Worms and Bicycles Or How People Make For Strange Stories: Menocchio and Igor Kenk

I’ve been rereading Pop Sandbox’s Kenk: A Graphic Portrait and I kind of wish that this comics work had been published when I worked on a previous assignment of mine.

In one of my previous Graduate courses, our class had to read Carl Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller. It basically dealt with the idea that an individual can not only embody the culture that they come from, but that that person can represent different kinds of culture and actually interpret cultural information differently for themselves. Really, what I got out of it was that an individual can create their own world or mythic reality from information they have access to from their own culture.

As for why the work is called The Cheese and the Worms, it’s due to the fact that it focuses on the record of a man named Menocchio who compared the world’s creation to be not unlike that of rotten cheese. I’m not making this up: the Roman Inquisition that interrogated and took testimony from him apparently got this account from the man. So obviously, I felt compelled to do a presentation on this and focus my course paper on it because, well, look at the title and the subject matter. Really: how could I not?

I think that I found the most interesting about Menocchio himself was the examination of how he possibly came to the conclusions about the world that he did. He was not born of nobility or the upper-class in Italy, but rather came from a merchant culture. As such, while he was literate and he had the means to buy books, he also grew up with an oral literary tradition: a culture that passes on lore through the ages and word of mouth.

Ginzburg seemed to really like to point out the strangeness of this figure of Menocchio: how he was almost an intermediary between the oral and the written as well as peasant and “higher culture.” Menocchio himself lived during a time of transition between oral culture and the development of the printing press and written literacy: a revolution of sorts. Menocchio existed during the time of Martin Luther’s Reformation: where the ideas of Catholicism and Christianity itself were being challenged by the new Protestant movement using said printing presses. It is also worth mentioning that Ginzburg liked to examine colportage–cheaply printed chapbooks detailing songs, tales, and the lives of saints–as a backdrop of Menocchio’s literacy as well.

All of these traits and more are eerie parallels with Richard Poplak’s observations about Igor Kenk. Kenk grew up during a time between socialism and capitalism in Slovenia of the former Yugoslavia. One thing that Richard Poplak likes to point out is that it was also during this time period that common citizens in Slovenia were allowed access to photocopy machines: mechanisms of distributing information that were originally in the charge of the State. The counter-cultural Theatre FV 112/15 group– also known as the FV movement–used photocopiers to create a collage art known as FV Disco: a form of which–thanks to the artist Nick Marinkovich–Kenk also utilizes. This was the time and conceptual place where Kenk developed as an adult.


As such, Kenk also possesses a very unique world-view based on the transitional culture of his time: the idea that all things can be recycled and that you need to choose to struggle in life in order to survive as a person: which is part of what he seems to call “The Monkey Factor” or survival. From what I understood of this book, his notion of “recycling” also seems to mean reselling stolen bikes as well as hoarding. As an aside, the fact that Kenk believed the system of debt, borrowing, and capitalism to be doomed is also linked to his philosophies and it’s only now, years after I read the first time, that I wonder what he would think of the Occupy movements back in 2008 before his arrest, and what they might think of him now.

Igor Kenk came from a social order that was radically changing and between extremes. He was considered to be a Math prodigy and did well in his education. For a time he was even a police officer in Slovenia–surviving their harsh regimen–until he was discharged, and then proceeded to cross the border into other countries to get goods as Slovenia’s political alignment and its economy changed. Then he eventually came to Canada and became something of a merchant himself by selling and fixing bicycles in Toronto.

What I’m trying to say is that both Kenk and Menocchio are products of their time and culture, but at the same time how they chose to interpret their changing cultures was very idiosyncratic to them. In other words, they created some very unique world-views. And both of them arguably paid for it by the powers that be: Menocchio with his life for not recanting his beliefs to the Roman Inquisition and Kenk doing jail time and losing his Bicycle Clinic for the thefts he was charged with.


All of the above can arguably be considered gross simplifications, of course. In my paper that dealt with the implications of Menocchio, I pretty much say the same thing more or less. But I think the reason I’m attempting to compare two men from entirely different time periods, cultures, and countries is due to a greater issue: namely, why are they important?

I mean, come on: neither Menocchio nor Kenk would traditionally be considered important in a historical sense. In the grand scheme of things, someone might say that, while these parallels are interesting, who the hell cares?

