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Panic attack: Art in the punk years

at: Barbican, London


January 3rd, 2008 · post by gavin · Make a comment

Date of the event: 5 June – 9 Sept 2007

Drunk or sober, it’s a conversation I must have had thousands of times by now. What was punk really “all about”? Though certain patterns emerge, I soon came to realise that everyone had their own take on things. Its adherents don’t tend to see punk as a consumer identity to buy into, or as a historical artifact to ponder, or anything which lies outside themselves, but something we bring into being. For them punk started the day they started doing it, and its history consists of whatever they did. Who makes history? We make history. By and large, this is all to the good.

But sadly some come to take it all too far, and come to see punk as some repository of eternal values, forever poised in splendid opposition to “the system”. These values then tend to become only expressible through certain fetishised forms, such as fast and loud guitars. Those forms then become absorbed, loud and fast guitars end up on MTV or car adverts. People then either pretend this sacrilege isn’t happening or devote their energies to denouncing the unbelievers who have stolen their vital punk artifacts. It’s a kind of punk fundamentalism.

All of which is, by way of preamble, to say there’s nothing inherently wrong with telling punk stories which aren’t yours, or describing things you wouldn’t necessarily have done yourself. Many will baulk, I am sure, to be told “Panic Attack! defines the ’punk years’ as stretching from approximately 1974 to 1984”, and to be generally concentrating on London and New York.

But one upside of the show setting itself such a specific remit is that it gives you a clear sense of time and place. While the fundamentalists posture, the times where punk has made a difference are when it was engaged with the time and place it was in. The show’s initial blurb writes how punk coincided with and reflected the decline into far-right values most clearly marked by the Thatcher and Reagan electoral victories. “Punk” they say, “appeared as both a symbol of and adequate response to these ravaged times”.

They continue “although punk is most commonly associated with music and its attendant graphics and fashion, the exhibition argues that much of the best British and American art of the time is also punk in spirit.” At first sight, this makes a double kind of sense. If punk music was predominantly a response to its surroundings, would not artists working in other forms have come to similar conclusions? (Or as they put it,’”embody the punk zeitgeist”.) But more importantly, we might want to question the histories which paint punk as predominantly musical.

‘Hip-hop’ was initially coined as a fusion term – referring not just to music but clothing, graffiti, design and (ultimately) culture. If at worst punk obsessed over guitars, at its best it exhibited much the same attitude. Photographers and fanzine makers are often insistent they were not ancillary events to the bands, but doing punk stuff in their own right. In fact you could argue punk and hip-hop were essentially similar – existing in an era before multimedia technology existed, or at least when it was embryonic, but willing it into being. Even with the straightforward bands there’s often the sense you need to watch them, look at the album cover and read the lyric sheet simultaneously. On a DVD you can do just that. But back then you needed to put those elements together in your head, like assembling a gun which was split into separate parts in order to be smuggled through security.

Take for example the artist Linder who wrote and assembled collages for punk fanzines, provided covers for the Buzzcocks and other bands, formed her own post-punk outfit Ludus, and continues with exhibitions, multi-media and performance art to this day. However even mainstream coverages of punk often refer to graphics and fanzines, if for no other reason than they reproduce better in books. We might ask how much cross-traffic there was between punk and the visual arts, between the venue and the gallery? Of the thirty-three artists in the exhibition, you could probably get into some pedantic argument about how many figures had formal involvements in both scenes. But my argument would be a double one. Firstly, whichever counting mechanism was devised, I contend such crossover figures would be in a minority. Secondly, virtually nobody outside this minority does anything at all interesting throughout this exhibition. Without this direct connection, you can’t help but feel, we’re left with a number of art school chancers who were not parallel ‘embodiments of the punk zeitgeist’ but merely saw ‘punk’ as an exciting buzzword to add to their press release.

Take for example Tony Cragg, whose pieces here consist of him taking plastic rubbish and staple-gunning it to the wall “to reflect upon such subjects as inner city unrest and media-fuelled patriotism”. It’s a classic of the ‘radical’ gesture which upon close examination (or indeed any examination) proves to be trite and empty. For one thing, is rubbish really so shocking? Since when did rubbish become the unacceptable face of consumerism? Of course I don’t like seeing rubbish litter the street, but the damage from discarding a drink can is nothing compared to that from driving a 4×4. This fixation upon rubbish is not only snobbish and puritanical, but exemplifies a wider trend.

