Anxious Fun In An Age of Precarity
This feature was commissioned by and first published in Garageland Magazine : Issue 21. It’s part of the body of work I produced as writer-in-residence at Transition Gallery in east London between January – May 2017. With thanks to Cathy Lomax and Alex Michon.
Here’s a tip for anyone over 30 who wants to convince a dubious London teenager that, no, your generation didn’t invent the concept of fun. To start with, I suggest telling them about cycle speedway – an inimitably British sport hugely popular in east London in the 1950s.
Speedway combined a spirit of ad hoc creativity with a singular determination to create intense enjoyment from almost nothing. Mention how young post-war Londoners quickly saw the recreational potential in the city’s roughly cleared bombsites, perhaps, and their hasty construction of homemade racetracks marked with broken bricks. Talk about the owners who were happy to look the other way while communities transformed swathes of dusty land into makeshift sports arenas. Then get them to imagine the adrenaline rush of deliciously fast races on these roughly swept surfaces, all accomplished on stripped down bicycles. With no brakes. Now encourage them to picture the bruises. Lots of bruises.
Next, if you’ve not made them back away, nodding and smiling, you could move onto more explicitly hedonistic examples liberally sprinkled with a healthy dose of illegality. Give them an account of the Mods and their first wild ‘raves’ in early 1960s Soho. Show them some images of wide-eyed Keith Moon from The Who or Stevie Marriott of The Small Faces, two of the UK’s original, self-described ‘ravers.’ Then crash on to the acid house and techno scene that exploded in London in the mid-1980s. Tell them about Shoom at Southwark Fitness Centre and its cult-like devotees who became so dedicated to the club’s spiritual, ecstasy-heavy ambience that its promoters put a begging letter to them in their fanzine asking them to stop giving up their jobs. Or bring out one of the swanky coffee table books stuffed with evocative photographs taken at warehouse parties at the Bass Clef in Hoxton or one of the former industrial buildings around Old Street in the mid-90s, long since converted into far diluted versions of their previous selves.
This is obviously a far from an exhaustive list, just an extremely subjective, potted history of London fun. But while the ad-hoc spirits of speedway and rave have been thoroughly crystallised to the point of nostalgia in the British psyche, their more corporatised, 21st century descendants are currently experiencing more mixed fates. Cycle speedway can now boast a noble position in the sporting canon, having birthed an extremely wholesome contemporary relative. Those homemade tracks – such as the one that occupied the spot where Regent Studios now stands – were clear precursors to the cavernous velodrome in the Olympic Park that witnessed so many medal-winning performances at the 2012 games. London’s rave scene and its offspring, though, have had a far tougher time. In fact, given the disturbing swerve into the mouth of oblivion that the capital’s nightlife has been forced to take over the last couple of years, I’d highly recommend compiling a potted history of your own, teenager or not, if only to remind yourself what fundamentals are at stake.
The statistics make for sobering reading. Between 2008 and 2016, fifty per cent of London’s clubs and venues shut their doors. A combination of increasingly strict licensing laws with councils eager to enforce them; skyrocketing property prices, tempting landlords to cash in or redevelop; competition from music events at free-entry bars and (most recently) the threat of business rate rises of between 200 – 800% have left many of the city’s iconic nightspots with closure as their only option. While a 2016 high-profile campaign and broad support helped to save Fabric London from a bitter end, many other venues have slipped quietly away. The list makes shocking reading to, well, anyone who’s gone clubbing in London in the last ten years. Just to confine ourselves to the east: Passing Clouds in Dalston; Vibe Bar on Brick Lane; Shapes in Hackney Wick and Shoreditch’s Plastic People and Herbal have all gone from vibrant destinations to beat-fuelled memories in the last three years.
This may all feel profound and apocryphal, but it’s not as if London nightlife hasn’t fought, won and lost comparable battles in the past. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, for example, with its infamous clause giving police the power to shut down any event featuring music ‘…characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’, made Hackney’s dusty warehouse parties explicitly illegal. Less than a decade later, the tide seemed to be turning again. The introduction of 24-hour club licenses for nightclubs in 2003 and temporary event notices for raves and warehouse parties in 2005 were both key pieces of legislation that made it feel as if a more tolerant and enlightened attitude to legislating the capital’s nightlife was upon us.
This rich but rocky history has spurred some of the city’s most acute cultural minds to examine the last few decades of London nightlife more closely. In November 2016, Lauren Parker, senior commissioning curator at the Museum of London, decided to turn the institution’s spotlight on the issue in a week long series of events entitled The Night Museum.
