My involvement with neoism began in late 1978. I had been an active participant in the international mail art network for some years, operating under the name “Dyskonnekt.” One day I received a postcard in the mail from someone I had never corresponded with, a “Monty Cantsin” from Milan, Italy. The front of the card bore my address and postal stamp, the back was rubber-stamped in green with the phrase “Karen Eliot quaintly hereby evens. Your participation is not mandatory.” Quite a shocking thing to see on a postcard from an anonymous Italian mail artist. It so happens my given name is Karen, my brother’s is Eliot. I assumed the card must have come from one of the few people who I was personally acquainted with who knew me well enough to know my real name and that of my brother. Most of my acquaintances in the mail art network wouldn’t know these things. After asking around, I discovered that the name “Karen Eliot” was a pseudonym shared by various persons around the world, therefore that postcard wasn’t any sort of intentional reference to my person.
I wrote back to Monty, who seemed singularly unsurprised at this coincidence. He explained that the he was a practitioner in something known as “neoism”, which, like the study of the qabala or other mystical pursuits, often caused such “propinquities” to arise.
From that event forward, I began to see more and more reference to this strange amorphous thing called “neoism”. Every time I came across it, it seemed to be a different thing altogether. I soon decided that I would contribute to the living neoist myth and changed my mail-art name to Karen Eliot. I enjoyed myself for a few years making up outrageous lies about neoism whenever I was asked for an explanation of it. It amused me to try and come up with an entirely new history and raison d’etre for the movement on each occasion. Neoism was, for me, and I think most of the other participants, nothing more than a long-running in-joke.
In 1985, my understanding of neoism changed forever. I hadn’t heard from Monty Cantsin in quite a while; or rather, I hadn’t heard from the Italian "Monty" in quite a while, when I received a similar postcard to the one which had first captured my interest. This one was also rubber-stamped in green on the back, but this time the message was “contemplate the flaming steam iron.”
At first I thought it was just a clever, somewhat random bit of phraseology. I thought that it, like other neo-dadaist statements was designed to amuse for a moment, and would be soon forgotten. However, I found that I was haunted by this image. Eventually, one day, I decided to follow its instruction. As long as I was going to plagued with thoughts of a “flaming steam iron” I may as well actually contemplate it as Cantsin suggested.
As part of my yoga training, I was already meditating regularly, and one afternoon devoted my meditation to contemplation of the image of the flaming steam iron. I found that I soon drifted into a reverie, finding myself seated at the base of a gigantic steam iron, the same steam iron I remember watching my mother use as a little girl. It was sitting on its base, and enormous flames were coming out of the pour-hole at the top. I sat transfixed, watching the flickering flames. The flames seemed to grow and surround the iron, surround me, surround the entire universe, all became flame, and then suddenly it all was gone, black, and I snapped back to waking consciousness with the forcefulness of a slap in the face. I found myself jumping to my feet as I realised the central truth of the neoist revelation. It was this: all natural phenomena are nothing more nor less than a network of reference. With this understanding came the realisation that the practice of neoism was the creation of new associations, new significations. In this way, the world would be changed, for better or for worse.
Since that day I have burned perhaps thousands of steam irons. My wonder at the beauty of a flaming steam iron has never left me. I have filled them with all manner of flammables, from lamp oil, which yields a large, pleasant orange flame, to a mixture of gunpowder and magnesium, which exploded violently, partially melting the iron, whose distorted form is today sitting on a shelf in my studio.
By burning the iron, I create and recreate an association between fire, water and iron. On several occasions, I have carefully cut myself with a razor and then thrown my blood into the fire. This act serves to associate blood, iron, fire, and water as well as to connect my own living essence to that of the action of burning the steam iron, as well as to that of the living spirit of neoism.