The reason that I care, and one of the reasons why modern historians, journalists, and–in some ways more importantly readers–find these accounts so important is because they are narratives that deal with real people. It’s true that neither Menocchio nor Kenk are politicians, or artists, or even popular cultural figures in themselves but they are people that–while arguably normal or common in terms of class or historical significance–symbolize greater historical and cultural shifts by just being who they are.

They are ordinary people with very un-ordinary perspectives and there was a time where we would never have even known about them: or at the very least we’d only get a summary of them in passing … or at least we’d get something like this from a dominant or “higher cultural” narrative. Because there is one thing I keep coming back to in my head: it is the idea of oral history.

What is oral history? We know that oral culture or literacy is something that is passed on verbally from one storyteller to the next throughout many generations. But history, as Westerners, understand it is derived from the ancient Greek word historia: which is something along the lines of scientific inquiry or observation. Oral history, from my understanding, is thus something of verbal origin that is written down for other people to see.

Menocchio’s “worm and cheese world” survived through the written accounts of his interrogators, whereas Kenk seems to have actually been interviewed by the book’s producer Alex Jansen and filmed by Jason Gilmore as he espouses his world-view of “Monkey Factors and recycling” in that context.


Oral culture in our world is very different in that we have sophisticated image and audio technology to preserve and record the spoken word, and where that spoken word comes from. There is a scholar named Walter Ong–who I looked at in my own studies for my Master’s Thesis–who looked at oral culture and degrees of orality.

Ong believed that there is something called “secondary orality”: in which spoken word is preserved through technological means like video and radio. But I’ve always wondered if he would have included illustrated images in this definition as well, and how problematic it would be if these images were accompanied by written words. Can the visual be considered part of the oral or the written, or is it something by itself? Obviously I’m talking about the medium of comics and what kind of literacy that would be defined as but–this tangent aside for now–right now I’m thinking about the idea of oral history being a historical narrative that records down what life and reality is like for “the common person”: if there is any such thing as a common person.

I actually think that this conception of oral history has led to the idea of journalism: of interviewing and recording down what a particular person or witness has to say, and then researching the environment in which this person came from for a greater perspective. Is journalism the child of oral history? And then you take something like Kenk into consideration too: something that is written down but also given a sequential FV Disco style is that is both an illustrative and video collage aesthetic.

It’s fascinating to think about Kenk as an artifact of not only “comics journalism”–a medium that some comics creators like Joe Sacco have already developed–but also written literacy, oral culture, history, and mass-produced art. I look at Kenk and I wonder if this is our contemporary version of the colportage of Menocchio’s time, or the pamphlets and photocopies of 1980s Slovenia. Because in the end, it’s not just Menocchio and Kenk that have a lot in common, but also the media used to try and capture what they are … and what they are not.

When I started writing this article, I thought it was going to be easy: like it was all fully formed in my head. In a way I’m doing what I said I would not do by delving more into the academics I’ve tried to put some distance from: at least with regards to jargon. My train of thought tends to drift and it has been a struggle to communicate and even cohesively perceive all of these parallels here.

But if this were a paper of mine, if this were some rough form of the Graduate essays I would write, I would end this post in the following manner. As someone who has studied mythic world-building, I believe that art is an engagement with different parts of the world around you, and an expression of who you are as a result of what you choose to accept of that world. In that, the man called Menocchio and Igor Kenk–specifically in how their scholars and artists portray them–not only made their own art, but actually lived their art, and allowed for the creation of more of it.

I also believe that when you take all of this into account oral history, journalism, comics journalism, or whatever you want to call it reveals one more truth. Writing about an individual not only reveals that there are no “ordinary people,” but that it never makes for making any “ordinary stories.” Ever.

Again, I’d like to thank Alex Jansen and Jason Gilmore for lending me these pages of Kenk to place here in my article to make both point and emphasis.

If you are interested in this topic, you might like my What is FV Disco article as well. They both deal with similar subject matter, but in different ways.

What is FV Disco?

Disko FV

All right, so it’s been a while since I have really challenged myself to do something different. This challenge, however, has been a long time in the making and I’ve been trying to find the best way to go about it. It won’t be perfect and I’m sure that there is scholarship and writing out that is far more accurate and well-written on the topic, but really this is just a possible answer to something that’s been nagging at me for a while now.