‘It seemed like an incredibly urgent and timely moment to explore the past, present and future of London’s nightlife – in recognition of nightspots closing, and the need to support and celebrate London’s incredible creativity and diversity,’ she told me. ‘The Museum of London is moving to a new site in West Smithfield by 2022 and has been active in supporting the campaign to keep Fabric open. It was great to be able to host a series of events about the night at the same time as Amy Lamé was announced as the new Night Czar, and the night tube launched….and it was great to team up with the NTIA (the Night Time Industries Association) on a roundtable exploring the future of London’s nightlife.’
The series was broad in form, featuring film, music and what Parker refers to as ‘..nocturnal explorations of hidden and unusual spaces outside the Museum’. Its highlight was an evening of dance, discussion and (you’d imagine) urgent contemplation entitled, ominously, The Museum of Last Parties. The night was curated by Shunt’s co-founder, Andrew Rutland and Martin Green, who co-established another iconic 90s club, Smashing, providing a heady dose of joyful nostalgia in worrying times. That an institution as established as the Museum of London felt the urgency for such rapid historicisation of such relatively recent events feels both affirming and alarming.
The most ruthlessly capitalist commentators might judge this recent spate of closures as simply part and parcel of running something as inherently risky as a big city nightspot. Their main arguments usually revolve around the idea that ‘regeneration’ (often simply a term that serves to dress the big bad wolf of gentrification in smooth, corporate clothing) is a primarily positive force that leads to a reduction in crime (a sizeable number of the troubled venues, most notably Fabric, were accused of failure to prevent recreational drug deaths on their premises).
But what do these closures really signify? Should we just accept them as symptomatic of the unstoppable march of gentrification? Or is there an even more insidious force at work? I’d like to invite you to take a few steps into more philosophical territory and think about why fun, recreation, hedonism – take whatever form floats your boat – is important, vital even. What is it that we’re trying to achieve when we decide to spend from 11pm till sunrise dancing sweatily till our hair sticks to our faces and/or chatting about the profound and the ridiculous to bearded urban fishermen in freezing courtyards?
Back when we were bored
With that in mind, here’s an existential news flash for you: boredom is dead. Gone. While the vast majority of the UK population might be subjected to more of the boring than ever (more of this in a moment), they can apparently no longer describe themselves as bored.
It’s a sad end for a concept with an impressively rich history in western thought. From Marx and Nietzsche to Bertrand Russell and Patricia Meyer Spacks, practitioners and theorists throughout the last few centuries have thoroughly dissected what it is to be bored, and have reached a whole spectrum of conclusions. They’ve moaned about boredom’s soul-sapping properties (Kierkegaard; Schopenhauer), pontificated on its incomparable importance as a psychological space for creative production (Walter Benjamin; Aldous Huxley) and embraced its artistic possibilities (Beckett; Magritte).
Some contemporary political thinkers have a distinctly sinister take on the idea, identifying boredom as a failed control strategy imposed by the omnipresent forces of capitalism on the working population. In an essay which provoked a wave of discussion when it was published on Plan C’s website in 2014, a group called The Institute of Precarious Consciousness described the necessity for what they call a ‘dominant reactive affect’ in order for each phase of capitalism to maintain itself. This ‘affect’, they claim, has changed form as capitalism has evolved, only maintaining its pervasive power as long as it remains an unacknowledged public secret. In modern times (that is, until just after the World War II) it was manifested as misery, specifically the misery of the working classes who were barely able to scrape a basic existence. As revolutionary movements used tactics such as strikes and political organisation to expose and fight misery, successfully reframing it as a societal infection rather than simply an individual psychological condition, it shrivelled and lost much of its power.
As standards of living rose dramatically and jobs for life, access to healthcare and education and mass consumerism prevailed, misery’s position as the dominant affect was replaced, they claim, by boredom:
‘In the mid 20th century, the dominant public narrative was that the standard of living – which widened access to consumption, healthcare and education – was rising. Everyone in the rich countries was happy, and the poor countries were on their way to development. The public secret was that everyone was bored. This was an effect of the Fordist system which was prevalent until the 1980s – a system based on full-time jobs for life, guaranteed welfare, mass consumerism, mass culture, and the co-optation of the labour movement which had been built to fight misery. Job security and welfare provision reduced anxiety and misery, but jobs were boring, made up of simple, repetitive tasks.’
The second wave of social and artistic movements that started in the 1960s, most prominently feminism, situationism and punk, followed by rave culture and its corporatised relatives, enthusiastically took aim at boredom as the new ‘public’ enemy number one. And it’s a battle that has conclusively been won. As a fully fledged member of western society in 2017, you have to really go out of your way to be bored. Thanks to a heady combination of smartphones, social media profiles that require obsessive stoking and TV, film and news standardly streamed on demand, we now live in a state of constant stimulation. ‘Now,’ said the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher, in his response to the Institute’s essay, ‘…rather than imposing a pacifying spectacle on us, capitalist corporations go out of their way to invite us to interact, to generate our own content, to join the debate. There is now neither an excuse nor an opportunity to be bored.’
