For the first four months of the year we'll be sharing the opening talks from each of the four conversations that took place at 2021's Voluminous Arts Halloquium; A Trans and Queer led conference on nightlife. Each member of the curation committee, composed of Aveda Adara, Axmed Maxamed, Gavilán Rayna Russom and Ting Ding, introduced one of the conversations with a brief but in depth talk about the theme that formed its topic. For the second installment of this series, interdisciplinary artist and Halloquium founder Gavilán Rayna Russom shares her introduction to the second discussion of the event; an exploration of the line, often blurred in nightlife spaces, between unity and uniformity and the way in which that blurring has enabled fascist impulses to penetrate these spaces.
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FACISM takes its name from the Fasces; a bundle of sticks around an ax that originates in ancient Etruscan culture and was adopted by the Roman empire as a symbol of magisterial authority. Among other meanings, the Fasces symbolized the state’s power to use what we today call capital punishment; in other words, to kill those who transgressed its laws. The Fasces was used widely by Mussolini’s National Fascist and Republican Fascist Parties and appeared on the U.S. dime until 1945, when the symbol’s association with Mussolini, who the U.S. opposed in World War II, made its use on U.S. currency problematic. Despite this, the Fasces is a prominent, although often overlooked feature of many U.S. federal buildings including the two large gold Fasces symbols that flank the speaker’s podium in the U.S. House of Representatives. Its presence indicates a particular idea about power and how to regiment society by intimidation and top-down control.
To me, this type of top-down state power, and the state sanctioned violence that accompanies it are the antithesis of creativity, free expression and radicalism and yet historically many avant-garde artists and thinkers, including poet Ezra Pound, futurist artist Luigi Russolo and anthropologist Mircea Eliade have been drawn to, and publicly championed, the values of fascism. Over the last 10 years, articles by Josh Hall, Jean-Hughes Kabuki and a journalist writing under the handle Valdinoci for NYC Antifa have slowly begun to shed light on the fascist links and rhetoric of musicians such as William Bennett (aka Cut Hands), Dominick Fernow (aka Vatican Shadow/Prurient) and Douglas P (from the band Death in June). All of these artists have built successful and celebrated careers and received copious press attention and bookings despite their problematic politics and connections. When Hall’s and Kabuki’s articles circulated, they met with ridicule from fans, and were largely ignored by music platforms like Resident Advisor, who have consistently supported the artists these articles address.
This short text, originally written as an introduction to a talk at the 2021 Voluminous Arts Halloquium, is geared towards shedding light on why and how that happened as well as how some hidden ways that fascism has embedded itself in club culture enabled it. To introduce the subject at a deeper level I’d like to tell the story of an afternoon I spent in Berlin (where I lived from 2004-2009) and then share a couple other perspectives.
On a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 2015, I had the opportunity to sit with Mark Eins, who began making punk electronic music under the name Din-A-Testbild in the late 1970’s, first in collaboration with fellow Berliner and Mania D/Malaria member Gudrun Gut and then as a solo artist. I had liked Eins’s music for some time and was excited to meet him in person. I wouldn’t say it was exactly disappointing, but it was different than I expected. Not the punk rocker I thought he would still look like, Eins more resembled many other German men of his age that I would see on the S-Bahn train or hanging out in front of the Kaiser’s supermarket at Kottbusser Tor. He bought 2 large beers which he drank as we sat in the park where he basically ranted for a couple hours. But it was really interesting and illuminating, especially the way he talked about electronic music. Eins was born in 1956; part of a generation of Germans for whom the horrors of the Third Reich were incredibly close, whose parents had been children when the Nazis took power. Eins and his contemporaries defined their creative identities in opposition to Nazism and Fascism and this was evident in everything he shared with me. The statement he made that is most pertinent here was one he made about electronic music geared towards clubs and DJs and how he thought of his electronic, often beat driven work as something very different. He said, as I can best recall it, “Throw your hands in the air? We already had that here in 1933 (referring to the Nuremburg rally celebrating the Nazi’s seizure of the Weimar Republic). I never wanted to make music that would make people throw their hands in the air.”
