Articles

14-12-2021

Scene Spotlight: The New DIY Underground

“We should give thanks to people who are finding new ways to do what’s needed”

Words by Emma Warren

Emma Warren is the author of Make Some Space: Tuning into Total Refreshment Centre and Document Your Culture, which is available on Bandcamp.

These islands have generated rich and diverse dance floor cultures for decades. This goes back in time, to 1930s Mecca dancehalls where thousands of people learned fad dances together like the Lambeth Walk, right the way through the explosion of intense dancing that acid house threw out into the world and beyond. There’s a deep seam of dancing that relates to the multiple sub-genres of music and dancing that diaspora communities, and particularly British Caribbean communities have built over decades. 

People have always gathered to dance, and they’ve always told stories about these times: cave paintings of men and women dancing are just an Instagram story from the ancient past. Recent times have made more people aware of the importance of our dance floors, and this has led to an increasing number of people telling stories about these personal utopias from the past. Sites like Test Pressing have been doing this work for years and recently condensed their knowledge and expertise into their brilliant Start Your Day Right series, posting arcane archive footage from early ‘90s Carnival or Ibizan sunset parties. More recently, Rendezvous Press have been making maps, fanzines and exhibitions that celebrate East London’s histories of pirate radio and underground raves.

The recent celebration of past dance floors is valuable because it helps explain why these places are important: an archive of encouragement. But we also need to celebrate what we have now, in the moment. There’s a ‘no’ at the start of the word ‘nostalgia’, something Gil Scott Heron noted way back when he made ‘B-Movie’. We should be honouring the people who are managing to keep existing venues open, and who have managed to make new space against the odds. We should also give thanks to people who are finding new ways to do what’s needed, by taking a nomadic approach to throwing parties, or like the Lemon Lounge collective, building their own sound system. 

The Cause in Tottenham is reaching the end of the three year stretch in which the ‘temporary DIY space’ made space in north London in a former car-mechanics depot, next to community garden Grow Tottenham. It took root in 2018, in the gap between property development plans being agreed and the subsequent multi-story apartments appearing on all sides of the club. The first neighbours will move in early next year, making The Cause’s existence untenable. 

This isn’t just a nightclub with a custom-built Core soundsystem and a commitment to the best underground music. It’s been a donation-generating machine, focusing on promoting positive mental health and sending cash to organisations including Mind in Haringey, C.A.L.M and Help Musicians UK. Their descriptions says it all: “The site is an eco-system, constantly evolving and built upon trading skills, space and talent all giving birth to a truly unique grassroots space.” 

The Cause may be exiting its current location in north London but there is still reason for hope. Partisan Collective in Manchester and Gut Level in Sheffield are both current examples of the inventive ways that people are making space and keeping it open. Partisan opened in July 2017 after a small group of friends decided more space was needed to come together and organise. They saw a way to be self-supporting by creating a space for activism, grassroots music, and culture. By the late spring they’d taken up temporary residence in an abandoned office building, later moving to two floors of an old synagogue in Cheetham Hill where renown DJs including Ben UFO, Peverelist and Objekt would come and play for free, alongside club nights by Mafalda and rising stars All Hands On Deck, who themselves started by running open-deck sessions for women, trans and non-binary people. Last year Partisan moved to a more accessible space in Salford, still offering club nights and continuing to run the classes and film screenings that mark out the new breed of community-focused nightspots.

Over in Sheffield, Gut Level are doing the same thing differently. Five friends spent 2020 cultivating a permanent base for their grassroots collective, focusing on dance music, club culture and the lack of financially accessible, queer-friendly late-night space. Like Partisan, they’ve moved about: from an archway in Attercliffe to their current location, a Grade II Listed ex-cutlery works in Shalesmore. They run club nights, open deck sessions and collabs with other collectives from nearby cities including Rat Party in Leeds. They’re also running talks and workshops: recent examples include seed-saving, still life drawing in their new community garden and a Q&A with DJ Sherelle. There’s also the extended family: Working Thems Club and a music-based skill-sharing network, FLAW. They linked up with another like-minded organisation, DINA, and run daytime events in their space (difficult in their HQ because it’s also a rehearsal studios and therefore noisy during working hours) with DINA using their space for evening sessions – which is hard in their location because of nearby residents. 

