Thursday, January 7, 2010
Reflections Part I: SPACE
Gravity Pleasure Switchback from Jessie Scott on Vimeo.
Hello fellow SSGs,
today we begin our four part reflection on the year that was. Yes, it is 2010. The mistake would be to imagine that, therefore, 2009 is over. We'll still be digesting (and regurgitating) what happened for the next thirty years, at least. Thought, unfortunately, is slower than media. That's why you have a headache.
An intro and 'reader's guide': I divided the reflections into four parts:
For each of the four parts, I (PC) got the ball rolling with a polemical opener, eliciting responses from Chris, Todd Burns and Philip Sherburne that reply, build, and generate new lines. I speak for myself when I say: these words are intended to provoke thought. They also, due to their length, press against the limit of what blogspot 'prefers' (with its redundant 'dear diary' journal format). With this in mind, I/we would love it if you would take some time with the pieces, digest them, come back to them, read them again, etc. Refrain: thought is slower than media. And so, without further ado... ... oh, one more thing: set the video above to stream while you read...
click below to read what PC, chris, todd and philip have to say.
PC) Space: Interstice, Entropy, Utopia
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot
- Joni Mitchell
House wasn't so much a sound as a situation…. The contexts from which the Deep House sound emerged are forgotten: sexual and gender crises, transgendered sex work, black market hormones, drug and alcohol addiction, loneliness, racism, HIV, ACT-UP, Thompkins Sq. Park, police brutality, queer-bashing, underpayment, unemployment and censorship – all at 120 beats per minute.
- Terre Thaemlitz
A little while ago SSGs noted – and were certainly not the only ones who noted – the quiet absence of the chill-out room.
Yes, it was a very muted death, but to me, in stark contrast to the 90s (with all its glib, naïve optimism, stretched between the potentials of ‘chill out’ and ‘energy flash’) the 00s really represented the partial capture of the utopian energies of the early days, “full of vigor.... not yet touched, used or exploited” by the emotional flatlining, the monotonality of a space dominated by hard surfaces, high modernism, and mid-tempo, mid-intensity minimalism. To me it’s no accident.
I think we’ve all rebelled against it, reviled it (what was minimal more than a gag reflex, a backlash, and the soundtrack to the bloodless achievement of anhedonia after 48 hours on the gear?) but I for one think we should all be concerned by what happened to those shared, loose, social spaces of warm engagement generated by earlier countercultures; angry about how they were transformed into tight, cool (or even cold) privative spaces full of superstars, VIPs, angry bouncers, overpriced drinks, and permissive repression – dance, but keep your hat on, your clothes on, your eyes open, consume, consume, consume, obey the beat, obey the situation, obey the drug, shut up, dance, wave your glowstick, or get the fuck out.
Yes, it’s true: there are about six good nightclubs in the world. Maybe a dozen, if you’ve had a few drinks or the pills are good. The rest of them suck. And yet, most people working in groove-based electronic music are utterly dependent on these shitty venues, full of shitty, stiff rules and shitty, shiny people, in order to turn a dime. In the main, electronic music, as a space in the 00s, has been sat on and partly squashed by bleak nightclubs and big box festivals, with some (growing, I think) spaces of hope in the interstices where interesting, creative things still can happen. We should pause and consider the fact that Berghain, for all its flaws, is almost unique. In most cities, in most countries in the world, Berghain would be impossible. And yes, there are exceptions, but they are exceptions. If you want anecdotal ‘proof’ of this, ask anyone you know who’s into music, even into electronic music, but who has not been part of the ‘dance scene’, what they think of it, and they’ll say: queues, expensive drinks, cocks on coke in sunglasses, crazy set times fuelled by amphetamine abuse, bad sound systems, rude staff, violent ‘security’… There are plenty of music scenes that are in to drugs; the ‘dance scene’ is, for the most part, a drug scene that’s kinda in to music – but only the kind of music that enhances being on drugs, and only the kinds of drugs compatible with hedonistic consumerism. And hey, maybe nightclubs are good spaces for these kinds of explorations; I personally think they are also mostly quite hostile to the development of interesting music and social life.
So: we need new venues, new models, new spaces – three (that already exist, but that I feel are full of interesting potentialities) spring to mind.
