By Marije Peute
‘It’s about this permeation of… light. A sort of irradiating and unstoppable expulsion of darkness, or something. I don’t think that the only way to read the world in 2014 is as a fucking endless cycle of doom. That’s not how I want to work, you know.’ (Ben Frost)
The best ideas occur on surprising moments. Like when I figured out the main concept to connect all the pieces of my research together. I was writing for this paper in a café in Amsterdam while observing the hipness of it. In this case hip means that the space was full of natural colours, garments and textures. Every object was something in its own, probably handmade or at least old. The lights were of a designer sort. A girl walked in and caught my eye. She was neutrally dressed but still fashionable and good-looking. Her hair was short like a nun and she just wore a short black skirt, a white t-shirt, some sneakers and a denim jacket. Her appearance was, despite the neutral look, very strong. When I left to do some shopping, I saw her again. This time it took me much longer to notice her. This wasn’t because of my absentmindedness, but because she looked different in this space than the one I had seen her in before. The first space seemed to contain certain hipness in itself and everyone who could look slightly hip or fashionable got an extra glow of hipness when entering it. Outside on the street, blended in with all kinds of different looks, this glow disappears and someone returns to being normal. My point is that on this afternoon I discovered how important space is in the way people look and feel. Space is defined by the meanings that are attached to it (Navaro-Yashin 2007). This is certainly so for the subcultural spaces defined by Subbacultcha!
The sentiments people attach to space are shaped by the people that inhabit them, such as youth who form a subculture. Subcultures used to obtain a certain power they couldn’t find elsewhere by controlling a space. Like the punk scene in the 1970’s and 1980’s, in which spaces were claimed by squatting them. As Bennett (1999) has argued, subcultures are now less fixed than before. Youth have multiple subcultural identities and can choose and pick from whatever style or music they like, resulting in a blend of all kinds of colours. What kind of consequences does this have for the experience of space within youth subcultures? And how does this experience develop?
I have tried to find an answer to this question by focusing on a creative platform based in Amsterdam called Subbacultcha! This platform describes itself as a community one can be part of by becoming a member. Members can visit all kinds of experimental events for free. Such as exhibitions, small concerts and films. The spaces for these events could be viewed as heterotopias, a concept used by Foucault (1986) to describe ‘spaces of otherness’. Within these spaces all the space that is not part of the heterotopia is being contested and criticised. To understand the experience of space within this particular subculture, I will analyse the different characteristics of a heterotopia. I will explain this further by using fungi as a metaphor for the process of being a member of Subbacultcha!, and add my own interpretations of heterotopias.
This research is semi-autobiographic. I have been a Subbacultcha! member since one and a half year. I subscribed for the music and gradually became part of the scene. I’ve heard many outsiders, including myself, comment on the members as hipsters, viewing the scene as homogeneous and particular. This has turned out to be more subtle. There is a distinction between members and scene members. Many members do not visit the events regularly and barely know anyone in ‘the scene’, or the community. In this paper, the community refers to the core group of Subbacultcha! members who visit the events regularly and have friends within the community. Even within the core scene, a variety of cores exist. I have talked to both members and non-members who are familiar with the concept. In total I have talked to ten people between the age of 20 and 30, of which five were members, one was an ex-member, one was an employee and three were familiar or working with the concept but not part of it. Two of these were official interviews, one was a focus group and I’ve talked to the others when we were visiting an event. I’ve also done participant observation during eight events and I analysed the texts and visuals in at least twenty different magazines. I have mainly talked to the core of people I’m most familiar with, on purpose, because they trust me. In the short period of my research I was able to find more depth in the answers of people I’m familiar with than with people I’m not familiar with. Further research on different parts of the scene is recommended.
