Archaeology of Cultural Space

Where is the Underground?

There is something of an autobiographical line following me in my work. Indeed, despite everything, I increasingly find that it is this element that anchors and grounds what I do, write and produce; not in the sense that everything begins to revolve around me, the pure individual me that’s supposed to exist within the human shell, but the environment, events, people and places that have informed and pasted it together.

I could go back to the point where as a child I travelled over to Britain from Germany, something that I am not old enough to remember but I have been acutely aware of, especially in the bureaucratic sense that I have grown up entirely in a place of which I am not a “citizen” on paper. This strange position where the only place I’m overly familiar with is somewhere where I’m on the verge of non-existence, where I cannot partake in general elections for example, and the ongoing issue of Brexit has only served to heighten that neither here-nor-there sense, that strange paradoxical feeling in the peripheries of my experience. The general sense is that I am being somehow exorcised from the body I have for the longest time acted within without recourse or thought, a cell within the bloodstream.

So my relationship to space has constantly been haunted by this transition; not only have I often been confronted by my own state of semi-erasure on paper, but the cultural and social centre of the 2000s and early 2010s struck me as something I didn’t want to be a part of, and so I actively, and no doubt often obnoxiously tied myself to the margins of taste. The reason for this still hadn’t become clear by the time I became somewhat attached to romantic images of intellectual post-war Paris in art school, or heavily invested in the militant experimentation of punk and post-punk after picking out a CD of Siouxsie and the Banshees Juju in HMV. It was a constant striving towards something other than the cultural objects offered on a platter, about as appealing as rotten fish. I didn’t realise all this time of course that there was something of a flickering strand connecting all these obsessions and interests, one connected it seems irrevocably with the empty core of postmodern cultural irony, the encroaching ubiquity of privatised capital and eventually the precarity of survival beneath it. What this strand represents was a yearning for a space that was constantly eluding my grasp; the post-punk period, post-war Paris or a host of other locuses of interest represented these spaces that I could not access, but which I frankly fantasised about. These were spaces soaked in the juices of an exciting experimental momentum where around me all I encountered were the encrusted delibidinizing icons of rock n roll, the uninspiring heritage roundabout where even interesting artists and musicians were reduced to a pastiche of veneration. These were all spaces of an underground which I wanted so desperately to find, but which seemed to only exist within the haze of times past, glances in the rear-view mirror as I drove forwards into the nerve-jangling grey metropolis.

So everything I do now seems to revolve somewhat around the question; where is the underground? Does it still exist in a meaningful sense or has it by now been entirely expunged and pressed out of the urban environments via endlessly replicating programmes of privatisation, gentrification, reduction, and corporate PR? I live in the city of Norwich, a curious example of a place which I would argue has long had an alternative with no underground. What I mean by this are the local music/art/other scenes that define themselves as being outside the centre, as being the “alternative” to mainstream fare, but which themselves are possibly even more repetitious and banal than the popular forms they avoid. In my experience, while its not that there’s nothing of any value in these spaces, its notable that there is no real underground behind it, no space of experimentation or militant forward momentum, no sense of an actual engagement beyond the typically painful ennui of postmodern detachment. What bleeds through is the struggle of detachment itself; we become unable to honestly immerse ourselves in anything, commit to it, without the self-reflexive wink that must surely follow, like the lover who can’t profess their love without first disowning it. We become terrified of the very possibility of ridicule so any expression must be filtered through a potentially infinite number of mediations, amplifications, walls… this isn’t to say that the only true culture is an unmediated one, the authentic spontaneous expression, which becomes a mere fetish object itself, but that culture effectively dies, grinds to a halt, at the point where the barrier to entry is reinforced. It reaches the point where all the alternative represents is a group of people trying desperately to make money from what they do, and cultural production as something that has the potential to change, move forwards, excite.. simply vanishes.

I realise this sounds like a grim prognosis without respite, and I’m not going to refute that; it is, and its supposed to be. Most rejections of such a picture I’ve seen come from the point of “there’s still innovative/good stuff out there!”, but that isn’t the point. Not only must we look beyond the mere metric of “good” or even “innovative”, but holding up a specific act or artist as if they immediately mean a trend is reversing tends to be a poor substitute for looking at cultural space itself. The point is that the space within which communes, collectives, and simply projects could once gather, the cracks and folds in the social fabric where artist squats and communities intersected with the dispossessed to form something we can meaningfully call an underground has been brutally suppressed. For capital, the underground has always been an inconvenience, the lingering idea that there could be something out there that was better, that we could in fact, have some kind of agency, could not stand.

