Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sad to hear the news this week upon returning from the Animal Collective-curated All Tomorrow's Parties of the passing of both Gil-Scott Heron and Ira Cohen. Both men operated in sub-cultures, with Scott-Heron touching on African-American militancy (as opposed to the afro-futurism of Sun Ra, who was operating at the same time). Cohen, meanwhile, a Beat poet whose truly hallucinogenic, lysergic-soaked photography and imagery culminated in the kaleidoscopic film The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda (which I once saw freak-out band Sunburned Hand of the Man perform a live soundtrack to), embodied a time when counterculture was genuinely something underground, with no Internet and little coverage in magazines. The plotless Thunderbolt Pagoda feels like watching a dream or something from the unconscious, which links it to the work of similar psychedelic countercultural directors of the 60s and 70s such as Alejandro Jodorowsky and Kenneth Anger (something that I touch on partially here).

There's something trance-like and beautiful about his images and films, as if the people in them have found peace with themselves. In a weird way, they remind me of one of the documentaries, filmed by the Sublime Frequencies crew, which was broadcast at ATP in the cinema, which showed the ecstatic faces of the Moroccan drummers and guitarists as they played their trance-like music (Cohen, in fact, lived in Morocco for a few years).
With the Foundry and the Spitz having closed down, and the Duke of Uke possibly in trouble, I sometimes wonder if there will be any space here in east London left in the end for the kind of counterculture that Cohen explored. On Old Street the homogeneity and feeling of encroachment from the Square Mile is becoming worse, with yuppie/city trader-type bars such as 'B@1' the tip of the iceberg. Still, certain venues - Cafe Oto, The Others, The Horse Hospital, Ryan's Bar, certain crossover art/music galleries, as well as others dotted around the city - have kept open and still attest to a kind of underground spirit. Yet the nagging feeling persists that while recessions in the past have led to a surge in creativity and inspiration (1978-84, as covered in Simon Reynold's book Rip It Up And Start Again, is a good example), the current one is simply leading to even higher rent than before and less alternative spaces. Oh well, there's always Berlin...

Monday, May 02, 2011

It’s always interesting to see how areas of London can in the space of a few years be suddenly be deemed as ‘trendy’ or ‘vibrant’ places to live where previously they weren’t. At one point in the late 70s, pre-absurdly expensive Notting Hill was at the centre of much of the counterculture in London. In the mid-90s it may well have been Camden Town; nowadays, I guess it’s a mixture of Brick Lane and my hometown of Hackney. I was at the Land of Kings festival (a kind of transferred cutting-edge take on the Camden Crawl) on Friday night at my old school area of Dalston, and the area has certainly moved on – Bardens carpet shop, for example, from which the sadly departed venue Barden’s Boudoir (now a dance club called The Nest) took its name, has turned into a boutique shop, while my old school has been turned into a pristine looking Academy. A couple of hip venues have sprung up, with some, such as Dalston Superstore (a few doors down from the Rio Cinema, where I used to go as a kid), seemingly entirely populated by fashion students/artists (others are barely more than hired Turkish pool halls). Meanwhile, leftfield theatre groups such as Stoke Newington International Airport (inspired by the genre-defying Punchdrunk) have blurred music, theatre and art in the area (as they did at LoKs in the Old Boys Club, a decaying mansion at the back of the Vortex Jazz Club, on Friday). Meanwhile, Stoke Newington Church Street – while containing some fine places (Ryan’s bar, Lucky 7 Records, The Drop, etc.) – resembles Crouch End/Muswell Hill more than ever. If the gentrification of Hackney continues, we may even see a situation where Tottenham – the final frontier – becomes a desirable place to live. The situation is no doubt analogous to developments in formerly working-class areas in New York such as Williamsburg in Brooklyn, which begs the question: where will the artists go next once the rent is unaffordable? At the moment, the answer is Hackney Wick, which offers cheaper warehouse space and living, and which has consequently seen a number of galleries (the Elevator and Schwartz Galleries, for one) and festivals such as Hackney Wicked spring up there. Yet one day, too, the cost of living there could go up. Then the cutting-edge artist set will end up moving into the Leyton and Walthamstow area, and maybe the cheaper parts of the Docklands. And if the rent goes up there too, could we see a situation where North London runs out of affordable places to live at all? If that happens, the exodus will be surely to Berlin or Detroit. Or maybe South London. Meanwhile, the encroachment of the City and its anodyne bars and suits on surrounding areas (such as what has already happened on Old Street, with the closure of the Foundry, The Legion, Smallfish Records, etc.) will continue unabated. Wonderful if you’re a banker, not so good for everyone else.