This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. It is the beginning of Ende Gelende. Three thousand activists from across Europe have converged on Lausitz coal mine, East Germany, for a four day encampment of climate mass action. They are armed with bags and tents stuffed with tightly wrapped plans and various shapes of misbehavior. The goal to close down a coal mine and a power plant.
I know, they don’t make life easy.
Numbers have doubled since the last Klima Lamp in August 2015 in West Germany. That’s the problem with social movements. They involve lots of young people expressing themselves in an effort to change the world. They all camp out, dance, join Samba bands and occupy places belonging to The Dark Side. Then they go home they tell their friends. Before you know it, everyone wants more excitement, meaning and purpose than you could stuff inside a shopping centre.
This has to stop. Left unchecked, this exponential rise in ‘non-violent confrontational disobedience’ could seriously undermine the bedrock of environmentalism: tutting at the television, carrying out the recycling, and sighing with a listless resignation.
If these lines are passed, the machine of industrial capitalism is in grave danger.
On the Friday we set off to block the railway at a filling station. We succeed.
The loading bays are fed by giant conveyor belts of death. They are like supermarket check outs for a species addicted to the intestines of its own planet. But the growl of Mordor has been silenced. Reverberating with songs and chants, the stations are all at once, climbing frames for a movement, museums of a dying world, and galleries of a new kind of political creativity. Each banner, sticker, chalked slogans and fist shaking activists draped across it, is an exhibit of disobedience. This is high art. The product of hundreds of hands, months of planning, and decades of accumulated experience. As we arrive at the top, a rainbow appears, and at its end – a coal mine.
Later I lie on the train tracks below, covered in coal dust, assimilating the masterpiece singing down at me. Below me death – deep permeating death. Above me life – praying, partying and fighting for a future.
If this is anything it is a war of images: images that celebrate, images that redefine, images that question, warn, provoke and inspire. Inside the mine, hundreds more activists scale diggers the size of 12 story buildings. A new story has been added. The infamous, planet chewing megaliths stand purposeless and motionless, like giant question marks. Who has the power? What does democracy look like? What do we want? When do we want it?
This was not the work of crusties, hippies and bearded poets (though there were a few). Within the camp were professionals, climate scientists and men and women in their sixties, oh, and an ensemble of classical musicians. Any man who carries a cello four hours by foot, to perform to people chained to a train track, is redefining what democracy sounds like. The sight of a classical quintet playing on the fringes of an apocalyptic tar pit was reminiscent of the film Titanic. The sinking ship – hydrocarbon capitalism. Climate change campaigner Leonardo di Caprio could have conceivably been there. Kate Winslet was nowhere to be seen. Celine Dion can fuck right off.
It is now Sunday and I am part of a body of activists moving towards the power station with the intention of closing it down. Everyone is dressed in white overalls to protect their anonymity, and masks and goggles to protect themselves from pepper spray. The energy is high voltage. Within minutes of arriving at the fences, they are pulled down. Hundreds of us were now inside the compound of the power station. Perhaps the best thing we could have done would have been to occupy one place, sit down and hold an assembly on climate change. The image would have been gold dust. Any ensuing police violence would have been an own-goal of Gandhian proportions. But nobody had planned to get this far. Within minutes, a small brigade of baton swinging riot police caused havoc and confusion. There was division among the activists. Some were pulling open doors and running into the station, then coming out, deciding they were biting off more than they could chew. Most were dead against this, as it went against the action consensus of the camp [CONSENSUS] The next twenty minutes were a running battle with the police, often attacking demonstrators who were leaving the power station, from behind.
On the final day, stories trickle back the camp of counter demonstrations and even attacks from local right wing groups. This is an area of Germany where fascism is on the rise. One demo consisted of hundreds, shouting threats of violence. These threats were carried out on some demonstrators who were locked on to a bridge and could not defend themselves. State violence and fascism in divided communities, crumbling
into mines. This is a scenario I became used to when I worked as a human rights observer in Colombia. It is chilling to see it in my own continent.
My last hours in the camp saw hundreds of occupiers arriving back by foot or by bus to cheering crowds. There was a sound system, lots of dancing, a klezma band and a well- deserved party. Many activists had gone days on a few hours sleep a night, battling bitterly cold night-time temperatures while sleeping on soot covered rail tracks and giant metal machines.
