Photographer Matthew Smith’s Exist To Resist documents the history of activism and having it in the years before and after the infamous Criminal Justice Act of 1994. This was a cunning piece of legislation designed to wipe out rave culture in the UK. The project smashed through its initial ask on Kickstarter by doubling its target. This isn’t another huckster making dollar off memory- it’s a sharp reminder of what we’ve lost. Rashers Tierney caught up with Matthew to talk branded protests and the enclosure of counter culture.
Looking back these were a really powerful few years, however with my cynics hat on (and I borrowed it from a friend) could one view these years of raving and partying however as sort of a retreat from politics, like almost a defeatism really until the CJA came in and forced people to get political again? Or were the politics always there?
The way the three marches grew in size from 20,000 people on the first one to 100,000 people on the third one has always been a kind of indication of just how important this issue was to people back then and just how much the idea of resistance had taken hold of the public imagination.
I don’t think politics as defined by right left and centre thinking had much to do with it. It was much more to do with how much resentment people felt about government intruding into their lives in a way that was unacceptable, overbearing and undemocratic. Free association is a notion that underpins democracy.
The same goes for cultural freedom. How can you license culture and maintain the illusion that democracy still exists? Rave was everywhere. Free parties were going on everywhere. Political leadership is based around the idea of parties, we felt we belonged to the free party. One that wasn’t allied to any to any of the failed management consultancies in Parliament who seem to think that they have a divine right to administer power, economic policy and freedom.
Freedom is an inherent right to people in a democracy. It isn’t something that can be licensed back to the public in return for their complicity with government and financial legislation. Government exists because of the people, not despite them.
Or to spite them in the case of CJA.
Could you tell me about the photo I sent on with the SWP flooding the demos with placards? Two more distant notions of a revolutionary party one could not imagine perhaps? The important thing was that there were no Kill The Bill posters on the first march. The SWP began their campaign to brand the opposition to the CJA only on the second march. When the third one happened they absolutely flooded the event with their advertising.
It was ultimately unhelpful because after the mass Police violence of the third march it gave the gutter press a great headline that made the protest seem like it was an anti Police event advocating death to the Old Bill which is a ludicrous idea. A bit like the SWP… DIY culture wasn’t about the politics of right, left and centre. It was about housing yourself, making your own music, creating your own culture and taking some personal political responsibility in shaping the world that you wanted to live in, instead of abdicating that responsibility to someone random who represents their organisation first and the interests of the public second.
One of your videos for the book talks about how these free party and festival scenes wound their way into the massive festivals that we know today, I’m thinking of something like Boomtown in the UK perhaps – which owe a lot to these traditions and I’m sure there are others. How does your book view this? Is it an inevitable commercialisation or is it simply a survival methodology for people that came from these worlds, looking to carve out a niche for themselves and get some income on the go?
I think survival methodology is a great idea…mutate to survive is a great phrase. It is one of the defining characteristics of the UK population that we like nothing better than getting together in huge numbers and having a massive knees up. That’s a testament to quality of community here and it’s something that I have always felt is very life affirming about our small country and its creative industriousness.
But at the same time this community unity was threatening to government. The free trade it involved meant revenue creation that went into the pockets of ordinary people. It also meant those people could lead a mobile lifestyle without an address. It also meant that there was social networking happening that challenged the idea of the necessity of government or just simply ignored it altogether.
The CJA served to enclose an entire culture that subsequently has proved to be a product that a vast cross section of the public want to buy into every weekend of the summer. Only now ownership of that culture is mediated by government and corporate agencies who profit from it and define its very existence via the terms of its license. There are a few exceptions of course but none escape the licensing process.
You had to reduce 1200 images down to less than 300. How in God’s name did you do it? Gut instinct? Cruelty? Random design??!!
It took a trip to a warehouse space in Camden from the West Country where we printed out all 1200 images and laid them on the floor of the building. It was bloody savage and really hard work because clearly I have an emotional attachment to the images that I’ve made and it was hard to overcome that. I ditched over 800 images myself then called in the independent eye of my designer Patrick Fry and together we indulged in some ruthless decision making to bring the edit down enough to fit into the pages we had available. It was a question of trying to maintain the narrative while avoiding repetition and at the same time trying to keep a pace that allowed the images to breathe in their own right if that makes sense.
I’ve read you talking about how you lived through an era that provided “the original subject matter” that is being recycled ad nauseum today. Was there really a sense of a potentially positive future back then? Was there a real sense of newness? Plenty of people talk these days about the notion of a suspended future – where we can’t even imagine a world beyond the capitalist system. Do you share this grim view of the present or can you find a positive?
The early parties that we just went to felt like we were accessing some kind of great secret that was only shared by those people that were there. It felt like a common alliance, a creation of togetherness that was totally new. The emphasis was always on what you could give to a situation rather than take from it. That every stranger was a potential friend and in no way a danger. And that you could be in the middle of nowhere in a great crowd of people and feel like pretty much everybody had your back. Although clearly there were some wrong uns out there too.
In some ways the invention and marketing of terrorism as an excuse to remove liberty was the global response to DIY and rave culture.
People forget significant cultural events like Seattle and Genoa were happening. Clearly you cannot deny that the Twin Towers came down but that event is riddled with doubt, propaganda and misinformation. Only one thing is certain and that is we the public will never know the truth. But that fact is enough for doubt to exist. In the time since then the entire structure of world politics has shifted. The UK went to war partly because of it.
That in turn has caused the destabilization of Europe and the immigration crisis, without which Brexit may never have got onto the political agenda.
I was in London in 1993 close enough to hear the bang when Harrods got blown up. Only a couple of weeks back one man in a small grey Hyundai was credited with threatening the entire fabric of so called British democracy. Really?
Personally the best positive outcome for the future would be a recognition that the moral integrity of Parliament has been thoroughly compromised and that British democratic leadership should be reinvented from the ground up excluding any of the failed organisations that currently inhabit the corridors of power in the Palace of Westminster.
Okay and finally, there is something really unknowing and unposed in your shots? I noticed this too in early photos from the Dublin rave scene. It’s like social media has robbed people of their ability to just enjoy nights out or events, it’s like they are always mediating themselves somehow. Always aware of the cameras. Have you noticed this too?
I’d agree with you wholeheartedly on that, the digital camera revolution seems to have trained almost everyone to pose for the camera and that is a process that is ongoing in its sophistication. The other consequence of that is the overtly violent policing of the 80s and early 90s has become impossible and has caused public policing strategy to change into something far more intelligence-led and passive aggressive in its nature. ID cards were once a massive political issue that was dropped because it was so politically contentious.
Now everyone’s phones contain much more information about people’s behaviour than any ID card ever could. It’s no wonder that they just passed the Snoopers Charter allowing the covert digital mass surveillance of the public. And funnily enough access to festival and rave culture now is almost exclusively granted via a digital process. Let your readers ponder about that for a while… 5% of the population of the UK for instance applied for a- Glastonbury ticket this year.
One of the pics that didn’t make it into the bookas Mark Stone in it keeping an eye on the Reclaim The Streets in Trafalgar Square. He was just one of the undercover cops who coerced women into relationships and children as part of his job.
I always have wanted to highlight the fact that if government is responsible for this strategy what other contempt have they shown people in opposition?
Exist To Resist By Matthew Smith is available for order on www.youthclubarchive.com