The current era seems laden with calling out, and calling in, people who engage in fascist and racist tendencies and behaviours. More generally, it has been a time of trying to pull apart and address how whiteness and patriarchy function in these worlds in both nuanced and overt ways. In the following conversation, Fjorn (Papaphilia, Gurner, and Future Tense—currently Creative Ecologies) and Del (GAS, Basic Human, and All Girl Electronic) discuss their experience of being musicians, event organisers and humans in this dynamic.
Fjorn: I think one of the more significant things that have been happening here [Melbourne] in the last year is people interrogating the power to determine the interpretation of political aspects of particular aesthetics. Specifically, I mean artists using fascist aesthetics, who are adamant that a signs’ aesthetic can be abstracted from its symbolism and history, and thus be apolitical and just cool. Is that something that has been happening in Sydney this last year?!
Del: I think when those things rear their head in Sydney, they are Melbourne and/or European people visiting. In saying that, I feel that these fascistic tendencies are more visible in some people’s choice of fashion than in music. There is this skinhead/sharpies 2.0 fashion that makes me uncomfortable at shows and even in universities. There’s definitely plenty of white, mid-to-late 20s humanities and law students who go to Berlin that spend a lot of time around artists and musicians using these aesthetics, and never think about their impact in an Australian landscape. I’ve talked with folks about people who’ve been called out for using Neo-Nazi aesthetics and/or for being vague about the meanings of their projects or only wanting to extract one thing from a set of images or characters. Their response is “It’s not racist… it’s beautiful art”.
I have often responded with: well if some jock got up on a stage in a full Australian flag drab and told you they weren’t racist and they just really like the colour blue, would that be acceptable? How can you say that something like that is beautiful? We’re all aware of Australia’s racial issues. Like, how many times do you have to be told the symbolism of the Southern Cross tattoo is like a Swastika? How many comparisons does one have to make for someone to believe that there are people who are affected by seeing it?
F: Two years ago, when I began to have the conversation about how Australia is a racist place, I got a lot of people I’d known for a long time, white folk, stating “No I don’t really feel Australia is a racist place.” And I’m like “Oh wait, we’re still at this point in our social circles where your perception of racism as a white person has equal merit to my experience of being racialised as a brown woman?! How is your not seeing racism evidence that it may not exist or is probably not that bad?!” People would get really aggressive and hostile to me expressing otherwise. I think right now people understand that maybe they aren’t privy to the complexities of racism, but that hasn’t meant that people are getting their head around how to really identify it, and how to deal with it.
D: There is definitely more writing and material available for people to educate themselves online. In Sydney people (mostly women) are taking the time to educate themselves and make spaces more ‘diverse’. But it’s still in the most tokenistic and extracted manner that really doesn’t change anything. This is an argument I have for Sydney’s music scenes whether they are punk or electronic and also in the art world, where the people who still get to call shots and have power are white and their help are people of colour, which is still white supremacy.
F: Like when you’re put on a line up to tick a box. Organisers may not realise it but we understand what they’re doing. When you present an artist as an identity and not a creator, it really changes the way people will receive your work. And when you’re presented as a novelty, you feel it.
It’s funny to me that all of a sudden House music has become quite popular [in Melbourne]. House comes from Chicago, and it’s always been attached to queer scenes, it’s always been attached to black communities and it’s also been attached to community survival, and to experimentation. In the last 5 years, House music has exploded in Melbourne and it’s dominated by white punks that never used to listen to anything but punk and really terrible hardcore, and also rich kids from the Southside. They now all of a sudden are into, they’ve apparently “diversified” to include that genre in their limited musical palette. However, I’ve noticed their music practice tends to be more focused on the technical aspects of the music, like: “I’m using this bass filter, therefore I’m really fuckin’ cool”, look at all the genre-motifs I can incorporate/ replicate in my set. It’s just prioritizing the technique over the heart of creating, as well as over dancing and feeling liberated. It’s funny how white punks are anti-capitalism but still think they can just jump in and out of genres at will, be the house or techno guy now, have all the gear, get immediate attention ‘cos they were a big shot in punk.
D: That’s happening in Sydney too, where these punks are getting into techno or gabber or whatever. Quite recently I witnessed a set that was just straight gabber, every drop and, kick and hi-hat were played with a drum machine typical to that music. There was nothing new or risky about it; it was like they were just doing a cover of gabber. But that stuff is always treated like a cool thing. That stuff is always given priority, I’m like, “Ehhh”, there are heaps of other people that have been doing it for ages and are quite experimental—I feel like they’ve developed a sound that is interesting and is tied to a locality or something.
And with this sort of practice they tend to feed in aspects of their lives and locality. I feel like those things are really important to music coming out of this country, and they’re things to be written about and talked about, but they go under the radar.
F: It can be really hard to be taken seriously when you don’t stick to a style, especially if you like playing with the constructs of making music. In my opinion, a lotta folk tend to rely on and prioritise prescriptive ways of music making, and so they then equate the pure replication of the typical aspects of a genre with proper music making.