Whatever is reported in the media, this was a big step for the movement. As the images of falling fences and occupied coal plants spread around the world, the landscape of political intercourse has again been repainted. This is a movement propelled not by money, media exposure or even peer reviewed science. It is glued together by visions, friendships, and beautifully executed plans. In the words of John Jordan of the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, ‘Our work is organisation, not representation. It’s transforming the world, and that is the role of art.’
Sorry. On meeting an artist who works with a gallery that have exhibited Banksy’s work, I learned that he is in fact a plural noun – different
artists submitting under the same name. I was sceptical, but the truth was staring at me from inside the profession.
It is a week before the COP 21 climate talks in Paris. I am told by everyone that protest there has been stamped out, incriminated and put under house arrest; that protest had been delegitimized, made impossible and unsafe. After the ISIS shootings, demonstrations are outlawed, but
Christmas markets and football games continue as usual. Activists everywhere are furious at the French Government’s cynical attempt to sanitise the streets of those not rich enough to be at the table. From Berlin, I email one of the key organisers in Paris and tell him that a coachload of activists from Berlin are thinking to pull out. ‘History is not made by people who ask permission’ was his reply.
I arrive to find I am not alone. Tens of thousands of people have converged on the city. They come out of hope, out of belief, out of fear, out of necessity, and into termite social centres and writing warehouses, filled with banners, puppets, secret meetings and mischievous ideas. Nobody really knows what is going to happen. The week is about to take me into a load of activist convergence centres, out on to the streets, and into a museum, a cell, and several dance floors.
Protest in a Police State
The State of Emergency has forced activism to up its game. How can you protest when human rights have been suspended. The French police are tricky to say the least.. My host in Paris told how after the election of President Sarkozi in 2007, plain clothed officers were seem leaving police vans, going into the centre of a demo and then attacking people with batons. We know that agent provocateurs are part of the landscape of modern protest. How can we defy the suppression of protest, avoid getting battered, and not give the police and the sensationalist newscasters the riot they want?
We have to get creative. The big day of action. December 12 arrives. Tensions are high. Arriving protesters are getting searched by undercover
police and armadillo riot cops. Somebody is walking around informing people that there are police dressed as black bloc armed with tear gas and pepper spray.
One group has come armed with platters of fruit and sandwiches. They walk between lines of police and protesters serving smiles and delectations. Another group is dressed as angels with impressive wing spans. There is also a Clown Army brigade and an improvised theatre troupe. Swinging batons at these protesters would be a PR nightmare for the police.
Earlier that week I met a Colombian who told me that student protest in her country had been transformed in the eyes of the public, from “rioting terrorists” to “freedom fighters” by the ‘Besaton’ block (translated as “mass kiss”). The tactic is simple. When it looked like the police were about to start swinging, someone would shout “besaton!” and a line of people would start snogging at the front line of demonstrators. The baton wielding police were left impudent with bafflement. The idea was discussed but there was no French kissing from the European protesters. If you ask me, that needs to change.
“But what about barricades!” I hear you shout, shaking your first in the air. Paris is, after all, the birthplace of barricades. 1588 is celebrated as the Year of the Barricade. Since then, they have been the fine line between success and failure for revolutions against tyranny and oppression the world over. Quite simply, barricades are part of the foundation of modern democracy. This year, the proud tradition was kept alive in the form of
giant inflatable cobblestones. The shape is significant. Cobblestone, dug out of the streets to create missiles against police and military, have protected European citizens from armed police and military for centuries. London had them replaced for this reason. Our cobblestones can be stacked on top of each other to make a great line of defence against police advance. They are also highly mobile, before and after inflation. As an added bonus, police cannot confiscate ‘social sculpture’ or ‘art’. For this reason the undercover police who searched us before the march, and found our kit, had to let us go.
The French president was cynical enough to claim that the protest was a celebration of the treaty signed inside the summit. But we have all long since stopped listening. Has radical change ever come about by political leaders waving a piece of paper in the air? The minute we start celebrating that is the minute we have lost. Our business is that of knitting together a movement. Because the only response to false corporate and technological solutions are social ones. Lidy Nacpil of The Global Campaign for Climate Justice, comes from the Phillipines. She rejects the ‘narrative that is being perpetrated by the rich governments and the corporations who are not interested in transforming the system profoundly’. The movement, she argues, is ‘not yet strong enough to dismantle the power of the corporations, so one of the urgent things that we need to do is to build our power so we can change the system.’
