The hopeful dystopia of Pushwagner’s Soft City.
Where does art begin? In the case of Soft City, the straightforward answer is this: it began in Fredrikstad, Norway, in 1969, in a sea captain’s house converted into a writer’s retreat by the novelist Axel Jensen, after Pushwagner had ingested Sandoz LSD. He doodled a man in a car, whom he intuited was called “Mr. Soft”—five years before Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel would have a hit song of that name—and, along with Jensen, envisioned a day-in-the-life narrative structure for the character, along the lines of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and James Joyce’s Ulysses. And then?
A hiatus of some three years (hardly the only sharp left turn in Pushwagner’s tumultuous life), during which time he lived on virtually nothing in London (subsisting by selling drawings on trains for pennies) and Oslo, went back to his mother’s, was arrested for trying to board a flight to Madeira on his hands and knees, was institutionalized, walked back to Fredrikstad, escaped a hotel in Paris, sojourned in Lisbon, returned to London, and became a father. After these adventures, he once again began Soft City, with, he’s said, his beloved baby daughter, Elizabeth, on his lap, and with thoughts of the future in mind. Mr. Soft now had a family of his own, and a fearful projected dystopia to live in. Pushwagner finished the book, or rather the 269 bleak yet blackly comic ink drawings that would comprise it, in 1975; and then, after a few luminaries of the London music world had admired it (including Pete Townshend and Steve Winwood), he lost it.
Frustratingly, no definitive statement exists on how. For a reasonable surmise, put together Pushwagner’s claim that his “whole portfolio” was stolen when he moved back to Oslo in 1979 and his biographer Petter Mejlænder’s assertion that Soft City was lost when he returned to Norway. In 2002, Mejlænder goes on, it was “recovered”—though somewhere along the way, while living rough, Pushwagner had signed away the rights to all of his work, an act that required lengthy legal untangling later—and the book was finally published in 2008. Time, though, had by no means withered Pushwagner’s blackly satirical worldview: in some ways quite the reverse.
Yet the book didn’t really start there, insofar as no work of art truly originates in the moment of its physical making. New parenthood appears to have pushed Soft City down an anxious road to completion—as, at approximately the same time, the same experience did for David Lynch’s Eraserhead—but the track was likely marked and lit already. In Pushwagner’s case there are two intersecting backstories: the complicated, painful, and raggedly glorious circumstances of his own life, and the larger history of modernist idealism and its great unraveling in the second half of the twentieth century.
Pushwagner’s relationship with draftsmanship itself is inseparable from trauma, and might even be construed as an escape hatch from it: he learned to draw—from his father—while recovering from being hit by a bus at the age of four. This accident he blames on a mysterious goading figure called “the Bogeyman,” who Pushwagner says has haunted him throughout his life and whose actual existence we might step gingerly around. Pushwagner’s mother would leave the family when he was eight, and his father’s ensuing rule over him made his life, to quote the artist, “hell.” If one can forgive a little amateur psych, it might not seem a coincidence that Pushwagner, in his late twenties, would begin drawing a narrative that features both a united nuclear family—albeit one where the parents are drugged into sleepwalking through life—and a male authority figure ruling over a world of bureaucratic tedium. (Pushwagner and his father also lived in close proximity to a dull civil servant.)
And consider, not unrelated to all of this, what Pushwagner’s self-experimentation, and the turbulent era in which he came of age, had done to rewire his mind in preparation for creating Soft City. The man born Terje Brofos in 1940—he would not rename himself Hariton Pushwagner until the early 1970s—had, by the time he began this book, banked a decade of freewheeling bohemianism. After formal art studies in Oslo, he’d gone to Paris as a teenager and met the jazz pianist Bud Powell. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he’d been in Tangier and San Francisco and Beirut (where, improbably, he met Cliff Richard in a nightclub), delightedly encountered Picasso in Ibiza, and in London dated a Vogue model, befriended R. D. Laing, and met that other temporary resident of Tangier, William Burroughs. And, fatefully, in 1968, in a toilet in Oslo’s “Artist’s House,” he had run into the novelist Axel Jensen, whose stories of disaffected young men had made him a Norwegian equivalent of Jack Kerouac, though he would soon gearshift into the science fiction for which he is best known. Jensen, whom Pushwagner had admired since childhood, was looking for a way to market his books to a wider audience, perhaps via visual imagery. Their collaboration—and their not unrelated forays into using psychedelic drugs—began here.
Direct influences on Soft City that we might disinter from all this undoubtedly include Burroughs, whose 1961 novel The Soft Machine—the title referring to the human body and its susceptibility to systems of control—employed his and Brion Gysin’s “cut-up” technique. The inhabitants of Soft City read newspapers whose headlines are cut-up medleys of sex, violence, and multiple languages (notably, in this quietly totalitarian state, German). The thoughts and language of the Controller (e.g., “Atomize ist de trix!”), who also has a German chauffeur, feel like cut-ups, too, products of a mind scrambled by even higher powers. What Pushwagner does with Burroughs’s influence here is, seemingly, to send it into a future where its own revolutionary and avant-garde nature has been co-opted, made to serve the forces of production.
