Geert Lovink on Tue, 15 Oct 96 08:19 MET

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nettime: Sadie Plant-Field Experiments

From: Sadie Plant <>
Subject: Re: nettime/zkp3 txt

Field Experiments
by Sadie Plant

Some English friends of friends of mine spent the early 1980s taking lots
of drugs and travelling around the fairs and free festivals which then
rolled on all summer long. This year, 1996, they paid =A335 to go to a three
day event called the Big Chill. It was held in Norfolk, and promised to
deliver some of the best in ambient, drum 'n' bass and experimental dance
music, with acts like Spring Heel Jack, Oscillate, Mixmaster Morris, and
the awesome Talvin Singh. They knew it wouldn't be anything like the free
events of the 1980s, but the levels of policing and social control which
they found astounded them. This is what they wrote during the weekend.


We didn't know about the travellers before we met them that first day.
Someone had told us there was a festival planned, but we only had the
faintest awareness of what that meant. Even when we hitched a ride in a
little yellow van whose driver said: "have you seen the rest of the
convoy?" we still didn't know what he was talking about. We pulled into a
pub carpark to wait for whatever it was we were waiting for, and after
about twenty minutes the first of a very long line of buses and trucks,
kids, dogs, goats, cats, tarpaulins, and tepee poles drove by and waved and
smiled at us. They were bronzed, wild, and out of their heads. They had
disrupted the traffic, won several minor battles with the police, and were
now arriving at a stretch of common land alongside a military base.

It was just after the election of the first Thatcher government. The US
bases dotted around the UK had acquired a new and sinister significance,
and an older festival culture was being joined by an exodus of city punks
and squatters, crusty anarchists. We had never seen hostility like that
which greeted this caravan. The servicemen on the base were implacable when
we threw spliffs through the fence to them, but there was hatred on the
part of the police who, having made the site virtually inaccessible, had
pulled down trees and dug trenches in what seemed like an orgy of
determination to enforce the law. But the travellers were more determined
still. The convoy drove for miles through muddy woodland to reach the site.
We stayed for a week, long enough to learn about all the good - and bad -
things that happen when people try to live in the absence of any overt
social control. We spent most of the time taking too many drugs thinking:
how is this possible? how come we're getting away with it?  Surely it can't
last? Is it happening at all?

It was then possible to spend whole summers in those mobile self-assembling
cities called free festivals. But, fifteen years later, sitting in a cold
tent with no warmth, no smell of woodsmoke, no music, a secretive spliff,
and nothing else to do but write this down, those days seem so
inconceivable that we're really beginning to wonder whether they ever
happened at all. We're at a festival, or so we think, but we might as well
be in one of the military camps which, in those days, we'd camped outside.
There are more rules and regulations than in our own backyard. Tents must
be pitched at least two meters apart. There can be no fires, no dogs, no
generators, no drugs, no brewing up, no music after midnight.  Every
participant has to wear a badge, and tickets are carefully checked against
names. The site is policed by regular patrols of stewards. There's a
"morning, campers" PA system rigged around the site, council officials with
walkie-talkies and clipboards, and no shortage of uniformed police.

Of course the rules are being broken: we've just made some tea on a calor
gas stove, the drugs are in plentiful supply, someone within earshot has
enough batteries for their ghetto blaster, and a few people have got in for
free through the fence. But these are minor misdemeanours in relation a
situation whose policing, back in the early 1980s, would have provoked a
riot, or something... We're thinking: "why aren't we... we should be... "
But what should we be doing, eh? A moment. Suddenly it seems there's
nothing to be done. There's nothing to attack, in deed or word. The police
are not lined up with bulldozers and sledgehammers in quasi-paramilitary
style, but are instead wearing the smiles and armbands of the friendly
community helper armed only with a clipboard and all the time in the world
for the good citizens of little england. Worse still, as the stewards
patiently explain about fire hazards and the dangers of overcrowding, even
the petty rules and regulations begin to sound horribly plausible. We feel
as though something has been defeated. Our young friends don't even have
the memories. Nothing to compare with the field they're in.

What happened between then, the early '80s, and now is no big mystery.
Numerous brutal police attacks and several pieces of pernicious legislation
(not least the infamous Criminal Justice Act, but also including changes in
welfare provision which make the old "dole culture" increasingly difficult
to sustain), have certainly taken their toll, driving much of the energy
which once fuelled the festival circuit into bedsits, onto the canals, or
out of the country: Goa, Europe, Australia... But the legal situation is
symptomatic of a far more deep-rooted, distributed, and pernicious shift
which the law simply legitimizes, a shift into soft-cop social control
which, unlike its 1980s predecessor, presents no front lines, no violent
antagonisms, but governs with the maddening efficiency of apparent

Which is why it may well be a nostalgic waste of time to mourn the passing
of traveller culture and free festival circuits, and certainly no point
fetishizing that - or any other - particular scene. Perhaps things have
simply moved on to the point at which it is not even necessarily a matter
of seeking out new possibilities of confrontation equivalent to those of
the 1980s: maybe such antagonism, always in danger of becoming reactive,
was itself a strategy whose time has passed. While they were rarely
represented or judged in these terms, perhaps what was always important
about festivals was that they carved out a transient space in which
something could happen, if only for a while: something unexpected,
unanticipated, unplanned, unpredicted and unpredictable. The festival
circuit was a great breeding grounds for intensities and connections,
events and communications emergent from a vast remixed soup of vehicles,
people, sounds, smells, chemicals...

But if its particular mixture no longer thrives, the festival recipe hardly
monopolizes the possibilities. In some ways, it too was closing them down:
the old festival scene may have threatened the territorial claims of the
British establishment, but it also had plenty of reactionary impulses and
conservative drives of its own. And, driven out of the countryside, many of
the most dynamic tendencies which fuelled this scene are now feeding into
experiments which, albeit in very different contexts, produce nomadic
syntheses of their own. The explorations of rhythm, frequency, and sound
which populate the margins of house, techno, ambient, jungle, and drum 'n'
bass emerge from cultures whose nomadism is less literal than that of their
predecessors, but no less intensive for that. Drum 'n' bass thrives
wherever faces, names, races, sexes and sexualities are as easily confused
and difficult to track as the white labels of the records its DJs play.
These microcultures may be less spectacular than their predecessors but,
for obvious reasons, this is no bad thing. They may not count their
assemblies in thousands, but large-scale events and big numbers are not
necessarily the best criteria by which to judge the impact of any specific
attempt to interrupt the smooth walls of social control.

It's now Sunday night, and we'll soon be going home. Ten, fifteen years
ago, we would have been returning to a city whose music stopped at midnight
or maybe at two, where the sex was predictable, and the drugs were
difficult to find. Now the situation is reversed. For better, worse, or
simply for a change, next weekend's adventures in the city will be
infinitely more nomadic, full of potential, and certainly far less
regulated than anything which can now happen in an English field.

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