Inside the summit, indigenous representatives struggle to get their rights further than a pre-amble of the agreement. Their work is vital but only
partial. Outside the unacknowledged march hand in hand with their comprehnderos, refusing to be footnoted by their unelected legislators. They are the Do-ists and Now-ists, stepping forward in embodied dialogues of action.
When civil society is not invited to the table, it breaks in and jumps on top of it. The COP 21 Climate Solutions is on at a high class exhibition centre. It is recognised by NGOs and civil society groups everywhere as a giant corporate exercise in greenwash and technofix- a panoply of false solutions to the climate crisis – bought to you by the people who created it. Among the stall holders (who have paid hundreds of thousands to be there) are COP21 sponsors who actively lobby against renewables while promoting fossil fuels and water privatisation. Thankfully, the immense apparatus of security and secret police were unable to hold back the invading tide of activists who climbed all over it with guerrilla speeches, chants, stickers, posters and banners.
Lenin once said that ‘revolution is a carnival of the oppressed’. This is the spirit of carnival, revelry and revolt that has pulsed through every progressive movement in history. It is alive and well in Paris. The streets spill on to dance floors and dance floors spill onto the streets. There are flag waving, banner draped pits, moshing to marching brash bands. There are raucous, vaudeville cabarets, hosted by cross dressing eccentrics. Performers and audiences fling themselves in. Goblins shake their fists from the rafters. These is not a side shows, they are central to the social mechanics of change.
The day after the big march, in a squat in St Denis, Paris, the second ever Climate Games Award Ceremony is taking place. Climate Games is a competition to inspire and celebrate creative disobedience. It is an idea, not an organisation, a cleverly un-arrestable platform for the collective
imagination of anonymous insurrectionary acts. Hundreds of competitors have taken part the world over. One nominee for the ‘Piss Yourself Award’ has smuggled hundreds of toilet rolls into the COP 21 Conference Centre with the International Panel on Climate Change Report written
on them. The winners of the ‘New Forms of Innovative Insurrection Award’ have engulfed Volks Wagen garages with smoke bombs and banners that read ‘You pollute us, we pollute you’. One of my favourites is a 30 foot banner drop at the Arc du Triomphe; done by the Family Action Network – a group of activists aged 1- 13.
I am proud to find that an action I took part in has been nominated. On Weds 9 December, we went to the Louvre to help expose the oil money dripping down Frances most cherished cultural institution. We smuggled fake oil in and emptied it onto the atrium of the museum. With our bare feet, we stamped an artwork of sticky defiance on the floor and threw songs about Total oil company into the air while fist pumping black umbrellas. We were joined by over a hundred other activists, doing a similar action outside. That day, #FossilFreeCulture, a global movement to end oil sponsorship of the arts sprang into the media. Curiously they felt the need to arrest us and hold us for 4 hours. When they learned that the embarrassing patch of molasses and treacle did not constitute criminal damage, we were released without charge.
We are beaten to first place, however, by a worthy opponent. Brandalism, a collection of culture jamming, subvertising urban guerrilla artists hijacked over 600 outdoor advertising sites with radical critiques of corporate and political inaction and greenwash. They did it all in broad daylight, dressed in fake J C Décor uniforms. Class.
Reasons to be Cheerful
This is of course part of a long history of civil disobedience. If people didn’t misbehave, women would still be banned from wearing trousers and we would still be getting arrested for not attending church on Sunday. Its time to stop justifying direct action and start celebrating it. All over the world people are reinventing insurrection to keep the oil in the ground. In the words of Arundhati Roy ‘Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing’. The new world breathed heavily this week in Paris.
When I arrived there I didnt find protest sitting down, but making plans, friends and history. I found it shaking hands, shaking fists and walking to the streets laughing and singing. The tens of thousands who turned up to Paris to defy the ban on protest are poets of deeds, rewriting history with their hands, their feet and their fists. They walk with their heads held high, red flags flying from their mouths, a crimson tide of tongues.
The battle they fight is of words ideas and feelings. That is all and that is all. When we change the discussion, even for one day, we win a battle. When we redefine what action means, even in one young heart, we win a battle. Through these small victories a movement grows. Outbreaks of talking become outbreaks of doing. Outbreaks blossom into epidemics.