Anyway, two years ago I read a really cool graphic novel called Kenk: a comics biography of the infamous Torontonian bicycle thief Igor Kenk. It deals with his possible psychological motivations for his actions, his own personal philosophies, and how his background may have influenced the man he has become. The comic was actually conceived and produced by Alex Jansen, written by Richard Poplak, the photographs and filming it was based from–along with its design–created by Jason Gilmore, and Nick Marinkovich was integral in illustrating and creating its aesthetic. I wrote a review on this at Amazon: with very little understanding of the choice of art-style at the time.

I didn’t think much about Nick Marinkovich’s unique art at the time, aside from its strange sharpened and accentuated angles, the occasional blurry lines, the really incredible contrast of the white stark outlines of people and objects containing an inner gritty grey and black, and the pastiche feeling of it until I watched this interview: conducted by QTV on CBC1 Radio with both Richard Poplak and Alex Jansen. Poplak himself talked a little more about the aesthetics of the graphic novel. First he stated that he and the graphic artist Nick Marinkovich used the fumetti comics medium form: which is basically comic book that uses photos or arrangements of altered photos to tell a story. There is a wikipedia entry and other information on the fumetti form.

However, Poplak also mentioned that he traveled to Slovenia–Igor Kenk’s home country where he grew up–and found another form of art: which the Pop Sandbox team ended up using for their creation. When I first heard him say the name, I didn’t understand what he was talking about. I actually missed the word several times before rewinding the video and hearing it again. Now, I pride myself on finding out as much about the comics medium and associated art forms as I can and this bothered me: the fact that I didn’t know what this word was.

Finally, I made out the word “Faeve” or “Fauve.” But then after some more online digging I came across the Kenk book site and I found out that it was FV Disco that Poplak had been talking about. It was in fact the definition that Poplak provided here and on 12:17 of his QTV Interview that I used when describing the style of Fotonixe’s artwork in my entry on TweakerRay’s Collector Chapter 02: the idea of a gritty-collage like arrangement of photos and images with a dark punk-like atmosphere. As I said in my previous entry, Fotonixe’s style reminded me of this and wasn’t necessarily derived from it. But this did get me thinking.

Because I can tell you that I have tried to google FV Disco several times–specifically as an art form–and I didn’t get very much. It also took me ages–in fact very recently–to realize that FV was in fact pronounced as “fauve” or some equivalent and wasn’t an acronym or a pair of letters. A little while ago, I figured out that the term FV Disco seems to have come from an influential Slovenian alternate theatre turned counter-cultural group or club called Theatre FV 112/15: a group that turned into a movement in Ljubljana–the capital of Slovenia–in the changing former Yugoslavia of the 1980s: where Poplak says that FV Disco itself came from. I found out the name of the group by finding an article on a Goth Rock and Electronic Body Music group called Borghesia: that was apparently formed from some of Theatre FV’s original members.

It was greatly involved with video art as well as music and as it transitioned from an amateur theatre group into an alternative club that made a space for sexual, social, and artistic differences: or so this article here claims.

But very recently I found out what “FV” or “Faeve” is might mean. I found–or perhaps–rediscovered an article by Katja Praznik called Theatre, Emancipation and Political Power: Two Cases From the Past in which she explains that FV “refers to France Verbinc’s (FV) local, frequently used Dictionary of Foreign Terms, page 112, entry 15, where we find the following: C’est la guerre – This is war, that’s how it is in war.” In other words, the group’s name seems to have been derived from a citation or a quote that is appropriate given the climate in which the group was created. This was during the time after Tito’s death where Yugoslavia was beginning to change–to separate–and there were great artistic expressions of socialism and capitalism occurring.

Richard Poplak himself argues that this was what was occurring in Igor Kenk’s formative years in Slovenia and it affected him. There is one element of this movement that Poplak pays great attention to when he discusses it in the above synopsis. He states that the primary medium of FV Disco–what seems to be the artistic as opposed to musical and performative aspects of it–was the photocopy machine: “an agent of democracy because it put publishing – which was until then state-run – in the hands of the people.” It is interesting to note that when I’ve looked at Kenk, the images did seem almost like propaganda posters and pictures rearranged into a different collage form entirely. I can see how–as advertisements for FV Disco’s musical and social scenes and as art in itself–just how subversive it was in that changing environment. Add to the fact that there was a “a gritty punk” element alongside it makes for a really interesting aesthetic and atmosphere.