Many works here are complicit in the liberal notion that punk was a protest about negative things like unemployment and urban decay. But it would be better to argue punk was a celebration of urban decay! As alluded to earlier, punk inhabited a transitional zone between the collapse of the post-war consensus and the ‘reality’ of free market economics we now inhabit. It was easy at this time to see Babylon as collapsing, and this collapse as the fertilizer by which punk might grow. Abandoned buildings meant squatting opportunities and skipped rents. Unemployment meant time off to practise your art. It’s all falling down? We never liked it anyway. Punk was always closer to a Ballard novel than a World in Action special report. X-Ray Spex’s forays into a plastic future were so much richer and nuanced than Cragg’s messing about with rubbish.

Moreover, sticking bits of rubbish on a gallery wall is redundant chiefly because it in fact changes nothing for the gallery-going experience. Formally, it works no differently from looking at watercoloured landscapes on the wall. (Had janitors been employed to sweep in rubbish over the Italian shoes of the opening night attendees, it might have been a gesture worth considering.) One of punk’s more distinguishing features had been to transform the gig environment, combating its descent into a mere passive spectacle. If punks had felt that way about the rock gig, how much more strongly would they feel about the gallery?

This is not just the social observation that galleries tend to be more full of wealthy connoisseurs sipping Chianti as they discuss inner city unrest. (Though that reason alone would of course be enough.) Unlike the rock gig the gallery experience is individualised and based around questions of ownership. You’re expected to contemplate the works passively and quietly, internalizing your reaction. Indeed, in tests the words people most associate with galleries and museums are the ones for churches. A gig conversely is collectively owned by its attendees. (In fact, punk insisted the attendees’ response was vital to the gig, that they were only marginally behind the band in order of importance.) Moreover, in a gallery the work is usually a single original or at most part of a limited run. The rest of us may gawp at this work, but it is owned by either a (normally wealthy) individual or an institution. (The analogy carries for albums or fanzines, which we even tend to think of in terms of copies rather than originals. When did you last wonder where the master tape for your favourite album was?)

Given the show’s emphasis on New York, it’s interesting to reflect how contemporary punks saw its visual arts scene. It was, in brief, war. Adele Bereti of the Contortions commented “we all lived by walking into art openings, stealing all the food. Everyone gawked at us because we were almost like an exhibition of our own… The art scene was very conservative: in the galleries everyone would be wearing suits. In a way we were more exciting than the art on the walls.” There were probably time-specific reasons for such enmities. Firstly, free lunches should never be knocked. Secondly, punks at the time tended to live in the cheap-rent Lower East Side which bordered artsy SoHo, generating neighbourhood rivalries. (James Chance commented “SoHo should be blown off the fucking map, along with all its artsy assholes!”) But most importantly, the hostility towards visual arts was arguably because of punk’s tendencies towards performance art and multi-media. The anti-gallery stance was less a wall than a filter, a way of keeping out all the elements you didn’t like about the visual arts scene while extracting the essence which you did. (Both quotes from Simon Reynolds’ ‘Rip It Up and Start Again’.)

Radical art must always challenge its parameters, wherever it encounters them. But that doesn’t mean punk must have some permanent antipathy to galleries. Saying you can only relate to galleries by invading them is like saying you can only relate to gig spaces by disrupting bad boy band performances… a worthwhile thing to do, maybe, but you wouldn’t devote your life to it.

Punk could instead have subverted the galleries, and two of the main ways it could have done so are references to popular culture and employing the disarming power of humour. Punk didn’t see itself as some dour form of social realism but as something which permeated popular culture, barbing pop hooks and inverting the language of ads – the poison in the human machine. Galleries, on the other hand, don’t tend to be barrel of laughs. Again, the main people here who employ such tactics are those associated with the punk scene. For example, there’s the blackly witty comic strip panels of former Black Flag artist Raymond Pettibon. Against the dead weight of litter nailed to the wall, these comic panels seem simultaneously sprightly yet dark and foreboding, exuding both energy and menace.

One caveat needs spelling out. If the best and most punk-influenced work on show here is the punk-connected, that doesn’t mean punk is always and inherently in the right! At several points the works here manage to pinpoint and then magnify weaknesses more widely found in punk. Stephen Wallats’ piece, a series of imagined thoughts projected into the mind of a young mother living on a housing estate, is creepily patronising in a “I know how the proles think” sort of way. But it also feels uncomfortably similar to a whole genre within punk, for example Scritti Politti’s Skank Block Bologna. (I’m thinking there of a good punk record, one which I’ve bothered to commit to memory. The more third-rate punk music we drew in, I would suspect, the closer this comparison would get.)

Similarly, a weakness of such a time-specific show is that it now seems dated. This is never clearer than with the duplication of the Prostitution exhibition put on by Throbbing Gristle in 1976. At the time this caused a furore only topped by the Pistol’s later Grundy interview; today sticking porn-mag pages up on the wall seems merely tired…

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