1) Carnival, festival, Dionysia: the first is the festive model – perhaps the only thing worth redeeming from psy trance subcultures (unless post-bulldoze Israeli kids with PTSD in tie-dye t-shirts on peyote is your idea of fun). In this mode, in these kinds of spaces, groove-based electronic music is something that takes place in an open, carnival space, where the rhythms and norms of everyday routine are all turned on their head, and you spend a few heady days in a wonderful dreamland all the more beautiful for being ephemeral.
2) Ritual, worship: the second is the sacred model, which I take from all forms of sacred, traditional music. In this mode, groove-based electronic music could be something attended to with ritual, ceremony – accorded a place in a whole coherent cosmos of values. This get’s easily misinterpreted, so to be clar, I’m not saying we should turn going out into going to church, if by that we surrender all that’s hot and wild about a dancefloor. Rather, it would mean generating a space for transformations to occur, but in a way that’s just as open to families, children, and sunny afternoons as it is to gay abandon on the wrong side of Sunday. I think we can already see these kinds of spaces opening up of a Sunday afternoon – I hope we can look forward to more in this direction. I should add that, at its best, when its well curated and supportive of resident artists and labels, clubs can even be this.
3) The Deterritorialised Mutual Association: The third is, of course, this online space, the blogosphere, which, you won’t be surprised to hear from me, I feel has undoubtedly been the 00s’ greatest space of possibility. But it is incredibly delicate, more like the accidental niche created by informational capitalism than the concerted or deliberate outcome of a struggle over space. I really don’t think we appreciate how fragile this space is, how quickly and easily it could be shut down (or just leveraged in to some kind of pay-per-view Murdoch wet dream), and where we’d be left after the death of the chill-out room, the record store, the squat party, or any kind of party held without police permission if it did.
It’s time to get some vision again. It’s time to actualize the idea of making, consolidating, and defending new spaces, just like earlier waves have done. Need we be so passive and timid? We are, after all, the people who, in the spaces between each other, generate all that ‘vibrant culture’ that capitalism is so good at modulating, leveraging, then paywalling from us, either with credit cards or with real estate prices. When the living embodiment of hope uses his Nobel acceptance speech to go on a rant about just war and the beautiful sacrifice of American lives, you know it’s time to either give up on hope, or go out and make a little of your own. And where is the anger? Why are so many people depressed, withdrawn, melancholy, instead of being full of passion, rage, and a desire for the new? These are all things we need to ask ourselves, unless we want all the world to be whatever happens when we let them round us up and stick us in a stadium, a tent, or a resort/prison island. Of course, I’m engaging in some wild rhetorical overstretch here, but I do so because all these things bear imagining, and because the world out there is real, and its open spaces, its spaces of hope, they are being appropriated - and how we think and act in response to this makes a difference, both real and infinitesimal. Yes - time for dreams and daring. And yes, of course it’s utopian – that is the point.
CH) space: is a weird one
space is a weird one. i think the reflections on this matter are unavoidably very influenced by each person's location and own (head)space. a rather banal observation to start, but i don't find it particularly surprising that someone on the periphery, where taking risks when promoting and putting on parties is particularly severe, is not satisfied with what is on offer; while someone based at the very epicentre of techno offers a much more positive perspective on this. given sherbs and todd are in the same location, and are both ex-pats from the semi-periphery, i'll be interested to see how much contrast there is between the two of them. the opening banality is also a lead in to my own reflections: space has played an interesting part in my (techno) life this year, as i've spent a fair bit of time moving between it. my 'home' in deep, dark wales, is completely devoid of even a crap club playing techno, let alone a good one. but i've also been lucky enough to spend a fair bit of time in my other (real?) home, tokyo. despite being a city of something like 15 million, the scene is pretty small and getting smaller. still plenty of good music comes along, no doubt, but conservative bookings are increasingly the order of the day, in stark contrast to when i first set foot here in 2001. why? liquid room is gone. unit has always been a partial replacement. then yellow disappeared. boom. the top two clubs in tokyo gone and suddenly things are looking grim. add in other disappearances like maniac love and colors studio and the lack of space is impacting upon the scene. one big shitty funnel where many of the interesting artists end up at womb, and those rare treasures like labyrinth, a techno wonderland in the hills, becomes even more valued...