Subbacultcha! is an example of a post-modern kind of subculture. As Bennett argues, modern subcultures ‘are better understood as a series of temporal gatherings characterised by ﬂuid boundaries and ﬂoating memberships’ (1999: 600). Subbacultcha! is also a fluid subculture, or ‘neo-tribe’ as Bennett calls it, because of its multiple sites and the temporality of its membership. The deal is: you become a member by paying 8 euro’s a month and can visit all the selected exhibitions, movies and concerts for free. Occasionally they give away free tickets for other concerts or festivals. It started out as a small concept for and by people who were enthusiastic about new alternative music and turned into a success (see figures 1-3 below). Evans has argued that connectivity with local intermediaries and consumers views enhance the growth (2009: 1013-1015). The case of Subbacultcha! illustrates this well, I will explain further.
Fig. 1-3: Subbacultcha!, for uncompromising underground culture, for the uppacultcha! of tomorrow, but hurry up… today is already yesterday.
Subbacultcha! was founded in 2004, by Bas and Leon. The first magazine publication was in 2008. The history of Subbacultcha! is vague, because it isn’t documented. As one of their employees mentioned in the interview, ‘Subbacultcha! [magazines] only consider what’s ahead and not what has already been’. On the website nothing is mentioned about a history. Some members have memories of the old times, or heard it through other people’s stories. ‘They used to go to all the concerts and hang out with the members, but now they have other occupations [among which a new platform called Public] and have a family life,’ one of the members remembers. One could argue the concept has matured. At first it was possible to connect from top to down, but as the amount of events and members grew this becomes more difficult. One of Subbacultcha!’s employees told me that they try to become not too big or commercial, by restricting their marketing to the free magazine, the tote bags, posters and by spreading the word. The magazine has been published since the beginning of Subbacultcha!, containing interviews with bands, other cultural recommendations, featured artists and funny monthly themes like the bands’ favourite recipes. Their magazine has grown from 20 pages in 2008 to 80 pages now. Most people join because others have recommended it; thereby the crowd selects itself.
Subbacultcha! organises their own events and promotes events at other venues. Their main locations are De Nieuwe Anita, the OCCII, the OT301, MC Theatre and contemporary places like DOKA (see figure 4). All these places are characterised by their underground background. The OCII, de Nieuwe Anita and the OT301 are legalised squats that offer alternative ways for a night out, ranging from food, to cinema, to music. At the other bigger locations – such as Melkweg, Paradiso and Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ – Subbacultcha! cooperates with their programmers and offer some of their concerts for free. Both parties benefit in this collaboration: the programmers are able to promote their events among a specific group of people who are preselected according to taste and Subbacultcha! is promoting their own concept by offering big events for free. The relationship between programmers, members and the locations is not just economically beneficial. The social connections are embedded in the spaces they occupy.
Space of deviance
The connection between programmers and members differs from the one at other initiatives. Foucault would call this a deviant one. In Foucault’s description of heterotopias he distinguishes real places from utopias. While utopias only exist in fantasy and not in real life, real places do actually exist. Heteropias are ‘something like counter sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites … are simultaneously being represented, contested and inverted’ (Foucault 1986: 24). Real sites are being criticised by forming a space of deviance. It could be argued that in most real sites, or what Foucault calls ‘all the space that remains’ (1986: 27), the relationship between programmers and visitors is a clear one. Visitors of Paradiso (a big venue for concerts in Amsterdam) for example, don’t have a voice in this initiative. At Subbacultcha! this is different. Members are actively involved in shaping this concept.
Subbacultcha! provides an opportunity to work, for example. Since there are plenty of young people who are willing to spend their time on this initiative, many members have worked as interns or volunteers. The main employees of Subbacultcha! make an effort to maintain relationships with these youngsters. As Evans has argued, the linkages between producers and consumers deepen when consumers are offered a chance on employment and networking (2009: 1013). Apart from these small jobs, Subbacultcha! also offers a platform for creative minds to express themselves and their art. This space for expression is mainly offered in the magazine. Each month an artist can feature that month’s theme. Their work is presented in a couple of pages (see figures 5 and 6 and Astrid Florentinus) and sometimes they also design the magazine covers (see figure 8) and the tote bags (see figure 9).
