Interview: Subculture to Subcouture

As quickly as capitalism snaps up new fashion styles, the underground cultures that spawned them cease to exist.  A glance around the Mitte quickly confirms that there is no longer any culture, subculture, counterculture, sexuality, spirituality or philosophy that does not have its own, dedicated boutique shop.  Meanwhile, the radical squatting scenes that popularized 'the Berlin style' have been evicted from the area en masse. Many people from those same scenes have accordingly abandoned fashion and art as a means of conveying their message, after seeing how quick its merchants are to abandon ethics and cash in at the slightest hint of popularity.  And yet, by ignoring the impact that art and fashion have on culture (whether underground or above-ground) those radicals are fighting the system with one hand tied behind their back. The organizers behind last week's Cult of the Personality: Commercial Christmas Special at Food/ZMF aim to cut through the ties that bind them.

"If you put on a black ski mask, you're not going to speak to anybody further,” says artist Penny Rafferty, one of the organizers of the event, which featured bands and an anti-fashion show. “I always have one foot in political activism and one foot in art." Rafferty's contribution to the show was a parade of Sterni-swigging punk chicks who rampaged along the catwalk, lunging at the punters and spitting beer.  Penny chose to showcase punk fashions at Commercial Christmas catwalk because, being a punk herself, she believes that the style's lost the edge that once made it a menace to the mainstream.  

"Basically, a capitalist structure reinterpreted it," says Penny.  "That's what it does: it picks up something that terrifies it, repackages it and then makes it a joke for the public.”  Punk these days is all too often just an outfit worn by a model in a misogynistic ad campaign where the clothes say 'f*ck you' but the pouting, submissive face of the model says 'f*ck me'. Punk was never intended to seduce but to startle, nor was it intended to tease, only to terrorize. Penny's part of the show is a reminder of that. 

Artist Benjamin Spalding, another organizer, holds similar views.  He got them via an unlikely source: his media studies class in university.  "A lot of [the course] was based on language, culture, semiotics and how we use these images," he says. "It was basically a breakdown of how to use culture to exploit insecurities, to have people buying more goods."   

"With the media, magazines, all these things," Spalding continues, "there is money put behind it... and money requires participation."  For the average person, 'participation' means working constantly, so they can afford to buy pre-packaged fashions and art that 'says something' about who they 'really' are.  They don't have time to express themselves in a more active way because they're too busy working... for more money, so they can buy more stuff. The more time people spend working and shopping, the less time they spend writing, painting, protesting, playing in bands; the less reason they even have to do those things, because what is there to share or talk about if one's only interests include earning money and spending it?  Over time, the notion of Western culture is gradually being reduced to a fancy dress party.  The participants can decorate whatever mask society forces them to wear in ever more unique ways as long as they agree to play an obedient, consumerist role. Meanwhile, their real selves remain hidden beneath it.
The consumer's insatiable hunger for new and unique imagery seems to particularly disturb Spalding.  He cites the way that social media sites like Facebook inundate users with imagery from a broad spectrum of political, historical, personal and cultural sources without distinguishing between any of them, in terms of weight and importance.

"Everything's on the same level," he says.  "You write, 'I'm so sorry that your father died' on Facebook. Five minutes later you 'like' a photo of a cat wearing a stupid moustache.  It's the same action in both cases and it kind of puts everything on the same level... and kind of puts a 'ha-ha' novelty on it, as well."

His part of the show consists of models draped in black hooded cloaks, arms outstretched, big chains draped around their necks with oversized charms dangling from them.  To Facebook's media junkies, the look will be disturbingly familiar:  "I chose the image of the Abu Ghraib captive to sort of point novelty back at itself," Spalding explains.  The charms on the captives' necklaces are actually images of Gaza, pollution, carparks - all things that can be found in the 'causes' tab of your Facebook page.  It says a lot about how serious current events have been reduced to the level of an accessory to one's own personal brand.    

Rafferty says of the show as a whole, “If you look any deeper into it, you see the irony and how much every single artist is taking the piss out of [consumerism]. It's like, is this what we've succumbed to?”  Swedish designer Bim is a good example of this playful irony.  Involved in animals rights and the Red Cross prior to arriving in Berlin, her faun-like models wear tactile, iridescent catsuits in rich shades of red, blue and green, accessorized with massive fake pubes.  What's up with that? 

"In Germany, it's like you have to shave your whole body if  you're a girl.  I could tell you a lot of stories about guys - they have said a lot of weird things to me because I have hair on my body... which is very normal, everyone does! For example," she continues, "in this girls' magazine for 12-13 year old girls, they wrote it as a fact that 'Ninety-nine percent of all the guys like it when you shave your pussy.'  Which is not even true.  I think we should be able to look as we are and not feel bad about it."

"I thought it would be funny to play with the 'big boss' and create our own fashion line," says Rafferty.  "If you're not engaged in the popular  [arts] scene in Berlin, you're not going to be shown anywhere. Emerging artists that are picked up are not glorified for their solo shows, or for any show; its just how much that they're selling their work for. People say, 'Oh that guy sold a painting for 15,000' or whatever. It's never like, 'Oh that was a fucking amazing show, did you see that?'"
"I never did fucking fashion in my life anyway... and I think that's quite clear from my work," Rafferty laughs, "but it is couture because every single stud was hand-done.  That's couture."  With this much passion and dissent going into it, it might be better to call it subcouture.

Many thanks to Emelie Larsson for the gorgeous photos! Text & design by Miss E.


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