Weird Seance summons… stevexoh
As Amy Kean continues her search for some of creativity's weirdest inhabitants, she talks to artist and writer stevexoh about unusual names, unexpected journeys and uncovering the secret of living.
Artist and writer stevexoh sent me some posters in the mail. They were posters of a lost cat that wasn’t lost, for his Not a Lost Cat project. On the posters are a drawing of a cat, and next to it the words:
“My cat isn’t lost. In fact I don’t even have a cat. I just wanted to show everyone my painting of this magnificent beast.” It was the summer of my inaugural ‘woliday’... an annual ritual where I go and live in a place (in this case it was Margate) for a couple of months and do some work, but mostly have a holiday.
His faint David Shrigley vibes are peppered with inspiration on how we can all be better at doing and making things.
I put a poster up in Margate, by the beach next to a fish restaurant, and then later another one in a small town on the coast of Wales, where pilgrims used to eat lunch before they died, hundreds of years ago. The project started in London, but thousands of weirdos have put posters up in the cities and towns of 46 different countries across every continent including Antarctica.
Above: stevexoh's Not a Lost Cat poster.
Since then, I have followed stevexoh obsessively. Sometimes on Instagram and other times in real life, six feet behind, which he doesn’t know about. But when it comes to creativity, he is one of the most consistently original and surprising artists on my radar. On anybody’s radar. His faint David Shrigley vibes are peppered with inspiration on how we can all be better at doing and making things.
And then stevexoh let me meet him. We had coffee in the House of St Barnabas and he made me laugh so much that the woman sitting next to us complained. I didn’t know whether stevexoh would be weird, necessarily, but it turns out he definitely isn’t your average person, which means he’s right up my street. So, I wanted to crawl inside that very big brain of his, and find out how he manages to think so very, very differently.
AK: Hi stevexoh! Why are you called stevexoh?
s: When I was in my late teens a friend, John Henry, became the self-appointed person to come up with bizarre nicknames for people. I had friends called Chaka-ping, Gar-bosh, Baron Bass and Mer. At the time I’d just started driving and had a battered old VW Polo with the number plate A56 XOH, so John Henry started calling me Xoh (pronounced zore).
What I like about [my name] is that everyone pronounces it different. I’m often introduced as Steve X Oh, or people think the x and o are shorthand for hugs and kisses.
Soon everyone was calling me Xoh. I used to run/DJ at a club called Lunar Lounge, from 1999-2004, and my name on the fliers was always Xoh, and I became DJ Xoh wherever I played. So, when social media came along it was the obvious user name, but XOH had already gone on most platforms, so I became stevexoh. What I like about it is that everyone pronounces it different. I’m often introduced as Steve X Oh, or people think the x and o are shorthand for hugs and kisses. It completely confuses my bluetooth headphones which say “connecting to stexow’s iphone”. I really, really don’t care how people pronounce it as I like the surprise of hearing how it comes out of people’s mouths.
AK: I don’t think I’ve ever said it out loud, and now I’m scared to. You’re an artist… so let’s ART! Could you draw me a picture of the inside of your mind, please?
Above: The inside of stevexoh's mind, as drawn by himself.
AK: Oh, my! I have so many questions! Who’s planting the seeds? Are the birds dangerous? What brand of mascara are you wearing? Tell me about your creative journey; where have you been, where are you going?
s: Keith Johnstone (the grandfather of theatrical improvisation) once said “The improviser has to be like a person walking backwards. They see where they have been, but they pay no attention to the future.” I can totally relate to that.
Looking backwards, my journey involved losing my natural, creative self-expression at around the age of 11. At primary school I used to write music and perform it in front of the class. I would write and illustrate stories and read them to the younger kids. I thought, 'This is it! This is what I want to do in life'. But then I went to secondary school and nobody cared about any of that. Those things were, at best, hobbies to be done when there wasn’t more important school work to be done. Or, at worst, childish endeavours that should be left in the past. I didn’t know at the time that I was dyslexic so I struggled through the whole of secondary school and, having started school feeling like the world was by creative oyster, I left feeling thick and uncreative, and got a job in a factory.
I would write and illustrate stories and read them to the younger kids. I thought, 'This is it! This is what I want to do in life'. But then I went to secondary school and nobody cared about any of that.