I believe that the greatest threat we face is not a political and business elite, grappling forever vainly to resuscitate a dying system, but apathy and despair; the belief that there is no alternative, the belief that we are powerless. The antidote to this is hope, or what my Occupy friend, Mark
Weaver coined ‘Revolutionary Optimism’. Let us wipe away the dust of post-modernist scepticism and look our brave futures in the eye. Lets be prepared to throw our ideals high.
Let us also be prepared to use our bodies and not just our ballot papers and our Facebook accounts. Mass civil disobedience has to be just that. It cannot be left to a minority. Tomorrow’s world will be decided by our actions. We are living through mass extinction and biospheric collapse. Politics as we know it must end. The era of ‘post politics’ must begin. It is our responsibility to make it happen, all of us, to act with meaning and poetry. If not here, where? If not now, when?
The last word goes to Rowan, a Ploughshares veteran, who I met on the bus back to England. “When I take action it feels like poetry, like ripples spreading outwards, almost like a prayer going out into the world. If we really are going down, let’s go down being the best that we can be.”
The Truth Behind the Paris Climate DealThe western media has reported the Paris climate deal as a great success. So why did thousands take to the streets yesterday to denounce it?For an in-depth exposé of the deal: http://nin.tl/1OZaxEt
Posted by New Internationalist Magazine on Sunday, December 13, 2015
Activists arrested in the Louvre secretly sent this message fr…Ten performers were arrested today at the Louvre for challenging its sponsorship by oil companies Total and Eni. But they managed to smuggle a phone into their cell to get this message out.Performance by End oil-sponsorship of the arts, BP or not BP?, G.U.L.F. Liberate Tate, Not An Alternative Occupy Museums, Platform London, Science Unstained, Shell Out Sounds, No Tar Sands, Stopp oljesponsing av norsk kulturliv, The Natural History Museum alongside other artists and activists from around the world. Film supported by 350.org and Real Media.
Posted by New Internationalist Magazine on Wednesday, December 9, 2015
Whats Going Down?
I am a busker. I earn a living by playing music on the streets and I am proud to belong to an ancient and vital urban tradition. Musical exchange- live, free and in the heart of our cities- is a force for good. I have been told this with words, thank you notes, bags of sweets, energy balls, bananas, doughnuts, childrens toys, ear rings, mince pies, bottles of beer, bags of weed and Christian literature. I have witnessed countless examples of emotional outburst and exchange between complete strangers. I’ve had group hugs, dance offs, celebrity dogs and toddlers. I’ve seen crowds gather in their hundreds around communities of artists bound together with great solidarity.
But street performance is under threat. The forces that threaten it endanger not just the cultural health of cities, but their social, emotional and even political health. This is a story of policing, subversion and organised resistance. It will reflect on relevant theory as it charts my journey through the European cities in an attempt to understand their space, their culture and who controls what.
One August afternoon in Maastricht, something happened to me that made me realise I was involved in something that went far beyond just music. It is 5pm. The upwardly mobile, slightly elderly population of this small Dutch city are rushing to finish their shopping. Husbands tut at their watches on the steps of department stores. Children whinge and tug on the arms of stressed mothers. Everyone is alone, lost in their lists of things to buy. Outside a closed down shop I plant my stuff down, plug in my loop pedal and start to lay down a track. Guitar, beatbox, vocals. We
are away. A crowd begins to gather. Nearby, a teenager starts to breakdance in an attempt to impress a girl. He’s got some moves. Then a kid half his age rocks up from the other side of the street and takes the floor. He’s got some serious moves. As the dance-off escalates a crowd of almost one hundred have assembled and I’m only two minutes into the song. They are all clapping along and cheering the young dancers who are now minor celebrities in their town – a status that seemed to come out of nowhere.
That evening I pushed my trolley back from the streets, glowing with that familiar feeling that comes from the collision of energy and positivity that spirals around street music. It was clear that it wasn’t just about me and my sounds. Time and again I was witnessing how busking repurposes sections of city centres. They transform zones consisting purely of commerce and retail, into ones filled with person-centric interactions. The exchanges are spontaneously subversively, wild, jubilant and joyful. They face not towards the shop windows, but back into the centre – back in to the public inside the public space. Is it any wonder the police are clamping down? Buskers redirect the flow of attention and financial resources away from window displays, the air conditioned shopping centres, the alluring carbohydrate waft of fast food restaurants, and the creeping territories of café tables.