Since recently the flip side of the new membership passes (figure 10) are also being designed by members. Members who aren’t artists (yet) can also be featured in the magazines. In the ‘we saw you: spotted’ section (see figure 11 and 12) members are being interviewed and receive their own spot in the magazine. Or the initiative of the ‘15 euro outfit’, in which members can show outfits for less than 15 euro’s that they are going to wear to a gig (see figure 13). By offering members a stage to perform, the gap between producers and consumers in the music industry is being blurred. The ‘normal’ way consumers relate to producers is being criticised and reformed.
Does this make Subbacultcha! DIY (do-it-yourself)? Not really. Both Subbacultcha and DIY-movements could be considered as countercultures, but in different ways. DIY is characterised by its anarchistic approach. Anyone can join and the stage is available for all. At the pubs which Gallan researched for instance. Gallan (2012: 36) argues that the temporary success of the pub Oxford is mainly caused by the booking agents who function as cultural gatekeepers by programming local music. Although there is a slight hierarchical distinction between bookers and visitors, the visitors were in power of the program. Bookers adapted their choices to the consumers’ wishes. This is opposed to the programming of Subbacultcha!. Leon and Bas follow their own taste.
As Bas and Leon have written at the beginning of the ‘Dutch underground’ magazine issue, they started Subbacultcha! with the intention of promoting local bands. It turned out they liked the sound of the international bands better, so they valued the quality of the music more than their ideology. Their employee explained this is because ‘teenagers’ taste is constantly changing and in development, so it would be silly to program everything they want to hear’. One of my interviewees also said that he ‘wouldn’t have the courage to call them to ask them to fix a gig for me, you just don’t do that’. According to him this has changed since Bas and Leon’s absence during the gigs, accompanied by the growth of the platform: ‘the organisation has become slightly more hierarchical because of their absence’. Subbacultcha! has become too highbrow and niche for most local bands who are looking for venues to play.
Nevertheless, the scene of Subbacultcha! is also comparable to the one Gallan researched. The bookers have similar positions within the music industry in general. Gallan calls this position the function of cultural gatekeepers. While the bookers of the Oxford are gatekeepers of local music and the consumers’ tastes, Bas and Leon are gatekeepers of the high quality and experimental style of the music. In both cases, ‘key gatekeepers, or cultural intermediaries, allow scenes to flourish within venues…. intermediaries use cultural knowledge to influence consumer behaviour and control “taste” and “style”, occupying authoritative positions between production and consumption spheres’ (Gallan 2012: 39).
The relationship between the providers and the consumers of music is both different from the norm (bigger events) and the counterculture (DIY). Both are being criticised in different ways. The bigger events can’t offer the same unique and intimate experiences as Subbacultcha!, while DIY venues can’t provide high-quality music consistently.
System of opening and closing
This deviant relationship shapes the way spaces are being experienced. It adds to the experience of space as a home. Other aspects contribute to this homely feeling as well, such as the presence of friends at all the events. It’s an easy and comfortable way to go out, without the fuzz of arranging meetings and places. One of Subbacultcha!’s employees said that she ‘could easily grab a beer with friends when there was a gig, instead of sitting bored at home’. She became an intern because of lack of activities and plenty of time in the summer. For her, Subbaultcha! was a way to work and go out with people she met through work. All the employees live in a similar cycle. Other members who have not worked there, experience the same connections. The road to get to the point where Subbacultcha! feels like home is not a fluent one, though, and not accessible for everyone. The space that Subbacultcha! occupies are of a particular kind, that can either be welcome and open or rejecting and closed. Whereas some members described the scene in words such as ‘homely’, ‘intimate’ and ‘warm’, others used ‘distant’ and ‘cold’.
This selectiveness is also a characteristic of heterotopias, which Foucault has called a ‘system of opening and closing’ (1986: 26). As he has written, certain spaces can give the illusion of public openness when the person who enters isn’t actually allowed in the entire space. This is also the case with Subbacultcha!. It seems to be possible for anyone to become a member, while the process of becoming a member and becoming part of the scene is selective.