I did 'well' in the factory and kept getting promoted because I was good with people and, over a period of many years, I learnt to trade my natural weirdness and creativity in favour of becoming more 'professional', getting rewarded with stuff like money and a company car. Looking back on this time I think, deep down, I knew this wasn’t me and I was just going along with it all because thats what 'normal' adults did. But underneath I think I was grieving for the little kid that used to write stories. Through various provocations and self-development work I started to think; 'What the hell happened there?', and decided to start moving back in the opposite direction.
And that’s what the last 10-15 years have been all about - gently dismantling the ought tos & should haves, tuning back into the naturally tangential, weird and confusing way I see the world, and just following my imagination wherever that takes me. Over the last few years that’s led to me hosting the world’s first silent podcast featuring special guests such as Eddie Izzard and Vic Reeves, curating a conference that was the opposite of TED, where speakers gave talks on subject they had no expertise in and, most recently, an utterly pointless but globally, physical viral poster about a cat that wasn’t lost.
About: More of stevexoh's artwork.
AK: Got any new things coming?
s: There’s a few immediate things coming up, various exhibitions, talks and also a week-long artist residency in the middle of a Scottish Forest. But, like the Keith Johnstone quote suggests, I don’t really have any long term plans. I could tell you in 12 months what happened, but really I’ve no idea in advance.
AK: I have to ask…. are you weird?
s: I’m told I am. And the reason we connected in the first place was because you asked for weird people and somebody put my name forward. But I don’t think I am, mainly because I’ve never been anyone else so I have nothing to compare it to.
AK: Thank God, otherwise we’d have had to end the interview here. I have a hypothesis that the people who allow themselves to be weird are naturally happier and more creative. What do you think?
s: I definitely think you’re right, with the creative bit at least. Whilst I sometimes have to use words like 'innovation' and 'creativity' to get paid, what I am essentially interested in is human creative freedom. What happens if we allow ourselves to gently let go of the ought tos and should haves of our parental/carer influences, and the society/culture we find ourselves in, and move towards spontaneous self expression?
I’m not saying that finding yourself feeling happy is bad, but I do think that the narrative that if you are not happy you are failing at life or need to fix something, is very problematic.
The happiness bit, I’m honestly not sure about. I do a weird talk called 9 Wonky Projects that involves a bingo machine deciding what stories I tell the audience. I love it as it's different every time and audiences seem to love how brilliantly bizarre it is. But, on a number of occasions, at the end, somebody in the audience will ask the question “But are you happy?”. I get why they are asking this, and it is a nice thing to be asked, but I’m curious about what lies behind the question. It's as if they have become fascinated by the content of my talk but, if I am not happy, then the content is suddenly irrelevant. I always answer by saying, “I honestly don’t know. But that doesn’t mean I’m necessarily sad either.”
I’m not saying that finding yourself feeling happy is bad, but I do think that the constant pursuit of happiness, the narrative that if you are not happy you are failing at life or need to fix something, is very problematic. Happiness and sadness are two sides of the same coin. If we had no perception of what happiness was then we would have no perception of what sadness was either. The more we obsessively pursue happiness the greater our capacity to experience sadness becomes.
Above: stevexoh's drawing of the origin of his name.
AK: How do you stay weird?
s: That question should be asked in all job interviews. And the interviewer also has to answer it for themselves. I think we can easily tell if somebody is trying to be weird. I can tell it in artwork - the difference between something weird that has been created from a real, raw and spontaneous place and an artist trying to be weird. Same in surreal comedy, and many other things.
There is something about 'trying' and 'weirdness' that really don’t go together.
There is something about 'trying' and 'weirdness' that really don’t go together. I guess my practice is one of letting go, getting closer to my defaults, my natural wiring and noticing what emerges and then acting from that place.
AK: I feel like you just uncovered the secret of living, or something. Just don't try!
s: Absolutely. I trained for many years in gestalt psychology. At the heart of gestalt is Arnie Beisser’s Paradoxical Theory of Change, which basically says that we change more by becoming more deeply aware of who we already are rather than striving to be something we’re not. In all my work I embody this.