Why You Should Never Play in a Shopping Centre
Indoor shopping centres are privately policed mini town centres. In these synthetic retail paradises there is no homelessness, no mental health issues, no demonstrations or leafleting, no charity begging, no loitering and no busking. It is standard in the design of retail parks to channel the flow of people as quickly as possible through the entire circuit of the space. They are built to discourage human congregation, relaxation, recreation and self-expression.
Buskers, like professional charity fundraiser, are experts in public space and how human energy flows through it. The difference of a metre to
one side or the other can make the difference between a wasted hour and a hat full of money. Certain walkways provide bottlenecks where people can be hooked in, others provide what fishermen (and fisherwomen) call eddies – spaces away from the main current where numbers collect to rest or feed. But surely this is as manipulative as any other enterprise collecting cash from shoppers? In some ways yes; but, as I will explain later, there are important differences.
A friend and I were once passed a paid gig to play inside a cake shop. When we got there, to our dismay, we realised that it was a chain company inside a shopping centre. The shop was lifeless, stale and half -empty. After an hour of playing to ourselves in the shop, and eating our way through more than our fee in cake (given freely by the bored and indifferent staff), we decided to play outside the shop window by the escalator. We were in good spirits, banging out improvised tunes about cake with a guitar and a trumpet. Anywhere else this would have gathered a crowd, but not there. There was something about us that was unattractively out of place in that polished air conditioned concourse. Granted I was wearing a multi-coloured tutu. But it felt wrong playing somewhere so inorganic. Maybe it was the taste of the shoppers. Maybe it was their ‘demographic’ (sorry). Maybe it was the lay out of the space. Maybe we were just a bit shit. Either way, I am no longer available for corporate bookings.
Jump forward now to January 2016, I’m in Rotterdam and I emerge from a metro station into he belly of a shopping centre. Coming from the end of a long dark tunnel is a bright light. Spilling in with the crisp Febuary sun is the distant sound of someone singing. I walk out to await a solo songwriter, brandishing a nice hat, a smile and a conversation. On arrival I find the caged voice of 50’s Broadway jazz being projected from a row of wall mounted speakers above the window of a department store. “Where is your lisence” I ask. The featureless plastic mannequins stare back at me blankly.
Forcing the peasants off their land
Outside the shopping centre, the disapproving facades of some of the most powerful institutions in the country (the chain stores that have now monopolised every town in the continent) look down on the buskers. The performers often look scruffy and are employed by no-one but themselves. Increasingly, authorities see them as having no place in the computer generated models presented to them by private developers. Why should their sonic trespass be allowed on the streets?
Difficult to tax, monitor or coopt, busking as we know it is now under grave threat of extinction. Across Europe, busking faces an increasingly sophisticated security apparatus designed to clear city centres of immigrants, political dissent and the growing unemployed. Just like unpermissioned street demonstrations, artisan street vendors, black market traders, squatters, fly posters, ‘loitering’ youths and even street homeless people; buskers could soon be swept from our town centres like autumn leaves.
The privatisation and securitisation of public space by corporate interests has its roots in the first wave of enclosures of 15th,- 18th centuries,
when a nascent and growing puritan work ethic scrubbed carnivals, processions, fayres and festivities from the calendar and from the street. Peasants were forced off their land which was sold on to more ‘productive’ farming. Left with no choice they migrated to the slums to work as wage slaves in factories. Those not conforming to a growing ideology of profit – which seized space and time for maximum productivity – were shipped to the New World. Troubadours, travelling circuses, puppeteers and party people; just like travellers, subversives and those economically less productive, would not be tolerated.
Street entertainment belongs to a long carnival tradition of folk lore and festivity. Why is carnivaling the streets important? Jeff Ferrell links it to the political health of public space:
Carnival celebrates old temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and the established order; it makes the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privilege, norms and prohibitions. (Ferrell, 2001, p137)
Today the monied takeover of space is ever more far reaching, as this quote from the Chicago protest art group DSLR (The Department for Space and Land Reclamation) states:
Global capital has reached such a point that both physical and intellectual landscape have been completely purchased. To exist today means to tread on the property of others. The city has increasingly become a space completely built around consumerism. The freedom of expression has come to mean the freedom to advertise. Like a minefield of manipulative codes, urban space has been designed to manoeuvre us from one point of sale to the next. (McPhee 2007)
The Daily Bread
As any performer will tell you, venue hire is soaring and less people are attending live entertainment (preferring instead to consume it digitally). At some point in the lives of millions of artists, busking provides a financially unmediated opportunity to earn a living.