Cities everywhere are experiencing the same issues. Portuguese artist Violet and her partner Photonz moved to Peckham in the mid 2010s and took what they learned about making DIY space London-style with them when they moved home to Lisbon. They started community radio station Quantica during their time in the UK and grew it into a thriving community once it was transplanted back home. They have recently worked with queer collective Mina to turn disused office space into a community cultural centre, with friends and extended creative family getting involved with the laborious work of transformation. Manta opened in June 2021 and hosts Quantica’s broadcast studio, alongside a music studio, artist residency space, and social space. It’s recently expanded into a bigger events space operating on Friday nights under the name Planeta Manas.

“I think these spaces are achieving a sense of joy and belonging to the artistic community,” says Violet. “The same is true for the audiences. DIY spaces give projects a relaxed atmosphere to work in, and that breadth for playfulness and mistakes is really important for proper inclusion.” 

Part of what they’re doing, she says, is deconstructing structural obstacles – removing the gatekeepers that decide who gets to play in more established clubs, for example. “Also, programming in spaces like these tends to be very different from the mainstream platforms, enriching the city’s cultural options.” 

It’s also about maintaining an ‘each one teach one’ mentality, in spaces which, as Violet says, can “build intimacy and strengthen community bonds”. “An important aspect is giving a platform for artists to show their work in a way they feel comfortable with,” she says. “It’s a kind of unwritten duty that we have as cultural workers who’ve been around a good few years and have the know-how and contacts to make things happen. Having a space dedicated fully to emerging artists from marginalised communities helps fast-track the process.”

The same impulse can be seen in the pan-European collaborations of Temporary Pleasures whose work spans The Republic of Ireland and the city of Barcelona. Irish founder John Leo Gillen spent his lockdown archiving ephemeral club spaces under the banner ‘Temporary Pleasures’ and in November 2021 turned this into an even more ambitious project. He assembled a collective of architects, event producers and club creatives who are interpreting the absence of club spaces Europe-wide as a powerful reason to remake night time spaces from scratch. They decided to co-create a DIY dance floor in just five days, through lectures, design labs and building workshops in Barcelona, attempting to reimagine the dance: replacing rigid spaces and barriers to entry with what they call ‘fluid clubs, co-creation and new beginnings.” 

Real collaboration and inclusivity, say Temporary Pleasures, generates better music, more powerful dance floors and greater opportunities for community-building beyond the club. Many established venues in the UK require people to show official ID to get through security on the door. This requires passports, driving licences or official ID, which usually requires the applicant to have a passport or driving licence. Plenty of people don’t have passports or driving licences, not least because they’re expensive. Other people don’t have passports because they don’t have settled status in this country – including approximately 120,000 young people living in Britain without full citizenship or secured status. This number includes approximately 65,000 people who were born in the UK. Are they not allowed in the dance?

Grassroots-built dance floor spaces create what comes next. Space creates the possibility of something new happening, of the next generation coming through. It’s especially important that people who are in their teens and twenties to have somewhere to go. We all need it, but younger people need it on many levels. We need systems that offer some balance: recognising our rights for communal gathering against the rights of multinational corporations and their shareholders to extract maximum private profit from our neighbourhoods. 

We also need neighbours who recognise that their rights to silence in the city needs to be balanced against the community need to dance. It’s a longstanding problem – Tippa Irie wrote ‘Complain Neighbour’ back in 1986 – and a tiny number of noise-intolerant neighbours can close down a whole venue, as can wholesale profiteering by property developers. Bring back ASBOs and hand them out to people who complain about music venues. Cities already have the equivalent of quiet carriages on a train: suburban places that anyone is very welcome to move to if they don’t like noise.

Let’s tell the story of incredible spaces and places from the past, but let’s also celebrate what’s happening now. We need them to make it through. 

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