in between the extremes of wales and japan, i've danced in london, manchester, new york and brussels, and shared moments in all those locales. the feel might be different (as todd notes), but the format is roughly the same (as pete points to). for me that works nicely, though. it is comforting arriving in a new place, somewhere very foreign, and then discovering a space that is a bit familiar. people might be different, the language isn't what you are necessarily used to, but the beats are the same. the smiles are the same. those rare, special moments that techno music brings out can be the same too. similarity and difference. the modularity of the spaces that define techno can work in its favour too.
perhaps it helps to generate what i think is one of its deepest, and most important, characteristics: its (sometimes) quasi-universality. and by this i mean even if it is locked to spaces on one level (a dark club late at night), on another it actually allows you to transcend space. the bullshit constructed differences we use to differentiate ourselves are lowered or forgotten about: consider that mnml ssgs has readers from over 100 countries. that says something important. to me at least. house certainly isnt a universal language. neither is techno. but it isnt as culturally specific as terre claims. perhaps the production is, but its reception is far more open that that. it creates a different kind of space. a space for connecting with other people, sharing feelings and moments and so on. this can happen on a dancefloor or somewhere like here, our little patch of cyberspace. and if there is a space i really think it is necessary we preserve, it is this one: the space that transcends territorial space. instead of trying to fix sounds to specific places (techno emerged from this town in this year and that is where it stays), perhaps we need to think of ways of preserving and strengthening the commonalities that techno helps to forge and bring out. and right now, where you have a situation of space limiting our ability to deal with something that transcends space (the recent disaster in copenhagen), anything little thing we can do to strengthen that weak bond we sometimes share feels important.
TB) locality über alles
Hey Peter, Chris, and Philip:
Happy holidays to you all.
The issue of space is one that I think about a lot. In my short time in Berlin, it's become clear that it's what helps make Berghain such a success. The space so quickly defines what a club can be. Cameron summed it up excellently in talking about why he never wants to return to Womb. It's why I think that in an area when music reviews may become slightly devalued—as the cost of music continues to near zero — that the worth in event reviews becomes so much more important. The live show is the last thing that can't be packaged into a zip file. Too many local factors play into making Booka Shade in London a completely different experience than Booka Shade in Brazil, no matter how well-oiled their machine might be.
I think that locality has a lot to do with your disenchantment with clubs, as well. Living in Berlin, I can't help but be excited about the culture. And this is speaking as someone who doesn't do drugs! Maybe I'm just still too wide-eyed and idealistic, but there are only a few clubs that have wandered onto my "never going back" list, and plenty that actually get me excited.
Do we need new models? I'm not so sure. The models that you've presented here are good ones—and they already exist. They just need to be enacted on a more regular basis. And on enough of a regular basis that they start to become a bit muddy and less stringent. The one thing that I think we probably all value more than anything else is surprise — the ability for anything to confound. In going to Belgrade this year, I was blown away a little bit by how some of these things seemed to be in flux. (I wonder if you feel the same in your travels to Poland, Philip?) Some of the obvious rituals of shows are there. Audience, performer, everything in its right place. But then there were acts like K.O.F.Y.—a Serbian journalist who performs reggae in blackface—who was the first person to make me want to go up to them and ask a few hundred questions after their show in a long time.
That was as much about performer as it was about space, but the event was held in a "proper" club context. He was bookended by Felony Flats, a solid DJ who played wonky hip-hop, and T++, whose live show was a revelation. Everyone in the crowd went bonkers for all of it. And that's the most interesting thing to me, because I wonder if the third space that you talk about—the internet — wasn't the exact reason that it was possible for a crowd to simply give up on genre and embrace the unifying theme of the night: bass. You hear so many clichés proffered by festivals in the arts sphere where they bring together dubstep and dub techno and Jamaican dub, but this was the first time that I saw it somehow make perfect sense. With their tastes presumably broadened from hearing things from all over the place — and never defining it as this or that, a new space opened up. I'm eager to see if that can perhaps be replicated elsewhere.
PS) Space: The Final Frontier
Space: the final frontier. I have to admit from the outset, because I believe that we need to bear in mind our own positions and their limitations, that I detached from the scene somewhat this year, at least in terms of physical presence. Which is ironic, I know, because I moved to Berlin just over a year ago. But due to a combination of factors, I barely went out at all. Part of that is the spoilt-for-choice effect that Berlin instills—there's simply so much going on that I find it easy to throw up my hands and simply stay in. Part of it is that I was studying German, 20 hours a week, beginning every morning at 8:30am, which significantly ate into my free time. (But the upside: I can now read the interviews in Groove! I'm afraid it's going to be a while before I can figure out De:Bug's reviews, however. And people call my writing dense!) Part of it has to do with being in an awesome relationship and being perfectly happy to spend a weekend night at home.
