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Black Sky Thinking

Why Documenting Your Culture Is An Act Of Resistance, By Emma Warren
Emma Warren , September 3rd, 2019 07:53

We're living in fragmented times in which small communities and the places they meet are increasingly vital, even as they're threatened. Emma Warren argues that documenting these spaces (as she did in the excellent Make Some Space book about Total Refreshment Centre) can be a radical act. Photo by William Autmans

Imagine this, for a minute. A photographer has got himself into a tower block to shoot a grime set. Everyone's squashed into the kitchen and the energy is coiled up tight. There are gun fingers. Our photographer is into it, he's been around it, but if he was making music based on his parents’ record collections and his lived experience it'd sound different: there's a reason he's behind the lens, not on mic. We've all seen this image, shot in black and white, two MCs mic to mic with the crew pressing lairily around them.

Now imagine something else. One of the girls in the room is quite good at art and she decides to pull out her sketchbook. She draws what she sees, capturing a sense of what's happening in pencil or biro. She'll have a different perspective. She may be in the corner of the room, not the middle. She knows that the guy about to take the mic is a sweetheart and that at least some of the war mode is soap opera. She knows that what happens before and after this high energy moment is just as important as the snapshot captured by our photographer: the adults in the sitting room, the jokes. Her line drawing expands our perceptions rather than reinforcing them.

I'd love to see young women creating illustrations of grime or drill MCs but the likelihood is that we'll keep seeing the same images and reading the same narratives. Much of the most interesting and powerful culture in the UK is made by high-melanin or queer people who experience at least some degree of marginalisation because of skin tone or sexuality. Many of our writers and photographers – and almost all of our editors – come from nuclear low-melanin families, many of whom can afford private education. It matters to have the right person telling the right story, at least some of the time.

I've been talking about documenting culture a lot since I published my book Make Some Space: Tuning Into Total Refreshment Centre. The book is about a specific place but really it's about all the places like it: under-the-radar locations where we can be left alone to do stuff, where culture can be generated, and where we can be more ourselves. These are an endangered species, pushed to the brink of existence by a combination of austerity (cash-strapped councils have sold over 12,000 communal buildings since 2014 alongside the shuttering of over 600 youth centres); gentrification and licensing issues (21% of UK nightclubs closed last year; at least a third of music venues have closed nationwide) and perhaps some generational changes to social lives. Broadly, though, there are far fewer places where people – and especially younger ones – can hang out freely. There are even fewer places to do this outside of official oversight.

Right at the end of writing Make Some Space I decided that I needed to draw back the curtain and explain how I wrote the book, to amplify the instructional element that I'd threaded throughout. I wanted people to come away knowing that they could do it too, and to know that they don't need official permission to document the culture and communities they're part of. I was influenced by KLF's The Manual and by an early 80s paperback called Rebel Radio by John Hind and Steve Mosco which included an appendix explaining how to set up your own pirate station. So my last chapter became a coda, titled ‘How To Document Your Culture’. I'm not suggesting everyone writes and publishes a book. It could be a simple fanzine using A4 paper, or something filmed on a phone, or a collection of interviews with key individuals. I'm just saying that we can help protect spaces through documentation, as an act of preservation that also supports the growth of future networks and systems. It's always been important but it matters more now, when we're at risk of losing the knowledge accumulated through decades of grassroots venues, spare rooms, youth clubs, squats and community centres.

Not everything in this area of documenting culture relates to structural inequalities, but some of it does. I've been thinking half-seriously about a code of conduct for anyone documenting culture to which they lack lived experience or cultural proximity (working title: Blonde Chicks Who Write About Grime, courtesy of a British-Ghanaian ex-boyfriend who transparently and generously conveyed his friend's response to me – 'oh, isn't she one of those blonde chicks who writes about grime?'). In a similar vein, I decided that I owed the story of TRC a small tax and that I'd pay this by running ten free How To Document Your Culture workshops around the country in Dalston and Bradford, at Brainchild Festival and at the fully excellent Golden Lion pub in Todmorden, West Yorkshire. I'm hoping other people will do something similar: I'm in the process of writing a score, or guide, so that anyone can use or ignore what I've learned to tell the story of their own place or community.

Last month, I did a talk at a University of Copenhagen summer school. One of the students approached me afterwards. He asked if I had ever read Harry Potter. Total Refreshment Centre, he said, reminded him of The Room Of Requirement, a place that would only appear if you really needed it and if your intentions were good. Those of us lucky enough to have been part of a broadly positive people-generated environment may be experiencing a wry smile at this point. I wonder what clubs or communities JK Rowling experienced in her youth? She knows, it seems.

Old systems are breaking down and the future looks low-resource. Being real, we're in pretty depressing straits. But there are reasons to be cheerful. There are resourceful people creating grassroots culture, networks and structures all over the country and we can support the communities we're part of by documenting them. This won't save them (and it goes without saying that we should be careful about sharing what we document, especially if our documentation could help shut something down) but it's part of the picture, alongside buying drinks and tickets, and explaining to friends and family why they're valuable. These imperfect, unfinished, maddening and joyful spaces provide opportunities to decompress, to regroup, to power up and they might help get us through this next phase.

The audiobook of 'Make Some Space: Tuning Into Total Refreshment Centre' is released on Bandcamp on 5th September with exclusive new music from International Anthem's Angel Bat Dawid, Lunch Money Life and Snapped Ankles' Chestnutt. The launch is at Rough Trade East, on Thursday 5th September. Find out more about the event here

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