More largely, the blazing diagrammatic clarity of Pushwagner’s art in Soft City feels analogous to what Burroughs famously called, in relation to 1959’s Naked Lunch, “the frozen moment when everybody sees what’s on the end of every fork”: parting the veils of manufactured consensus concerning how the world works. Soft City is at once a glimpse of a dreadful future and an analysis-cum-exaggeration of the present-day tendencies that might, if left unchecked, lead to it. Without romanticizing drug use, this envisioning is something we might ascribe at least in part to Pushwagner’s socialization-shattering use of LSD and, perhaps, paranoia brought on by his heavy smoking of hashish at the time—a paranoiac being, as Burroughs also said, someone in possession of all the facts. In Soft City, conversely, narcotics are no longer a road to mental freedom, they’re agents of administration. The “Life” pill—mandatory amphetamine?—wakes the unknowing slaves up every morning, and the “Sleep” pill knocks out their lights at end of day.
And it is the end of the day, metaphorically speaking, in Soft City’s geometric world of subjugated worker bees. Or rather the end of days: it’s presumably no accident that the last word in the book is “goodbye.” Petter Mejlænder has written that Soft City “delineates nothing less than the final day, the day when everything disintegrates and falls apart, with no one observing the warning signs … the suicide of our civilization.” The book was begun in 1969, the year when—in the grim wake of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, the Manson murders, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, et cetera—by common consensus the counterculture fell apart, authority consolidated, and hopes for revolution were visibly dashed on the rocks.
The depressive fallout would cloud the ensuing years. As the sun rises over the monstrous apartment building at Soft City’s beginning, the phrase “here comes … the sun” appears. But the Beatles, former lodestars of hopefulness, released that song as they were acrimoniously splitting up, the sun in Pushwagner’s world is now an overseeing eye in the sky, and “Yesterday” has become pacifying supermarket Muzak, mirroring the way in which, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the counterculture would be cannily resold to the masses as a safe but fashionable lifestyle choice.
Nor are these the only once-hopeful aspects that have gone into reverse. The inhuman systematized metropolis of Soft City is the brutal endpoint of architectural modernism as a form of social engineering, which might be said to have begun in 1905, when Auguste Perret first proposed skyscrapers for Paris. It got moving in earnest, though, via the visions of Le Corbusier, who began the first of his plans for largescale housing in 1922, desiring that his “machines for living” ameliorate the condition of the working classes. The Ville Contemporaine (Contemporary City) of that year was a radical urban design featuring sixty-story skyscrapers; the Ville Radieuse (Radiant City) he blueprinted two years later was shaped like a human body, wholly rationalized and regimented. Le Corbusier’s aesthetic arguably took no account of human needs, and while it was only realized limitedly on a citywide scale—see Lúcio Costa’s Brasilia (1966), with its cross-axial butterfly plan and central highway lined with supersized residential blocks—its influence would trickle down, in the decades to come, to everywhere that tower blocks sprang up; which is to say, most places.
By 1975, the year that Pushwagner completed Soft City, J. G. Ballard was publishing High-Rise, a portrait of tower-block inhabitants inventing their own catastrophic morality, suggestive of how urbanism might not improve its inhabitants but remake them in the worst way. And, indeed, there were many examples by then of modernist social housing causing more problems than it solved. In 1972, the lawless and ruined Pruitt-Igoe housing project in Saint Louis, Missouri—birthplace of Burroughs—had been partly demolished, and Charles Jencks famously hailed this event as the death knell for modernist architectural ambitions.
Soft City, then, was produced amid a cultural reckoning. Its diagnosis runs parallel to alternative architectural thinking that includes Constant Nieuwenhuys’s designs for a stasis-free, anticapitalist situationist city, New Babylon (1959–1974), in which automated work would leave its citizens free to alter their environments perpetually via modular architectural elements; and Archigram’s proposal for Plug-In City (1964), a cellular design without buildings, just standardized units for citizens to float in and out of. These were not realistic proposals per se but rather reactions against the stifling nature of the rationalized modern city and the related project to make architecture an agent of control that ostensibly began in the mid-nineteenth century when Baron Haussmann carved Paris up into wide, straight boulevards, difficult to barricade, easy to fire down.
Soft City, to the extent that it’s set in the future—an open question—does not anticipate architectural rigidity disappearing. It visualizes something more along the lines of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), a realm of ordered enslavement and one where, in this case, the slaves don’t even recognize themselves as such. If Metropolis holds out the hope of revolution, Pushwagner by contrast was working after the attempted revolution—on the counterculture’s part—and had seen the result. The authorities, panicking, double down on violent reaction while simultaneously milking the zeitgeist for profit: as depressing a result as one might imagine, perhaps, except that Soft City makes it look like playtime. For readers disappointed by the events of then-recent years, Pushwagner here proposes alertness. Things are bad, Soft City avers, but they can always get worse.
