LOOKING BACK


Written for the programme of the BIG EAR Festival, Budapest 2000.


As I recall, there were many conversations; a lot of them centred around "free", but I noticed that although or because - we could do what we liked, no one much cared. How free we were was only a perspective - another was that to be ignored might be as draining - and as effectively neutralizing - as being proscribed. The relative luxury we experienced of being at no physical risk seemed to come at the cost of a kind of immateriality, while, in those places where stepping outside the boundaries of what was officially acceptable brought serious existential consequences the kind of consequences that could affect your entire life, even your physical freedom- refusal to conform appeared to carry considerably more weight, on both sides of the artist-state divide. In fact, the evident bother misfits gave the apparat was one of the things that made what they did matter so much; one of those rare instances of power that police and politicians occasionally - and usually inadvertently - lend their critics. Artists knew that there were at least two minorities who would take them very seriously indeed, in spite of the fact that they might be restricted to, say, only two concerts a year, both of them unofficial and both to an invited, private, audience - a circumstance that might appear from the outside to indicate a terrible defeat. But the immense resonance those two concerts had - the extent to which they could really matter - tells another story altogether. There were certainly musicians from the 'anything-goes free world' who would have given almost anything to be taken as seriously as that. On the other hand, how many of them would have been prepared to pay the price? That's the strength of difficulty. To be brutal, such high costs act as a filter, as a powerful environmental mechanism that eliminates all but the most serious, or the most driven, of artists the ones who are unable not to do what they have to do.

In order to agree to pay, there has first to be some compensating satisfaction. Money is easy to understand, or fame. But what kind of satisfaction is there that can compensate someone for being harassed, censured, ostracized, even imprisoned? For most sensible get-along sort of people, the answer is none. Likewise for those with fame, cash or career in mind: in fact anyone unable to understand that it might be unthinkable not to put your nose out of joint for music or art. Or solidarity.

In a way, then, one could argue that the E-W art fracture didn't just run along the line of freedom and proscription (as Westerners tended to see it), but equally, and maybe more essentially, along the line of need and cost. This is the line where the unwilling step back the minute the price goes up too much. I think this constitutes an evolutionary mechanism. It is universal; only the nature of the obstacles confronted actually varies according to circumstances. Fifteen years ago, we could divide around which of these fractures exercised us most. Today the first has gone. All overt opposition has evaporated and along with it, the clarity and focus it engendered. Now we all have to deal with indifference and market forces. Nothing is proscribed any longer, just ignored.

2.

The E-W border was porous - but in one direction only; it was more like osmosis than diffusion, with information flowing essentially West to East and not back.

On my first visit to Prague, I remember being amazed at how informed about Western culture an interested circle was, and not only about what was popular and overground, but unpopular and underground as well. On the other hand, I knew almost nothing of what was going on in any of their half dozen countries. In the free world, where information was supposed to be lying around freely just waiting for someone to pick it up. Though it may have been there, it was left pretty much undisturbed - while, in Prague, information was valued to the extent that anything of interest was immediately copied and circulated. Eastern cultures had a far more social, and less commodified, approach to knowledge; it was an approach born not merely out of scarcity but also from a real sense of community. This was always rather a hard fact for Westerners to grasp, since community was a category we had more or less succeeded in eradicating - or at least rendering incomprehensible (which is why we fantasied about it so remorselessly. Quite as much, then, as the obvious and insidious differences in working conditions, it was this social grounding, this sense of responsibility, that divided the experience of Eastern and Western artists or at least which came out in those rare moments when they had an opportunity to communicate.

The community I encountered in Prague was not - like our small networks of friends at home - a loose gathering of musicians and artists. It also took in mathematicians, dissidents, physicists, architects, Christians, philosophers, drunks and presidents-in-waiting. Not an intelligentsia exactly, but a collection of people bound by their desire to be in and of a wider world denied them; people who refused to have their lives defined by idiots. While they worked in full knowledge of the world outside (although of course dealing with their own problems first), no comparable flow returned to the West, whose vision was, paradoxically, made narrower and smaller by an official belief in the theoretical availability of everything on demand (rather like smokers who will never quit because they know they can quit any time they want). It is a sad fact that knowledge of the possibility of infinite access makes actual access less urgent, and obscures the fact that the marginal is always and inevitably inaccessible without work. (It is a lesson coming around again as the 'total access' internet gears up for business). What is really accessible - however much it is dressed up as choice is only the obvious. It appears different from dictat because the mechanisms of its delivery (advertising, media, money) are more subtle and therefore less visible than official exclusion or propaganda. Ours is a better system of control and censure, built on smoke and mirrors, rather than sticks and bars. It makes our future sausages so secure they can be trusted to run the abattoir themselves.

Important things were happening in the East, but we ignored them. Mostly out of arrogance: we just knew we didn't need to know. Like colonialists declining to learn the local language while dismissing the bilingual (usually multilingual) natives as ignorant savages; just so in the eighties, it was denigrated Easterners who acted out of knowledge while incurious Westerners remained ignorant of the wider picture. This is an oversimplification of course, but behind it lies an important, and unfinished story - as CDs like New Czech Music of the 60s' demonstrate. At least one can say that there is a great work of recuperation still to be completed.

What the few - the outsiders - shared; both in the East and in the West (not that they saw that way) was their marginalisation, their symmetrical rejection each of their own systems and, at a deeper level, of the tyranny in general of all procrustean structures. Both typically also displayed an exaggerated sympathy for the regime the other rejected. I recall on that first visit to Prague having a long discussion with Vaclav Havel, in which he told me how terrible socialism was and how wonderful Ronald Reagan and the market economy were - while I was busy explaining to him how terrible Western politics and market economies were and how I thought, for all its faults, socialism had to be the better way. My general observation now is that (Havel aside) friends who were oppositional in the old regime find themselves oppositional in the new. And that, I think, is one of the things we all had - and still have - in common.


September 2000



other writing: Scale Plunderphonia Looking Back
Science The Sign of Three .




Home Biography Discography Current Podcast Radio Bands Interviews Writing Kit cc:email

text and images chris cutler; site squidco 4603