Later that night I went to Berghain; a club I was at the opening of and have spent many many hours at since. When I first got to know the club, the large Techno-based main floor was often sparsely populated. There were people fucking, talking, dancing in small groups or by themselves, orienting themselves towards the massive speaker system or one another… rarely facing the DJ booth. Over time I watched that change. As the club became more publicized the dance floor was fuller, increasingly with a more homogenous crowd all facing the DJ booth. On the Sunday night (really Monday morning) after spending time with Eins, I stood on the balcony watching the dance floor from above. As Ben Klock, a celebrated resident appeared in the DJ booth I watched the dance floor fill up with people pushing towards the front of the room where the booth is. They all faced front and began to move in unison, throwing their hands in the air. While this type of loss of individual identity is often celebrated in dance music circles, as something spiritual or even liberating; the through line between what Eins had said and what I was witnessing could not have been more obvious.
The connections between fascism and music’s composition and consumption are something I was already very familiar with by the time they so clearly came into focus on that Sunday. They were more or less the central theme of the years during which I studied with Benjamin Boretz, who often quoted feminist music theorist Susan McClary. The perspectives of these theorists helped me to see the ways that musical compositions model social structures; and the ways in which much popular music - with its emphasis on a single melodic vocal line and regimented forms of mixing - models fascist social models. In addition, my studies with Boretz illuminated ways in which the performance and consumption of some popular music - a single lighted artist on a raised stage delivering a message to a crowd of faceless fans; all locked into a single rhythm and voice – also model Fascist structures. While electronic music, DJing and club culture initially existed outside of this system and created sounds and spaces that modeled polyvocal forms of community exchange; as they became commercialized both the music and the social spaces in which it was experienced increasingly began to model similar fascist social frameworks to pop music.
In my class, “Queering European Witchcraft Traditions” I talk about the ways in which local folk celebrations based on kinship structures throughout what we today call Europe were co-opted for the colonial agenda of the Roman Empire. As a result, these folk celebrations of kinship with one’s community - including the plants, animals and ancestors that populated it - became universalized into regimented festivals that affirmed the centralized power of Rome and as a result their ritual dynamics changed. Although individuals and communities were able to sometimes stealthily maintain their folk rituals within these regimented festivals, over time the structure of the festival became one which reproduced and reinforced the values of a single, centralized power structure over those of small, local communities. This model was then reproduced throughout the world during the colonial process and large music festivals, including those where electronic, club-based music is the sound, are the contemporary descendants of this form of regimented, centralized power affirming celebration.
Moving from the historical to the contemporary, it’s important to note that the most well-known Fascist political entities, Hitler’s National Socialist Party and Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, came to power during periods of extreme economic hardship brought on by capitalism’s inherent inability to provide sustainable infrastructure and its propensity to crisis. We are currently in such a period; fueled by the Covid-19 global pandemic, the erosion of regulations preventing unlimited corporate growth and the failure of the tech sector to successfully redeem the world’s economies from the hard bottom the industrial revolution and its attendant manufacturing-based economies hit in the early 1970’s. I’ve personally watched a shift towards fascist rhetoric and organization that has been happening since at least September 11th, 2001 accelerate in ways that were unimaginable to many people 10 years ago.
The gig economy and nightlife work in particular have traditionally been havens for those who do not wish to engage in and/or are deliberately excluded from conventional ways of earning money. At the same time this type of work is often prone to instability, fear of economic insecurity and competition. While from the late 1960’s through the early 1990’s community networks were prevalent, making the financial component of nightlife work less critical; as commercial interests began to increasingly mine out those scenes for a kind of cultural resource extraction - more often than not eroding community networks in the process - the economic anxiety of being a nightlife worker has increased. While some nightlife workers, including many of the people who participated in the 2021 Halloquium, have turned to grassroots organizing and movement building - often with an explicit desire to reinvigorate electronic dance music’s roots in Black and Brown queer communities - others have shifted towards pursuits that either covertly or in the case of artists like Dominick Fernow, overtly support right-wing and fascist political agendas. The club closures and festival cancellations of 2020 and early 2021 have exacerbated this problem, as has the push to return to large in-person gatherings before the pandemic has been fully reckoned with. Most club billings, rave line-ups and festivals now include many more artists per event, each of whom is being paid less than they would have been 2 years ago. The pressure to create and perform is increasing exponentially while the ability to support oneself by doing so is rapidly declining. All of this is also happening in the midst of massive changes to the climate that make the kind of touring and reliable scheduling of events that have traditionally supported the nightlife gig economy more and more problematic due to extreme weather conditions. Knowing what we know about all of the above factors, this is a time in which the building of community networks to support each other is critical, not just for our own ability to sustain ourselves and each other, but also as protection from those for whom violent forms of xenophobia, racism and regimented homogeneity still hold allure as realistic solutions to their deep insecurities within the multiple crises we are all currently facing.