I think what I find most fascinating about it, at least from what Poplak describes, is how FV Disco takes old ideas and objects and rearranges them: in fact recycles them.  But it’s more complex than that. Praznik in her article likes to state that Theatre FV wanted to create “spaces” or alternative realities in a rapidly changing socialist environment where people could express themselves. She also mentions that one objective of this movement, and those like it, were to blur the line between the performance and the viewer: or art and reality.

In a way, Theatre FV was one of those responsible for creating new wombs of artistic culture and reality and I can see–in that sense–just how all the above might have affected Igor Kenk’s philosophies. He liked to recycle and “hoard” things that North Americans apparently take for granted. The man was also aware of how economic and political systems can change rapidly and the crafting of his own world-view and indeed his life, seems like a haphazard collage of grittiness and innovation. Even Kenk’s own “performance stage”–a Bicycle Clinic filled with so many bikes that he had to spill them from the space of his shop into the streets just to open the door–did not separate itself from the rest of Queen Street West Toronto or the sphere of people it brought in.

Customers, and pedestrians alike were brought into his world of bikes and junk. I never saw it like this until I did some of my own amateurish haphazard research into the matter. It really made me look at the aesthetic of the Kenk graphic novel even more closely. In his article Portrait of a Serial Stealer, Richard Poplak goes into a little more detail on FV and even talks about how his artistic collaborator Nick Marinkovich creates the style of the piece: detailing some of the work that he did. It also hits home the fact that Poplak and the rest of the team that made the book adapted it from actual photo and video footage produced by Jansen and Gilmore: the latter of which are the most references I’ve been able to find on the FV movement aside from those from Poplak.

What I think is a real shame though, in all honesty, is that FV Disco–or Theatre FV 112/15–doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page or a more indepth English language entry of some kind: because it is a really fascinating social and artistic phenomenon to come from a socialist nation that no longer exists and I never put much thought about it at the time. It makes me wonder just how much it might have influenced other forms of art: not just in Eastern Europe but the rest of the world as well.

One more interesting of note is that there is a 1997 documentary called Staro in Novo or The Old and The New created by Neven Korda and Zemira Alajbegovic: who were, according to the site Zank, apparently leading members of the old FV Theatre group and then of Borghesia. They made something called FV Video where they created this documentary: of which I could only find excerpts on Youtube. Copies of the video cassette do exist in some Universities even in North America but I’m not sure if there are any DVD versions, but apparently you can download it here. But it would be an interesting thing to look at.

One thing that I also find interesting is on the site VideoDokument, Korda and Alajbegovic not only talk about the creation of video art, they mention that “Although the images move and we can hear them, video takes much more from comics than it does from film. It was comics that encouraged sequencing and the combination and movement of images, sounds and stories.” I find that a really nice parallel to how Kenk was influenced as a comics form by video and other media from the FV movement. I should also point out that Kenk is also being adapted into an animated film: perhaps making the journey between FV-influenced film and comics come full circle.

I’ll tell you now that I’m not up to the task of making a Wikipedia article on this matter. I’ve said before that I am no musical expert or even an artistic one. I am certainly no expert in Slovenia or Eastern European culture, but it would be nice if someone did this: because I think it’s important. It’s also a shame I can’t find any FV Disco art online as well and I will probably post a picture from Kenk. It seems that the scholar in me doesn’t die so easily, but I just like to write about things that interest me and go on an adventure to see what I can uncover from them when they are being too stubborn to be found.

Some special notes and thanks: the really awesome and emblematic “Disko FV” image seen above this post is actually a hand-made security ribbon taken from the collection of Dario Seraval: one of the former members of the Theatre FV-112/15 group and current member and drummer for Borghesia. The images from the graphic novel Kenk were very generously lent to this post by Alex Jansen and Jason Gilmore. Believe or not I underestimated how much time and effort making this post and finding images for it would take, but in the end thanks to correspondence with Aldo Ivancic (another former member of Theatre FV and current member of Borghesia whom I talked with about using said ribbon) and Alex Jansen, as well as Richard Poplak, Neven Korda, and museum counsellor Breda Skrjanec of the MGLC (the Mednarodni Grafični Likovni Center), it was all worth it.

Addendum: If you are particularly interested in FV Disco, you can try to track down the MGLC’s art catalogue from its FV Alternative Scene of the Eighties 2008 Exhibit. It has a Slovene and an English language translation as well. The book is composed of photographs, art samples, an introduction, three essays, and a chronology of events and developments in FV Disco.