By this logic, boredom has gone from being our default state of mind to being something we have to seek out – by deactivating a Facebook account or switching off a router perhaps, or even taking a train to a remote location and paying a canny farmer 80 quid a night to stay in a hastily erected bell tent in a field with no data coverage. As the tendrils of cyberspace spread further into previously unconnected spaces, from the Cloud on a central London park bench to wifi in tube stations, this hopelessly boredom-busting stimulation is becoming increasingly difficult to escape. You can watch cat videos on your commute, scroll mindlessly through listicles while waiting for your takeaway or kill hours playing candy crush at the kitchen table. As Fisher observed: ‘We endlessly move among the boring, but our nervous systems are so overstimulated that we never have the luxury of feeling bored. No one is bored, everything is boring.’
Obviously, though, capitalism is hardly what you might call dead in the ground, meaning another ‘dominant affect’ must have taken boredom’s crown. According to the Institute, it’s been replaced by a force that’s proving to be just as insidious: anxiety. While punks, the situationists, the rave movement and the clubs that emerged from it, even the speedway riders, were all finding ways to fill the hole left by boredom, are we now instead desperately looking for a way to stop feeling dominated by an anxious feeling? One we’re all experiencing, but has yet to be exposed as the latest malignant instrument of capitalism?
If we are all suffering from a secret anxiety that’s infected every aspect of daily existence, from the office, building site or studio to the venue or nightclub that’s soon to become another faceless office or block of expensive flats, it’s hardly difficult to identify its cause. Cultural theorists have been talking about the rise and rise of the precariat since neoliberalism started to dominate the political landscape over thirty years ago. ‘…The neoliberals,’ observed Fisher, ‘…offered excitement and unpredictability, but the downside of these newly fluid conditions is perpetual anxiety. Anxiety is the emotional state that correlates with the (economic, social, existential) precariousness which neoliberal governance has normalised.’
Once you start to notice it, this hum of unease really is everywhere. You might feel it as one of the growing number of unwilling freelancers in the jolly-sounding gig economy; if you’re employed on a zero hours contract in anything from care work to academia, or rushing to your third social engagement of the evening while worrying about the six more you ticked you were ‘going’ to on Facebook in a fit of anxiety-fuelled FOMO.
Artist filmmaker Steven Eastwood was one of the collective of creative brains behind OMSK. Held at many east London locations, with 333 in Shoreditch as its most regular, the now-legendary event series described itself as ‘…a testing ground, a smorgasbord, an awkward party of art’. OMSK was started by a group of artists and filmmakers in mid-90s east London, and took advantage of the creative possibilities of a city where neoliberal forces and the anxiety they breed were only just starting to make their presence felt. Its incarnations were intentionally unwieldy, unpredictable and sizzling with their own potentiality – including brutally innovative artist films, slippery and confrontational poetry and violent performances (an especially memorable one by Woodrow Kernohan involved pulling thorny roses from his bleeding anus before being knocked out by a burly audience member.)
‘The thing is, I feel that – maybe I’m showing my age – but I feel that people really committed physically to going to things and staying at things a lot more then,’ Eastwood tells me. ‘People would come to OMSK which started at nine and finished at four am and it wasn’t dancing and it wasn’t pills, but people would come in their hundreds. I don’t think that would happen now. a/ It’s much more of a working town than it used to be, people have to work much harder to live so they’re not throwing their time around. b/ There’s this ‘Oh I’m gonna say I’m going on Facebook’, and then just not bother.”
Boring and unstoppable?
The English word ‘leisure’ comes from the Anglo French leisir, meaning ‘to be permitted’. This original meaning implies that we’re free to do something, to be active rather than passive – an etymology that anyone wanting to escape the Institute of Precarious Consciousness’s diagnosis would do well to consider. While neoliberalism, with its unforgiving, blinkered appetite for profit over culture, has undeniably been the main force pushing so many London nightspots to close, it also underpins many of our decisions as to what we do instead.
Recent reports have proclaimed the demise of good old fashioned British hedonism that propelled Londoners to form punk bands, go to raves (and the clubs they inspired) and attend and participate in OMSK’s conceptual smackdowns. While 2016s clubs fade into memory, restaurants and hotels – those bastions of consumerism for the over 30s – are more popular and profitable than ever. Consumption of alcohol and recreational drugs, the traditional self-prescribed remedies for the British, young and bored, are at a 15 year low – a behaviour widely attributed to the precarious economic circumstances experienced by so many young people rather than a desire for sobriety, especially since the 2008 financial crash.