Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Subculture to Subcouture

The left-wing activist community seems to have abandoned the arts and culture as means of changing the world, but capitalism clearly hasn't.  A glance at the Mitte quickly confirms that there is no longer any art form, culture, subculture, ethnic group, sexuality, spirituality or philosophy that is safe from being turned into something one can wear, eat, drink or display.  By ignoring the impact of arts and culture, many Berlin activists are fighting with one hand tied behind their back.  The organizers behind last week's Cult of the Personality: Commercial Christmas Special at Food/ZMF are intent on cutting through the ties that bind them.

"If you put on a black ski mask, you're not going to speak to anybody further,” says artist Penny Rafferty, one of the organizers of the event, which featured bands and an anti-fashion show. “I always have one foot in political activism and one foot in art." Rafferty's contribution to the show was a parade of Sterni-swigging punks who rampaged along the catwalk, lunging at the punters and spitting beer.  Penny chose to showcase punk fashions at Commercial Christmas catwalk because well, she is a punk. She also reckons punk has lost the edge that made it a menace to the mainstream.  

"Basically, a capitalist structure reinterpreted it," says Penny.  "That's what it does: it picks up something that terrifies it, repackages it and then makes it a joke for the public.”  Punk these days is all too often just an outfit worn by a model in a misogynistic ad campaign where the clothes say 'f*ck you' but the pouting, submissive face of the model says 'f*ck me'. Punk was never intended to seduce but to startle, nor was it intended to tease, only to terrorize. Penny's part of the show is a reminder of that. 

Artist Benjamin Spalding, another organizer, holds similar views.  He got them via an unlikely source: his media studies class in university.  "A lot of [the course] was based on language, culture, semiotics and how we use these images," he says. "It was basically a breakdown of how to use culture to exploit insecurities, to have people buying more goods."   

"With the media, magazines, all these things," Spalding continues, "there is money put behind it... and money requires participation."  By 'participation', I think he means working at a well-paid job and earning enough money to buy artistic and cultural products with which one can express oneself.  This kind of participation takes energy away from DIY forms of participation like meeting up with people who share one's disaffected views and working with them to create an alternative culture of one's own.  People may be decorating the mask that society forces them to wear in ever more unique ways  but they still wear the mask; they still play their proscribed role as consumer.
The consumer's insatiable hunger for original, meaningful imagery seems to particularly disturb Spalding.  He cites the way that social media sites like Facebook inundate users with imagery from a broad spectrum of political, historical, personal and cultural sources without distinguishing between them, in terms of weight and importance.

"Everything's on the same level," he says.  "You write, 'I'm so sorry that your father died' on Facebook. Five minutes later you 'like' a photo of a cat wearing a stupid moustache.  It's the same action in both cases and it kind of puts everything on the same level... and kind of puts a 'ha-ha' novelty on it, as well."

His part of the show consists of models draped in black hooded cloaks, arms outstretched, big chains draped around their necks with oversized charms dangling from them.  They look strangely familiar.  "I chose the image of the Abu Ghraib captive to sort of point novelty back at itself," says Spalding.  The charms on the captives' necklaces are actually images of Gaza, pollution, carparks... all things that can be found in the sidebar of a Facebook page, like an afterthought to one's personal manifesto.   

Rafferty says of the show as a whole, “If you look any deeper into it, you see the irony and how much every single artist is taking the piss out of [consumerism]. It's like, is this what we've succumbed to?”  Swedish designer Bim is a good example of this playful irony.  Involved in animals rights and the Red Cross prior to arriving in Berlin, her faun-like models wear tactile, iridescent catsuits in rich shades of red, blue and green.  Dangling between their legs, under their arms are golden cords of pubic hair.  The first question that crossed my mind: what's up with the pubes? 

"In Germany, it's like you have to shave your whole body if  you're a girl.  Like, I could tell you a lot of stories about guys - they have said a lot of weird things to me because I have hair on my body... which is very normal, everyone does!"  I ask her to share one of her stories and she says, "For example, I read in this girls' magazine, like for 12-13 year old girls - they wrote it as a fact that 'Ninety-nine percent of all the guys like it when you shave your pussy', which is not even true.  It sounds like a joke!  I think we should be able to look as we are and not feel bad about it."
The part of the Mitte where the Commercial Christmas took place was once a hive of Berlin subcultures: squatted buildings, psychedelic art installations and Berlin's first techno clubs.  Now it's dominated by haute-couture boutiques, brand names and "constant consumption".

"I thought it would be funny to play with the 'big boss' and create our own fashion line," says Rafferty. 
"If you're not engaged in the popular  [arts] scene in Berlin, you're not going to be shown anywhere. Emerging artists that are picked up are not glorified for their solo shows, or for any show; its just how much that they're selling their work for. People say, 'Oh that guy sold a painting for 15,000' or whatever. It's never like, 'Oh that was a fucking amazing show, did you see that?'"

"I never did fucking fashion in my life anyway... and I think that's quite clear from my work," Rafferty laughs, "but it is couture because every single stud was hand-done.  That's couture."  With this much passion and dissent going into it, it might be better to call it subcouture.

Many thanks to Emelie Larsson for the gorgeous photos! Text & design by Miss E.


  1. Nice to see some politics mixed into the art scene here in Berlin. Not sure how I feel about these sort of events.

    Isn't an anti-fashion show a contradiction in terms? Anti-consumerism should be aligned with minimalism, not consumerism that isn't appealing to the masses.

  2. Well, it was more of an anti-fashion show. As the 'designers' above said during the event, their main reasons for doing it were to make a statement about the commodification and disposability of culture. It was actually more of a performance-art piece than a fashion show as no lines were being sold.

    If you're suggesting that being anti-consumerist should occlude performance art or using style to make a statement, then I have to say I disagree. As long as a person's activism isn't limited to just being a style or performance, I reckon it's all good!