I spent much of my time in my tiny Art Bunker; a small studio space that is surrounded by art materials, musical instruments, drawings, painting and random stuff like dolls heads, masks and a toilet roll decorated as Elvis. The Art Bunker exists purely to short-circuit talking myself out of starting something.
Above: The Art Bunker.
AK: Right… so, is the silent podcast thing the weirdest piece of work you’ve done?
s: I’m not sure if it is the weirdest, but it is the longest and most involved project. I guess it is also the one that makes people go “Eh?” the most, so in their eyes it is pretty weird. I still have a fond affection for the surreal nature of the process of making the Sound of Silence podcast which, for two-and-a-half years pretty much took over everything.
There were many moments I’d find myself thinking “what the hell am I doing?” whilst knocking on Vic Reeve’s front door to record two minutes of nothing with him.
There were many moments I’d find myself thinking “what the hell am I doing?” whilst knocking on Vic Reeve’s front door to record two minutes of nothing with him, or sitting in a dark underground prison cell, or eating soup with Terry Waite! Everything about that project was weird. But also beautiful.
AK: How many listeners did it get? And who was the best at being quiet? One of its reviewers called it “strangely addictive…”. Why do you think that is?
s: At its peak it got 15,000-20,000 downloads. What I found most interesting was that some episodes were more popular than others, despite them all being two minutes of silence. I love the strangely addictive comment from that reviewer. The act of going to a website to click on something to hear nothing makes no sense in a content obsessed world, and I wonder if that reminds us, possibly not consciously, that nothing really makes sense if we zoom out to an infinite universal level.
Above: A Nietzche quote which stevexoh has on his wall.
AK: How do you come up with ideas?
s: Arnie Mindell coined the phrase 'Quantum flirting', that I have adopted in my work. Quantum flirting involves not looking for ideas or inspiration but remaining open to hearing them calling to you. I also think my neurodiverse make-up makes it easy for me to have ideas. For example, as a dyslexic, I am pre-disposed to see the world in patterns and connect things that aren’t obviously connected.
AK: What role do you think your work has in society?
s: I have a Nietzche quote on my studio wall that says, 'Learning to see the world as strange makes us unhome in the everyday and thereby restores it as a potential place of wonder'. For me, that quote sums up the importance of weirdness, of not knowing, of moving towards the strange and unfamiliar. It restores the world as a place of wonder and mystery and invites us to use our powerful human imagination and let go of all of the illusion of concreteness that society presents to us as non-negotiable.
I don’t want my work to be mainstream, but I also want it to be known and engaged with. I’m sure that I must self-sabotage in ways I’m not aware of to make sure that I never “make it”.
For me, projects like What the February!? are indirectly encouraging/teaching people a form of creative activism; to make marks, do dances, create films that confront what is normal and cause people to stop and, even for a millisecond, see that the norms of society are not an absolute, they are just a serving suggestion.
AK: You spend a lot of your time helping people be more creative. I’m guessing some people must be lost causes. Do you think you can teach people to be original?
s: Yes, but only if they let go of the desire to be original. I like to think there are no lost causes and that anyone could potentially engage with the world in a more creative way. But, at the same time, I know that many people are so trapped or dependent on the dominant way of thinking that it would likely be too difficult, too painful or challenge their sense of self too much to ever change.
Above: stevexoh's 10 Year Plan.
AK: Has anyone tried to copy you?
s: Oh yes. All the time. I bet that within the next few years somebody, probably a celebrity or influencer, will come out with a crazy silent podcast and it will get really big and famous as this genius thing they did. That’s one of the frustrating things about me and my work; I don’t want my work to be mainstream, but I also want it to be known and engaged with. I’m sure that I must self-sabotage in ways I’m not aware of to make sure that I never “make it”.
I’ve seen my 10 Year Plan (that I created 1st January 2020) copied or presented as somebody else's work. It’s frustrating but I also think that copyrighting something destroys its magic, so my strategy is to just move onto the next thing so when something is ripped off I’m not bothered because I’m doing something else.
AK: What’s everybody’s problem?
s: I think it’s knowing, deep down, that they are trembling biological coincidences, desperately seeking meaning in a universe that is utterly disinterested in their endeavours. Either that or not enough vitamin D.
AK: Vitamin D is a popular euphemism. I guess you knew that…
s: I didn’t but I just looked it up. I’m so naive!