Hiding in plain sight: regionalism and the underground

Margie Borschke was in Canada in the mid 1980s when she discovered the Underground.

Forest City Gallery, Dormant Checker Effect concert circa 1984. Photo: Steve MacDonald.


I never really went looking for 'the underground', but as a teenager in the mid 1980s I found one at the top of a steep set of stairs in an artist-run gallery in downtown London, Ontario. The place was known as the Forest City Gallery, and in addition to providing exhibition space for the area’s visual artists and filmmakers, the gallery opened itself up to the city’s diverse underground music scene, including teenagers like me. It was the promise and thrill of an all-ages show that first brought me here.

As I remember it, the space was split like a heart into two chambers, with artworks lining the walls, young people with vaguely dangerous haircuts loitering without worry, and crews of earnest young things plugging in amps, plucking strings, fussing with synthesisers and microphones, in preparation for the music to come. It was a post-punk teen dream.

Also on the scene was a coterie of people my parents' age - ‘artists’, my friend Joel told me. They ran the place. They were the people who made it all possible, and while at the time I was in it for the joys and sorrows of punk rock, I would later learn that there was a lot more at stake. This was a community dedicated to artistic autonomy, where fierce regionalism reigned and where the idea that bigger cities like New York or even Toronto should set some sort of creative agenda was scoffed at.

Among the grown-ups was the late Greg Curnoe, one of the gallery’s co-founders, an artist who spent a great deal of his career exploring regionalism as an ideal. As Canadian curator and art historian Terrence Heath wrote:

"In the late sixties and seventies, [Canadian] artists and writers from coast to coast embraced the belief that art can only be made out of the specifics of life, place and time. Curnoe was one of many, but he was a leader and one of the strongest voices....It was not that they rejected all art made in what are called ‘art centres’ per se, but that they rejected the right of any person or group to prescribe what art should be....They sought out and found, in their own lives and localities, the stuff of their art." [1]

To my teenaged self, however, Greg Curnoe was just someone’s dad (Owen, Galen and Zoe’s), a middle-aged man who had a moustache and seemed like any other dad except for the fact that he spoke encouraging words about pretty weird music and actually seemed to enjoy listening to it. More curious still was his occupation: he was an artist. A successful one, I was told. And apparently there were more of them around. It hadn’t really occurred to me that there were actual artists in London, Ontario. I was pretty sure you had to go to Toronto for that. Or maybe Montreal. But here he was, painting everyday things like his bicycle, ink stamping entertaining anti-American rants, making magazines and – the clincher for me – playing kazoo in a band that dared to declare a pot full of marbles an instrument, and called themselves The Nihilist Spasm Band. It was a revelation that there were adults – 40- and 50-somethings – who did such things, and they did it all by themselves in boring old London, Ontario, population 250,000, sitting pretty at the forks of the Thames.

****

‘There’s no such thing as an underground anymore,’ sniffed a young friend when I told her I was pondering the quandary of underground music in the age of broadband internet access. I didn’t bother to mention that our paths had first crossed at an underground dance party in Sydney; hers is a popular 21st century refrain. Recorded music, new and old, marginal and mainstream, has never been more accessible, and we have digital and network technologies to thank. The Internet’s global reach and the ease of digital duplication has made once-marginal sounds not only more visible, that is easier to find, but more audible as well. But the joys of connectivity and the benefits of bypassing corporate gatekeepers and distribution channels seem to be giving way to a kind of underground fatigue: this increasing visibility and representation of the margins is also perceived as a threat to their health and wellbeing.