To get to know about the concept is a task in itself. Subbacultcha! is purposely, as one of Subbacultcha!’s employees told me, marketed in a particular way. Outsiders who have never heard of Subbacultcha! can’t decipher from the posters or the tote bags worn by members what Subbacultcha! actually is. As it is not widely known around the city, it could seem for outsiders as though there is a strange mysterious sect moving around town with the same bags and clothes. Once you take the effort to look it up on the internet, it’s not that mysterious anymore of course. My impression is that most people subscribe because they have heard from others that it’s worth it. One of my informants said that ‘she only became active after knowing more members’. People also join together and thereby create their own little core.
The process of becoming part of the scene is even more selective. An important aspect is the willingness of the member to become a part of the group. As one of my interviewees said: ‘I knew Derek, Rosalie [some members who visit often] through Ansuya when I was a member, but I just went there for the music, not to make new friends’. In her case, as in other cases, this is because they were already part of other scenes. Another member, who visits regularly and has a group of friends in Subbacultcha!, talked in negative terms of the rest of the Subbacultcha! community he wasn’t befriended with . He said ‘they were cold, distant, self-absorbed and afraid to dance.’ The homely feeling some experience in Subbacultcha! spaces, is not experienced by everyone. Different aspects contribute to feelings of exclusion.
One of these is the particular style of members’ clothes. Almost every member mentioned that Subbacultcha! had a particular style. Their employee mocked some of the members by saying that ‘all the Rietveld [art academy in Amsterdam] students come to show off their newest jeans’. A member thought that outsiders partly wanted to become part of the community because of the fashionable and progressive looks of the members. Freitas et al. argue that the deployment of style functions as citizenship in a community (1996: 85). Communities like Subbacultcha! use style to separate themselves from a more general culture. Subbacultcha! members use style and appearance as a tool to communicate their identity in relation to mainstream culture (Freitas et al 1996: 87).
After eight nights of observing the crowd, I’ve concluded most members have a style that could be called ‘casual’ or ‘homely’. Most seem to communicate that they don’t really care about their looks and could be leaving anytime. This casualness consists of certain aspects, like: either comfy Nike sneakers (see picture) or All Stars (see picture) or black leather shoes. Guys wear caps; shorts and white socks worn high; many beards; even more jeans and trousers made of jeans garment; rolled up sleeves and trousers; Scandinavian sweaters; either long hair or cut short on the sides and higher up on the head (see picture 11). Girls wear cute skirts and dresses with flower prints; transparent garments; stripes; long black dresses; either a lot of make-up or none at all; dungarees; Dr. Martens; All Stars; Nike sneakers; Clarks shoes; and last but not least tote bags. Clothes in general are basic but not commercially made and with a personal touch. Some are still wearing their coats, confirming the ‘could-be-leaving-anytime’ message. Members dress down instead of up. This adds to the homely feeling I’ve described above. Comfy clothes are worn at home. Or at Subbacultcha! gigs.
Style is not just about what people wear, but more about how they wear it (Freitas 1996: 95). The way people wear these casual clothes is, logically, in a casual way. Being casual in this style means being ‘cool’: not overtly expressing oneself or trying to get attention. Some groups of members barely dance, chat to their close friends quietly or listen to the music in silence. They are mainly focused on the members within their own circle. Some important ways of communicating while going out, like dancing and making eye contact, are avoided by most members. Outsiders may try to communicate in this way and get no response, resulting in feelings of exclusion. I’ve experienced this myself since I’ve become a member. It was difficult to make contact with other members I didn’t know yet. When I came more often, some opened up little by little. Now I know these people and they’re not so fenced off anymore. Other groups have stayed closed.
As the saying goes, exceptions prove the rules. Or in the case of Subbacultcha!, exceptions show the rules. Members’ visual identity are made up of more than the expression of casualness. Freitas et al. argue that style can communicate a certain identity to others (1996: 96). Subbacultcha! members communicate an authentic identity by accustoming their looks on their personalities. Whether this is extravagant or casual, as long as it’s your personal taste and not a copy of someone else’s. One of the members has an expressive and extravagant character, which makes her abnormal. People always comment on her fashionable and up-to-date look, but she doesn’t feel that way herself. ‘I’m not bothered with fashion norms or magazines, I just like clothes and a specific style that suits me best,’ she said. This makes her style authentic and accepted. Others are looked down upon, because their style is considered to be inauthentic. Outsiders who look more mainstream by for instance wearing big brands or combinations that many people wear, are more excluded from the scene than extravagant characters whose style is authentic.
