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Books & Manuscripts

5 Questions with Boo-Hooray's Johan Kugelberg

NEW YORK – A dedicated collector, Johan Kugelberg spends his time preserving, organising and contextualising the fascinating ephemera – think fanzines, posters and photographs – that the rest of us consume and too often throw away. Through Boo-Hooray, the gallery he founded in 2010, he also curates, exhibits and publishes books dedicated to these artefacts' countercultural movements, including everything from New York experimental theatre to Norwegian death metal. His latest projectBoo-Hooray Presents: Post-War, Counterculture & Pop, an online auction in partnership with Sotheby’s – features items from science-fiction scribes, anarchists, hip-hop pioneers and punk rock legends. We caught up with Kugelberg at his downtown New York studio to find out how he became a living magnet for influential 20th and 21st century materials.

The full catalogue will be available and the bidding will commence online 1 December at 12 PM ET through 16 December.

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JOHAN KUGELBERG. PHOTO: COURTESY OF BOO-HOORAY.

When did your journey of exploring counterculture movements begin?
The possibilities became clear in my teenage years, mostly through punk rock. In Sweden, we had government-funded venues with a rehearsal space, stage and coffee shop. You could gather and form bands and rehearse for free. You could also print up your zine or do your own radio show, and we took all this for granted. We were all broke, so we would meet on the weekends and swap punk 45s, just so we could all hear more of the stuff. You could take the night boat to London for about twenty bucks, and so we would stay in a youth hostel and hit record shops like Rough Trade and Small Wonder, and then see as many bands as we possibly could. We would see Killing Joke or the Birthday Party or Cabaret Voltaire. Once we had tickets to see Joy Division, one of their last ever performances, but we didn’t go. We went to the U.K. Subs instead, because we wanted to rock and not have a downer night. When I tell this to Joy Division fans they really cringe.

How did you turn your passion for experiencing culture into a career curating it?
At university, I studied philosophy, Ancient Greece and Rome, the history of ideas and the history of movements. My parents are academics, so I was probably supposed to be an academic. But I was also entrenched in punk and skateboarding, so I had the record shop and I was involved in the student film club. I always did a lot of grassroots activity, but none of this could translate into any professional trajectory. When I was 22 and moved to New York in 1988, it sort of clicked. All of those things that were really hard to do as a professional in Sweden just happened. I did a radio show for WFMU, I wrote for Spin magazine, and I was the first employee for the indie label Matador Records. After that I was an executive at Def American. I was involved in the founding of a distribution company called ADA for Time Warner and started a company with my ex-wife. I also started doing record production. When my second child was born in 2000, I was much less motivated to stand around and talk to 22-year-olds at 3 AM in clubs. I also discovered that there were these strands of contemporary history that were getting lost.

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THE GERMS AT THE WHISKY POSTER, 1978. ESTIMATE $200–300.

How did your punk rock background inform your exploration of hip-hop?
I became completely obsessed with the early history of hip-hop. It was such a mystery to me. Hip-hop is not ten times rarer than punk; it is a thousand times rarer than punk. Punk was ultimately middle class, and it was self-documenting. At the most legendarily obscure punk gig with 30 people in Louisville, Kentucky in 1978, somebody kept a copy of the flier, somebody took photographs and somebody might have even recorded it. The early history of blues and jazz is opaque, because there was no contemporary documentation. Hip-hop wasn’t self-documenting, and it felt like living history that had not yet been lost. Hip-hop was about Saturday night, and when Saturday night had passed, it was about the next Saturday night. So you’re not going to see a vintage clothing store uptown because what’s old is old, and it is a dictatorship of the new. I wanted to create an archive for academic institutions, so I Hoovered up as much hip-hop as I could. I was known uptown as “the ATM.” People would say, “I just found a stack of old fliers and I’m going to go down to the ATM to get some money for the weekend.” They would come to me first, which is unbelievably important when you are collecting and documenting a movement or a subculture.

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RIG FOR ULTIMATE BREAKS & BEATS, 1986. ESTIMATE $1,200–1,500.

You must get so many materials. How do you decide what is relevant to preserve and showcase?
I really want to be ahead of the game. One of the most blissful aspects of middle age is to parasite on the psychic energy of the young. Part of how that works here is that we have an endless stream of amazing interns who are interested in underground culture and how to communicate it. Their perspective adjusts my perspective on the materials we work with, and that is really inspiring. As historians, we have to imagine not only what materials will have study merit a century from now but also which ones will tell people about who we are and how we thought. What interests me much more than Bob Dylan’s papers are the papers of 300 no-name folkies who might not have even put a record out. That, to me, is ultimately how history works. Sitting right here, we could probably name five to eight major late Renaissance Italian painters, and an expert in the field could name fifty or sixty. The estimate is that there were 18,000 people working as painters at that point in time. You see the deterioration of how history works and how we think about it. It blows my mind to discover marginal MCs that didn’t become Melle Mel or Big Daddy Kane or marginal punk bands that didn’t have the notoriety of The Clash or the Sex Pistols. They really fill in the gaps of cultural narratives.

What most excites you about the Post-War, Counterculture & Pop auction?
With this sale, we’re trying to be really democratic, so a ton of stuff doesn’t have a reserve on it, and there are cheap things. I remember when I started collecting books in my early to mid-twenties it was always such a reach. You didn’t have a lot of money, but you had that impulse, that enthusiasm, that fever. So I guess we’re trying to rope them in when they’re young and to sort of democratize the process. I know that with this sale we are also going to reach the people that I’ve been working with for years when I’ve been putting together books and exhibitions. We’re going to reach enthusiastic hepcats all over the world, who have specialized, niche fields. That’s where a great global brand like Sotheby’s, a pipsqueak tastemaker brand like Boo-Hooray and the Internet search engines can function in symbiosis.

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