It’s hard to prove to people that when they’re being strict about what they think music is, they’re potentially creating a social and cultural hierarchy. This is for the reason that exclusivity, in any sense, plays out in the colonial context we live in as a form of supremacy. By this logic, not taking particular people’s music seriously becomes super relevant; when it comes to people of colour generally, and especially when they are creating outside the norms of the genre. From my experience, not recognising women or POC [People Of Colour] folk as inhabiting creative potential is an inbuilt social dynamic that’s very typical of white-Australian social values. This is evident for me when people tell me they just don’t understand how I have come to listen to the music I adore, or how/ why I make what I do. And it is evident when people assume my music is fucked up because I don’t know what I’m doing, as opposed to it being a stylistic intention or a central focus of my praxis. Ultimately it comes across as a covert way of seeing me firstly as a racialized and sexualised thing and then letting that determine how they understand my capacity to make something, to think, to understand. There is a real dynamic of “this person can’t possibly be as switched on or as across music as I am”.
D: Yeah! It’s like, they can’t be punk because they clearly don’t sound like the Wipers or the fuckin’ Black Flags or whatever the fuck.
F: For me personally I just can’t make music in a straight forward predictive fashion because that’s just not how I operate in the head.
D: Totally, and bringing that kind of attitude to a scene is fuckin’ dangerous, it’s this purist mentality. It brings us back to this silence and/or lack of care around the use of fascist imagery, and the staunch criticism and/or exclusion of POC. It’s sad when you also realise a lot of what is being pushed forward as relevant is a mixture of images appropriated from non-western cultures, subtle or not. This attitude dominates the more visible spaces of the DIY and experimental scenes of Sydney and Melbourne. I also feel this towards popular queer scenes as well, it’s rampant in white drag culture.
F: Yeah! I’m also very curious to understand what the queer scene in Sydney is like compared to Melbourne.
D: There are a few different groups in the spaces I have been around. There’s like, the full mainstream queers who only care about gay marriage. Then there’s the underground that’s a mixture of older and younger clubbing kids and the queer punk scene, it’s predominantly white. There are heaps of upper middle-class queers who get to define the ‘culture’. Then there’s POCs who just do their own thing, their events are super sporadic and when they happen they’re really damn good. Those have become the spaces that I’m more attuned to and wanting to give my energy to. Whereas when I was younger I started out with thinking Mardi Gras was a thing that was so great.
Now I’m in the background and I’m like, it’s great here! It’s really good! [laughs]
F: When I started going to queer stuff as a teen, they’d just play particular music that I found boring and it was the same shit every time. For me, the cultural repetition was purist behaviour, and there was definitely a social hierarchy: it was really competitive and you’d hafta justify yourself for being here by ticking certain sexuality and gender representation boxes. And in my opinion, no one knew how to have fun or dance! The only fun options were get annihilated, or be really dissociative in your little clique. That was the culture here for a while, and then all of a sudden all of the little queer POCs and trans folk started coming out and pushing an agenda of care and a family-like community orientation. For me it’s rad now, there are lots of young ones coming up and doing stuff and putting on stuff, and they’re really thoughtful and caring—they care a lot! I just wonder what new complications this community is gonna face because it always happens, that’s just life.
D: I think that a scene that cannot fuck with an older generation or a younger generation in a meaningful way is always gonna be doomed to some shitty warehouse space where people take heaps of drugs just to cope with the environment. And you see those, they exist in Sydney and Melbourne where it’s like “Hey it’s the end of the night, what should we do now? This warehouse is open”. But then no one wants to go, cos the vibe is so cooked.
So it’s really interesting now, there’s still clubbing for queer POCs, even though it’s really hard but it’s really sporadic because no one is getting paid nearly enough for their time. It just comes out of necessity.
F: Financial issues in these scenes are huge. Everyone has to support each other by sending each other money when everyone’s fuckin’ broke, it’s a huge aspect of this community that I love because it demonstrates empathy and family, but in a broad sense, it sucks.
The development of intergenerational relationships has also been a big thing lately, and it’s very interesting to witness. There are lots of young ones coming up who are amazing, but there’s this habit where they sometimes fail to recognise the history that got them there in more nuanced ways, say, talkin about a thing they are doing like it is cutting edge because they may not have as yet done their research. But then there are the old cunts who are like “Well, we’re the ones that have made this possible, worship us, we demand utmost respect and no criticism.” And I’m seeing that a lot here [in Melbourne] at the moment. Especially with quite a few middle-aged white women who express little regard for analysing the complexities of violence in the community. A lot of the older generations are really struggling with accountability and responsibility to the young ones. This year I’ve has several white women arrogantly talk to me like a child—call me ‘too academic’ when I analyse their behaviour, and when I switch my language coding for their dumb arse I’m then ‘too violent’.
D: Yeah, it’s apparent when shit blows out—they have no vocabulary for it, they’ve never grappled with it, they have no productive ways of dealing with it.