Collectors of analogue formats (vinyl records and the like) sometimes lament the loss of the hunt – musty garages, second-hand record shops and mysterious correspondences with other collectors. While I appreciate a good ‘thrill of the chase’ story, I don’t accept the idea that the ease of digital discovery is the real problem faced by underground music cultures; nor that its moderate success in distributing music by reproducing it has somehow undervalued the experience of listening to music, making it, dancing to it, or even collecting it. Recordings – be they on vinyl, tape or CD – have always made possible the movement of sound from place to place, and recordings have been at the heart of most contemporary music cultures: so the ability to move music with ease can’t by itself undermine the underground as a political ideal. Besides, as music journalist Simon Reynolds wrote in The Guardian, ‘Underground really ought to mean more than just ‘being into something not many people know about’.[2] If the underground as an ideal is to be of any use, in the 21st century it needs to be scalable: to be able to expand and contract; to offer the promise of self-determination, autonomy and community to anyone willing to help build and nurture it. It needs to be able to withstand its own representation.

* * * *

As I sit at my desk in Sydney, browsing through photocopied flyers of bands with names like Dormant Checker Effect, Bits of Food and Sheep Look Up, and scanned photos of teenagers dancing in their thrift-shop best, I can’t help but wonder about the qualities that made those fleeting moments at The Forest City Gallery so filled with creative and social possibility (if only until the last bus left downtown at midnight), and whether they might offer any lessons for this quandary of the underground in the age of the Internet. As a teenager, I couldn’t get out of Ontario fast enough, but I am beginning to wonder whether the regionalism that Greg Curnoe espoused might be more relevant and more powerful than ever. I can’t help but wonder whether in the process of building online communities-of-interest based around micro-genres instead of nurturing diverse local scenes, we may be simply replacing old centres of influence with new ones.

Writing about why he and other artists established Region Gallery (an earlier artist-run space launched in 1962), Curnoe wrote

"London [Ontario]’s official art circles, such as they are, are completely smothered by out-of-date sophistication. No person or group seems to realise that this city is not a cultural centre – it is a backwater. I and several others involved with Region believe that this is a good thing. Due to the mass media most people’s eyes and ears are on radio, TV and newspapers, and never or rarely on where they are. Because of this we can work without being bothered. Our way of working can not be called a movement because each of us has many and severe reservations about the others’ works, and because we are not using regionalism as a gimmick but as a collective noun to cover what so many painters, writers, and photographers have used – their own environment..." [3]

Today, when seemingly everything is documented and accessible, when we are looking and listening everywhere all at once, and as advertisers and marketers rush to the margins to get in on our distributed gaze, it strikes me that the need for some kind of underground has never been more necessary. Networking artifacts from underground cultures past – recordings, videos, scanned flyers and photos – should serve as a reminder that art and inspiration can come from anywhere, but as I scour the many user-generated archives that populate the web, I keep returning to the fact that anywhere is still somewhere; whereas on the Internet, to appropriate the words of Gertrude Stein, ‘There is no there there.’ If we think that the Internet has made the underground disappear because it has made certain styles and genres of music more audible by first making them more visible, then what specific qualities were lost in the process of networking music? Could it be that the social and political value of an underground remains entangled with the physical power and contingency of place?

Despite the promise of network equality, digital centres of influence on the web cast long cultural shadows, but perhaps we can find in that darkness room where we can hide in plain sight. Regionalism as a creative strategy is not so much a case of turning off as it is of acknowledging that the more pervasive our networked media environment becomes, the more situated experience and the particularities of place matter. We need to resist the notion that we are now engaged in a global culture based solely on proliferating micro-genres, and consider the possibilities that are only available to us in the here and now. In Sydney, I can’t go out to listen to the surviving members of The Nihilist Spasm Band play (as they have done every Monday night in London for the past 44 years) but I can still hear their message loud and clear. If you want to keep an underground alive, Do It Yourself, in the place that you’re at.

References-

1- T. Heath, 2001, ‘The Trojan Bicycle: Greg Curnoe’s Life & Stuff’ in BorderCrossings, Vol 20#2, Winnepeg .

2- Reynolds, S, ‘Notes on the noughties: The changing sound of the underground’ The Guardian Dec 21, 2009, .

3- D. Reid and M. Teitelbaum (eds) 2001 Greg Curnoe: Life & Stuff, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, p148.

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