Friday, 12 June 2015

Fallen Arches

Over on Bella Caledonia, Scottish slam champion Bram E. Gieben has written a passionate, articulate and intelligent defence of clubbing as a counter-cultural art form, and the mainstream - lager culture - as a violent, drab and conformist creed. Having sat nights in my office in Sauchiehall Street, and listened to the mayhem every weekend, I'd agree that the dominant culture is not just tedious, but unpleasant. 

I disagree with the headline: rather than seeing the closure of The Arches as the first salvo in a culture war it is, as Gieben notes, part of an on-going campaign against club culture. In the 1990s, raving was regarded as a social menace, needing legislation to prevent 'repetitive beats' and the introduction of 'super-clubs', like The Ministry of Sound, to channel this anarchic movement into a commercial venture. Going back to the 1970s, Northern Soul was also the victim of police suspicions, and a fanciful reading of history can make The Bacchae (Fifth Century BC) an early protest play about the repression of freedom to dance.

When Gieben compares the cultural worth of clubbing to other forms of art, he is exactly right: many of the techno musicians of the late 1980s saw themselves as artists in sound, and have matured to develop film soundtracks or orchestral compositions. Not that this means they grew up into higher art forms, but that their vision has been comparable to the composers who are the bedrock of mainstream high culture.

The attempts to defend or rescue The Arches are leaning heavily on dividing the 'good aspects' of the venue - its contribution to theatre, visual art, community events - from the bad - the naughty clubbing events. The survival of The Arches has come to mean finding a way to ensure that the good bits can keep going, while the bad bits get removed.

Being a theatre critic rather than a clubber, I am glad that The Arches might be rescued, but the idea that the clubs, which have provided the economic foundation for the theatre, can be so easily abandoned frustrates me. The clubs are tolerated, so long as they provide cash for high arts, but are worthy of nothing more than to be used as a cash-cow.

The theatre has a very poor attitude towards the culture beyond the stage: the theatrical discussion around the bizarre bill to control lap-dance clubs and scrap metal involved worrying that a few plays in The Fringe might be affected by a prohibition on nudity. I've ranted about this before - not that I don't think that there needs to be discussion about lap-dance clubs, but because it strikes me as damning for theatre-makers to care only about the bill's impact on their own freedom. 

I'm certainly not pointing at the campaign to save The Arches and accusing it of the same limited vision: the article by Kieran Hurley in The Guardian explicitly connected clubbing and performance. However, the discussion in The Scottish Parliament did emphasise the importance of The Arches as an arts venue, and John Mason (MSP) has stated that he believes that the licensing decision is beyond reproach.

Equally, it is far easier to defend the venue in terms of theatre: the questions about drug use on the premises, and public nuisance are quickly dragged into debates about the relative demerits of other city locations, or polemics against the state's attitude towards drugs in general. 

At this point, I have to make my usual pitiful excuse: I have no answers. Yes, I believe that the drug laws are antiquated. No, I don't think people dropping dead in a club is a good thing. Yes, I want The Arches to reopen. No, I don't think the petition will make the licensing board reconsider. There are so many factors that led to The Arches ending up in administration, isolating a single issue won't help get the doors back open.

Gieben ends his article with a powerful call to arms. He wants to resist the corporate seduction of clubs, and to celebrate the independent, the communal. It is the same battle-cry that echoed during the early 1990s, when the Conservative Government came up with The Criminal Justice Bill. 

No comments :

Post a Comment