My first Saturday column in The National (online version), May 23rd, 2015.
It might be worth explaining the basic idea of the column that The National's editor, Richard Walker, and I came up with. The thing is, we both like US cultural criticism - Greil Marcus, Nick Tosches, Susan Sontag, Malcolm Gladwell, etc. How could we bring some of that power to bear on Scottish, UK, European and - sometimes - American matters?
I've already written this kind of piece for Richard on the Sunday Herald (see this on Micheal Jackson, and the Virginia State University shootings) and and we both felt the weekend context was great for this kind of read. It won't be dealing with the Scottish constitutional question every week, or even any week (I do that elsewhere in the mediasphere). But it will be applying what Robert Louis Stephenson called a "Scots accent of the mind" to the whole wide world of society, culture, technology.
All comments/shares welcome.
The Politics of Ecstasy
GLASWEGIANS love the physical, built reality of their city – so much that they’re often willing to fight for it and about it. George Square endures as a space for assembly – but can we defend the steps at Buchanan Street? The Glasgow School of Art fire and the Clutha bar helicopter disaster felt like assaults on the Weegie body politic. We invest emotion and commitment in the city’s common, accessible and creative places.
The news that The Arches arts and music venue may be about to close, as a result of a withdrawal of its 3am license based on police-reported alcohol and drugs incidents, is raising the same kind of Glasgow resistance. Nearly 37,000 have signed an online petition, with more than 300 major artists signing a protest letter.
Yet so much is stuffed into this news item – not just concerning ravers, bohos and the police but also biology, economics, liberal values – that it might be fun to unpack it all on a Saturday morning.
From another angle, you could imagine much praise being heaped on The Arches as a business model for a contemporary arts venue. It resources a daring, edgy, multi-disciplinary arts programme mostly from the commercial profits from weekend entertainment, with less than a fifth coming from public subsidy. Excellent! For those Gradgrinders always questioning the utility of arts funding, this could seem a dream scenario.
Yet The Arches represents more than the historic economics of the nightclub - where owners prefer you to play two sets rather than one, and artists send punters thirstily to the bar with the injunction: “the more you drink, the better we sound” (and, by implication, the easier they get paid).
The link between intoxication, performance and movement, whether on stage or off, is about as old as the human record. Indeed, there are plausible claims that our early human brains co-adapted with the psychoactive substances in our foraging diets. In terms of our neurochemistry, humans seek ecstasy, or at least the ecstatic experience. It’s in answering that desire, with a full, foundations-shaking intensity every long weekend, that The Arches has fallen foul of the law.
Yet the law doesn’t always stamp down on collective joy, ramped up by euphorics both legal (alcohol), illegal (you know), and the current pursuit of the “legal high”. For long stretches of history, it’s been understood that carnivals or festivals, bacchanals or raves, were necessary ventings of built-up social pressure. Take the medieval feast of fools, where lords of misrule would overturn (for a brief few days) the established hierarchies.
In our accelerated way we’ve built ourselves palaces for letting off steam in every town, let alone every city. Perhaps we need these zones of release to cope with the increasing control (and self-control) that those in service of capitalism have to submit to. Never mind the overall stress of living in a society where inequality becomes ever more glaring and fear-inducing.
But if you’ve ever performed at 12.30am on a dress-up theme weekend, and looked out across a crowd of Smurfs, airline hostesses, men dressed as penises and the frankly indecipherable – all either getting off with each other or getting into themselves and the music – you realise that this is only the modern version of something very ancient.
We need to party. The civilised question to ask is: how can we best manage the downsides of our own appetite for excess? Or, as the regular visitors to Colours or Death Disco at The Arches might say, of our need to “get mad wi’ it?”
Again, what is infuriating about The Arches licensing decision – and what would be an absolute disaster if it resulted in the entire venue’s closure – is that the venue proposes two obvious answers to the question that is: how do you deal with the appetite for ecstasy in the human condition? One is through public health; and one is through access to the artistic canon.
On the first answer, it’s hard to see how much more compliant with police and public health requirements the venue could have been over the last few months. In fact, The Arches’ absolute adherence to reporting to the police every incident of drugs possession, or drugs-and-drink related unruly behaviour has resulted in that record being used against it by the licensing board.
Do the Glasgow polis think that they, and they alone, can snuff out a primordial impulse to mix intoxicants, music and dancing, by shutting the well-organised venues in which it happens? Are they happy for those thrill-seekers to go off-grid and underground, into places that don’t have medical rooms, free fresh water, attentive bouncers?
Dance culture advocates have helpfully, if not too diplomatically, made their own suggestions. Why not have in the clubs, or make available at home, drug-testing kits that could alert users to whether their nights’ pills are dangerous or not? The horror story of 17-year-old Regane MacColl dying after taking a “Mortal Kombat” pill at The Arches is what began this process, after all.
The bigger argument about drugs decriminalisation kicks in here – but we seem very far away from a proper public discussion about that in Scotland. We might have got some direct confession of youthful joint-smoking from the Scottish political leaders in the last General Election campaign – with Mr Murphy, competitive as ever, mentioning sniffed glue.
However, that seems a narrow beachhead from which to launch a dispassionate, science-based assessment of the effect of specific drugs; the need to bring their economy into the light; and a wiser acceptance of our evolved appetite for euphoria. All things in moderation (with no false distinctions between, say, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and other psychoactive substances) is still the hardest slogan to get on a party conference platform.
But The Arches has a second answer to the question of how we can satisfyingly answer the call for thrills – and that is through art. Much of the outrage at the prospect of the venue’s closure comes from artists – everyone from the national Makar, Liz Lochhead, through major Glasgow bands such as Mogwai, Belle and Sebastian and Franz Ferdinand, to visual artists such as Jim Lambie, not to mention most of the country’s best theatre directors.
They all see a direct and two-way transmission of power and influence between the heaving dancefloors, and the avant-garde artists who often comprise the rest of the venue’s programme. Al Seed, a one-time artist in residence there, captured their mood best in a recent blog.
“The Arches’ clubber is, in fact, a lynchpin that supports a deeply rooted infrastructure of liberal, creative thinking at the venue that is as baffling to them as Techno, and therefore as troubling”, writes Seed. “Could it be the very fact that The Arches embodies clubbing as a valuable component of practical social dynamism that has made it a target?”
We know we can do communitarianism in Scotland: two electoral systems have crumbled in the face of an extremely strong will among Scots that they should have the powers appropriate to their collective ambition. But we also need to be able to do liberal Scotland as well – and not just the easy stuff like gay marriage.
If The Arches falls – and on the basis of a poor official understanding of how to reconcile our hedonistic urges with a stable society – it’s not good news, for all of us.
Pat Kane is a musician and writer. His regular Saturday column on culture and society, in Scotland and beyond, begins next week.