But it is not just about necessity. Many buskers I know regularly turn down paid gigs in favour of playing on the streets. It is organic,
unpredictable, challenging and rewarding. There is something artificial about an audience that doesn’t contain children and dogs, and cannot just wander off when they get bored. In venues, people are more likely to all be the same age, class and sensibility. On the streets anything and anyone can happen. In Berlin it is not uncommon to find large audiences of late night revellers stumbling into illegal U Bahn parties that go on till the early hours of the morning.
Busking for a living is not a dos job, neither is it scrounging or freeloading. It is physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally exhausting. Money is unpredictable and unreliable and the working environment can be hostile. The attention you draw can make you a target for the unstable and aggressive. It is not uncommon to get threatened by unwell members of the public or to have money stolen. Twice this summer I have been yelled at for no reason mid song, one of them kicking over my amp (I wasn’t even singing Celine Dion!)
As well as bringing joy, busking brings down unemployment. What’s more, it is one of the few jobs left that Karl Marx would describe as ‘unalienated labour’. By being free of an employer, the busker has creative control over his or her work and so is not alienated from it. How dare they!? Send them to the Job Agency to get warehouse work. What, there’s no work there? Then send them to the Job Centre. No work there either? Then put them on a compulsory 6 month workfare placement and force them to stack shelves in Tesco for free. Scum.
From the information I can obtain, in Holland and Germany (and possibly other countries too) it is officially illegal to use amplification anywhere. There are a host of different licences that entitle you to collect money, put down a sign and perform. Sometimes you need three
different licences at once to be legal. Each one can cost up to 150 Euros. Break the rules and the authorities can confiscate your equipment, leaving you without a livelihood. Getting it back takes many weeks, legal proceedings and accompanying costs. Aside from the cost, it is complicated and bureaucratic to get the licences. No two officers on the street will have the same information. If you are street homeless forget it. In many British cities, new licences, costs, fines, rules and even auditions are being placed on street entertainers. Busking in the London Underground is strictly policed. When I researched it I was told there was a 1 year wait to get sent an application. If you do not respond to that email within ten days you lose your chance to go one the waiting list which is another 1 year long! We should not take street music for granted. In much of the world and the United States it is either not allowed or the culture has died out. It is something that makes Europe a pleasant place to live and visit and it could die out in a climate of security crackdowns and privatisations. The result would be street art appearing only on temporary stages – programmed, licensed and financed like a ‘winter wonderland’ market – all profits going in one direction.
Eight Reasons to Leave Buskers Alone:
1. Freedom of expression is an unalienable human right enshrined in Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
2. Busking brings down unemployment. It is a lifeline for often vulnerable and marginalised people to provide for themselves and their families.
3. Police can and do use new powers to arbitrarily supress buskers they deem to appear undesirable. This accelerates gentrification and leads to intolerant and socially cleansed cities.
4. Busking contributes to the emotional health of the streets.
5. Busking adds ‘cultural capital’ to a city by making it vibrant, diverse and attractive to visitors.
6. New licences put a price on taking part in the cultural conversation of the street.
7. Localised problems of excessive noise are best dealt with by talking. Blanket bans and rulings trample over a spectrum of evolving variables particular to that place and the time of day.
8. Penalising buskers will not stop an overcrowding of buskers. Busker will stop an overcrowding of buskers. It is financially pointless setting up too close to another busker. It is also a breach of common courtesy.
The clampdown on busking is a symptom of gentrification that must not be tolerated. In Berlin, many young African immigrants (who don’t
enjoy papers to make them ‘legal’) make ends meet by selling weed to wealthy white drug users outside train station until 5 or 6am. Some take a djembe drum to the park and sing. Both are vulnerable to Police swoops. The continent-wide movement against gentrification – its predatory real estate practices and it political policing – is articulated on this sign I found on the side of a social entre of Amsterdam:
Tourists: Go home and tell your accomplices to boycott the Dutch state. Your money is pushing out alternative cultures and undesirables. Social conflict still exists – deportations, mass arrest and asylum prisons.