And, yes, part of it was a sense of boredom with club culture and its doppelganger, drug culture. While I used to be enamored of Berlin's 24-hour party culture, I'm beginning to see its drawbacks. Nights never peak; the music dribbles on, a secondary consideration to the all-important task of staying out and staying up. I don't mean to sound like a grumpy old man; frankly, I could use a proper debauch right about now. But as much as you may read about "late-morning tracks" in reviews or DJ feedback (and hell, I've used the conceit myself), sessions that run into the afternoon don't necessarily equate to better music.
In any case, this year I was more into records than scenes, more into tracks than sets. I played few gigs of my own this year (though I was lucky enough to get another Panorama booking, which was magical), and I definitely felt that my disconnection from clubbing hampered my own DJing, something I hope to rectify in 2010. (One of my new year's resolutions is to start going out on Sunday mornings. It's cheaper than all-nighting it, for starters.) On the other hand, I spent hours at home playing slower, weirder tracks that I wouldn't be likely to play out. I posted quite a few sets online and have many more similar projects in progress; basically, it's a re-orientation of my own spatial thinking, away from real-time, immediate presence and towards the virtual space of the internet (which is similar to what used to be called "radio").
I don't see why we can't have both. Last night I played the Moog, in Barcelona—almost certainly the place I've played more often in my life than any other (save San Francisco's Dalva bar, where I had a Sunday night residency for two years, and where the house rule was anything but house or techno). I brought a pretty uptempo bag, because the Moog crowds like it hard. And sure enough, over the course of the night, four people came up to me to ask, politely but firmly, that I up the tempo and the intensity. (Another woman asked for Phoenix's "Lisztomania," a rather out-of-context request, while another young man earnestly requested Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" by typing it out on his mobile, and clutched his breast rather dramatically when I told him I didn't have it.) The thing is, they were kind of right—it may have been 2:45am on a Monday night, but fuck it, at the Moog, that's no reason for the music to slow down or mellow out. Headfuck techno wouldn't have cut it, either; here, they like it big, riffy and ravy (also one of the specialties of the night's resident and my ex-housemate, Omar Leon). Hell, even Baby Ford and Eon's "Dead Eye" sounded inappropriately churning and psychedelic. But it gave me a chance to pull out Deetron and Quince's 2009 records on Music Man, and Mental Overdrive's fairly mental "Skanken", and Ben Klock's slightly less full-on Kerri Chandler remix (sorry, forget which one), tracks that I'm less inclined to pull out during my stony, introspective sessions at home. Everything has its place, and (to get around to making my point), part of a DJ's job is to listen to his or her audience and know when to take its advice. And I suspect that's part of a critic's job too—not just to listen to the music, but also to the listeners. Music's primary meanings are social, after all; you don't have to be a knee-jerk populist to remember that it's important to keep an ear on the populace.
Anyway, part of this admission is acknowledging the limits of my own perspective, which is something I wish more music critics and journalists would do. What's that Rumsfeld quote about the known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns? I know enough to know that the world is swarming with the latter, and I'm leery of making too many definitive pronouncements based on my own limited view. There are only half a dozen great clubs in the world? That's poppycock. Not to get all sentimental, but for me, the Moog is absolutely one of the greatest places I've ever played or partied, no matter that it's far off most clubbers' maps, no matter that its programming is largely local. How many more places like it exist, that don't figure into our mental maps of the clubiverse? Scads, I'm sure—so I'm not going to write off the whole nightlife phenomenon on the basis of our exhaustion with some of clubbing's bigger brands. I've barely dipped into the world of proper underground parties in Berlin, but I get the sense that it's vast. Despite my own old-man moaning, I remain optimistic.
All that being said, I do wish there were more promoters with more adventurous programming—more mixing up of genres, more noise acts playing alongside techno DJs, more dubstep bookending deep house, more side-rooms, more sanctuaries. And more DJs willing to pull the rug out from under the clubbers' feet.
Having explored the dimensions of the room, I'm interested to see where we take this next. Back to you, Peter.
Philip aka "Sherbs"