Outsiders are mainly excluded in the Subbacultcha! scene when they have a different style of clothing or communicate their style in an expressive way. Exceptions are made when particular outsiders stay close to their own personality by being extravagant. As long as they ‘are’ instead of ‘try to be’. As a heterotopia, Subbacultcha! space only opens for some.
Space for experiment
I argue this exclusion raises the feeling of inclusion among members who are part of this specific niche. By creating a home for a specific kind of otherness, expressed socially and in style, the space becomes safer for experimenting. As the research of Baker et al. in Newcastle has shown, these venues offer safe space for youth to express themselves (2009: 156). Gallan reaches similar conclusions: social groups, that would have been harassed in other pubs because of their looks, all got along at the Oxford (2012: 42). Whereas these youth couldn’t have found a home in other spaces, they claimed their own space to be safely experimenting. As a Subbacultcha! member illustrated well when she commented on a big commercial party she had been to: ‘Yes, well, it was fun… But yeah, the people…[sigh]’. She always looks quite extravagant and people outside of the scene can respond to this in negative ways. She may feel excluded at bigger venues, which makes her feel more included in the Subbacultcha! scene.
This safe zone for experimenting goes beyond one specific place. In his description of heterotopias Foucault mentioned that they represent several sites in one real place (1986: 25), by which he meant that places can have a concrete and abstract presence. They can be present physically but can also represent a symbolic, cosmological space. Subbacultcha! spaces are also multi-sited. As I have explained above, the events take place in different locations (see map). They are connected by sharing the same community. Subbacultcha! members hop from de Nieuwe Anita one week to the OT301 next week, where memories of their collective are growing in different places at once. Likewise, one place can simultaneously represent multiple places. This is not unique to Subbacultcha!, but could be called a characteristic of more modern subcultures. Young people are being united in different spaces according to their music taste. The community that could grow out of these shared nights, collect memories in different spaces. A friend illustrated this nicely when he mentioned that the weekly visitors of Trouw (a club in Amsterdam) always talk about their past and future experiences there or at other electronic events. This shapes a community centred around the shared experiences, going beyond one place or a particular time.
Space is not just related to other places and the connection that we make between them, but also to the sounds within the space. Arkette argues that ‘…sound, as the ultimate liquid form, is coming to represent the physical presence of home territory’ (2004: 164). The homely feeling in a space I have described above is directly connected to the sound within the space that functions as a sort of soundtrack to the interaction in a community. In the Subbacultcha! community this is a particular kind of sound. It’s the sound of the underground. A sound of otherness in a space of otherness. This familiar sound is what attracts a lot of members in the first place. Most members joined for the music. The ones who became scene members, have connected this sound to a feeling of being home. The night space offers a feeling to safety to perform and transform a (musical) identity (Gallan 2103: 3).
All these processes of programming, becoming a member, the growth of homely feelings and of in- and exclusion of youth in these phases, are connected to the world outside of Subbacultcha!. The individual development of my informants was influenced by their connections with others outside of the scene. I’ve started to visualize the experience of space within the modern world of subcultures as fungi. If the root would be considered a part of these organisms, that are neither plant nor animal, they would be the biggest organisms in the world. Their network reach far underground beyond what we can see from above. The fungi itself symbolize the actual events and places members visit, while being connected to other places and events by their roots. These roots are what I would call the abstract space Subbacultcha!: a network of social connections, memories and experiments. There are all kinds of fungi and likewise, there are all kinds of subcultures. These are also connected by roots and common ground to grow on, as sisters and brothers. This layered view on space is the only missing component in Foucault’s concept of heterotopias. Heterotopias are not just spaces of deviance, multi-sitedness and with strict gatekeepers, but also of connectedness. It offers firm ground for otherness by creating a vast and dense network of roots around the city. Whereas other experimental venues and spaces can offer temporary experience of a heterotopia, Subbacultcha! moves beyond a specific time and space. Heterotopias are not just contesting and criticising the space that remains, but also transforming it. Like fungi, the community feeds on the old to create something new. Within Subbacultcha! space fashion is moving forward, by experimenting and offering different ways of dressing. The programmers offer members the newest experimental progressive bands by building upon an extensive history of old music. The last event in my research represents this fungi process the most.