And yet the book is not a dismal experience, seamed as it is with irony and pictorial verve. Soft City is the comic-book form pushed through the same kind of filter of mental transformation as R. Crumb’s lysergic early strips for Zap Comix (first published in 1968). Pushwagner’s massively fastidious scenography—his teeming supermarkets, endless rows of white-collar workers’ desks, vast perspectival views of densely windowed apartment blocks—is at once pleasurable to lose oneself in, fearsome in its amphetamine energy, frightening as an idea of reality, and comically scathing: an intricate no-way-out design in which even the sun is a spy. If we discount the baby, Bingo (named after a distraction for the masses), whose wide guileless eyes are a mirror of his mother’s and who remains behind the cage bars of his crib, then the only glimmers of human subjectivity in Soft City appear in a handful of thought balloons. Pictorial ones for commuting drones depict fantasies of tropical holidays, fishing, or being a jet pilot, while textual ones rising from the heads of the couple at home expose stunted inner monologues: a pair of question marks when they say good night, the wife thinking the husband an idiot at breakfast, the occasional scrambled bit of pseudo-Cartesian thought. The guttering flicker of mental freedom, in this world, is reserved for standardized fantasy, confusion, or hate.
What might be the positive takeaway, then, from Soft City, aside from the idea that—as one critic observed—it is a salient “warning to society”? It’s too late for these poor citizens, Pushwagner implies, just as it was too late for would-be rebels like Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984. Change, if it’s coming at all, has to happen before this burlesque overlaps wholly with reality. Let’s note, at this point, the artist’s adopted name, Hariton Pushwagner—taken up in London in the early 1970s when he was, says Mejlænder, “on the verge of madness and suicide”—and what it might mean. “Pushwagner,” his biographer suggests, is intended to refer to a “push wagon” or shopping cart, and to the idea that people should fill up their carts with something other than consumerist goods. (Remember the abundantly brimming, Muzak-laced supermarkets that fuel the inhabitants of Soft City.) That what goes in the cart should be something that reinforces an essential humanity—care for others, entirely lacking in Soft City itself—is meanwhile implied by “Hariton,” which fuses “Hari,” deriving from “Hare Krishna,” and an approving measure of weight.
Consumer capitalism, you may have noticed, is still with us. But, forty years after its completion, Soft City’s significance has shifted, even as the book has become relevant anew. Pushwagner’s urban aesthetics have turned metaphorical, since our metropolitan landscapes get less boxy all the time. The dismantling of geometric architectural modernism that seemingly began with the detonating of Pruitt-Igoe feels almost complete. Today’s architecture is “soft” in two ways: it runs on so ware—our environments are becoming progressively more “smart,” more wired, with architectural elements communicating with each other, anticipating our needs, keeping tabs on us. And it is formally dominated by curves and parametric patterning and may thus appear friendlier, more human. Yet this stylistic facelift is surely just another dissimulation, a feint: the world is more unequal than ever, with the ultrawealthy consolidating their power daily. Rather than via irascible directives and shows of might, power is often expressed through what Joseph Nye termed, in his 1990 book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, “soft power”: the power of attraction and persuasion, the steel fist in the thick velvet glove.
If we are enslaved today, we barely know it. If we live in a giant panopticon, we like it, because it happens while we’re enjoying using our laptops, our social media, our so ware, and while we exist in a state of continual distraction imposed from above. Entertainment today is increasingly clearly a pacifier, an anesthetizer, a softener. Soft City, in its own way, points to this: it reaches its closing strait with an image of Bingo shouting in his crib, followed by the phrase “Look / Here Comes / The Moon” and a panoramic view of the geometric homestead—a surprising flashback, perhaps, to illustrated children’s books like Margaret Wise Brown’s bedtime story Goodnight Moon (1947). Pushwagner’s magnum opus, one may think at this point, is nothing more or less than a massively warped children’s story, a fable aimed at adults who themselves have been made childlike.
So the moon rises like always at the story’s end, and Pushwagner’s lens pulls back to reveal inky starless heavens, the wider reality beyond the bars of the crib and the prison of the apartment block. It’s the last thing we see before the artist’s closing word: “goodbye,” so much harsher than “goodnight.” Art, in that it is made at all, is a gesture of hope, and—for all its alarm—this book is certainly that.
Martin Herbert is associate editor of ArtReview and a regular contributor to Artforum, Frieze, and Art Monthly. His monograph Mark Wallinger was published in 2011.
This essay appears as the afterword to Soft City, available now from New York Review Comics. Reprinted with permission.