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.”