At the twentieth of May, a dark shadow travelled over the city. The heat of the day was relieved by a thunder storm at night. The storm was also present at the Trouw. This was the night the members of my research group had been looking forward to for a long time (see picture 12). Ben Frost and Nissennenmondai: edgy, dark and experimental. Three cute Japanese girls came on stage. Once they started playing, the listener realised they had been tricked by their innocent looks. Their sound was harsh and uncomfortable, the sound of the underground. The space filled up. Everyone was listening intensely. Their songs were woven together by free improvising. Our bodies were being warmed up for the actual concert. Slowly our ears got used to the trance-like effects of the music on our bodies. When I observed the crowd, I saw some familiar Subbacultcha! faces scattered around the room. Each experiencing their own kind of bliss. A guy next to me was moving spastically to the fast beats, while others enjoyed in dead silence. I pictured all the familiar faces as if connected by an invisible line throughout the space. Even though I hadn’t communicated with most of them, except for the usual friendly nod, I felt their presence. It felt safe to have so many acquaintances, however vague, so close to me. This experience is constructed by and within those lines of connections, occupying the unfamiliar space. Even though Trouw is more a home to clubbers than Subbacultcha! lovers, this night seemed to be occupied by the feeling of otherness, of a heterotopia.
The artists fit neatly into the interior design of the Trouw. It is designed for all sorts of evenings, but weirdness suits it best in my opinion. This room has been used as a place to print newspapers, still visible by its high, grey, concrete look. The Japanese girls looked simplistic and focused. The lights were flickering, while the smoke machine was adding to the mysteriousness. Their tiny silhouettes marked the blank architecture. Their usage of space in the performance was, just like their music, a build-up for what was to come. When Ben Frost entered the stage, we were in grip of their appearance along with the music. The heavy sounds echoed across the high ceilings. He exploited the raw edginess of the space to its ends. Ben Frost looked like a modern Jesus figure (with his giant beard) in the mysterious lighting, in the middle of the intense drumming on both sides of him. The lights and the smoke that surrounded the sounds cape made me dizzy. The heat intensified the overwhelming feeling. They kept us in control, like the sun that keeps the earth moving. The music was the force that pushed the earth around.
Ben explained in an interview that he was most inspired in the point when human beings, after a constant exhausting repetition, started to fail. The moments of imperfection.
… and in a strange way I think what I’m interested in is error, and failure. Greg and I, when we were recording his parts he’d often be recording very long takes playing the same thing, just asking for constant repetition, and over time his physical abilities would be in contest with the period over which he’s being asked to perform. What I was interested in wasn’t the first 20 minutes, I was interested in the last 10, because that’s when it started to fall apart. … Some of my favourite music is born from failure and the imperfection of human endeavour.
Fungi feed on death. They create new by taking the old. Ben Frost does this as well, with his music. His music was like witnessing forces at war: tsunamis clashing unto the shore; or the war in Congo, where he had been working on a film project with Richard Mosse. But destruction coexists with its counterpart: construction. Ben Frost had processed the wars, as a part of the cycle of the earth, and presented it in such a way that it worked constructive through the ears of the other. He offered his listeners a space to trip, to create new ideas that have never existed before in people’s minds. All the present members were blown away. Literally. Most felt physical reactions, like crying. Moments of euphoria were accompanied by moments of despair. Their minds were experimenting more than before, or in any other space with other music. During this particular concert Ben created firm ground, where strong plants could grow for a long time without being swept away by tides or storms, for people to lose themselves. These invisible roots reach every person that is able to see or feel them, connecting each to one another. The roots of experimental minds go beyond Subbacultcha!. Subbacultcha! is just a way to bring some of them together and perhaps rooting itself more firmly into the ground than the temporary experience of a concert.
(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)
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Illustrations taken from Subbacultcha!