Street musician Jeff Ferrell argues that such acts of ‘sonic graffiti’ can subvert the ‘enforced sameness’ of cities:
‘Years of busking have taught me that the power of live street music in reshaping the meaning and experience of public space. Effective street musicians change the flow and feel of the areas they often illegally occupy, setting little sonic traps… As the cash accumulates and the interactions multiply, the music itself serves to organise impromptu audiences, to spark collective dances and sing alongs, and, on good days, to transform the functionality of the street into the informal excitement of the festival.’ (Ferrell p150)
Most buskers are probably more concerned with earning money than ‘reshaping the meaning and experience of public space’. But their cultural production does stand against the cleansing of towns and cities to plastic sterility, museum parks for tourism but not for living. What is at stake is the ability for human wildlife to shape the character of city space from the bottom up. Jay Griffiths, in her trip into the Amazon, reflects on the replacement of wildness with wasteland. What she finds is ‘a terrible truth for the soul of modernity’, ‘a radical hollowness…an empty gauntness… a savage nothingness that blankly taunts you with your own reflection’.
What does our urban environment reflect about us? Is it destined to be peopled with cosmetically powdered, pastel-coloured imitations of billboard models? Will it waste into a dull lifeless theme parks for chain stores, punctuated by Costa, Subway and department stores – each town a clone of the next? Will we only be able to sit down if we are customers, only speak our minds with permission to demonstrate, only sing with a licence? Are we prepared to live in a land of swelling private developments and accompanying security apparatus that begins to look suspiciously like paramilitary militias?
Not necessarily. In Germany I spoke to one of the designers involved in the redesign of the prestigious Alexanderplatz. Among the various stakeholders invited to the consultations were buskers. This shows a commitment to the social architecture of the site beyond the more vocal and wealthy interests vying to remodel the area to their vision.
To the North of the city is Mauerpark – a large park where the Berlin Wall once stood. On Sunday it hosts a flea market, a giant 3000 capacity karaoke auditorium, and countless buskers. Visitors walk from busking pitch to busking pitch often surrounded by hundreds of people, sat on the
grass drinking beer, festival style. Several visitors have asked me who organises it. Who decides who plays where and when? Surely some authority orchestrates this massive public event of thousands of people? The reality is that it runs just like all the best things do – from the bottom up. There are no officers or authority figures, just people talking to each other. Remember that? The street art that takes place there every Sunday is one of Berlin’s largest tourist attractions and 95% of it is totally illegal. Occasionally the authorities come to close down the buskers. I am told that when this happens, a community group called ‘Friends of Mauer Park’ phone up the police chief and complain. The authorities are then not seen for months. This is an example of the power of sheer numbers, plus the solidarity of organised resistance to saving buskers’ necks. It should and can be replicated everywhere.
Berlin Street Musicians is one of many groups that keep the beat going. They promote and advocate for buskers, aiming to bring together ‘musicians, public, authority figures, policy makers, advocates, businesses, lobby groups, and everyone else involved in creating a thriving, culturally rich, and economically sustainable street art scene.’
Buskers are energy transformers. In this atomised, materialistic society, they engineer spontaneous collective empathy exactly where it is needed– in shopping districts and public spaces. All buskers should recognise the political and spiritual implications of their profession. They need everyone’s solidarity to help protect it. We cannot lose another centimetre of the negative space cowering beneath the growing corporate
edifices now swallowing our cityscapes. Gentrification and police crackdowns are not inevitable. Public space is everywhere and is constantly being contested. Powers, demarcations of space, authorities and regulations are forever in flux and can be influenced from below as well as above. This is not just about the survival of busking but the cultural health of our towns and cities – our freedom to express ourselves in diverse, public and spontaneous ways. Let’s make a song and dance about our freedom to make a song and dance. Everyone to the streets.
Busking Organisations, Blogs and Resources
Ferrel, J. (2001) ‘Tearing Down the Streets: Adventures in Urban Anarchy’ (Palgrave St Martins)
McPhee, J. & Reuland, E. (ed) (2007) ‘Realising the Impossible: Art Against the Impossible’ (AK Press)
Griffiths, J. (2007) ‘Wild: An Elemental Journey’ (Penguin Books)
Rees, J. German, L (2012) ‘A Peoples History of London’ (Verso Books)
Linebaugh, P, Rediker, M. (2012)’The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic’ (Verso Books)