissett – a mediocre English football player – for the first incarnation of your collective?
WM1: Nobody knows. It’s a completely meaningless thing – Monty Python-esque. There have been many attempts to explain it, but they were all made up. We spread some myths so people could pick their favourite explanation. There are people who think we picked it as an anti-racist statement because, back in 1983, Luther Blissett was one of the very few black players in the Italian Serie A, so he became a target for racist abuse. But that was also made up. Another one was that Italian radicals believed his bad performances to be a deliberate sabotage of the spectacle of football – that he was some kind of infiltrator playing badly to ruin the show; Luther Blisset, the anarchist footballer. Of course, it’s bullshit.


And you guys were active on the internet since those days, right?
Yes, the internet that had yet to become the world wide web. When I arrived in Bologna in 1989, I met some guys who were very active in the bulletin boards systems – the pre-www computer networks. When the www arrived, we were already using computers in order to spread our message. It was even before the Luther Blissett project. I was in the "Autonomia" movement, as well as being involved in the counter-culture, underground networks and cyberpunk. Cyberpunk in Italy wasn't only a literary phenomenon, it was also a political phenomenon – part of the squatter movement. When we started the Luther Blissett project, we were already in all that, which makes us pioneers in a way, as it goes back 25 years.

So how does the idea of this "visual silence" you maintain fit into this? Your blog is massive and your public appearances are very engaging – you reply to everyone, you talk with people…
Yeah, of course. One of our slogans is, “Opaque to the media, transparent to the readers.” I think, since we started, we’ve done about 2,000 presentations of our books. We keep moving. Another slogan goes, “Keep your ass on the road.” Because we want to meet the readers in person. But we never pose for pictures. There are no “writer” pictures of us – that typical pose of, “I’m thinking, I’m very sensitive, I have ideas right now.”

Some Wu Ming artwork.


So what’s the reception you get in Italy? How is political and opinionated writing going down?
There are radically different receptions. There’s a huge community of readers around us – interacting with us – and it’s a horizontal relationship; there are no barriers between us. It’s a community of artists and activists, but also ordinary people who simply like to read novels. That's the good side.

There’s another section of the cultural industry that despises us. Because of this whole collective writing, coming from the working class, coming from a radical milieu – they just can’t dig it. It’s something so strange to them, something they perceive as a threat to the status, to their power. No matter what we write, we’re always wrong. But we don’t give a shit about them. We don’t write for them, we don’t need them. They can do and say anything they want. The literary society is something we really don’t want to be involved in.

I'm interested in your idea of blending fiction and non-fiction into what you call, "unidentified narrative objects". The idea of mixing fiction and non-fiction as an approach to writing seems pretty popular nowadays, but – to get to Altai, your latest book – I've read you say that the technique is a way to tap into a kind of utopia that we're all after. 
Yes, it is. If we stick to the difference between utopian impulse and utopian programme, as we defined it in a Guardian piece recently, utopian impulse is not to imagine a utopian society in the tiniest of details. It is to have a wish for another world in what you do every day. There are people who climb mountains because they can free themselves only when they do that – because they don’t like what they do every day.


And it's also to convey certain messages by placing your story in the little gaps of history in order to provoke this utopian impulse in the reader. In Q, for instance, there was a main character who continually changed names. Those names are all real – they’re names of radicals whose lives are almost completely unknown, but their names pop up here and there in relation to riots, uprisings, etc. Our fictional intervention was to pretend that those names all belonged to one man who pops up here and there in history. The intertwining of those events is fictional, but the events are real. In Altai, the Ottomans conquered Cyprus – we all know that.

And it’s the cracks in history that we build our stories in, to bring out messages. We think that, in Q, for instance, we managed to convey a sense of rebellion, of uprising, that was common to many parts of Europe at the time – something that historical sources don’t convey because they’re all about single events, they’re very disparate.

The front cover of Altai, the latest Wu Ming book out in the UK from Verso.

For one of your next works, you say you’ll be writing about sci-fi communism in the 70s. How's that going to work?
There was this character who we also mentioned in our top ten utopias piece: Peter Kolosimo. He was a very peculiar character. He was clearly a Stalinist, but in a very visionary way. He was in contact with weird scientists in Russia, in Germany, in the Eastern Bloc. And he was very fond of UFOs. He was convinced that, during prehistoric times, there were close encounters of the third kind, between humans and extraterrestrials.


He also believed that these extraterrestrials were communists. Because if they had the technology to travel from one galaxy to the other, of course they had to be in a higher level of economy, and of course they had a planet economy, and of course there was no private property or class division in their society, etc, etc. He wrote these best-sellers – they sold hundreds of thousands in Italy – and then tried to trace these extraterrestrials in ancient history and prehistory.

Okay, I see why you want to write about him.
His daughter, who lives in Sweden and is a fan of ours, got in touch with us after we wrote a profile of Peter Kolosimo for the Italian GQ without knowing we wanted to write a book about her dad. She told us, “For the first time, someone understands the political side of my father's work.” I wanted to interview her and her mother in order to write this biography, but they didn’t feel comfortable with it, so we dropped it and decided to write a novel that took Kolosimo’s work as a basis to write about this milieu of crazy people beyond the Iron Curtain. And also in Italy, speculating about the role of aliens in building our civilisation, about socialism in outer space and stuff like that.

Beppe Grillo, leader of the Five Star Movement. (Photo via)

Let’s turn to the political situation in Italy. The comedian Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement (5SM) recently got itself a Greek branch. How's it doing in Italy? What’s the role they’ve played in the formation of the new status-quo?
Beppe Grillo usually says that, if they weren’t there – if the 5SM didn’t exist – we’d have an Italian Golden Dawn on our hands. Which is highly debasing for his voters, because he's admitting that many people who voted for him would vote for the Nazis in another situation. He's calling his voters crypto-fascists.


The 5SM is actually very racist. They try to hide this aspect of their rhetoric under layers and distinctions, etc. But if you get to the core of their politics, you can see it. What they did was to stabilise the political situation. They prevented a proper radical movement from emerging. They hijacked the people’s energy towards a simplistic discourse of, “The good people against the corrupt politicians." Which is very simplistic because they never analysed the causes of political corruption – there's no critique of capitalism. They never criticise the bosses, they only criticise politicians. Its different from what's happening in Spain, for instance. Even if it’s confused there, at least they understood that the problem is in the system itself.

So you mean Grillo is just spectacle – a facade of radicalism?
Exactly. That’s why we call it a, "Confusionist movement". The guy is a – if you look at his body language, at his rhetoric, the way he shouts on the stage, the relation between him and the masses – it’s absolutely fascist, in a broader sense. He's not a fan of historical fascism, of course. It’s more of an anthropological fascism. He establishes a very vertical relationship between the leader and the crowd. He swam from Calabria to Sicily for the regional elections, surrounded by cameras. That's the kind of thing Mussolini used to do. There are photographs of Mussolini bare-chested, cutting crops with a sickle, during the Battle for Grain.


The leader showing his body is typically fascist in the Italian tradition. It’s kind of a fetishistic thing. It’s a distortion of the utopian impulse. The people who vote for these clowns do it because they want to live a different way – impulses hijacked and distorted and turned monstrous in the process. And that’s what Beppe Grillo is all about. His success is entirely due to that. Many people from the left voted from him, but he’s saying left-wing things in a completely different context, and that makes him void of all real content.

Follow Yiannis on Twitter: @YiannisBab

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