The symbolic power of capital has never come from its capacity alone, the thing to realise is that there is no great enthusiasm for the mediocrity it provides. One of the most powerful parts of Mark Fisher’s Acid Communism introduction is the reversal, from anti-capitalism to the need for capitalism to systematically undermine its alternatives “with all its visored cops and tear gas”. This immediately puts into perspective the struggles of the past few decades of the underground to maintain itself against the distaste of the centre, from the onward march of gentrification to the creeping sprawls of luxury apartments which seem to be bit by bit replacing every empty spot, every space of potential, every last vestige… The mistake that we make is to assume that in our every day existence, in the culture we consume and produce and the way we navigate the space in which we live, the most banal details, that we don’t have to “pick sides”; the illusion, far beyond the halls of Westminster, is that peoples lives are a neutral centre, when we have to realise that it is precisely lives that are at stake, that are the site of conflict. When we move from country to city, we do more than search for “success” or “prosperity”, we submit ourselves to a process of human movement, what Braudel termed “Transhumance” that forms the shifting boundaries and territories of the space itself, and ultimately the drawing of battle lines between the centre and the peripheries.

Lefebvre uses the phrase the Dialectic of the Lived and the Concieved, and at the beginning of her book on the Paris Commune Communal Luxury Kristin Ross emphasises how within this action precedes thought, that it is “the creative energies and excess of the movement itself” that dreams and ideas are generated. Therein lies the importance of Spatial Practice; Lefebvre states –

“The spatial practice of a society secretes that society’s space; it propounds and presupposes it, in a dialectical interaction; it produces it slowly and surely as it masters and appropriates it. From the analytic standpoint, the spatial practice is revealed through the deciphering of its space.”

Here we have both this preceding of thought via action and deciphering of action via thought that co-exists with space. Passing through this refraction we can see in sharp relief how the stark realities of class conflict might emerge through the vicissitudes and violence of every day life, in ritual and attitude. The way in which our co-dependency and co-creation in the name of Capital produces the battlefield within which any kind of slippage is quickly stamped on, sliced off the whole if it cannot be incorporated into it. It is these abstractions that exist at a somewhat unconscious level through which the violence of destitution and homelessness, of dispossession and loss of life are generated. We produce the space of capital even as it produces us.

So here it comes to space, and the necessity of a space for an underground culture to inhabit. Where are we to go when we seek something else, where indeed when we want to find people who share our passions, or when we want to combine forces, to experiment? Much has been said about the value of boredom regarding culture, the importance of suburban existence in generating the militant expressions of post-punk for example, but the point here rests upon there being somewhere to go. While the boredom of a suburb, or even a village, may drive us towards underground expressions, a search for something to break us out of the loop, increasingly the space to conduct these expressions simply isn’t there, or cannot be found. For a moment I myself thought I’d found something like it online, but after some time it fell apart into a pile of orthodoxies. The issue here may be the attempt to create an underground subculture without the space to really maintain it. And so we return to Lefebvre’s point that an alternative system cannot come into being without an alternative space, and this in turn without an alternative spatial practice.

So is this ultimately a search for an underground or do I intend to issue an injunction to bring it into being? The truth encompasses both, and leads into the notion that’s become increasingly potent in contemporary futurisms and discussions around alternatives that the future we want to create is not so much a potential in time, but in space. Jameson’s characterisation of Utopia in the final paragraph of Valences of the Dialectic comes to mind –

“It would be best, perhaps, to think of an alternate world— better to say the alternate world, our alternate world—as one contiguous with ours but without any connection or access to it. Then, from time to time, like a diseased eyeball in which disturbing flashes of light are perceived or like those baroque sunbursts in which rays from another world suddenly break into this one, we are reminded that Utopia exists and that other systems, other spaces, are still possible. “

This other space in this context is something I’d er away from calling a Utopia, but the move from the temporal to the spatial here is important in our capacity to not only excavate and discover but build an alternative. If we are to rediscover a sense of subculture against the all-consuming high rise corporate battalions of the contemporary city, it can be thought of not as time travel, but as archaeology, the unearthing of something that lies under the paving stones, the back alleys, the cracks in the concrete. In the traces found around us we can feel our way out of the decay, and even move towards something of a re-purposing and warping of the ruins, subterranean distortions that re-orient our bearings and create a new way of acting and being, a future urban practice and cultural underground, the imperative again to re-invent, to destroy itself, to revolutionize. Perhaps, in the reflections and immaterial forms perceived in empty shop windows, or the decay of abandoned lots, the echoes of the revolution can still be heard...

An eerie cry from another world mingles with the silence of a dead city, the motionless forms stand, empty vessels..

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