F: I am well aware they’ve experienced shit too, but I don’t reckon most of them have much experience dealing with and confronting the complexities of violence when it comes to intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. I’ve had some conversations recently where, when I’ve tried to enter a dialogue about shitty things that have happened, there’s been a push towards working on a resolution in the form of a middle ground, so that no one has to go out of their way to change or be exposed and thus lose power, and thus in their myopic view, everyone is then happy. But they don’t seem to get we gotta work on the complicated parts first before we even imagine what resolution is possible. Resolution isn’t the lack of conflict. Instantly, I get told “You’re being violent” or “You’re blocking me from getting to the point where I can be relieved of the pressure of this problem”, but they lack empathy for the person who has been fucked over.
D: Resolution is not instant.
F: No it’s not. But also, I don’t mind being called violent, that’s not a slur, that’s not something you can use against me to try to make me feel shit. Calling me “violent”, well it’s a term that gets used against me all the time. I’m kind of used to it, “hellooo” it’s all part of the racialized dynamic.
D: It’s gaslighting. The amount of times I’ve been called aggressive for speaking up about something…
F: [laughs] You’ve been called aggressive!?
D: I kept getting into situations where white power dynamics kept playing out in a way that meant the white person would just get what they wanted without putting in much effort into the situation. I’m quite tired of people who take up a lot of space, and when given the opportunity to check their shit—they become really fragile and it’s just like, okay then, who are you to fucking define the culture, or lead or do anything, if you can’t even fucking listen.
F: The fragility thing is really important to unpack right now.
D: Yeah, when it happens it’s just like, stand the fuck up. How hard is that? How can you think yourself as someone who is sculpting a scene, you have social capital, you can make things happen because people respect you. But when push comes to shove, you can’t really deal with anything that’s from a different perspective to yours.
F: The fragility thing bugs me ‘cos it means we can’t move anywhere when folk are constantly trying to assert victimhood as primary. For me, calling people up for bad behaviour is not about pointing fingers. It’s about reimagining oppressive hierarchies. Each time we’re just trying to find ways to tear that whole structure apart.
D: Another aspect of fragility I’ve experienced is being ghosted. For example, when people get called in and they’re really sorry, they say they’re your friend and never wanted to enable anything bad. But then the next time you walk in the room, they avoid you. I find this really weak and weasley.
F: It’s elusive behaviour. It’s just avoiding coming to the table. Being elusive is taking hold of the power that’s already yours. I mean, I get there’s people that struggle with social dynamics and have come from backgrounds where they’ve never been able to trust people. But most of the time people who are awkward are the first to step up.
D: I think it’s fair to say that if you put out publicly if you attach yourself to a community to benefit from it, you should be able to accept when things go wrong. But if you’re gonna put on a fuckin’ show then you need to be willing to step up for those people should something go wrong. If you don’t want to be responsible for those people then don’t put on a gig. I feel like people who are stepping up to put on gigs in Sydney now are the least hospitable; they are the kinds of people that wouldn’t offer you a glass of water if you went to their house. It’s this very thoughtless, very careless piecing together of things that are “cool”, for the sake of an ego and image. This kind of thing could never feel like a community to me. What is the point if you don’t even express the most basic level of care when you’re making an event or running a label? Not paying people, not even saying hi. It’s problematic, and I understand that in DIY scenes sometimes there isn’t any money.
F: But there are different economies you can use if you don’t have cash.
D: Give your time to them in some way; make sure they get home safe.
F: If you ask someone to play a show and you don’t discuss money or your lack thereof, you are just being elusive.
F: To return to social responsibility, if you do something and it doesn’t work out, say, if you are criticised even when you ticked all the theoretical boxes, you have to remember the world is open to interpretation and you don’t know everything. Especially if you mainly dwell in, and benefit from white cultural worlds; and this is the context I think the fascist aesthetics argument tends to be situated in. I get that a lot of folk who play noise and metal and hardcore really like aspects of the fascist aesthetic because it represents bleakness, misanthropy and the disgusting character of humanity. This aesthetic has a short history of being visually cool, but ultimately it’s a lazy way to make you look tough. For me, images are drawn from the genocide and murder of people, images of the subjugation of people on the basis of race; they represent a particular logic of violence drawn from colonialism. Colonialism still exists, especially where we are—the Australian settler occupation. Colonial violence is a founding principle of this occupation that has sculpted and destroyed entire lives and worlds, and that’s why I am just not going to bend on how I feel about people’s misguided use of fascist imagery, and idealisation of images of violence that aren’t related to that person’s personal history and experience.
I have had white people hunt me down on this saying “What about my interpretation”, “You don’t own the word or the image and it’s interpretation”, “You are being too PC’. And my response is always ‘Yes, you also don’t own the interpretation of a sign, and this is MY interpretation of it, and both interpretations can exist because they ARE existing right now, and I’m not engaging with your work purely because what you do doesn’t include me, but actually works to exclude me and the people I love”.
This piece was originally appeared in Radiation Zine, published among 19 other conversations by people who aren’t men involved in underground Australian music for the last 15+ years – collected by Lena Molnar. All prophets were donated to Sisters Inside. Radiation Zine is now out of print.