Sunday, August 21, 2011

Are you ready? or is this hyperreal?

Here is one of my favourite quotes from the recent coverage of the riots in England that have spread somewhat around the globe.

“a rage against exclusion from consumerist fulfilment”

from The Guardian

Back in Barcelona I could only look on captivated, excited and disappointed in the same breath. Given the current social, political and economic climate, it does not surprise me at all to see such behaviour and to a point I do not judge it too critically, but yet I have to feel a certain amount of disappointment at the lack of real political identity amongst the looters. The UK government is giving them a lot of credit where none is due, it seems to me, politicizing them and making them a coherent enemy when they seem nothing more than just a pack of angry dogs. This was no protest or statement against the political class, but merely a reaction from poor people (and probably many not so poor people) who are sick of being poor and who are told they will be even poorer due to economic mismanagement. The looting did not even have a Robin Hood element to it either, nothing but chaos. Also, much has been made of the use of Blackberry’s in organising and propagating the riots (see below), but shouldn’t owning a Blackberry be a sign of “consumerist fulfilment”?

The lack of political motivation in the English riots is also disappointing given the vulnerability of world governments in the face of the ever blooming financial crisis, but also given that so many other youths around the world have made impactual and, what seem to be, lasting political statements via the “Indignado” or 15M movement. Politically and socially motivated stand offs with police are also not unheard of in Britain, as the recent riots in Bristol’s Stokes Croft region showed.

The looters may seem to lack direct political motivation, but it appears there is strong evidence for their indirect or the collective action at least given the economic downturn and the enforced austerity measures put in place by many governments. A recent paper was published by Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth, two macroeconomic professors from the University Pompeu Fabra (UPF) in Barcelona, which studied 26 European countries from 1919 to 2009 and found that

“Expenditure cuts carry a significant risk of increasing the frequency of riots, anti-government demonstrations, general strikes, political assassinations, and attempts at revolutionary overthrow of the established order. While these are low-probability events in normal years, they become much more common as austerity measures are implemented.”

The obvious musical backdrop to this is punk rock and the now dubious decision to use the Clash’s song “London calling” in advertisements  for next year’s Olympic Games. Actually about nuclear war, nonetheless, the songs imagery ties in nicely with The Guardian’s dystopian view of the future.

“Images of the city's looted, burnt-out streets conjure not so much the 1980s Brixton riots as a new, dystopian reality”

The soundtrack to this brave new world might also do well to include Atari Teenage Riot who have sensibly decided to release a new album “Is this hyperreal?” in the midsts of all this after many years in the wilderness. Indeed, the album is much a search for identity for the band themselves as it is another brash and no-punches-pulled criticism of “consumerist fulfilment” and a call to action.

Alec Empire begins the idea of identity when intoning “Anonymous Teenage Riot” on several tracks, while Nic Endo provides a surprising moment of tenderness in “Shadow Idenity” when singing

“Who do you want to be and why?”

to a few bars of slow dreamy music as if addressing herself and the band as well as the listener. CX Kitronik is the most blatant however, beginning the track “Rearrange your synapses” with the monologue

“2011. Atari teenage Riot. And some people are still asking if we are still necessary. Very much so…”

Relevance is an important question as nobody seems to have paid much attention to ATRs music for long time, but CX Kidtronik is more than right when suggesting they are still necessary. While many of their old tropes may be found here, such as reams of noise, raking guitars, bullet beats and a certain comic book enthusiasm to the lyrics, there is enough innovation to the music (all recorded using an Atari ST1040 computer with 2MB ram) to keep it relevant, such as more emphasis on ambience, a variation of beat styles, from techno to the dub step influence on “Digital delay”. Closing track “Collapse of History” is a beautifully ironic party track, rough, but almost surreptitiously creating the contrasting sense of glamour and hands in the air joy to celebrate the end of civilisation.

Politically, and coming back to the riots in Britain, ATRs attack on the internet in general and social network culture is the most prominent addition to their list of targets.

“The internet
Is it worth the creation of a black hole that sucks up our time, creativity and friendships?
Some believe the every day mobile device is as powerful as a nuclear hand grenade when it comes to starting a revolution!
The ideologies behind that type of thinking aren't exactly solid, my friend!
When the authorities catch up with us, and they will, not such a good idea to leave traces and expose your whole network at once."

Wise words indeed since many in the media and the government have accused the looters and rioters of using Blackberries  and social networks to coordinate their activities. Indeed, ATRs words are almost perfectly prophetic given a more recent article  suggesting that police did in fact use the mobile devices of apprehended looters to intercept intelligence on future targets and break up further activities. Similar trumpeting of the role of Twitter and Facebook  has been made about the Arab Spring.

It is also sobering to think that the band that asked us to "Start the riot" and "Destroy 200 years of culture" is also preaching honestly about the dangers and consequences. The outstanding title track returns the scene to the idea of the dystopian chaos of life after the revolution, as if listening to a sound track to a John Carpenter film.  Rather than the bands trade mark digital hardcore, the track is a mesmerising ambient piece, mixing dark analog synths and lyrics delivered like snatches of dialogue from a range of characters, all of whom end asking the question “Is this hyperreal?”. At the end of the track Alec Empire directly addresses the German government in German, and threatens the creation of a new Republic.

 “Music is a weapon
Sounds like a threat”

Sings Empire in the opener “Activate”. He could be right, but are you ready?

Empire certainly is and has had several brushes with the police already, including this famous incident from May Day Berlin in 1999

One should also not forget that ATRs fabled introduction to many tracks, the cry "Are you ready?" is the same used by the makers of Sponge Bob Square Pants to introduce the show to kids. Perhaps in the future we can substitute the music of ATR for the sanitised surrealist world of the pineapple beneath the sea?

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