Thursday, January 21, 2016
The 'underground' arts scene is now just a click away from the easily offended
A while ago, I received an email at the Live Art Development Agency (Lada) from a woman complaining about a performance art event she had attended in east London. I was one of a number of recipients that included Nicholas Serota and Boris Johnson. She’d witnessed suspended men doing things to themselves that she didn’t like one bit, and her email included an incomprehensible reference to Fifty Shades of Grey .
Not long after that, someone else phoned Lada’s office to complain about being traumatised by a performance in Leeds, and wanted to know why the artists were allowed to get away with such things. More recently, another woman wrote to us, and seemingly any other organisation she could Google in the Hackney Wick area, to protest about the things she’d been subjected to in the venue Performance Space. These are the tip of the iceberg of recent outrage and protest about performance in the UK, but what I find alarming about these incidents is not that these people were shocked and angered by what they’d seen, but that they were there in the first place.
The event with the suspensions was called Modern Panic. It took place in a backstreet cellar and featured an artist called Mad Alan. The Leeds performance was by an obscure group of artists in a derelict space on the outskirts of the city. The Performance Space evening of queer body art was in a hard-to-find industrial unit in remote Hackney Wick. All of these programmes were under the radar, artist-run and aimed at specific “communities of interest”. None of them could afford, or indeed would want, to run high-profile marketing campaigns to attract broader, generic audiences. They use the cheap and easy connectivity of new technologies to reach those who share their cultural visions and values.
The internet has been wonderful for liberating alternative art forms and under-represented artists and their audiences from the gatekeepers of culture. But the problem with the internet is that the underground arts scene – that safe space where risk, dissent and difference are possible – is now only a click away. I’m curious about why these people clicked on those events and whether they asked themselves if what they had found really was for them. And if they did, what on earth were they thinking by attending if it wasn’t?
The democratisation of culture is an exciting and challenging development for the more radical edges of contemporary art. With everything now only a click away, it can be hard to make informed decisions about what’s right for you. It’s hard, but it’s not impossible, and, as I’ve suggested, the performances these people objected to made no bones about being challenging in every way. Was it curiosity that drew them? A sense of adventure and an opportunity to experience the kinds of radical art they’d only ever heard about? Perhaps they were inspired and empowered by the Arts Council of England’s mantra of great art and culture for everyone?
The promise of great art for everyone doesn’t mean that everyone has to see everything. It means that if you do want to see something funded by the public purse, you are entitled to do so. But increasingly it seems that we all have different understandings of what entitlement means. There are those who expect that whatever alternative cultures they encounter through social media must comply with their own aesthetic or moral framework. They feel entitled, not just to enter spaces and places where they do not necessarily belong, but also to demand censure and closure if they don’t like what they find there. We’ve all made mistakes and gone to see things we didn’t like, but I can’t remember ever writing to the London International Mime Festival to demand “no more mime”.
The problem for the underground is that while being only a click away can bring new audiences, it depends very much on who is doing the clicking. In some ways this illustrates a bigger problem of what happens to the right ideas in the wrong hands – when radical and revolutionary ideas are co-opted by a mainstream that isn’t ready for them. They are prey to all kinds of misappropriations and misunderstandings.
There has always been slippage between the underground and the mainstream: it’s one of the ways that new ideas and movements seep into mass culture. But in the old days of traditional print and media, emergent and experimental subcultures were far more hidden from view – out of harm’s way in the underground and able to grow and thrive on their own terms. In the information revolution of the digital age, safe spaces for dangerous ideas are accessible to all, including those who are easily offended by what they find there.